Thursday, September 27, 2007


We had wanted to go in October. But I knew better. I'd been to Salem twice before in October, looking to fill up on spooky vibe and ghostly atmosphere. The two hour wait in traffic on the highway killed the anticipation. So this time we planned to go in September before the medium-sized town of Salem, Massachussetts becomes inundated with visitors looking for hallowed eves.

Despite our own utter exhaustion from late nights at the restaurant and our own busy season, we woke early on Tuesday morning to a brilliant blue sky and warm sun. The day promised heat and beauty, so it was easy to get on the road with coffees and donuts and head east to the seacoast. Our goal was to see the Chinese House at the Peabody Essex Museum, the result of a cross-cultural interchange that allowed a lived-in, working family home of 200 years to be moved from China to Salem. It is an awe-inspiring relocation. The house is situated perfectly within the clever architecture of the museum, and once you walk into the courtyard of the historic building, you are somewhere else, and you sense that you've come into a house where someone has just stepped away for a few minutes. The beds are made in the tiny, yet somehow spacious bedrooms, rattan-covered thermoses are set out on bedroom tables with china cups for tea, drying vegetables lie in handmade baskets as if just picked from the garden: peppers, persimmon, greens. Golden koi swim in the two pools in the courtyard, amidst the waterlilies and the ghosts of fish once waiting to be harvested for a holiday feast. The radio in the reception room is off, but you can almost hear the goverment bulletins crackle in the static, and you can almost hear the hens and roosters call, the birds who would have scratched out a living in the courtyard as you enter. It is hard to leave the peace of the building, and the comfort and knowledge of the eight generations who lived, loved, and died there.

Accidental Mysteries, that’s what they call the current photography exhibit at the museum, and that’s how we find it, by accident. A surprising collection of snapshots procured from vintage shops and flea markets over the years, all of the photographs show some sort of unusual brilliance by amateur photographers. Many of them exhibit tricks like double negatives or superimpositions to lend a ghostly or slightly creepy edge, others are simply capturing a moment that is truly poetic. They are mostly family snapshots that hold little meaning to the viewer in terms of their context, though their magic is that we can see so much of what might be going on in the seconds the photos were taken. We don’t know the names of the people or the places where the photos were taken, but we learn something about the relationships of the players. Almost all the black and whites, many taken in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, are shown in their original size. A few have been blown up to show particular details and artistry. These photos do what all good photographs do, they trap time and tell a story both within and without the frame.

The museum leaves us disoriented and blinking our eyes in the bright light of the sun outside. Looking for a late lunch in Salem is not easy, but we find a plausible pub and drink home-brewed beer and snack on typical barfood: nachos and a hummus plate. We can’t help but remember Biergartens we once visited while traveling through Germany, or the days we spent in Dresden only a couple of years after the Berlin Wall came down where we rented a room in an old widow’s house where it cost extra to take a bath and she had to light the wood under the waterheater to heat and draw our water.

Salem is a strange town with beautiful New England architecture and a history dominated by its ghoulish and fascist past. The Salem Witch Trials still lives on in stores, museums, cemetaries. As if in honor of those who were unjustly accused and sentenced to death for being the witches they weren’t, witches, and all the attendant ghosts and goblins that go along with them, are celebrated throughout the year in Salem culiminating in a month-long series of spectacles and events in October ending with Halloween. The town survives because of the witches; in some sort of cosmic inversion, they have brought prosperity.

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial is a block behind the museum and next to the old cemetary. The gravestones commemorating the several people hung and stoned to death are simple. Their story needs no embellishment. Mourners still leave offerings-- flowers, notes, a cornhusk doll. On every stone is an apple, decomposing and half-eaten by nature left with a card noting that the apple comes from the Corey Farm, a farm that once belonged to several of the accused.

There are many Salems: the witches’ Salem, Nathanial Hawthorne’s Salem, the seafarer’s Salem. The House of the Seven Gables sits dark gray and proud on the waterfront, it’s garden one of the nicest places to view the boats in the bay. The Hawthorne Hotel edges Washington Square, providing the old New England quaintness so many come in search of. The Puritan hails at the top of the Square, the unforgettable statue by St. Gaudens, a bronze embodiment of the fierce puritanical beliefs that founded this village and so much of New England. The Salem Witch Museum, housed in an old church, appropriately stands behind him. The Peabody Essex Museum is right around the corner, a terrific collection of maritime art and spoils from the orient. A walk through streets leads you by very old houses, many divided into apartments, with small gardens, all carefully tended. The Square is full of children playing, dogs getting walked, joggers jogging, thinkers meditating on park benches.

We head out of town to find dinner. We look for some kind of lobster shack on the water, and end up at a small beach in Beverly just as the moon is rising. The fishing boats come into the harbor, their lights twinkling, the fat, full moon casting sparkles of light on the water. We take our shoes off and wade out into the ocean which is cold at first, then warms. The shells and pebbles of the beach feel good beneath our feet. We try countless photographs to capture the beauty of the scene, but the moon always looks too small and far away in the picture. We can’t corall the image, so it is left imprinted best as a memory.

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