One of the things that holds the fabric of a community together, especially in a small town like mine, is what I like to call Public Gathering Places, or PGPs. These are places where we can have informal contact and conversation with people we might otherwise never meet. With the rise of social networking, which allows us increasingly to isolate ourselves with a wall of digital connections, such public gathering places have become even more important.
Many of these PGPs are generic and can be found in most towns: coffee shops, sports bars, post offices, barber shops, dog parks, and so on. But others are specific to particular places. In my town of Wellfleet, for instance, one of these public gathering places are the oyster flats. Now when I’m actually out on the flats collecting oysters, I find there is usually little actual conversation going on. Not only are most of us intent on filling our buckets, but we tend to space ourselves, respecting an unmarked but felt boundary around each oyster gatherer, a space that seems to be a circle roughly thirty feet in diameter. But I was reminded the other day of how such places can accumulate memories that we sometimes find ourselves sharing with others, even strangers.
I drove down to the town landing at Pleasant Point. There was a man standing there that I didn’t know, looking intently out at the flats at low tide. Before I could even greet him, he said to me, “What do you think that is?”
“What?” I asked
He pointed at two grey forms, about a hundred yards offshore. I took out my binoculars and focused on them. The lump on the left, I was pretty sure, was a seal. But the other one had a large mouth that was very unseal-like. The man looked through my glasses as well, but couldn’t make out the other one either. We speculated on what it might be, and that eventually led to mutual recollections of various strandings we had both seen here over the years: pilot whales, dolphins, ocean sunfish, even tuna.
At this point a pickup truck pulled up with a couple in it. Their faces looked familiar, though I was pretty sure I had never spoken to them. But it was soon clear that they, too, had a history here. Gradually the conversation drifted to our shared memories of this place: the best times to get oysters, the personalities of the various shellfish wardens over the years.
We all agreed that this was one of the riskier places to get shellfish because of areas of quicksand-like mud that could trap you quickly if you weren’t careful. More than one of us had lost a boot out here, and the woman in the pickup recounted how once she had to crawl on her hands and knees to reach shore. I realized our talk had something of the air of veterans recounting war stories of risk and survival, though no one we knew had ever actually died out here.
The four of us for talked for maybe a half hour. During that time no politics were mentioned, for which we all seemed grateful. We came away knowing nothing of each other’s personal lives, not even our names, but we had shared something, a mutual history, in a public gathering place. A bond, casual but real, had formed, one which would be there should we meet in this place again.