My eyes were dripping from my skull, and the coffee had begun to taste more natural than saliva. It could have been any night: bottomless cup in tow, my eyes twitched uncontrollably, and jitters slowly surpassed all other physical functions. But it was not any other night. It was a professional all-nighter, forced consumption with the possibility of total deliverance, or, at least, a grandiose test of the human will marked by partial blackouts and short-term memory loss.
The adventure related below is an amalgamation of years of late night experiences, miles of Rhode Island roads covered in search of the perfect place to get hash browns at three in the morning, a condensed characterization of Providence, and a side of the city most rarely see. Commencing the evening, Walter, my guide and spiritual mentor, related a Zen proverb: "Better to sit all night than to go to bed with a dragon."
Between the hours of 9 pm and 5 am, it is possible, amid the relics of Puritanism and the abandoned industrial spaces soon to house luxury lofts, to revel and relax, to go ice skating, and stuff your face with a "murder burger" from a 120-year-old diner, and then watch the sun rise over the most poignant beach in all of New England while draining your last caffeinated alcoholic beverage.
The doors of Downtown Liquors (94 Washington Street, Providence, 401.621.2277) are open for another 30 minutes, so we stock up for the rest of the evening. The beverage of choice? Sparks, of course. A newcomer to Rhode Island, Sparks is a caffeinated alcoholic beverage in a 16-ounce can that looks like a cross between a Smart Car and a battery, and tastes like a Mountain Dew-King Cobra hybrid. In the future, all alcohol will be caffeinated, all caffeine will be alcoholic, and the executive of Sparks will preside over our world governing body.
All Sparked up and ready to test my luck, I make Lincoln Park’s slogan my mantra: "Why couldn’t the next big winner be you?" Walter sticks with coffee and steers our Lincoln Town Car north until, 10 minutes later, we arrive at Rhode Island’s premier phantasmagoria of silver-haired dreams (1600 Louisquisset Pike, Lincoln, 800.720.PARK), a nation of slot machines that devoured a few hundred skrillion bucks last year. Here, the relics of Puritanical morality and post-industrial malaise intermingle under flashing lights and fancy boy drinks. Here, also, the State of Rhode Island sustains itself. Gambling at Lincoln Park and the Newport Grand, along with income from lottery tickets, was the third largest source of state revenues last year. Slots alone provided the state with almost $184 million.
I pondered this while sipping on gin and juice, watching the greyhounds run in circles. Last year, a state Supreme Court decision prevented a ballot question that may have allowed the Las Vegas company Harrah’s and the Narragansett Indians to open a casino in West Warwick. But casino boosters have renewed their effort to place a casino question on the ballot, questing for another gambling destination.
Having outstayed our welcome at Lincoln Park — according to a bouncer, who refused to recognize our Iraq’s Most Wanted playing cards as legal tender — we point the Town Car toward downtown Providence for last call. Recouping our losses and reconfiguring our plans over cans of Schlitz at the Red Fez (49 Peck Street, 401.272.1212), the one bar in Providence that I might deign to call my own, we waited for the city to shut down, seated among its finest residents.
Finding ourselves in the cold once again, red-eyed and jittery, Walter and I head to 7-Eleven to refuel. The store at Kennedy Plaza (10 Dorrance Street, 401.351.6287) and the newer location across from Johnson & Wales University (141 Weybosset Street, 401.831.2936), are perhaps the only convenience stores in Providence with 24-hour permits. Despite neighborhood concerns that the Weybosset location will attract troublemakers, drunken carousers, vandals, prostitutes, drug dealers, gun runners, and agents of A.Q. Khan’s nuclear arms network, things were relatively calm when we arrived. In fact, the florescent lights graced the corner with an angelic glow. We filled our Slurpees with Red Bull and headed to club land.
If you aren’t already in a club when the clock approaches 2 am, Diesel (formerly the Strand, 79 Washington Street, 401.751.2700) is a perfect place to watch the crowds flee the pen. Widely considered "the crown jewel" of Providence nightlife, the Strand is actually a one-time art-deco theater now housing Diesel. Lupo’s, Providence’s stalwart concert venue, has also relocated to the Strand, making nightlife even more complicated. A historic theater turned libidinous gladiatorial arena — 21-plus for men, 18-plus for ladies, hot pants and Rolex knock-offs galore — Diesel is the sort of place where chic is always spelled "sheik" (according to its Web site, at least). In late summer, closing time is marked by hundreds of scantily clad fun club cadets fanning out into the night, stumbling into cabs or, as is customary, convincing themselves of their relative sobriety as they make an effort to remember the name of the person next to them.
There are few places in Providence open past 2 am, and even fewer that serve a decent plate of fried potatoes. So it seemed fitting that as Providence’s citizens lay their tired heads to rest, my vision quest would become sublimated, its animalistic urges manifest in a tour of Providence’s best late-night diners. These enclaves offer an homage to the city’s industrial roots, which encouraged businesses to provide service to workers at all times of the day and night. Though getting a license to stay open between 1 and 4 am is not easy, there is a population of night owls and coffee-addled neurotics ready to support those who persevere into the late hours.
Providence is actually regarded as the birthplace of the diner. In 1888, 16 years after Walter Scott’s horse-drawn lunch cart inaugurated an American tradition, Irish immigrant Anna Coffey Haven opened her own cart and parked it at the corner of Dorrance and City Hall. Haven Brothers can still be found there, from 4:30 pm to 5 am every day. Five stools and a few square feet of counter space fill a silver casket mounted on a 1986 Ford pickup truck. Power from an electric pole fires the grill that provides hearty chili and plump hot dogs, for dinner or breakfast. The city has tried to get rid of the diner a few times over the last 100 years, but intervention by higher powers saved it. In 1996, then-mayor Buddy Cianci supported Haven Brothers, letting it be known, "The city would absolutely fall apart if they weren’t there."
After satiating our appetites with some hors d’oeuvres, we headed to North Providence for our second course. Betty’s Restaurant (1075 Charles Street, North Providence, 401.724.7993) welcomed us with open arms, bottomless cups of coffee, and awkward stares — we were the boys with the tight pants and effeminate scarves. Making friends with a drunken regular who insisted on showing us his Michael Jackson impersonation (complete with moonwalk) distracted us until our waitress anxiously pushed him aside and served up heaping plates of hash browns and scrambled eggs. We wolfed them down before being kicked out at three, and heading to Olneyville for the main course.
Having chosen to bypass the hot wieners at the Olneyville New York System (20 Plainfield Street, Providence, 401.621.9500) in favor of some more traditional fare, we arrived at Wes’ Rib House (38 Dike Street, Providence, 401.421.9090). Though Wes’ can’t boast David Byrne, late of Talking Heads, as a former employee — for evidence, check the image of Byrne performing New York System’s signature move, loading hot wieners onto his arm, in the video for "Once In a Lifetime" — it, too, is a welcome anomaly, a grease-laden oasis in a neighborhood generally deserted after midnight. Though Wes’ proffers "Missouri-style" barbecue, the food can’t be pinned to any region or tradition. If anything, the place is ahistorical, a pastiche of Western and Southern kitsch, geographical delirium, a replica of a barbecue house that has never actually existed. The dˇcor inexplicably juxtaposes cowboy hats and cacti with picnic benches and sunflowers, complete with an "Old West" fa¨ade. On top of all this, Wes’ serves up some delicious French fries, succulent ribs, and buttery cornbread. To avoid Providence’s pesky liquor laws, order a few pitchers before 1 am and try nursing them long after.
As this self-imposed vision quest nears its inevitable end, I begin to wonder to what degree I have delved deeper and deeper into myself, and to what degree I have simply stimulated my nervous system at the expense of my unconscious. Where was my spirit animal? Was it true that when you seek it, you cannot find it? As I drained the last of my Sparks, the anticipation once felt regarding what I might find by the end of the night had turned decidedly to fear. I could feel the coffee, alcohol, and fried foods battling it out deep within me, refusing to make alliances, suppressing any spiritual revelations I might have had.
Walter looked into my eyes knowingly and steered the car away from our final destination, the picaresque stretch of sand and dive bars in Warwick called Oakland Beach, toward the more familiar territory of India Point Park. Parking near Wickenden Street, we walked across the fence-enclosed footbridge that separates the East Side from the park and stood still for a few minutes, watching the sunrise as the occasional car sped down the highway below our feet. A few minutes later, we trudged toward the park and finished a last cigarette on a bench overlooking the Narragansett Bay. The water lapped across the jagged stumps of wood that once bore the weight of a dock, but now merely point to the dilapidated industrial structures just across the bay.
Walter related another Zen proverb: "Sitting quietly, doing nothing, fall comes, and the grass slows down."
One more cup of coffee. Loui’s Diner (286 Brook Street, Providence, 401.861.5225) is abandoned, having just opened its doors. NPR relays the news of the passing day and the day to come, as it does every morning, and we sip with dry mouths and chew silently on grilled pumpkin muffins, our faces perfectly expressionless.
Alex Provan, who has had his share of late nights, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Issue Date: August 26 - September 1, 2005
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