History in plain view

Fri, 09/16/2022 - 3:45pm

It is the middle of September, the sun has made that turn it should not until until after the equinox, and is setting after 7. It seems a tad earlier on the eastern side where the earliest sun strikes the cliffs and beaches and east-facing windows.
We tumble, now, down the black slide that suddenly, inexplicably, ends in early December. Only last Friday, I found myself on an eerily empty Dodge Street at the time the sun officially sets five days later. It hadn’t fallen below the land, its last molten beams struck the windows of the Gables and turned them to flame.
The sky beyond was an odd orange, a product of a filter of wildfire smoke from afar. There was no traffic, an anomaly any time of year, and the sun was falling fast so I stopped and tried to take a picture through my windshield, fuzzy from the angle of the sun, knowing the light was as fleeting as the emptiness of the street.
I should be more bothered by the overhead wires, I suppose, but they have always been there, or the telephone tower that replaced the first one but it’s history in plain view. The original microwave disk was just that, a sort of
wok-shaped thing set between two telephone poles on the hill beside the new Bell building on the hill across from the Town Hall. On the rare occasions we’d go to the mainland we’d drive past its counterpart on Point Judith Road, next to another brick building, much smaller than “our” office.
Later, they were replaced, ours with a much taller structure next to the older one, aligned with a new one on the mainland, at a greater elevation, up on Tower Hill near the Hannah Robinson tower that used to be such a landmark but is now barely visible for the trees that have grown tall.
Both early microwave towers were removed, and the little building in Narragansett still stands, looking much as it has for decades, in a state of suspended semi-abandonment, by an easy-to-miss historic cemetery, just south of the turn into the Stop & Shop plaza. Yes, I know it is Salt Pond something-or-other. The sidewalk in the photo is new by Block Island standards, probably not 20 years old yet. Beyond the curve in the road, beyond the porch is a bit of side yard of the John Rose & Company building, the one-time hardware store that everyone remembers for the smell of the old wooden shelving. When Benny’s, the hardware/auto/housewares/ toys/if-you-can’t-find-it-at-Benny’syou-don’t-need-it chain on the mainland closed a few years ago, among the many losses recounted on Rhode Island radio was that distinctive sensory experience.
There was a sidewalk along the north side of Dodge Street in bits and pieces, an actual walk here, pavement there, a curbing that was never quite filled in beyond that and grass, hard as it may be to imagine, on the corner of Dodge and Corn Neck. But it was the little stretch in front of the old hardware store, Lazy Fish today, that I remember most, for metal rails, I think flattened into the roadway of macadam, oil covered with gravel until they merged, and any remaining gravel blew away.
There were other spots around the Old Harbor, Bathing Beach, New Harbor loop where the track of the old horse car was visible but that is the one I remember the most. They went the way of difficult-to-argue-with progress when real asphalt, from a plant temporarily set up down by the dock, was spread after the sewer lines were installed. There were great piles of materials and it all had the look of a moonscape we said, which of course it did not at all, but it was a phrase that was employed back then.
It was the latter part of the 70s when asphalt came to Block Island. I’m sure people complained the surface was too smooth, kids would drive too fast, they were too modern. It was strange how smooth the roads were, and I remembered learning to ride a bicycle in our barnyard, then on the privately owned Mansion Road, and thinking that rough macadam so glorious the first time I ventured onto it.
I worked for the sewer when it was being built and for the first few years of its operation. I know the oddity of where the lines were laid, which were gravity, and which were force mains. The main thing I remember was the finality of the system, a notion which hit me the day the very first establishment, a restaurant, was connected to the main and the treatment plant. No one else mentioned it and I kept quiet, back then loath to expose my provincial Block Island self, but the thought that that building would be forever tied to a facility that could not stop operating. Ever.
We did get new road surfaces, not only where the pavement had been torn up to install sewer lines, but around the whole island. Weirdly, I have no idea how it was accomplished. How long ago it was is always a shock.
The enabling legislation for the sewer construction was passed by the General Assembly in 1972. A few years later, before the bonds had been floated, the first proposal for an addition to the school was put forth and defeated by a town still wary of debt. I often say I grew up in the shadow of the ‘38 and ‘54 hurricanes, probably the debt on the steamship New Shoreham should be added to that list.
It looked so empty last Friday when I was able to stop and take that photograph more easily than I’d taken another on the front street earlier. It wasn’t, but it hasn’t been for years and now I’m wondering how much reality there is to these shut-down-after-Labor Day memories. Was plywood put up because summer was over or because — back to those
shadows — a hurricane was forecast?
And on this mid-September now night I am thinking how the heck did “crickets” become synonymous with silence?