The scenery on NBC's Providence is looking mighty nice these days: bridges, skiffs, gondolas, golden people sipping Del's Lemonade at waterfront cafes. The old downtown's still rough, I hear; I know they converted Westminster Mall back into a street. Down near where folks used to park their cars and go to the bus station or "Security," there's now a hotel--and there's the Providence Place Mall. Perhaps, like Boston's Quincy Marketplace, Providence may experience a renaissance. It's certainly getting away from the bleak place I described at the end of "The Ghosts of Christmas Past."
But somehow for all the glint and the glitter, I wouldn't trade it for what it was...
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Back in the early 60s Petula Clark used to sing a song called "Downtown." In childish belief, I always knew she was singing about Providence. After all, wasn't there another jingle on the radio back then that confirmed it, a peppy mixed chorus asking folks to "Shop in Southern New England's largest shopping center. Downtown Providence, there's more for you!" There were no malls. I-95 had barely been finished and for a long time we still headed up to my aunt's house via Route 1 and Jolly Cholly's amusement park in Attleboro.
To a kid living in the "wilds" of the Cranston suburbs, where the biggest shopping places around were Tom's Superette and Cleary's dry goods and tired and tiny Bunn's department store (it was two miles to Rolfe Street and the nearest Woolworth's), a trip downtown was a visit to Paradise, a world of glitter and light. Having seen New York City only on television and Boston being a traffic nightmare my dad wouldn't go near with that proverbial ten-foot pole, for a long time I believed there wasn't anything there that you couldn't find in Providence. And probably for a while that was true. We had two big department stores, the Outlet Company and Shepard's; other smaller, mostly clothing stores like Gladdings and Cherry and Webb; a bunch of "five-and-ten cent" stores, including Kresge's before it mutated into Kmart; bookstores; shoe shops; specialty shops; dress shops like Pinkersons; movie theatres; restaurants; a big library; even a hardware store. Maybe there were more brand names in New York, and more stores, but everything you really needed was Right There downtown.
On school vacations and in the summer, the excursion routine was always the same. On schooldays I muttered and scowled when it was time to get up. Not on these mornings. Mom would wake me up when Dad got up, at 6 a.m. He was off to work, meanwhile we were getting dressed. The rule was the beds had to be made and the dishes washed before we left the house. (We always joked that the house had to be clean so if a burglar broke in, Mom wouldn't be embarrassed.) If I dawdled so much as a minute and we missed the bus--well, tough. We'd have to walk up the hill past Tom's and Cleary's to the bus stop on Cranston Street rather than taking the bus that in later years came right by our house. I eventually got bed making time down to 1 minute and 48 seconds--and that was with sheets and blankets tucked and the spread over perfectly puffed pillows! Mom inspected. It was Good.
At that time of the day not many people were up. But there were already people arriving for their shift at the Narragansett Brewery and the bus had to plod through the traffic between the big stone and wood buildings. Then we rode through the three deckers and neighborhood shops and groceries that lined Cranston Street. In those days it was a thriving area and didn't look bombed out. The three deckers were kept up; in the summer some had flowers on their balconies. The A&P would be just opening. The A&P fascinated me--I knew it stood for the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (what a cool name!)--and we didn't have one in Cranston. Finally we'd go past the big stone edifice of the Cranston Armory--it looked like a castle to a small child; I kept waiting for King Arthur or Prince Valiant to come riding out on a prancing black horse--and that meant we were almost there.
We'd ride the bus as far as we could, and then set off for our real destination: the St. Francis Chapel. They had confession starting at 7 a.m., and then we'd wait for the 7:30 Mass. I liked Mass at St. Francis. The priest didn't tell 20 minute sermons--in fact, usually there was no sermon at all unless a holy day was coming up. We'd take Communion and after Mass go upstairs where they kept the little devotional books. Mom always bought prayer cards. She prayed for everyone.
Now came the good part--we went out for breakfast! "Going out to eat" was reserved mostly for holidays; we didn't have places like McDonald's until I was in my teens. Occasionally we got a sandwich at Arby's (back when they served real roast beef); maybe we'd hit Oakland Beach for doughboys or Aunt Carrie's down at Point Judith for clamcakes. So "eating out" in the mornings was a real treat.
Next to St. Francis was the Crown Hotel; at the foot of the lobby, the Crown Coffee Shop. We'd sit on round-topped chromed stools--I was allowed a few spins before I was told to mind my manners--and order breakfast with all the businessmen and the secretaries having a meal before going to work. I remember waitresses in crisp, efficient uniforms, delivering up coffee and pancakes and waffles and eggs. I always had the same thing: toast and real butter, and a big glass of Hood's milk. Nothing ever tasted so good.
It was a long breakfast, and sometimes I wanted to hurry the clock along. Most of "the city" didn't open until ten, but the Outlet opened at 8:45. Oh, some mornings how that clock crawled! When I was very little I wanted to see the big toy department in the basement, but as I got older, I was waiting to go into the book department, looking at the hardbacks we couldn't afford in longing. At Christmastime they decorated the windows like the stores in New York and you had to wait to get to the front to see the animated Santa Claus or the train layout.
My mother did something back then that we could never trust to do today: as I got older and understood boundaries, she would leave me alone in the toy or book department while she went to look at clothes and shoes. I hate shopping for clothes and would whine "I'm bored" at every turn.
(The first few times she left me alone she stayed and kept an eye on me rather than walking away. Once, just once, I wandered out of the boundaries and was rewarded with a quick spanking. As Mom remembers it, there were two elderly ladies watching and one clucked that spankings were not nice! The other lady countered, "She disobeyed her mother. She deserved it!" I don't' remember any of this, but from then on I knew if I wanted to be trusted to stay alone, I had to stay put, or I'd be forced to wander through aisles upon aisles of boring clothes--much worse punishment than any spanking! I "stayed put" from then on. Staying put in the book department was much easier. I'd pick up a copy of something by Marguerite Henry and "disappear" into another world, much to the displeasure of the clerk, even though I was always careful because it wasn't mine.)
(Of course sometimes one had to bite the bullet and shop for clothes or shoes, always a hideous experience. I had an odd body; what fit the top usually didn't fit the bottom and vice versa--nothing "my size" "off the rack" ever fit properly. Shoes were worse--a small but wide foot and a high instep means buying a larger shoe that leaves calluses. Hush Puppies weren't exactly "trendy" back then, but they did fit and were comfortable--so who cared?)
There was cool stuff in the department stores in those days. Mom liked to shop at Shepard's because it seemed when you wanted something and you couldn't find it anywhere else, you went to Shepard's. They either had it, or a reasonable facsimile. They also had a Tea Room which was a lovely little restaurant that served hot beverages and sandwiches and soup. Like the restaurants we went to on holidays, it had white damask tablecloths and cloth napkins and goblets rather than glasses. Shepard's also had a big "ladies' lounge," as they called it then. The bathroom doesn't sound like a very interesting place, but this one had glass brick dividers and big mirrors where ladies could fix their hair and makeup. You "dressed up" to go downtown in those days, and the older ladies still wore big flowered hats set with hatpins and white gloves in the summer, dark in the winter. Heaven forbid that you didn't change to a light-colored purse on Memorial Day. It just wasn't done!
After a while, we had a certain route through the city. After the other stores opened--I would be dancing in the Outlet with impatience--the first place to run would be the paperback bookstore across Weybosset Street. It was cavernous and always a little dim, and simply wonderful. The bookshelves ran almost all the way to the ceiling, and covered every wall; the cashier even sat in a booth up above the store, partially to check for shoplifters, partially so they could put in more bookshelves! They sold posters, too, but there were so many books there was no display place, so the posters were stuck on the ceiling. I always remember the Beatles and Jefferson Airplane and Bobby Sherman and the Partridge Family staring down at me from above. And it seemed they had everything. If a movie or TV show was coming out based on a book, or if a novelization had been done, your first indication that such a story existed was in that paperback bookstore. Their distributor always had it first.
There were other bookstores, like ReadAll, but nothing was quite as good as that paperback bookstore. Later I discovered a used bookstore called Dana's, in the basement of the Wilcox Building. They had children's books from the 1800s, ones I'd only heard about reading other children's books. Alas, before I ever had the money to make acquisitions, the Wilcox building caught fire. Dana's was spared the fire, but the water damage destroyed all those lovely books. Sigh.
If we were downtown for a long time, we might have lunch in one of the five and ten's. Woolworths's still had a lunch counter then--they made a mean open-faced hot turkey sandwich--as did Grants, as well as Newberry's before it closed in 1968. Most of my early Whitman books came from Newberry's and I was devastated when they left. Woolworth's and Grant's never did come close, although I liked to visit the budgies in Woolworth's and Grant's sold 64 boxes of Crayola crayons for only 68 cents (everyone else was $1.50 or over, a fortune for someone who got 50 cents a week allowance).
We might go to a movie, if it were in the years before 1970. There were four theatres left downtown, and one by one they "fell." The Strand went first. They used to have offbeat movies. Fellini would have appeared at the Strand, or risque stuff like Elizabeth Taylor's Butterfield 8. The Strand later went waaaay risque and became an X-rated theatre. My mom would make a wide berth around it; she said perverts hung out there.
The Loews State got all the Big Movies, like Cleopatra and Ben-Hur. These weren't of much interest to me, so I never got to see the theatre as it was in the old days. Later it was the Ocean State Theatre, where they had rock concerts that weren't big enough for the new Providence Civic Center; now it's the Providence Performing Arts Center. They have live performances again, and the big organ plays sometimes, especially on First Night. The RKO Albee got all the B-type pictures. Once I saw a double bill there, Smoky and a really terrible Jerry Lewis movie, Way Way Out. They tore the Albee down for a parking lot--but they did leave a plaque for it. More than the poor old Strand eventually got.
My favorite theatre was the old Majestic on Washington Street, across from the library. We went there most because they showed all the Disney movies. It was a huge building that took up an entire block and when Mary Poppins opened, the line went both ways around the building and met at the printer's office at the back! The Majestic still had bathrooms downstairs, and popcorn popped fresh at the concession stand, and when the movie started, a big red velvet curtain glided opened, so that the Disney Buena Vista logo was rippled and purplish. Today l still miss curtain openings when the movie starts.
The Majestic at least was saved. After what I think was its last movie, Airport, in 1970, it closed and was revamped for the Trinity Square Repertory Theatre. The Majestic started out as a vaudeville house, so it seems fitting there are now live performances there again.
There were places we went only occasionally. Sometimes we walked through the Arcade. Mom told me it was the very first enclosed shopping area in America, and the columns outside were kinda imposing, but this was before it was remodeled. There were barbers and hairdressers downstairs, legal and accountants' offices upstairs, and it was all in monochrome. We might go in the stationer's, Freeman's. We never bought anything, but I liked to wander around all the ring bound notebooks and dream of all the stories I could write in them.
Sometimes Mom might want some fruit to take home, so we went to the Market Basket. It was odd seeing a supermarket smack in the middle of all those stores and office buildings. Older people who lived in the senior citizens high-rise still shopped here. If we wanted material--or if I wanted ribbons to make bows for my few stuffed animals--we went to Garr's. It was the type of fabric store that hadn't changed from the early 1900's, all dim and cozy. If we wanted greeting cards, we went to Richley's on Westminster. This was dangerous because they also sold stuffed animals and I always found one I thought was adorable. I didn't get many, not only because of the budget, but because of my allergy. (I loathed my allergy. I couldn't have a dog, I couldn't have a lot of stuffed animals, I couldn't go on campouts or to the lake with my best friend, all because of the nasty thing. As a child, I couldn't have thought up a worse plague.) Sometimes we went next door to Pier Linen. This was dangerous because they also sold cut crystal and that was Mom's weakness. She looked but she never bought. Mom always stuck to the budget. She was a better lady than I.
The last round of the day usually came as we passed the Planters' Peanut shop. It was in a little alley and you could find it just by the heavenly smell, for they roasted the peanuts right there. Mom's weakness was peanut clusters, and we always brought some nuts home for Daddy.
We'd finally end up on Washington Street, near Mathewson, waiting for the bus. My godfather had his shoe store there, and we always stopped to visit. It smelled of rich leather and the shoe polish he used. Sometimes we'd go there to have him put "taps" on my heels because I tended to turn on my shoes. In the winter, it was just a nice warm place to wait and chat while the other buses whizzed by.
We were always dead tired by the end of the trip, but it was a good tired. You held onto your packages and looked out the window. By now Cranston Street was alive. The A&P would be packed. The little brick taverns, with their neon beer signs, already had business. Kids would be playing hopscotch in front of the three deckers, or sitting on the stoop talking, sometimes bumming cigarettes. Mom always shook her head. The older people would be doing their shopping. Today elderly people wear sweats and jog. The elderly looked elderly back then. The men wore old flannel pants and shirts and thick jackets when it was cold, the women were in coats and kerchiefs and thick beige or white cotton stockings. Both wore those sturdy black or brown Oxfords that were popular in the 1940s. Sometimes they had canes. The men usually gathered around the barber shop, under the red and white pole, or in the doorway. The women chatted at their houses, or in front of the A&P. Sometimes they had their grandchildren with them, little ones in strollers, but more likely baby carriages, which were more popular then. You'd see waving arms covered with little lacy sweater sleeves bobbing from under the awning of the carriage. It was all so alive.
In 1974 the mall arrived. As far as I was concerned, it was a nice place to go on Saturday night to walk around, but you did your real shopping downtown. I was in the minority. One by one, the stores closed. The only people you'd see hanging around downtown were the elderly, the indigent, the teens playing hooky--or worse. Shepard's went out of business. So did Grants. The Outlet remodeled, then failed--and one memorable night the big white building with its windows once so alive at Christmastime burned down. It joined the other places vanished in the race for suburban shopping nirvana.
Every once in a while I see something that reminds me--maybe it's an old photo of decorated store windows at a nostalgic web site. Or the smell of hot peanuts or walking by the leather store at a mall. Most of the time it's an oldies radio station. When Petula Clark belts out "Downtown," for a minute it's as if I were racing the clock with bedsheets, ready to climb in that 100 bus, and head back home--to Providence.
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