Columns » Penny Post by Andrei Codrescu

Portsmouth, New Hampshire



Barbara got us from Logan in Boston and drove us to Portsmouth, N.H., on historic Highway 1, studded with Dunkin' Donuts on both sides of the road, a burger joint with life-size plastic cows in front, muffler places and so on, until we were in the Live Free or Die state, a motto that, Barbara explained, means no state sales or income taxes. On the other hand, New Hampshire has some of the highest property taxes in the United States. There is no seat-belt law, but that's about to change. I read the police blotter in the Portsmouth Times and saw that there'd been three crimes the day before, all before 11:30 a.m. -- at 6:45, a "frisky turkey" slammed into a citizen's window; at 7:30, a man was reported depositing trash in a neighbor's receptacle; and at 9:47, the police were apprised of the theft of a 17-year-old's wallet, and the 13-year-old culprit was apprehended at 11:15.

Outside, a slushy rain slapped the windshield, giving the wipers a workout.

"Does crime in Portsmouth always stop around 11:30 a.m?" I asked, thinking of New Orleans, where crime goes on 24 hours a day -- just like the bars. And not just any crimes, but strong stuff, like murder.

Portsmouth is a well-kept New England seaport with three centuries of history buffed for tourists and beloved by locals. The pristine creamy church tower rising from the cobblestone square collapsed in a powerful gale some months back, crushing a pickup truck. The citizens were quick to restore it and found, looking deeper into it, that the crushed pickup had been severely damaged by hail less than a month before, leaving a lingering doubt as to the cause of the church collapse. Don't forget that they used to burn witches in New England.

I was the headline act at the Portsmouth Jazz Festival, a three-day jam by musicians and poets. The town, it turns out, brews a great deal of beer in its many watering holes, and most of the residents are either musicians or poets or both. Performing poetry accompanied by jazz is an activity with roots in the 1950s, when a writer from the neighborhood, Jack Kerouac, read his work out loud with people like David Amram providing the beat. Jack is gone to beatnik heaven, but David Amram, thank the fates, is still with us, and he certainly was with me, playing the piano as I recited my New Orleans Storm Songs. The musically seasoned air of Portsmouth and the savvy audience appreciated us.

Barbara took us to eat lobster and then a huge storm descended on New England. Lobster flesh is sweet once you hammer yourself into the red sea bug, and Portsmouth is just like that, too, when the sleet lets up. New Hampshire is on the verge of outlawing smoking in bars, so if they combine that with poetry and jazz, the locals won't just live free, they'll die less.

Andrei Codrescu's latest book is New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writing From the City (Algonquin Books).

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