Vice President Biden recently visited Rhode Island to support the reelection of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, of whom we can only hope that his last name does not presage his future. The Vice President’s press release informed the media that he would be traveling to “Road Island.”
Many people believe that this place is in New York, confusing it readily with Long Island, which you can actually see in places along the coast, across Long Island Sound. There are about a million people here, the state is all coastline, and if you drive from my house 20 minutes south or west, you’re in Connecticut; 20 minutes north, and you’re in Massachusetts; 20 minutes east, and you swim with the fishes. (That’s largely metaphoric, since the New England Mafia is geriatric, in prison, or both, as satirized brilliantly in a Sopranos episode.)
Roger Williams founded the place in the 17th Century as a bastion of religious freedom in a time when most governments believed that conforming to an approved state religion was also patriotic. Atop the statehouse here (“the second largest free-standing dome anywhere”) stands “the independent man.” Touro Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in the U.S., is in Newport. I sometimes attend St. Mary’s Church in Newport, where John and Jackie Kennedy were wed.
The quality of life here can be quite high if you don’t have to work here, because there is very little middle class, and the state is rather business-unfriendly. Demographics skew toward blue collar or great wealth. The restaurants are awesome, better than Boston, per capita. The local arts and cultural scenes are rich in talent and diversity. (My wife and I have served on a dozen boards.) There is a significant academic presence: Rhode Island School of Design (arts); Johnson & Wales (culinary and hospitality); Brown University (ego).
Rhode Island, where I came propelled by the greed associated with the presidency of a firm I was to be fired from 27 years ago ( I still tell people I’m a New Yorker), is more a state of mind than a state of the union. I ask the jury to simply consider these facts:
• An amazingly large number of people here have never been to New York (three hours away) and some not to Boston (one hour away). I heard one man brag that his pickup truck had never left Aquidneck Island (Newport, reached by several huge bridges).
• About 90% of all boats in the hundreds of marinas never leave the docks, irrespective of weather, gas prices, or famine. Most owners simply drink somewhere aft, on an expensive floating bar. I guess we should feel relieved they don’t leave the docks.
• People have “summer homes” 45 minutes away from their main home. They pick up the mail and newspapers every day. Where I come from, a “summer home” is an airplane ride or six-hour car ride away. Here, it’s like going out for dinner.
• No one uses turn signals. This could be a state law, I don’t know.
• No one lets you turn across their lane. Absolutely no one stops to give you a break turning left. It’s a macho thing that has transcended gender, as in, “I may be an inferior, but I sure as heck can stop you from turning!” Unbelievably, this happens regularly outside our church parking lot with parishioners refusing to allow colleagues into the lot.
• People give metaphysical directions here. “If you want to try the new restaurant, turn left where Hugo’s used to be [a store demolished ten years ago] and then take a right where they removed the stop sign.” Oh. Thanks, that’s clear.
• Sprinkles on ice cream are called “Jimmies” here. My wife, the sommelier of ice cream, actually got into an argument at the window of an ice cream stand over it, when they told her they couldn’t understand her order. I dragged her away as she was screaming, “Do you SPRINKLE them on or JIMMIE them on, idiot?!”
• There are 30 or so municipalities, police departments, fire departments, library systems, medical response teams, school districts, and so on. The waste and duplication—in a state with grave financial problems—are vast. The place should act like Singapore, a city-state with coordinated services. Instead, it acts like a bad Boston bar at closing time.
• With all these problems, the governor, elected by a tepid 33% of the voters in a multiple-candidate election, announced that the annual Christmas Tree on the capitol grounds would be known as a Holiday Tree, so as not to offend anyone living under the sun. The verdict is still out on the Easter Bunny (Holiday Hare?). He’s going to have to do something about the Constitution, though, which clearly refers to a “creator.” Where’s Roger Williams when you need him?
• They pronounce my alma mater, Rutgers, as “Ruggers.”
• A common, quite physical landmark is “the great blue bug,” which is a termite that is 427,000 times actual size, perched on top of an exterminating business alongside Interstate 95. The thing is dressed up and lighted for Christmas (Holiday Time?). When there was a threat of demolition of the building, the then-mayor of Providence climbed up to the roof with the press in tow and issued a “stay of extermination.”
• It has snowed in this area at least since the onset of the Holocene Era, about 12,000 years ago. My math tells me that’s prior to Columbus, Roger Williams, and the New England Patriots. Yet every threat of snow here is regarded as Armageddon on the final day of the Mayan Calendar. People stockpile bread and milk; they exhaust supplies of snow blowers, portable generators, and bottled water. It’s the equivalent of natives in the Amazon rain forests fearing moisture. The “meteorologists” on television aren’t called, for example, “the sunshine boys,” but rather “THE STORM TRACKERS!”
• When people here say they’re going to “the city,” they mean Providence. They don’t seem to understand The City is New York.
We live an idyllic existence, with a great quality of life (we were at the fabulous Festival Ballet last night, a political satire produced by local journalists the night prior, and will be at Trinity Rep next week), with the means and ability to enjoy our environment and travel to New York whenever we wish. Even though I kid them, people here are basically friendly and nice.
They just need to get out more often, and when they are, allow a few people to turn in front of them.
© Alan Weiss 2012. All rights reserved.