Outside my own memory

Fri, 03/24/2017 - 10:00am
A search for a particular postcard rarely ends with my putting my hand on the image I had in mind to start. 

It began with a thought of the Public Market, the brick-faced store on Dodge Street that was, when I was a child, truly a food market, one of two year-round groceries on the island. For a spell there was a third, on what some still call the New Road, never mind that it hasn't been that now for more than a century. Primarily there were two stores, both year-round.

I know that the Public Market is shown in a series of “Genuine Curteich-Chicago C. T. American Art” postcards, all with a raised linen finish, and a narrow white border.

Printed on the back — I knew but had forgotten — are the words “distributed by Block Island Public Market” and I remember seeing them on a rack in that store and being taken by the sharpness of the images. They must have been among the last of that technique, photographs colored and processed to appear crisp and clean, before the standard became glossy color.

I presume they were done all at the same time, in the latter part of the 1940s, a guess based on a card of the Adrian Hotel with the sign First Baptist Church at its entrance. It would have been put there sometime after December 1944, when the Chapel Street church burned. 

The congregation then moved to the Adrian, which had been gifted to the Trustees by the will of Lucretia Mott Ball. They prooceded to spend the next few years arguing about what to do and where to go before finally, not unanimously, voting to build a sanctuary onto the elegant hotel. The cornerstone indicates construction began in 1952.

There are other cards in my unsorted collection — a pretense of a word for this assortment stuffed into envelope file folders — then loose on my bottomless pit of a table is another, similar in colored, textured, appearance, showing the southern end of the Neck Road and the old Lifesaving Station that burned in the 1950s. It was not occupied, just a building we passed on the way to the harbor. I remember the day after the fire hearing one of the boys in Sunday School talking of it and seeing what looked like miles of heavy hose stretched out on the sidewalk on the north side of Ocean Avenue.

My attention always has gone directly to the station, all gables and dormers, nearly identical to two others on the island and several more in the region, all built at the same time. A signal tower rises from the space between it and the road, my mother's notation “burned,” written in her cursive hand, floats above the roof. For all the times I have looked at this card, I have never noticed the old jail is visible where dunes are today encouraged. 

The card was printed by the same company, but for “Earnest B. Mitchell” (if the spelling does not look right it is because it is not), who was the proprietor of the Public Market.

Back to the Market I am carried, when it was all one space, not divided into separate shops as it is now. The windows were wide, as they still are, set in a facade of brick that we think more used on Block Island for government buildings, the Chief's House at the Coast Guard Station and the big Southeast Lighthouse, and outbuildings on both locations, and the North Light. The oldest section of the Block Island School was all brick and the same red masonry fronted the street-facing sides of the old Post Office on the corner of Bridge Gate Square. That building disappeared entirely when the lease ran out and the facility re-located; the structure was enveloped by additions and a second story with a pitched, not flat, roof, although some of the siding is there for the looking, the give-away in a “where am I?” photo of the interior of a local, seasonal eatery.

The Public Market was an enchanting place to a little girl. The entrance door opened to a sort of corral — in the time of Saturday morning westerns on television — of black and white rails. There was an entry turnstile, a novelty flanked by a display of Clicquot Club beverages with a smiling Eskimo or two. The owner was a short man, who could be found at the meat counter over by the freight entrance. He and his wife, who was often at the check-out counter, lived not above the store, as did the grocers on Front Street, but in a house attached, reached by an interior screen door at the back corner of the aisles. 

There were high shelves along one wall with unbreakables out of reach but attainable with a long handled tool that hung at the ready, a mechanical claw at its end. I wanted something, anything, from that shelf simply for an opportunity to use the clasper.

Another black and white rail defined the path to the exit door, guiding customers past a long check out counter on which sat a gumball machine. I found gum fundamentally boring, and gum encased in a tasteless hardened sugar had little appeal, but that machine, an ultimate marketing tool, promising to send one of a number of possibilities of color out a little chute for the price of a small coin, was intriguing.

It was those postcards, of a place I knew, but not quite, that truly captured my imagination. I am sure I begged for one and took a long time deciding which to pick. The school, without the trees flanking its entrance, the Adrian without the church, the Public Market, itself. I cherished them, studied their details and when I finally lost interest my mother put them aside. I doubt she ever imagined all these decades later I would be holding them to the light, marveling at the craftsmanship memorializing a time just outside my own memory.