You Can’t Go to Thayer Again

The first and only time I ever got called a “f_g” was on Thayer Street.

It was 2010 and Brown University was on winter break.  I remember thinking the situation was laughable. Imagine getting called a gay slur on Thayer Street of all places.

But it was then I realized that Thayer Street is a very different place when school is not in session.  The students create their own culture and when that culture disappears, a vacuum is created that can be filled by … all kinds of people.

After that, I never really felt comfortable being on Thayer unless Brown was in session.  Say what you want about those students, but the jerk who yelled the “f” word at me and then ran away nine years ago was probably well-aware that if he tried that during the school year, he would have been shouted down by five or six undergrads carrying protest signs and copies of A Little Life.

(If you need to beat up a homophobe with a book, trust me, there is no better option than A Little Life.)

My aversion to off-season Thayer lasted right up until this summer began.  The warmer months have always triggered these weird personality pivots in me, and for some reason, I find myself spending all my time in one place — and it’s never a place that makes sense.

One year it was Garden City in Cranston.

One year it was the various stores on Bald Hill Road.

One very dark summer was spent in Bristol and maybe one day if you’re lucky, you’ll get a nice personal history about that indie movie horror show.

No matter what I do, the heat pulls me toward a place I’ve otherwise been forgetting about or just not thinking about at all.

This summer that place was Thayer Street.

Maybe I was hoping to recapture that youthful nostalgia so many Rhode Islanders have of driving to the East Side after school to stand around with a bunch of stoners and discuss who sucks (everyone) and which bands don’t suck (none of them) and which movies don’t suck (none of them except for Reservoir Dogs).

But I knew that what I would be getting was going to be far different than your average Thayer experience, because I would be there in the summer, and if there’s one thing you can count on regarding Thayer and the summer, it’s that there is absolutely nothing you can count on.

The various summer memories I have involving Thayer include everything from bikers to Mineral Spring expats to that girl I met one year on my birthday who told me that she could see how I died and it was going to involve a chihuahua and Lucy Lawless.

It’s the chaos — and the proximity to Antonio’s pizza — that makes it all worthwhile.

This year, however, things didn’t seem so chaotic.

In fact, they seemed downright … commercial.

Now, before you go wondering if this is going to be one of those pieces all about how Thayer Street, like every other beloved Rhode Island institution that glows greater in the memory than it ever did in reality, has deteriorated — fear not.

Many articles like that have already been written by far better writers than I am, but this isn’t exactly going to be a love letter either.

It’s a more of a dispatch from the edge — or the edge of Hope and College Hill.

The first night I took a walk down Thayer for the first time in ages was a few weeks ago, and I was immediately struck by how little I remembered about the Thayer that used to be.  Granted, aside from the Avon, downtown always held a softer spot in my heart, but I still spent a significant amount of time on first dates at the Starbucks and eating my weight in late-night burgers at the Johnny Rockets, and those used to be some of the more mainstream experiences you could have on the street.

Now it’s geographically anchored by a Shake Shack and the promise of a Chase Bank in the near future exactly where Paragon used to be.

The Starbucks is still there, but even the Johnny Rockets has fallen to a B.GOOD even though the facade remains the same. Mass appeal has fallen victim to chic and shaggy. The kind of retro takeover that’s happened to Times Square, Las Vegas, and virtually any place where gays assemble. The prevailing wisdom would be — what a shame, but if even part of these places remain alive by selling out, you have to wonder if in some way it’s worth it.

The pleasure of walking down Thayer and bumping into a guy who offers to give you a free tattoo if you drive him to Narragansett once he’s done is still alive and well (believe me, it happened to me there last week), but the philosophizing stoners seem to be long gone, or perhaps, more mobile.  There’s no more standing around, or seeing where the night takes you. Even the off-season crowds seem to be more homogenous. The bikers have, for the most part, dispersed — along with the frat boys who impressed their girlfriends by taking them out for a night at Kartabar. Now there’s a Shaking Crab to go with your Shake Shack, and everything feels very … tourist-y.

One night I talked a friend into getting Durk’s Bar*B*Q with me, followed by the insanely entertaining Wild Rose at the Avon, and then Insomnia Cookies on the way back to the car, and we were both a little disappointed that nothing derailed our night.

No run-ins with friends we hadn’t seen in weeks.

No witnessing an altercation over a parking spot.

No interesting first date conversations to eavesdrop on as we pass the diners eating outside of Andrea’s.

We had a perfectly lovely evening.

But it wasn’t an … interesting evening.

It wasn’t the Robert Altman/Nashville-style randomness you used to be able to have at all sorts of places in the littlest state where “everybody knows everybody” used to mean “you can’t get away from anybody.”

Now, we don’t venture out as much.

We don’t run into people unexpectedly because Facebook tells us where everyone is.

We might fear missing out, but we don’t wonder what’s going on.

I don’t want to fall into the trap of getting all lofty and poetic, but it seems fair to say that what made Thayer great was the greater culture of being young at a certain time and a certain place, and that culture no longer exists, so how can Thayer be to blame?

Now it’s a nice place to take some out-of-towners if you want to give them a nice little dose of New England capitalism and cuisine without the fear of having a man with purple hair and the most beautiful turquoise eyes you’ve ever seen ask to hold your hand for no reason whatsoever and then disappear into the night after he let go (#RIP2009).

Maybe it’s unfair to ask more of it than that.

Maybe those of us with our memories of it are richer than we deserve to be.

Maybe we should just do everything we can to make sure nothing ever happens to the tortellini pizza at Antonio’s or the falafels at East Side Pockets or Blue State Coffee or so-help-me-if-we-lose-the-Avon-we-might-as-well-burn-all-of-Providence-to-the-ground.

Hell, I can’t even let go of Ben and Jerry’s until I can convince enough friends to eat a Vermonster with me.

They still have Vermonsters, right?

The last time I took a stroll down Thayer before sitting down to write this article was just a few days ago, and right in front of the Brown Bookstore, there was a protest happening over–of all things–Shake Shack.

The protester was a young man with a ponytail and a megaphone yelling about the evils of meat consumption at people driving by or leaving the Shake Shack. I’m sad to say I was one of them. I can’t resist the curly fries. I’m only human.

But I stopped by the protest. It felt very thrown-together, and I don’t mean that as a jab. It felt exciting. Poorly attended, but exciting. Two people stopped to talk to the young man.  It was hard to hear what they were saying as he conversed with them using his megaphone, but it made for an amusing half-conversation that could be heard up and down the street.  Cars honked their horns. A woman with a stroller took out her baby and breastfed it while she listed some statistics she had read in Atlantic Monthly about how cows are contributing to global warming. One guy showed another guy his newest piercing. A teenager went by on a skateboard, and a car pulled up playing Bob Marley so loud it almost drowned out the small symphony of chaos that was playing in front of a bookstore that wouldn’t have any students in it for another month or so.

After a few minutes, the breastfeeding mother went to meet a friend at PokeWorks.  The pierced man and his friend said their goodbyes. The car drove off and took Bob Marley with it.

I lingered for a bit, but even the protester got quiet.  He seemed surprised by how quickly a salon can come together and then evaporate, but I wasn’t.

After all, this wasn’t my first time on Thayer.

At least, not that Thayer.