Newport, RI

A nameless beach, somewhere just south of Rhode Island.

We have probably all heard the saying that we have two ears and one mouth, to remind us to listen more than we talk, but I say its more than that.  I say we have two ears to remind us there are two sides to every story we hear, two feet so that we aren’t forced to stand in only one world, and two hands so that we can do more than one thing.  Life, and our navigation of it, should be balanced.  Sometimes, really quite often, we forget that balance. 

I was reminded when I headed up north to Rhode Island.

I had been on the road for some time and tired of the hammock in the back of the van.  When my eyelids gain weight and my joints beg for oil, I start looking for a motel.  I enjoy a comfortable bed two floors above a swanky lounge with fine dining, but my default setting is cheap.  Make that dirt cheap.

After two stops at what looked like subpar accommodations for double eagle prices, I found this place.

Low in cost, high on trust.

The sign said vacancy.  As I walked up the steps I could see the office was empty and a note was taped to the inside of the window.  “Call {this number} for room.”  I called the number.

The man who answered told me the room would be $50 cash.  This was far less than half of everywhere else and after a quick inspection of my wallet, I accepted.  The man, upon hearing that I did in fact want a room, paused, letting the phone go silent.  “Uh, hello?”  I said, wondering if my reception was bad out here in Nowheresville.

“O.K. here is what you do.  Pull around to the back of the building, all the way to the far side.  Upstairs, second to the last door, is room #54.  Go on in, and just leave the cash on the desk when you leave and lock the door behind you.  Or you can just slip the money in the office mail slot.”

I convinced myself that my integrity is so sound that it had become audible rather than the more likely idea that it was late and whomever I had just spoken with, was willing to gamble the $50 in order to stay in bed.

I half way expect a cheap room to smell of smoke but the mix of mildew and dust was quite an unexpected treat.  I was happy to have a shower despite my having to slay two spiders before using it.  I was also happy to have a balcony overlooking some salty inlet, but not quite as happy to find said balcony decorated with Miller Lite bottle caps.

Happy to have a room without tires.

The bed did its job, I did mine by leaving my money on the table, and I pressed on to Newport.

Newport has always been a nautical place.  At one time most all of the New World’s ships were built there.  Supplying England’s colonies with ships also led to “supplemental” enterprises.  Not supplemental as in GNC vitamins and protein shakes, more like rum and people.

Fort Adams, built for the war of 1812, finished in time for Vietnam.

It turns out that in the early days of English colonialism two of the most financially rewarding things to do with ships, were the exporting of rum, and the importing of slaves.  These activities quickly made the town flush with cash and stills. 

A pre-Revolution still.

Ships were built in Rhode Island, filled with rum that was taken to England to be sold, then sailed to Africa to pick up human “cargo”.  These ships were then navigated to the West Indies where the holds were emptied of people, then re-filled with sugar cane and molasses.  The sailors would then go home to Newport and start the loop all over again. 

So early on, while few people in Rhode Island owned slaves, most slaves were sold by someone from that state.

These merchants must have had mouths that matched their wallets.  Wealthy plantation owners who could not bear the summer heat as well as those they “employed”, began building summer homes in Newport; so much so, that the city won the nickname “little Carolina”.

The Wharton for whom the business school at U Penn is named after, built this house as a "man cave" for he and his buddies. It is accesible only by boat... his wife did not like to sail.

Fast forward a hundred years or so and these New World merchants were now old money.  Old money has a funny way of starting trends and then calling them traditions.  By the gilded age summering in Newport was a tradition.  The traditions of the wealthy spawn the trends of aspiring, and in those days of conspicuous consumption the residents of Newport were fully pressed to outpace the aspiring.  Names like Vanderbilt, Onassis (the “O” in Jackie O.), and Eisenhower, would have been on the mailboxes if these palaces had mailboxes.

Site of JFK's wedding and Jackie O's childhood.

  Old newspapers covered Newport the way we now cover Hollywood.  What are they wearing, how do they live, and who are they dating?

But that was in times past, so now grounded people like myself, ignore US Magazine and MTV Cribs, but pay $20 to tour the homes of yesteryear’s celebrities.

the "Breakers"

view from the Breakers back porch.

One of three sitting rooms.

Having parked my domicile in the gated drive of residences with names like “the Marble House” and “the Breakers”, I nearly forgot that these gaudy mansions were not where the wealthy once lived, but rather where they summered.  I summered in a tipi.  I broke the rules by taking pictures behind docent’s backs, was offended by the snobbery of the rich, and quietly wished I was one of them.

the Marble House

Foyer of the Marble House

The Vanderbilts had great taste in sports.

So it is in life.

Some live in palaces and some live in vans, and each look down their noses at the other.  So it is with me.  I pride myself in my ability to “rough it”, then pay special attention to monogrammed shirts and cuff links.  I steadily build my library then take up sports like boxing; filling my head up with things, and then quickly getting those things knocked back out. 

The early residents of Rhode Island didn’t allow slavery at home but were fine with selling slaves to others.  The rich on Bellevue Ave built walls and gates to keep the world out, and then invited Photographers from Life magazine to come take pictures.   We stand in two worlds, give with one hand and take with the other, and then I get back in my van drive off, happy that I came here.

How fitting that the gate is closed.

All the luxury I need.

Who am I kidding? I would take this in a heartbeat.

These folks are who Trump wishes he was.

and finally... none of us, no matter our class, envy these guys.


To the incredibly amiable retired couple I met while “taking a break”…  It was my pleasure to have met you.  I found talking with you more than enjoyable and I am sorry I had to run off so quickly.  I did catch my boat and it was more than worth it.  I would say I hope you enjoyed the rest of your trip, but for some reason I’m sure you did.


1 Comment

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One response to “Newport, RI

  1. Ann

    We’ve toured the Marble house, as well. Decadent. My favorite part was the kitchen where they showed all the cool cake molds. The whole Island is beautiful. Hope you got to see the Fire and Water show in Providence. That’s pretty neat too.

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