HIZZONERS Cianci and Paolino at the auction.
The bidding for Mayor Angel Taveras starts at $500. Of course, here at a fundraiser to restore Providence's collection of historic mayoral portraits, the mayor is not actually for sale. But it's a bit of ambiguity that auctioneer (and former mayor) Buddy Cianci isn't afraid to play for laughs.
"I have the distinct honor to auction off the mayor," he shouts. The crowd guffaws. "For lunch! . . . Lunch, only. Nothing more than that. What you do with him after is your business!" More laughs. For a bid of $500, Taveras might share some of his secrets, Cianci says. "You might want to ask him a favor or something. You know, like a favorite parking space," he says with a grin. "Don't tell me they don't do that kind of stuff in City Hall; they still do that." The room, on the seventh floor at GTECH headquarters, explodes with bigger laughs. Taveras, smiling nervously in the front row, pantomimes a break for the door.
It's Thursday evening and, outside, the moon is high and the Biltmore sign buzzes red against the darkening purple clouds. Inside, the jazz trio in the corner has stopped so the evening's speakers — former mayor Joe Paolino, current mayor Taveras, and City Council President Terrence Hassett — can acknowledge one another and swap cliches about Providence's history informing its future. During his remarks, Taveras acknowledges difficult economic times and emphasizes that the portrait restoration will be funded using private donations only. (Guests have paid $50 to be here.)
Despite the bold-face names, though, the star of the evening is Edwin D. McGuinness, mayor of Providence from 1896 to 1898. A portrait of McGuinness stands on an easel in a nearby room where a silent auction for collectible coins and historic photographs is taking place. The portrait is paused, mid-restoration, to show the dramatic pre- vs. post- contrast. The right side of McGuinness's face is flushed and lifelike, while the left appears obscured by thick smoke. "Every bit of paint, every bit of dirt that I remove reveals something," says Alice Miles, a local painter and restoration expert standing nearby. For the past few days, she has been methodically dabbing away years of grime from the painting with cotton and a detergent solution. Beforehand, she couldn't see the book that the mayor was holding in his hand or the red carnation pinned to his lapel. She thought a potted plant in the background was a curtain.
On a nearby table, pamphlets advertise the opportunity to "adopt" additional portraits. For $800, patrons can help restore Mayor William Hayward, whose Rhode Island Bakery supplied victuals for Union troops before he became mayor. For $950, they can adopt Gilbert F. Robbins, the clothing retailer whose administration began to electrify the streets of Providence.
But for now, lunch with Mayor Taveras is the star attraction. Or is it? Despite Cianci's one-liners ("I should get two portraits because I should have one with and one without my toupee!"; "I was thinking about why I don't have a portrait . . . I left both times kind of abruptly, as I recall. There wasn't time for it."), he's having trouble coaxing bids from the crowd. "I think Mayor Taveras is worth a lot more than $500. Don't you think that?" he says. "He'll tell you all about his campaign. He'll tell you all about maybe his future plans, maybe. Maybe you'll be able to bet in Las Vegas about what he tells you."