The Green Light -- Rhode Island Journal
"Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.... And then one fine morning—So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
— "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald
"We got here early," said a sporty looking 30-something man on the Megabus to Providence, Rhode Island. "So we thought we'd just like relax. We're usually late -- "
"Usually really late," said his partner, leaning over from his seat.
"So we just wanted to like," the man tilted his head to the left, then to the right, he exhaled. "let ourselves take our time. We took a cab."
This conversation was being directed at the couple sitting two seats in front of me, directly across from their row. Eavesdropping, I learned that they were all staying at a friend-of-a-friends family home in Providence.
"The basement is among the least desirable rooms for the weekend, to be fair," warned the 30-something man. He had a way of speaking that was highly democratic, almost to the point of being distrustful. "But the single people always use every excuse they can to get the single-bed rooms upstairs."
Two of their friends sitting in the front came back to visit them.
"We're freezing," the girl said. She was in socks, Birkenstock shoes and a onesie.
"A onesie was an excellent choice," says her hipster friend, without sarcasm.
"Here's a sweatshirt for Michael," the democratic man hands her a black sweatshirt to carry up to her boyfriend, but returns and hands it back to him.
"He doesn't want it," she says.
"Is there something wrong with it?" he asks.
"No, he just doesn't want it," she goes back up to the front. All four of the friends shrug.
"What's wrong with it?" asks the hipster girl in the seat in front of me. "It's Everlane for christ's sake."
And in my seat, thumb of my left hand pressing furiously into the palm of my right, I was itching for my pen and paper.
Stimulus. Traveling, as a writer, is like having lived in a desert and suddenly arriving at an oasis. Everything is worth being written about when I'm traveling. Every view, every long walk, every overheard conversation (a hipster on a bus). The temperatures, the mistakes. The new views out of new window panes.
When I agreed to join Madeline (aka, Maddy), her boyfriend Preston, and his friend Vronsky on a Fourth of July weekend in Rhode Island, I had no idea that on top of the normal stimuli would be my own social fears. I hadn't travelled with friends or family since 2011. It was almost like coming out of the dark.
"It really puts your friendship to the test," Maddy said once while we waited on the boys to finish in the bathroom at the beach.
And if it was a test, then we all passed. I had a wonderful time.
We arrived in Providence on July 2. We had lunch at a tourist trap not worth our money, then drove to the capital building for photographs. Brown University was our last stop that day.
"I dated a cad who graduated from here," I said as we crossed through the school gates. The campus was beautiful, like most Ivy League schools. Near dinner time, students with take-away boxes gabbed under trees. Preston mounted his foldable bike and rode the pathways. Wild rabbits came out of the bushes to greet us.
Dinner in Warwick was spectacular (Preston's pick!) lobster rolls at the Rocky Point Clam Shack. We had ice cream just next door. The elderly proprietors talked to us about the town and recommended ice cream flavors. (Strangely, about 2,000 moths had taken residence at the place. I would later tell everyone that it was like a scene out of "The Twilight Zone.")
July 3 we had brunch and toured downtown Newport. At a bar on a pier I drank a Bloody Mary with Tito's gin and admired the boats. (One can feel some strange commune with the ocean drinking a Bloody Mary made with fresh clam juice on a pier). Two of Maddy's friends who lived in Newport took us to The Breakers, one of the opulent mansions once owned by the Vanderbilts. On the back lawn we listened to the sound of the crickets backed by the waves off the ocean. How lucky the Vanderbilt's were, not because of the house but because of the location. I could have stayed on that lawn forever.
That evening, we had burgers and beer at a bar and Maddy and the boys went for a dip in the hotel pool, but I was exhausted and fell asleep.
On the Fourth of July we woke up early and went to the beach. Maddy and I waded in the 66 degree water and shivered when the sun hid. We had a sailing trip at 4 pm, and by 8 I'd need to take a bus back to New York. I'd miss the fireworks.
I didn't need any more stimulus but sailing provided it -- the sun was setting, a chill crossed the ocean; blowing the bill of my summer hat, there was beach sand in my shoes. I tried to keep balance while facing the port side of the ship; clutching everything important to me. Especially my phone, my bag still hanging on my shoulder. I don't want anything overboard.
"Arg!" giggled a woman to our left. I could only see parts of her face uncovered by sunglasses and her straw hat.
"There's a ship," says a member of her group, a man in his late 70s, wearing a windbreaker and sneaking sips out of a cup filled with wine. He has a New York accent. "I say, you know, we try to take it."
"We'll give them our credit card," says the woman who was making pirate noises.
This is the most offensive thing the man has heard all day.
"Credit cards?" he hisses. "We're pirates, we don't do that. We just go and we just" he lifts his chin up and I'm positive behind his wrap-around sunglasses he's making his eyes wide. "We just go and we take it. What the hell are you talking about 'credit cards?' You've got it all wrong."
Port side erupts into laughter.
We are interrupted when the skipper arches his upper back and rises on his toes with the sway of the deck. He starts to shout to the crowd.
"If you remember the opening scenes in 'The Great Gatsby' when Robert Redford looked across the water and saw the green light flashing in the distance," he says. "that was here." He motions behind himself, to the grassy green lawn we're approaching. "In fact, the entire film was done in Newport, and all the scenes from the water were filmed here to make the Long Island Sound look good."
He smirks, and a few snickers are heard from the passengers. We're sailing in the inside of a crescent shaped bay. There's land on all sides of us, except south, where the water we're charting opens to the Atlantic Ocean.
I've never seen either version of "The Great Gatsby" and I realize now that Newport, Rhode Island is all about it. The movie theater in the town square is showing it (with free dinner and cocktails). Every local knows every filming site. Visiting The Mansions in the movies is the Thing To Do.
It would be three weeks later that the phrase, "The Green Light" would have any significance. Last Saturday I sat down and decided to watch the 1974 version of "The Great Gatsby." The critics don't agree with me, but I felt it sufficient enough for the story. Sure, it has it's oddities, but I loved seeing Sam Waterston as "Nick Carroway," he was a charming anchor and made it worth the watch.
I recognized the mansions in the film and the Newport bays we sailed on. In numerous scenes Robert Redford, as "Jay Gatsby," stood on the waters edge watching as a green light across the bay glowed.
"If you had been there, if you had seen it in real life," I wanted to say out loud. There was something about such an empty looking green lawn by a house where a single person can look across a quiet water. I can't even describe it well.
It's just a scene, but many times this week I sat in thought and when I closed my eyes I only saw The Green Light.
After returning to the pier we went back to the car and drove to Providence, where I would meet my bus back to New York. The others were staying in Rhode Island one more day; as usual I was too busy at work and needed to return.
Unlike the ride there, the bus on the way back was silent. Everyone slept. Through all the New England towns we drove past, fireworks exploded in the sky.