Monday, March 22, 2010

Crescent Park

What is it about the human condition that makes us crane our necks and try to get an eyeful of the seedy little town next to Paradise?

If you walk about a half a mile north from Salisbury Road, the street I grew up on in idyllic Barrington, Rhode Island, everything changes.  In Riverside, the kids are meaner, the potholes are deeper, the homes are smaller, and the next time you cross the border, you’d better bring your big brother. 

There isn’t much allure left to Riverside now, except for the “package store”, as Rhode Islanders call liquor stores, and The Carousel.

Barrington citizens live in a dry community, and thus drive across the town line to buy liquor from package stores in neighboring towns who have poor zoning along with plenty of booze. 

Riverside is a village that sits on the northeast banks of Narragansett Bay, and had moderate fame in the early 1900s as the home of Crescent Park, New England’s Coney Island.  The only remnant of this amusement park is the beautiful Looff Carousel, built in the late 1800s by a German woodcarver, Charles I. D. Looff.

When I was a boy in the sixth grade, nothing seemed more appealing to me than walking down Promenade Road, across the town line, past the marshes and inlets, to Bullocks Point, which must have been glorious before the Depression.  Surrounded by water, the Point was dotted with vacation homes which had been winterized and sold by people who could no longer afford two homes.  By the 1960s, the affordable homes were jammed together tightly, so that you could barely see the Bay from the little streets that crisscrossed the Point.

Once a community of fishermen and clam diggers, it was Rhode Island’s version of a redneck neighborhood, but instead of rusted out Buicks and DeSotos sitting on cinderblocks, there were large, tubby boats of all kinds in every other yard, dwarfing the homes their skippers lived in.  These old boats sat there rotting under canvas tarpaulins, while tempting their owners to keep dreaming about next summer.

I’d walk past the tiniest homes, intrigued by the thought of living in a matchbox.  Crossing the railroad tracks, I was conscious of the demarcation and of my alien status as a person from wealthy, uppity Barrington.  I was with a neighbor boy whose name was Richard; we weren’t close friends, but he was the only person who dared go with me. 

Richard and his mother were English, and his proper way of speaking seemed odd and sissy-like to the boys on Salisbury Road.  Richard’s father had been a soldier in the German army during World War Two, so we were quite inquisitive about him.  That poor kid was always having to explain that his father wasn’t a Nazi, and all these years later, I wish I’d been nicer to him.  We taunted him after every episode of “Hogan’s Heroes”, assuming his father was like Colonel Klink.   I now appreciate this boy’s willingness to stand up for his dad, and it saddens me that I was a part of his misery.

I didn’t have anyone else who was brave enough to steal away with me into the early June afternoon out of Eden’s gate and over the tracks to Crescent Park and its rabble of Philistines.  So, I chose Richard, Nazi or not.

Understandably, my parents had no affection for the Park.  My father would drive us to Rocky Point Amusement Park, across the bay in Warwick, or to Lincoln Park in Massachusetts before he’d bring us to Crescent Park, a mile away from home.   I’m not really sure what the difference was, a carny being a carny, but that was the way it was.  My folks warned me about perverts and weirdoes working the midway and rarely was I allowed to make my way to that forbidden world of dizziness and nausea, so appealing to me as a boy.

The “Comet”, a roller coaster, had long ago been retired after someone had been killed in a grotesque accident of urban myth proportions.  It stood rotting like the neighborhood boats, and I would gaze at its whitewashed timbers and dream of next summer.  Like those crumbling, landlocked cabin cruisers and cat boats sitting nearby, the Comet wasn’t going anywhere.

Still, the draw was strong.

The harshness of the place made it scary and exhilarating.  Tough, muscle-bound greasers stood with cigarettes that seemed to be glued to the lower lip, never falling from the mouth, bouncing gingerly as the smoker talked unceasingly.   It was hard to believe I was only a few steps away from Barrington, because in Riverside people spoke with a completely different accent, soft on the letter R, (“cah” for car), hard on the letter D (pronounced T a la Davit instead of David), with the strange pairing of a V sound when a word started with the letter R, as in Vronald Vreagan.

Crescent Park was pronounced Cvezent Pahk.

Even at 12 years old, hearing an attractive girl speak with that accent was a deal breaker, not that there were any deals to be made, but I just couldn’t bring myself to have a crush on anyone who spoke this way. 

Except for one-  Sue Sharp. 

That was her real name, and I hope she doesn’t sue me for saying so.  I thought she was a doll.  She was forced to attend my father’s church, which is how I knew her.  Sue was as cute as they come, and even with that abominable accent, she had a sweet spark, which unfortunately ignited her junior high cigarettes.  She was tough and pretty, and probably heading down the wrong road.  But when I was twelve years old, Sue Sharp was the sexiest thing I could think of.

I probably assumed that if I hung around at Crescent park long enough, I’d surely run into Sue.  But I never did, and if I had, what would have happened, what would I have wanted?  At 12 years old, I didn’t know, but I’m quite sure her presence wouldn’t have calmed the madness the thought of her had created in my stomach. 

From the Tilt-A-Whirl to the Flying Fish, Richard and I ran, making the most of every minute.  I remember riding with him in some sort of swing-like contraption that was suspended high above the ground, going round and round, and feeling conflicted or perhaps convicted that I was not a good friend to this lonely boy, nor did I know how to be.  Why I even remember him is strange because I think they moved away after a year or so of living in our neighborhood. 

Who could blame them?

I just wanted an accomplice in my adventure.  I couldn’t find Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer, those sons of the Mississippi, so Richard the son of a German soldier was going to have to suffice.  He’d have been of little use to me if the thugs of Riverside had descended upon us.  We’d have been no match against the sons of clam diggers, their biceps bulging from raking clams through the Narragansett muck.  And God Almighty knows I would have been of little use to Richard either.

Yet, there is something comforting about going into the enemy camp with an ally, no matter how little you feel towards each other.  Richard and I said little, if anything, to each other, as if fate had thrown us together in an adventure which would yield no treasure and no fraternal bond.

I don’t particularly remember our time in the Park as being fun.  Perhaps knowing I’d disobeyed my parents’ rule not to go to Crescent Park had given me a sense of foreboding.  The quick rides stole our dimes quickly, and the time passed more slowly than we’d anticipated.  We ate funnel cakes, deep fried dough covered in powdered sugar, wildly appetizing yet, once eaten, mortally wounding. 

Finally, we trudged back to Salisbury Road, penniless, yet unsated like prodigal sons, hoping our parents wouldn’t be waiting at the top of the street.

My mother asked where I’d been all afternoon, and I can’t remember the lie, but I suspect I told her that I had been playing in the woods near our home.  I am a terrible liar in adulthood, so much so, that I generally try to be truthful, so I imagine that I wasn’t a very good liar as a child.  Nonetheless, Mom didn’t press me further, and that was that.

Or so it seemed.

A few hours after I’d gone to bed, awakened by my good angel, I got up and knocked on my parents’ bedroom door.  I went in and told them that I had lied about where I’d been, and that I had gone to Crescent Park, and now felt very guilty about having disobeyed them.

These were the moments in which my parents shined.  On several occasions, I brought my confessions to them, and they never flinched.  Once, I made the  confession that I had stolen 50 cents from a neighbor child’s room.  Another admission was that I had hidden her bicycle into the woods near her house.  Of course, I had to face he and her folks and make things right, but my parents’ love and forgiveness gave me the grace and courage to stand up and admit my wrongdoing. 

About 10 years later, I found myself working a summer job operating the Flying Fish ride at Crescent Park, wondering whatever happened to Richard the soldier’s son, and Sue the clam digger’s daughter.  I hoped that Richard had found  good friends, and I hoped that Sue’s teeth hadn’t completely turned yellow after years of smoking Winstons.  

After that summer, I returned to Taylor University in Indiana for the Fall term.  When I came back to Rhode Island for Christmas, the Park had been razed.  Old enough to see it for the dump it really was, I felt no sentimentality or loss as I drove past on my way to the package store to by a six-pack of Narragansett Lager.  But I did remember the childhood spell I would fall under when summer winds blew southeast, carrying calliope music over the treetops and grey rooftops, and into my bedroom at 22 Salisbury Road.



  1. Philip Pitzer22 March, 2010

    Another gem Phil. Reminds me of the cross-eyed, blond haired, 2nd grader named Douglas Stutz whom we teased like crazy for being German. "Kill the German, Bomb the German!" One day my teacher returned from the school office after chatting with my mother who worked in there. "Philip PITZER, I want you to stop teasing Douglas about being German because I just asked your mother and YOU are German TOO!" Douglas and I became pretty good friends after that. In fact, even all the Portugese kids in this Fall River, MA school were nice to him after that. They were concerned that they might be German too!

    By the way Phil - next time you are in town we really should have chowder and clam cakes at the Blount Clam Shack now at Crescent Park. My treat.

  2. Phil, I will definitely take you up on the clams! My daughters and I have been to the Blount shack in Warren. Fantastic. Thanks for the comment.

  3. As a Riverside kid I loved reading this.


  4. Deborah Magill12 April, 2010

    I was the tall, skinny girl who sat behind you in West Barrington Elementary because MAGILL came right after MADEIRA. YOU were a PILL -- you teased me unmercifully and I'd scowl back each time. But you'd be so funny about it all that even now I have to laugh just thinking about it. Your folks had you take art lessons from the same man that I went to -- Don Primiano in Warren. You had been taking lessons from Seymore Glantz who once said, in a parent/teacher gathering, that children draw trees like lollipops because that's how the kids see trees! My trees looked like trees and your folks defected to Don soon after.
    Crescent Park -- I worked there during my high school days as a ticket seller. Boy have you got the accent and attitude down. That carousel would be the subject of several paintings well into my art school days. I stopped working there just as you started, I guess. Took up cutting fish on the docks of Gloucester, MA as a more lucrative way to pay for school.
    And Blount's -- I grew up there. My dad worked for Blount Seafood for 50 years until his death in 1995. Hope you're well, Phil.

  5. Yes, Debbie Magill, I remember you well. You won "Best smile" in Junior High School! I remember that you were a far better artist than I was, and I do recall the art lessons with Don at his store in Warren.

    I remember you as very pleasant, and yes, I was a "pill", as you say. (Have you been speaking with my mother?)

    Delighted to have you as a reader.


Your comments are welcome, and I will try answer any questions, if possible. Thanks for reading! pkm