Bill Viall: Lost civilization found
This article appeared in the Providence Journal
01:00 AM EST on Sunday, March 19, 2006
IN SELECT CIRCLES, the demise of Babe's On The Sunny Side neighborhood bar, on Wickenden Street, in Providence's Fox Point section, has been a dominant topic, source of elaborate speculation, and much melodramatic gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair.
Like the Boston Garden or Fenway Park, purists saw Babe's as a public trust, something outside economic laws; not owned. Few historic houses in Providence are preserved with the disciplined, detailed devotion that Todd, the proprietor, maintained Babe's.
Black-and-white photographs of local boxers rung the walls, and a large needlepoint mural of John F. Kennedy hung behind the pool table. Cell-phone use was strictly forbidden, as well as cameras, and the few times that someone said he wanted to write up the bar, he was unceremoniously told to leave. Except for the air conditioner, color television set, and Sam Adams beer, the bar stood in 2005 the same as it had half a century ago.
A while back at the Decatur Lounge, in Providence's West Side, I encountered Todd. When the subject of his bar arose, he explained that the landlord wanted to sell the place, and then chuckled at the fact that he owns the building. Subject closed, Todd slid into a rift that Providence and the surrounding region is not as fun or colorful as it used to be, as when in our youth we roamed the city, sinning and scandalizing the worthy locals whose age we are now approaching.
Todd currently works with a friend on a lobster boat out of Jamestown, but intends to take his Babe's artifacts to the Maine coast, in search of New England's lost, quiet way of life. He said he had seen such vanishing culture in the Berkshires, where there were communities where people knew one another, dogs walk freely and a fellow can relax.
"It's still 'Hi neighbor' in the Berkshires," he said.
Todd gravitates toward the sea and I to the mountain forest, but we share the same aesthetic and anthropological bent, so after a little research, I drove off with the James Taylor lyric dancing the do-si-do with Horace Greeley's famous exhortation "Go west, young man" in my head.
I jumped off the Massachusetts Turnpike at the Lee exit and headed south in the conga line of cars that is Route 7, through Stockbridge to Great Barrington. With the occasional syrup pail hanging off a maple, the hills and towns are lovely enough, yet they are stricken with the same disease that smaller Rhode Island towns suffer from, which is too many people like me seeking what we like to call authenticity.
In Great Barrington I saw a high-end western (as in "out West") store with garishly colored, synthetic fleeces, making me wonder if that's what Brokeback cowboys really wear these days. Many of the restaurants were so hoity-toity with their linens and crystal that they don't even serve lunch.
I stopped into a boutique flogging French country wares. Judging by the pricey folding knife sets, richly embroidered silk table cloths, and gilt glass finger bowls, I thought that the French farmer must be doing rather well for himself these days, and that all their strikes paid off.
One patron called out, "Find anything to buy, Bob?" The saleswoman who pronounced the French brands with a thick Boston accent, asked the man where he was from.
With a smirk he answered, "West 75th Street." His wife slapped his arm with her kid leather gloves, and quickly explained, "We're from New York City."
Feeling myself becoming more of the thing I was trying to avoid, I hopped into my car, and drove back up Route 7 in search of the lost civilization Todd spoke of. At the Route 20 junction I broke free from the mobius strip of chain stores and over-sized family vehicles, and headed farther west. Past the Hancock Shaker Village -- an extinct community whose rejection of procreation sealed its fate -- our frantic civilization ends, giving way to farmland and rolling hills unbroken by strip malls.
Surely it's unique to a people who describe a 15-minute ride as long, the giddy sensation a Rhode Islander feels crossing over the New York State line. You almost have to remind yourself that no, this is not how Neil Armstrong felt, leaving the Lunar LEM. Driving through Stephentown, N.Y., which sits aside the crossroads of Routes 20 and 43, I was struck by Sykes General Store, the only discernible commercial entity in the town. Overcoming the urge to grab my camera, I leaped out and walked into the cavernous, half lit, box store.
"Can I help you?" the old fellow asked, rising from his macrame-covered lounger.
"Oh, I'm just looking."
"What for?" My sinking feeling turned to dread. He knew just what I had come for: to gape at the spectacle of his establishment, with most of its inventory predating my birth.
"Oh, I just came for something to eat," I explained sheepishly. Seeing the window of opportunity closing, I furtively toured the six or so aisles, racing to make mental notes. The toys were used, but in good condition, probably 10 years old. The clothes were forlorn, nondescript, not to be found in a Hollywood film trying to depict the rustic life.
Remembering my colleagues, I grabbed a can of Campbell's baked beans for Monday's lunch, and walked to the counter.
"You must sell everything a soul could want."
"I used to, but not any more. My family has owned this business for 75 years. I've been working here for 50. I'm 74 years old, and my wife is 73, and we don't know the word retirement. You get up in the morning, and start working. That's the way I was raised. My wife bakes the pies you see. This town used to be surrounded by fifty family farms. Guess how many we have now."
"Uh, five?" I was quite content to segue into a vanishing family farms lament.
He held up a straightened forefinger and twisted it in the air. Gesturing to a small office building, he continued, "Across the street there, that dealership used to sell 120 cars a year. The Pittsfield G.E. plant cut 1,200 jobs and Stephentown just dried up and blew away. Now they have a 100 people working plastics and custodial, but none of them live here. All I see are people passing through."
His mouth housed few teeth, but when I looked into his eyes I found a calm, bordering on serenity, and I was consoled. With disappointment I saw a wall covered with current New York Yankees. And such a noble, gentle old soul.
"But I've got three children, and eight grandchildren all living within a mile of here," he said.
"Well, that's quite fortunate and unique in this day and age," I said. Having found the lost civilization I had sought, we shook hands, and I climbed back in the car. Grappling with a Jimmy Buffet ditty in my head, I went looking for the Mass Pike east.
Bill Viall is Providence advertising man.