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  SIX THINGS YOU DON'T KNOW ABOUT: RHODE ISLAND.  
   
   
 

Chances are, sometime during the second grade, in between constructing paper Mache Hawaiian volcanoes and recruiting your parents to write your book report about the Statue of Liberty, you learned about Rhode Island. You might remember these vital statistics: Rhode Island is small! and It's not actually an island!

But aside from pop-culture wisecracks from the Farrelly brothers or the Massachusetts' "Masshole" drivers who inundate our beaches every year, most Americans don't hear a lot

 
 

about Rhode Island these days. We keep to ourselves. Not because "Rhode Island's the size of a turd," as one friend insists, but because we actually have our hands full.

 

#1. Our Parking Ticket Scofflaws are Famous.

Did you ever dream of standing before Judge Wapner on "The People's Court" and declaring your innocence, or receiving an admonishment by a stern (yet wise) Judge Judy? On TV, these fantasies are reserved for fledgling actors. But Rhode Islanders get to live the dream.

Each week, "Caught in Providence" airs 10 of the 400 cases before Providence traffic court, Hon. Judge Frank Caprio, presiding. Judge Caprio, brandishing what seems to be an iron gavel, sits through dozens of outlandish defenses a year. Most Rhode Islanders recall the episode in which one woman explained she had no idea she was speeding because her new shoes were too tight. Imagine your local newspaper's police blotter broadcast across the entire state - and since Rhode Island has only a million citizens, the faces on "Caught in Providence" are sometimes a little too familiar.

 

#2. Low-Numbered License Plates are a Status Symbol.

Outside of Rhode Island, mentioning the social cachet that comes with having a low-numbered license plate is met with blank stares. But here, low-numbered license plates are very, very valuable. These aren't vanity plates, just the number that's not-so-randomly assigned to every vehicle.

Low plates are so valuable, people will them to favored family members. It's considered somewhat of a state-wide shame when one of those plates is auctioned for cash and the take divided among survivors, who no doubt grieve that Uncle Jim didn't leave two "low numbahs." Those who have the good social fortune to drive a car bearing a plate with both their initials and a low number are either very wealthy and/or involved in organized crime.

Low plates are such a commodity that they can be a source of scandal -- enough so that current Gov. Donald L. Carcieri included fighting plate-number corruption in his platform. On October 28, 2003, Governor Carcieri officiated over an impartial lottery at the State House, drawing the first three numbers. Thousands of people submitted postcards, selected from a drum by the governor. No word yet on whether or not this lottery is under any type of investigation for fraudulent activity, which brings me to my next point…

 

In a state founded by religious dissidents, it's understandable that we're quick to forgive a charismatic personality his public or private faults. Case in point: The man widely regarded as Rhode Island's most famous, popular, and successful politician has served not one but two prison sentences.

Vincent "Buddy" Cianci was the mayor of Providence for over three decades. During this time, his adoring public often dismissed widespread speculations of Buddy's public and private corruption. Accurate or not, Cianci is credited for turning Providence from a post-industrial wasteland (a la Worcester, Mass.) into the lovely Renaissance City that it is today. Buddy's first term as mayor ended after he was convicted of assaulting a man he suspected of having an affair with his wife (Buddy threw a burning log at the victim.). He served a suspended sentence and made a comeback, running under the campaign slogan "Buddy Cianci: A Man of Conviction." Buddy won. The "Teflon Mayor" continued his unopposed reign for years.

In 2001, Buddy was convicted on federal charges of racketeering, conspiracy, extortion, witness tampering, and mail fraud. Charismatic to a fault, Cianci is known for his trademark toupee (which his stylist dyed grey for his trial, to look more dignified) and his own line of marinara sauces. But Buddy's most lasting gift to the City of Providence might be his favorite saying: "Be careful -- the foot you step on today could be attached to the ass you need to kiss tomorrow."

 

#4. Clams? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Clams.

We don't eat clams in Rhode Island -- we eat quahogs. Say it with me now: "KAW-hog." Or maybe "KO-hog." OK, fine, it could also be "KWO-hog." The state shell is a little mollusk that defies explanation, pronunciation, or classification. Quahog is the fictional town in which the "Family Guy's" Griffin family resides. It's also the largest economic resource harvested from Rhode Island's famous Narragansett Bay.

In the mid-20th Century, two groups of quahoggers intensely competed for the bay's prosperous bounty. On one side were the old-fashioned handrakers, who used bullrakes, tongs, and lots of elbow grease to catch the prized quahogs. On the other side were the industrious technocrats, who dredged the bottom of the bay with metal nets to harvest huge amounts of quahogs in far less time. Environmental groups, lobbyists and quahog aficionados claimed that dredging was wiping out the quahog population. The handrakers won out, and today all quahogging in the bay is rigorously restricted. Okay, so it's just a hard little clam thing. But it's delicious.

 

#5. Small State, Big Business.


The Industrial Revolution has its roots in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. History has immortalized Samuel Slater, a textiles apprentice who stealthily escaped his native England -- to Rhode Island. On the way out, Slater pocketed a top-secret blueprint for machinery that could card, draw out, and spin cotton in a continuous flow. Slater opened a mill in Pawtucket using these designs and soon, cotton mills were popping up everywhere, taking advantage of the mighty Blackstone River's power in addition to an abundance of cheap, young labor in the region.

Surely little Pawtucket could have been content to rest on its industrial laurels. Instead, brothers Henry and Helal Hassenfeld started Hasbro Corporation in 1923, not two miles from Slater's famous mill. Along the way, Hasbro has capitalized on Slater's model of success, buying the patents for toys such as Mr. Potato Head, G.I. Joe, and the Transformers from smaller, less-profitable inventors and turning them into playtime powerhouses. While we all wish Henry Hassenfield stole into Takara headquarters in Japan and lifted the secret plans for the Decepticons, it was apparently a far more amicable acquisition.

 

#6. We're the Home of Coffee Milk.

Elvis vs. the Beatles. Coke vs. Pepsi. Some disputes are better left undecided in the annals of history. But for Rhode Islanders, there is no argument more bitter than that about which beverage should represent our state.

In one corner, there's Del's Frozen Lemonade, a smooth, sweet and tangy frozen lemon drink that millions of us throw back every summer. Del's is a favorite at the beaches, but come autumn each year, the ubiquitous Del's trucks disappear, leaving Rhode Islanders with a thirst for sweet, drinkable goodness.

In the other corner is the strapping Coffee Milk. This delicious nectar is about two parts milk to one part Autocrat-brand coffee syrup (motto: "a swallow will tell you"). And the taste? Imagine what would happen if you melted coffee flavored ice cream and drank it. But it's still milk, so it's totally healthy.

The Rhode Island General Assembly finally put an end to the madness in 1993, declaring coffee milk the Official State Drink. Del's supporters protested of course, but everyone else was too busy giggling at the Autocrat slogan to notice.

A note of caution: Do not order coffee milk outside of Rhode Island. You'll just end up with some pathetic attempt like café au lait or iced coffee. Come here for the real deal.

 

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