Saturday, July 31, 2010

Chimera Interrupted

This morning I took my son to Harvey Uniforms. We both reluctantly strapped ourselves into my car’s front seats for the jaunt to Seekonk, MA—me, because I knew how little this boy-man likes to shop (especially at a uniform supplier’s store); and he, well, because he dreads any event requiring him to try on clothing, his body recoils at the mere glimpse of a clothing store. Thankfully, the process was relatively painless since we were the only customers, and Harvey’s computer system was down—which meant I couldn’t ask any questions about the clothing sizes that I had forgotten my son wore last year, nor did I have to wait around for updated size information to get entered into their system; the clothing would be ordered and shipped to our home address. So there we were, time to spare and hugging the outer edges of Providence’s east side as we plied along our northwest passage home.

“What do you think about stopping in Providence?” I asked the little man. “Walk around downtown, have some lunch?” He had commented on the city’s architecture, and we hadn’t really walked the city together before, not just the two of us, not downtown, not in the now semi-renewed Westminster Mall—New England's first pedestrian mall—where I had shopped with high school friends in the 1970s, taking the local city bus to Kennedy Plaza in Providence, hunting for finds along the Mall before it was abandoned for the Providence Place Mall and suburban strip malls. I wanted to walk him through the Arcade, where I lunched when I interned at the Attorney General’s office on Pine Street during my senior year of college. I wanted to take him up to the top of Westminster Street to see the beauty of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul.  I wanted to stroll along the Mall and point out all the historic stone buildings in which I had shopped. Oh, there's the old Tilden Thurber jewelry store, where I only window shopped... And there's the old Woolworth's building, what a great soda fountain it had... Look, there's the former Florscheims, where I bought all my shoes.  But most of all, I wanted to pick up some pungent artisan goat cheese at Farmstead Lunch on Westminster, and I prayed it was still open, hadn't succumbed to these hard times, like many of the shops that had opened within the past few years or so and promptly closed.

“Sure,” was his breezy reply. And so we parked the car on Westminster, near Empire, and drifted west along the street—towards the Cathedral—where it dead ends along with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence and neglected brick apartment and office buildings. At the far right entrance doors to the brownstone Romanesque Cathedral a homeless person slept under a Buzz Lightyear fleece blanket, surrounded by brown bags and a torn backpack. All of the front doors were locked, leaving me unable to show my son its striking interior and the magnificent green marble alter.  We shifted back east and continued down Westminster where I identified all my old haunts, and where we were stopped by several street persons looking for our attention and money. "Mom, who are all these people in the street? Why aren't they working?" the little-man asked. I was beginning to wonder what had happened to my literal walk-down-memory-lane-for-goat-cheese excursion.

If my son had been raised in the city, he probably wouldn't have asked about the street people. And even though his suburban upbringing left him a bit sheltered, he had certainly been to enough big cities—Boston, Chicago, New York, Montreal—to take note of this circumstance elsewhere, had packed enough lunches and delivered them to shelters for his school service hours, had had some exposure, so at least I thought, to this darker, harsher side of life. Hadn't we talked about this? (Which made me wonder if he hadn't meant to ask, "What are we doing here; why aren't you working? We really can't afford to shop in these pricey boutiques, can we?") Clearly, these street people weren't just idle tourists; and although I had been informed or, more accurately, hardened, by a few years of social work, I didn't want to distill the matter into a simple answer—drunks, druggies, lazy, mentally ill. Of course I new the answer was more complicated, and had some first-hand knowledge of the real stories behind these vagrants. Only I didn't feel prepared to deliberate socio-economic complexities with the boy-man, at least not at this moment, not while recreating my youthful fancies. But I can't keep my children in a bubble forever, now can I? Couldn't I keep them cocooned just a while longer? It may be a good idea to keep my daughter in a bubble for as long as possible. She doesn't seem to mind.

Then I realized, or so I thought I did, that my son wasn't just asking what these folks were up to, why they were parading along this particular street, he was asking one of the great existential questions of mankind (well wasn't he?!): What are they doing here? What are we doing here? What is this all about? But I didn't want to get all Kierkegaard, and it was too hot and I was too tired, so I said, "Out of work, laid-off maybe."

We continued down Westminster to the Arcade where several businessmen in white shirts sat devouring their lunch. As we climbed the old mall's wide staircase we observed its deserted recesses, and on one of the large glass doors a white paper sign with black type read: "The Arcade is now officially closed." Officially. I wondered what it had been before it was officially closed. Had it been unofficially closed? Had its freeholders forgotten to give this historic gemthe first enclosed mall in the countrya fitting ending, and later rectified this faux pas with pomp and circumstance, parade, balloons, fireworks which they also forgot to officially announce? Was it not evident, conspicuous enough, by its own appearance that it was, indeed, closed? I looked at the unimpressed little man, and growing weary I suggested, "Well, yes, picture this place thriving with shops and restaurants." Through its transparent doors, he looked into the empty space, commented on its Greek revival architecture and the enormous Ionic columns on the exterior of the building. "I used to love having lunch in there," I smiled faintly.

"Interesting, Mom, too bad it's not open anymore," the little man said.Yes, well, I'll take you by the old A.G.s office, too. And, as with all of the other places that had either closed or relocated in this stomping ground of my youth so had the Office of Attorney General; crossed over to the more pristine South Main Street. By this time I had grown officially weary, my memories tainted by the vacant buildings, the confrontation at every corner by jobless, homeless street folks begging for spare change. And while downtown is no ghost townthere are some surviving trendy boutiques along Westminster, mostly high-end, like Clover and Hier Antiques, and a couple of hip restaurants, a crafty type store and  Symposium Books (great prices)juxtaposed by such abject squalor, I wondered what the shop owners thought, felt guilty for considering a purchase, happy my son stopped me at the windows even if my intent was really just to poke around. And then there was that question...

We circled back to the car, but first ducked into Grace Church (where more street folk took refuge from the heat). We dipped our fingers into the enormous marble font, sat in an old wooden pew, meditated a moment, a thankful moment, and then quietly descended its stairs, crossing the street to Farmstead, where I ordered a quarter of a $28.00/pound of creamy French goat cheese—my only indulgence at this pedestrian mall.

As we walked back towards the car I asked, "Shall we head home now? Or have lunch here?"

"How about we have lunch at the Indian place on Hope Street?" the little man grinned. So we drove to his favorite place near Rochambeau—Not Just Snacks—and filled our empty bellies with spicy and aromatic pork tikka masala, chicken biryani, beef kabobs, basmati rice with peas, warm naan, and cold, refreshing mango lassi.

With our Downcity expedition almost forgotten, I prodded my little man to clarify the meaning of his street folk inquiry. "Well, Mom," he explained, "I just wonder why these people are roaming the street, and begging, why aren't we helping them? Why can't they get jobs? Shouldn't we be helping them?"

"We do try to help them," I replied, "We do what we can, we have state programs, job training, welfare, shelters, food pantries. It's a complex issue..." The boy nodded his head in agreement, yes, complex—as complex as the distinct and varied spices in our deliciously pungent Indian food. But as I said, I was hot, and tired, and the little man was full and satisfied, and drifting off somewhere else. Maybe we would have to save politics, social economics, and that philosophical conversation about existentialism for another time. Or could it be that this little man had already figured it out for himself? He sure looked content in his imaginative little bubble of a world. Yes, we would have to save humankind's perplexing matters for another day... Perhaps when his eighth grade uniform is delivered, or when we decide to cut into that goat cheese.

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