Moments ago I dropped my boyfriend off at the airport. In just a couple of hours he will land in the greater Detroit area, whereupon eight days of family and Christmas will commence. Soon I too will be making the journey home for the holiday, although I don’t have to travel quite so far as many people I know.
Actually, through a happy combination of happenstance and inertia, I only live about five minutes away from where I was raised, and where my parents still dwell in a two-bedroom raised ranch. Now that I’ve moved in with my boyfriend I’m even closer to home, on top of which I basically now live in my ancestral homeland, just a few blocks away from where my maternal grandparents met and where my mom’s dad had his gas station. The drive to drop my boyfriend off at the airport is actually three times longer than the trip to my parents’ house.
So my journey is a short one: three exits down a not-even-interstate highway.
Mentally, Providence and Cranston are worlds apart, or at least on certain days I like to think so. Providence, Rhode Island’s capital, is a small and economically depressed city known for great restaurants and the relics of the costume jewelry industry. Cranston, the state’s third-largest city, is a smaller and marginally less depressed suburb, largely Italian and also largely Cambodian. Its most famous export, sadly, is The View co-host Elizabeth Hasselbeck, who is neither Italian nor Cambodian nor really in any other way representative of the greater Cranston experience.
Like most large suburbs, Cranston is not a place you would describe as particularly fashion-forward, although that doesn’t mean that the city is devoid of a unique sense of style. The largest corner of what many locals lovingly-if-offensively call the Tri-Guido Area*, the Italian-heavy triad of suburbs that cradle Providence to the west and south, Cranston is known for its abrasive accents, big hair, and a dormant and unironic love of the Iroc [see above].
The century-old Italian influence is undeniable in this area. Jersey Shore castmember Pauly D is actually from the neighboring town of Johnston, and there are many, many, many boys in the area that resemble him. I kind of want to explore how an enthusiasm for hair products and tacky Ed Hardy garments can maybe be traced back to the gaudy Catholic iconography that we were first introduced to at St. Rocco’s Nursery School (class of ’85, yo!) but also I’m morbidly afraid of sounding like Camille Paglia so maybe I’m just going to leave that subject be for now.
Cranston is very Italian, but Johnston was the most Italian-American location in the whole country, according to the 2000 census. And while Jersey Shore‘s enthusiasm for stereotyping rightfully ruffled the feathers of Italian-American groups, a cursory glance of Johnston’s 18-29 population looks, and probably smells, as awful as the cast of that icky show does. These young men may spend all of their time at the G and the T with their moms doing their L for them, but to what avail?
Which is not to say that everyone there is awful, or that everyone there is Italian-American, or (especially) that Italian-Americans are awful. Quite the contrary.
Yeah, you might see some hilarious-looking characters in Stop and Shop. (The supermarket is the best place to people-watch, I think, because it’s the only place where you can look at the same people walking past you every few minutes and it’s not weird. Also it’s convenient to check out people’s fashions and buy tortillas and egg nog at the same time.) In Cranston there are an abnormal number of middle-aged ladies in bedazzled velour pant sets, and if you’re at the S&S in Johnston–a favorite place for me to take visitors–you’ll see a really high proportion of older women with chestnut-colored hair in knee-length leather coats.
But they’re not everyone. Maybe I will tell you about famous Cranstonians some more.
Ali McGraw’s character in Love Story, the one who fell in love with Al Gore before dying of something terrible that I can’t remember, came from Cranston and in a key scene in the movie was told angrily to go back there. Cranston’s also the city that Seth MacFarlane, the worst human being, fictionalized as Quahog for his show Family Guy.
Actual famous Cranstonians are scarce: a woman named Aimee Sweet who does porn and a man named Vin di Bona who actually doesn’t do porn even though his name is Vin di Bona and how good of a porn name is that? (Far worse: he’s the creator of America’s Funniest Home Videos.) Basically that’s it, unless you’re into collegiate sports or you go all the way back to Robert Aldrich, director of Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? and lesbian classic The Killing Of Sister George. Someone I went to high school with got a golden ticket to go to Hollywood for American Idol, and while the show’s producers Jersey Shore‘d the hell out of him, he didn’t make it past the first couple of rounds. Just watch the first 90 seconds:
Last night I went to Cranston for dinner.
There’s a place called Twin Oaks which, according to the menu and also to its website, is the largest family-operated restaurant in Rhode Island, with six dining rooms, three bars, and over 180 employees, nearly all men in bow ties. Twin Oaks doesn’t have, has never had, waitresses, and the only women around are the coat check girl and the lady that sells lottery tickets to families that often have to wait upwards of an hour for a table.
Their pannini [sic] of the day is only available one day a week. Also the menu is hilarious. Especially if you’re a vegetarian.
Last night I saw some stereotypes: girls with naturally pale skin and dark hair who prefer to have hazelnut tans and the really flat blonde-with-black-roots look that went out of style in other areas shortly after Christina Aguilera’s Stripped album was released. And yes, these girls’ parents both looked and dressed like they could have been extras in Casino. But I also saw no less than three ugly Christmas sweaters, a lot of middle-aged men in black t-shirts and khakis, and at least one teenaged boy in a Pink Floyd The Wall hoodie. Basically, it’s more normal than I’m making it out to be, in other words.
Or maybe I just don’t have enough distance yet.
Finally, to get you in the mood, here is a great song about winter and travel by some Italian-American Rhode Islanders. It’s called “New York’s A Lonely Town” and it was a top 40 hit in 1965: