Monday, February 11, 2013

Half Shell on Ice

Like many Rhode Islanders, we here at Half Shell World HQ lost power Friday night. Our little frozen cove in West Barrington remains buried in snow. Until the lights and heat came back on at 7:43 last night, we bunkered in our drafty igloos with the geese and ducks of Allins Cove. For entertainment during the day we shoveled out mounds of Everest from our driveways and walkways and watched our breath form cloud animals inside our homes. Candles, battery lanterns, head lamps and solar lights allowed us to function at night. We slept fully clothed, under an avalanche of blankets and comforters. We conversed with neighbors, our frosted eyes peeking out of snowdrifts, trading news the old fashioned way - word of mouth, one shovel at a time. The hours blurred into little trials of survival: digging out, foraging for food, trying not to freeze. A few highlights: Trumpeting mute swans flying through the sideways snow of Winter Storm Nemo on the edge of the cove; afternoon sunshine splashing through windows the next day; a lunch of hot dogs and kielbasa at a neighbor's house; solving puzzles with friends by solar light; drinking cans of Pawtucket-based Foolproof's Backyahd IPA while reading a spy novel by candlelight; and listening to WPRO's Operation Snowball coverage.

The old transistor radio proves handy in times like these. And the callers, Rhode Islanders from all over the state, were so refreshing. Down-to-earth, good-humored, warm-hearted. Offering survival tips. Trading complaints. Giving hyper-local updates. Sharing their storm stories and only in Rhode Island moments: One man said he called the warming center number provided for Exeter. "The lady there said, 'I've lived in Rhode Island all my life, and I've never heard of Exeter,'" he told the show's host. How typically Rhode Island is that? You staff a statewide hot line with citizens of a state who've never been from one county to another. You'd have better luck finding out where the Exeter warming center is located by calling a number in Bangalore.

By Sunday, the situation hadn't improved, so I took a road trip to Whole Foods in Providence to stock up and recharge the batteries. Overheard there: "I went to Dunkin' Donuts," said one guy. "They ran out of donuts." His friend nodded: "Did they run out of Dunkin'?," he asked. WPRO callers continued to say they were getting by, although one woman spoke for many in the Ocean State when she said of her family, "We're kinda getting on each other's nerves." The day turned warm, and the neighborhood turned inside-out. A couple of snowmen waved their stick arms in the direction of Narragansett Bay. Somebody built a snow labyrinth in their yard. Evergreens sparkled, melting the white from their limbs.

As of this posting, there are still 20,000 Rhode Islanders without power. The Pope tried to steal the storm's thundersnow by announcing his resignation - no small headline in the country's most Catholic state. But at the end of the day this is still Rhode Island, where "the politics of snow," to quote a phrase from "The Mayor" Buddy Cianci, trumps everything else. Including the politics of the Vatican. Not for nothin', but we do seem to like a little drama with our weather. Hurricane Bob arrived here on the day of a hardline Kremlin Soviet coup in 1991. (It also happened to be my birthday, but that bit of history was pushed to the back pages.)

Nemo is Latin for "No Man" or "No One," meaning the Blizzard of 2013 will be forever known as "No Man's Storm" or "No One's Storm." It was described by National Grid as "a multi-day event." You know. Like the Olympics. Only most Rhode Islanders aren't willing to hand out many gold medals.

Inevitably, between bouts of figuring out where to put the snow and enduring 9-degree cold, talk turned to the Blizzard of '78. Comparisons were made. Old stories were retold. One thing the old-timers said over and over, all around the neighborhood: "This never woulda happened with Narragansett Electric."

What was your Nemo story?

Monday, January 28, 2013

On the Rhode Again

I’ve traveled to Arctic, Hope, Moscow, Wyoming, Berkeley, Wyoming, Carolina, Galilee and Jerusalem, but never saw any narwhals, the Clinton Library, KGB, Big Sky, hippie professors, James Taylor or the Lord’s disciples. All of those villages exist in Rhode Island, an eclectic mix of exotic locales variously centered around wiener joints, junkyard dogs and rock crabs.

Most Rhode Islanders rarely leave the armchair to travel. To them, Manville in Lincoln is a village of survivalist Paul Bunyan-types, where football is played every day, cheap beer and hot wings are served for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the local library is stocked only with back issues of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Locustville in Hopkinton invites the plague every seven years or so. Everybody wears plate armor in the Cranston burg of Knightsville. The West Greenwich villages of Nooseneck and Nooseneck Hill were so named to keep people from East Greenwich from ever visiting. Monks escaped persecution in Cumberland in the village of Abbot Run. Rhode Island hair stylists all serve an apprenticeship in the Hopkinton village of Barberville. “Beowulf” was required reading for first graders residing in the former hamlet of Saxonville (Burrillville). Noah’s second home was Arkwright in Coventry. People still squeeze the Charmin in the Burrillville village of Whipple. To this day, the Smithfield village of Stillwater celebrates its military victory over rival neighbors in Fizzywater. Residents in Clayville (Scituate-Foster) walk with a strangely animated, stop-motion gait. According to the latest census, there are no Clydes in Clyde, a village in West Warwick. We have also learned that there were slaves in Liberty (Exeter), not everyone is happy in Harmony (Glocester) and sap runs amok in Mapleville (Burrillville).

From Moosup Valley to Diamond Hill, Bristol Ferry to Summit, Hopkins Hollow to Watch Hill, Rhode Island villages evoke mystery and history, even though many of them today are little more than overgrown cemeteries squeezed between a convenience store and a Dunkin’ Donuts. Some are named for prominent features: Lime Rock, White Rock, Greystone, Rocky Brook. Dozens are derivatives of Narragansett and Wampanoag terms, including Apponaug (“where he roasts oysters”), Chepachet (“devil’s bag”) and Escoheag (“this is as far as the spear-fishing goes”).

And then there are the districts: Graniteville in Johnston (where there was a lot of granite); Frenchtown in East Greenwich (where there were a lot of French); Merino in Johnston (where there were a lot of sheep); Fruit Hill in North Providence (where people tossed their bananas); Rumford in East Providence (where pirates retired); Sand Dam in Chepachet (where beavers eschewed mud for drywall); Tiverton Four Corners in Tiverton (where people never figured out what to call a crossroad); and Hamlet in Woonsocket (where there was a lot of Shakespearean drama).

Few people have heard of these places because the great travel writers – the likes of V.S. Naipaul, Jan Morris, Pico Iyer, Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux and Eric Newby – never bothered to visit. The great Rhode Island travel book – “Out of Annawamscutt” or “In Ponaganset” – has yet to be written.

What is your favorite Rhode Island travel story?

[Blogger’s note: With apologies to my reader (we really do have to get you a name), after today Half Shell will clam up for the unforeseeable future. We’re taking our notebook and heading to South Africa for a few weeks. The rest is unknown. If you’d like, you can follow our adventures under our alias travel blog, Clams Got Legs, which will be revived in February, with the goal to post at least once a week. Until we link again, keep it raw…]

Monday, January 21, 2013

Oysters and Gaggers

A hot, soft, salted pretzel purchased from a street vendor near Madison Square Garden on 34th St., slathered in mustard, the size of a small Frisbee, was my breakfast Saturday morning. Eating it on the run, trying to make my appointment, put me in a New York frame of mind. It was a bright, breezy winter’s day. But even mild weather cuts a little deeper in Manhattan, where cold winds whip around the severe corners of skyscrapers that block the sun, keeping light and heat from reaching you in the grid of concrete and steel that fancies itself as the world’s greatest city.

Earlier, upon exiting Grand Central Station, the first sound I heard was a honking taxi. The driver was trying to scatter pedestrians, who were using the crosswalk legally – according to the symbol of the little white man at the stoplight, indicating it was time to cross. But that didn’t matter to the cabbie. He tried to drive through them. A few of the walkers told him to attempt something that was anatomically impossible for anyone not named Gumby. Then they pounded the back of his cab to emphasize the point. The cabbie yelled back. The passenger in the back seat clutched her purse and stared out the window with wild-eyed terror. The moment passed. The streets erupted in a chorus of honking cabs and ambulance sirens, and before long the sounds of beeping construction trucks and jackhammers completed the familiar Gotham soundtrack. In the midst of the cacophony, my dripping pretzel struck an authentic New York note.

Later that afternoon, while waiting for the 4:07 to New Haven, I found a counter seat at the Grand Central Station Oyster Bar and blurred the distance between New York and Rhode Island before the train trip by ordering a platter of oysters – Beavertails, Watch Hills and Moonstones – all from South County. They were so good I decided to detour to Massachusetts – Wellfleets, Martha’s Vineyards and Cotuits. Naked Cowboys from Long Island, Witch Ducks from Virginia and French Kisses from Nova Scotia completed the tour. I paid, left the counter, and gave up my seat to the person standing behind me. The city never sleeps, but a lot of its waking time is spent waiting in line.

Supper was wieners. Three, all the way, at a wiener joint in East Providence, after the train ride and drive back. They don’t have Coney Island Systems or New York Systems in New York, of course, which was part of the appeal of dining there that night. While I waited, I read the menu. Wieners, also called “gaggers,” “belly busters” or “missiles,” come in 30-foot links, which are then chopped into their four-inch eating shapes. There’s also a name for a wiener served without the wiener. It’s called an “air dog,” and is simply the soft white steamed bun with mustard, meat sauce, chopped onions and celery salt. Rhode Islanders have a strange obsession with doughy white bread-like foods, whether accompanying chow mein sandwiches (chow mein on a hamburger bun), grinders, doughboys or strip pizza. It’s the only state in the country where the Wonder Bread trucks parked at the Hostess Bakery Outlet in Warwick don’t look like something that popped out of a time machine.

At Sparky’s, unlike my experience at the oyster bar, this time I was the only customer at the counter. In fact, I was the only person in the entire joint, except for the grill man, who said that he could usually count on a late-night crowd (it’s open until 3 a.m. on weekends) but added that it has been dead so far in January. He asked if I wanted a drink. I asked if I could have water. He said, “As long as the Scituate Reservoir hasn’t run out.” We talked about old times. I remembered a night at Sparky’s years ago, where the counter crowd included an albino, a midget, a transvestite and a thin, scarred man covered in leather, tattoos and piercings. Those were the days of three gaggers for a dollar and music played on vinyl. For under five bucks you could make a night out of a bottomless cup of coffee, an arm of wieners and a jukebox.

What’s your favorite food memory?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Next Stop, New Englandville

Three Rhode Island locations – all from South County - were chosen for Yankee Magazine’s 2013 January/February cover story, “New Englandville: The Town of Our Dreams.” In this Norman Rockwellian view of New England utopia, Dave’s Coffee of Charlestown, Allie’s Donuts of North Kingstown and the Alternative Food Co-op of Wakefield all make the cut. So where’s Daddy’s Bread (Matunuck), the self-serve bakery stand where people pay by the honor system, sometimes leaving IOUs to be squared during a later visit? Or Jim’s Dock (Jerusalem), a restaurant on a dock overlooking Salt Pond where customers park behind one another and leave their keys in their cars, in case departing diners need to move them? Or the Middle of Nowhere Diner (Exeter), which really is in the middle of nowhere? (The only way I ever find it is by getting lost.)

Today’s fog-shrouded morning would qualify for a day in New Englandville, along with those accompanying scenes of mute swans drifting in the mist, winter hawks visiting a newspaper building parking lot and wild turkeys sleeping off their dewy hangovers in front of a Portsmouth funeral home.

Let’s face it, here in New Englandville we enjoy our self-congratulatory excursions in idealizing and nostalgia. The continued existence of Yankee Magazine during an age when many glossy periodicals – Newsweek included – have gone the way of the carrier pigeon is proof of that. But the underlying truth of these kinds of stories is that we may over-celebrate what we believe is authentic about New England because we fear what we are losing, or perhaps what we are becoming. Throughout the six-state region, strip malls and tacky developments are replacing horse farms. Vermont country stores are as rare as Vermont covered bridges. Closer to home, Main Street in Wakefield – like Main Streets throughout New England – lost its fish market and village butcher shop. The former became a trendy wood-fired pizzeria. The latter has sat empty for over a year.

New developments try to create their own sense of New Englandville, turning open space into planned communities of shops and homes made of shingle or white clapboard, sprinkled with stonewalls and steeples, and intersected by roads named for the habitat, wildlife and landscape features they replaced. In my neighborhood, Lavin’s Marina (now Lighthouse Marina) is being developed into a small community called Lighthouse Cove. There is a lighthouse, way out there in Narragansett Bay, but you won’t be able to see it from the houses, which are blocked by other houses. But the marketing version of New England will always choose a lighthouse over a Lavin. Advertising will always go for the aura of authenticity rather than the real thing. There should be a word for that. Let’s call it fauxthentic.

What Rhode Island destination belongs in New Englandville?

Monday, January 7, 2013

Slow News Day

In a recent edition of The Improper Bostonian, comedian Steven Wright was interviewed and asked the following question: “Would you consider yourself neurotic, and does comedy come from a dark place?”

His answer: “I’m extremely neurotic, and personally, I think comedy should come from Rhode Island.”

Well, it does, of course. Frequently. Ever since wampum, slavery and rum-running, comedy has been our stock in trade. Consider the following news items from last year:

The owner of a cursing cockatoo from Warwick is appealing a noise ordinance fine after her neighbor complained that the bird spews vulgar phrases and profanity all day. What makes this a Rhode Island story is that the neighbor lives with the cockatoo owner's ex-husband.

A dog survived a ride from Massachusetts to Rhode Island after being hit by a car and getting stuck in its grille. The driver of a Toyota Camry saw the dog crossing the road in Taunton, Mass., and braked, but felt and heard nothing and assumed it somehow escaped harm once it disappeared from view. He drove 50 miles per hour down Route 44 to East Providence, when he was finally flagged down by another motorist, who told him that he had a dog in his grille. The white poodle-bichon mix survived with minor injuries and no broken bones, by clinging onto the bumper. What makes this a Rhode Island story is contemplating how many motorists and pedestrians the driver must've passed during the 11-mile journey that didn't notice a live dog hanging on for dear life to the front of a speeding Camry.

In North Providence, four policeman are being investigated for making five boys do pushups on the side of the road as their punishment for damaging a mailbox. What makes this a Rhode Island story is the cops never even once considered making the delinquents follow up with crunches.

The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations finally eliminated a law from the books that, once enacted in 1989, instantly made all Rhode Islanders criminals (instead of making us earn it). The law, as written, prevented any Rhode Islander from fibbing on the Internet. So any e-mails, online chat discussions, Facebook posts, Tweets and, yes, even blog posts since then containing a single white lie could have resulted in prosecution. What makes this a Rhode Island story is that lawmakers originally thought the measure would stop fraudsters, con artists and scammers, which make up the bulk of our population. Those same lawmakers knew they had failed when they tried online dating and realized that nobody looks like their picture.

And then there was this Only in Rhode Island story from 2012:

In December, a husband and wife from Lincoln each got arrested for DUI on the same night. The woman was stopped in Cranston. The husband was pulled over in Lincoln for a motor vehicle violation on his way to pick her up.

What was the funniest news story ever to come out of Rhode Island?

Friday, December 28, 2012

Dropping the Ball

With the possible exception of Valentine’s Day, few holidays on the American calendar cause as much angst and apathy as New Year’s Eve. For most of us, it is a chore to eat and drink too much and stay up too late yet again after what is a seemingly endless stretch of feasting, shopping and stressing since Thanksgiving.

Still, as much as I would like to join “the band of tatterdemalions” known as the Banished Fools during Bright Night Providence, and mingle among the monster puppets of Big Nazo and bang a drum or blow a horn with the Extraordinary Rendition Band, and wake up the next morning to jump into Narragansett Bay with various Polar Bears, Penguins and Scuppers, I’ll be up in moose country instead, wearing antlers instead of a jester’s hat.

But before I head north, I’d like to propose something for next year. Why not shift the New Year to March, where it used to be?

As established, the holiday comes too soon after Christmas and Thanksgiving to be given the respectful indulgence it deserves. In fact, it convolutes the Christmas season, occurring in the middle its 12 feast days and rendering insignificant the celebration of Twelfth Night on Jan. 6.

For centuries many cultures, including the Mesopotamians, who are credited with giving us the first New Year’s bash (with party favors and resolutions printed in Sanskrit), started the year with the vernal equinox – the beginning of spring. (Some cultures – Egyptians, Phoenicians, Persians and Celts among them – began the year in autumn, while the Greeks started during the winter solstice.) The ancient Romans, after centuries of cheering the New Year on March 1, moved the holiday when they created the months of January and February for the Julian calendar, although many Romans continued to celebrate in March. Medieval religious leaders later abolished Jan. 1 as the New Year, moving it to Christmas Day, to honor the birth of Christ. The Gregorian calendar reestablished the January date in 1582, although the British Empire – including its colonies in America – kept partying in March until 1752.

So maybe it’s time to go back to March to start the calendar. The only down side is that we would end every year with the darkest, coldest months, with only valentines, groundhogs and college basketball to cheer us up. But on the plus side, by the time New Year's Eve arrived in March, the hangover might actually be worth it.

This week’s question: What is the best way to celebrate the New Year in Rhode Island?

[Blogger’s note: Early post this week, given the impending trip to the Granite State. Rest in peace, Dick Clark.]

Monday, December 24, 2012

Ornamentally Rhody

So Olivia Culpo, the Cranston cellist who became the first Rhode Islander to win the Miss USA Pageant, went on to win the Miss Universe Pageant. We’re left wondering what’s next for Ms. Culpo? Is there a Miss Space-Time Continuum Pageant?

Anyway, she leads this year’s list of Rhode Island ornament-worthy figures, for the Christmas (or holiday) tree in your household:

12 Rhody Ornaments for the 12 Days of Christmas

1) An Olivia Culpo action figure, dressed in Miss Rhode Island, Miss USA and Miss Universe sashes, inserted into the shape of a nebula in honor of her latest accomplishment. Glitter color to match the sparkle on her evening gown.

2) An Elizabeth Beisel talking action figure, crooning a reworked “Silver and Gold” as “Silver and Bronze,” in honor of the two swimming medals the North Kingstown native won this summer during the London Olympics.

3) The R.I. State House in a snow globe, with a scene of an evergreen in the rotunda, wrapped in a banner that says “This is NOT a holiday tree” or “Even if this is a Christmas tree the state recognizes it as a holiday tree because it is meant to represent all Rhode Islanders, not just Christians or those who celebrate Christmas.” Your choice.

4) The Big Blue Bug with its antennae lit green and red.

5) A frosted pumpkin in honor of the two-ton giant world-record-holding gourd grown by Ron Wallace of Greene and weighed in October.

6) A white Styrofoam ball with “I O U $112.6 MILLION” written in black magic marker in honor of the 38 Studios debacle, in which Curt Schilling’s video game company bankruptcy left Rhode Island taxpayers holding the bill.

7) Two new Christmas characters – Foster the Fisher Cat and Cranston the Bear – in honor of the sudden abundance of fishers and bruins in the Ocean State. Fishers are suddenly everywhere, depleting the skunk and squirrel populations, while a big black bear was a visitor to the streets of Cranston in October, presumably to indulge in a few boxes of Calvitto’s and Crugnale’s party pizza.

8) Matunuck sand in an hourglass, in honor of the increased battering and erosion along the Rhody coast thanks to more frequent and intense storms during this era of climate weirdness. Save the sand. It may be all we have to remember Matunuck by someday.

9) Two gingerbread brown pelicans, in honor of the North Carolina birds blown all the way to Rhode Island by Hurricane Sandy. The pelicans were discovered at Fisherman’s Memorial State Park in Narragansett and were treated at the Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Rhode Island in Saunderstown before flying (on a private plane) to more natural habitat in Florida.

10) Heads-you-win, tails-you-lose, gold coin in honor of the R.I. casino ballot measure that was approved in Lincoln but rejected in Newport in November.

11) Mini-accordion, to replace the traditional harp among the popcorn and cranberry garland, in honor of Cumberland’s Cory Pelaturo, World Digital Accordion Champion.

12) Calico lobster, an ornament that doubles as a bottle opener, in honor of the latest 30 million-to-one crustacean to be hauled out Rhode Island waters earlier this spring in Newport. Makes a great companion piece to last year’s dangling yellow lobster.

What 2012 Rhode Island ornament belongs on your Christmas tree?