Providence

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This weekend I had the kind of a new experience you can only have when you reach a certain (unspecified) age. I went back to a city in which I had lived during my early adulthood, and took a look around for the first time in 25 years. While I periodically go back to my home turf in South County (Rhode Island), I had not spent more than a couple of hours in nearby Providence (where I lived from 1986 to 1988) in a quarter of a century. It was an emotional (happy) experience, not just because I kept stumbling upon places and things I hadn’t thought about in so many years, but because (true to its name) the city kept providing the Duchess and I with unexpected, unlooked-for little bonuses…

Fortuitously the Duchess had got us off on the right foot by booking us into the Providence Biltmore Hotel, not knowing that the place held any sentimental meaning for me. I was first in the lobby of the Biltmore when I was about 13 or 14 years old when I came up with my friends on some errand or other. When I was a kid I regarded it as sort of the acme of possible luxury. Built in the 20s, it used to be THE place for anyone important to stop at when they came to Providence, from traveling businessmen to John F. Kennedy. Nowadays, the Gatsby-era old ghost trap is surrounded by newer, spiffier, and even bigger Omnis and Hiltons, and has long since lost its status as the only game in town. But you know what? It’s the only place I would ever dream of staying at in Providence now. The place is full of historical charm and the opulence of a bygone era. It’s like stepping back in time. At any rate, that’s one off the bucket list.

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After checking in to our room (the cheapest in the hotel and still large enough to house a Honduran village) I met up with the Duchess and her friends Chris and Jennifer Daltry, our hosts for my book event the following day. We went out to grab a late supper, but as we walked I kept getting slammed with memories, an aspect of the trip I hadn’t quite anticipated, or at least not in this way. Never having experience such a homecoming, I’d had no idea what to expect.

Half the time I was jogged into memories of earlier times; the other half I was noticing how drastically things had changed. We walked down Washington Street to a restaurant, and I didn’t realize where we were or recognize anything at all for some minutes. The city used to be very desolate at night. Now it’s completely vibrant, maybe even too vibrant. Lupo’s, a rock club that used to be on the outskirts of town in Olneyville is now smack dab in the middle of town (and is now also a dance club). There are now a number of such clubs, restaurants and bars all over the place downtown, the streets full of revelers on a Friday night. (This was also Pride weekend, adding to the Bacchanalian spirit).

“Thereby hangs a tale” tales were hanging all over the place and my friends were most indulgent. We passed, for example, a donut shop where I once found myself surrounded by police (weapons drawn and pointed at me) because I was carrying my father’s rusty (and I thought unfunctioning) shot gun. I’d been using it as a stage prop in a piece I was directing at my school Trinity Rep Conservatory. I was about 20 and wet behind the ears and simply listened to a friend (who was much fonder of trouble than I was) who said it “would be okay” to bring the gun into the coffee shop. I sure hope I didn’t pass my gene for stupidity on to my children.

Up the street was Trinity Rep itself, where I toiled for two years to learn the little I know about acting, directing and playwriting:

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I erroneously told my friends it was an old Keith-Albee house, but I was wrong. Keith and Albee did open one of their first theatres in Providence, but this isn’t it (and neither is the nearby Providence Performing Arts Center, which was a Loew’s house.) Trinity used to be Emery’s Majestic, an independent vaudeville house and cinema which you can learn more about here. Adrian Hall moved the Trinity Rep Company into the space in the 1960s, and it was carved up  into an upstairs and a downstairs theatre, where I saw my first professional theatre productions as a teenager. The attic is and was home to the Conservatory where I studied. 

Many other changes in the area. The strip club across the street is now a dinner theatre serving pub food and murder mysteries; a dive bar where Adam Gertsacov and I used to get short beers for 25 cents is now some frou-frou cafe; and the local indie theatre A.S. 220 has now grown its own real estate empire.

We also passed by Grace Episcopal Church, where my brother was married and where I had my first “performance” experience as a five year old ring bearer in the ceremony:

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Next morning I woke at the crack of dawn and did more of the same, still stumbling on places I wasn’t particularly looking for — they just happened to be there. There was Pot au Feu the restaurant where I had my first date with my ex. Then, aimlessly walking up Federal Hill, I found myself passing my old street and one of the 4 or 5 houses I lived in during my time in Providence.

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If this aint the right house, its one just as good

My bedroom was the one on the right. I remember sleeping in my second hand army jacket because I was so cold, on the floor on a couple of couch cushions for a bed, using a woolen blanket I only recently got rid of (I gave it to Hurricane Sandy victims; some family in Coney Island has it now). If this wasn’t my lowest estate, it was pretty close.

Once the Duchess got up, we crossed the Providence River (impressively re-engineered by Buddy Cianci’s administration in the 1990s, and now the pride of the city) and went to the Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum, which has also expanded since my time. I was astounded to see that it’s 2 or 3 times bigger than it used to be, grown from a couple of old houses on Benefit Street to now include a huge modern new annex. Among other things this expansion now allows the museum to accommodate special exhibitions in addition to the display of their permanent collection.

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And we couldn’t have been luckier in terms of what they had on view. The exhibition Artist/ Rebel/ Dandy: Men of Fashion (on view through August 18) is a relentless exploration of the image of the dandy in English and American culture since the 18th century, with photos, drawings, films, and lots and lots of whimsical garments on view. The exhibition contains actual clothes worn by Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Max Beerbohn Tree, Andy Warhol, Tom Wolfe, Fred Astaire, etc etc, and lots of crazy outfits by contemporary designers. It’s the sort of exhibition one would want to return to many times. (The Duchess was sketching madly; it’s just the sort of stuff she loves to draw). More info here. 

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Also well suited to our interests was The Festive City, an exhibition of etchings depicting festivals, carnivals, masques, pageants, parades and similar public displays and celebrations in European cities from the 16th to the 18th centuries. This one is only up through July 14 (Bastille Day!) so act fast. More info here. 

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From here it was up to Angell Street on College Hill, to What Cheer Antiques and Vintage, where we held the the Chain of Fools book event. Chris and Jen Daltry were our hospitable hosts, turning their amazing vintage store into a mini movie theatre so we could show Buster Keaton’s The Balloonatic and providing a little forum for me in which to bloviate and sign copies of Chain of Fools. Chris manned the projector and Jennifer was the Victrola deejay, playing old records along with the movie. Many dear old friends and family showed up, from, like every phase of my life. It was like “This is your life”. Plus new people, of course.

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On the way home we passed through a festive Gay Pride Rally next to the river and stayed to watch some drag performers, but we were exhausted so we went back to the hotel. But that was fine, because a couple of hours later the excitement came to us. The Pride parade passed right under our hotel window:

But wait! There’s more! Our friend the mentalist Rory Raven lives in Providence and I knew he gives ghosts walks and tours of sites in the life of horror writer and Providence native H.P. Lovecraft. So the following morning we arranged to have Rory take us around. Here’s cool stuff he showed us:

Lovecraft's House

Lovecraft’s House

House described by Lovecraft in his story "The Shunned House"

House described by Lovecraft in his story “The Shunned House”

Funeral home where Lovecraft was laid out for his wake in 1937

Funeral home where Lovecraft was laid out for his wake in 1937

Lovecraft family monument, Swan Point Cemetary. For 40 years this was the only marker indicating where he was buried (his name is at the bottom)

Lovecraft family monument, Swan Point Cemetery. For 40 years this was the only marker indicating where he was buried (his name is at the bottom)

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This marker was erected for him in 1977. The phrase “I am providence” comes from his writings. Fans have adorned it with rocks and shells, and someone (hopefully a teenager) left a poem (folded up, lower left hand corner)

Seeing the Lovecraft house – – another off the bucket list. It wasn’t all Lovecraft though. Rory took us on the complete ghost walk. Some of the most compelling stories he told concerned the romance between Edgar Allen Poe and the poet Sarah Helen Whitman, much of which was conducted clandestinely here at the Providence Athenaeum, one of the oldest libraries in the country:

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He told us many chilling tales, about the ghost of a wrongfully hanged man who haunts the old state house, and about Mercy Brown, “The Last Rhode Island vampire” (there were several), but you know what? You can experience them yourself. All you have to do is order up a copy of Rory’s book Haunted Providence: Strange Tales from the Haunted State, available here. 

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Lastly, while we were kicking around Benefit Street, we came upon an amazing, fortuitous thing. I saw this street sign and was thrilled because…it totally has to do with my family. Practically all of the blood lines in my maternal heritage go back to the earliest colonial times. My grandmother was Ruth Cady; her family goes back in the area to the mid 17th century.

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Suffice it to say we had a good time. If the Duchess and I suddenly seem to vanish without a trace from New York…a good place to start look for us would be Providence.

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