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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Salem, Massachusetts, January 2002

In December of 2001, a friend and I were out for a ride in her car and we got to talking about things. Somewhere along the line the subject of Salem, Massachusetts came up. I had been there once before, in 1994 I think. She had never been there, but had always wanted to go. She would be moving out of the area in a few months. We made some tentative plans to go out there while she was still on the East Coast.

A few minutes later we were struck from behind at a red light by a drunk driver. But that is another story.

We made the pilgrimage on the Martin Luther King Day weekend in 2002.

Statue of Roger Conant

Salem is a small town, or at least it feels like one; many of the places of interest to tourists are concentrated in an easily-walkable area around Salem Common. Both times I have been there I have stayed at the Hawthorne, an historic (and expensive) hotel located just off Salem Common.

The Hawthorne

The Hawthorne is a pleasant enough place, if you don't mind the peculiarities of an historic hotel - small rooms, thin doors, drunken tour groups or wedding parties or God-knows-what banging on your door (and all the other doors up and down the hall) in the middle of the night. And it's expensive, did I mention that? But it was conveniently located. The view out our window, for example, included The Fool's Mansion.

The view from our room in the Hawthorne. (The Fool's Mansion is the third building from the left)

I believe The Fool's Mansion is so named because it is a place where fools and their money are parted. It features very cool hand-made Gothic and Renaissance clothing. It would be very easy to spend a small fortune very quickly in that store - which would be unfortunate, because then you would probably have nothing left to spend in the other shops that fill the streets of Salem. Antiques, books, novelties, magical goods - Salem has a huge variety of things to spend money on. My first visit in 1994 was the week before Halloween; Salem was completely geared up for the seasonal influx of tourists, and we had the place pretty much to ourselves. In contrast Winter in Salem felt like the off-season, but there were still many things to see and do.


It snowed the second night we were there, and my friend and I went for a walk around Salem Common in the falling snow. As we walked, we could hear screams and cheers coming out of various windows in the city - we later learned that the New England Patriots were winning the AFC playoff game in that very same snowstorm. The next morning the snow-blanketed scenery presented a beautiful sight.

Howard Street Cemetery

I associate Salem with an odd, idiosyncratic things. The cobalt blue glassware that filled several antique stores there - I assumed it was somehow associated with the area, but that turned out to be just a random thing. The Chuck Barris autobiography "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" - I saw a first edition in an antique store in 1994 and browsed through it, set it aside, and later saw it turned into a movie. The story of Natalie Wood's death - a shopkeeper was watching a program about it on TV, and eagerly told us about the more lurid (and probably apocryphal) details. A woman who reported her children as having been abducted, but was later found to have drowned them - that was the Susan Smith case, and was from my first visit. A child who was killed when the sliding door on his mother's minivan rolled forward and crushed his head as he was getting out to go to school - that happened during the last visit. Ten-cent comic day. Orbs. The smell of sandalwood. Andromeda. Black Hawk Down.

Tombstones at Howard Street Cemetery

Eight years passed between my first and second trips to Salem. Eight more years have passed since my second visit. I do not know how long it will be before I go there again, or how much it will have changed in my absence.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Salem's Favorite Son

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