Chapter Two: Fowl's Point
Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries--stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region.
I started the summer just like I always do. As soon as I can, I ride my bike down to Fowl’s Point. This seems crazy to people. At first they think I’m joking or that they misunderstood something. It’s not a conversation I seek out; it tends to be awkward simply because people don’t know what to do with it. I could just not mention it, or just lie, but it would seem like a lie of omission, insincere at the least. This year it came up with Eric Jeffries, a burned-out math teacher, as we were waiting in the office to get our final evaluations signed.
“You going to Dulce’s party?” he asked just to fill the silence.
“Can’t. Heading down to my shore place first thing tomorrow.”
“Where do you go?”
I watched his reaction. He had a huge mole where a unibrow would meet if he had one.
He pulled his head back minutely and frowned, “Whereabouts is that?”
“....about half way down.”
He had no idea where it was.
He nodded as if he understood, bit his bottom lip thinking of something else to say, “So you’ll get down there early morning?”
“Actually I’m riding my bike so it won’t be until the afternoon.”
That widened his eyes and he turned them to mine. “You’re riding down?”
To soak this in he had to stroke his graying beard. I knew what he was going to ask before he asked. “How long does...?”
“About six, six and half hours with a long lunch break and stops to take in the scenery. About 65 miles.”
There was still much for him to comprehend. “So how do you pack your stuff? Food…”
“I already got that stuff down there. I drive down once or twice off season, stock up. Keep summer clothes down there.”
His eyes were going squinting processing all this when it was his turn to go in to the boss. He wished me luck and I did the same to him.
He didn’t get the chance but if they care to ask I elaborate. I tell them I like biking, do it all the time. Once I’m there everything I need is within walking or biking distance. I also like being stranded down there, I like the feeling of not being able to leave, of having to utilize what the town has to offer, and if there’s nothing to do I’d prefer to stay home anyway. No frivolous excursions. No needless distractions.
The ride itself is a catharsis. All the accumulated stress and frustration that builds until the last minute of the last day of work gets purged, pumped out in the relentless pedaling, blasted off by the wind, sweated out like blood. There’s also the sense of escape, of leaving it all behind and fleeing to an alternate world. I pedal into the endless free space, catch glimpses of feeling alive again, epiphanies of what happiness might be for me, of doing what I want for me and nobody else. And I keep breathing in the air, sniffing out the first indication of the bay, whether it’s that brackish fishy rot, or a fine saline mist, I’ll take it.
This year the weather was fantastic: clear skies, not too hot, not too windy. I made good time and arrived mid afternoon, first spotting the church spire and the dreidel-shaped rusty water tank painted sky blue. Route 11 goes right through Fowl’s Point and traffic backs up at a series of stops signs and a traffic light. I slowed and made my way with the traffic. My place is in South Fowl’s Point, on the other side of Coal Creek, the widened and navigable canal that brought commerce to this town two hundred years ago. Connecting the two halves is Martha’s Bridge, an arching span of brown rust that once accommodated railroad tracks, and which is still the only crossing for miles down the canal. After rolling over that bridge I coasted the rest of the way, pulled down the streets that, like everything in Fowl’s Point, go toward the water.
There’s not much to South Fowl’s Point, mostly small homes like mine, built postwar for vacationers and wannabe natives. That’s been my impression: everybody wants to pretend they’re a native, but when you start nosing around conversationally they become evasive, trying not to admit they’ve been coming here for a couple decades at most and are from the same kinds of middle class suburbs that I’m from. Basically, if you’ve been living down by the water for almost ten years you can claim to be a local, have rights to pose as a native, at least to the real tourists. “By the water” is how the older residents refer to the old part of town to distinguish it from the newer scorned developments off the main routes leading out of town. Most of the time they’re called that: the Developments, and in them are the Development people, clearly not real people, but a subspecies of tourist here to soak up the charm and play sailor before driving back to their development, into the cul-de-sac so new the grass hasn’t even begun to grow in its yards.
The real citizens don’t know or want to know the actual names of Developments, but I’m not afraid to speak them: Reedwood Estates to the west, and to the north, The Mews at the Pointe with the pretentious final -e an unforgivable affront to its progenitor Fowl’s Point. Those developments doubled the population and their taxes built a brand new high school and water treatment plant. Next out near Reedwood came the Fowl’s Point Plaza strip mall with the usual stores development people cannot live without: a Starbucks, a fast food restaurant, a car wash, a Whole Foods, and a drive-thru Dunkin Donuts, its front of thick sweet donut air at times rolling in on the zephyr and filling the sails on the bay. But these people and the changes they brought with them don’t bother me, maybe because back home in Pennsylvania I’m a development person.
I get it. There’s a growing allure to places like this, where people want to be a part of its quaint history, to live a wholesome Americana mythology that has attached itself to the backwater in recent years. It must be twenty-first century interconnectedness. No town can hide off the grid, nowhere is immune to revivification, to hipsterfication. Internet satellite maps have uncovered it all, exposed these places as relatively uncontaminated. That and the slick targeted propaganda of the state tourism bureaus. Fowl’s Point is now commonly seen on top ten quaintest towns lists, in glossy foldable brochures found at turnpike rest stops. Search the internet for places to go in Delaware and it will pop up. More high profile restaurants are opening up, over-priced bars by the water catering to the boating set, venues for parties by and on the water. Half the fun of rolling into town at the beginning of the summer is to see what’s changed and what hasn’t.
I turned left down Chandler Street and pulled on my brakes against its sharp descent. Not much new going on in that stretch. To my right was the town trailer park, nice as far as they go, called Bayview Campground, but it hasn’t much of a view of the bay nor does anybody camp there—they live there. After that, squatting behind a length of ragged brick sidewalk, are a row of shack-like homes that emit on every passing the same particular mildew that tastes of dirt basements and history and failure. On the next block a row of small brick homes with miniature unkempt front lawns, where unsupervised kids pick their nose and watch you go by.
Sure, the developments have changed things, and I grok the natives’ hostility toward them, the threat to their specious authenticity, but when you go down a street like Chandler you see much of it is the same. It’s still a small town with the same local bullshit. Politics is still mostly a local thing with its big wigs, its feuds and vendettas. There are the low-income side streets where the few police spend too much time, the druggies, the petty crimes, the wife-beaters, the drunks bashing mailboxes. Even in the nicer tourist areas, each block you’ll still have the one holdout house that isn’t interested in prettification, and flip-flopping out of it is the inevitable old hag with the cigarette in her mouth. I often wonder if those types are the true natives.
The block ended with a stucco twin and on its porch black guys were hanging out. I felt the Caucasian tension: on the one hand the fear that they’ll say something, feel obligated to keep it real and not let me and my white-guyness pass without comment, on the other hand I was reprimanding myself for allowing the stereotype, for even giving it the time of day. But they neither said nor did anything, and my bike clicked past in a conspicuous silence, during which I couldn’t help but imagine they made faces at my passing back.
Up ahead something was different, something definitively diverging from the same-old. It was at the end of the block where the road ends at the dock area. If you want to continue you have to turn right at such an extreme angle that the corner has taken on the name the Hairpin.
At the tip of the Hairpin was the decrepit and long since closed down South Pier Hotel, a leftover from back in the town’s heyday where I imagined harpooners crashed for the night. It sat on the Hairpin as a chunkier, shorter, Flatiron building. For years I had known it as the shitty old four-story building that housed pensioners and dying widows and diabetics in motorized wheelchairs. The place was falling apart, had newspaper taped in its windows, dripping air conditioner units staining its sides. Finally there was a fire, it lost its rabble and it sat there for years boarded up with signs labeling it as condemned. There was always talk about it being bought by so and so, but nothing ever happened.
My brakes squeaked as I stopped. Everything was cleaned up, even the sidewalk was new. The Hotel was not recognizable as the same building. Whoever took over the place stripped off the weathered mold-stained siding to reveal the old historic brick, every inch of which they must have scrubbed with a toothbrush because you’d think it was new and it was a sunny day in 1817. The windows had the same deep historic features, but they were newly painted, the glass replaced. Awestruck at the spectacle I either mouthed or said aloud, “Holy shit!”
I coasted along its side to look in its huge side windows. The interior was spacious and well lit and stylishly decorated. At the window a tall table with two chairs, in the bright interior a waiter buzzed past. It’s a god-damned restaurant. I inched forward. Through the next window a family sat around a round table giving their order to a young waitress.
To get a better view I coasted onward and circled out front where the cobblestones introduce the small marina area. The transformation was amazing. The front of the hotel was completely redone, with a semi-circular deck for outdoor dining. At the top of the building the renovations had revealed the original words South Pier Hotel painted on the brick. But this was no ordinary hotel now. A new flashy sign above the door identified it as The Hairpin Brewpub with the ‘i’s replaced with hairpins. Ha, they’d appropriated the localism. Smart. The homage might mollify the nativist backlash.
A smaller sign below it and off to the side had an arrow upwards and identified the upper regions as the Bobby Pin Bed & Breakfast. Very cute. Very fucking cute.
The front double doors were open with wait staff coming and going. A guy who must have been the owner or manager, a well-dressed guy with dark curly hair and a restless energy, lingered at the host station. Then he stepped out onto the deck and scanned the area like one who made it his business to keep tabs on its goings-on. When he saw me figure eighting out there he paid more attention to me than I thought necessary so I stared back and did another lap. A petite blond came out and said something to him and only then did he end his scrutiny.
I didn’t circle around again, but took the other length of the hairpin toward my house. The other side of the hotel redux, the one facing the water, did not disappoint. The old building had a new power. Everything in its vicinity was now touched by its charm; it was the same reality but different, like the alternate cast things take on in a dream.