When East Greenwich Was a Tiny Triangle

by | Nov 5, 2021

I’ll always be a working-class ‘40s/’50s kid from East Greenwich, Rhode Island. It was a great town for kids, partly due to the settings – Scalloptown, Jigger’s Diner, Sunset Rock, the Academy, Allen’s Hill, Earnshaw’s drugstore, and so on – but it was the local characters who added the richness.

The population in those 20 years grew from 3,800 to 6,100, most of whom lived or worked in the tiny crowded triangle bounded by Greenwich Cove, Division Street, and First Avenue/Rocky Hollow Road. It was like living in a Pieter Breughel painting.

During the ‘40s (especially) if you saw somebody anywhere in that triangle – even if you weren’t acquainted – you could usually make some kind of identifying remark: she works at the box factory, he’s a quahogger, they live up on the hill.

Our lives are partly shaped by our social interactions with others, and no two of us have exactly the same mix of friends and acquaintances. Peripheral people to me – say Grumpy Crompton or Foggy Baton – might have been central to your life, but they still provided color for mine. I can’t tell you exactly what influence Tiny Wilson or Joe Hump or Silent Al had on me, but it was surely of some significance; otherwise why would I remember them so clearly? The same is true for Tar-Tar Ucci (pronounced Tuddah Yewcie), Bo-Peep Northup, and Swede Oltedale.

I shared a bedroom with my brother Slush (as he was known in those days), lived next door to Punkin Drew, and was friends with Lolly, Doodie, and Bubba Jones; enjoyed naughty laughter with Pudgy Robinson, schemed with Jimmy Ryan, and drank beer with Vinnie (The Senator) Putnam; visited Cheerio Clarke in his photography studio, sat on the courthouse wall with Bobby DeRensis, and hung out with my cousin Howie and his cousin Kirk; bunked school to distribute flyers for Pete Haswell, sold quahogs to Old Man Finn, and was taught eighth-grade arithmetic by Coach Carcieri. 

If any two or three of these (among scores of others) hadn’t existed I wouldn’t be precisely the same person today. Nobody would be aware of any difference – not even myself – but I’m glad they all had a hand in somehow shaping me.

You’ve probably noticed the lack of females. There were many of them—my mother and sisters, neighborhood girls, friends’ mothers, classmates, teachers, and later on, girlfriends. But in those years when I wasn’t alone I was nearly always with male companions of all ages and I wouldn’t have understood why it should be any different. I still relish the camaraderie of Bunny Swann’s poolroom where we could swear, smoke, and spit on the floor, unseen by any censorious female eyes.

The paucity of females no doubt affected me as much as the presence of all those males, and I’m surely different as a direct result – perhaps not as good a person. It now seems normal to have an equal number of male and female friends, but I’m still glad I grew up rubbing shoulders with the likes of Ducky Kettle, Frenchy Lacross, and Torchy Tortolano. Surely something rubbed off. I just don’t know what.

Don Rice is a freelance writer based in Columbus, Ohio. His latest book is Who Made George Washington’s Uniform?

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21 Comments

  1. Bruce Mastracchio

    Tuna Cliff, I have tried to express that same sentiment myself. We grew up in a Boy’s World. Girls were for dating, making out, dances and such but our everyday interaction was with the “guys”. I once said to my girlfriend of 5 years, that she came after God, Family and Football, Haha.
    I have been married 53 years to the same woman so I don’t think growing up in that world was any detriment.
    Loved your story and the bringing back of people, memories and such. Thanks.

    Reply
  2. EG NaTive

    I just took a stroll down memory lane

    Such A Heart Warming Story ….
    Thank you 🙏🏻

    Reply
    • Carole

      We girls may not have been a daily thing and tertiary to the guys’ doings, but I remember my cousin coming to my Mom’s with his fiance and asking me to tell her about the family and what she was getting into. Seems the important things were what we girls were for back in the day.
      Wouldn’t have had it any other way.
      I miss that old EG.

      Reply
  3. El & Willie Greene

    Don,
    A lot of memories for me too although being a girl…..I could not go to Bunny’s….such a shame since there was not a specific place for girls.
    Keep the written memories coming.

    Reply
  4. Gordon cooley

    Thanks for the memories. We sure lived a great life around town. So many stories, and all true.

    Reply
  5. Townie

    YES …. We would love to hear stories about all the wonderful women of EG please keep the stories coming !!

    Reply
  6. New in town

    I am new to East Greenwich and Rhode Island, but I love reading these stories! They are so heartwarming and give me a deeper understanding of this lovely town. Thank you so much for sharing!

    Reply
    • Elizabeth McNamara

      Welcome to East Greenwich! Glad you are here.

      Reply
  7. Barbara

    Growing up in East Greenwich was special. Neighbors helping neighbors, friends always fun to be with, football games, basketball, And baseball games. Remembering Home Economics where I learned to sew and accomplish other necessities of life. Being near the ocean and bringing home clams for dinner , quahaugs were plentiful to make chowder walking on Main Street encountering many with a hello. WW2 rationing, shades drawn at night to keep the light from showing as livings near Quonset Naval Air Base could be a beacon to the enemy.headlights on cars were painted halfway with black paint to reduce nighttime glare. So many memories. East Greenwich has grown from a small hamlet to a thriving community.sometimes not for the better.

    Reply
  8. Mark Thompson

    Delightful tale, wonderfully told, Don!

    Reply
  9. Jane

    So many memories of a lovely town to grow up in.

    Reply
  10. John Damon

    Does anyone remember Lilly Mae ? She quahogged and clamed, and was a main street person

    Reply
  11. Jean Jones

    I was married to Richard Jones. Lolly, Bubba and Doodie were his brothers. You were lucky to have grown up during those years.

    Reply
    • Don Rice

      I knew Sister (Norma, I think), Jeannie, and Patty too, of course. We moved from the neighborhood, so Lolly was the youngest Jones kid I knew. (And wasn’t he named Lawrence after a sibling who died?) How many kids did Pat and Annie Belle have all told?

      Reply
  12. victor volpe

    Was I the only kid [ around 1957] to be fooled by some of the aforementioned characters and Bunny Swann into getting a bucket of steam from the backroom before I could be accepted into the pool hall?

    Reply
    • Elizabeth McNamara

      I love that, Victor!
      – Elizabeth McNamara

      Reply
    • Don Rice

      Vinnie Putnam was one of the brightest guys I’ve ever known, yet, one night he dutifully followed Bunny’s command to go to the fire station for a bucket of steam. (Bunny provided the bucket.) Boy, was he mad when he got back. Didn’t think it was funny at all. I still think it was funny.

      Reply
  13. victor volpe

    I was 15 at the time. [I think Art Drew may have been involved.] I was to tell Bunny I was 16, I think you had to be 16 to get in. I do remember Bunny handed me the bucket. I’m sure I was humiliated at the time but always thought it was funny. It was good to be young then.

    Reply
    • Ray R.

      Donald, I am younger than you and do not remember you, however I do remember a Rice family that lived in my family’s house (Riccio) at 67 Queen Street.

      Father was Walter, had twin brother Howard. Might your brother be Cliffy and sister with whom I graduated Kerry? Cliffy worked at Charbroil with Charbroil Billy Armes and was a big Red Sox fan.

      Walter operated the train gates on Queen. As kids we would often go in that shanty to spend time with Walt. Fall, spring, summer, winter we’d be there listening to Walt tell a new joke or repeat others. The coal-operated potbelly stove to take the chill out of a cold wintery snowy day. Occasionally when the bell would ring announcing an oncoming train Walt would let us lower those gates or, after it passed, raise them. Jerry Regan would at times keep Walt company in that small shanty.

      My father was Tony the Barber who had a shop on London Street in the turret attached to the Homestead. Eventually he moved to Main Street next to the Spencer house across from Arnold’s Garage. Brizzi the Barber would move from Exchange Street to occupy that turret eventually moving to a shop behind the Elms.

      The only Swede I knew worked at Arnold’s Garage driving a bus as Kirby directed schedules. Not sure if that is the Swede you reference? My mother, a Ucci, worked there driving a taxi and occasionally the ambulance.

      The Swede I knew would accompany Leo Kenneth Convery (son named after the father, Bubby) to the Commonwealth in Mass.; Bangor, Maine; Rhinebeck, N.Y., and other places to follow the Volunteer to the many musters held throughout New England.

      Tiny, Stump, Pep, Shine. In that Shanty & once Tiny recognized my family after a cold day of skating out on the cove and in that shanty would remove my skates and set my feet up on a table by that potbelly stove.

      I can picture Bill Brennan, Ned Brennan on the ice eeling with others as a fire would be blazing nearby.

      But the question I have lingers. Might you be the son of Walt and brother to Cliffy and Kerry?

      Forgive me, I must go pay an electric bill at Earnshaw’s after which I’ll order an ice cream cone from Mary.

      Reply
  14. Don Rice

    Ray, I am indeed the son of Walter and Edna Rice who lived in the upstairs apartment at 67 Queen Street. In those days I was gallivanting around the country. The Ray family lived downstairs. I’m guessing that Mrs. Ray (whose first name I’m ashamed to admit I forget) is your father’s sister. There were two sons—Johnny and Richard—and a daughter who, for a while anyway, was a nun. They were cousins with the Mattiaci girls who lived in the old Neighborhood Cottage on Long Street (and whose last name we pronounced Mattisse). Rosie (Rosario) Rich, who also lived at 67 Queen Street, is probably your grandfather. He was a nice old guy who kept a grape arbor that occupied the property to the corner of Queen and Castle Streets, and from which he made gallons of “dago red” (which everyone called it in those politically incorrect days). Brother Cliff is living with his wife Donna in Ft. Myers. Fla. Sister Kerry, who married John Rock from Warwick and with whom she had a daughter and two sons, I’m very sorry to tell you died six years ago from a brain tumor.

    After I got too old to be given a nickel back by Gus Miller, I would split my haircuts between your father in the Old Homestead turret and Brizzy when he had his shop on – was it Duke or Exchange Street? Tony Rich (as we called him, leaving off the last part of your name) was a dapper guy, and I enjoyed going to his shop. For a while my sister Barbara lived in the apartment upstairs. I think her living room was in the turret over the shop.

    You can’t have lived in East Greenwich in those days without having connections of some kind with at least half the other people who lived there.

    Reply
  15. Ray Riccio

    Well Don good to meet you albeit over the net. John, Richard and Veronica Ray are my cousins. Richard passed in 2017. A belated sorry about your sister.

    Lucy (Lucia) was my father’s sister. There were nine siblings in that family. Five born in Italy and four in America. A very young Nicola (contrary to the ending vowel was a male) died not long after coming to this country.

    Through email many of us stay in contact among the Riccio’s Zenga’s, Mattice’s (Joe, Katherine, Rudolph, Mary-Ann and Dottie did live on Long) Perry’s well over 50 anyway.

    “Dago red” that’s what is was and he made sure he drank every drop unlike some who sold it. My cousin John Ray had informed me he didn’t use sugar but instead white grapes from a section of vineyard along the wall. That’s what some friends would call me Dago with at times adding a prefix.

    I had posted “When East Greenwich Was A Tiny Triangle” on the Riccio email. It was a hit.

    As I did not know you I had to ask if your brother and sister were Cliff & Kerry and if you were Walter’s son. Ronnie first confirmed it then John. John who mentioned a sister Marylin who he went to school with and also your father’s ham radio in the basement. For the longest time I thought that radio was one of my uncle’s but now it makes sense.

    The house was sold about two years ago. Some of us took clippings from that vineyard to replant them. Huge condos now occupy the land in back and the baccousa (outhouse) is only a remembrance in a frame hanging on the wall, where else but in the bathroom.

    Well like the song goes, “memories, pressed between the pages of my mind.” Thanks for sharing them.

    Reply

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