The first job I ever had in Rhode Island was on the Block Island Ferry. The way I came to be a Rhode Islander is kind of complicated. I was working in Philly as a canvasser for some major causes, and I was quite successful at raising money for those causes. A coworker who had a baby at home was fired suddenly for unclear reasons, and young me, who was even more suspicious and activist-ready than somewhat older me is started asking questions about it. I talked to my coworkers--mind you, this was all while I was at home, on the weekends. My boss found out, summarily fired me. I took the case to the NLRB, picked up a part time job somewhere else to wait for the result, won the case after a few months--in part because I was hip to the law and quietly asked my boss to document why he was firing me before leaving the office that day--and was reinstated with back pay. The sad thing about being reinstated was that in the interim period I used the back pay to get a hernia surgery I'd been putting off for years--a had a surgical hernia from a previous rupture of my spleen, and I was uninsured, so I didn't get it fixed. I came back to work in the winter, on a rainy day, still getting over a staph infection I'd gotten from the surgery, "zeroed" on my fundraising, and lost my job. There was no challenging this job loss--the policy was if you zeroed, you were fired. And because the employer then challenged my unemployment, I found myself in a situation where I'd spent all my savings on medical care and was without a job and not sure of unemployment.
I came to New England and lived with Rachel's parents, which in retrospect was really an amazing offer of generosity, because I'd only been dating their daughter for six months. New England has always felt like a place of exile to me. I never felt like I really wanted to leave Philadelphia, and that probably shines through in my writing. Generations of my family grew up in that place, and it was comforting even as a new arrival in Philadelphia proper to be able to walk the streets and point to the place my grandmother went to high school, or where my great-great grandfather's South Philly rowhouse was, and so on. I'm grateful so much for what feels to me like a second chance. But it's been jarring. And perhaps what motivates my anger about Rhode Island's lack of transit and biking is that these were features of my life that I always took for granted. I was so lost here when I arrived. I felt ashamed of what to me seemed like a terrible failure on my part, and unable to really face my own family in what situation I had, and I ended up becoming a sponge off of other people's generosity in a way that still brings me a lot of pause to this day (Rachel and I are approaching five years together).
Anyway, to the Block Ferry. Rachel had gotten a job on a farm on Block Island, and I took two buses and a ferry to Block Island* from Woonsocket to interview for a coffee shop job. I got the job. The person I spoke to said, "Well, good luck, hope you find some housing" because the job was $8 an hour. For me, $8 an hour was fine. I mean, I was willing to live some kind of activist spartan life in someone's maid's closet in a house in Philly, and work some lousy job as was available, and I don't think I was fully aware of just how hard it was going to be to find something. So when I finally came to the realization that there is nothing available for someone making $8 an hour on Block Island, it became clear that I'd have to try finding something in South County. And so it is, that the first time I lived in Rhode Island, it was not Providence, but Kingston. And of course, when you tell people you came to Rhode Island to live in Kingston, people say "Oh, did you go to URI?" which is a reasonable question, but in my case, no. I came to work as a bartender.
I found a room in someone's house for $500 and I made sure it was close to the 66 and the bike path, and I biked everyday to work. I started trying to dream up other schemes of making money. Rachel did all this work at one point to create a logo for a pedicab company, because she's artistically talented, but that idea never really took form. We lived a weird life. Rachel's job as a farmer turned out to be far more awful than mine. Her boss would never let me visit, and she mistreated and overworked Rachel and her coworkers on what should have been an educational experience. Rachel and I only got to see each other on the weekends.
The 3rd of July came, and I got a flat on my bike. Of course, the 66 not only did not serve me on a normal weekday, but as a mode of getting around on a "holiday" schedule, it was worthless. I was used to riding 9 miles to work, and the shifts I'd taken on the summer surge were earlier than the 66 could even get me to work. I tried to fix the flat, but the presta valve broke. I was four miles from the bike shop, which was still open, but the bus schedule was so infrequent and walking would take so long that to get to the bike shop was impossible. I was so desperate. I had to get to work at 7 AM the next morning for the big 4th of July Block Island surge. How was I going to do it?
I went through so many different iterations in what was just a 24 hour period. When I read that one time about that guy in Detroit who walked miles and miles to work, I thought of this situation. I got myself out a map and looked to see how long it would take me to literally run to work. I thought of taking the bus to one of the farm preserve properties and illegally camping the night before. Eventually, I think what happened was I found another bike that was ill-fitted for my tall body, and I rode that. But I really wasn't sure what my plan was. I just knew I couldn't lose that job.
Ironically, in August of that year, I lost the job anyway. Frankly, it was my fault. I misread a schedule and came back ten minutes late from a break. But of course, when you work on a boat, the boat is gone if you're ten minutes late. I don't really blame the Block Island Ferry for firing me, but at the time I wanted to scream. Do you know how hard I've worked to get to this job? I was going to camp out and risk arrest for you! Arrrgh!
So when I say that I don't think the transit solution for Rhode Island is to extend transit service to one-seat-rides in South County, it is not without an understanding of how scary it is to not have an ability to get around. I felt like a baby on the evening of the 3rd of July in a way that I've never felt before--a way that no landscape I could have imagined in my home city ever would have made me feel.
What are the solutions for South County?
I would support cutting the 66 entirely so long as it's replaced with good Kingston train service. In general, I agree with the idea that RI transit is too spread out, and the Wickford Junction situation shows that what we need is core service that is frequent and serves lots of people rather than an extension to the exurbs. But URI is a place ripe for ridership, because it's a university, and the bike paths that exist in South County (which made me think Rhode Island must be land of milk & honey--that is until I saw Providence. . . ) make it so that transit service could work.
I think that some kind of bus service makes sense too, but I don't think the 66 makes sense. Wakefield, Peacedale, and Narragansett Pier, though certainly not "urban" in any regard, are walkable, and connecting a local bus between them and URI--one that runs at least on the half hour, rather than every two hours--would be great.
More than that, I think what South County needs is bike-share. A recent commenter on GCPVD suggested having one-seat rides to each of the villages from Providence, and while I empathize with the situation that commuter is in, I think that would never be a fruitful way to figure out the problem. What we should do is run one very efficient route, with very few stops--whether that's a bus or a Kingston train, I don't know--and have bike share at the stop. The idea that one should rely on the two bike racks on the bus is kind of a ridiculous solution. Loading the bikes slows departures of the bus, and you can't count on getting to work when you might get unlucky and arrive on a day when someone has already taken your place on the rack. What will you do? You can easily bike between locations in South County, but you can't walk (I have run to jobs before, but whew!).
Bikes make more sense than transit for many of RI's locales. We have a density that many other places don't have, but unfortunately in many cases that density is a kind of Plum Pudding instead of being around dense transit nodes. We really can't expect the kind of TOD growth in every location that would be necessary to sustain frequent service on multiple bus lines, and what's more is that running frequent service to multiple locations in South County would mean cutting service to places that are better able to handle ridership like South Providence or Pawtucket. This is why the bicycle is key to overcoming RI's dependence on cars. It's the tool that works best for how we're built, and can be complimented by slimmed down transit service that runs frequently on fewer routes.
We haven't figured out bike-share yet in Providence. But it's time for bike-share in the suburbs. Maybe Teresa Tanzi will take this up.
I've been working for a long time to get to the point where I felt like I could tell this story. Rhode Island has had such a bad jobs record since my arrival that it's felt a lot of times like I jumped from the frying pan to the fire. I feel really fearful even now that as I write this, someone will judge me as some kind of trouble-maker who causes issues at work. But maybe what's gotten me to say something is the tremendous outpouring of support for the 6/10 Boulevard. I feel for once like maybe a stupid idea I've been pushing might just happen. And maybe the flood of good feelings I have from that is enough for me to begin to heal. I'm really sorry to some of the people I've probably given a hard time throughout my time here. I'm so. . . on edge. . . I never feel like I'm catching up. I never get to go home. I'm always looking around me at this environment that, to me, represents exile. Of course, that feeling is also mixed with confusion, because I'm a college grad who is tall and white, and the only way to interpret my lack of skill in being a complete adult is that there must be something wrong with me. I think that must be a more common experience than just me, and so I'm sharing it.
I'm going to work really hard to be thankful for what I have, and to not be so angry.
*God damn, was that a fiasco. I really think that people are used to what they're used to, and are often completely unprepared to face the differences between one environment and another. I figured that Rhode Island is a tiny state, and taking two transit lines is no big deal (When I interviewed to go to Temple, I took the trolley from my town, then the El and the Broad Street Line, got lost, got off on the wrong stop, walked a mile backwards down Broad Street, Philadelphia (which was beautiful, by the way), and arrived on time. Taking the 54 and the 66 to go from one end of the state to the other was like an absurd quest. It might be one reason that I'm periodically brought to rage at the idea that those buses both go in and out of parking lots to do door-to-door service to the fronts of suburban big box stores. RIPTA's routing is so absurd.