The age of speed
It was cold yesterday morning, 19 when I first checked the temperature, but sunny and bright for the first time in many, many days. Today, it seemed colder and I was surprised to see a reading of 52 — which until I die will be, in Salty Brine’s voice, a “warm” temperature for a winter’s day. A bit later I was washing dishes, splattering water in the sink below the south-facing windows, when I realized there was another sound, raindrops hitting the glass.
Yesterday, I did wait for the temperature to climb a few degrees before going out, but it was into the sun; today the warmer wet felt more miserable. I have always been particular about the weather, something I hardly noticed when I was little, when we went to the Seaside Market on the Front Street after visiting the Post Office around the corner. I have only scraps of memory of the proprietor, Henry Heinz, in his old-fashioned, glassed-in office which I recall as elevated, allowing a view of his business. My mother always said my older brother liked to tell “Mr. Henry” little stories and was grateful for the older man’s patience.
The island was a spare and empty place in the late forties and fifties and into the sixties.
I loved the old Seaside, even with its impossible east-facing door, a challenge on so many winter days, and its ever-changing counter, I loved, I realized when someone else spoke of it, the smell of the old wooden shelves and the allure of the square orange freezer, a box more
than a chest, which held frozen juice and perhaps ice cream.
Then there was the Public Market, a longer-established place with a gumball machine on the long counter. I begged and cajoled only to discover I had no taste for the hard covered gum but the glass dome, filled with colored orbs fascinated me. The Seaside had animal crackers, all peacefully abiding in a train cage, a peaceable kingdom if ever there was one, and I recall their location, could walk to them
today if the old store suddenly appeared.
Way back when we were a tiny town with a tiny year-round population we had two markets open the years round — and for a spell a bit later, three. We went out when my father came home with our only vehicle, his work truck; friends who lived in town recall walking with their mothers who had neither a car nor a license.
But the Public Market had postcards, a different sort than Esta’s or the other gift shops. They were not Golden Age, more Empty Island We’re Trying to Keep Alive. They were Genuine Curteich-Chicago, “C.T. American Art” post cards, regulated by the U.S. Pat Off – didn’t everything used to be?
They quickly diverted my attention from the gumballs I didn’t want anyway – we had cows, gum seemed very cud-like and lost its flavor quickly. The one that first caught my eye was the school, the brick building built in part with WPA funds. It looked new, totally absent of the
trees, the little groves but especially the pair of good-sized spruce that flanked the central entrance, a space filled by the finally finished but nonetheless infamous, to those of us who attend budget meetings, facade.
I have a number of them around the house, unused all of them, cards that were neither the old black and white photos tinted with what we hope is an approximation of true color, or the early picture postcards made from color film.
These fall somewhere in-between, sharper than either and truer, until one looks closely, especially at the skin tones. They were set off by white borders, the one shown this week “Boat Landing at New Harbor, Block Island, R.I.”
The boat at the dock did not quite fit my memory, the Pemaquid from New London should have been in that place. Perhaps it was the Yankee — in my defense I never rode the Yankee and rarely met it — before it was converted from steam to diesel, which would explain the stack but the stern didn’t seem right.
By chance, while trying to ascertain which of the multiple vessels that ran to Block Island in those nadir years was shown, I thought, again, of the Chauncey M. Depew, and went to one of the lights of social media, the Block Island Ferry Memories Facebook page, which did not
It was a steamer, still, which ran from Providence to Newport then out to the west, around Sandy Point, and into the New Harbor in three hours. It was thought to be the fastest in New England waters. I wonder now if my mother took it once, contributing to her annoyance at the slow New Bedford lumbering up Narragansett Bay.
The postcard is most likely 1948; the CMD was leased by Interstate for the Providence run that year and possibly the next, one of the ever-cautious administrators of the Ferry page notes. It is a much narrower window than most of the picture postcards allow, always leaving us searching for a particular bell tower or building felled in a certain year.
The clothes are travel clothes of the era, when women wore skirts and men white shirts for a boat ride. Even the phone sign is of a time.
But Chauncey M. Depew, who the heck was he to have a steamer named for him? A Yale graduate and lawyer, a two-time United States Senator and holder of various New York State offices but I wonder if most importantly, a railroad attorney, general counsel and director of the entire “Vanderbilt System” back in a time when travel was by steam, be it rail or water.
He gave a narration at the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty and, more related to his namesake, which would carry hopeful post-war summer visitors over the water some fifty years later, he inaugurated the New York pneumatic tube mail with a declaration “This is the age of speed. Everything that makes for speed contributes to happiness . . .”
The turn of the century was approaching, the world was turning to the future, and hyperbole was the language of politicians.