• Darigan Daily Drop

F****** Tourists

Updated: Apr 20

It was a Sunday afternoon in early spring. I park the van on a small cobbled street in the old part of town and cover up computer satchel with Mexican blanket, all rainbow textiles and dog hair, leaving the guitar in plain view. Out of Providence and into New Bedford, time to stroll around. A solo Sunday ride into the unfamiliar, a tonic for a curious, restless soul. Flexing lungs, legs in the cool spring breeze, the warm sun, the intermittent drafts of salt scented air pushing up from the bay; the unique odor of sea vegetation and fish.


There it is, the Seamen’s Bethel, squat, square and clapboards freshly painted gray. A place made famous by Melville’s Moby Dick, then later John Huston in the bad ass film with Orson Welles and Gregory Peck, screenplay by Jean Roddenberry. There is a narrow path in between the Bethel and the Mariner’s Home, where retired seamen sit and look out peeling paint windows at the sea that was their life, now memories of storms come in the shower, and a cup of black coffee and a cheroot occupy the time of the few grizzled gents reclining in rockers on the narrow balcony.


I walk down the blue slate walkway from the back of the chapel and across the street is the huge, brick New Bedford Whaling Museum. In front of the Bethel, beneath a large maple full of spring blossoms, a white-haired priest in a cream colored robe talks loudly on a cell phone. A short white haired man with white mustache stands in front of the entrance smoking a cigarette. A small sign reads “Service in Progress.” I have not spoken to a person in nearly 72 hours, except for buying brew, and paying the pizza delivery guy. I nearly walk on past, but stop and ask the white haired man, “Is there a service going on?”

“Not yet.” He says and looks at his watch. “You’ve got 15 minutes.”


He opens the door for me and I step into the shade and can’t recall if I’ve ever been there. I walk straight in not knowing where to go but that was the whole point of leaving town that morning. I head down a few steps into a small low-ceilinged chapel in the basement. It was very sparse, with white washed thick wooden pews, light green walls and a small marble altar with a large crucifix hanging from the wall behind it. The little mustache guy has followed me in and stands in the foyer on the main floor. As I walk back up the stairs he greets me.

“It’s up the stairs right there,” he says, although I didn’t ask. “The main chapel.”

“Thanks.” He keeps talking as I walk up the walnut stairs.

“The second pew on the left side is where Melville used to sit.”

“Thanks.” I say, not stopping.


There is no one there, just spirits. The Seamen’s Bethel. A place so many sailors and families have come to pray, on early dark mornings. Tall-mast ships waiting in the harbor, heaving and rocking in the small swells, the masts form a sort of forest on the bay. The red sun rises quickly and it is time to set sail boys. Sailors, mates, captains, cooks, cabin boys, everyone is welcome in the Bethel. They have come and they have communed with their God. They have prayed, pleaded, they have begged for safety, whales, riches, calm seas, and perhaps more than one young sailor asked of his savior a special favor: “Lord, may Paolo that scallywag who lives down the street, not corrupt my lonely, frisky young wife Rosa whilst I’m away…”


The Seamen’s Bethel was an airy, quiet place with tall ceilings and rows of pews of dark cherry wood, worn from so many butts and hands. Thin tall windows allowed a parade of muted colors and light through the old, warped glass. I strolled down the center aisle and sat in a pew half way down the nave. Here, men have wept for brothers lost at sea. Here, men have wondered, pondered existence, staring at rope-lashed palms of thick fingered hands. Here, men have had their last landlocked thoughts, terrestrial prayers for a year or more of water and wind and weather, all bundled into a few short moments, knees bent, hands clasped, heads bowed, muttering through beards that collect tears.

From outside, the squawking cries of sea gulls punctuate the silence, as they call out in hunger, all beaks and feathers. The afternoon light was gold and clean filling the empty belly of the quiet place.


Occasionally the faint rumble sound of tires on cobbled penetrated the silence. Along the walls were numerous carved marble slabs commemorating those lost at sea. One year was 1856, the one directly next to it, 1977. On both walls there are these grave stones, so many that there is rarely an empty piece of wall. Different types of marble and granite stones with myriad names and dates and quotes and verses of scripture. An old yellow clock ticks up above the “choir boxes” from days when this Bethel was filled with wives, daughters, grandfathers, grandmothers, young sons, old maids, widows, retired mariners from the home, all gathered to pray for brothers, husbands, sons, fathers, lovers lost in the vast, indifferent, merciless sea. Here is where many more tears fell. The tops of the pews so often drenched with tears. The light and space of it now, this emptiness, had been so often filled with black robed, heaving bodies, sobbing and weeping and wailing. A tall, robust minister standing behind the pulpit, exhorting the congregation to heed the Lord’s word and accept their fate. In his hands he holds the Good Book, consoling, imploring the faith of the Father in all things, ”And lo’ these men may lie at the bottom of the sea, they are now held in the strong and loving arms of our almighty Father…Amen.”


The pulpit is something. A large wood cross protrudes from the lectern, itself shaped like the bow of a ship, the same as in the film. The spot where Orson Welles gives the stirring oration at the beginning of the film. I hear a noise on the stairs and do not particularly want the little nice mustache man to come in and tell me trivia. I stand up and take a last look around and feel the space, hear the sound of ticking clock, close my eyes for an instant and the golden light filters through my lids and descends.


I walk down the stairs and in the foyer there he is, the little mustache man. He starts right in about the damn tourists. “Here, look,” he says, “someone from Nuremberg, Germany was here, just today, look, look at the address book.” I look at the thick book lying open on a table. He tells me how the tourists complained about the pulpit, so the pastor had that one put in, to mimic the film. “What the hell?” he says, “I guess we gotta keep ‘em happy, right?” I make some half-hearted comment about fiction and reality, working in the opposite way. He doesn’t care, he’s on a roll. I smell whiskey on his breath, and he is a tad garrulous as one gets with a few pops. But he tells me straight out, “You know, these fuckin tourists are sometimes such assholes...” Even though, in a way, I am one.

“I’m sure,” I say. “Hey, thanks for the information.” He reaches out his hand and I take it in mine.

“You have a good day now,” he says.


Later, as I’m strolling about, I see him standing outside the front entrance of the Seamen’s Bethel. The door is closed, the service in progress. He is smoking a cigarette. He waves to me, I tip my cap and make my way back to the van.

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