The Post: Under the Pier – Place as Character, Part II: Specific Story Locations and the “Real Story” Behind Them

In this entry I’m going to talk strictly about the human story locations. I’ll deal with the animal locations in a later segment on physical and geographical details of the setting.

For the human side of the story – Max’s world – the setting could be broken down into the town, places outside of the town, and the bay itself.

Some specific locations in the story’s town include:

  • Max’s home area – a residential street sandwiched between the local business district on Main Street on one side, and the auto body shops, shipping repair shops and commercial wharfs, on the other
  • The diner area of town – centrally located, it contains Main Street’s local business district, the schools and church.
  • Uptown – the fancy boutiques, expensive hotels and restaurants along with art galleries, museums, the hospital, civic buildings and the library;
  • The areas south and west of the diner are industrial in nature, and east of the diner right on the waterfront, there are welders, electricians, ice houses, a sailor’s assistance shelter, soup kitchens, etc.
  • Lighthouse point – at the upper end of the point, close to town, a state park along the shore; a little further down the road, there is the Naval research base on one side and an exclusive yacht and sports club on the left bordered by sand dunes with the burned out remains of an old mansion and carriage house from the 1800s; at the end of the road – old stone warehouse buildings that now serve as research labs, the wooden pier, a lighthouse on a rocky point to the left of the pier, rocky outcroppings with tide pools to the right of the pier, and an old Civil War fort, on the Naval Base land, that overlooks the pier and labs, and is open to the public as a museum.

Outside the town:

  • A local university marine research facility including an ocean-going vessel and dock

The bay:

  • Ecological disaster restoration sites out in Narragansett Bay where environmental researchers plant eelgrass shoots to restore the bay’s destroyed eelgrass beds and seed the areas with baby quahogs – hard shell clams – to restore shellfish populations
  • An upweller site – essentially a farm to raise baby clams and oysters used to reseed other areas

In considering the town, I needed ask some questions such as:

Is this an upscale affluent area? A low-income blue collar industrial or commercial fishing area? Are there homeless shelters or condos? Are the store fronts vibrant and thriving? Empty? Are there boutiques or thrift shops? Vegetarian restaurants or diners? Is this a “border” area where two worlds collide? How do the people on either side of the tracks react to each other?

Is this a newly established area or does it have a history dating back to the 1600s? Are there universities, military installations, factories? Does the commercial area involve banks and high finance, or boat repairs, metal shops, and welders? Or both?

What are the ethnic groups in the region? Is there a prevailing religion? Is it an old town where things “used to be this way” but are falling into disrepair or customs that are now disregarded? Superstitions? What are the prevailing attitudes on politics, work, family and friends? Is the area conservative? Liberal? Apathetic?

Based on these and other questions I came up with the following:

Under the Pier takes place in a fictional Rhode Island port town that’s a crossroads between the pampered and the struggling. It’s reflective of a lot of places in New England, manual laborers right next to rich tourists and the well-do-do. It is based on no one town in particular, but is more a blend of the many places I lived in or experienced over the years, places that run the range from industrial, commercial fishing, and laboring, to museums, boutiques, fancy restaurants, and art galleries. They have a heavy basis in blue collar and immigrant populations and while there’s a variety of religions, many of the people at least used to be Roman Catholic.

Examples of some of the towns included as influences for this story are: Newport, Providence and Middletown, Rhode Island; Torrington, Winsted, Waterbury, Bridgeport, and Farmington Connecticut; Fall River, Seekonk, Gloucester, Provincetown, Boston, Woods Hole and New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Places like Farmington Connecticut and Boston Massachusetts have affluent or very successful upscale flavors to them. Many of the other towns reflect the reality that times used to be better in the past. Manufacturing used to be a staple of the region’s economy. Now that has declined or almost totally left the area, though many old factory buildings remain. Commercial fishing, always a difficult way of life, has become a real struggle, and the towns themselves struggle with aging infrastructures like bridges, roads, parks, hospitals, etc., many in decline due to the loss of tax revenue that the manufacturing industry used to bring.

The town and surrounding areas are saturated with the influences, flavors, structures and artifacts of many eras in American history:

– Puritan Pilgrims and their intense work ethics; independent types like Roger Williams who left established colonies for the wilderness of places like Rhode Island so they could live the way they wanted; stubborn colonial farmers battling poor land; independent types who produced some of the leaders of the American Revolution, the literary world, industry and business

– Historic landmarks like old forts, statehouses, battle sites etc.

– The churches, schools, convents, and fraternal club buildings built by turn-of-the century (early 1900s) immigrants to New England, from Ireland, Eastern Europe, and Italy.

– Turn of the century industrial buildings when the area bustled with work, workers, and possibilities in the area mills. Money was tight and the hours long, hard and dangerous, but there were jobs to be had, especially during the busy days of World War II.

– Support businesses that grew up around those factories like, corner grocery stores, diners, hardware stores, newspaper offices and their printing facilities, Five-and-dime stores like Woolworth’s, etc.

– Left-over World War II military installations, forts, anti-aircraft gun mounts, ammo bunkers. Some are still in use, some boarded up and abandoned, some razed, and some converted to other uses. For example, some of the old ammo bunkers were converted into research laboratories at the University of Rhode Island.

– Continued US Naval military presence including advanced underwater naval weapons research

– Ivy league colleges and renowned universities with cutting-edge research programs that often overlap with military objectives and budgets

Regarding Max’s home – she lives right at the edge of both worlds, in her grandmother’s three-family house. Her grandmother worked all her life in the diner, while her grandfather drove a truck for Grunder’s Moving and Storage after a stint in the army, in Vietnam. In spite of their lower standing on the economic ladder, they still owned their own home. It’s not fancy like the single-family homes in the richer parts of town, but still, it’s theirs. It’s more practical – a three-family house, which means you can rent out at least one floor for additional income. In Max’s case, her grandmother rents out the first floor apartment – to Vince Santelli, the somewhat mysterious eldest son of Rosa, the old woman who runs the diner. Max and her grandmother live on the second floor. Their apartment is pretty comfortable since Max’s grandparents converted the third floor attic into additional living space. Max’s grandparents managed to send two of their three children to college, and the only reason Max’s mom didn’t go was out of choice – she wanted to be an artist. All in all, while not a rich or pampered life, Max’s grandparents did okay for themselves.

Max lives next door to her best friend, Noah Olansky. His is a military family – his dad is a drill instructor for the Marine Corps, while his mom manages the local exclusive sports club. Again – not a rich existence, but still, they have a home, access to some nice perks, good schools, and they have ambitions for their son that they have a reasonable chance of achieving. In addition, they too collect extra income by renting the first floor apartment of their house to the elderly twin sisters, Mildred and Margaret Stoltz. It’s considered a perfect arrangement. Noah’s parents get tenants who pay on time and regularly, don’t destroy the place or have late-night parties, and are stable. The two older women get a safe place to live, reasonable rent, help from Noah and his mom, and live close to their friends and the things important to them.

Behind Max and Noah’s houses are stand-alone garages, and behind those, an overgrown wooded area that buffers their backyards from the backyard of the auto body shop and the commercial wharves on the next street. So it is a residential street right on the fringes of blue collar businesses.

Rosa Santelli, who runs the diner, lives in the central area of town, right in the middle of all the businesses. She has a living situation representative of that segment of society that started out in modest quarters, right next to their growing businesses, and stayed there even as the area declined. Rosa lives in a small apartment on the back side of the Grunder’s Moving Company. This is not an uncommon occurrence in urban areas, to have back alley apartments behind commercial businesses. She has lived there all her life with her husband until he died. They raised their sons there and it is conveniently located right next to her 24-hour-a-day diner. As is the case with those arrangements, it still suits her as everything she values in life or needs, is right there. Her church is right up the street, the diner is next door, the florist who sells her roses for her diner is in a storefront next door, along with the Laundromat she uses for free, the hair salon where she gets her hair cut. She is friends with all of these people and has been for years. They look out for each other.

Rosa’s apartment is also two doors down from the apartment Max and her mom lived in when they moved back to town from Cape Cod, six months ago. The apartment location placed them down the street from Max’s school, next door to her mom’s job in the Grunder’s office, not far from the art galleries her mom was trying to break into, and close enough, YET far enough away from Max’s grandmother. It had the added perk of being high enough, located on the second floor, so they could look out on the harbor and Narragansett Bay.

The businesses on Main Street clustered around the diner, reflect the nature of the area: a fish and bait shop, an Army and Navy store, marine supplies, a fish market, hardware store, grocery store, hair shop, photo shop, florist, gas and oil company, and a Laundromat. The local fire station, bowling alley, and liquor store are around the corner, and all these people know each other, support each other, look out for each other, and share food and fun with each other. For example, Rosa and all the local business ladies get together every Friday night at the diner for their poker group.

Gambling and games of chance are pretty standard things in the area and there’s a long history of it, especially in the ethnic communities. For example, one of my grandmothers and her friends would catch the afternoon bus to Pennsylvania , play bingo for the night, then get home early the next morning because the cash prizes were bigger in Pennsylvania bingo games than those in Connecticut. Local churches always ran a turkey bingo at Thanksgiving and raffles during the summer.

My other grandmother would attend early Sunday Mass then catch the bus to Green Mountain, Vermont to go to the racetrack (horses). It was a very common thing for my dad, uncles, and family friends to take a day off during the summer to head to New York’s Aqueduct horse race track, or for us to go up to the Saratoga racetrack for a day trip as a family. My grandmother knew horses, jockeys, and win-loss statistics. I knew very early on the different betting rules of the race track, such as what the Daily Double (predict the winners in two consecutive races) was, and I knew that the Latin prefix “tri” meant three, because you had to predict three things – the horses for first, second and third place in a race to win a Trifecta. I knew at a young age that you won the most money if you bet on a horse to win, but stood a better chance of getting some kind of payout, if you bet on the horse to place or show. And you always, always, checked your ticket and your change before you walked away from the betting booth.

As time went on, the state added lottery games. Jai Alai came to Connecticut from Florida. The world of betting became upscale with fancy off-track-betting facilities, lavish casinos with entertainment that rivaled Vegas run by the Mashantucket Pequot Indian tribe in Connecticut (Foxwood), or the large casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Jersey is just a long day trip away, either by bus or limo. So all of this is a part of life there.

Moving north from the center of town is the more upscale area frequented by tourists and the wealthier of the town. Museums, boutiques, bistros, fancy restaurants, art galleries, the hospital, and the city’s civic buildings are all there. A walk through Newport Rhode Island gives as good an example of that as any place.

In contrast areas west and south of the diner are heavily industrial as well as military. East of the diner, on the other side of Max’s street, and you are at the waterfront of the harbor. Again, blue-collar, generally commercial boating and fishing industries and support services dominate this area, along with soup kitchens and a Seamen’s Assistance House that provides shelter and support to sailor’s in need of a place to stay between jobs. This last one is based on a similar facility on the Newport, Rhode Island waterfront.

Heading out of town you can either head further inland, toward the rest of Rhode Island and the university in the story, or you can head out toward Lighthouse Point – a large strip of land jutting out into the water on the outer edge of the harbor. Past this point are the open waters of Narragansett Bay and then the open Atlantic. While again a fictional location, a look at the geography of the land surrounding Narragansett Bay, for that matter, right in the Newport area, would show countless inlets, harbors, rocky coves and jetties of land that could match Lighthouse Point in description.

As mentioned above, the story’s pier is at the end of Lighthouse point, along with the research labs. To some extent, the campus setup for the research area was loosely based on facilities at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts.

To the left of the pier, on a rocky point, is the lighthouse that shines out on the waters between the town’s harbor and Narragansett Bay. To the right of the pier are the tide pools and the rocky tail end of land as it meets the bay. Overlooking the pier area from the hill above it, is the old Civil War fort. It is located on land owned by the Naval base and is run as a museum. The Point also has the Naval base for underwater weapons research, the exclusive sports club Noah’s mom manages, the burned-out remains of the haunted carriage house and mansion and a state park on the south edge of the point.

Out in Narragansett Bay, my story characters have been to eelgrass restoration sites, shellfish restoration sites, and an upweller installation – a farm where seed clams and oysters are raised to later be used in the above restorations.

Some of the real-life locations that inspired the above story sites include places like Fort Adams , an active military fort from 1824-1950 and now a museum, that overlooks the Newport harbor, as well as the many exclusive yacht clubs there. Narragansett Bay has many operating lighthouses, as well as state parks, and rocky points, tide pools, and wooden piers abound.

About ghosts. Well, frankly, I think most of New England is haunted, and Rhode Island is no exception. Brenton Point State Park in Newport, Rhode Island has the plant-shrouded remains of a supposedly haunted building, and the Cliff Walk along the water by Newport’s exclusive mansions, as well as some of the mansions themselves, have their own stories of ghosts and hauntings. A number of these are in the book: Haunted Newport, by Eleyne Austen Sharp, though the Brenton Point one I learned about firsthand from someone when we visited the area.

The stone buildings that make up the research labs were based on many of the old warehouses and mill building scattered around places like Lowell and Fall River, Massachusetts. The main lab building is modeled on an old stone building in Woods Hole, Massachusetts – the Candle House – that has a model of a sailing ship mounted over its doorway.

I created the story of the ship’s captain building the stone warehouses, lighthouse, and mansion out on the point, but even there, it is based in reality. On a trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia one summer, I dined in a restaurant right on the waterfront that dated to the 1800s and was built to hold goods for trade coming in on the ocean-going vessels. The same is true of waterfront buildings in many New England ports, including Boston.

Regarding the story’s secret Naval research base, it mirrors the current reality in that region. Military installations and research labs are prevalent throughout the area, being in close proximity to large universities doing cutting-edge research in electronics, robotics etc. The Naval base doing underwater weapons research on Lighthouse Point is based very loosely on The Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) in Newport Rhode Island, and on the area research projects sponsored by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. NUWC’s website describes the center as: “the Navy’s full-spectrum research, development, test and evaluation, engineering and fleet support center for submarines, autonomous underwater systems, and offensive and defensive weapons systems associated with undersea warfare.”

There are also the “leftover military infrastructure relics” from World War II that can still be found in the area – decommissioned bases that became wildlife research stations, remnants of anti-aircraft gun emplacements and artillery batteries on the hillsides overlooking the water, and old ammo bunkers. On the last – there are a few research labs at the University of Rhode Island that are actually converted ammunition bunkers. They are coveted because they can be easily controlled for temperature and humidity, and they have no sun-lit windows to interfere with experiments.

The University of Rhode Island has an extensive marine biology research program at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography right on Narragansett Bay. This includes the ocean-going research vessel, R/V Endeavor, docked right at the school.

A few remaining settings are out in the bay itself: eelgrass restoration programs and shellfish seeding at the sites of polluted areas. These are based on actual restoration projects such as for the 1996 North Cape oil spill, the 1989 Prodigy oil spill, the coastal superfund hazardous waste site at the Newport Naval Education and Training Center at McAllister Point off Newport, and others.

The details for the side trip to a clam farm or upweller site, where baby clams are raised for later transplantation to other areas, came from a number of websites found on Google searches.

Next up: So How DO You “See” A Fictional Town?

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