Friday, April 18, 2008

Measure for measure

We have the inch, the yard, the mile, the acre - even the Smoot. But the time is long overdue to add the "sori" ("size of Rhode Island") as an official unit of measurement in the English language. These days the phrase "size of Rhode Island" is generally used to measure global disasters: melting ice caps, meteor impacts, volcanic mudslides, storm systems, forest fires. But anything goes. A food writer once compared a pork chop at a trendy New York City restaurant to the "size of Rhode Island." A gossip columnist once described George Clooney's ego in similar terms. The Web site keeps a running tally of "size of Rhode Island" references, the earliest of which counted how many Rhode Islands could fit in the new territory of Alaska (William M. Thayer's "Marvels of the New West," 1887). In 1993, The New York Times called Rhode Island "a key unit of metaphoric measurement." A decade or so later, the online magazine Slate described the Ocean State as "the nation's yardstick." Readers of my weekly column, "Flotsam and Jetsam," know that it is sometimes used as a repository for new "size of Rhode Island" references, a role that will now be taken over by this blog. (We won't be sticklers for a running count, since Quahog is already doing that. Consider it the cyber equivalent of catch-and-release fishing.) The beauty of the "sori" is that it is used indiscriminately to describe two different, approximate sizes: the 1,500 square miles that include Narragansett Bay and the 1,000 square miles that don't. Although jigsaw puzzle-shaped Rhode Island doesn't have the geometric simplicity of, say, Kansas, the state's two versions of "sori" are both easy to equate to larger masses, even for the most math-challenged journalist. The truth is, a complex world seems more manageable when measured in Rhode Islands. So the "sori" is here to stay. Sorry, Delaware.

Have you spotted a "size of Rhode Island" reference recently? Share it, along with the source, with Blog on the Half Shell readers.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Only in Rhode Island

Fox Sports reports that Providence College finally hired a men's basketball coach today and his name is Keno Davis. Leave it to a Rhode Island institution to hire a man to the third most important job in the state (just behind governor and mayor of Providence) named after a lottery game.
According to one of my unreliable and perhaps invented unnamed sources, a Providence College booster who goes by the name, Deep Friar, it's no coincidence that Davis is the new PC choice. "They couldn't find anyone named Jonnycake or Powerball," said Deep Friar, "so Keno was a no-brainer."
Let's hope Coach Keno has the good sense to spare us the I-95 billboard proclaiming Providence as "Friar Town" next winter. You think Connecticut would ever call Storrs, "Husky Town?" (What would Hartford be, "Extra Husky Town?") Syracuse isn't "Orange Town," Georgetown isn't "Hoya Town," and while we're at it, we'll trust that nobody has the bright idea to slap a billboard on Route 1 welcoming visitors to "Ram County"
So what do you think? Was this a good hire for Providence? Have you ever won at Keno? Do you think the URI Rams need to replace Jim Baron and hire their own "Instant Winner"?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Lost Rhode Island

They are no more. Bereft of life. Off the twig. Kicked the bucket. Joined the bleedin' choir invisible. Once thriving mill communities, fishing villages, railroad depots, ferry crossings, farming hamlets, mining camps and stagecoach stops, they have, like Monthy Python's ex-parrot, ceased to be, popping up now and then in the occasional road name or cemetery. They are ghost towns, and South County is riddled with them, exotic-sounding places like Tug Hollow. A national Web site,, suggests that more than 50,000 ghost towns have disappeared over time in the U.S. Here are a few that have vanished from the maps of South County:

Scrabbletown sounds like a place where board game inventors live, but it was once a farming community in North Kingstown. Now all that's left is Scrabbletown Road and a few stone walls, cellar holes and foundations. Three miles away, our history columnist Tim Cranston lives in Swamptown, another old farming hamlet. Aside from a few crumbling clues in the weeds, not much lives (except for Tim) to tell its story.
Napatree Point in Watch Hill, the sandy comma that separates the southwestern part of Rhode Island from Connecticut, is just beach now. But grand homes and sea cottages once lined the area. They were swept away during the Hurricane of '38, although so many pieces of sea glass and pottery still wash up with the tides, some locals call it "the Kitchen." The ruins of Fort Mansfield, built in 1900, can be found at the tip of the point. The fort was a bust, another in a long line of "Only in Rhode Island" planning decisions. Just after it was constructed, the fort was declared indefensible, immediately dismantled and abandoned.
There's still a hill, and there's still a tower, but Tower Hill, South Kingstown's first settlement, is now little more than sprawl spilling off Route 1. Once visited by the likes of Ben Franklin and George Washington, today it is increasingly trafficked by people on the go, needing gas or coffee and willing to part with a few Ben Franklins and George Washingtons to get it. The Hannah Robinson Tower and Rock at the intersection of Routes 1 and 138 is not the original "tower" of Tower Hill, but for people living south of it, the view is the same now as then: the world ends here.

Know a ghost town? Know a ghost? Share your story with the Blog on the Half Shell community (one littleneck, and counting...).