In Providence

For some of us, the year begins in September.

It’s not a unanimous feeling that Providence is a college town, but something about Labor Day weekend, when the students return and the city seems to fill up a bit more, gives the impression that we still adhere to a schedule once followed by television and still adhered to by most theaters, which is —

Autumn is when things really get rolling.

If you were in the city for Labor Day weekend, you might wonder to yourself if what you were seeing was a decidedly different Providence or if you were just seeing it through the eyes of the newcomers popping up everywhere.

I hadn’t been a stranger to the capitol city over the summer, but I waited until the fall before I took a walk out on its new pedestrian bridge, and when I did, I couldn’t help but acknowledge that now we’re able to see the city from a brand new direction.

After parking my car on Benefit and walking down to the bridge, I noticed that transitory resistance in the air — the feeling that maybe it was time to put summer away for the year, but couldn’t we at least put up a fight if it meant one more weekend by the beach?

Halfway across the bridge, I stopped to watch a teenager playing chess with a police officer, and eavesdropped on the conversation of a nearby couple — in their late teens or early twenties — the boy wearing a Brown University t-shirt and the girl with her arm around his waist — staring out at the other side of the river.

“So now the plan is to be here for another two years.”

“At least I get you for another two years.”

Careful, I think. Two years go by fast.

Meanwhile at Julians on Broadway, a friend was trying to have a somber conversation over the noise of the West Side’s most reliably celebratory eatery. She was now officially divorced from her husband and had moved into a two-bedroom apartment a few blocks away on Parade Street. This meal was a chance to meet up with her soon-to-be new roommate, and the weather was nice, so she had taken the opportunity to walk to the restaurant.

“It’s so cliche, but I really want to become a new person,” she’d tell me the next day on the phone. “Someone who walks places and eats at, you know, places that aren’t chain restaurants, um, and just really takes advantage of the city, you know?”

When she showed up to meet her new roommate, she was struck by how young he looked.

“We met — This is crazy, but — We met through a friend of a friend, and I’d only briefly looked him up on Instagram — He doesn’t have Facebook, but — I don’t know — He looked so young in person. I mean, I’m not even 40 yet, and — I don’t know — He looked like he could be my son almost. Here I am thinking I’m all, like, so cool and I’m — I’m going to have a guy for a roommate, which is something I would never — like, that’s not something I ever pictured — and I knew he was younger, but — God, Kevin, he just looked so young. Like, soooo young.”

But they hugged immediately upon meeting each other and she found out that he isn’t that much younger than her, although he does — and always has had — a baby face.

Strangely enough, once they started talking, it was revealed that whereas my friend is on the other side of a particularly nasty divorce that took nearly three years to complete, she was prepared to enter this new part of her life with optimistic gusto, while her new roommate — a Rhode Island transplant from one of the wealthiest suburbs in Dallas, Texas — had every reason to be filled with youthful exuberance regardless of his actual age, and yet seemed listless and stoic — like a black-and-white panel from an unfinished graphic novel.

“I hate to say he’s just a poor little rich boy, but, um, I think — Well, he could be dealing with actual problems,” my friend relayed to me nearly 24 hours later over drinks at The Eddy, “But he admits that he’s never really had any problems, and the only thing bothering him was that he left a boyfriend back home and he hasn’t been able to shake that, uh, you know, in some way that wasn’t the right move? To come here? I told him I know all about that. I’ve been questioning everything lately. I mean, I’m a 36-year-old woman who just purchased her first mini-fridge. What the hell am I doing?”

My ears had already perked up the way they do whenever somebody casually mentions that a new member of the tribe has just arrived.

“So — he likes guys?”
“That’s what I was wondering, so I kind of asked without asking.”
“And?”
“He said that he welcomes anyone who wants to travel with him on his journey.”
“That must include you now, huh?”
“I guess. We spent the rest of the night getting drunk and talking about oil spills and I think I cried a few times, but it might have been just once. Once or twice.”

I introduced myself to the couple on the bridge. It turned out that while the boy was a grad student at Brown, the girl was a junior at RISD who had dropped out and was now working at a coffee shop on Hope Street.

“My parents think I’m a total f—ing mess,” she told me. “They’re not wrong.”

It turned out the boy — Stephen — had been dating the girl — Olivia — for about a month. Stephen had planned to leave grad school due to disillusionment with his program and the chance to move in with his cousin in San Diego to start a wellness center, but his parents convinced him to finish what he started.

“I see their point,” he said. “But meeting Olivia has made me realize that — that you can’t be afraid to get messy.  That — why was I scared of having my life be a mess? Life is a mess. Why try to keep it all together? It’s impossible.”

They met when he was getting coffee where she works.

“She got my order wrong and laughed about it,” he said. “I thought that was pretty cool.”

I got so caught up talking to Stephen and Olivia that I left a friend waiting for me at Salon so I politely excused myself, but not until after I asked them if I could include them in a piece I was writing about Providence and the people who live there.

“I want to resurrect the Man About Town column,” I told them, sure they wouldn’t know who Dominick Dunne was, but wagering they’d probably heard of Truman Capote. “Try to do for Providence what Armistead Maupin did for San Francisco.”

Stephen cocked his head and Olivia made a face so I followed up with–

Tales of the City?”

Nothing.

“It’s — uh — I think it’s on Netflix now.”

Still nothing, but Olivia suspected it might be in her queue.

As this was going on, my friend was sitting at the bar in Salon trying to avoid using his phone as part of a recent promise he’d made to himself that it was necessary to start engaging with real people again — even strangers — and that this was a perfect place to start.

January might be the designated time for resolutions, but some of us save them for later in the year when big life changes seem less daunting and more in keeping with the ebb and flow of social media.

The bar was busy, and my friend regretted not suggesting somewhere a little more intimate — although places like that aren’t always easy to find in Providence. His plan was to tell me all about a house on the South Side that he and his partner of five years were going to fix up in the year leading up to their wedding, and he was going to ask me to be the best man. Me showing up a half hour late was giving him second thoughts.

“How did you find this house?” I asked when I finally showed up. “It needs work?”

He downed his third drink of the evening and said with a scoff–

“It needs everything.”

His fiance had found the place and fallen in love with it — bad wiring, broken plumbing, poor insulation and all.

“It has that stuff in the walls that kills you,” he said.

“Asbestos?”
“No, the other stuff.”
“Lead?”
“No, not lead. Uh — I don’t know. It’ll kill you, whatever it is.”

I filled him in on my walk across the bridge and the young couple I’d met, but he was more interested in the cop playing chess with the teenager.

“Kevin, you’re a writer,” he said, “and when faced with observing a police officer having a positive interaction with a young man, you decide to chat up two college kids on a date? If you want to write these chronicles of Providence or whatever, you need to do better at recognizing a good story.”

I thought about that at the end of the night on my way back over the bridge.

It was quieter now, but even at 2am, there were still people on its lower level attempting to hang onto the night, and a new chess game was happening between a different officer and a girl even younger than the teenage boy I’d seen playing earlier in the evening.

“How does the bishop move again?” she was asking her opponent.

The officer demonstrated for her, and the game continued.

I asked them if I could stick around and watch.

“That’s cool,” said the girl, while the officer stared at the board, probably trying to figure out her next move. “You learning too?”

“Yeah,” I said, “I guess I am.”

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