Thursday, October 2, 2014

Call Me Ishmael's Landing: Surprising Moments in New Bedford





            I was unprepared for my visit to New Bedford last week. I had called the mayor's office, looking for some useful 'insider's' insight for a newspaper story; my questions were vague, my impressions of the city were vaguer, and I had to look up the mayor's name. My call was routed to the mayor's "PR person." I was impressed that the mayor had a PR person: most local governments could probably use one; and the some of the 'spokesmen' for state agencies seldom did anything as useful and get on the phone and welcome my inquiries. The New Bedford PR person, however, managed to persuade me in an upbeat minute or two that I absolutely needed to pay the city a visit.
            We made a tentative date; she would call me back. My meeting proved a moving target, variously planned for the mayor, the economic development director, the PR person herself, or the head of the tourism office. When I got there the agenda turned out to be, in order, the mayor, the tourism director, and the mayor's chief of staff.
            Maybe some credit goes to the absolutely gorgeous late September weather that accompanied my visit -- blue skies, seventies, sun glinting off the water -- but my impressions of the city were altogether rosy.
            Cobblestone streets, restored 19th century buildings, inexpensive loft space, a helpful cop who gave good directions, busy downtown activity, and an even busier port.
            Though photography was not (nor is ever) my job, when I was taken to the third story balcony of the Whaling Museum for the view of the harbor, I could not help taking out my camera. The photos of the harbor posted here are from that vantage.
            I'm fascinated by the port, which (I was surprised to learn) is the number one fishing port in the country according to the total value of the catch. Wouldn't the biggest fishing port be in Florida or somewhere on the Pacific or in one of those Cajun crawdaddy spots? (Answer: no). Apparently Atlantic fishermen are still bringing them in, quotas and all. And more of them bring their fish to New Bedford than anywhere else.
            The harbor is now also the site of the new staging area for the assembly of the gigantic Cape Wind off-shore wind turbines. Cranes rising from the harbor are now building a dock sturdy enough to hold these weighty components. 
           The official state sailing vessel, the Ernestina, is berthed there there. The Charles W. Morgan, the last remaining vessel from America's one-time globe-circling whaling fleet, paid a visit this summer and drew 35,000 visitors. Regular weekend festivals lure big catches of tourists as well.
            I am fascinated too by the map of the harbor the tourism director gave me, along with a score of other promotional materials.
            Tops on the list (for stirring the imagination at least) is the little rectangular inlet called "Ishmael's Landing." Not many of us sail our eyes all the way through "Moby Dick" these days, but almost all of us remain intermittently charmed by its first three words: "Call me Ishmael."
            I imagine Melville's Ishmael, the novel's first-person narrator, wandering into New Bedford these days and looking for a berth on a fishing vessel. He gets a craving for the sea (just as Melville tells us). He wanders into town late one evening and spends a night in the new Marriott Hotel. He finds a self-guided walking tour along the docks. There's the "fishermen's wharf" and "state pier," a high-speed ferry terminal to Martha's Vineyard (well now, he ponders, what can happened to Nantucket?). He stares at the highway bridge that carries Route 6 to Fairhaven and Pope's Island. He continues strolling, past the "visitors waterfront center," the dingy dock, the coal pocket pier, Homer's wharf -- Homer, you say? In honor of the old Greek mariner and travel yarner? -- and then stumbles on the sign for "Ishamael's Landing."
            He stares in surprise. They knew he was coming? What a city -- it throws the welcome mat out for everyone. 
          What does he do now? Well, according to another map I found online, he's in the right place to find a "water taxi."
            Call me Ishmael. And call me a water taxi.