Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Salem: Bonjour Tristesse
Salem, Massachusetts, has the Witch Trials of 1692 as its strident claim to fame and it has created a witchcraft wonderland of kitsch to capitalise on this and lure in tourists by the busload. It's lots of fun - pure unadulterated corn and guileless exploitation.
But, behind the witch museums, tarot readings, crystal shops and Wiccan souvenirs, there is Salem, Mass, of the distinguished mercantile history. There is nothing phoney in this.
Salem's era of affluence from sea trade left a legacy of peerless architecture in the form of Chestnut Street - one of the most beautiful streets in the USA. It is now a National Historic Landmark street because, thanks to luck and perhaps foresight, the antique houses which line the cobbled street have never suffered at the whim of renovators or developers. The grand old homes retain their historic and architectural integrity.
Chestnut Street is simply a joy to behold, let alone to meander.
Bruce and I, with my birthday-sharing weekend guest, Aunt Libby, took a Saturday drive down to Salem, lunching luxuriously at the grand old Hawthorne Hotel - named after Salem's famous literary son, Nathaniel Hawthorne - and then taking a sightseeing trolly ride, a very comfortable and easy way to glean a full picture of the town and its history. Chestnut Street was the highlight of the drive - so much so that we decided to return on foot to soak in the beauty and antiquity of the architecture at closer quarters.
It was a briskly cool spring day. Forsythia, pansies and tulips were in full bloom all over the place and the trees were beginning to leaf out in brightest newborn green.
Strolling Chestnut Street's brick footpaths, which, underscored by ancient tree roots, undulate quite perilously, we were able to scrutinise the details of the grand old captains' and merchants's houses, marvelling at the famous "coffin doors". It seems bizarre that people should design front doors with their death in mind. Many of the Chestnut Street homes have these extra panels in the gracious, great front doors just so that coffins would fit easily in and out. They were handy for women in hooped skirts, too, we had learned earlier from our tourist guide. We thought they might be handy again for the new era of morbidly obese Americans.
Some of the homes are brick, but most are clapboard, painted in handsome period colours of greys and blues and browns, with their neat shutters, doors and windowframes contrasting in black or white. Most of the houses are huge - mansions of opulent proportions, usually with a top floor which would have accommodated servants in the streets heyday.
One old house which brags a grand ballroom was having an event - a wedding reception we surmised, noting the flower-decked horse and carriage with its attendants in top hat and tails. We watched the smartly dressed locals parking their cars and hurrying down the road. We were amused to spot a husband and wife arriving in brand new his and hers BMWs and parking side by side. It was a rich event in this rich old street.
We were quietly fantasising about the people who lived in the street, how simply gorgeous it must be to live in such salubrious and historic quarters and what a responsibility it must be. How annoying, perhaps, to live in a tourist attraction - to have to put up with people like us taking photos and lingering longingly outside one's home.
We were doing just that outside the house we had agreed to be our absolute favourite on the street. We were paused, gazing at details and imagining the elegant , affluent and perfect life that must be going on within its walls when the front door opened and an elderly woman appeared.
"Hello," I said.
She did a quick double-take and then, returned my greeting with warmth.
"You have a lovely house," said Aunt Libby.
"Oh thankyou," replied the woman, descending the stone steps from the front door to stand beside us in the street. She was wearing a hat and carrying a handbag, clearly on her way somewhere.
"My tooth just fell out," she announced. "I'm very upset."
This was the last thing we expected to hear.
We expressed immense sympathy. She, rightly, was very agitated. She reiterated her horror at this sudden happening. No pain. No blood. She wasn't even eating. The tooth had simply fallen out.
Of course this was a little puzzling. But her distress was very real.
"I'm waiting for my daughter, is that Merridy?" she asked, pointing at a small clutch of tourists ambling slowly on the other side of the road. "The one in red, is that Merridy," she asked. "I'd better go and see." Of course, we did not know her daughter - but it was clear that the woman in red did not know our old woman. Libby offered to go with her, to take her hand across the road. The woman said she was glad of the company. But, as the tourists walked away, she realised her daughter was not one of them and returned to the front of the house, toying with the option of waiting for her daughter to come home or going to her dentist in another town - despite the fact that it was Saturday afternoon and she had not phoned him.
"Oh look, here comes the dentist," she said as a spunky young postman approached down the street. We corrected her and she called out and told him he was the postman. "But not doing your round," he replied, striding on past.
At this point, she decided to show us the tooth.
She opened and shut her hand quickly, exposing what was obviously a set of three teeth from a dental plate.
Of course, we had already silently ascertained that this poor woman had dementia, perhaps Alzheimers, so we were decidedly alarmed when she asked if her car was in the driveway. It was. She tried the doors. It was locked. Phew. She did not seem to have the key but returned to the front of the house where we assured her that her teeth would be OK until Monday when she could get an appointment with the dentist and we tried to coax her into returning indoors , to put her feet up, have a drink, try to relax, wait for her daughter... She was accepting this advice and was just mounting the stairs when her next-door-neighbour drove up and she announced that she would just go and talk to him first.
We bade her good luck and farewell and slowly resumed our path. Looking back, I saw the neighbour solicitously stroking her shoulder and knew she was in good hands. Poor, distressed and befuddled old girl.
And thus it was we realised that even the most perfect house does not a perfect world contain.