Saying goodbye to Napi

Jan 29, 2020 | Charting the Past

Helen and Napi Van Dereck. Photo courtesy of the Center for Coastal Studies.

By Seth Rolbein

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The week before Christmas the phone rang at the Fishermen’s Alliance office and Napi was talking, which meant I needed to stop and pay attention because anytime Napi started talking you needed to focus. His mind was able to connect disparate, startling, shocking, brilliant, disquieting, cantankerous, but ultimately satisfying elements at a moment’s notice.

“I’ve been going through my archives,” he said, “and I came across an article you wrote years ago for Yankee Magazine. It was called ‘One More Tow,’ do you remember?”

“Of course I do,” I told him. “The Patricia Marie, the scalloper that went down with all hands, the worst maritime tragedy in Provincetown’s recent history.”

I imagined him sitting in his cluttered dark office above the iconic restaurant he and his wife Helen opened in 1975. Originally a place where people showed up for communal dinners, talking art and politics, Napi’s evolved into a warm, eccentric, year-round institution. Napi could be found early evenings at the edge of the bar with a drink and crossword puzzle, ready to engage anyone he found interesting. He had opinions about pretty much anything, and they’d get more insistent as the drinks went down.

Above the bar where Napi sat, hung from yellow pine beams, is a model of a fishing boat, a dragger like one of the dozens that once lined MacMillan Wharf. Its name is the Panther, and it was built by a man named Dicky Oldenquist who had been a good friend of Napi’s years ago. Dicky was one of the few black men in town at that time, and the boat was his dream. He fished on other boats to get the money he needed to build it, and Napi was going to help.

Dicky went down on the Patricia Marie, his body never recovered.

“I used to think maybe Dicky survived somehow, snuck away and started a new life,” Napi told me. “Well, I wished that more than believed it.”

He reminded me that when he was young, more than half a century ago, he worked on a scalloper for awhile. He was the cook, and there was the time they caught a great pile and pulled into Block Island, where he and another fisherman took a walk and found a bench to drink a few beers. Being forward, Napi invited two young women at another bench to join them. The other fisherman was Billy King. One thing led to another, and one of those women became Billy’s wife and moved to Provincetown to start a family.

Billy King was captain of the Patricia Marie.

“I’ve read that article three or four times over the past few days, and it brings back such vivid memories for me,” he said, his voice quavering uncharacteristically. “I wanted to thank you for writing it, you did it like an extended piece of poetry.”

He saw the universe through the lens of Provincetown. That didn’t make him parochial, his curiosity was too voracious for that. He became the town’s greatest collector of art that was almost all Provincetown-connected one way or another, but the collection was eclectic, capable of taking viewers to deep and faraway places.

Like everyone from his generation in Provincetown, he had a nickname and went by it. His real name was Anton. Napi was the diminutive of Napoleon; in the insightful, comical way of nicknames, it captured not a short stature but more his strong will. It didn’t catch the deeper truth, that Napi was a profound romantic, and like many romantics would veer toward disappointment and cynicism when the world and its people didn’t live up to his idealistic hopes.

“Napi,” I told him, pacing around the Alliance offices, “I’m flattered you called, it means a lot. How you doing anyway?”

“I’m fine,” he said. “I am in my mid-80s but still in good shape, climbing the stairs and so forth. My mind seems sharp. What are you, in your 60s? You spring chicken.”

“I am,” I said. “Let’s get together, it’s been too long.”

“That sounds great,” he said, “we have a lot to discuss. Christmas is upon us, but how about the day after, Thursday? Come to the restaurant, we can have a drink.”

“Perfect, see you then.”

But I didn’t. He died Christmas Day.

The wake was packed, the burial poignant and gray. Helen was graceful as always. Napi’s renowned art collection will stay in Provincetown as part of a great legacy, his name melding into the annals as one of the town’s many great characters.

And I’ll always regret not having one more conversation.


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