Dreams have a way of vanishing in this part of the state. One decade you're in your twenties. A minute later, it seems, and you're in your thirties, and the factories where your mom and dad once punched a timecard have collapsed.
Leesona Tool and Die, gone.
Pontiac Mills, gone.
Royal Mills, gone.
Crompton Mills, gone, too.
You came out of high school trying to catch a dream that your parents lost, music ringing in your ears, hoping for a gig in Providence, hell, maybe Boston. Only to find yourself back in your old room at home, pulling part-time hours, the dreams suddenly a little harder to cling to.
West Warwick is just one small town in this small state. But to those who live here, the towns flow rather invisibly into one another. Cranston's joy is Coventry's joy. West Warwick's heartache escapes no one.
All during the past week, pickaxes were poking hard into the earth in the frozen cemeteries scattered in and around Kent County here. At night one could see the unsettling glow from the windows of the funeral parlors. Striding from a viewing into the outside air, the living turned into tired souls, clutching purses, elbows, thin air, anything to keep steady. The dark seemed to squeeze everything in sight. At latest count, 98 died because of the Feb. 20 fire at the Station nightclub. An estimated 180 were injured.
Many were just-holding-on souls, hard workers. Some were unemployed. More than a few were single mothers. The obituaries talked of a great love of rock-and-roll. More than a few, in spite of all the years that had rolled beneath them without a decent break in sight, held on to their music dreams.
The world knows how the 98 died. But how they lived -- in a tricky economy, holding out for the weekend, for the music -- seemed a mixture of the romantic and the poignant, the American dream dropping off into the gritty acceptance of how things really are.
Rock Is Here to Stay
It's a pool hall and a place to congregate. But mostly it's a tattoo shop called Forbidden Flesh, and it sits right on Washington Street in downtown West Warwick. "A lot of the people had tattoos," owner Dennis Correia is saying about those pulled from the fire. "That's how they were identifying some of them." Correia is 29 years old. "That's all the music I listened to growing up," he says of the music played at the Station. He knows why a great many of the patrons went there: "It was a place they could resume their childhoods. You know: 'Back in the day.' "
Just out of high school, Correia didn't have a college dream, it was a football dream. So he went over to Mansfield, Mass., and played semipro in the Eastern Football League. But that soon ended. He did some roofing. Then he did some cooking at the Quidnesett Country Club in North Kingston. "Then I started tattooing in '95. I was learning. I was still working part-time jobs. Like, I worked at Sunoco. And I worked at Curry College, in groundskeeping."
Andy LaChapelle works alongside Correia. He's lanky and wearing jeans, and he's got rings in both ears and his nose. There's another adornment in his nose that looks like a silver toothpick. Tattoos ride up and down both arms. There's an octopus on one arm, a car part on the other. He's 30, a rock-and-roller to the bone with a little daughter. "It's just the freedom to do what you want," he says of rock-and-roll.
"It's in your face," says Jason Pruenca, 26, who works the third shift in a supermarket and who is slouched in a chair. "If you don't like it, we'll turn it up."
"Nobody sings about being rich," says Ilidio Lemos, 33, a shift manager at a Dunkin' Donuts. "Everybody talks about being poor. That's because most people can identify with being poor."
LaChapelle flicks some ash from his cigarette.
He's going through the pain of a recently fallen-apart band. They were called Curmudgeon Clique. "Had drummer problems," he explains. "It was very abrasive rock-and-roll. Maybe you could call it industrial punk."
"I think the new rockers are more angry," says Lemos, who has something silvery on his tongue. It's a piece of jewelry.
"But a lot of the musicians now have the luxury of making their own recordings, doing what they want," says LaChapelle. "I think the music becomes a lot broader. When I started buying CDs, I couldn't find half of what I was looking for. The small bands can put out their own music. It's how they want to say it. Punk rock is actually more political. Listen, they're talking about governmental issues and stuff people don't want to talk about. In the band I was in, I wrote songs about hookers without legs. A lot of people want their feelings heard."
They all decry the downturn in the town's economy. "They're trying to put a casino in here," says Barbara McMahon. She is 35 and the mother of five children, married to Lemos, and she still rocks and rolls.
LaChapelle makes about $19,000 a year. "What I make in salary, well, it's tough. I have a daughter. If we go to war, everybody's gonna be on the corner selling apples." His saving grace, he believes, might well be the tattooing. "There'll always be people turning 18. And there'll always be people going through a midlife crisis."
Pruenca believes a lot of rock-and-roll is about nostalgia, which is not quite his trip. "A lot of people are living in the past. You'll see people wearing tight jeans that they have to apply Vaseline to get into. And these high moccasin boots."
LaChapelle thought Great White still had some currency, which is why the Station was packed on the night of Feb. 20. He wasn't there that night, the $17 ticket a bit much for his pockets. He really liked, however, a song the band sang called "Once Bitten Twice Shy." "I like that line, 'You didn't know that rock-n-roll burned, so you bought a candle and you loved and you learned.' " It's suddenly quiet. He blinks. "Kind of ironic, isn't it?"
Just South of Providence
This old textile mill town, population 29,000, sits beside the Pawtuxet River, 10 miles south of Providence. This is not Newport or Narragansett, the wealthy resorts made famous by Edith Wharton and Henry James. This might be the flip side of that coin.
The mills started failing in the 1960s and have been falling steadily since. In the early '90s, things turned even more ominous, with out-of-town mall development killing off the downtown merchants. "There was poor fiscal results that were attained in those years," says Bernard Magiera, the West Warwick Town Council president, who has been in local politics since the 1960s. He sounds like a Damon Runyon character. "We were hurt real bad after the war."
He's not talking the Persian Gulf War; he's talking World War II.
"Without this fire, we were on the verge of greatness," he says, citing a list of "proposals" to revitalize some of the closed mills.
They sound like dreams, these proposals. David Dodes, the town planner, talks about a $3 million proposal for revitalization along the Pawtuxet, including construction of a riverfront walkway. Developers are thinking about turning Royal Mills into condominiums and shopping.
That's the richness of small-town Rhode Island, of course. The dreams can be rich and, like the music, they're everywhere.
From Beers to Burials
When he came out of Coventry High School in 1987, Rob Harrington already had several years in rock-and-roll behind him. He started working sound jobs for bands when he was a mere 14. The adults would see the kid coming and he'd be enveloped inside their rock-and-roll world, and that was quite cool, how they'd show him things, how his young mind would catch on, how he was soon running wires and rolling his shoulders, listening to the music. He bypassed college. The sweaty nightclubs were a college of their own.
In real time, he's 33 years old. But rock-and-roll has a way of suspending time. He doesn't own a home. He lives with the grandparents. Harrington says he's mostly happy, at least until he realizes how much things have changed. "Rock-and-roll's been dead a long time," he says. The past five years have been rough, he admits. "I went from rock-and-roll down to doing weddings. It's sad to say. But you gotta get money."
So what was a dream -- a life in rock-and-roll -- became reality. Hooking up the guitar at weddings. He blames the tough road laws. "The drinking-and-driving laws keep people out of clubs," he says. "That's part of it. And the price of tickets to go to shows is ridiculous. Even the bands I work with, they're getting $7 to $10 per head! I don't blame rock-and-roll. I blame the laws."
But not long ago Rob Harrington found Holly Belanger. They formed a duo called the Que.
Belanger's from Hope, R.I. She's 29 and got her GED from Tollgate Vo-Tech. "I've wanted to be a singer since elementary school," she says. "I'd entertain for family members. Anything to be the center of attention." Before she joined up with Harrington, she sang in a band called Jane Doe. She was dreaming, she was learning the craft. "That was the first band that made me some money," she says.
She and Harrington are mostly a cover band. They sing the popular tunes of famous artists. "Fleetwood Mac, Christina Aguilera, Avril Lavigne, Adina Howard," she says. She's added Al Green to the repertoire. "I'm very soulful. I'm the little white girl with the black soul."
One week before the deadly fire, the Que, Holly and Rob, were booked at the Station by an agent out of Connecticut. Rob strumming his strings, Holly singing in her raspy voice.
Last week, the two were together again, walking up to the wake for Steve and Andrea Mancini. Andrea worked at the Station, Steve was a guitarist in a local band. The lines at the funeral home were long. The two didn't even make it inside, just stood in the cold, shivering, tearing up. "They know we love 'em," says Harrington.
"It disturbed my brain, just seeing what I saw on television," says Belanger.
"One minute you're sitting there with your friends having beers," says Harrington, "and the next thing you know, you're going to a funeral."
Harrington might think rock-and-roll is dead, but on the night when Great White played the Station, he was there, klieg lights in his face. That night, the dream was alive again. The shoulders were rolling. Then came the flames. And he jumped and twisted and just pushed. He can no more explain how he got out than he can explain why he was born on the day he was born. "It was luck. It was hard. It took me a good 30 seconds to get out," he says. "I could feel the heat bearing down on me as I was going out. I went outside through the door near the bar." Outside, he looked up, around, back inside. "I thought maybe 10 people had died."
Rob and Holly know they've got to eat. They're booked through March, for which they are grateful. "Though most of the places we play are getting closed down," says Harrington, going into a riff about fire investigators who've been making aggressive sweeps of nightclubs across the state in the aftermath of the fire. "I'm scheduled tonight to play a place called Red Rock. If the inspectors get there before we do, we might not play."
A Benefit Delayed
Last Sunday, the operators of Copperfield's Lounge -- adjacent to the airport, in front of a garage -- were all rocked up. A benefit for the survivors of the Station fire was scheduled. The bands on tap were familiar names in the area: Mr. Breeze, Old School, Into Oblivion, Backlash, Hysteria, Witz End, a few others. Two o'clock was the starting time, and the cars and pickups started arriving 90 minutes before. But it was not to be: The fire marshals had prohibited the event and those arriving hadn't yet gotten the word. "We had this beautiful green carpeting on the walls. See, look," says Katie Morris. She's pointing to where the carpeting had been ripped from the wall because investigators feared the same scenario that sent the Station up in flames.
Morris works as a welder for General Dynamics. "We lost a friend in the fire who works there. Bonnie. Worked in the cafeteria. Nice kid. Oh, and my friend Steve. He died in the fire, too." She tends bar at Copperfield's for extra money, and because she likes the music. She's flipping the benefit tickets in her hand, trying to sell them to customers who've come for the event, promising it will be rescheduled.
Herb Jackson and Joe Amoroso are idling inside the club. Jackson works at Copperfield's. Amoroso's uncle owns the place, and he's just by to help out. The rock-and-roll band scene makes Amoroso sad. "A lot of groups can only do this as a second job," he says of the performers. "You got to have a part-time job somewhere."
"We have karaoke five times a week," says Jackson.
Amoroso grabs some keys and leads a visitor downstairs, site of the big dance floor, where the bands rock. The ceiling above the stage is low. Not unlike the ceiling at the Station, Amoroso says. "When I've been in the Station, my head sometimes touches the ceiling lights." He points to where the fire marshals made them remove the carpet. It's bare wood paneling now.
"We play true rock-and-roll," Amoroso says of his quiet club before climbing the steps back upstairs.
Another Town Heard From
It's sunset and Lake Tiogue lies frozen just beyond the back doors of the restaurant. He's any rock-and-roller. He's any small-town soul in his thirties who still lives for the beat. "Most of the factories here closed down. The train line closed down," says Anthony DiPonte. No matter. He had his dreams. "I wanted to be a firefighter all my life. That didn't work out. Tried joining the military. That didn't work out. But I work. That's the bottom line. I don't mind scrubbing dishes on Friday and Saturday nights." He's taking a little break, standing outside Nino's, the restaurant where he works in Coventry. "I live a mile and a half from here. My next-door neighbor is one of the cooks. He gives me a ride -- or I'll walk to work.
"My father worked in the big factories up there," he says, pointing off into the distance. But factory work eluded him. He went first to Coventry Cemetery, then to St. Ann's Cemetery in Cranston -- the very ones being dug up now. He dug ditches. And he listened to his music: "Ozzy Ozbourne, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple. I never thought Great White was that good." He moved on from cemetery work: "I went to Tropicana juice factory, then to the Rhode Island Sports Center and Ice Rink, then Nino's. I been here about five months." He saves what he can. "I got a nice little nest egg. I usually don't touch it."
On the night of the fire, the phone rang at DiPonte's home. He lives with his mother. A friend, hysterical, howled into his mother's ear: "He's dead, isn't he? Isn't he?"
"She said, 'No, he isn't.' But my friend knew I'd go there."
DiPonte happened to be out of town that night.
He lives in Coventry. Which is to say he lives in a place little different from Cranston or West Warwick. "I take the bus wherever I go," he says. "I know some of the girls who live out here. The strippers. They work in the strip clubs in Providence. They ride the buses with me."
He's off some Saturdays, which he considers a blessing. "I work 20 to 40 hours a week. Right now it's a little slow. The boss can count on me, though. He knows I show up. Back in December, one week I worked 60 hours. Things will pick up in April and May. The wedding parties."
Pieces of a Dream
Small-town dreams and small-town realities:
The old town councilman, Bernard Magiera, has lung cancer. "I'll soon know if I'm gonna make it," he says, stoical as oak.
Holly Belanger hopes to make a cover of Elvis's "Jailhouse Rock" and pair it with one of her originals. She can sound giddy about her plans. Still: "I don't think I'm gonna make it big."
Holly's partner, Rob Harrington, wants to chase down a demon. "I drink too much."
David Dodes, the town planner, has a dream: "Within five years, things should be turning around."
Five years. Half a decade. Whoosh.
The stone carvers will be kept busy for quite some time: Ninety-eight dead. So many headstones.
Dennis Correia hopes gentrification doesn't take away his tattoo parlor-pool hall business on Washington Street.
Anthony DiPonte reveals, with the pride of a wealthy man, how much he's saved in his nest egg: $3,000. It's not Newport money. But it's money for a dishwasher to dream on.