Seward’s Folly Bookstore

sewards folly

Back in the 1970s / 1980s, there was a little bookstore on the corner of Transit Street and Brook Street in Providence, called “Seward’s Folly.” It was run by an older couple, Schuyler Seward and his wife Peterkin.



It was a small musty wonderland of a bookstore, and the Sewards were always very kind to me. I went there whenever I could. I wanted a book by Will Cuppy the 1940s humorist, and they managed to find it for me, and after that they knew me as “Cuppy,” because who in the 1980s remembered Will Cuppy?



Schuyler had a beard and mustache as I do now, and was very wry and very smart, and one online source claims that he was a speechwriter for the Truman Administration. Peterkin was small and walked with difficulty, but had a wonderful smile. They had two dogs when I knew them: a huge poodle and a huge bulldog – both elderly and tired – who had to be taken upstairs (where the Sewards lived) and showered with cool water from time to time in the summertime, so that they wouldn’t overheat.



The Sewards were lovable people, and very memorable.



I wonder how many people remember them now?



And who will remember me when I’m gone?



This is the very last bit of Thornton Wilder’s “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”:



“But soon we shall die . . . and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.” 



Do you get that? We don’t last forever, but we will leave something behind.



The Sewards left me a wonderful legacy – a memory of two intelligent kind friendly people. I hope, when my time comes, that I will leave behind some tiny fraction of the kindly legacy the Sewards bequeathed me.



(Postscript: while researching this blog, I discovered that Peterkin died only a few months  ago – on July 30, 2013 – not far away, in Rumford, Rhode Island. Schuyler evidently predeceased her, though I couldn’t find his obituary. They are survived by their daughter Abbi.)



H. P. Lovecraft


As soon as I moved to Rhode Island, I discovered Howard Phillips Lovecraft. He was a local author, who died back in 1937; he wrote fantasy and horror stories and novels, often with Rhode Island / New England settings. Sometimes he used real locations (there are a couple of stories set in Providence); in other stories, he used New England settings, but gave them assumed names. (If you’re a follower of the Batman saga, and the “Arkham Sanitarium” means anything to you, you should know that Arkham was Lovecraft’s alias for Salem, Massachusetts – “witch-cursed, legend-haunted Arkham.”

In Lovecraft’s story “The Haunter of the Dark,” a man on the East Side of Providence (where I live) sees an oddly-shaped building on Federal Hill in the distance. He walks over to see it – and awful things ensue.

In “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” a New Englander takes a bus to a little Massachusetts coastal town and finds that its inhabitants are not quite human.

In “The Dunwich Horror,” some professors from Miskatonic University (whose campus is, of course, in witch-cursed, legend-haunted Arkham) seek out a horrible invisible presence somewhere in central/western Massachusetts.

Lovecraft believed in something he called “cosmicism.” In brief: the universe is utterly incomprehensible to human beings, and is in fact mostly inimical to them. Almost all of his stories show human beings as foolish pawns, always on the verge of total destruction.

My favorite Lovecraft stories involve the Great Old Ones. They’re kind of hard to explain, because they’re supposed to be mysterious, but anyway: the Great Old Ones are extra-dimensional beings lingering right off to one side of our reality. They are very powerful, and they are just waiting to get back into our world. One is Cthulhu, a gigantic horrible octopoid god-monster; another is Yog-Sothoth, a mass of glowing lights. There are many others, like Hastur and Nyarlathotep and Azathoth (who “blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity”). It’s only a matter of time before they reassert themselves here, and once they do – that’s all, folks.

So, kids, repeat after me, before it’s too late:

Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!



(It probably won’t help, but it couldn’t hurt.)


Skunk hour

skunk hour

The Providence area is full of wildlife. I wrote about fisher cats not long ago, nasty weaselly things prowling down by the riverside. Foxes are being seen this summer all over the East Side (though I haven’t seen one yet, and I would love to, because I think they’re cute). Bunnies are everywhere. Ditto big ugly garbage-eating raccoons. Ditto possums, one of which hissed at me a few years ago when I passed it on the street.



And then there are skunks.



They’re always smaller than I think they’re going to be, like kittens. Their colors are lovely. But they’re alarming, for obvious reasons, or maybe just for one very obvious reason.



I can usually smell them when they’re in the neighborhood. Either I’m especially sensitive to their scent, or my rural upbringing makes me more aware of them. (Our old family dog back in the 1960s got sprayed more than once, and I can still hear him whining and crying in my mind.)



I was coming out of the local market one recent evening. It’s only about two blocks away from our apartment, and I have my choice of two routes home: a dull route that goes straight down the avenue, and another much more interesting sidewalk that winds up the hillside and is surrounded by shrubbery. I usually choose the winding sidewalk for the sake of aesthetics (even though I know that robbers and muggers are probably waiting among the shrubs to jump me), and so I did the other night.



But a young skinny guy was coming down the walk toward me, jabbering at me. I thought (charitably) that he was speaking on his Bluetooth, but then he approached me with an earnest look on his face. “There’s a skunk up there!” he exclaimed. “At the top of the path! He’s looking very – territorial!”



“Which way was he facing?” I said. “Toward you, or away from you?”



“Toward me,” he said. “But he wasn’t moving, and he had a determined look on his face.”



That was enough for me. I thanked Mr. Skinny Bicycle for saving me from a fate worse than death, and went home via the dull safe route.



Here are the last four stanzas of Robert Lowell’s great poem, “Skunk Hour”:



One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind’s not right.


A car radio bleats,
“Love, O careless Love. . . .” I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat. . . .
I myself am hell;
nobody’s here–


only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.


I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air–
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail.
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.


Pirate gardens

pips garden title pic

There used to be a big nonsensical loop of interstate highway through the middle of downtown Providence. Some years ago, they rerouted the highway more sensibly, and tore down the old highway (which ran through some really prime downtown real estate). It’s mostly just green now: grass, and weeds, and wildflowers, and now and then (especially after a good heavy rain) huge angry geese.



When Boston redeveloped after the Big Dig, they left a nice strip of green through the heart of the city, and it’s a beautiful long narrow park snaking through the downtown area.



Providence won’t be that smart, I fear. I’m sure developers are already sparring for the land. But, for now, it’s mostly open space.



As I walk down Wickenden Street toward the Point Street Bridge, I cross a corner of this open space. And this is what I encountered about a month ago:



pips garden



Some local person – “Pip” – had claimed a few square feet of it, to grow sunflowers and cosmos and various other charming odds and ends.



Within a week or so, some other people had joined Pip and made their own tiny garden beside his own.



I wanted to see this pirate enterprise prosper. I wanted to see ten or twenty more little pirate gardens spring up by Pip’s garden.



But gardening is hard. Weeds and wildflowers can grow all by themselves without care; garden flowers need water and cultivation. Back about a week or so ago, things were getting pretty dry down there, and Pip’s garden was suffering



No one ever said that piracy was an easy life.



But Pip learned his lesson. It’s been a pretty hot summer, and Pip has been keeping everything watered nicely since then. The sunflower especially is very cute (as you can see).



I’d like to see more of this. I’d like to see more people reclaiming unused land, in vacant lots and by the roadsides, for flowers and whatever they wish. I’ve tried scattering seeds and planting things in odd places myself, but nothing ever seems to come of my attempts. (I should stick to wildflowers, I suppose.)



Pip’s kind of piracy is the kind of piracy I can really support.


Snow, glaciers, and the Elizabeth Islands

cape cod elizabeth islands

We here in Rhode Island had a mini-blizzard in the middle of February, which dumped two feet of snow. A lot of it melted right away. But some of it remained, in big chunks and drifts on the roadside.



It melts, bit by bit, and the streets and sidewalks get wider and wider, thank God.



Have you ever noticed what happens when mounded snow melts? It almost always leaves debris behind, like this:







Flashback to the last Ice Age: the glaciers pushed all kinds of debris (rocks, etc.) out to their limits, and then they receded.



What did they leave behind?



Why, Cape Cod and the Elizabeth Islands!






Cape Cod and the Elizabeths are the fringe of debris  – the “terminal moraine” – left behind by the last glaciers.



The last Ice Age left behind all kinds of debris in southern New England: the teardrop-shaped islands in Boston Harbor, the big chunks of stone dropped at random throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut and Rhode Island (“glacial erratics”, and (most especially) the line of debris that created the ridges of Cape Cod and the Elizabeth Islands.



Debris. What a terrible word. Let’s just call it “landscaping.”



turkey buzzard

I walk to work most days – well, part of the way, anyway.  On the way, I cross the Point Street Bridge, which crosses the Providence River just as it flows out into Narragansett Bay.

A few weeks ago, I was walking across the bridge, observing the usual bird population: seagulls, ducks, cormorants.

Then, out of a bush in front of me, a huge bird rose. It flapped its wings lazily and flew away, its ass toward me, obviously unconcerned about me.

It was much bigger than a gull or a duck or a goose. Maybe a heron or a stork? They’re not uncommon here, except you don’t see them much in the winter.

But the mystery bird glanced back at me as it soared away, and its long beak was crooked.

Aha. A vulture, or a buzzard.

They also are not unknown here. There are communities that are plagued by them: they’re noisy and messy, and they eat garbage, and they crap garbage.

And in our neighborhood!

What is this, a Warner Brothers cartoon?

From paradise to parking lot


You know I have a great affection for weeds. I grew up on the edge of a National Forest, and we had more land than we could use (my parents started with twenty acres of woods and pasture, sold half, and still couldn’t figure out what to do with the remaining ten acres). There was one small patch of weeds, probably twenty feet square, just off to one side of our house, on a little hill. My mother insisted that it be mowed from time to time, but I resisted. I rejoiced in it. It had everything: dandelion, chess, quack, vetch, three kinds of clover, plaintain. I literally used to roll in that weed patch on sunny days. It was a miniature jungle, just right for a little boy.

I visit my old home on Google Earth from time to time. The house is still there (though greatly changed). But I see that my old patch of weeds is all plowed up now, made into useful ground.

What a pity.

Even here in Providence, where people have been building and ripping up and building again for over three hundred years, there are still little patches of chaos. One of my favorites was on Angell Street, a few blocks from where I’m writing this. In summer it was practically tropical; it featured a couple of gigantic trees-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), that fabulous fast-growing weed tree, bigger than any I’d ever seen in southern New England, and at least two dozen smaller species.

Then, about ten years ago, the bulldozers moved in, and they plowed it under, and they built a Starbucks.

Another piece of paradise gone.

There’s another little patch close to our apartment, a hill with trees and flowers. Huge mullein thrive there, and weedy maples, and Queen Anne’s lace in summertime.

The backhoe was there this morning, ripping it all up.

Sing it, Joni Mitchell!

%d bloggers like this: