Let’s Make Fun of a State: Rhode Island

Land of the Coffee Milk Cabinet

Indian wars, clams, costume jewelry, and coffee milk. That’s Rhode Island.

The next in the series of “Let’s Make Fun of a State” should be Texas or California, but we are going to do Rhode Island.

You’re disappointed? I understand. Who doesn’t want to make fun of Texas and California! I’ll give you a sneak preview to help you endure the wait: Californians believe that the soul resides in the glovebox of their car. Really. That’s why they don’t eat in their cars. Texans, on the other hand, believe that their “vehicle” is its own spiritual entity and, deep in their heart of hearts, think that they are “riding the bull” when they get behind the wheel of a 2015 Honda Fit.

Did I mention that I don’t know anything about, and have seldom been to, these states I make fun of?

While those two big states are clearly on the docket, we are going to do Rhode Island next. Heather Nann and Todd Hannula 🤓 have Rhode Island connections, and discussions of Rhode Island and popped up in the comments of posts like this, so I think the universe is pointing to Rhode Island right now.

If Facebook is kind of like California, and Reddit is kind of like Texas, then Medium is kind of like Rhode Island, right? If that doesn’t make sense to you now, it will make even less sense after you read this post.

Everything You Need to Know

I have to confess that I am descended from Rhode Islanders. My mother was a native of Westerly. As a child I spent my summers with my grandmother in Rhode Island. I am a New Yorker, and grew up in the suburbs. There was a long period in my life where I wished I was from Rhode Island. The reason is simple. The list of famous Rhode Islanders is remarkably thin. On almost every list of “Notable Rhode Islanders” you will see the following names: Harry Anderson, Ruth Buzzi, Peter and Bobby Farrelly, James Woods, Spalding Gray and David Hartman. David Hartman? Harry Anderson? In what other state would David Hartman or Harry Anderson make the list? 
 
If you are from Rhode Island the notoriety bar is set exceptionally low. Rhode Island isn’t famous for anything. Did you know that Rhode Island is the chief producer of costume jewelry? I didn’t think so. You get my point. There isn’t much about the state that threatens to overshadow the achievements of its citizens. I can prove this point to you. Take a listen to this:

Famous Rhode Islanders

You can follow along!

Rhode Island Is Famous For You 
 Copper comes from Arizona 
 Peaches come from Georgia 
 And lobsters come from Maine 
 The wheatfields are the sweet fields of Nebraska 
 And Kansas gets bonanzas from the grain. 
 
 Old whiskey comes from old Kentucky 
 Ain’t the country lucky? New Jersey gives us glue! 
 And you…you come from Rhode Island 
 And little old Rhode Island is famous for you. 
 
 Cotton comes from Looziana 
 Gophers from Montana 
 And spuds from Idaho 
 They plow land in the cowland of Missouri 
 Where most beef meant for roast beef seems to grow. 
 
 Grand Canyons come from Colorada 
 Gold comes from Nevada 
 Divorces also do 
 And you…you come from Rhode Island 
 And little old Rhode island is famous for you. 
 
 Pencils come from Pennsylvania 
 Vests from Vest Virginia 
 And tents from Tent-essee 
 They know mink where they grow mink..in Wyomink 
 A camp chair in New Hamp-chair, that’s for me! 
 
 And minnows come from Minnow-sota 
 Coats come from Da-coat-a 
 But why should you be blue? 
 For you…you come from Rhode Island 
 And little old Rhode Island is famous for you! 
 
 — Howard Dietz & Arthur Schwartz

The State Fish

We start with the state fish, because the way to really learn about a state is to investigate it’s official symbols. The state fish of Rhode Island is the Striped Bass. The striper is a anadromous fish. “Anadromous” means that the striper returns to freshwater rivers from the sea in order to breed. You know how fish breed don’t you? They move into cramped little areas and all swim and wiggle about until ovulating females start dropping eggs. Then the males just spray their sperm everywhere! Sounds like fun doesn’t it? Why don’t we do that? You could forget about sex for most of the year. Not be bothered. Suddenly you’d feel compelled to return to your home town. You’d make the journey and when you got back you would find some small building, say the recreation department’s equipment shed, everyone would be there all naked and sexed up. Then you would just let go. Not reproducing like fish is just another way we have been cheated by evolution.

I like this idea of returning to the place your family is from to propagate the next generation. I wonder if stripers ever worry about their weight while heading upstream. Do you think they feel insecure about their time at sea and just resolve to lie and say that they made it all the way to the Chesapeake or something?

What’s Wrong With Rhode Island?

If I was from Rhode Island, like I wanted to be, I would have to return to Rhode Island to spawn, but I don’t want to go to Rhode Island. I would if I could return to old Rhode Island, but, unfortunately the old rural Rhode Island that was chock-o-block full of New England weirdness has been irreparably transformed by droves of horrible New Yorkers. Every nice part of the state (that would be the coast) is now overrun with Yankee fans rather than yankees. Take Block Island for example. When I was a kid, the town of New Shoreham was a breathtakingly odd place… a backwater with fading Victorian hotels and salt water farms whose glory days seemed to be in the past. It was the one place where the much talked about Rhode Island custom of calling a milkshake a “cabinet” wasn’t self-conscious. 
 
I went back to Block Island for the first time in decades about ten years ago. I was shocked to find a bagel shop. A bagel shop! What happened to eating Portuguese rolls for breakfast? There was a woman in front of me who was ordering a coffee. This is the exchange I overheard:

Block Island Girl: Do you want milk in your coffee?
 Woman: What kind of milk?
 BI Girl: (looking at woman as if she has sprouted two heads) milk. 
 Woman: What KIND of milk?
 BI Girl: Cow’s milk.
 Woman: No. Is it 1%, 2%, skim?
 BI Girl: I don’t know
 
I was loving it. I was thinking to myself “look at this fancy pants. She doesn’t know where the hell she is, does she? Ha Ha. Why don’t you just ask the kid what a ‘grinder’ is you stupid New York sophisticate?” 
 
Then the woman asked for a “toasted, scooped bagel with lowfat vegetable creamcheese” and Ms. Block Island didn’t blink an eye. The kid just started SCOOPING A BAGEL. You can get a SCOOPED BAGEL ON BLOCK ISLAND? I was crushed.

Photo by Sally Savage. Used without permission. Please buy her swag so she doesn’t sue me.

The Old Time Rhode Islanders

Have you ever wondered why “Indians didn’t rise up and just try to push the Europeans back into the sea?” Well, the Rhode Island Indians did, and it almost worked. Metacomet (Philip), the son of Massasoit, became sachem of the Wampanoag after his brother Wamsutta (Alexander) was poisoned by the English. Convinced that the continued expansion of the English would spell the death of his people, King Phillip, whose Wampanoags only numbered about 1000 folks, forged a confederacy with the Nipmuc, Pocumtuc and Narragansett and then waged war on the English. “King Philips War” (1675–1678) did significant damage to the English settlers. It is estimated that Native Americans attacked 90 settlements, destroyed 13 of them and killed some 600 English. The cost to Indians, and the Wampanoag in particular, was much greater. A very conservative estimate is that 3,000 Indians were killed. Only 400 Wampanoags survived. Philip was eventually killed in a swamp near his village of Mount Hope (Bristol, RI). His head was displayed on a pole at Plymouth for 25 years ¹.

Well, he got a plaque for it. I guess I should add him to the list of famous Rhode Islanders.

Them Old Wampanoags Were Good For Something

Rhode Island owes a lot to its original natives. If it wasn’t for them, there wouldn’t be all of those great Native American names that are all over Rhode Island like Misquamicut, Aqueedenuck, Niantic and Jerusalem. Oh, wait, “Jerusalem” isn’t a Indian place name. Do you know how to get to Jerusalem? You go to Galilee and take a left! Ha, Ha. That’s Rhode Island humor for you. Well, another native name is quahog which derived from the Narragansett word poquauhock. People in the eastern part of Rhode Island use the Narragansett pronunciation, KWA-hog, whereas people in the nice part of the state (that would be the Western part, like Westerly) use the Wampanoag pronunciation KHO-hog. Quahogs were one of the original wampum. There is a red part of a Quahog shell. A bead made from that part of the shell was worth roughly two plain white beads. Don’t you love that? The MORE YOU EAT THE MORE MONEY YOU HAVE. And eating quahogs is good eating. Rhode Islanders have lots of names for quahogs. When they are small quahogs are called “little necks.” When they get a little bigger they are called “cherry stones” and finally, when they can be as much as 40 years old, they are called “chowders.” The best name is from Heather Nann, who recently referred to a quahog as a “Rhode Island ashtray.”

What Heather Nann Calls a “Rhode Island Ashtray”

The Wampum economy fell apart after when whitey showed up. Wampum turned out to be like tulip bulbs or Magic the Gathering cards. Well, not that bad. Look at what wampum fetches on Ebay. Plus, those old Narragansetts got to eat clean quahog. With the pollution of Narragansett bay, the clams are probably worth more than the shells nowadays.

A History of Independence

European destruction of the natives isn’t something to take pride in, but Rhode Islanders can take some solace in the fact that their founding father was about as good as one could hope for. Roger Williams founded Rhode Island after being exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony by the Puritan court in Salem for spreading “diverse, new, and dangerous opinions.” He was deeded land by the Narragansett tribe and was unique among his contemporaries for arguing that Native Americans had property rights and should not be killed like vermin. Thanks to Rogers’ unorthodox views, Rhode Island quickly became a haven of religious tolerance. Tolerance meaning that they didn’t whip and burn Jews and Quakers. The independent streak continued. Despite the fact that the full name of Rhode Island is “Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations” and that the plantations were real plantations… and despite the fact that Rhode Island profited more than any other colony from the slave trade… the state does get credit for enacting the first law prohibiting slavery in North America, which it did in 1652. Rhode Island was also the first colony to declare independence from England and the last to ratify the Constitution, which it wouldn’t adopt until the Bill of Rights had been added. Rhode Island never ratified the 18th Amendment (prohibition). Rhode Island is also the only state to be…

Run by the Mob

As we have said, Rhode Islanders are people of conviction, or convictions. Rhode Island was the state that the Mafia owned. Under Raymond L.S. Patriarca, “The Mayor of Providence”, Mob power in New England was concentrated in Rhode Island… until the real Mayor of Providence, Buddy Cianci, rid the state of mob influence to make way for his own, less formal, wave of corruption. Cianci served a federal prison term for racketering. In 1984 he pled no-contest to charges of kidnapping and assault. His victim was a friend named Raymond DeLeo who Cianci thought was having an affair with his wife. Cianci attacked him with a fireplace log, an ashtray (not a Rhode Island one), and a lit cigarette. Despite his convictions Cianci had many supporters. I once heard him speak in person. When I saw him he said that “If tomorrow I walk on water across Narragansett Bay, the headline in the Providence Journal will be ‘Cianci Can’t Swim’.” After leaving prison in 2007, he became a talk show host and ran for Mayor. He died before he could be re-elected, but getting elected after being in prison is no big deal. Getting elected while in prison, like James Michael Curley of Boston, is a real political feat.

Let’s Get Back to Hope

I shouldn’t be dwelling on defeated indians, slave trade, and mob influence. There’s plenty that’s great about Rhode Island. The Quonset hut was manufactured in Rhode Island. The diner may have been invented in the Ocean State. The “cottages” of Newport are architecturally significant. Some of the greatest yacht designs come from Rhode Island… but none of that amounts to much in the face of Rhode Island’s greatest contribution to American culture… coffee milk. Legend has it that coffee milk was invented as a way of overcharging for sweetened milk mixed with used coffee grounds… but however it came to be it is a great, and weirdly regional, taste. My aunt, who died of cancer in the Westerly house she was born in, spent her final months drinking coffee milk in the hope that it would give her the strength to continue the fight. She was a true Rhode Islander. Tough, cheap, and full of hope and coffee milk.

Coffee milk. You can make a cabinet out of it.

¹ “His head was put on a pole for 25 years” is what I remember reading as a kid. I can’t find the source, but I can find a lot of people ripping off this exact phrase, so it must have been in some Edgar Rowe Snow book or something.


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