GLOUCESTER – “This is Peter Black’s house,” someone shouts. “Show some respect.”
The “walkers” go quiet, something they haven’t done in hours.
There are 45 of them, mostly guys in their 20s, and they’ve been partying all day, each of them in a ridiculous costume, all part of summoning the courage for what they’ll be doing later in the afternoon.
This is the Friday crowd, the lucky ones who know someone who knows someone and got their names on the list for round one of this fishing port’s major spectator draw and most sacred test: the greasy pole.
The pole itself is 40 feet of wooden piling extending from a four-story platform a few hundred yards off Pavilion Beach. Most of the year, it sits idle, a totem to the glory it has brought and the people it has broken. But this is June 23 — the Friday of St. Peter’s Fiesta, the biggest event on the city’s calendar — and that morning, crews had slathered the pole with Crisco, bacon fat, fish guts, and whatever local bars and restaurants could come up with to make it a slippery mess.
One by one, the walkers will try to cross and retrieve the red flag at the end. Ribs will be smashed, as will backs and faces and egos, all in front of huge crowds on boats and the beach. But the prize for walking the pole’s length is a kind of fame hard to fathom anywhere but here, where the flag gets you carried through town, a free drink at every public house, and an authentic stature in the city that lasts a lifetime.
Which is why the guys, mostly of Italian stock and from fishing families, are at Peter Frontiero’s house. When he was a young man in the ’80s, Peter “Black” was the winner on Sunday — the third and toughest day of competition — for seven straight years. If you’re a pole walker or want to become one, you pay your respects to Peter Black.
Vinny Parisi steps to the center of the group in front of the house and calls everyone in. He’s in charge of the first day, trying to herd a crew of younger competitors who are all charged up. He carries weight in this crowd. He has snatched flags in past years from both Friday and Saturday events, so he will walk on Sunday, with the champions.
“We’re going to do the blessing of the feet,” Parisi shouts over the crowd clogging Pine Street, “and there’s only one place to do it, and that’s at Peter Black’s house.”
In the back, a tall 24-year-old in a luchador costume named Randy Sweet is taking it all in. He’d been trying to get on the Friday list, which is decided by the Fiesta Committee and all depends on who you know, from the moment he turned 18 — and he hasn’t slept since he finally got the call a week ago telling him he was on. He paced a little as the crowd chanted. He could feel what it meant to be a champion, and just as he had all his life, dreamed of what it would feel like if it were him.
Peter Black isn’t home, but Parisi gets him on the phone and holds it up above the crowd as Black starts the chant they’ve been yelling at Fiesta for as long as anyone can remember.
“Me chi samiou, dute mute?” the champion’s voice yells from the phone in Italian.
What are we all, mute?
“Viva San Pietro,” the guys shout back.
“Me chi samiou, dute mute?” Peter Black shouts again.
Viva San Pietro, the guys respond, louder this time.
The scared, and the real walkers
Walking the pole looks easy from the beach. That’s what everyone says. But when you’re out on the water and climb the steep ladder to the platform and look at the flag 40 feet away, the sun directly behind it, fear sets in. You can see it in every face, fear of failure and fear of injury, and fear they won’t have the guts to risk both. Defying that feeling is what makes a real walker, they say. It takes no courage to take a couple of steps and then jump off the moment you feel yourself losing your balance. You have to be willing to fall, and there are no good falls. The pole hurts; the water hurts more. At dead low tide, it’s a good 30-foot fall to an ocean that is still frigid in late June.
The first round on Friday is practice. No one is allowed to touch the flag. But the hazard remains real: One guy gets knocked cold and is floating face down when he gets fished out by the harbormaster. He’s dazed but alive. The walks go on.
The second round starts, and everything slows down. Now it counts. Prayers are said.
Some charge hard out onto the pole. Others walk gingerly. The scared are easy to spot. So are the real walkers, and when someone still has confidence a third of the way across, a hum will fill the air, from the flotilla of boats to the hundreds on the shore. Randy Sweet in the second round delivers the farthest walk yet. When he fell in the water he thought he’d missed his shot. But another 45 guys try and fail, and Parisi calls his name again.
Sweet takes his steps, upright, confident, tiptoeing his right foot over his left down the line, further and further, straight into a blinding sun, the crowd alive, the flag drawing close.
What happens next is a blur. The flag in his hands. The boat horns he could hear under the water. Being lifted onto shoulders. Being called champ. Realizing he was going on to Saturday.
Two days, two flags
It’s 4:30 on Saturday, and Sweet hasn’t eaten all day. Friday seems a lifetime ago. Today, he won’t be the only person who knows what a flag feels like; past winners are now a part of the competition. Every one of them wants the flag again.
It’s been another day of parties in costume, another trip to the parties and the bars and doing the chant over and over again. Now, the boat is pulling in to take them back out to the platform and the pole. It’s surreal, he says.
Sweet goes first. That’s the Friday winner’s honor, and he looks comfortable in the practice round, then again starting the second. But there’s still a lot of grease on the pole, and he slips and tumbles into the water.
“Don’t let that kid have another shot,” one of the old-timers says, “or he’s going to take it.”
That is exactly what happens. In the next round. Sweet walks straight off the end carrying the flag.
The final round
At high tide on Sunday morning, a small boat hauls more grease out to the platform, so the pole can be slathered once more. It’s the final, most prestigious day of the contest. By winning Saturday, Sweet can compete in the Sunday round, now and for the rest of his life if he wants to. He is in elite company, with people he’s known about for years. Salvi Benson shows up out of nowhere, nearly 70, and says he wants to walk. He has won more times than anyone. And Anthony Giambanco is making his last walk after 42 years. Everyone calls him “Matza.” He has won six times and is wearing a suit.
Everything feels more serious, and as they all walk toward a party being hosted by Matza’s sister, Matza pulls them aside on the lawn of a church and goes after them.
“Friday and Saturday are for amateurs,” he says, pointing a finger at each of them. “This is Sunday. This is the brotherhood of champions. Don’t disgrace yourselves or I’ll find your father and he’ll find you.”
Only one other person has ever won all three days in a row, and Sweet knows this as he stands on the end of the pole and takes another deep breath. It’s the start of the third round, and no one thought it was going to last that long with all those good walkers up there. Peter Black’s brother missed by inches right in front of him. It has to be now.
Sweet steps off and walks quickly and surely across, the crowd screaming louder with each step, until he’s there, within striking distance. Just one more step and he can dive for it and he’s in the history book. But he slips. He fights to stay upright, and with one last effort he leaps for the flag but grabs only air.
As he treads water below, he looks up at the pole in the sun, and watches a guy named Jake Wagner take the flag.
Sweet swims over and congratulates him, then helps carry him up the beach with the rest of the guys. Already, he is replaying his failed attempt in his head, learning something even the greats all know: what it feels like to lose.
A week later, Sweet says the miss haunts him just a little. He’s forever a champion. But he was a foot from being a legend.
Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.