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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.

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