In Providence: Creative Writing: Taking on the burden of the truth

If you read this column every week, you might have the same question they had for me: “So how much of it is real?

My first in-person interview in a while was taking place outdoors during one of the warmer nights of the month with a fellow creative writer. The bar was busy. The rapid rate of vaccination seemed to be driving people out in full force. They contacted me because they like the “In Providence” column and they want to write something similar, but they’d always wondered how much of it was fact and how much was made up.

When I was in college, I took a course in non-fiction creative writing. Upon signing up for the class, I began to wonder how you could creatively write about non-fiction. I thought I was going to learn how to describe real life events with as much detail as possible. How to take the mundanity of everyday living and make it interesting. Back then, I was a stickler for objectivity. In my religious high school, I spent a significant amount of time being taught the difference between fact and opinion, and I was confident that the rest of my life would be dedicated to writing about the imaginary. After all, who would want to take on the burden of the truth?

Nevertheless, if someone could teach me how to make writing about the truth not seem so arduous, I was game. Within the first few minutes of the class, I was already the pariah. Any suggestion of altering events or people was met with a hearty objection from me. I felt that everything needed to be on the same level as journalism. Straightforward, no slanting, and no shaping a story to make it look the way you want it to. That was when my professor pointed me toward Truman Capote and In Cold Blood.

Much has been written about the process one of America’s most famous authors used when putting down on paper the story of a murder in Kansas and its aftermath, but I was taken aback as soon as I read about the genesis of the book.

Capote wanted to write about a murder in a small town. He knew what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. He even had ideas about what kind of murder it should be and what kind of murderers the culprits should be. Then he went looking for the crime.

I found this to be both distasteful and dishonest. A writer shouldn’t go looking for material with an eye on the final product, should they? How could Capote possibly maintain any integrity if he knew where he was going before he even got there?

When I reported back on the book to my professor, they asked me to consider that, yes, Capote probably made things up (he was famous for not taking notes), but that sometimes writing creatively isn’t about adding what’s not there, but dismissing what is that doesn’t serve the story you’d like to tell.

I continued to push back. You shouldn’t want to tell a story. You should just tell the story that’s right in front of you.

My professor was very kind. They pointed out that believing there’s only ever one story in front of you is simplifying life down in the most transgressive of ways. Even the most respected of journalists have to have an angle, and artists, which is how I thought of myself, need to have a way in if they’re going to do justice to a subject.

I’m sitting at a bar with another writer. What kind of story do I want to tell about her? What if it would help me to make her a man? Well, I can’t just make her a man, can I? If I did that, you’d say I was making the story up. If I swapped her gender, and had her do all the same things, but as a man, you’d feel it was too big a change for the story to be considered factual. If you’re as stingy as I was as a freshman in college who thought he knew everything about the world and the nature of the truth, you might suggest that any change would render the story fictional.

But if I told the entire story in a way that led you to believe I was having drinks with a man, but never came right out and said it. Are you one of those people who believe omission is a form of lying? Especially when the writer uses omission to lead you in another direction?

Two books jump to mind right away whenever somebody asks me about writing non-fiction. One is a book I’ve written about very recently, To Kill a Mockingbird, which, ironically, has a Capote connection. One of the young children in the book is based on little Truman. In fact, a lot of the book is based in reality, but Harper Lee decided to call it fictional. It’s possible she did not want to bear the burden of truth. Being willing to label something fictional means you can say whatever you want and write however you like … or does it?

Why do we only place responsibility on those claiming to write about what’s true as though fiction can’t do a significant amount of damage on its own?

The other book I think about is A Million Little Pieces by James Frey. After being chosen as an Oprah’s Book Club selection, Frey’s “memoir” was revealed to be mostly made up. He then had to go on an apology tour, wherein he was frequently asked why he didn’t just label the book “fiction.”

The answer? Because it’s not a very good book. The standards for writing fiction are way higher than that of non-fiction. While the truth is a burden, fiction still carries its own weight. Frey had no luck selling what he had written as a novel, but when he started telling people it was true, there was an interest.

I remember thinking it was a shame that we didn’t use that crisis in the literary world to have a bigger conversation about why a poorly written book somehow becomes lauded text as soon as it’s presented as something that’s “true.”

Recently when discussing Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit with a friend, she remarked that while she loved the series, “I really wish it was a true story.

When pressed, she couldn’t quite articulate why it being fictional bothered her. To her, the show had strived for such heightened naturalism, and succeeded in it, all the while dabbling in history and historical context, that it felt like it should be attached to reality in some way.

I just think I would have enjoyed it more.

In the late ’90s and early aughts, reality television became so popular that people started to wonder if fiction was on the way out. People seemed to feel as though anything created was lacking in some way, and the overused chant of “Truth is stranger than fiction” was used as a battering ram against every article of culture that wasn’t a documentary or an episode of Survivor. Lately, that thirst for the real has died down a bit, even as it’s becoming clearer and clearer that in some ways, yes, creativity often has a hard time keeping up with what we see and hear in our daily lives.

But this isn’t meant to be an essay. The “In Providence” column is supposed to be something else. It’s a place to tell stories. Like the story of me getting a drink with another writer who wants to know if I just make up what I write every week out of what would have to be the endless depths of my ingenuity.

And, you know, in some ways, I wish I could tell you I did. Being able to think up nearly 90 stories of love, heartache, loneliness, friendship, sex, and feuding Christmas decorations would be a pretty impressive feat, but…

Even the best writers would have trouble keeping up with the demand.

Instead, I’ve taken the Capote route. The author I once lambasted has become something of an inspiration. I explain to the writer I’m having drinks with, a very handsome writer–

(You see how I can lead you into thinking it’s a man by using “handsome” while not lying? Women can be called “handsome,” but it’s a word we often associate with a man. If I keep using the “they” pronoun, then you could just fill in the rest for me, couldn’t you?)

–I explain that I typically come up with ideas for the column about two months ahead of time.

This week I want to write about someone moving back to Providence after a long time away. This week I want to write about a pizza delivery boy and religion. This week I want to write about a marriage proposal and the southern part of the city. Then I go looking. Oftentimes, it’s not hard to find what you need, provided you’re willing to trim away everything you don’t need.

People come to you with all the complexities necessary to make them look however you want, and it’s your job (or, I suppose, my job) to decide who it is they’re going to be.

In the very first profile I wrote about a woman I labeled “The Queen of Providence,” I heard a lot of admirable things about my subject, but I’m sure, if I wanted to, I could have asked around and found at least a few people she had wronged. If I then took those accounts and centered the story around them, or even peppered them in here and there, you might have had a very different reaction to reading about that woman. What I wanted was a feel-good, uplifting piece about somebody trying to make a difference without asking for any fanfare. That did exist in the person I found, but that’s not all that was there.

Anonymity makes all this a lot easier, because there does seem to be a responsibility that arises when you use someone’s name. The absence of identity became the sugar I take with my medicine, because there is still that small voice in the back of my head saying “Something about this isn’t right. You’re not mentioning that the couple who met and fell in love recently separated. You didn’t talk about how that charming man you met was unkind to the waiter. Wait, if you don’t talk about how they only went inside the house because it was raining, you’re not being totally truthful.”)

I understand why we’re all so fixated on truth. We live in a society where millions of people believe climate change isn’t real and there’s a sex trafficking ring being run out of the basement of a pizza parlor. Truth is under attack, you won’t get any argument from me on that. But what of the hall pass we give to fiction?

And what do we do about the fact that while labeling something fiction gives the author lenience, it also guarantees that you are far less likely to engage with whatever it is they come up with? You can feel the temptation there, can’t you? It’s like something out of Faust.

Say you’re lying, and you can lie as much as you want, but nobody will listen to you, because what you’re saying is a lie. Tell the truth and it needs to be the purest of truths, which people will then listen to, only because many of them want to find out if you’re lying, and if they catch you, you have to beg for Oprah’s forgiveness.

I’m getting drinks with another writer. The author in me kicks in–Who, What, Where, When, Why. Each of those things has multiple answers. This person is a writer. She’s a woman. She’s single. She’s pretty. She’s single and pretty. Why is she single if she’s pretty? Well, there are lots of single people who are also pretty. I should ask her about that though. I should ask her if she enjoys being single. Maybe I don’t need to mention that she’s a writer at all. Maybe it’s not important. Maybe this column is about a woman having a drink downtown and she suddenly talks about a man she met who broke her heart.

We did talk about a man who broke her heart. That part is true. And the part about her being single, and a woman. But that wasn’t why we were there. And we only talked about the man and the broken heart for 20 minutes. But 20 minutes is enough for 1,000 words, and that’s enough for one of these weekly columns.

This woman is fascinating. That’s true. I could write seven columns about her. She’s made up of many, many stories. The question is:

Which one of them would I want to tell?

In Providence: Kow Kow

If you’ve looked at my social media recently, then I should probably apologize to you.

Just, you know, in general.

But if you went looking for photos of ice cream and bubble waffles, then I probably didn’t let you down.

Like just about everybody else in the state, I have found myself addicted to Kow Kow.

The food truck has grown into a shop on Ives Street that’s so popular, I was turned away the first two times I got there because it was after 8pm and the line was so long, there was no way I was going to make it to the front before closing time.

Another day I brought a friend with me, and we waited halfway up a side street while others peeled off, most likely assuming that nothing could be worth investing that kind of time.

Poor fools, I thought, as I inched closer to getting a Graham Canyon.

You have to know something about me before I continue.

I refuse — absolutely refuse — to wait in line for just about anything.

This is not my worst trait, but it’s at least Top Five.

(The other four involve swing sets, elevators and my undying devotion to Love, Actually.)

Many times over the course of my life, I’ve been told that a wait at a restaurant is 10 to 15 minutes and walked right out the door. I don’t cause a fuss or make a scene, but in my mind, there are so many places to eat, why would you ever wait for a table that wasn’t immediately available?

But Kevin, you might be saying, why don’t you just make a reservation?

Because Reader, like all true nightmares, I both want to decide what I want five minutes before I want it and I want it given to me the second I do.

(I fully expect to be driven out of town by torch-bearing villagers any day now.)

And yet, even the Man Who Would Not Wait for Anything happily waits for Kow Kow. 

My first time there was in the middle of the day on a Wednesday. I had the advantage of a day off during the week, and found that there was no line. I immediately considered ordering everything on the menu while I had the chance, but I talked myself down and just went with a Berry Nutty.

The staff at Kow Kow are so friendly and calm for people who are essentially running the waffle equivalent of Studio 54. Any expansion is bound to be tricky, and a big part of my newest addiction is following them online as they document some of the growing pains they’ve experienced. I have to refrain from posting a “You’re doing amazing, sweetie!” meme every time they post an apology.

Upon an evening visit a few days ago, I found myself in line behind two other gays comparing what we’d had so far.

“He always gets the Oreo Factory,” one of them told me, rolling their eyes at the short blonde he was there with. “But I like to try a different one each time.”

We immediately bonded over our desire to check off the entire menu. We compared notes, and I wondered if this is the kind of excitement I missed out on as a young child when all the straight boys were trading baseball cards.

One friend told me that she stopped by Kow Kow on the way home from work and ate the entire dessert in her driveway so her kids wouldn’t be mad that she went without them. Upon going inside, her two sons did start badgering her to take them.

“I ended up driving all the way back there,” she said. “It was partly out of guilt, but it’s also my cheat day, so I figured why not? I was praying the girl behind the counter wouldn’t recognize me and rat me out to my kids.”

Now, if you think all of this sounds a little extreme, I won’t argue with you, mainly because I don’t argue with idiots, but aside from that, I think the best experiences aren’t only about the main event, but about so much more.

After a year inside, visiting a little shop run by lovely people on the Wickenden side of Providence for something as simple as a cone full of sweets seems like the kind of simple, warm weather behavior we’ve all been missing, but that alone wouldn’t be enough to satisfy someone like me. I think there’s a lot more that encompasses why I enjoy it so much. It’s the high demand for the product, so that you feel like you’re really getting something special. You’re in line with other people (still wearing masks) but socializing again. The day I took my friend along with me, I met two adorable dogs and a baby. It’s a new experience with a comforting sense of familiarity. It reminded me of when I was a kid and my parents would take us all over the state just to get the best this or that according to their own personal tastes. The point wasn’t to drive 45 minutes for a cup of chowder. It was that we were going to hop in the car as a family, roll down the windows, put on music and enjoy the ride.

The chowder was just a bonus.

Last year, I wrote about how when I started this column, my plan had always been to take a break during the summer, because, like most cities, Providence sort of empties out after Memorial Day. It feels like other than a few big events, there really isn’t that much to write about, and while that might be changing as more and more people are moving into the city from bigger places like New York and Boston, I still wondered whether there were going to be enough reasons to stick around.

But that’s the thing about Providence. While we like to overcompensate for our size by labeling much of what we offer as “the best” (Please, DC, I want you to be a state, but don’t take “Smallest” away from us, I beg of you), the truth is the best thing we have to offer is the understanding that it’s not about what you’re getting, it’s about who you’re getting it with — whether it be a friend, a first date, your two kids, your new puppy or some strangers you befriended while you waited to get to the front of the line.

It’s about living somewhere your entire life only to say, “Wow, I haven’t really explored this part of the city yet,” and then exploring it. It’s about spending a little less time online.

And learning to enjoy your time in line.

In Providence: A little off the top

If you had asked me when I was younger what my least favorite thing to do on a Saturday was, it would be the day, every other month, when my mother would force my stepfather to take me to get a haircut.

We would go to a place in Providence that was something like Purgatory, if Purgatory had old magazines and everybody seemed way too happy to be there.

The barbershop we went to was small — probably the size of a walk-in closet. You’d sit on uncomfortable chairs and wait for two hours so that a man in his 60s could take clippers and buzz off all your hair. That seemed to be the only haircut anybody who went there would request.

“But Kevin,” you might be saying, “you can do that at home. Clippers aren’t that expensive, and if all he did was buzz your hair down to the scalp, then why waste a Saturday afternoon on such a thing?”

Allow me to give you my mother’s phone number so you can argue this point with her. God knows, I did — never to any avail.

Nothing about this made any sense, including the fact that when you went to this barbershop, there was another barber there with a perfectly fine set of clippers, who never had anyone in his chair. Nobody wanted a haircut from him, even though one would have a hard time imagining how you could go about messing up such a task. I make it sound as though there was only one lonely supplemental barber, but there were a series of them. I suppose once one of them figured out there was no money to be made at this shop, they’d go somewhere else, and a new young man would emerge to sit and swivel in a chair that never saw a customer.

One time, in the interest of expediency, I did talk my stepfather into letting me get a haircut from the second barber to save time. I was perfectly fine with the job he did. He left a little more than skin on my scalp, and that was okay with me, but my mother was incensed. It’s true that my hair did (and still does) grow very fast, which meant anything other than total annihilation and I’d look like a shag carpet in two weeks or less.

“Next time don’t go to the other guy,” my mother said, making “the other guy” sound like I had been given over to John McVie for music lessons instead of Lindsey Buckingham.

Not going to “the other guy” meant hours of me staring at the rotten linoleum floor, attempting to watch as static enveloped the miniature television in the corner of the waiting room. Even if you could decipher what was on, it was usually only golf. Meanwhile, all around you, grown men in unlaundered Boston Red Sox t-shirts and cargo shorts were reading copies of Sports Illustrated from 1981.

The place smelled like it was scrubbed down with cheap hair gel and the kind of cologne you’d find on the sales rack at Kohl’s. Every so often another kid my age would be waiting there as well, and we’d look at each other like two prisoners on our way to get fingerprinted.

Reservations were not an option. It was first come, first served. And if that sounds lovely and democratic to you, I encourage you to douse yourself in Drakkar Noir cologne right before voluntarily spending four hours at the DMV, and then tell me how democracy looks to you.

Trying to catch the place on a slow day was equally pointless. The place was always busy, because when every straight man in Providence decides they have to get their haircut from the same guy, a hole in the wall men’s salon becomes as hard to get into as La Boucherie on a Friday night.

If you called ahead to see how busy it was (because hope springs, I guess), the barber would answer the phone and say, “Twenty minutes.” Never has a bigger lie been perpetrated on the American public. Twenty minutes was how long the haircut took. The wait to get to the haircut was the length of Little Dorrit. Every time the phone rang while I was in the shop, and the barber gave his standard “Twenty minutes” answer, I’d want to scream–

It’s a trap! Once they get you here, you won’t see daylight for years! Just go to Supercuts! Yes, it’s a chain, but the prices are reasonable and all you want is a buzzcut anyway! It’s too late for me, but save yourself!

The barber made conversation with anyone over the age of 12 by asking about girls and whether they had a girlfriend and, “What’s a handsome guy like you doing without a girlfriend?” and if they did have a girlfriend (or a wife) he’d ask about the girlfriend or wife, and no matter what the response was, he’d say–


And you know what?

It always sounded like the right thing to say.

Reader, I have been an actor since I was 8 years old, and I have never managed to put as much meaning with as far a scope into anything as that barber put into the word “Women.”

If you were under 12, he’d ask you about school.

“How’s school?”


“School’s important.”

The middle of that exchange might vary, but his part of it never did.

“How’s school?”

“They lock me in a closet the second I get there and I spend all day learning Russian from parrots.”

“School’s important.”

After my first few visits, I would just sit there stoically, hoping he would get me in and out of the chair as fast as possible since I’d already wasted valuable time in a dingy holding cell when I could have been home doing important things like practicing holding the end note in “We Both Reached for the Gun” like Tony Award winner James Naughton did in the revival of Chicago.

I began to wonder if complaining about any of the disorganization would somehow be considered a breach of straight male protocol. No woman or respectable queer would ever put up with such disarray. Even though my mother insisted on sending me there, she never brought me herself. In fact, I began to suspect that my stepdad and me being out of the house for hours at a time every few weeks was sort of the point. The only time we ever did manage to catch the place empty on a Saturday morning (there must have been a gas leak, but if it meant less time listening to whatever the hell goes on at the PGA, I was willing to take that risk), we were home again in under an hour and I could just sense my mother’s disappointment as we had probably interrupted her seven-hour Lifetime movie marathon.

The minute I was old enough to drive myself to a haircut, my mother knew immediately there was no chance I was going back to that place. I still got buzzed all the way down to appease her, but she swore it wasn’t as short as the barber could go. I suppose she thought he took a pair of tweezers and plucked each strand out by the root, and considering how long I was away, that wouldn’t be an unreasonable assumption.

If you need something to do on a Saturday afternoon in Providence, you have plenty of options. On a nice day, you can take a stroll around the East Side, grab something to eat on Federal Hill, or sit outside downtown with a drink and enjoy the limited amount of free time we all get in this life.

But if none of that sounds appealing to you, may I suggest a trip to a barbershop on the outskirts of the city? The last time I was there, the parking was bad, the ceiling was caving in and every other customer looked like an extra from a Florida Georgia Line music video, but I’m sure some of them were happy to be there, so why not give it a try?

After all, you’ll only be there for 20 minutes.

In Providence: Don’t Speak

If you get invited to one of their get-togethers, it’s a good idea to bring something that’ll keep you occupied.

“It’s not that you’re not allowed to talk, we just don’t require it.”

The idea came to them in a group text. A joke about what it’s like being introverts who still crave socialization and wondering out loud how to have it both ways.

“I forget who it was, but somebody suggested parties where you could go and just sit around quietly without feeling like you had to talk to anybody.”

With vaccinations on the rise and the promise of being in small spaces together again, it’s understandable that people who never really felt comfortable in social situations might feel a bit apprehensive at the notion of having to gather themselves up and get to networking again.

“We’re all happy that this is going to be over, but I know, for me, I really liked knowing that it was cool that I could just stay home and feel like I wasn’t missing out on anything. It’s this weird thing where I don’t want to miss out, but once I go somewhere, I have no idea what I’m supposed to do. Do I have to be funny? Do I have to tell a story? I’m lost as soon as I get there, and I want to turn around and go home.”

All of this made perfect sense to me. I was just telling a friend that when you’re a homebody who also has a bad case of FOMO, you crave the winter days of blizzards and cold weather that keep people inside. When summer hits, you feel like you’re wasting your life doing what you want to do and that which makes you happy, namely binge-watching murder documentaries and texting your friends about them.

People say things to you like, “Hey, what did you do last night? Did you go out?” and you feel like saying, “It was a Tuesday, Claire. I know it was 80 degrees, but come on, can’t I just stay home? Please? Netflix just released a five-part series on a guy who conned 17 women into thinking he was Tony Shalhoub.

She understood where I was coming from, because we both suffer from that strange, socially misunderstood phenomenon–

Summertime Sadness

“This time of year is so bad for me. It’s hot. I don’t want to go anywhere, because it’s so hot. I have constant boob sweat. It smells like meat everywhere, because everybody is barbecuing. I hate the mosquitos. I hate having to wear sunscreen all the time, because I sunburn as soon as I step outside. It just sucks.”

I’d found my new best friend.

“You should come to one of the parties after you’re vaccinated.”

Most of them work in the medical field, so they’d gotten their shots a while ago. That’s when they had their first get-together, and it was a big success.

“I brought my needlepoint. A few people brought books. One of the guys I work with came, and he brought this big puzzle with him, like 1,000 pieces, and we all did that for a while. That was really popular. Yeah, people really liked that.”

The party only had one rule–

No Forced Social Interaction

“If you want to say something, you can say it. It’s not like ‘No Talking At All,’ but it’s like, ‘You can put something out there, but nobody has to respond to you if you do’ and there is this feeling that, like, you should try to limit how much you’re talking with people, unless you really have something to say. That was the easiest way I think we all described it: Only say something if you need to say it, but don’t feel like you need to fill in the silence.”

Honestly, it sounded like heaven.

“We all hang out a few times a week now. It’s become this– Like, I never got into hobbies or clubs or anything, because when you get nervous being around people, it’s hard to make friends or go out a lot, but now, I get so excited to go to the organizer’s house or, like, I’m hosting this week, and I can’t wait. To have my place with all these people in it? I mean, you do get lonely. Even if you’re not good at socializing, you get lonely. That’s the hard part. Now that you can ask people if they’re vaccinated and start making plans, it’s just nice to be around people, and I feel good that we came up with this solution to be around people we like without it being this high pressure thing of having to, like, entertain each other. That’s the part I was dreading, because I haven’t done it in so long. I was never good at it in the first place, but after a year of not going to parties or bars, I was so scared to get back into that. This is a way to, like, get us all back into it without getting all worked up about it.”

Ironically, by removing that pressure, some of the members of the No Talking Necessary Club (I named them, all royalties are mine) have made plans to do things that will, in fact, necessitate conversation.

“Tomorrow I’m going to have dinner outdoors with somebody I met at one of the get-togethers, yeah. I’m looking forward to it. We were both doing needlepoint, and she came up to me as we were walking to our cars, and we started talking, yeah. I don’t know. I like her. She seems cool. We’ve already hung out for hours, but we’ve only ever said three words to each other until she asked for my number so we could make plans.”

I asked her if she was worried about finding things to talk about on the date.

“But that’s the best part, we both know we’re cool with not doing that, so yeah, we might talk or we might not. I’m happy to just sit there and eat with her. I know we should get to know each other, but you can still learn a lot about a person just by being with them and enjoying the energy they give off. That’s what I’ve learned from spending time with these people. I’m not just happy because we’re not talking. I’m happy because they’re all nice people who aren’t asking me to do anything I’m not comfortable with, and that means a lot, because I would be scared to ask for that. If it hadn’t been for somebody suggesting this, I would have just kept making myself be this person I wasn’t comfortable being, and so, yeah, like, I’m just glad I don’t have to do that anymore, and now I feel like the person I am when we all hang out is someone I can be all the time if I want to be.”

If you’ve been feeling this strange sensation of wanting the pandemic to end while still not wanting everything to go back to the way it was, that’s not unusual.

“You know, I’m really good at puzzles. I never knew that before, but I think it’s because I don’t want to do them on my own? It’s fun when you have, like, six people working on a puzzle all at once.”

While many of us agreed that change was needed from a societal level all the way down to how we interact with each other, it’s easy to forget about those declarations when the weather warms up and the world reminds us that while the before times weren’t perfect, we at least knew how they worked.

“This week, we’re all going to watch a movie. No phones. No checking email. We just have to sit and watch the movie. It might become a regular thing.”

But they didn’t work for everybody.

“We might have to start organizing this though, because word is getting out, and more people want to join, and like, pretty soon we won’t be able to fit everyone in the same place, so we might break it up a little bit more.”

In fact, it’s probably safe to say they didn’t work for most people, and the people who struggled the most are often the ones who stayed quiet.

“You should see all the messages I get about it. I can’t believe how many people just want to sit around with us. It’s great.”

So maybe another look at the expectations we put on ourselves and each other is necessary.

“It makes you feel like you’re not so alone, you know?”

I guess that’s something we do need to talk about.

In Providence: The DJ of Bowen Street

If you were walking down Bowen Street sometime in the spring of 2005, you may have been going for a leisurely walk and detected the low thrum of a beat pulsating as if a small rave were happening within walking distance of East Side Pockets.

The minor earthquake was courtesy of a boy whose name I can no longer remember, but with fondness, I think of him as The DJ.

We met at the Starbucks on Thayer one night as I was pretending to read a book while secretly trying to find Brown students I could date and one day marry, shamelessly pursuing a career as a trophy husband. If anybody even remotely resembled the child of a celebrity, I would look right at my copy of Infinite Jest and laugh as though I was on my third reading of it and still marveling at its insight.

That evening, barely anyone was in the Starbucks aside from a guy sitting across from me. He had headphones on — the large kind that went out of style, then back into style, then out, and now seems to be returning again. Nothing says “Please don’t talk to me” like covering up your entire ear with a sound-producing device while hunched over a laptop acting as though you’re trying to decipher nuclear codes.

Despite all that, when I smiled at him, he smiled back. Not only was he cute, but he was cute in that “I’m not Rhode Island” way that’s catnip to all gay men. The mere hope that we’ve met someone attractive who hasn’t slept with everyone we know yet is American Dream for all queer people. After the smile, he came over and asked if he could sit. We started talking, and he invited me back to his apartment on Bowen to check out his “sound system.”

If you’re listening to me tell a story and you want to know what age I was, just ask me what kind of career impressed me at that particular point in my life. You’ll find that the younger I was, the lower the threshold for knocking me out with your professional passion. When I was 19, I made out with a guy twice my age in a car with tinted windows outside the Providence Place Mall just because he told me he was the voice of all those club promotions that used to be on the radio.

You know–

This Sunday at Camelot, the cast of MTV’s Jackass is stopping to party at Providence’s only 18+ dance club that hasn’t been shut down for serving minors. Ladies are free before ten. All hats must be worn backwards.

We were in the car making out when one of his ads came on, and I think that’s the closest I’ll ever get to knowing what it must feel like to date Jason Derulo.

Back on Bowen a few years later, I entered the DJ’s apartment to find what I can only describe as American Psycho-meets-Hackers decor. There was no furniture. And when I say “no furniture,” I’m not being a snob and referring to a poor quality sofa. I mean there was no furniture.

The apartment was only two rooms and a bathroom. There was a small stove and a fridge in the living room, and that was it aside from a massive console and sound system that took up an entire wall. There were at least 10 screens, multiple keyboards, speakers and fans aimed at all of it to keep it from overheating. It looked like Dr. Claw’s lair from Inspector Gadget if he had been voiced by Skrillex.

In the adjoining room, which I believe was supposed to be a bedroom, there were pillows. Lots of pillows. Pillows covering up the floor and piled against the walls. There were some blankets, but not many, and the windows all had thick, red curtains covering them so that it gave the feeling of a genie’s bottle, and I cannot express to you how sexy I thought all of this was.

As soon as we walked in the apartment, I assumed the DJ was going to put on some music made for people who do ecstasy and pierce their nipples, and we were going to make out on the mountain of pillows under the light of his techno-mountain.

Instead, he said the seven worst words that can come out of a man’s mouth when he takes you back to his place–

Do you want to see something cool?

He tapped something into his keyboard and music started blaring so loudly I was sure that a S.W.A.T. team would raid the place in no time. Little did I know that he had soundproofed the entire place, which might have given me pause since here I was at some guy’s apartment without letting anyone know where I was, but considering how attracted I am to the killer in every single movie I’ve ever seen, it’s doubtful.

While the music was shaking loose the fillings in my teeth, every screen started to play its own unique light show. From god knows where, lasers began to fill the room, and I felt like I was in the middle of a botched jewel heist.

As all this was going on, the DJ seemed to go into some kind of zone wherein there was not a boy from Starbucks sitting on his floor trying not to have a seizure. He kept typing different words into one of his many keyboards, causing the music to get louder or more static, the lighting to strobe with a deeper intensity, and the lasers to fly by my eyeballs at a frightening speed.

By then, had he simply taken out a knife and proclaimed his intention to murder me, I probably would have thanked him for his mercy. I couldn’t hear, I couldn’t speak over the noise, and the only lights were coming from the Jordan’s Furniture backroom virtual show that was happening right in front of me.

While I nearly slipped into a coma, the DJ got up from his Circuit City office chair with the ams removed, took me by the hand, and led me into the Pillow Palace, where the two of us lay next to each other, kissed a little bit, and I listened (as best I could) while he explained how one day AI would be so advanced, we’d each be able to design our soulmates and humans would cease to marry each other. It took me a little while to realize that he wasn’t just regaling me with stories about the future, but actually laying out his life plan, which sounded like a dirty fanfic episode of The Jetsons where George and Rosie get a little too cozy.

Somehow, even with the Diplo version of the Battle of Normandy happening all around us, he fell asleep, and I showed myself out. I’d love to tell you I never went back, but we had swapped numbers on the walk to his apartment, and I proceeded to go over there at least five more times hoping for something more than cuddling in the padded cell where he slept. If I’m not mistaken, we managed to get as far as shirts off one night, but that was about it. Like most Brown affiliates, he either graduated or became a professional European hiker a few months later, and we lost touch.

I still have my memories — and probably some hearing loss.

To this day, when I walk down Bowen on my way to Insomnia Cookies for the fourth time in three days, I pass by the house where the DJ used to live, and the muscle memory causes my teeth to chatter so loudly, I’m surprised nobody can hear them.

In Providence: Aisle nine

If you’re like me, the only way you wanted to end a wild Saturday night out when you were in your 20s was a trip to the local grocery store.

As someone who gets depleted from complex human interaction and/or someone not laughing at a joke I made three years ago, it’s important to find activities that soothe your anxiety. For me, that’s grocery shopping late at night when I can wander the aisles of a supermarket, bask in the fluorescent lighting, and say things like, “Why yes, I do think I’ve earned the fancy tortellini this week, thank you very much.

I’ve been writing more and more lately about the erasure of random late-night activities you can do in Providence like singing Journey at the IHOP or going to an after-hours party that somehow turns into an MLM pitch meeting. While more of our pre-COVID life is returning to us, the 24-hour spots are still stuck in a 9 to 5 cycle, and supermarkets are no exception.

Blaming the Passamaquoddy isn’t even an option, because as someone who has always preferred to grocery shop after midnight, I can tell you that the “I Need Ingredients for Baking a Torte at 2am” way of life has been under attack for quite some time now.

In fact, whether a place was near an all-night supermarket used to be one of the factors I took under consideration when house hunting. When I lived in North Providence, the Stop & Shop on Mineral Spring Avenue was always deserted, save for one lonely employee who I’m pretty sure just walked out one night and never came back. When the store cut its evening hours and I asked one of the cashiers why, she informed me that people were just walking out with carts full of food without paying on a nightly basis. It was then I remembered that I used to have to go find the one man left in charge whenever I wanted to pay, and most of the time, he always seemed more than ready to let me make a run for it while he looked the other way.

Missed opportunities abound.

Once that location wasn’t an option for my insomnia hijinks, I switched to the location on Branch Avenue, and reader, if you are a people-watcher like I am, you have no idea the bounty that used to be available to us around 1:34am on a Saturday.

I don’t know if it was because that particular market was the last 24 hold-out in the state for a while or if it was the unique location smack dab in the middle of downtown, the north side, the east side, and what I have to imagine was some kind of space vortex, but the mixture of humanity you would see inside that Stop & Shop was like a Lovecraft story adapted by Eugene O’Neill with a film treatment by Werner Herzog.

One night, while convincing myself I was not too tired to attempt beef bourguignon because Julie & Julia had been on HBO, I found myself in the meat section standing between the hottest doctor I have ever seen in my life, still in his scrubs and looking at lamb, while on the other side of me, a woman in her early 60s wearing a bathing suit top and what looked to be a shawl and sandals just sort of … hummed and listed to a song only she seemed able to hear. 

By the way, this was February. There was snow outside. But in a supermarket on Branch Avenue, time is what you make of it.

When I grabbed my beef and moved on, I heard Joni Mitchell and Hot Doc strike up a conversation and I immediately detected a flirtatious tone. As I finished up my shopping, I kept running into them in different aisles, and it was clear that they had really developed a rapport and were probably going to go home together.

Meanwhile I was heading back to my place for “Clean House” reruns and a bag of the Doritos limited fish and chips edition.

(There was a reason it was limited.)

This branch was as sparsely staffed as my ex on Mineral Spring. They had one cashier who always seemed invested in what everybody was buying. She would try to guess what you were going to make as soon as you put something down on the conveyor belt.

“Lettuce, huh? You gonna make a salad? You could make a nice salad with that. Pineapple? I wouldn’t put that in a salad. But you could have that as a snack the next day. Shampoo? You gotta wash your hair with that. Maybe before you make your salad.”

It was like an episode of “Chopped” where she was the only judge and nobody ever got to try the food. I miss her to this day.

The day I turned 28, I gave myself a little treat, and by treat I mean, I decided to stay up all night making pasta salad. The kind you would take to a cookout, except I hate cookouts and I was going to spend the next day eating it out of the biggest bowl I owned while I watched all Lord of the Rings for the seventh time.

A snag was hit when I tried checking out my four items to see if my cashier friend could guess what I was making and the woman in front of me seemed to be buying quite a bit.

But oh, how I didn’t realize the gift that was before me in that very moment.

You see, on my birthday eve, I encountered, in the flesh, an extreme couponer.

I was beyond excited.

I had so many questions.

She purchased at least two tons of laundry detergent and didn’t pay for any of it.

It wasn’t one of those historic moments like on the television show where the store actually has to pay her, but it was pretty close.

For as long as I live, I will never forget that birthday, the sight of someone buying 42 cans of olives, or the cashier saying–

“You like olives? You could make a nice pizza and put some olives on it. That’s after you do your laundry. You must have a lot of laundry.”

Now I shop during the day, like any old pedestrian. 

The aisles are crowded.

There are lots of checkout lines.

Nobody tries to guess what I’m going to do with my arugula.

There are no hot physicians hitting on Stevie Nicks impersonators and when I leave the store, I always find myself unenthused about whatever it is I just bought.

I suppose when you’re talking about groceries, that’s a normal way to feel about it, but oh, reader–

It used to be so much more.

In Providence: Have a burger with me

If you walked by the Johnny Rockets on Thayer Street in the summer of 2007, you may have noticed a rather sad boy sitting at the window by himself, nursing an order of french fries.

The month after my first real break-up, for lack of anything better to do with myself, I would drive to Thayer Street and spend hours in the mock-retro, chain eatery that seemed to ease both my heartbreak and my summertime sadness, which were colliding in a spectacular fashion as I simultaneously entered the doldrums of post-college life.

Why Johnny Rockets?

Why Thayer Street?

Why egg salad every night before the chain took it off the menu?

Who knows?

The great thing about living in Rhode Island is that you can find yourself falling into random patterns of behavior that arrive and disappear with no reason whatsoever.

I took comfort in the friendly staff, in particular, a waitress with a gorgeous Irish accent and sparkling personality who learned my name and order, and treated me with the same affection the characters on Cheers reserved for Norm.

You may be thinking that, like most forlorn young men, I chose solitude during that period, but you’d be wrong. Solitude would probably have been the healthier option, but since I’ve already admitted that I was existing off a diet of egg salad, milkshakes and french fries, you must know that health was not on my mind.

Rather than take time to reflect, I would invite friends to meet me at Johnny Rockets, and when they asked if I was talking about some irreverently named new bar, I would have to qualify that, no, I really was talking about the actual Johnny Rockets.

Most of them would show up, commiserate with me, watch as the staff danced to “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” and then offer to go see a movie with me at the Avon.

(I’m confident this is why I’ve seen Gone Baby Gone more times than any gay man on earth.)

One evening I made the mistake of inviting a date to Johnny Rockets, and while he was nice enough to indulge me while I bantered with my favorite waitress and asked about her brother’s new tattoo parlor back in Dublin, the whole thing felt wrong.

I had attempted to bring the promise of love into a place I’d reserved for mourning. As a writer, I know part of world-building is making up rules for how your created environments work, and it turns out, the real world is no different.

My date asked if I wanted to go back to his place, but he cautioned that several of his pet birds didn’t like intruders, and I may need to cover my face with something upon entering.

“Unless you have a helmet in your car? Do you? Helmets work really well. They’re mostly friendly, but I wouldn’t want them to do to you what they did to the last guy.”

I decided to go see Gone Baby Gone instead. Say what you want about Ben Affleck, but all that tortured toxic masculinity is like chicken soup for the broken twink’s soul.

That summer, Thayer Street was the perfect place to throw a nightly pity party. It was a melting pot of bikers, screaming teenagers and chainsmokers. Everybody was willing to talk to you and nobody wanted anything to do with you, and even on my darkest day, I could always overhear a conversation that reminded me I was better off than most people.

Once, while walking back to my car, I passed by Kartabar and heard a guy telling his friend that his landlord was starting to ask about dried seaweed on the lawn, and even though I couldn’t stick around long enough to get the full story, I had a feeling whatever was going on with that guy was was worse than a measly break-up.

By September, the students were back and I had grown tired of watching grown men and women dressed like soda jerks do a bastardized version of the Electric Slide while Aretha Franklin played in the background.

Even my favorite waitress whose name I can’t remember (I want to say Maureen O’Hara, but I know that’s not right) went back to Ireland to help bail out her brother. Change is a given in Providence, but if you’re down in the dumps, that might not be such a bad thing.

Healing happened incrementally. The part about getting over a break-up that nobody tells you, because it doesn’t sound wise or inspiring, is that all the moping and despair just gets … boring. No matter how many milkshakes you throw at it.

If you walk down Thayer Street now, you won’t see the Johnny Rockets anymore, although the B.Good that took over didn’t bother to change the architectural structure of the previous owner, so at first glance, you might think it’s still there.

One night about a month ago, I was grabbing take-out from Kabob and Curry, and I had one of those half-second flashes where you’re standing in a spot you’ve been in before and you get a sudden clarity on a moment from your past.

There I was, 14 years younger, sitting in the window and holding onto the belief that my life was always going to be as disappointing as fries are when you don’t eat them right away or when they’re drenched in too much ketchup or when the salt ratio is off.

I could never have imagined that life was going to offer so many more instances of unquantifiable joy and emotional pain that would make that first break-up feel like a mosquito bite. I could never have dreamed that one day there wouldn’t be anymore Johnny Rockets or Kartabar or Paragon or Store 24 or Tealuxe and so help me if anything ever happens to Antonio’s I will burn this city to the ground.

When the pandemic began and everyone was reaching out to everyone else they’d ever met in their life, the man who broke up with me all those years ago reached out to see how I was doing. We got to talking, and he told me that after the break-up, he spent most of his time at a coffee shop downtown, trying to figure out what he should do next.

The pair of us were within a five minute drive of each other and as far apart as any two people could be. Shortly after that summer, he moved away and hasn’t been back to Rhode Island since, although lately, he’s been missing it.

“What about you,” he asks me. “What did you do that summer?”

I thought about how honest of an answer I wanted to give him and then decided on–

“Oh, I met this girl from Ireland and we hung out a lot.”

Sometimes the truth is like ketchup.

A little goes a long way.

In Providence: The Late Night

If you happen to be a night owl in Providence, there are only a few select spots where you can be around others of your kind in a social setting.

That’s why the proliferation of closures and adjustments that sprang up a year ago seemed to hit the hardest the first time I found myself itching to get out of the house sometime after midnight and realized that my go-to late night routine was no longer available to me.

That routine consisted of driving to the IHOP in Providence with my laptop to get some writing done only to find myself people-watching the entire time I was there while pushing scrambled eggs around on the plate in front of me.

If you’ve never been to the IHOP after 1am on a weeknight, you have no idea what you’re missing. Regardless of where they seat you, I promise that a Robert Altman movie will begin to unfold all around you.

One night, while telling myself I was working, I proceeded to watch a couple break up, get back together, get engaged and break up again all in the span of an hour and while only one of them spoke.

As they were leaving, the woman in the pair caught a glimpse of me, turned to her fiance (?), and said, “Do you believe people still eat alone? I could never do that. Good for him. He looks sad, but good for him.”

Several times, I’ve seen people burst into song. I don’t have a record of every title, but my favorite, by far, was a table full of what looked to be truckers belting out Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” as though they were at a local pub instead of under the fluorescent lights of the pancake palace.

During an unexpected blizzard, I was once stuck at a back booth until nearly dawn, and somehow, one of those plastic beach balls appeared, and people began tossing it back-and-forth from table to table, while waitresses offered free refills on the coffee. Somebody started playing Kid ‘N Play’s “Ain’t Gonna Hurt Nobody” on their phone, and reader, if there’s ever been a better party, I’ve never attended it.

Even Studio 54 didn’t offer the Split Decision.

Before this becomes an advertisement and I have to do a SponCon disclaimer, I’ll point out that there are a few other places you could kill time on a Tuesday evening if insomnia was rearing its ugly head. Haven Bros is the immediate go-to, but I have a bigger story about them that you’ll read in a future issue.

Once in my mid-20s, after a particularly bad break-up, I found myself wandering around downtown in the hopes that, like any good ’80s movie, something interesting would happen that would send me on some kind of wacky adventure.

It was just after 2am and the clubs had all closed. Little pockets of buzzed smokers were huddled outside every establishment, and as I made my way past one of the now defunct gay bars, I spotted four of the most attractive men I have ever seen in my life.

There is a certain kind of attractive that we simply don’t have in the Rhode Island LGBTQ community. I’m not bashing my home state, but the fact is, no gay man resembling Jason Statham has ever come out of Providence, and if I’m wrong, please DM me the details immediately.

In addition to the J-Stat doppelganger, this pocket featured a guy who looked like a Brazilian soccer player, a Matthew Perry-esque sardonic-seeming fellow, and a fourth guy who I’m sure was very nice, but who I cannot remember for the life of me.

My initial impulse was to introduce myself, and then I realized that whatever league I was in was about seven leagues down from theirs, and I decided to keep on walking. Then, like a gift from the John Hughes gods, I heard one of them ask if there was anywhere you could get food in Providence at that hour.

Like a homosexual roadrunner, I blasted into the conversation and asked if they wanted to come get breakfast with me.

I remember the one I can’t remember recognizing me immediately as a thirsty and newly heartbroken hanger-on, but the others seemed somewhat charmed by my unique mix of unwarranted theatricality and anxious assertiveness.

So we all loaded into my car — which I believe only had three wheels and one brake. I learned that they were from New York, but that Matthew Perry had planned to fly them all to the Cape where they would then head to PTown, except the weather wasn’t great, so they had to land at TF Green instead.

At least, I think that was the story, because all I heard was “Rich,” “Gay,” “Pilot,” “Handsome,” and “Single.” Some of the words were never used, but I inferred them, because I still had so much hope back then.

We ate quickly, because they wanted to get to the airport, but both Perry and Statham gave me their business cards, which I held onto for years even though I never contacted them. I drove them to TF Green and bid them farewell the same way Rick did as Ilsa was boarding the plane in Casablanca, except in my case, I was parked across the street at the Hooters wondering where in the Hamptons the five of us could vacation that summer.

Looking back, I imagine them taking them off and looking down to see the state underneath them still covered in darkness, except for the lights of those all-night businesses that offer a wired writer or a sad single the chance to stay up a little later in the hopes of finding some excitement to ensure them that life still has a few surprises left to offer.

Some of America’s greatest gems are the 24-hour diners and eateries that act like sentinels against the night, helping some of us sleep better knowing we don’t have to. 

Knowing that if we want, there’s a place we can go to sip coffee, sing Fleetwood Mac, or spend an hour with four people we’ll never see again.

I know how badly everyone wants to get back to normal, but what I miss was never really considered normal. Those late nights where, even in a city as small as Providence, you could still find someone or something so interesting you almost wonder if you’re dreaming.

In Providence: Need a Lyft?

If you don’t have a car, Rhode Island is not always the easiest place to live.

Over the years, I’ve spoken many times with someone who’s moved here from a place like New York or Boston where it’s possible to get everywhere you could want to go using only public transportation.

Those people seem to manage all right for a time, until they realize how many people commute in and out of Providence, making it more of a hub than a one-stop shop.

Living outside the city without a vehicle can be even trickier, although these days, you might find yourself without many places to go.

When I found myself in need of a ride to Providence recently, it occurred to me that I had not taken advantage of Lyft or any rideshare option since the pandemic began. Even though we’re now slowly returning to something that will never quite resemble normal, the idea of hopping in a stranger’s car still made me a little apprehensive.

But I had an interview to do with somebody downtown for this very column, and with my car in the shop, it was time to catch a ride. I do have an army of friends and family who were always happy to take me places the last time I didn’t have a car, but it still feels like an imposition, and when the trip is a short one, it seems simpler to just get on your phone and enjoy the fact that modern technology can get us anywhere and bring us anything except for a cheese plate at 3am, and I really hope somebody fixes that fast.

My Lyft driver was a woman in her early 60s. I know that, because I told her that I write a column about nightlife in Providence, and she asked me what the hell there was to write about lately, and I said, “Not much,” and she laughed, and then I asked if I could write about her, and she said, “Go right ahead,” and so I started to ask her things about her life and what it’s like being a Lyft driver when not much is going on in the way of nightlife.

Of course, nightlife aside, there are plenty of reasons people need rides and plenty of reasons people need to give them. I don’t typically identify people in this column, because I think anonymity tends to lend itself to both openness on the part of the subject and creative license on the part of the author, but since we’ve already dovetailed away from the usual format, let’s name this woman “Beth.”

Beth started driving for Lyft about a year before the pandemic started, because she recently retired from a manufacturing job, and she was bored out of her mind. She would do an hour or so a night, and whatever she made, she made. Then, in January of last year, her son lost his job and moved home. In March, Beth stopped driving for Lyft out of concerns for her safety. Then, her son fell ill. Despite the fact that neither one of them ever left the house except for a quick run to the grocery store, he tested positive for COVID.

Living in a small house with someone you have to isolate from isn’t easy, but somehow Beth managed to avoid getting the virus from her son. The trouble is, her son wasn’t able to look for work, and she found herself needing to support two people now, which meant what she used to do as a hobby now became a necessity.

That summer, she went back to driving for Lyft, and there was a notable difference in the brief relationships between her and her passengers.

“People used to like to talk and I like to talk. I don’t bother people if they don’t want to be bothered, but a lot of people like to talk, and I’m happy to talk with them, and you can get to know someone pretty fast even if you’re only taking them somewhere for 10 or 15 minutes. I’m a mom. I give off that mom vibe, and people– Not everybody has a mom in their life, and they get that vibe from me, and they start telling me things. I like it. It passes the time better than the radio does. When I started driving again, though, and it might be the mask, because we both wear them, but nobody wanted to talk as much at first. That’s starting to change again, but for a long time, it was quiet in the car.”

She tells me that she loves it when her last drop-off of the night is in East Providence, because she loves driving with the walking path and the water on her left-hand side. I tell her my grandparents used to live in Riverside before they moved to Florida, and I like that area as well, because it reminds me of going to their house as a kid.

When she drops me off downtown I wish her luck with the rest of her night and with her son. The city feels surprisingly buoyant again. My interview is near the library, but I ask to be dropped off near the mall, because it’s nice enough to go for a walk, and I haven’t had as many reasons to be in Providence as I usually do over the past year.

Beth says that her routine is the same every night when she gets home. She checks on her son, who’s still feeling the effects of the virus. Some days it’s just lethargy and some days his appetite is shot. The night before, he’d been feeling good, and she made him his favorite meal: baked chicken and rice.

“He likes to DVR ‘Jeopardy’ and when I get home we watch it together and eat. I try not to get home too late, but he stays up and waits for me. We didn’t have the best relationship when he was growing up. I had some things I was working out, and I couldn’t be there like I wanted to be there for him. I hate that he’s sick, but I was looking– For the past, oh god, I don’t know, seven or eight years, I’d been looking for ways to get closer to him, and let him know, you know, that his mom is there for him. I think he knows that now, and I’m glad for that.”

When I ask her if she’s any good at “Jeopardy,” she tells me she’s good, but her son is better, but this week, she’d won more times than he had, and he got stumped by the last round three nights in a row. I tell her that I’ve never been any good at Jeopardy, and that I’m equally bad at game shows where you have to figure out if somebody might be lying or not. She tells me that one time in the ’90s, she and sister almost got on “Supermarket Sweep” and I want to stay in the car and ask her a million questions, but I know she must have a long night ahead of her.

If you don’t have a car in Rhode Island, and you’re lucky enough to have the means to pay someone to give you a Lyft, you might notice the added benefit of what it looks like pulling into the city from the backseat of a car. From my house to downtown, you get the full effect of the skyline coming into view, and while it’s not as pretty as it looks from the east, it still gives you a little bit of a thrill when you’ve been away from it for awhile.

As I walked past Kennedy Plaza and on toward Washington Street, the heightened activity in the city meant cars were whizzing right by me. In some, music was blasting. Some had passengers in the backseat just like I was, most with headphones on, just trying to get to wherever they were going. Some seemed to be in a rush, and some just seemed glad to be out and about.

I didn’t start driving until pretty late into my freshman year of college, and I don’t think I’ve ever stopped appreciating how useful it is to have a car when so many people don’t have that luxury. During the times when I haven’t had one, I’ve always been touched by how quickly a community springs up around me to help me get around when, again, that’s something not everybody has available to them.

This time around, I felt a much deeper gratitude knowing I could still have a bit of independence available to me and that eventually I would be mobile again. It’s possible that a year ago, I would have just found the whole ordeal to be aggravating and focused on the inconvenience of it, but it’s hard to get worked up about that kind of stuff now, isn’t it?

It’s a lot easier to just sit back and enjoy the ride.

In Providence: An Atlantic Avenue Proposal

If you go over to their house on a Saturday night, he’ll fix dinner and she’ll tell you the story about how he lost the engagement ring.

“He’s the type where I’m always telling him not to put something off, and he’s always putting things off, and that’s how he got himself in trouble.”

When they have company, he likes to cook something that fills the house up with the smells of pepper and pork and freshly poured wine.

“I knew he was going to propose. I had been telling my mother for two weeks– This man is getting ready to propose. I was waiting on it. One night, he comes home, he’s got a bag with him. A shopping bag. I forget where it was from, but it was from no place I’d be interested in. Dick’s Sporting Goods or something. That was his little plan. Put the ring in a bag that I wouldn’t go looking through. We’d been living together for a year at this point in time. I asked him, ‘What was in the bag?’ and he gave me some answer, but I had my suspicions.”

He chimes in from the kitchen that it wasn’t a Dick’s Sporting Goods bag, but he can’t remember where it was from. She tells him that he can never remember details and that’s why he does the cooking and she does the storytelling.

“Now what he didn’t see was that the bag got wet, because it was raining, and so the bottom of the bag is wet, okay? He doesn’t see that. I don’t say anything, because I’m not supposed to be interested in the bag, but I see the hole at the bottom, and I’m thinking, My ring better not be out there getting wet on the lawn.”

Wet would have been an improvement when she woke up the next morning.

“I wake up the next morning and there’s two feet of snow on the ground.”

What was supposed to be a rainy Saturday morning had instead turned into a full-on snowstorm. The kind that’s made worse by the lack of anticipation. She looked out the window and launched into a panic.

“He’s still asleep in bed, and I’m shaking him, ‘Wake up! Wake up! It snowed!’ I’m not even pretending to not know that he must have had my ring in that bag. I’m hoping it didn’t fall out, but when he wakes up and sees the snow, I can tell from looking at him that he thinks I’m being crazy, so I gotta say, ‘There was a hole in your bag!’ He doesn’t know what I’m talking about, and I have to say, ‘There was a hole in that bag you brought home last night. On the bottom of it! There was a hole in the bag and now there’s two feet of snow on the ground.’ Then I see him freak out, and that’s when I know we have a problem.”

They dispensed with pretending that maybe he hadn’t gotten her an engagement ring, and instead, he ran out to the car, still wearing only what he’d had on in bed. A pair of boxer shorts and a tank. She managed to throw some boots on him before he stomped out to the car, only to report back that the ring wasn’t there.

“That’s when I was like, ‘Okay, Code Red.’

The two of them put on hats, gloves and as many layers as they could, because the snow was still coming down and it was freezing out. They started digging from the driveway to the front door, but nothing turned up.

“I’m crying, because I’m thinking, ‘My ring is gone. My engagement is ruined. We didn’t even get to the part where he gets down on one knee. I’m freezing my #$%#’s off. Do you believe this?’”

In the kitchen, I hear him laughing, because he already knows where the story is going.

“We dug a whole path to the front door, and nothing. We start digging around the path. We end up digging up the whole front yard almost. Just the two of us. I went inside to call my two brothers, and they came over to help us dig, but they almost got into a car accident on the way over, because the roads were so bad. We got four people now digging and shoveling, and no ring. My mother calls and I have to run into the house. She wants to know what he said when he proposed. I’m crying, ‘Mama, he didn’t propose yet! We gotta find the ring first! If he tries to propose to me before he finds the ring, I’ll kill him before we even get married!’”

Another foot of snow had accumulated while they’d been trying to dig past the first two feet, and they decided to take a break. The couple and the couple of brothers sat down in the kitchen to eat something and warm up. He started cooking something on the stove when he remarked that a stone in his boot had been bothering him the whole time they’d been out there.

“I looked at my brothers like ‘Is he serious right now? Because if this is what I think it is…’”

The boot came off, and there was the ring. It had to have landed in the footwear as he was taking off his shoes next to the front door the previous night while holding the decoy bag.

“We’re all laughing, and I want to kill him, but then he gets down on his knee right there in the kitchen. He tells me he loves me more than anything in the world, and would I marry him? I should have said ‘No’ because he gave me a heart attack with that ring, but I lost my mind the same way I would have if everything had gone perfect. That’s how much I love him.”

If you make a trip to their house on Atlantic Avenue some Saturday night in a few months when we’ll all be ready to sit in kitchens and listen to stories again, you’ll find it’s a place with lots of cooking and music and noise. They have three kids, one dog and losing things is still commonplace.

“Our two sons are just like him. Can’t hold onto anything. Our daughter is better. She’s like me. Thank god I have at least one other girl in the house.”

When she goes to put their youngest to bed, she hands the phone over to him and I ask if he minds hearing that story again, knowing she’s told it a hundred times.

“Nah, I like hearing her tell it. I like the part where she says, ‘Yes’ the most. That’s the best part. Hang on, I think I got to help her out with storytime.”

Meanwhile, on my end of the line, I can hear the food sizzling on the stove, and the sound of three kids all in various stages of getting ready for bed, and a song in the background I know I’ve heard before, but that sounds great all the same.