This morning some time around 7:30AM, I said goodbye to my beautiful cherubic toddler sons and spiffed-up suited husband as they sat having breakfast. As I headed to work at The American University of Rome, I walked my usual route, stopping by the outdoor market to pick up a few clementines and dates as snacks and then headed to the local coffee bar for an espresso.

The Roman sunlight grew brighter and cut through the murk of the early morning, inhabiting the mist (or is it car exhaust?), filling the trees along the street and lighting up the already colorful orange buildings that blazed against the blue sky. Though I once used to sleep through it, the early morning has become my favorite time of the day. Here everything is possible and the day is full of opportunities just waiting to be seized. Ask me if I feel this way at 4PM and my answer would be a resounding no.

The sunlight of an early Roman morning reminds me of the unique light of another part of the world, over 4,000 miles away on the tip of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Provincetown has been attracting artists, writers, performers, musicians, filmmakers, and all sorts of offbeat types for ages and part of the allure of America’s oldest artist’s colony is its characteristic sunlight and color. I was fortunate enough to live and work there for three summers when I was 19, 20, and 22 respectively back in the late 90’s.

P-Town Artist, Chet Jones always gets the light right.

P-Town Artist, Chet Jones always gets the light right.

As a budding young painter armed with my Russian field easel and gallery internships, there was no better place to be. Of course like most of my young friends, in order to actually be able to afford the rent to stay in such a paradise, it meant that we all had at least two or three jobs and worked six or seven days a week from early morning until well past 10PM.

One of my favorite jobs while living in Provincetown was at the Whaler’s Wharf. Because I made 20% commission on everything I sold, it was also my most lucrative job. True, I was not gaining skills as a gallery manager which was at least somewhat related to my college studies in painting. (Here I pause to thank the gallery for showing me what I did NOT want to do with my life. Internships can be valuable for just this reason alone.)

At Whaler’s Wharf I was selling amber jewelry, garish pewter figurines of fantasy characters like dragons and unicorns, handmade kitchen paintings on ship’s wood and planks that washed up on the beach by Jan McPherson, precious stones with “metaphysical properties,” and an assortment of other bobbles that Dale Elmer, the owner (and my boss) would find on his worldwide travels.

My section was just a very small part of this unique indoor/outdoor mall-flea market type building which faced the bustling Commercial Street in the front and spilled out into the bay side beach in the back. Fittingly enough the shell shop was located right next to the water and was protected by caged fences to keep the shells for sale away from the free shells lolling about in the sand.

Whaler’s Wharf was a place full of quirky soul and defiant rustic individualism. It was a diamond in the rough where one could get handmade glassware and jewelry made by local artisans on the premises, a reading by a renowned fortune teller and seer of auras, a taco salad at the Mexican booth, mood rings for every finger, and a creepy cursed African mask or statue should one be into that sort of thing. (More about those in a second..)

Guarding all of these mysterious treasures was a ragged homeless seafarer in his sixties, known only to myself as Dave the Nightwatchman. Though he wasn’t the official town “Popeye” (another local bore that particular nickname), Dave the Nightwatchman also could be confused with the cartoon character with his bulging muscles and sunburned bald head that glowed a lobster red.

At night, in exchange for shelter inside Whaler’s Wharf, he would guard Dale’s merchandise from would-be trespassers and hooligans who might wander inside. He took his job incredibly seriously, pinning down one hapless drunken shell snatcher until the police arrived as if he had just stolen the world’s biggest diamond. During the day he would sleep on the beach by the bay, adding more color to his already red scalp. Sunken in the sand and snoring away, he was a living painting that I still have fixed in my head but have still not put on a canvas for everyone else to see.

Dave had a great sense of humor and used to revel in the cartoons myself and the other Whaler’s Wharf workers would draw (when we were not working as hard as possible of course…) of the dreaded high-maintenance tourists who came down in August, the busiest month of the year for the local businesses. In them, cartoon tourists would wear T-shirts featuring pan fried eggs while barking orders in shrill voices as they sought to add JUST the right piece to their pewter fantasy dragon collections.

He once told me a story  during my second summer at the Wharf about those creepy masks and statues that Dale Elmer had purchased somewhere during his travels in Africa. He looked around suspiciously and in a hushed whisper he told me that they were cursed. Apparently whomever bought the masks would always return them after a day or two. One man’s house caught fire the night he brought home a recently acquired mask. Another hapless customer’s car bottom apparently fell out as he dared cross the Bourne Bridge to return to the Massachusetts mainland.

After the fire. Whaler's Wharf.

After the fire. Whaler’s Wharf.

“Hmm,” I thought. “So if these masks and statues are cursed then wouldn’t something bad also happen to Whaler’s Wharf?”

Then I left. Summer was over. My money had been made and I was heading back to my last year as a painting student at Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston. I tucked Provincetown and Whaler’s Wharf away like one does an old bathing suit at the end of the summer.

The purest of locals would stay the winter and the town’s population would sink down to roughly 1,000 brave souls who would roam the deserted streets and revel in the peace not granted to them during the busy summer months. Dave the Nightwatchmen would continue to watch Whaler’s Wharf, albeit with a space heater and an old blanket to keep him warm as he lay on the hard wooden floor planks..

I think I heard the news on TV on a cold Boston night in my Jamaica Plain apartment. It was February 10, 1998 to be exact and Whaler’s Wharf was engulfed in fire and threatened to take the whole town down with it. Later it emerged that it was Dave himself who accidentally started the fire. According to town locals whom I spoke with my final summer in Provincetown (1999), his blanket had caught fire from the space heater. He ran to the bathroom to fill a bucket of water and when he returned, the blaze was already out of control. Some accounts in the media however say that it was an “electrical short in his office.” Office? I don’t remember Dave having an office.

What is 100% true is that he felt terrible about what had happened. A local reporter who bumped into Dave at Adam’s Pharmacy as the fire was raging noted,

Then I saw David Bragdon, wearing a watchman cap and crying. I think he was crying, or about to cry. And he asked the pharmacist for a nip bottle of whiskey, which was sold through the pharmacy at that time. Bragdon said he had accidentally started the fire, and he felt awful about it. I plied him for a few details, then I got the heck out of there.

A few days later Dave tried to kill himself with a flair gun in a parked car. Dale Elmer, still ever the positive idealist even after losing both his business and home above had tried to convince Dave at the side of his hospital bed that it wasn’t his fault and that he wasn’t angry. Unfortunately many of the artisans who made a living in the low-rent space and now had lost everything did not agree with this sentiment. Many of them could no longer afford to live in town and have since moved on to Brattleboro, Vermont.

After Dave was released from the hospital, his second suicide attempt was successful. This time he had tied weights to his legs and jumped off the pier into the icy water below.

Whaler’s Wharf was eventually sold to another owner and rebuilt, though many would argue that much of the rustic local character got lost in the fancy developer’s resurrection of slick gentrified shops and eateries with rents five times higher than what they used to be.  It’s still nice to visit and all, but it’s just not at all the same off-beat, artsy place even if the name has remained unchanged.

As I walked to work in the glorious Roman sunshine this morning, I started comparing the light of Rome with the light of Provincetown. I daydreamed about occupying a dune shack in the Provincelands and painting the summer away by the sea and of the time I already spent there as a seasonal worker with my gaggle of part time jobs and the ability to move on at the drop of a hat.

Suddenly the image in my head of Dave the Nightwatchman sleeping on the beach with a blazing red bald head flashed in my mind’s eye as if to say, “Thank you for still thinking good thoughts about me.” Many people don’t believe in this sort of thing, but I felt for a moment that his spirit was walking down Via Carini with me.

I don’t know much else about the man to be honest. He clearly had personal demons and a story uniquely his that I am not at all qualified to tell. I can tell you that he was a decent soul who took pride in his work and wanted nothing more than to do right by Dale Elmer.  The mere thought that he let down the one man who believed in him, gave him a home, and the dignity of work was what ultimately drove him to his demise.

Many people have forgotten about Dave the Nightwatchman or only remember him as the one who burned down Whaler’s Wharf fifteen years ago. I’d like to propose that he burned down nothing. It was the masks. Maybe they really were cursed.

Dave had been right all along.