By Stephen Grigelevich
2 min read
One night in mid-December, I paid a visit to my new spot, a small hookah lounge off the beaten path. I took the lone outdoor table, next to the aloof valet. Inside was buzzing with red light and conversation, and I was moved by the strange pleasure of feeling at home. It was as though I were hearing my native language spoken after years abroad. This is my new city: Providence.
I was born here, and raised nearby, so this move represents more of a revisiting. After living in Boston for 12 years, my re-entry to Providence offers me the chance of a new relationship with the city, and the small state that surrounds it. I’m an insider-outsider, circumambulating this territory. Personal connection aside, we should all appreciate the relationship between Boston and Providence, two places whose geographical proximity, shared colonial and industrial history, and similar ethnic compositions might discourage a more critical comparison.
I often find myself asking, “how are the people here different?” And how am I different?” From behind the wheel, I see a hipster pedestrian look me in the eye as they cross the street. The server at the queer eatery across the street tells me to ‘get comfortable,’ until they bring me my order. The young collegiate and professional types at the café down the hill brush up against one another; they, of course, would be in clear violation of Boston’s social code. In Providence, I observe a greater willingness to casually engage with strangers. The other day, I pulled my car into a spot, evidently too close for the liking of the young white woman nearby. “Idiot,” she said as she trotted by lazily. “Go ahead of me,” said another at the café, tiredly. “I’m still looking.”
Boston has an anxiety problem, due not only to its academic and professional culture, but to the engrained Anglo-Saxon code of proper physical distance, social grace, and general politeness that persists. The pressure to be anxiously civil can’t help but get on you, I believe.
Anxiety is polarizing. But, relative to Boston, Providence tends to play it down the middle. Fewer people seem scared to touch, fewer people seem primed to fixate on “correct” codes of social conduct. My wife Rebecca, a New Yorker, observes and appreciates the switch from ‘sorry’ to ‘excuse me’ as we cross the border.
I’m also different in Providence. I’m more relaxed. I’m more confrontational. I’m funnier. Frankly, I feel it’s more acceptable for me to be all of those things. When I make a mistake, I feel less guilty. In short, I feel less culturally alienated. I miss Boston, and I miss my neighborhood, Jamaica Plain. We left out of necessity. And Providence isn’t a Mecca. I was reminded of this by a friend who, traveling from Berlin, told me that Providence was “the most bumpkin city” they’ve lived in. I write this piece out of a deep caring, and perhaps frustration, for Boston, a place that I called home, but could never quite feel at home in.
From Providence, with love,
*Originally published in-print in Boston Compass Newspaper #143 February 2022