Two days after white supremacists laid murderous siege to Charlottesville, I drove to the fishmarket. I live in the westernmost town in Rhode Island, aptly enough named Westerly, adjacent to Connecticut. The best fishmarket for the past few years is the one just over the border in Pawcatuck and, in August, offers crab and summer flounder fished right offshore. Not an onerous task to buy the fish, at least not until now; the people at the market, customers and staff, are friendly and talkative, no New England reticence there, or between there and home at the farmers’ markets full of heirloom tomatoes, heritage corn and lots of other local produce.
Coastal Connecticut is noted, mocked may be the better verb, for its civility, for confident housewives who volunteer for good works in Lily Pulitzer and enjoy their chilled Chardonnay. In reality the region is, in allegorical terms, a tale of two ports, of Bridgeport and Mystic Seaport.
Bridgeport is a mess, a shattered city caught in a cruel conundrum. All its business, its factories, shipyards and port, has very nearly vanished, taking the tax base in tow. Houses are cheap but cannot sell because the city has no recourse other than to levy ruinous property tax in a Sisyphean effort to balance its books. Opiates take a toll, as they take a toll up the coast in New London, but at least New London can claim Pfizer, Electric Boat, Conn College and the Coast Guard Academy, this last the poor relation of the service colleges, cruelly underfunded by Republican hypocrites who yammer on about supporting ‘the troops.’
If New London falls somewhere between the two in condition and geography, Mystic with its historic seaport, its scenic center, shipyards, aquarium and leafy neighborhoods, could not present a starker contrast to Bridgeport. Coastal Connecticut, here at least, takes justifiable pride in a storied maritime heritage that still survives despite the depredations of the GOP.
On the line between Criminals and On Probation.
EB still builds boats, submarines sometimes now so big they, finally, take the name of ship, and despite the best effort of the odious Newt Gingrich, the big submarine base still calls Groton home. The serial adulterer had hoped to force the abandonment of the base at Gales Ferry in favor of a greenfield up the Sewanee past Savannah, a scheme both self-serving and fatuous. It is not incidental that the Trump enabler and lackey represented a district in Georgia or that Connecticut is reliably blue. Installing the Atlantic submarine fleet up a narrow river past a busy city would have required colossal construction costs and would have facilitated the neutralization of the fleet by the feeblest effort to block its access to the sea.
The mission of Mystic Seaport lies in preserving and promoting the maritime glory of New England, by building and restoring wooden ships and boats, teaching children and even adults like me to sail. There are shipwrights at the seaport, ironsmiths, coopers and sailmakers, and the Charles W. Morgan, last of the square-rigged whalers in the world.
Adjoining Rhode Island has an altogether saltier reputation, equally marine but also raffish, Rogue Island to the new republic that threatened invasion over the reluctance of what would become the thirteenth state to ratify the constitution. Westerly itself embodies the contrasts of coastal Connecticut, a tale of two towns. One of them suffers as well from the opioid epidemic, the other profits from the envied enclaves of Weekapaug and Watch Hill, where the property taxes on summer retreats fund just about everything the town spends, while a downtown destroyed by strip mall development on its edge during the baleful anti-urbanism of the sixties thrives anew. Westerly is much like much of America.
These are for the most part pleasant places where the populace rubs together. On the Westerly side most of the kids have spent summers at Camp Watchaug on an inland pond, a rite of passage run by an enterprising and admirable branch of the YMCA. Liu’s Chinese market in a tiny strip mall stands as one of the better sources for Asian ingredients in the northeast, and other immigrant cultures leaven the local climate as well.
All kinds of people live in these coastal enclaves of Connecticut and Rhode Island, fishermen and farmers in addition to factory workers, professionals and commuters to faraway Providence, a long hour away from the southerly point of the state in the minds of people outside the capital.
Until the advent of Trump, however, a particular species had appeared extinct. Not so, not anymore, along with the wild oysters in the rivers, the oysters grown in tidal farms all along the coast, the ospreys and turkeys, coyotes and foxes, that had disappeared before the advent of an Environmental Protection Agency dedicated to reclamation of habitats both marine and terrestrial. Curmudgeons who complain that they need to haul their boats more often now that barnacles thrive again in waters no longer poisonous may gain succor from Scott Pruitt, the secretive sorcerer installed by Trump to wreck the mission of the EPA.
Along with all the wildlife this new species has begun to colonize the coast, at least for now. A red corvette followed me to the fishmarket. As I pulled over to park he slowed aside me, hit the horn, and launched a Hitler salute. Sieg heil and huzzah for hatred. There is, the reader may have guessed, a faded Obama cap lodged in front of my rear window, bleached barely blue from almost nine years in the sun. Nobody ever took notice before, or if anyone did take notice, did not display the fact. The confident driver of the Corvette was otherwise inclined, and emboldened.
Corvettes do not come cheap, and the red one bore Connecticut plates, so the local Nazi, a middle aged white man like me, does not suffer from disadvantage at the heel, proof that prosperity does not confer compassion, not any more. Trump has emboldened these people, granted them respect and given them the confidence to flaunt the symbols of hate in what has been a civilized place, and to march in hoods with confederate flags and flags of the Third Reich in the town where Jefferson built his university to enlighten the new world.
Trump has taken us down, at least for now, and Prince, the embodiment of defiant tolerance, turns in his grave. At least it might not have been a red Corvette.