35: Dear Providence Phoenix...

Gumarti, a reporter's notebook, and a few mash notes
By OUR READERS (AND CURRENT AND FORMER EMPLOYEES)  |  November 20, 2013

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As newspapers go, we’re pretty freaking cool and relevant. (Modest, too.) This means that when people say nice things about us, they don’t do it via telegram or fax or voice mail. They do it via Twitter and Facebook. Because that’s where we tell them to do it so we seem cool and relevant.

Read on for some of the 35th anniversary-themed love we’ve received via social media over the last few months.

And when you tweet about us this year, don’t forget the hashtag: #PVDPHX35.

 

Bruce Allen , senior advertising executive (he joined the NewPaper in 1978), via Facebook

In the early raucous days of the NewPaper (1978/79) the offices were on Washington St. downtown. Washington was much grittier than it is now, before the much-ballyhooed Providence Renaissance was underway.

The office had a ripped and stained plaid carpet, rock records everywhere, flickering fluorescent light panels, clacking heat pipes, and an ominously swaying elevator that those in the know would avoid.

Being one of the first freewheeling
alternative newspapers in Rhode Island the NewPaper attracted a conga line of characters through its doors. Self-proclaimed prophets, visionaries, artistic savants, angry conspiracy theorists, and delightful oddballs would all walk in off the street to have their life stories told.

Late one bitter winter night I sat in the office, doing what I do: writing up the club advertising I had sold that week and ignoring other mounds of paperwork clogging my desk. I heard the elevator thump and a rumpled old woman tottered in the doorway. She toted three disintegrating brown paper bags.

“Hello” she said, snapping her gum. “Is the art writer here?”

I said no but could I help her. “Why yes, let me show you!” she said excitedly.

She put down her bags and gingerly, as if producing an offering, placed various figurines, no taller than six inches, on my desk. She kept lowering more and more of them — maybe 20 — on my desk until I had to dump my paper clutter on to the plaid carpet.

The figurines were brightly colored rudimentary reproductions of Rodin’s discus thrower, the Eiffel Tower, jungle cats, ballerinas, and one which I think might have been the Superman building. They smelled.

“What is this?” I asked.

“Gumarti,” she replied.

Inspecting the figurines closer I realized that the medium she was using was previously masticated gum, which explained the smell.

She told me she had this idea for recycling chewing gum into art. She then produced little purple felt bags that she would give to her family and friends in which they could deposit their expectorated product, bring it home, and have her render the contents into art.

She had a plan to turn art into commerce by selling the idea to gum companies which would emblazon their logos on the bags to advertise their product as both tasty and ecologically minded.

Out of her raincoat pocket she pulled several “Thanks but no thanks” rejections of her idea from Wrigley, Bazooka, Dentyne, Bubble Yum.

I said, “Well that’s interesting. . .” rearing back from the smell.

“Maybe you can come back during the day and show it to the editor. . . or take it to RISD Museum, you never know,” I added helpfully.

She stood there silently chewing her gum for an uncomfortably long time. The heat pipes coughed.

“Well, I’ll come back,” she said scooping the figurines back into her bags and leaving as a gift the discus thrower which, I noticed in the flickering fluorescent lights, had a sweater of light grey mold growing on its torso.

The woman shambled out of the office, I heard the elevator thump.

I never saw her again.

 

Ana Cabrera , former freelancer (she identifies as “a Casa Diablo regular and proud of it”), via Facebook

The weirdest (and I use the word loosely) part of scribbling for the Providence Phoenix over the years was the sheer diversity of the topics that were my assignments, handed down by an equally diverse (and yep, weird) group of “they who have the last word,” a.k.a. the editors. They’ve been quite the motley group. My first editor was Lisa Prevost, though at the time the-Phoenix-that-was-to-be was a weekly called the NewPaper. I was bored, totally bored, wanted to “DO SOMETHING” and of course, write about it.

Lisa was game. Flash forward a couple of weeks to the middle of winter: I’m in the YMCA pool working on a two-part series about getting SCUBA certified. Flash forward again to Earth Day and I’m underwater — again, this time in Narragansett Bay doing my first open water dive so I could write “Chicken In the Sea: Part II” (Lisa named the story, not me). It was snowing, the water was 41 degrees, and I was in a borrowed wetsuit thinking, “I’m gonna get you, Prevost.”

Later on, when the NewPaper morphed into the Providence Phoenix, Jody Ericson threw a very intriguing assignment at me. An 18-year old was “on the run” and facing rape charges after having sex with a girl whom he later learned was 14. Could I track him down and write his side?

Bear in mind these were the days of no Internet, no cell phones. And do I add he was out of the country and only spoke Spanish? I found his family and spent more than a few nights having supper in their house waiting for him to call in hopes of snagging the interview. After a month of waiting and hoping, I was there for the call. The result was “The Miseducation of Alejandro Yanes,” a cautionary tale to high school students everywhere.

Jody and I were on a roll. Soon I was talking to then-state senator Karen Nygaard, a pro-choice feminist who made headlines in the Providence Visitor; the paper claimed her statements on the Senate floor likened Catholics to Nazis. Those words galvanized Father James Capoverdi of Bristol’s Mt. Carmel Church into launching a campaign against her on the pulpit, according to Nygaard, resulting in a “church vs. state” imbroglio. I interviewed Nygaard and Capoverdi, got an earful from them and several really, really disturbing messages on my answering machine — enough of them that I changed my phone number and got it unlisted for the first time in my life. Nygaard did not get re-elected; I got a First Place from the RI Press Association.

Sometimes you can go home because of a story. I was born in Cuba, and like most immigrants, I have my own point of view with respect to the United States. I wrangled a plane ride with Hermanos al Rescate (Brothers to the Rescue), a Miami-based group of pilots who regularly flew near Havana (sometimes alarmingly close) in search of balseros. These rafters escaped Cuba in makeshift boats and a lot of them never made it; some were spotted by Hermanos’ planes. On one “mission,” Cuban MIGs shot down two of the rescue planes and everyone aboard died.

Oh, yeah, I digress. So I did the only thing any Phoenix scribbler would do: called editor Ian Donnis to let him know my plans. That story forced me to dig deep, open the proverbial vein. A Michael Metcalf Diversity in Media prize resulted, but it was nothing in comparison to penning some of the most cathartic words in my life.

And now I’ve got another editor, Philip Eil, who wanted my thoughts on the 35th year of The Providence Phoenix. You’re lucky, Eil, to be at the helm of a venue that gives so many writers an unsurpassed shot at edgy, painful, soul-filling scribbling that can only be the result of surviving life’s flames. Just what you expect from a phoenix.

 

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