Meeting House Green Ipswich aerial view

Keeping My Bearings in Changing Times

by Gavin Keenan (first published in 2017)

As the title suggests, keeping my bearings, following directions and distinguishing right from left pose increasing challenges as I enter the dark side of mid-life (Or is it the lighter side of old age?) I know that many of you find yourselves in the same bucket of sorrow, and I feel your pain. But press on we must, says the philosopher, so let’s have at it and let our hair down.

Were my mother still among the living, she would have celebrated her ninety-eighth year on July 5th. Entering the world in the shadow of our national birthday, she probably felt like the kid born around Christmas, the party never seems just for you. Perhaps this accounted for her skewered view of anything touted as popular, trendy, or “new and improved.” As I tend to share her skepticism with a spiraling velocity, I find each passing year my list of gripes, grievances, laments and wimpy whines growing longer than Methuselah’s beard. Below are just a few. You can thank me later for sharing.

For instance, have you noticed summer traffic in these parts becoming more and more of a drag? The weekend roadways seem jammed with GPS guided sight seers, beach goers, wine tasters, cholesterol-laden fried clam connoisseurs, apple pickers, dog walkers, bicycle brigades, bearded and balding middle-aged motorcycle gangs, bewildered boat launchers, cavorting kayakers and others in search of the true Ipswich experience. These interlopers of our territorial sanctity create endless jams at the South Side stop sign that try my waning patience and aging bladder. Stuck in line, I wax nostalgic for my days of driving a marked police car around town. I always got the right of way at an intersection, even when out of turn. It was just a better world then.

The town seems more touristy and resort-like now, too. Just this morning a local mentioned to me that a visitor to Ipswich had boasted he was staying on “The Island.” Thinking the person was praising Treadwell’s, or Sandy Point, or even Island Park, my friend was chagrined to learn the man was referring to Little Neck. Apparently, LN has become the Nantucket to Great Neck’s Martha’s Vineyard. I note with alarm this troubling example of gentrification run amok. Lamentably, summers on The Neck, once reserved for illicit fireworks, teenage beer blasts and moonlit skinny dipping at Pavilion Beach will soon give way to trendy parties populated by media elites, political power-brokers, Russian Oligarchs and other undesirables. And good luck to anyone attempting to expel the hoards of beautiful people on their SUP’s from invading the swim area. Arm the Pavilion Beach Wardens with tasers and give them the green light, I say.

I would also like to register an arthritic protest against the latest trend of renaming, reorienting or re-imagining place names for the old town. With all due respect to the many knowledgeable historians hereabouts who may think differently, no one asked me if I wanted my life-long stomping grounds around the Town Wharf re-designated as the “East End.” Granted, this seems to be popular only around this time of year, but do you realize that you are robbing me of what is familiar and comfortable as I stumble toward my dotage?

This phenomenon paints a vivid picture of the direction which this town seems to be taking. In an ancient and anecdotal tome of Townie folklore, probably penned by the late, great Harold Bowen, the author asserts that the geographic center of Ipswich lies at the intersection of Jeffrey’s Neck Road and Newmarch Street. Any point east of this landmark is east, anything in another direction isn’t. I grew up and still reside in an area east of the old-new East End. Should this now be known as the Far East? Or perhaps just East of Eden.  In fact, I’ve spent my entire life living here on a dead-end street off of a dead-end street. This was of course in the time before Cul De Sac’s became de rigueur. Which I guess makes me an original Dead End Kid. Or perhaps just a Dead Head without the bumper sticker.

But truthfully, the town has lacked a proper sense of direction for decades. During my time on the Police Department, patrol areas were designated as north and south. The patrol boundary followed an approximate line from Topsfield Road, through Depot Square, along Hammatt Street to Central Street, terminating in Lord’s Square. Streets west of the boundary were designated the north patrol, areas to the east made up the south patrol. Ipswich was unique in this way, as the contiguous police agencies that straddled Route One or 1-A divided their patrols east and west. But in The Birthplace of American Independence, constables on patrol would set out on one bearing and then turn ninety degrees to the right to assume the proper, cardinal direction.

As with all police agencies, territorial disputes would arise from time to time, especially regarding those pesky calls along the serpentine patrol border. No one wanted another officer’s call unless it was an emergency, so an occasional assertion of personal boundaries could be expected. For example, say a call for a fight at the K Club came in simultaneously with a similar call at the 498 Club, just a beer bottle throw away. By custom and historic precedent, the dispute at the K Club was handled by the south patrol as the dispute just a short distance to the west was handled by the north patrol. The inevitable disputes in the police station over whose responsibility it was to write the report would be handled by the sergeant or senior officer. There was no appeal.

Later in my career, I often contemplated the wisdom of re-orienting the patrol areas to their dominant compass points – East and West. This, I reasoned, would properly align the town on its axis and perhaps make us more eligible for certain federal funds or other juicy giveaways. However, I ultimately decided against the move, fearing it would only confuse the younger officers and enrage the older ones, who like me, detested change.

So, to bring this wandering missive full circle, just what is an unreconstructed Townie to do when pummeled by these endless and unwanted shifts in the familiar that masquerade as progress? Archie Bunker would merely shrug and mumble, “There goes the neighborhood.” While Seneca, the Stoic philosopher of old, would likely counsel, “Just go with the flow, young man.” But Archie is only seen on RTV these days and they poisoned Seneca millennia ago, so his advice is best taken with a dash of hemlock. Perhaps the wisest course is to simply cool my jets with a splash in the restorative waters off of Eagle Hill. As my beloved reminds me, “It’s just this side of paradise.”

The End

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