In Providence: Trinity Rep

Last week, Trinity Repertory Company announced that it would not produce in-person theater until late next year. While all of us have watched the hoped-for timelines for live entertainment get pushed further and further back, many theater organizations are still anticipating a safe window in winter or spring to begin performances again. Other theaters around the country have already gone ahead with outdoor productions, but with temperatures cooling, that option won’t be on the table for long. Actors’ Equity Association has given a handful of indoor productions a greenlight, but with serious restrictions and obstacles.

When Trinity announced that they were going to stay dormant for the year, it was a punch to the gut for many of us who look to the state’s most prominent theater for leadership, not only because there wouldn’t be shows to see, but because the news came with a significant number of lay-offs at the company. The theater has its own community of staff and supporters who are now the victims of the ongoing crisis that has hit the arts sector particularly hard.

In terms of leadership, it was also alleviating to see a theater make a choice with safety at the forefront, when there is murmuring not just in the theater community, but in the business community as a whole, that maybe safety should take a backseat while we roll the dice with indoor activities, even in spite of the outbreaks we’re seeing as part of school reopenings. When conversations were first held about how to make theater safe, it seemed as though the focus was on the audience and how to keep them the requisite 6 feet apart. There was virtually no discussion about the artists, probably because while there might be ways to keep an audience somewhat safe, having actors and crew and front-of-house staff gather together again and again is substantially more risky.

At a time when there are no good answers to any of the hardest questions, it was inspiring to see one of Rhode Island’s most esteemed institutions not willing to take that risk.

So what does a year without Trinity look like?

I’ve had just about every relationship with the theater that you can have to a company. The first live theater I ever saw was their annual production of A Christmas Carol when I was in sixth grade. That show has become a yearly tradition that extends far beyond the usual theatergoers. Last May, I took an Uber somewhere and when I told my driver that I was involved with theater, she spent the rest of the ride telling me how she and her children go see A Christmas Carol every year and have I ever been in it and how do those actors learn all their lines?

The first season subscription I ever bought was for the 2001 – 2002 Trinity season. I had a very smart theater teacher who, in lieu of making us buy textbooks, had us purchase a student subscription, reasoning that we’d learn more from seeing theater than reading about it. The first production of that season was Noises Off, where director Amanda Dehnert made the brilliant suggestion to have the audience go backstage to watch the second act rather than spin the set around. That meant that while I had decent seats for Acts One and Three, my Act Two seats were fantastic. The following year, I saw another production that would forever change the way I thought about theater. It was Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, another one with Dehnert at the helm, and it was more touching and more innovative than anything I’ve seen since — anywhere. It was also a testament to what Trinity and other regional theaters like it could do that the behemoths on Broadway so often can’t — consistently take chances, surround you in the story, and support local talent while you do it. It also gives you the chance to check more than a few boxes on your theatrical bucket list. Trinity is the reason I’ve been able to see the majority of Shakespeare’s canon, including all three parts of The Henriad in rep. When I was younger and couldn’t afford to see a tour, let alone make a trip to New York, I could see all the plays that were a hot ticket for the cost of a rush ticket.

My first job out of college was working in the box office there, and it is still one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. If you aspire to be a playwright, I highly recommend working in a box office. Aside from being able to meet a woman who assured me that she was Susan Lucci in disguise (She was not.) and did we have tickets for A Dublin Carol starring William Petersen (We did not. People flew in from Japan to see it. We, as a country, always underestimated CSI.), it was also a place where I found I was treated very well despite being at the bottom of the totem pole. It was also the first job where I didn’t have to lie about doing a play to get time off, because a lot of people there were aspiring artists even if their position in the company wasn’t an artistic one, and everyone was very understanding when I needed a weekend off to do the worst production of Deathtrap ever. That was also Curt Columbus’ first year as artistic director and it began with the best Chekhov production I had ever seen up to that time — his translation of The Cherry Orchard. That record held until Curt directed his translation of Uncle Vanya years later. In his tenure as artistic director, he’s overseen seasons that have included ground-breaking musical interpretations like Ragtime and Paris By Night, and a commitment to producing new and contemporary work alongside fresh perspectives on the classics that offer a balanced year of theater every year. Since the start of the pandemic, Curt’s been hosting an interview series on the Trinity Facebook page every Thursday, and for my money, they’re some of the best digital content being produced locally.

When I started writing reviews for Motif, I was nervous about being a theatermaker who was now going to be serving as a critic for artists I’d been watching for years, some of whom I knew personally. After my first review of a Trinity production came out, the most positive feedback I received was from the people working on that show. They probably didn’t agree with everything I said in the review, but they let me know they were happy to have me be a part of the critical conversation about it. It was generous in the way that I’ve always found so many of the people who work there to be, and it’s that generosity and spirit of community that I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last few days.

The suggestion that theater needs to justify its existence at a time when so many industries are on the verge of extinction is still wildly insulting, but it’s also perplexing. I feel like I, alone, have written dozens of pieces that dealt with, either directly or indirectly, what theater does for both your academic and emotional intellect. How it helps create empathy at a time when we need it more than ever. Or that it’s just fun. Even if “It’s fun” was all we could say about it, wouldn’t that be enough? The Marvel movies don’t have to justify why they exist. They exist because they’re a good time. And Trinity at its best is a damn good time.

It’s not about every show being a knockout — any of us who do theater would have to tell you that we strike out more than we hit a home run. What it is about is that moment when you walk into the theater and take in the lingering smell of sawdust from a set that won’t be there in a few weeks, eavesdrop on the various conversations, bump into friends in the concessions line, hang out in the lobby before and after the show to catch up with someone you haven’t seen in awhile, having dinner before at a local restaurant (ask any restaurant owner how much they value the theaters around them, and you’ll see how the economic justifications for theater existing are more far-reaching than even some politicians are aware of), drinks after the show, and the overall experience of going to the theater. The think pieces you’ve seen popping up all over the place about how all this isolation could be affecting us negatively? Theater is the cure for that. As someone who, more than once, has gone to the theater by myself, watched the show, and left without speaking to anyone, I still felt as though I had participated in some sort of age-old and perpetually grand social invigoration experiment.

We use cultural markers more than we realize as we think about our lives. I associate every break-up and personal victory with whatever show I was doing or seeing at the time. A year that’s already felt lost is only bound to be harder to wrap our head around without those opportunities to commune and celebrate a ritual as old as cave drawings and Greek festivals while we leaf through a program and wave to someone on the other side of the room.

As summer turned to fall this year, the lack of theater in the area seemed more pronounced than ever, but I can only hope that means when we are able to gather again we take in the things we took for granted and find a deeper appreciation for the people who make it happen.




In Providence: When there are nine

Photo credit: Small Frye Photography

If you live in Providence, it may seem as though we’re always finding a reason to mourn. For what’s happening across the country, here in the state, and internally as we all grapple with a pandemic that is six months in with no signs of letting up.

Photo credit: Small Frye Photography

On Friday, we found another reason to mourn, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — a pioneer for women’s rights and someone who found greater fame and admiration as her life went on, becoming thought of as a protector for the left — died. A documentary about her life and a biopic only further cemented her as one of the most famous judges to ever sit on the highest court in the land. Her death felt like a seminal moment in a year that has already had what feels like an inordinate amount of loss.

Photo credit: Small Frye Photography

Within hours of her death, both sides of the political spectrum already were discussing a potential replacement and how to block such a thing from happening until after the election. Even the Justice’s last public statement was regarding what she’d like to see happen after her death. While it’s true that politics rarely honors history, particularly when mourning is called for, the fervor that erupted after Justice Ginsburg’s death seemed especially disrespectful.

Photo credit: Small Frye Photography

That’s why it was heartening to see a moment of reflection for her, even if it is another moment when we stand together with hearts that are hurting and the growing fear of uncertainty seemingly expanding beyond our control.

Photo credit: Small Frye Photography

If you were in Providence on Saturday night, it’s possible you joined the vigil that was held at the Rhode Island Supreme Court. The Womxn Project HQ lit up the building with words “May Her Memory Be a Blessing.”

Photo credit: Small Frye Photography

One of Justice Ginsburg’s most famous quotes was an answer to a question. When asked when there will be enough women on the Supreme Court, she would say–

”When there are nine.”

Photo credit: Small Frye Photography

One woman at the vigil spoke about her first reaction to hearing the news by saying, “It was a punch to the gut. It’s– for many people, it’s our worst nightmare. So many people are already at a breaking point. This feels like — like it’s too much.”

I asked her if it feels hopeless.

“No, it doesn’t feel hopeless, because– She talked about the pendulum swinging, and that it would go too far one way, but that it would come back around to what’s right. You have to hope that those words are true. The pendulum will come back around.”

Photo credit: Small Frye Photography

On Sunday morning, I reached out to a friend — a law student — who had spent the previous evening re-watching RBG.

“It was good to be reminded of what she accomplished in the face of all that adversity. I think we have to be inspired now. I think we put too much on her. This was a woman who was struggling to stay alive, because so much was resting on her shoulders. Even her last words were about trying to hold off losing the Court, and that’s already happened. The Conservatives already have a majority. We can’t put all that on one person. We never should have done that. We have to build something out of this, and we have to build it in her honor. That’s how I feel.”

Photo credit: Small Frye Photography

On Providence’s East Side right before the vigil on Saturday, I was meeting with a 15-year-old about an article I had planned to write about being back in school during the pandemic, but the conversation veered toward Justice Ginsburg, and it stayed there.

“What I think is crazy is that we still — as a society — we still think that you do everything important you’re going to do when you’re young. That if you’re going to be famous, you’re going to be famous when you’re young. She’s someone who was literally making history until her last day. That’s — I think that’s incredible.”

Earlier that day, while listening to NPR, a woman who had written a book on the Supreme Court began listing all the monumental events of Justice Ginsburg’s life and the station had to go to break before she could finish.

“I should mention,” the author said, interrupting the host about to cue up an ad, “those are things she accomplished before she was a Justice. All that — before her most notable accomplishment. Can you believe that?”

Photo credit: Small Frye Photography

Two women at the vigil contacted me today because they didn’t want to give a quote last night. One said that while she had spent most of Friday night crying, by Saturday, she felt galvanized, and by Sunday morning, she felt strong. The other told me that she’s always watched politics from the sidelines, but now she plans on getting involved.

“I don’t see how I can’t. It’s past time. It’s past time for me to start doing the work.”

“This moment is not the time for despair,” Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez said on Instagram, in a live video that went viral almost immediately, “I got bags under my eyes. I know you got bags under your eyes. What we need to do is never give in.”

Photo credit: Small Frye Photography

A friend went walking with me downtown and told me that the news made her think of other women she’s lost — some very dear to her.

“To me, you think of women from that generation. I’m in my 60s. I’ve had opportunities that my grandmother never had. You see progress being made and you wish your grandmother and your mother could be around to see it. You see bad things happen and you’re glad they’re not around. You worry for your daughter and your granddaughter. You also see them going after things and doing things that you never dreamed possible. It’s made me take stock in a way. None of us are going to be around forever, but look what this woman left behind. Look how she made a way for generations after her. I hope we don’t forget that. I know there are important things to talk about when it comes to who is going to replace her, but let’s be honest — Nobody is going to replace her. That’s the whole point.”

I always find the quiet after an event the most striking part. Whether it be a rally or a protest or a vigil. That moment when the last person or group of people lingers and then walks away creates a moment of solemnity that’s usually punctured by something mundane — a car driving by or someone yelling something off in the distance.

Photo credit: Small Frye Photography

An hour after the vigil, I was sitting in a car on North Main Street speaking with a history teacher about how she would approach talking with her students on Monday.

“Well, I was already going to be emotional, because it’s been an emotional time dealing with doing classes online and having some in-person classes, but it’s made me think about everything I teach. How much time we spend on women. How much time we spend on Black history and what we teach about Black history and about women’s history. As someone who is Puerto Rican, I’ve thought for a long time about the parts we leave out and whether we’re doing justice to the right people and their, like you asked about, their legacies. It’s time to start doing those legacies justice.”

It’s difficult to separate the life of a political figure with their politics. To honor the person and not just their body of work. To stop yourself from peering into the vacuum they left behind and theorize about how it might be filled. Some might argue that talking about the future of law, and government, and our democracy, is exactly the way you’d honor Justice Ginsburg.

And by listening to opera.

“Fight for the things that you care about,” Justice Ginsburg once said, “but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

So the question is–

Who’s going to join the fight?




In Providence: The Sheriff

If you know who she is, then you call her The Sheriff.

“That was a cute name they came up with for me. I’d come back this time of year and pull up to a party or something and they’d go ‘Here she is. The Sheriff is here.’”

She was born in Providence in the late ’60s, but she claims she can’t remember the exact year. It doesn’t seem to me that she’s being coy about her age. It just appears that she cares about the things she cares about and whatever she doesn’t care about falls to the wayside without a lot of fuss.

“My father and mother were divorced, and Daddy lived in California, and I would go stay with him every summer on the land he had there. Not a farm, but a patch of land where kids would come and do– There were camps, but they were day camps or camps where kids would come and do Christian retreats, do some company retreats, that kind of thing. I would help Daddy out cleaning the place, there were some cabins there and a mess hall kind of place. You’d meet all kinds of people. I learned to love people when I was young. Even the nutty ones. Especially them. Come September, come fall, I’d be back on the way to Providence. That’s where my mom was at, and I’d come here, go to school here, and turn up a lot of trouble here. I was a good girl when I was with my daddy, because he didn’t stand for nothing, and he paid me an allowance if I kept my nose clean, but when I came home, I was one of the bad girls, and my mother would ask me, ‘Why are you good for your father but not me?’ Because my mother couldn’t discipline me. She was a bad girl, too. A reformed bad girl, but she didn’t want to be the bad cop. That wasn’t her. She let me do my own thing. Too much of my own thing, but she was cool with it. My mom was cool, cool, cool.”

When she got older, she stayed in the habit of heading west when the weather got hot and coming back for Labor Day weekend.

“I did it all backwards! You should go to the hot places in the winter and be here for the Rhode Island summers. People would tell me ‘Don’t you know how nice it is in the summer?’ I didn’t know. I was out in California sweating and going all up and all down and all everywhere. I had my bike. I got it when I was– What was I? I was 24 when I got it. Daddy taught me how to ride it. My mother had a heart attack when she saw me on it coming into town. That was when– She was dating a piece of– You know what he was. He was a piece of that. I came into town on that bike, and when I tell you, I chased him out of town. That’s what I did. That was when The Sheriff really showed up. That was the first time. After that, I don’t know why people act up all summer and then come the end of it, it’s time to pay the piper, but I was happy to be the piper. Everybody knew when they heard that bike, you better get right. Get right with the Lord or you were getting right with The Sheriff.”

When her father passed, she sold off his house and the land on it. Her mother was around for much longer, so when she’d come home, she’d stay with her. Pretty soon, she was staying later into the summer, and coming home a lot sooner.

“You couldn’t leave my mother alone. Her mind went. That was the sad part. She had– My stepfather. The guy she wound up with — thank God for him, because he was good to her. She had all this bad luck with men. Even my daddy wasn’t a good man, and I regret saying that to you, but that’s how it is. He was not good to women, except for me. For me, he was a good man, but not to the women he was with, and not to my mother. But my stepfather was, but he got older too. He needed me, and I would stay longer, but I would get away when I could. When she passed, I left and I almost didn’t come back. That’s the truth I’m telling you. I almost left for good. But you know, I got that feeling. I couldn’t stay away. Got on the bike and came back. I’d ask around to friends, get a job, hole up somewhere, but it was different after Mom was gone. That didn’t mean I didn’t like it here. I always liked it here, but it was a different life for me after that. I was on my own. It’s different being on your own. You stay out later. You get that extra drink when you shouldn’t. You go home with people you shouldn’t. You asked me, I’m telling you all the truth. I don’t tell half of it. I’m going to tell you all of what I did and who I did and what I got. Nothing left to hide.”

She never doubted coming back again — until this year.

“I tell you when all this went down I was in — I’ll you the truth — I was in Maine with a friend of mine. A gentleman friend, who I was having a good time with, and I had no reason. I had no reason to come back to Rhode Island. To Providence. We were up by ourselves, nobody around, like how it was back in California back when I was a kid, but this time it was Maine, and it was beautiful. But it’s in my blood now. I feel like– You want me to tell you? I feel like I need to be here to help in some way. Because you know I still go around and crack some heads when I need to. Just because I’m old now, I can still do what I need to do. I got god-neices and god-nephews and friends and kids of friends and everybody needs somebody looking out for them, so I’m back and I’ll be back until I get the feeling I need to leave again.”

I suggest to her that we might need her here year-round from now on, regardless of when the feeling strikes. She laughs at the suggestion, and nods her head.

“This is where my mother was, and that means, you know, when I’m here I’m with her. That’s why I like being here so much. My father, for some reason, I could think on him no matter where I was, but I never really feel my mother with me as much as when I’m here, so yeah, maybe I will stick around for good this time. You never know. That’s the thing about life — you never know where you’re going. You think you’re in charge of where you’re going, but you’re not. You get in the car or on the bike and you go. You get on the plane, and you go. But something else is taking you where you’re going. You’re just along for the ride. That’s how it is.”

She tells me that after we hang up, she’s going to take a ride down to the beach to grab a lobster roll and from there, it’s anybody’s guess.

“Just go with it. Wherever you’re going, go there.”

If you see a woman riding through Providence on a bike, be sure you wave to The Sheriff. Let her know you’re happy she’s home.




A Healing Remembrance: Granite Theatre presents Readings from Tower Stories

On the 19th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, the Granite Theatre in Westerly will be presenting a one-night only virtual event. “Readings from Tower Stories,” collected by author Damon DiMarco, chronicles the experiences of six different people who escaped the World Trade Center on that tragic day, and what transpired in the weeks that followed.

Motif’s Kevin Broccoli spoke with the director, Chelsea Ordner, about the virtual production.

Kevin Broccoli (Motif): How did you first become involved with this project?

Chelsea Ordner: I joined the Board of the Granite Theatre in June, and we began our online productions just a month later. When discussing what we might consider doing for our September show, I had suggested doing a 9/11 tribute. People tend to “remember” on big anniversaries, and next year will be 20 years. That shocked me, that it was already 20 years ago. I knew I wanted to do something reverent, and 9/11 as a national trauma really resonated with me in these days of COVID, as we undergo another national trauma. It was up to me to provide my theater with a cost-effective show, and pretty quickly. We don’t have the budget for Come From Away, or things like that, so I did some research. A friend of mine, Vinny Lupino, suggested I read Tower Stories by Damon DiMarco, and as soon as I did, I knew that this was what I was looking for. In the weeks and months following the events of September 11, 2001, Mr. DiMarco interviewed people about what they saw and felt on that day, and those oral histories were compiled all together into his book. It took me a while to read it, honestly. I had to keep putting it down to process what these people had gone through. After reading it, I chose six people (three men and three women) from the book, and I edited their stories together into a series of monologues. 

KB: Even after all these months, we’re still learning to navigate the digital performing arts realm. Did that present any issues as you were putting this piece together?

CO: This is my first time directing, and while Zoom has proved a wonderful way to keep us relevant, it did take away some of what I’ll call rehearsal magic. I didn’t get to see my cast all together in the same room, and really for this play, it’s better that way. None of the stories we are sharing on Friday night are by people who know each other. All the same, there’s something to be said about the creative, collaborative spirit that erupts when you get a group of passionate, determined people together. The main issue I get crazy about is the sound — I like to have things just so — and there’s a level of letting go that has to accompany online productions. You just can’t have the same control. Ha! Isn’t that a lesson from this year? 

KB:  I was a high school senior on 9/11, and I remember it being the last time that most of us felt compelled to contribute to a sort of collective kindness. With the country being in the midst of a worldwide crisis and still so divided, do you think looking back on this tragedy might help people remember the moments of compassion?

CO: That is one of my primary goals, yes. The timing of this show is important for me, not only to commemorate the events of that day. I was struck by how the collective loss of 9/11 and COVID-19 have had such a different response from the public, and I’m not sure what to attest that to. Is it because it’s an election year? Is it because of social media? I could see so much of what we are experiencing emotionally on the pages of Tower Stories, and in the words of the people who witnessed two planes fly into the World Trade Center. I’m hoping that seeing the hard truth of how these men and women were affected will make us more likely to acknowledge that we are being affected. I have seen some very ugly things come out of the past year, some things I thought just couldn’t be possible. But! There’s a natural balance to that, and there have been some outstanding moments of human connection and a societal urge to turn back to a simpler life — Reconnect. Community Theatre has a duty to provide a space for their patrons to have difficult conversations, grow and process complex emotions. I want to show everyone that it’s ok to have uncomfortable conversations and talk about the things we don’t want to, because that’s how we begin to heal. And boy, do we need some healing right now. 

KB: How did you assemble the talent for this project? Is it easier to be able to pull from a wider geographic area since in-person rehearsing/performing isn’t a factor?

CO: Yes, I was very lucky in that I got to call on actors I haven’t had a chance to work with in a long time, and mix them in with people I have only just started working with. We have actors in this production from Brooklyn, NY, and Portland, OR, as well as here in Rhode Island. I made the conscious choice to cast everyone under the age of 40. There’s a generational quality to this show that I think is important, and ties into our understanding of history. I’m a historian by profession, so I’ll try to keep this concise. When people stop talking about it, or stop telling stories, historical events just fade into history, and they become inaccessible to us in a way. We can read about them, but we’ll never know what it was like for people, it will always be this misty enigma, just out of reach. That’s why I believe oral histories are so important, and why I was so keen to use this script in particular. These are real people. So back to my original point, there are people who very clearly remember 9/11, and there are people coming up in this world who may not have even been born yet. It’s easy for that younger generation to say, oh that happened to old people, because it was 20 years ago, when really, at the time, those people were young professionals — just like the people I cast in the show. I think it makes it so much more real and accessible to a younger generation. And again, draws the parallel to the essential workers in our current pandemic. 

KB: What’s it like for you working on a production that is this emotionally potent? What about it has resonated most with you?

CO: I was very worried about my cast’s emotional well-being because this is asking a lot of people who might not have that much to give, emotionally, right now. I mean, does anyone? It was imperative to me that everyone was comfortable and had the head space to contribute. This is a tough show, and I made it that way on purpose. Memory is an odd thing, and I think re-exposing ourselves to exactly what happened might give us some perspective. There are graphic descriptions of what people saw, and I do not want to ever undermine the catastrophic loss of life that day. I’m hoping that the audience feels something — and whether it’s good or bad — they sit with it a while. There are a few lines in the show that give me whole body chills every time I hear them, but my favorite is one that belongs to Nicole: “I was astonished to see what came out of me, and what came out of other people. Especially when we got to the Pit.” I find it so heartbreaking and inspirational at the same time. This past year has been so frustrating and confusing. I can’t understand where our humanity went, so in a way, this show was also a bit therapeutic for me. 

KB: Do you feel a heavier sense of responsibility helping create the portrayals of people connected to a real event?

CO: Absolutely, but I find that it is a great motivator. I want to be respectful, and give the proper gravity to these events, while still making it something people want to watch. I’m honored that Damon DiMarco, the author of Tower Stories, was so encouraging and such a pleasure to work with. He and I have the same goal in mind — sharing these experiences with a wide audience so that people truly never forget what happened on September 11, 2001. Tower Stories also shows that everyone copes differently, and they are all valid. Some people are livid, some people are detached, some people are full of sorrow or regret. There is no one right way to handle something like this, so hopefully that resonates with the audience. 

KB:  Next year will be the 20th anniversary of 9/11; is this a project you’d be interested in bringing back?

CO: Originally, I had hoped to do something for the 20th anniversary. I’ve had a lot of people reaching out to me, wanting to talk about their 9/11 experiences, which really blew me away. I didn’t expect that from people so long after the fact. Now I’m hoping that next year I can do something similar, but use all local people’s stories. I know a number of firefighters from Rhode Island and Connecticut volunteered and went down to help with the relief efforts — others had family members or close friends who worked in the World Trade Center. And this is exactly why I wanted to do this — to start the conversation, and it’s already happening. 

Readings from Tower Stories, collected by author Damon DiMarco, directed by Chelsea Ordner, will be presented or one night only on Friday, September 11 @ 7pm.

VIEWER DISCRETION ADVISED: Some of the content used to portray witness accounts is violent and graphic and is not suitable for children. Use the following link to register and reserve your spot at Eventbrite: 

A portion of proceeds will go to the FealGood Foundation (FGF), named for first responder John Feal. FGF provides assistance to first responders as well as education regarding the medical plights of 9/11 first responders. For more information, go to fealgoodfoundation.com




A Local Focus: A Conversation with Steve Ahlquist of UpRiseRI

Steve Ahlquist is the founder of UpRiseRI.com. He’s a reporter and photographer who has become a force for shining a light on stories other local media in Rhode Island seem to be unable to cover with the kind of nuance these complex issues sometimes demand. I became aware of Steve after my theater seized onto a story out of Woonsocket that only he was covering, and since then, he’s been a go-to source for no-holds-barred, on-the-ground reporting. He reminds me of the kind of journalists we used to be accustomed to — those who went looking for the news instead of letting the news come to them. He is frequently a champion for the underrepresented in the state, and I was thrilled when he agreed to speak with me about his work.

Kevin Broccoli:  Steve, you’re someone who I first encountered as the result of your reporting on the Woonsocket Town Council and its antics, but I know you were around well before that. Still, it feels like you’ve been someone people are looking to more and more for coverage of issues that other media aren’t covering. Can you talk a little about your background and career?

Steve Ahlquist: I started writing for RIFuture about eight years ago or so. Smaller stuff, opinion pieces and stuff. I became interested in the ongoing hotel worker unionization efforts in Providence and their push for a $15 minimum wage. Having been a minimum wage (or at infrequent times slightly better) worker for most of my life, I was interested in their efforts. I started attending their picket lines and listening to their stories. The majority of people working in these hotels were low-income women of color, who were sacrificing important parts of their lives in an effort to get living wage for the essential work they were doing.

They started an effort to get the City of Providence to establish a municipal minimum wage for hotel workers. They organized and worked to gather signatures to place the idea on the ballot. They ballot question seemed popular and likely to pass, but we’ll never know if it would have passed because the General Assembly, led by Speaker Mattiello, passed a budget that included a prohibition against municipal level minimum wage increases.

These women would carpool to events, bring their children along with them or secure childcare, or miss out on additional hours at work or at a second job to advocate for themselves, and to see their work, their hopes and their dreams crushed by the speaker and other members of the General Assembly in such a cavalier and disdainful fashion was absolutely disgusting to me. I knew then, early on in Mattiello’s career as Speaker of the House, that he was a man who lacked ordinary compassion.

Over time I parted ways with RIFuture and now I have UpriseRI, which I run with the help of Greg Brailsford and now Will James, who has really upped our game.

KB:  The last time I saw you, I asked how you possibly manage to cover as much as you do and we spoke a little bit about your process for deciding which meetings and events you need to attend.

SA: This is the terrible thing about doing this kind of job: There are so many important issues to cover, and so little time and resources at my disposal to cover them all. My process for covering things is pretty haphazard. Sometimes my day is wide open and I can easily cover a press conference here and a protest there. After that, I try to prioritize issues and advocacy groups that I have covered before and that are important to my readers.

I started by covering the efforts of the hotel workers because I wasn’t seeing their story, their point of view, being accurately portrayed in the traditional media. I searched for those groups who have a strong message but the media routinely dismissed, ignored or misrepresented. Too often a community group like DARE, PrYSM, the Providence Student Union or many others would hold an event, only to have their views overly simplified. I wanted to show up for these communities and as well as I could, represent their ideas — not my interpretation of what they were saying, but their words, as they said them.

KB: You’re someone who I think reports fairly while still not trying to create equivalency in terms of playing the “All sides” game. How much thought do you give to bias and whether that’s become more difficult now times have become so polarized?

SA: There is a tendency to defer to power wand so-called “experts” when covering difficult stories. In today’s climate of Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police, for instance, when a group of people say something like, “Black bodies are over-policed and criminalized” many reporters check with the police to see if that is true. Or they go to the governor.

When hotel workers say that the hotel they work at makes millions and pays them poverty wages, the experts, economists and business interests say that these jobs, these women and their families are not worth more money. We act like affected communities and people with political power and money are on a level playing field. They are not. If the governor wants to say something, she calls a press conference and all the news outlets show up. When a community group wants to say something, it’s me and one TV station — maybe.

KB: You’ve been in a few situations I would describe as tense if not perilous. Have you ever been afraid for yourself or are you more concerned with some of the people you cover, especially protesters?

SA: I think about the danger to myself after it’s over. When going into a tense situation, I worry more about the people on the ground. For instance, when I was covering the protest outside the Wyatt where a prison guard drove his truck into a group of sitting, peaceful protesters, I really thought that I would see someone under the tire of that truck, badly hurt or killed. I really don’t want to video someone dying or being hurt.

I’ve been to several events and protests where people have been arrested. Those can be tense, especially when the protesters don’t plan on being arrested. I’ve been to events where protesters plan to be arrested, and smart cops understand their role in the events, and they arrest the people gently, recognizing that this is how free speech, free assembly and civil disobedience work.

White supremacist and Trump rallies are scary because there’s a lot of emotion on both sides, and the situation is so volatile. It seems anything can happen. And again, I really don’t want people getting hurt.

KB: How do you like to use imagery to cover stories?  It seems to be the driving force behind your reporting, and some of the images you capture are really stunning.

SA: I have a still camera and a video camera with me at all the rallies and events I cover. I also have my cell phone for back up, live streaming and social media. The idea is to be patient, and to take pictures of people that reflect their inner selves. I like the pictures that say something, when possible, and the way to get those pictures is to take a lot of them, and then throw most of them away. The video is something I use because sometimes people say things, and later deny saying them. So I take the video and I use the video to show that the politician speaking said what he said. It’s harder for a politician to walk back their statements when they say them on video.

I have large batteries for my cameras so I can run video for hours, sometimes just to get two minutes of video that seem dramatic and amazing.

KB: With Rhode Island such a small state, I would imagine that as you cover stories that involve some of the same people over and over again, you would naturally build up relationships with some of those people. Is that something you want to do as it might help, or do you try to avoid it to maintain neutrality?

SA: I think journalistic neutrality is bogus. Everyone has a point of view, a place they come from, and a reason for reporting on an event the way they do. Journalism isn’t about simply reporting what happened. It can’t be. What a journalist chooses to cover, what lines they decide to quote from a 10-minute speech, what video they clip to show on TV that night, these are choices and none of these choices are value-neutral.

Also, there is a long history of journalism dedicated to social improvement. Think Ida B. Wells. She wasn’t neutral on the subject of lynchings. She didn’t cover a lynching and then seek out a statement from the KKK. She was addressing racist crimes being committed against innocent people, and exposing it. The same is true for many great reporters.

I think the concept of journalistic neutrality has more to do with selling newspaper advertisements than with fairly covering a story. One of the reasons it took so long to uncover the abuse of children in the Catholic Church is because the news did not want to offend their Catholic readers and lose subscriptions. In my opinion, it wasn’t about balance, it was about protecting the bottom line.

As for the relationships I have with various protesters and activists, I value them. I’ve worked to earn their trust. I work to fairly portray their points of view and many have expressed appreciation for that. When you watch people struggle mightily against an injustice, whether it’s people in Providence fighting for racial justice or people in Burrillville fighting to prevent the building of an unneeded power plant, you can’t help but start to fall in love with them.

KB:  Are there any stories right now that you think aren’t getting the kind of coverage they should be and if so, what are they?

SA: It’s really hard right now because of COVID. The upcoming 2021 budget will be disastrous for Rhode Islanders if our General Assembly is allowed to make the kind of draconian cuts they want to. Everyone assumes that Federal aid will save us, but what if it doesn’t? The people in charge of Congress and our General Assembly believe in austerity, in small government, and low taxes for the rich. Even as they say things like, “Supply-side economics doesn’t work,” they pursue supply-side economic policies. They lack basic human compassion, they lack any kind of economic understanding, and they are ready to hurt the poor.

KB:  I feel like more and more what happens on the national level affects what happens locally faster and with more of an impact. Do you see that happening as well?

SA: Trumpism has impacts on the local level, no doubt. Environmental policies across the country hurt us here in Rhode Island. Immigration polices affect us in the form of broken families and the situation at the Wyatt. Trump’s racism results in white nationalist rallies on the State House lawn. Shootings by police in other states can result in rallies in Rhode Island and the mobilization of the National Guard on the streets of Providence, defending the Cheesecake Factory with automatic weapons.

So yeah, I see it. But I also know that my ability to impact national events is small. So I stay hyper-focused locally. I can’t stop Trump per se, but I can certainly work to expose the actions of the governor, speaker and senate president when they impose Trump-like policies here.

Think of what’s happening right now to Kennedy Plaza. Think about the fact that we can’t pass a bill that guarantees fair and equal pay for women, or a bill to cover doula services with Medicaid, or an eviction moratorium, or a price on carbon, or a ban on assault weapons, or an effort to put nurses and mental health advocates into schools instead of armed police, or any number of other good things. These are national issues with local solutions, or at least local attempts at solutions.

KB: We spoke about my frustration with the lack of follow-through some news outlets have when it comes to bigger stories, particularly the rioting that happened in downtown Providence where stores were vandalized. It felt like we never got a complete picture of what happened there. Can you talk at all about your experience covering that story and how possible do you think it is with all that’s happening to keep going back to older stories to update readers on them?

SA: I heard about the so-called riots after the fact. I slept through them. I know a lot of the activists involved in Rhode Island and I’m not sure anyone I know was involved in that action. That said, look at what happened in the aftermath. For years, these actions have been happened in the aftermath of police shootings of Black and brown people. For years we’ve been talking about the school-to-prison pipeline, racial profiling by the police, the over policing of BIPOC communities, the criminalization of ordinary actions by non-white people. And the first reaction to those overnight “riots?” More police. National Guard, Humvees, automatic weapons, helicopters buzzing over Providence. Why is the solution to police violence more police?

KB: What’s your impression of how social media, particularly using social media to amplify reporting, has affected that reporting? Do you find it to be a useful tool or do the cons sometimes outweigh the pros?

SA: Social media allows a small news organization like mine to find an audience. Yes, it has its cons. Trolls abound and I block people every day. Ugly, racist shit is said on Facebook and Twitter every minute of every day. But there is also beauty and wisdom being shared. Yes, Facebook was used as a weapon to harm our elections, and it will be again. But people also get their local races noticed there, and they make their pitches to voters who might not otherwise have heard of them.

So it’s a mixed bag, I think. I respect what ecoRI is doing. They’re experimenting with getting off Facebook. I think that’s brave, because Facebook brings a lot of traffic to small news sites like ours. Will the day come when I can no longer be part of Facebook, and I have to write that evil platform off for good? Yeah, maybe. So check back in six months and we’ll revisit this.

KB: How do you separate yourself from your reporting enough to not get too mentally depleted?

SA: I have a great family. I also read comics, watch movies, go for walks. I am mentally depleted sometimes, but I believe that optimism is a choice. Maybe it’s an illusory choice, but it allows me to keep going, get the work done, so it’s working, for now.

KB: As someone who covers stories all over the state, how vast do you feel the difference is between the stories we see coming out of Providence and the rest of Rhode Island? Sometimes it feels as though we’re a microcosm of the county-at-large.

SA: We are. Rhode Island is more purple than blue. We have a dense urban core of liberal-ish Democrats surrounded by deeply red areas. That said, it doesn’t have to be that way. Burrillville used to be represented by Democrats. That changed in part as a response to Governor Raimondo’s insistence on championing an unwanted power plant. She decided to sacrifice Burrillville politically as a favor to a rich, connected out-of-state power plant developer. Our state Democratic Party doesn’t champion ideals. They champion money and power.

KB:  What issues do you see becoming more heightened as we approach the election in November? Do you think the pandemic will continue dominating the news the way it has been or will electoral politics ever taken over the way it would during a normal year?

SA: The pandemic isn’t the only story. There’s the pandemic, the economy, Black lives, and a looming environmental disaster that threatens everyone on Earth. Right now, we’re acting like we have the pandemic under control, because the windows are open and we can eat at restaurants outside. That may all change in the winter months.

Additionally, the people who are out to destroy the environment are the ones least affected by the economic downturn. Rich white people haven’t had the same hits to their economic well-being the rest of us have. And they’re all continuing, business as usual, to make as much money as possible while the world collapses around them.

KB: Where do you see valuable reporting happening either on a local or national level?  I’d love to know where you get your news from.

SA: I like Julia Rock’s A Little Rhody. I like Bill Bartholomew’s reporting. I like The Public’s Radio, I still pay attention to local and political reporting from the ProJo and the Boston Globe. I like Channel 12’s investigative pieces, and have a lot of respect for Steve Klamkin at WPRO. ecoRI is great as well. I can’t forget the reporting Motif does, they’ve really stepped up their game. I also like many of the reporters I see doing the job out there on a daily basis.

KB: How can we continue to support your reporting?

SA: Every story I do have a link for people to send us money. We are entirely supported by readers who like what we do.

You can find and support Steve’s work at Uprise RI – Rhode Island’s #1 Source for Political and Government News




In Providence: A Year in Providence

A year ago this week, I stepped onto the Pedestrian Bridge in Providence.

I was going to write a column about Providence. It was going to be a fun column. Lots of fun, I thought. So much fun.

Like a modern Truman Capote, I was going to galavant around the city I love so much, writing about private dinner parties and art galleries and fancy things with clever language and a dash of cynicism to keep things interesting.

If I was lucky, maybe somebody would get murdered, and I could pivot from Capote to Dominick Dunne, sitting at a courthouse, reporting on all the details, getting a book deal, a podcast and becoming one of those guys who wears scarves even when it’s not warm outside.

That was the plan.

Plans change.

But the thing about plans changing is that you always think they’ll change after you’re ready for them to change.

After my first piece for this column, it became abundantly clear that I was not going to be galavanting anywhere. If you’ve spent your life not getting invited to private dinner parties on the East Side, the requests for your presence don’t just magically start showing up because you’re now interested in writing about them for a local magazine.

Truthfully, it’s a little ironic that someone like me, who has never met an event he wanted to spend more than 20 minutes at, ever thought he could write a Man About Town column. The kind of spirit you’d have to have to pull that off would require the ability to strike up conversations with strangers, schmooze your way behind closed doors, and have an insatiable curiosity when it comes to the rich and influential.

Whoever that describes, it certainly isn’t me.

But by then, I already had the column.

So what to do?

One night, I was hanging outside a pretty trendy restaurant in Providence panicking because I’d just eaten dinner by myself hoping I could eavesdrop on some fascinating conversations and then put together a sort of literary “This American Life” knock-off made up of bon mots from all the diners around me.

Want to hear a secret?

If you go anywhere looking for something to write about, you will not find it. The thing you’re looking to write about has to come to you.

Unless you’re a journalist. Lucky bastards.

But I was not going to write anything resembling journalism. I wanted to write something that made Providence look the way Armistead Maupin made San Francisco look. The way Robert Altman made Nashville look. The way John Hughes made Chicago look.

Charming, quirky, sexy and a little bit magical.

I was standing outside the trendy restaurant with a notepad full of useless transcriptions that said things like “Man and Woman (Wife?) Are Talking About a Wedding They Don’t Want to Go To” and “Birthday Dinner. Nobody Likes Amanda. No Idea Who Amanda Is.”

I’m only now realizing that maybe I’m just not good at eavesdropping.

As I stood on the sidewalk wondering how I was going to tell my editor that she should probably get someone else for this job that I convinced her I could do so well, a friend walked by who I hadn’t seen in months and saw that I was distressed. I told him about the column I was writing, and he said “You have to talk to this woman. She lives on the West Side. Tiny little apartment. Takes everybody in. Older woman. Never goes anywhere.”

I assumed he had completely tuned me out when I was describing the column I wanted to write.

Sexy. Sleek. Fashionable.

Older woman who never leaves her apartment?

No thanks.

But I had nothing else to write about, so I went and spoke with her.

That article became “The Queen of Providence.” I thought it was fine. Nice. Sweet. A lovely piece — I guess.

Then I got an email from another friend who I trust with my life.

All the email said was this–

“This is the article you should have written last week.”

So I never went back.

Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to write about some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met in my life. I’ve prayed with pizza delivery boys, gone to seances, been held by a professional cuddler, and cried while I typed up the story of a man who had removed himself from the world only to be welcomed back into it by friends he thought he’d lost.

When this year started, we were still in the throes of a divided political landscape, but a pandemic was not on the horizon. The seismic sociological shifts had not yet shaken us up even further. I never thought when I started what I thought would be a column about venturing outside that there would be weeks when all my interviews would have to be conducted digitally, because it wasn’t safe for me to leave my house.

I didn’t know if I could still make Providence sound like the city I grew up loving and talking up because I didn’t know if that city was still going to exist day after day as restaurants closed, theaters went dark, and even seeing a movie was off the table.

What is a city when its windows are all dark? 

What is a city when instead of being able to welcome you to experience it, it has to ask you to shelter in place? 

To not go adventuring.

To not meet any new people.

To not allow for any magical occurrences, because magical is another word for random, and a random event is now much more likely to be dangerous than enchanting.

What’s a city then?

It turns out, luckily for me, the city is — and always has been — its people.

I’m not going to wax poetic about the beauty of mankind. Who the hell wants to read that? But I will say is that, yes, we have some truly remarkable people here. You’ve read the column (I hope) and you know that already.

What I wasn’t expecting was that one year in, I’m now a lot more curious about them than I used to be. I was never the guy who wondered about the people living in a house I walked by or why that woman was weeping into her phone outside a store on Thayer Street or what that argument between two men was in the parking garage of the mall.

I saw people and I moved on. 

Not much of a writer, right? 

But when you’re used to writing fiction, you start to prefer the people you can create from the ground up rather than the ones who are already fully formed and have no investment in giving you the story you’re looking for rather than the story they’re already living.

But Reader, I have been converted.

Now I want to knock on every door like a canvasser asking what I’m missing. Who haven’t I met yet? What story has no one told me yet?

Once I started this column, people started sending me contacts. Suggestions. People I needed to talk to. Anecdotes that might have a twist or two in them that hadn’t been discovered yet. Some turned out to be dead ends, but most of them were better than they let on.

Was it harder to write this once in-person meetings became a no-go?

Yes.

But oh how I can’t wait to never again be the guy who leaves the party after half an hour because he mistakenly thinks there’s nobody there worth talking to.

The idea that the characters on a Netflix show are worth more of my time than any single living, breathing human being right in front of me is so infuriating, I can’t believe I let it sit in my head for years on end.

I hope when this is done, we all become a little more interested in the people we don’t know yet while simultaneously understanding that we don’t know anyone as well as we think we do — and I don’t mean that in the serial killer kind of way.

Every person I’ve written about has told me that when they shared the article with the people they love, the response was always, “I never knew that about you.” Their spouses, their kids, their best friends all learned something they hadn’t known until they read it in a magazine.

Every day in this country, we’re losing more than 1,000 lives. How many stories are we never being told? How many of those people were never lucky enough to have 800 to 1,000 words dedicated to them? How many people only bothered to know them as much as they needed to while expending hours of their lives on their phones memorizing the false personas of influencers and celebrities?

If you stand on the Pedestrian Bridge at night, you can see a view of the city that, a few years ago, didn’t even exist.

A way to look at buildings and bridges and people that wasn’t available to us until now. It’s difficult to stand there for any length of time and not feel a sense of being at the center of a place that has always been known for its small size, but carries with it the vast spirit of the triumphs and careers and love affairs of everyone who has passed through it.

And everyone who is still here.

It’s been one hell of a year.

(And I mean that in every way imaginable.)

I can’t wait to tell you more stories about who lives here–

In Providence.




In Providence: The West Side Diner

If you stopped by the West Side Diner last year for an early morning breakfast, you might have seen her talking to her son about skipping school.

“He did it once, and I told him once was going to be the only time. I nip things in the bud when I see them. We don’t let mistakes happen twice in my family. I did what my mother used to do with me. When we needed to have a talk about getting myself in order, she would take me out to breakfast and we’d talk it over, because she wanted me to tell her what was going on with me, and not be scared to do it. My son was good all his life and I never had to take him out to breakfast, but he skipped school, and I told myself there’s a first time for everything.”

They sat in one of the booths, and she told him to order whatever he wanted. She was going to be dropping him off at school right after breakfast, but first, she wanted to know why he’d missed school the previous day.

“He told me he’d gotten made fun of for something he was wearing. There’s this shirt he likes and it’s all torn up, has holes in it and everything, but he doesn’t care. My son never cared about things like that. He liked the shirt and he wanted to wear it. I could grab it off him once a week to wash it, but that’s if I was lucky. I’m not putting up a fight about what my kid wears to school. I told him to go ahead and wear it.”

At school, a girl remarked on how often he wore the shirt. She asked if it was the only one he owned. Another student chimed in laughing, that he was poor and so of course he only owned the one shirt.

“My son has a lot of shirts he can wear, but he liked that shirt, so the comment shouldn’t have bothered him. I don’t like him getting teased, but if a girl telling you to put on a new shirt gets you to put on a new shirt, I’m good with that. What I don’t appreciate is him being so upset at being called ‘poor’ that he doesn’t want to go to school the next day and doesn’t want to tell his mother about it, because he’s ashamed.”

Her son ordered pancakes and toast for breakfast. She had coffee and an omelet. Normally her son has a good appetite, but that day, he was picking at his food. She asked him if he thought they were poor?

“He said, ‘Yes’ and I told him, ‘You’re right. We are poor.’ What’s wrong with that? I work hard. His father works hard. But you can work hard and you can be poor. That’s just life. I’m not going to be ashamed of that. There’s people poorer than us, and they don’t have to be ashamed either. You don’t have to be ashamed because you don’t have a lot of money. I didn’t have any money when I was growing up. That’s why going out for breakfast was a treat, because we didn’t have money to be doing that all the time, but my mother would do it, and I didn’t take it for granted. But my mother never let me stick my head down and be ashamed.”

She told her son that some of the best people on earth die without a penny to their name and some of the worst die with more money than any of us could ever imagine.

“I told him I want you to work hard and I hope you do better than me and you do have what you want and you can take care of yourself, but that’s not got nothing to do with who you are, and whether you’re good or bad.”

As she was talking, she noticed him getting emotional and she moved to his side of the booth so she could put her arm around him.

“He didn’t like that, because he was at that age. You don’t want your mom hugging you and all that, but oh well.”

In the spring, when all his classes moved online, she found herself a little worried at the state of his room and her house. It’s possible that they weren’t living in as nice of a place as some of his classmates.

“But I had to remind myself what I told him. It doesn’t matter and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I told him I expected him to do everything he was told to do and that I didn’t want to see any change in his attendance or grades or anything like that. I told him to keep his head up, but it was tough. I won’t say it wasn’t tough.”

This month, he starts his final year of high school. His grades have been good, and one of his teachers sent her an email praising his participation in their class.

“I was happy to see that. None of this has been easy, but I got my blinders on. I’m just thinking about him and what I need to do to get him where he needs to be. I’ve been out of work, but hopefully, I’ll be back in a few weeks. That’s what I’ve been hearing. When that happens, I told him, we’re going to celebrate a little, because we deserve it.”

I tell her maybe she can break tradition and take him out for breakfast without a serious talk or issue to discuss.

“Yeah, I like that idea. Why not? Gotta change with the times. Things are going to keep changing anyway. September’s going to be like a brand new year.”

Here’s hoping.




In Providence: Greenline Apothecary

If you were with me on my birthday a year ago, you’d know that I spent an hour of it at Greenline Apothecary in Providence.

Of course, you wouldn’t know this, because I was there alone. It was my first time there, and I wanted the experience of sitting in a vintage setting, drinking a milkshake, and feeling that strange mixture of attention and ennui that comes with getting a year older.

My phone was in my pocket, and while I enjoyed my milkshake, I would feel it buzz. Well wishes. Congratulations. Miss you. Love you. Hope you have a great day.

As I sat at the counter, the couple next to me talked about what they’d do once summer was over. I’ll apologize now for telling you what I could gather from their story, and I’d apologize to them too, but I never got their names.

This was before I was writing about people in Providence — those who stay for a while and those who are only passing through.

As best I can tell, this couple was the latter. The man was in his late-40s to early-50s, and the woman looked to be in her early 40s, and she was wearing multiple rings on multiple fingers. Her purse was the kind that looks like it cost a fortune, but I’m never good at pricing anything, so I could be wrong. The man had on a white button-down and brown pants, but his jacket was the kind fathers used to wear on sitcoms if they were playing therapists.

It’s been a while since I’ve thought of them, so forgive me if I get anything wrong, but then again, I guess you wouldn’t know what I’d gotten wrong, now would you?

Have you ever seen someone at a crossroads?

It’s a term people use a lot. Not as much as they used to, because none of us are really at a crossroads now, and at the same time, all of us are. A whole bunch of people standing in the middle of everything wondering which way to go or whether staying put is the right thing to do.

The thing about being at a crossroads, as an observer looking at someone in the position, is that you know it immediately, even if you don’t know you know it.

These two were at a crossroads.

Outside, the day was hanging on the way it does in summer, when you almost wish it would let go, because of how soft the light is as it disappears. So fragile it makes you nervous.

The man had his hand over the woman’s hand, and he was moving her various rings around in circles. It felt like such a tender thing to do, and I felt a little bad watching them, but I heard her voice catch when she talked about “going home.”

“It won’t be so bad,” he said to her, “Two more years there, and that’s it. We’re done. Then we can come back here. We can go wherever we want. We never have to be anywhere.”

She was shaking her head the way you do when you think you might cry, but you’re also upset at the fact that you’re not already crying.

“I’ll be back in a month,” he went on. “You can come out the month after that. In January, we’ll get you moved out there, and then it’ll be — what? Nothing. A few more months. That’s it. It’ll go by so fast.”

Greenline Apothecary is a lovely place, but it didn’t occur to me until that moment that these two were out of place. Not just there specifically, but in Providence. In Rhode Island. In this time and at that time of day. In this season.

They were New Yorkers out of a wonderful, 1980s romantic drama, sitting at a bar, being filmed by someone who would frame them perfectly. Sidney Lumet maybe, or Neil Jordan. There was something tense about the whole thing, but the tension was an external factor, not something between the two of them.

Between them there was only that fragility that was coming in from the outside. The night reluctant to arrive. The warmth that would rather be heat. The summer that felt too fast, too wonderful, too ordinary.

Have you ever heard someone promise another person that it isn’t over, and as soon as you hear it, you know it’s over? And you know it’s over in spite of them saying it, and also because of it. Because they put it to words. They said it out loud. They had to deny it or their heart would break, and the denial becomes the creation.

“It’s not over,” he said, “It’s not over.”

I listened to him say it a few more times, and then the woman looked over at me, and I met her gaze. It seemed dishonest not to. It seemed like a more grievous sin to pretend I hadn’t been listening.

She did something unexpected. She smiled at me. Just a short smile. Brief. The man didn’t notice. He was still looking down at those rings. Turning them around. Like he was trying to solve an ancient puzzle. Match things up and something will open — a door — and you’ll move onto the next thing — whatever that is.

I left a minute later, and on my way out, I sent the woman a short smile of my own. I felt compelled to say something to her, to the both of them, but there was nothing a stranger could say. Or anyone, for that matter.

A year demands another year. A summer demands a fall. A lie demands the truth.

You can exist for a while in another time if you like, but eventually, the sun goes down, and you’re reminded that it’ll be another night.

Whether you want it to be, or not.




In Providence: An American Girl

“I just can’t see myself leaving like this.”

She was supposed to have left weeks ago. Months, actually. June 8 was her last scheduled day in Providence.

“We’re at June 8. Okay. June 8. It’s here. And I can’t go. I’m like–What? What is happening? Why can’t I go? I love it here. I have to tell you. I love it here. And, uhhhh– I just had this idea of how I would go when I left? And I haven’t had that. I wanted a big send-off, and I haven’t had that. Where I could hug everybody and hold their hands and thank them for– It’s been 14 years. You can’t have me pack my bags and take off when there’s still so much– I feel like I don’t want to leave like this. I don’t want to go.”

Somewhere in California, there is a job waiting for her — possibly. She’s not sure. She’s called the company that offered her the job back at the beginning of March, when you could make plans and execute them without a lot of consternation. The person who hired her told her that should she come to California, the job will maybe, probably, possibly be there by the time she arrives. She was understandably concerned about that.

“I said ‘F___ that!’ You want me to go to– And nothing against California. I grew up in California. My mom– My mom and I used to drive up and down the coast and she’d clean. She’d get jobs cleaning houses, and I’d tag along, and the whole time, she was saving up money, and when she had enough, she moved here to Providence, and then she started cleaning houses here until she was done with school, and then she became a nurse. But I missed California. I can’t even tell you. I was such a brat, I was like, ‘I want to go back! You took me away from paradise!’ My mom would tell me, ‘You can move back when you’re older.’ Man, I started coming up with ways to do that, and I got this job, and I’m ready to go.”

And then…

“Here’s me on the phone asking the company, can we push it back. It was going to be June 8 when I was going to leave, but can we push it back, because, uhhhh, I don’t want to be traveling right now. I don’t want to be starting a new life when– How can you start something now? How can you do that? I know this isn’t going to disappear like–” She snaps her fingers. “Like that, but I thought if I had a little more time, it would feel differently, and uhhhh, here we are, and it doesn’t feel differently. I don’t want to go.”

She started to wonder if it was apprehension about starting a new job and a new life back in her old home, or if her new home was starting to look … like paradise.

“I would go driving. I know you talked about going driving. Well, I would go driving. I would drive all around. I would drive around the East Side and then down Hope, by the library, which is my favorite street to drive down, because that’s where my Mom and I lived when we first moved there. We had the nicest landlady and she treated me like I was her grandkid. She was so kind to me, that lady, and I have all these good memories of that house. My mom lives in Cranston now, but I drive around Providence — from my apartment near the Armory to all over. Have you ever driven around Providence late at night when nobody’s on the streets? It’s a beautiful f___ing drive. No matter how worked up I am, it calms me down. We talked about that.”

We did, because a few weeks ago, I also needed a ride around Providence to calm down. There is some kind of magic about the city when you get just the right route. If you go from the South Side, to the West End, through downtown, up to the East Side, then down North Main Street until you hit the Pawtucket line where you can hop back on the highway — all the while listening to whatever song makes you feel like rolling the windows down and taking in as much of summer as you’ve been given. For me, it’s my junior prom song: “With or Without You” by U2.

“Mine is ‘American Girl.’ That’s my theme song. Doing that drive from California to here — and maybe one more time back. I don’t know. Uhhh, I don’t know yet.”

The last deadline is the Friday after Labor Day. She says if she doesn’t leave then, she might not leave at all, and when I ask her how she would feel about that, she tells me–

“Look, if it doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t feel right. Someone said to me that–They wanted to know, uhhh, would I be embarrassed? Because I said I was leaving and– F___ no! Who cares? You gotta be able to change your mind. You gotta– People respect somebody who takes a plan and throws it in the s____er. I know I do. F___ your plans. You need to know when it’s time to go and you need to know when to stay the f___ put, man.”

I tell her I’ll check back in with her again in September to see if she’s still a resident of Providence.

Reader, there’s no point in lying to you.

I hope she stays.




In Providence: Tommy’s Pizza

If you passed by a house near Charles Street at around eleven o’clock at night on Saturday, you would have seen a light on.

“We hadn’t seen each other in 10 or 15 years. It’s been that long.”

The two of them were sitting at a small table next to the window eating pizza from Tommy’s. She noticed that his hair had gone mostly gray, and he noticed that she still laughed the same way — with a slight choke that turns into a gleeful howl when you really get her going.

“I laughed like that when I opened the door and that’s what he was standing there with, because we used to get that pizza every Saturday night.”

As a pizza lover, I would have a hard time singling out one pizza place that I would call the best, but as a sentimental guy who grew up eating Tommy’s, it’s always going to be my favorite. That’s why I was excited to hear from a man who wanted to reunite with his ex-girlfriend over cheese and pepperoni.

“We had a good thing going. Back then, I worked Saturday’s, and I’d come home with a pizza. We’d sit and eat and listen to music and we’d just talk. We could talk forever. That’s what I loved about her. We never got bored with each other.”

I ask what split them up.

“You know, one day I got it into my head that we needed to be married, and I got a ring, and I took her out somewhere nice, and I took the ring out, and right away, I knew I was doing the wrong thing. It wasn’t what she wanted. She didn’t want to be married. You know, I– I don’t know if I wanted to be married either. It just seemed like something we had to do, because we’d been together for a long time at that point. She told me to put the ring away. We went home, and I– I moved out a week later. It was that fast.”

When you listen to him, you can tell he’s not sure why things fell down that way. A lot of couples could survive a failed proposal, but they couldn’t, and neither one knows why. I ask her about it, and she says–

“It’s not that I didn’t want to be with him. I loved him like you wouldn’t believe. But I could see he was hurt by me saying ‘No.’ I thought time was up for us. I didn’t fight it. We didn’t fight it.”

Funnily enough, she got married a year later to a guy she didn’t like very much. They got divorced. He dated other women, but he never stayed with any of them for longer than a few months. A decade passed. Then maybe a few years after that. Neither one of them seems all that concerned with time. They just know that a few months ago, he reached out to her on social media to see if she’d be up for having dinner.

“I told him, you want to come over, come over. I’m not seeing anyone now and neither is he. But that doesn’t mean I was thinking about starting something. I’m not romantic like that. That’s why I didn’t like going to that restaurant and getting a ring shoved in my face. I don’t like that kind of thing and he knows that.”

She does like Tommy’s though.

“I hadn’t had it! It had been years since I had that pizza. I saw him standing there, and he’s still so cute. He was always cute, but I thought with all this time– But he’s still cute. He still got me going when he was sitting there looking at me.”

If you walked by a house on Saturday night, you’d hear laughter coming from an open window. If you waited a bit, maybe you’d see two people in the window — a man and a woman — laughing at old jokes and trying not to admit that they were happy to be back sitting across from each other.

And you’d smell some damn good pizza.

The best pizza?

Maybe.

But sometimes the best thing about pizza isn’t where it’s from, it’s who brings it to you.