From Brooklyn to P-Town for Bear Week

A pilgrimage to a critical mass of body hair and happiness.

“At a table next to me, someone said to a friend, ‘I love this week—everybody’s so happy.’” (Photo: Dylan)

From the terrace of a coffee shop on Commercial Street in Provincetown, on a breezy day last July, I watched two burly, bearded, sunburned men in camo-patterned shorts and muscle tees struggle to maneuver a huge baby stroller down a flight of steps. “Be careful,” said one. “The wheel’s stuck.” The kid strapped into this juggernaut of child transport kicked his brown legs in the air, cackling as his adoptive parents lifted the whole thing off the ground. Meanwhile, another hairy, musclebound type ambled by, gazing my way. He rounded the corner. At a table next to me, someone said to a friend, “I love this week—everybody’s so happy.”

When I called the novelist, he answered, ‘Is this Evan?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘You poor fuck,’ he said. Then he gave me directions to his place.

He meant Bear Week, the annual wild rumpus for men who, as the Times once put it, in a phrase more meaningfully active than perhaps intended, “embrace natural body hair.” Though not a bear myself (nor a cub, nor an otter, nor a wolf, chaser, or twink; sloth, maybe—where’s our week?), the thought of this hirsute collective embrace held a certain steamy appeal. At 29, I still felt compelled, out of a sense of gay piety, to make these pilgrimages to legendary convocations and megaparties, as though I might, by doing so, come a little closer to being what the man on the terrace said everybody else was—everybody so was. So, I had fled my Brooklyn sublet and jumped on a Boston-bound bus in Chinatown, traveling over land and sea to experience this critical mass of body hair and happiness.

On that first full day there, I felt tired and feverish. I took in street scenes in a state of mild delirium. An Eastern European man trailed passing women, saying in a bored, almost angry patter, “…best cupcakes in Cape Cod yummy yummy yummy…” A young cub couple had a spat; the offended party, dressed in knee-high red athletic socks and bright red short-shorts, rushed ahead of his beau, furious. “You can’t stop 30 seconds for me? Well, then, I’m not going to stop for you!” An older woman stared, perplexed, at one of those street performers who remain motionless for long stretches—a waif painted white, in white period dress and a white powdered wig. When the Woman in White changed position, her observer observed, with no trace of surprise, “Oh, I see. She moves.”

Yes, I thought. She moves.

 * * *

The day before, a dilemma struck: en route, I got a voicemail from the woman who ran the Outermost Hostel, where I had a “reservation.” Having left on a whim, I’d settled for a bed at this hostel, with its charmingly alienated name, assured that I needed no credit card to book—just show up! “I’m sorry, but I made a mistake,” said the voicemail. “There are no vacancies after all.”

“If I hear the words ‘born this way’ one more time, I’m going to go berserk.” (Photo: Megan Marrs)

By now I was used to taking the results of my own half-baked planning in stride. (My five year plan? Make a three year plan. My three year plan: make a one year plan. My one year plan: do something about all the mistakes I’ve made in the previous year.) At a coffee shop called Wiredpuppy, I called several friends with Provincetown histories. I waited. A poet came through for me with the number of a novelist.

When I called the novelist, he answered, “Is this Evan?”

“Yes,” I said.

“You poor fuck,” he said. Then he gave me directions to his place.

The novelist welcomed me into his living room, offering me a plate of cold fried chicken and a martini. “Is this heaven?” I said. I thanked him, moved by his hospitality. We ate and drank, chatting about shared literary loves—Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Christina Stead’s rancid The Man Who Loved Children. I enthused over the writer Julie Hecht. “She writes these brilliant short stories about going into discount drugstores on Nantucket 15 minutes before they close.”

My arrival during Bear Week led us, naturally, to riff on gay life. Though straight, the novelist had now lived in a gay resort town for several years. We touched on the remarkable number of middle-aged gay men in Provincetown who—though I mean no disrespect—dressed like 17-year-old lacrosse players hired as part of an Abercrombie and Fitch street team. “There’s less of an established social standard for aging for gay people,” he ventured. “Also, what do you think of that Lady Gaga slogan, ‘Born This Way’? I saw it on a t-shirt today.”

‘You’re sitting on Andrew Sullivan’s bench!’ he said.

I patted my hand against the seat. ‘I would do that,’ I said.

“Oh, please,” I said, happy to hit on a subject that had driven me to heated argument before. “Where’s the evidence? And what does being born have to do with anything anyway? I’ve spent my whole life trying to forget that I was ever born at all. I think we can do better. How about …” I paused, stumped. “A t-shirt with nothing on it?”

“If I hear the words ‘born this way’ one more time, I’m going to go berserk,” he said. After talking with me a while longer—about Freud, the death drive, a famous pianist who raised wolves on her farm in Switzerland—he rose from the table. “I’m keeping you.”

“Keeping me?” I said. “From what?”

“From cruising or whatever else,” he said.

I laughed. He led me downstairs to his writing studio, where he had set up an inflatable mattress. I thanked him again, then prepared for bed, too tired to cruise, to say nothing of doing “whatever else,” which, coming from a novelist, could mean almost anything.

* * *

Over the next two days I explored the town and observed people. I took a bicycle ride out to Race Point Beach and took a nap on the sand, using my shoes as a pillow. I heard rough-voiced Billy Hough sing Crosby, Stills & Nash covers at Scream Along With Billy at the Grotta Bar one night. He banged away at a piano that had a tip jar and a skull on top of it; his bass player, Susan Goldberg, after playing a deep intro line, intoned into the mic, “Oh my God, I am so stoned.” I danced in a mob of sweaty, hairy, shirtless bears at the A-House, a bar two centuries old. A couple of casual dalliances rounded out what already felt like a pleasing Provincetown escapade.

Not wanting to strain the novelist’s hospitality, but not ready to leave, I called another friend of a friend, an artist named Mark who lived in nearby Truro. I was sitting on an orange plastic bench outside Wiredpuppy, writing in my notebook, when he rode up on his bicycle.

“You’re sitting on Andrew Sullivan’s bench!” he said.

I patted my hand against the seat. “I would do that,” I said.

There’s somehow more life in having expectations overthrown than in having them confirmed. But what did I even think I’d find at Bear Week? I must have thought I’d find something.

Mark had a wiry physique. He wore black-rimmed glasses and a sleeveless black t-shirt with white Japanese characters on it. The two of us strolled, stopping in at art galleries. One exhibited paintings by his former landlady, who had died a few weeks earlier. Everywhere we went, Mark knew someone.

As we passed the library, I asked about the huge boat I had seen in the center atrium. “It used to be part of the museum that was there before,” he said. “Since it was made by a still-living boatmaker, it would have been disrespectful to remove the boat—they would’ve had to dismantle it. So they built the library around it.”

I put our names on the list at a restaurant while Mark rode his bike to his car to drop off our bags. Alone, I wandered the block, looking in shop windows, noting the great many bear couples that appeared to be as good as married. Was Bear Week a couples’ retreat? When Mark returned, we checked in with the host.

“I was looking for you,” she said. “Where’d you go?”

“Sorry,” I said. “I got distracted.”

“He’s a wanderer,” said Mark.

“I was born this way,” I said.

While I cut into a flank steak and Mark ate fish tacos and duck fat fries, he asked me about my notebook. “Is it a part of a myth-making process?” he said.

“No!” I said, startled by this grand characterization. Then I took a moment to reconsider. “Okay, yes. It is.”

“I can’t remember who said that the first time we remember an event, it’s a memory, but that the second time it becomes a myth.”

“It must have been someone very brilliant.”

After dinner, and after hanging out at a driveway party down the road, where I smiled to see Mark making out with a young man half his age, we drove to Truro. Out at the “farm,” as he called it, it was wonderfully dark and still. We spent a few minutes standing outside his house, which was cluttered with canvases and art supplies, staring up at the clear, starry sky. Then Mark found some aspirin for me in the kitchen—I had a sore throat—and I retired to the guest room.

* * *

“Alone, I wandered the block, looking in shop windows, noting the great many bear couples that appeared to be as good as married. Was Bear Week a couples’ retreat?” (Photo: Megan Marrs)

By the time I left Provincetown, I was glad to have gone, even though the trip had been different than I imagined. I had felt more like a solitary, shiftless drifter than a jolly woodland creature. Yet another reminder to abandon as many expectations as possible upon arriving in a new place, to not waste time bemoaning the clash of extravagant expectations against reality. There’s somehow more life in having expectations overthrown than in having them confirmed. But what did I even think I’d find at Bear Week? I must have thought I’d find something. Otherwise, why go? Why go anywhere?

Keen to get back to New York, I boarded a Lucky Star bus in Boston. Though at first relieved to settle in—next to a handsome, bearish young man, no less, a man with strong, thick legs—it soon became clear that a flock of adolescents on a church trip filled the other seats. As we pulled out of the station, they started to sing in a round. They passed around bags of candy, shouting, “Starburst! Skittles! Swedish fish!” My stomach growled. I cursed their failure to absorb and act upon the teachings of Jesus Christ by hogging all that candy to themselves.

A thunderstorm darkened the sky above the highway. Lightning flashed. The driver’s cautious response to the downpour, plus traffic, would add three hours to our trip. Meanwhile, one of the church boys pulled a pair of bongos from overhead storage, and began slapping out crazed rhythms on them with great energy, not to say cruelty. The thick-legged young man beside me played a game on his cell phone. The sound of virtual gunfire rattled from his headphones while he cursed under his breath: “Motherfucker!

We stopped at a Burger King. All of the churchgoing sprats crowded the line ahead of me. When it came time to leave, they all hooted and hollered back to the bus, bags of food in hand. Though there was no sign of my purchased milkshake and fries, I feared being left behind. I joined them empty-handed, imagining my number called out to an empty Burger King, my food sitting unclaimed on the counter as we drove away.

The sky had cleared by the time we reached the bridge into the city. One of the church girls said to a friend, “You know what I hate about clouds? They’re so gorgeous, but when you take a picture of them, they just come out blurs.”

“Motherfucker,” muttered my seatmate, eyes fixed on his device.

We’re almost home, I thought—a specious attempt to convince the part of myself that knew better. Then another church girl shouted up to her chaperone, “What are you preaching on tomorrow?”

The man turned and shouted back, “Suffering!”

“Okay!” she cried. She repeated the word “suffering” to her friends, as though none of them had heard the chaperone shout it, relaying that tomorrow’s sermon would be on the topic of suffering. The bongo boy played on. Familiar buildings loomed ahead. And what about today? I wondered. From Brooklyn to P-Town for Bear Week