Looking for Providence in All the Wrong Places

Curt Schilling, 38 Studios and The Creative Capital's eternal question: "What Cheer?"
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Author Philip Eil's Little League Baseball team with 2-time mayor and felon, Providence's own Buddy Cianci, Jr.

Photo courtesy of Philip Eil. 

In the fall of 1635, Roger Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, convicted of preaching “dangerous opinions” advocating the separation of church and state and condemning the colonists' theft of Native American lands. By early 1636, with sheriffs in pursuit, he was trampling through frozen woods in search of a place he might call home. He eventually found one in a hilly nook at the top of a bay fifty miles south of Boston. His arrival in a canoe, greeted by friendly Native Americans, became the central image of the town he founded: Providence, Rhode Island. Today, the story of Williams' arrival is carved into the friezes of Providence's skyscrapers and printed on its recycling bins. “What cheer?,” the phrase that the natives allegedly called out to greet him, is our city motto.

There is little cheer in Providence these days, as we sort through the riddle of 75 million taxpayer dollars transformed into a pile of paperwork, some office furniture, and a YouTube fly-through of a fantasy world. The Curt Schilling/38 Studios scandal is juicy enough to offend a town that once saw the same mayor resign from office twice because of felony convictions. That former mayor and federal convict, Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, called in to a Boston talk radio show to urge Schilling to “come coco” ('come clean,' in CianciSpeak) about the whole 38 Studios thing. State Representative Robert Watson--infamous for being pulled over twice under suspicion of drunk driving in nine months--hit the radio, too, to remind us that he alone had voted against the financing plan from which the Schilling deal spawned. “I just had grave concerns about it being too fast, too lose, and a scandal waiting to happen,” said the guy who once reportedly told cops, "[Expletive] you, whatever, whatever, whatever, whatever, whatever, [expletive] you."

And why shouldn't these guys pile on? As taxpayers who pitched in for Schilling's loan, we're all stuck with tickets to this rotten game. More importantly, we were all fans of number 38. Rhode Island may be the cradle of religious freedom, but in baseball terms, we're a theocracy. Curt Schilling was one of our saints. Now the man we worshipped is the man we curse. The bloody sock, once a religious relic, no longer charms us.

The spring of 2012 has brought an inversion of the Roger Williams story: a Massachusetts hero who comes to Providence to become a brash, babbling villain. Full of hubris, backroom deals, and high-stakes gambling with taxpayer cash, it is a story that skewers the state motto of “HOPE.” And while we may be angry about it, we are not surprised.

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When you live in a town named for the goodwill of God, you get used to irony. Step in shit in Providence and it's a tiny bit funnier than anywhere else. It's Providence! I'm not the first person to make this point, but I bring it up because, after this Schilling fiasco, I think it's time to make it official: we are the Irony Capital of America.

The same week 38 Studios went bankrupt, the Rhode Island State Department of Labor and Training--the office that helps laid-off employees--announced that they, themselves, would be laying off between 60 to 70 workers in the following year. As Rhode Islanders tip-toe into the post-38 Studios world, purse strings for economic development will clinch tighter and business proposals will be met with sharper, more skeptical eyes. In all likelihood, this deal will result in the exact reverse of the mission of Economic Development Corporation, the task force that gave 38 Studios its loan: job creation, job retention, job attraction. The ironies go on and on. Our state symbol is an anchor, yet we're adrift.

Anywhere else—Chicago, Seattle, Miami—38 Studios might seem like the stale story of another pro athlete brought to earth by a bloated ego and poor post-retirement planning. It's been two weeks since 38 Studios declared bankruptcy and over a month since the event that triggered this meltdown: when a 38 Studios loan-payment to the state of Rhode Island bounced. But as terms like “forensic audit” and “criminal probe” float across our airwaves, they're a reminder that we're only in the seventh-inning stretch. What seemed at first like an infuriating, but fairly pedestrian, scandal is now revealing its true color.

At first, it seemed that the public, and our elected officials, had simply been “starstruck” by Schilling. 38 Studios was a bad deal, but it didn't seem like the kind I had seen in Brotherhood, where snow-plow contracts and construction projects were swapped like baseball cards. When I remarked on the apparent banality of the corruption over a recent lunch with Dan McGowan, who was been covering the story masterfully for GoLocalProv.com, he quickly corrected me. The company that won the contract to renovate 38 Studios headquarters had been bankrupt months earlier, he said. And the lawyer who was handling their film-credit deals had been enjoying quite a payday. He laid it all out in an article a few days later.

And so we enter a new phase of this scandal—an ugly dawn—where such details pour out and our animosity shifts from Schilling to those who signed, stamped, and profited off of these deals. The national window into Rhode Island politics has closed, and we're left looking into its reflective glass. We're still the town where a man gets elected mayor, convicted of assault, re-elected, convicted of RICOH, incarcerated, and then hired by a TV station for a weekly commentary called “The World According to Buddy.” (Alas, he no longer lives in his famous mansion at the corner of Benefit and Power Streets.) We're still the town that, according to Jimmy Breslin, is “where the best thieves in the world come from.” We're still the town with a guy nicknamed “Rubbers”—earned for shoplifting condoms—serving in our state senate. We're still the town where the publisher of the newspaper goes for a bike ride near his beach house and dies in what looks to most everyone except the medical examiner like a professional execution.

And we're still the town that, in the mid 1980s, inspired a pot-boiler called Providence about a police lieutenant who is lovesick over a lounge-singer who is the girlfriend of a low-level mobster who robs the house of a lawyer who seeks revenge against him by framing him for a mob hit that he didn't commit, but the mobster beats the conviction because the D.A. gets drunk one too many times and shows up late for court, but after his acquittal the lovesick lieutenant jabs an ice-pick into the mobster's head while he's waiting in line for Grateful Dead tickets.

“A plot like that set in New York I'd call insane,” wrote the reviewer in the Providence Journal. “Set in Boston, I'd call it coincidental. Set in Providence, it becomes credible.”


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