You don't usually see strangers this time of year on Succotash Road; the summer people aren't at their fancy A-frame houses near Matunuck Beach; the little Coastal Fisheries Laboratories is quiet.
And yet on Friday, many a Rent-A-Car was seen on this stretch of southern Rhode Island, the occupants frantically pounding the doors of the natives. Reporters, they were, some from as far away as New York City and Washington; and all because of President Reagan.
"Is it news that some fellow out in South Succotash someplace has just been laid off that he should be interviewed nationwide?" he had said.
Thank God he didn't say Anchorage.
It's a small scratch on the map, Succotash Road, not even a town but just a five-mile sandy coastal stretch of road off Route 1, across a tiny bay from Snug Harbor. Succotash Road is intersected, at a point, by Old Succotash Road; down the way it ends in Succotash Point. Many summer people live on Succotash Road near the water, and some retired people and a few fisherman live on Old Succotash Road.
There are also, according to a spokesman for the local unemployment office, three women on Succotash Road(s) who have been laid off in the past year: a part-time school lunch worker, a wildlife control agent and a stone cutter. Neither the spokesman nor his state supervisor would release the names of those folks or intercede for the press, though the supervisor, a chatty fellow by the name of Edward O'Donnell, had some information, deep-background-wise:
"You know what succotash, real succotash, is? Corn and shell beans and bear fat. Old Indian recipe. Bet you didn't know that."
A few words on Succotash, the road: it's paved and flat. It's lined with houses, which, in the current economy, sell for about $75,000. Outside the houses are many dogs, though, of course, if dog bites reporter it is not news. Inside the houses, there were friendly American folks, regrettably employed. They were glad to chat and eager to figure out who their three out-of-work neighbors were. Some were aware of the president's remark.
"I heard him say that, and it struck me as funny," said Norman Lavelle, a restaurant owner on Old Succotash Road.
Funny because of the economy or because he happened to live on the road?
"Because I live on the road," said Lavelle.
They're friendly as heck in small towns, even towns that are too small to be towns, but alas, they don't all know each other's secrets.
Jim Mello, a fisherman, pulled his pickup over to the side of the road immediately when a reporter flagged him down and, failing to identify any of the unemployed, seized on a solution.
"I don't know any of those people, but I know somebody who would," he said, leading and led the reporter home to his wife.
Mrs. Mello, in between admiring a new granddaughter and making a cup of coffee, got out the phone book.
"What about Sherry Vierra, over on Succotash Road?" Mrs. Jim Mello wondered. "Didn't she work over at the lunch program at the Matunuck School?"
"Never worked in the lunch program a day in my life," Vierra later said. "One of my sons saw a reporter over at the store, though, this morning. It was pretty funny, we thought."
More notes on Succotash: It's four hours from New York City, driving hard. At about 4 p.m. this time of year, the temperature drops severely. The houses are small and neat and well kept, and the citizenry, while concerned about layoffs in other areas of Rhode Island, consider themselves well off.
If there are hard times, and more coming, they are most evident at the Coastal Fisheries Laboratory. The lab is largely federally funded, according to Bill Lapin, a marine biologist who works there, and there is some concern, month-to-month, among the biologists as to whether they will have jobs. The work of the laboratory has included research projects, regulatory research and seeding projects. A few years ago, the laboratory seeded the scallop hatcheries around Rhode Island, and the industry that year, says Lapin proudly, brought in $5 million.
The scallop hatchery isn't used in winter any more; it's reportedly too expensive for the state to heat. The nearby Coastal Resources Center in Narragansett is already laying off. And the Department of Environmental Management conservation program for people between 18 and 21 has been disbanded; too bad, folks say, because the kids received training in the field, and were enthusiastic, and did good work.
As if on cue, one walks through the door. He is David Atigian, 21, in jeans and a flannel T-shirt. He enjoyed the program, says David; it paid only the minimum wage, but it was better than the department store job he has now. "Hopefully" he is going into the conservation field, he says, but there is nothing for him around the area now. He's applied to the National Park Service out of the area, has tried for three years.
He is a curious case, journalistically. One cannot say he was laid off from his government job, since it was only a one-year program, which he enjoyed the entire year. One can also not say he is "some fellow out in South Succotash" because the laboratory where he worked was merely "Succotash Road."
And even had he been, it may not matter--for is it news that some fellow out in South Succotash someplace has just been laid off that he should be interviewed nationwide, or is it not?