The weekly lament of “what can I write about?” was met with one of those topics I dismissed out of hand, then started talking.
It began with an open question of what I would have been doing on a day in July in 1967. Nothing of any interest, I lived here, there were no delightful memories beginning with winter planning, ending with that trip home on the boat. Summer was nice, not a burden, things opened up, there were movies every night, and ice cream in the iconic building across the street,
It was 1967, I was working at the Narragansett, one of the handful of places that were up and running, going concerns, not half-shuttered, if not entirely closed, hotels.
We worked breakfast and dinner every day, seven days a week, meals attended by every hotel guest as that was the way things ran back then. I knew
the weekly menu for years, the nightly choices, sometimes only two, at least one night four, the others three. They were quite consistent, printed every day on the mimeograph machine, I think, at the Spring House and brought down daily in a red VW bus or black Buick. Unless they were printed at the Narragansett and taken to the Spring House, both establishments were part of Mott World.
There was no hotel bar, and no one seemed to mind, although a few years later that changed. The plain wooden tables were covered with white linen, often darned within an inch of its usefulness, then covered with a smaller “topper.” Early on we learned to gently blow off crumbs – and cigarette ash -
deposited on the cloth, hoping to save the topper for another day. Brushing was sure to embed whatever we wanted gone into the fabric.
Generally, though, we were not successful — even after all these years it was us waitresses, not the diners, who dirtied the laundry — and a collection
of soiled toppers was piled in the midst of one spread on the floor, its corners tied in a square knot and dumped in a bin by the kitchen door. Those, I know, went to the Spring House laundry.
I loved that dining room the first time I saw it, and it hadn’t much changed last time I was there a few years ago. It had pale blue walls, and a wooden ceiling, that glorious varnished wood with simple two- over-two windows evenly spaced along each long wall. One side faced the yard between the old farmhouse, the “annex” and the newer hotel, the other a gentle lawn with a clay tennis court and the shore of the New Harbor.
It was only later that I learned the dining room had originally been closer to the water, to the big steamers arriving from as far away as New York City. Alton Mott’s Shore Dinner Hall had been moved up the hill and the hotel built in front of it, just another of the oh-it- used-to-be-somewhere-else buildings that are a BI Trivia game.
And there my memory begins to unwind, realizing that date in the sixties, drawn out of the air, was a part of a time that fits so many cliches, little changes we see as part of a big ending happening around us.
We looked down on the New Harbor Dock, where the New London boat, the big Block Island, landed every day, never seeming to carry many mid-week passengers, and we held our breaths hoping none of them would venture up the hill for a basic lunch, interrupting our salt and pepper and flower vase filling, and general straightening of the dining room expected of us. There wasn’t much turn-around time, why anyone would make that long trip for such a short stay was lost on me.
But I was an island kid, the boat was transportation. I did, eventually, ride the Block Island, once, because of poor planning, and realizing, in those pre ATM days, I had enough cash to buy a train ticket from New York to New London, where I could walk across the tracks to board the vessel home. It was a sunny day, the air was warm but not hot, and it was the best boat ride I ever experienced, a treasured memory.
In the sixties, when I was working lunch, the Block Island was lonely, in a way that big one-time steamer, at its berth at the end of the dock, increasingly taken up by private vessels. When it first arrived, the much talked about “new” big boat, it was joined by the Quonset and the Yankee, daily.
Our world had changed in 1965 when the Interstate wharf was built in the Old Harbor and the boat from Galilee landed there. It was a few years before the stern-loaders started arriving so the transition was gentle, the big side-loading Quonset, the harbinger of summer, still ran, landing where there was a gangplank with chains, not one manually hauled, and from a ramp with rails on its sides.
Freight was still on- and off-loaded and propane tanks, full to the island, empty back to the mainland, rode on the deck just below smoking passengers.
There are memories of what we did between working those meals but more than what we did is the sparse background, the near-empty landscape, the things that almost slip away but for an old photograph here or there. There was a floating dock off the Narragansett beach, a square at the end of a few floating connectors leading to the shore. It was painted red, plywood, most likely, with white rails. I never thought about what kept it floating, even as it
bounced about whenever we ran down it, probably at night, probably because we weren’t supposed to be there.
It was anchored, somehow, but broke loose in a storm, and may have been pushed up onto the lawn, or its pieces run together.