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A real place, where everybody knows your name

By Barbara Keenlyside

A woman delivers a bouquet of roses on Saturday morning to the site of the Rhode Island nightclub where 97 people died.
A woman delivers a bouquet of roses on Saturday morning to the site of the Rhode Island nightclub where 97 people died.

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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Rhode Island is so small, local and close-knit, it seems as if it's populated by a huge and affectionate -- if sometimes squabbling -- extended family.

That's why the impact of the catastrophic fire at the Station nightclub will reverberate beyond the immediate loved ones of the people who perished. Everybody's lives are connected. Rhode Island will be devastated and generations to come will talk of this terrible event.

I lived in Rhode Island for many years and my kids were born there. I'm a distant relative or a sort-of daughter-in-law of the family. But Rhode Islanders have no distance from this tragedy.

I worked at the daily Providence Journal. People read the newspaper in Rhode Island avidly and eat up local news: It's family gossip, after all. Everybody's got an opinion and knows everybody's business.

Rhode Islanders are homebodies who love politics and juicy stories about each other. The shenanigans -- and downright crimes -- of public officials and private individuals are the subjects of intense debate and deconstruction. When a politician gets all tangled up in scandal -- and they often do -- the whole state is outraged, as if an uncle betrayed everyone. Rhode Islanders take their scandals seriously.

Change is slow

Lots of people rarely venture out for a drive that lasts more than an hour or so. Why bother? The beaches are wonderful right here. Your neighborhood has all you need: sidewalks to get to the hardware store, the Cumberland Farm mini-mart, and the family-run restaurants that offer great spaghetti with clam sauce, Portuguese chorizo sausage, or the VFW place with the great Polish pierogis.

After all, can you get good brothy clam chowder or coffee milk in Connecticut? Stuffed quahogs or clam cakes in Vermont? Does Massachusetts appreciate fried dough? You want trendy? You can check out Providence. Boston -- at 45 minutes away -- is too far.

Immigrants -- among them Italian, Irish, French Canadian, Portuguese and Eastern European -- built Rhode Island, working in mills and factories or in the fishing and boat-building industries. An immigrant family would buy the ubiquitous wooden triple-decker house, and as the next generations were born, members would marry and move up into the next floor. By the time the third floor was occupied, the family was assimilated and had enough money to move out.

It's changing, of course. Providence has gone through a huge facelift to bring it out of its textile and jewelry factory past. But I've been going back to see friends for 17 years and I can count on the same florist shops and family-run grocery stores. I can go to the same seafood shop where the grandparents, their kids -- and now their kids working after school -- are still shucking oysters and gutting fish they caught that day from boats docked in Narragansett Bay.

Fire an unthinkable disaster

Spend some years in "Little Rhody" and even you, the outsider, will have met every new acquaintance's cousin. You'll get the inside jokes and understand "bustin' chops;" that "cabinets" mean milkshakes; how to figure out where people are from by their accents, or even how to find your way around the infuriatingly unmarked roads.

You might even be able to say about someone mentioned in an offhand conversation: "Oh yeah, I know who you mean. His brother lives near me. "

But you'll never have that close-knit, generations-long web of connections where you can say: "My mother used to date him." "My older sister went to school with his sister." "I know his grandfather." Or, "I baby-sat her kids."

So that's what hits me when I see all those members of my adopted state in anguish, in horrified grief. This unthinkable disaster -- the deaths of 97 people -- will resound for a very long time. It will be deeply felt from working-class Cranston to middle-class Barrington and even to the monied Providence East Side and Newport.

The nightclub fire of February 2003 will become a tragic family legend. It will break everybody's heart.

Barbara Keenlyside is a copy editor at

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