Goodbye to THAT stuff

Why I left South Kingstown, Rhode Island, Forever

It’s a story as old as the city itself, really.

A young, impressionable man— a boy, really— comes to South Kingstown, Rhode Island, with empty pockets but a head full of dreams. I was lured in like so many others, by promises both false and true, with ambitions both small and grand. I wanted to test myself, wanted to be seared in the same fire that had tested so many before. I guess, as naive and idealistic as it sounds now, I just believed in what you heard in the movies and in songs: “If you can make it here, you would probably do alright in several other economically depressed small cities on the New England coast.”

Now, those days seem so long ago. I’ve never regretted leaving it all behind. But some part of my soul still calls out for understanding, still compels me to tell the tale. So like so many writers before me, I sit down to explain why I left South Kingstown, Rhode Island, forever.

Why did we come, come by the dozens, to South Kingstown, Rhode Island? At the time, it seemed like the apt question was, why would we go anywhere else? There was so much to see, so much to do. From the campus of the University of Rhode Island, to the other side of the campus of the University of Rhode Island, to the stained glass district of Wakefield, to the various municipal buildings that housed essential city services, it was all there. It was our playground. We’d imagine all the people who had come before, those whose names now seem to waft about the place on the breeze. Here, on this corner, Jhumpa Lahiri must have wandered! There, on that sidewalk— did late 18th-century US Representative from Vermont’s second district, Nathaniel Niles, perhaps take a stroll? As a baby, I mean? They seemed to haunt the place, the household names, the legends.

It was a city of neighborhoods. Or, if we’re being technical, it was a city of “census-designated places.” Kingston, West Kingston, Snug Harbor, Matunuck, East Matunuck…. We wore our neighborhoods like a badge. I don’t mind telling you, I got myself in a few scrapes, trying to defend the honor of Wakefield, manning the battlements on the Wakefield-Peacedale line. It was tough, so you had to be tougher. It was tough in particular because nobody could decide exactly where the border separating Wakefield and Peacedale was. I mean some people said it was Church Street, but that doesn’t make sense, because the Wakefield Firehouse was on the Peacedale side of Church Street. I mean it was right up there on the building. I’d say that all the time to those Peacedale boys— “look at that sign, man!” But they’d just sneer, that Peacedale sneer. Dickheads.

But for all the fights, the rough scrapes, the close calls, there was also a sense of camaraderie. I’d see them on the RIPTA bus— it stands for “Rhode Island Public Transit Authority” but you’d never catch a real Kingstowner calling it that, we just called it RIPTA, it was like a secret language , like a c0de— I’d see them, other bright young things like me, trying to look tough, trying to keep their eyes from going too wide. We’d give each other The Look— it was a capital-L kind of look— that signaled our toughness, our resolve, our nascent adulthood… but, also, beneath it all, our worry. In a glance, we’d ask each other: can I really do this? Can I make it… here? (Glances are typically pretty short, but there’s not much to look at, on the bus.) It didn’t help that the Kingstowners also rode the bus, the real Kingstowners, the born-and-bred kind, the ones with eyes like flint, and like steel, and like various other hard materials typically utilized to create fire. We’d see them all, in their seemingly limitless diversity: the people on their way to work… the other people going to work… it was a rich, rich tapestry.

There were rites of passage. I’ll never forget my first trip to the Mews Tavern. I worked so hard to look tough, back then, but in truth I circled the block three times before I finally went in, I was so nervous. I was right to be afraid. As soon as I walked in, I saw the faces and the eyes— grizzled old barkeeps, or at least, grizzled young barkeeps with the eyes of grizzled old barkeeps, or sometimes not-particularly-grizzled-at-all-barkeeps who were nonetheless intimidating; old, hard-as-nails waitresses, the kind with tattoos that read “Mom” and had looks that could cut glass; other waitresses that weren’t really like that; and the regulars, the ones who could size you up and down and seemed to bore into your soul, with their deep, penetrating eyes, and ask, “who’s that dude?” I found it a place of terrifying delights, equally attractive and repulsive. There were so many things to know, to understand. Like the dollar bills, whimsically stapled to the walls, often graffito-tagged in a way that signaled the insouciance of the tagger— a mustache drawn on George Washington, say, or a phone number that presumably dialed a lady of low character. Sometimes, even, profanity. And what’s this? A hamburger, with peanut butter on it? Was there no end to their casual disrespect for propriety? All in all, it was a ribald affair.

It’s nothing like you expect, and yet it’s exactly like they say in the stories. Like the first time you’re walking down the bike path down by the cemetery, past that weird little smoothie store that seems to be staffed entirely by 13 year olds, which has gotta be against some sort of labor law, and you come across a pack of goats, out to graze from that weird hippie goat farm. And you see the goats, eyes lit up in the dark, and you are afraid, and you see that weird hippie lady with the white people dreads going on, and you’re also afraid about that. Until some kind stranger, their eyes full of compassion, their smile wise and true, leans in and whispers to you, “don’t worry, those are just the goats, from that weird hippie goat farm up the road.” And your fear turns to embarrassment, and also, perhaps, to joy. But mostly embarrassment. But you also don’t get close to those goats. Goddamn creepy goats.

They say Los Angeles is a city without a center. This is a deep thing to say, about a city. But South Kingstown, that had a center, one within walking distance of my modest apartment. It was the roundabout that connected High Street to Route 108. They called us the High Street-Route 108 Roundabout Boys…. Some, less savvy, a little less cynical, might instead call it a “traffic circle.” In any event, it was round, and in its roundness was a kind of perfection, as though all points around its boundary were an equal distance from its center. So much happened in that space. In early December, they’d light the tall conifer with brightly colored lights, to signal the birth of Our Lord. In early January, they’d stop lighting them, although they never really seemed to take them down, even in, like, August, so you could still pretty much make them out all the time. Like I said: so much happened, there. The Honeydew Donuts that held pride of place on that roundabout was our beacon, our place of solace, our fortress, at least from 7 AM - 6 PM weekdays, 9 - 4 weekends. Our Honeydew coffee cups were our badge, like heroin was for the jazz musicians of the Harlem Renaissance, or as with the Beat poets, who were also into heroin, if memory serves. Or maybe it was barbiturates or some other weird old-people drug. The point is they got high, and in a certain, not-very-accurate sense, we also got high, high on Honeydew. Any asshole could buy Dunkin Donuts. (Seriously, you can’t get away from that shit out there.) But Honeydew? Well, to most of the people of New England, it might as well have been Tim Hortons. It was that exotic.

I thought, like all young men, that it would go on forever, that I would never die, that I would never grow old, that I would never tire of paying near-the-coast prices for a shithole apartment with a bad furnace pilot light, that I would live forever in that building, the one with the dude who set up some kind of half-assed business changing people’s oil in the parking lot, in flagrant violation of our lease. I thought I could stay in the embrace of the dream.

But nothing gold can stay. Like all fairy tales, this one had an end, and it did not go “happily ever after,” like most fairy tales seem to. It happened so gradually, and yet so suddenly. With the same terrible speed that this frightening city became your city, the city became something else, something sadder, something darker, something for the pigs, for the squares. You felt it in the pocketbook before you felt it in your heart; the rent that once bought you a shitty studio next to an independent pizzeria now only bought you a shitty studio next to a gas station. Restaurants with names like “Little Sal’s” where the silverware was always dirty gave way to fancy Thai restaurants where the silverware was usually clean. (Which, to be perfectly fair, was actually better, in most ways.) That pair of dimes you kept in your pocket for a rainy day had become a pair of nickels. Or maybe the dimes were still dimes but their relative purchasing power had fallen to the point where they may as well have been nickels. I am not an economist.

Suddenly, where there had once been artists and dreamers, there were the fakes, the sycophants, the toadies. The college kids, once content to while away their time, dulling their already-dull brains with the locally-produced charms of Narraganset ale, were coming down here, to our special place, driving up rents everywhere. The campus had gone dry, so they had cast their eyes on our the-opposite-of-innocent-yet-innocent city. They called it “going down the line.” Nobody needed to fill in the blank: they were going down the line… to gentrification. You’d look around the neighborhood and cry, “What is this? South Kingston, Rhode Island? Or Warwick, Rhode Island?”

And the lawyers. I assume there were lawyers. Maybe more than there had been. Maybe less, to be fair. I mean who knows, really. I’m just saying, there had to be a few lawyer, here and there. You get a population above a certain number, and chances are, you’re gonna get a lawyer or two. I mean, it would kind of be a problem if you didn’t. People have to write wills and such.

One day, I returned. And I made a promise, that day, and today, I keep that vow. I got out of my car, and I stood in front of the apartment building I had known so well, nose full of smells, heart full of bittersweet feelings. I stood by the curb and I thought of the young man I once was, clear eyed, full of heartedness, incapable of losing except in the strictest sense, and I raised my voice: “I will tell the tale! I will let them know! I will not let my beautiful personage pass from the memory of this great city without an accounting!” And then some lady was like, “Are you fucking for real, right now?,” and that was downright rude.

I left because, though in a certain sense the dream will live forever, in another sense the dream had already died. And in a third sense, was it ever really a dream? The town had changed, or I had changed, or the town had changed and it had change me in changing, or else I had changed and in my changing I had changed the town. Although probably not the last one. That seems a bit unrealistic. Anyway: things were different, and my heart could not bear the difference between how it had been, and how it was now. And that is why I left South Kingstown forever, and that is the reason for the tale I tell.

Oh, also I finished my MA. That was also a big part of it, also. Actually, I mean, that was probably the primary reason for leaving, when you really get right down to it. Maybe I should have led with that. I dunno.