Friday, December 16, 2005

Bristol, Rhode Island

We're not like you. My family gets cabin fever in the summer. The boys swim at the rocky little beach at the end of the street, and we sail, and fish off the mooring for scup, and we garden a little, because mosquitoes gotta eat too, and all those other things that make the languid summer days pass -- but we often get the urge in the summer to light out and go nowhere in particular.

We used to go to the Newport, RI mansions, and would always be prepared for the docent to ask: "Is, um, your boy suitable for these surroundings?" We'd always let him answer for himself, even when he was but four years old, and moot the question by speaking like a diplomat. He was "born old," that one.

But we have second wee blessing now: Garrett. Named for his Grandfather, and Uncle, and Greatgrandfather, and after that it gets a little sketchy, what with the famine that drove us all here. Garrett is two. Garrett is an ancient name, based on Gerald, and means "spear carrier" in Latin. It doesn't do him justice. He really should be carrying a club. There is no way on God's green earth to bring him anywhere less indestructible than Hadrian's Wall, which was constructed by the Romans in Britain to keep Garrett's ancestors -- naked, painted blue, screaming in their frenzy and swinging war clubs -- from descending the island and desolating the landscape. Compared to Garrett, they were pikers.

So we will not visit Marble House anytime soon, because he could burn down a marble house, I believe. So we seek our amusement in the outdoors, or failing that, anywhere else unbreakable.

August fourteenth was beastly hot. Enervating hot. Lawrence of Arabia hot. Let's go somewhere, my wife said, in the tone that says: Home is home to you; it's my workbench, and I don't want to look at it every day, all day. So off we went, to find something to look at that Gargar couldn't break. We decided to visit Bristol, Rhode Island, which is famous for having the oldest continuously running July Fourth parade in the nation. It's a quiet and salubrious burg, hard by Newport, and chockablock full of interesting architecture.

You can park any old place on Sunday afternoon in the summer in Bristol. An antique store owner was unfurling his banner as we pulled to the curb, and politely greeted us as we alighted, and it occurred to me that he was in the right business, because he was naturally friendly and said hello for the sake of it; neither he nor we had any illusions about entering his store with the miniature visigoth we were shepherding down the sidewalk. Some people are constitutionally outgoing, and with any luck, they land in a spot where being friendly is welcomed and useful. Bad luck puts them in a cubicle somewhere, where they wither away from lack of attention like a bachelor's houseplants.

Marion, Massachusetts, where we live, is awash with sea captain's homes arranged just so in a little village. Going to Bristol was like bringing coals to Newcastle, at least on the face of it. But it really wasn't. Bristol was close enough to a little city, and had a long and distinguished history, to have a real economy, and a street life. There were restaurants, and antique stores, and the most pleasant Dunkin'Donuts I've ever been in, and believe me, we went in to get out of the heat. That, and drink coffee, and sit in the the alcove at the front of the store, and watch the endless comings and goings of the population and other visitors like us. The building wasn't really altered for the shop, the inviting sloped entryway, the tall sheets of glass at the street framed with fluted pilasters -- it was all still there from whatever little shop used to occupy the place -- and the hard surfaces and plastic accoutrement of the new tenant didn't obscure it. There's a little platform, not much more than a dais, that runs along the plate glass, that was used to display the original retailer's goods to the passerby, now filled with plants; and our little tyke passed a busy half hour walking back and forth on it, and mugging at the people who passed by, and amusing everyone involved, including himself. And the cool air descended on us like a blessing, and we sat and wondered how silly it was to drink coffee with Vulcan himself lurking outside the door, waiting to use the sidewalk as his anvil and the sun as his hammer, as soon as we emerged.

In many ways, Bristol has been neglected, and that's good. Neglect can be benign; ask the West End of Boston, which isn't there any more. There's horrible concrete monstrosities where it once was, because the place seemed "blighted" to someone with a blighted soul. But Bristol was mostly ignored, and allowed to muddle along for 150 years or so, without anyone doing anything much to help it.

Peeling paint's better than vinyl siding, don't you think?

More on Bristol later...

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