“What shift do you work?” — a memoir about (now endangered properties) of South Providence, RI

Broad Street Synagogue, South Providence (abandoned)Ward Baking Co., ProvidenceAbandoned mill, Providence
Broad Street Synagogue (top photo); Ward Baking Company administration building (middle photo), Unnamed factory (lower photo), abandoned and endangered properties, South Providence, RI

By Robert Israel

1.

Growing up in South Providence, RI in the 1960s, in an era when the mills were humming around the clock, it was not uncommon to in hear this asked by passersby on the street: “What shift do you work?”

On Gordon Avenue, the street where I was born and lived for my first ten years, the wire factory across from my grandparents’ tenement had the lights burning around the clock. The sight of men coming on shift, men coming off shift, was a common sight, men smeared with grease on their faces, men with grease on their arms, men holding lunch pails or trundling down Prairie Avenue to the diner for lunch or bottles of beer. In the summer these disheveled men spilled onto the street corners, squinting at the bright sunlight, huddled together, arms around each other’s shoulders, pie-eyed, my mother called them, weary from a long night that became a bright new day all while they were bent over machinery.

The clamor of industrial machinery, the sight of men in overalls and work boots, the smell of coal burning furnaces spewing sparks and grime into the night sky over the Providence River — these are memories of the past. The same streets remain in Providence today, but many of the buildings in the jewelry district have become trendy restaurants or office buildings. At night, with the exception of one or two streets illuminated by crowds of noisy college-age imbibers, these streets still bear the distinctive features of cobblestones but many of the buildings are shuttered, and still others await the wrecking ball.

2.

Crash. Take Valium. Sleep. Dream & Forget it. Wake up now & strange/displaced/at home. Read The Providence Evening Bulletin. No one you knew got married/had children/got divorced/died/got born/tho many familiar names flicker & disappear.
— Ted Berrigan, “Things to Do in Providence,” (1976)

Poet Ted Berrigan was born in Providence in 1934 and moved, as my family did, to Cranston, although by that time I left Gordon Avenue and he had settled in New York. I met Ted’s father, Edward, at the Ward Baking Company in South Providence, makers of Tip Top Bread, where I spent an ummemorable two months washing floors, third shift. My salary went into a savings account at the Old Stone Bank, dutifully deposited by my mother; it financed my first semester at Roger Williams University.

I have three distinct memories of those late nights washing floors at Tip Top Bread:

> Cleaning the flour bin, wearing a face mask so the flour wouldn’t creep into my lungs, on my hands and knees with a long hose to vacuum the bin and then scrub clean it with a wet brush.

> Hiding behind a stack of empty cartons during a lunch break in the middle of the night so I could sleep for an hour before returning to wash the floors and, in half-sleep, hearing the footsteps of the shop steward looking for me while I pulled my knees up to my chest and stopped breathing until he passed by.

> Drinking coffee in the employee’s workroom while the men changed into their overalls and thick rubber soled boots, smoking Camel cigarettes and toasting Tip Top raisin bread while the men told stories of Providence in the days when the cable cars ran down Point Street to the center of the city.

3.

We never feared the men on the streets coming on shift, going off shift, men who greeted us with warm smiles and rows of grinning white teeth gleaming from behind the black grease smears and darkened whiskers that encircled their mouths.

We never feared these men when they offered us rolls of candy from the vending machines in their blackened palms, their fingernails etched with soot and scarred with ochre-colored scabs.

We played in the lot beside the factory watched as the smoke belched from the windows into the summer air.

At night, lying tucked into beds across the street from the factory, the third shift coming on, the shadows of the men feeding that furnace with shovels full of coal moved menacingly across our ceilings and walls of our bedrooms. We heard the sound of the conveyor belts chugging away — a mechanical lullaby — as we drifted into sleep.

4.

Visitors to my hometown insist that Providence has been reborn, echoing the vision of marketing executives who have convinced tourists to attend outdoor festivals or dine at pricey restaurants or shop at trendy boutiques that have taken the place of factories.

There was no hype back in the days when I was growing up, and if no tourists visited, no one cared. Families lived and huddled together and got through it all, somehow, and no one had money. A family excursion usually meant an afternoon in nearby Roger Williams Park. Summertime we headed to the beach, to Narragansett Pier, where families could share rooms clustered around a central kitchen and an ice box, and the shoreline was nearby. There was rampant anti-Semitism in those days in the early 1960s, I have been told, so we lived in Jewish-friendly South Providence, with its three or four synagogues clustered around a shopping center devoted to kosher food, and in the summer we lived in Narragansett, which had a summer shul and, like nerarby Newport, tolerated Jews.

As a child I was shielded and protected by watchful eyes but also let alone for intervals of time when I got the chance to explore my surroundings, and I saw Providence at a distance but also up close. The buildings now termed “Endangered Properties” were occupied when I was a boy. Today, many of them are vacant. Cities change, sometimes they are rescued, sometimes they decay. In Providence, decay lives side-by-side with progress, and because of this, the city teeters in an imbalance.

**
Robert Israel can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com. Thanks to the Providence Preservation Society for putting the properties pictured above on the Endangered Properties List for the City of Providence.

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