(Editor’s note: I promise this will actually be about the Rhode Island Seafood Festival, the east coast’s best event of the year, but lemme get some typical historical preamble in there first.)
When I first visited the U.S., in the summer of 2008, it was the final realization of something I’d always wanted to do. I’ve been reading the book I wrote about that trip a lot recently, and it kinda boggled my mind when I got to one page in particular.
The trip that fueled my ongoing obsession with this country was entirely built around August 19, the day the Chicago Cubs played host to the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field.
A random internet user on a random writing messageboard had advised me there was nothing more “summer” in the United States than watching the Cubbies from the bleachers at Wrigley.
Short of any other ideas about how or where to start planning, I brought up the MLB season schedule, picked a mid-August date, and built my entire seven-week boozing-and-sightseeing odyssey around that game. I think it turned out okay?
Much like that trip, my decision to really focus on immigrating here (instead of, y’know, just spending six weeks drinking here every year) can be traced back to a similarly unexpected, throwaway moment, in September 2012.
Instead of a baseball game, though, it was a promise I made to a guy who’s been like a brother to me.
In early 2012, I stayed for a weekend my buddy TJ, who’s a born and raised New Yorker. At one point during my stay, he gave me a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of his fledgling project, the Rhode Island Seafood Festival. The inaugural event, in September 2011, looked like an absolute blast in the photos I’d seen on Facebook, but I hadn’t had the vacation time or the cash to attend.
But about 25 beers in, on that cold January afternoon (man, I’m so dramatic), I told him that I definitely wouldn’t miss the 2012 edition.
Sure enough, by the time March rolled around, I was single, fed up with work and itching for another U.S. vacation. I’d already planned a two-week jaunt to Vegas with a couple of buddies for late August, but since the seafood festival was in mid-September, I decided to bust all of my accrued holiday time and just stick around…for like another month.
I made my arrangements to spend a couple of days in New York City before heading up to White Plains to meet TJ mid-week and hitch a ride up to Providence, RI, where the festival goes down. I had figured I’d just be enjoying a Saturday in the sun, drinking beers, eating seafood and listening to live music in a park with a waterfront view (which basically foreshadows my first summer in Maine.) However, from the very first night I linked up with my favorite Irish-American festival operations manager, I was very quickly corrected.
As it turns out, being 6’2″ and 210lb and in solid shape meant I was PERFECT for a little bit of hard labor. Over the next couple of days, TJ and I, and his business partner Dan, were all over Providence and Rhode Island, distributing hundreds of festival flyers, filling rental vans and trucks with pallets upon pallets of booze, emptying other trucks loaded with rental tables and chairs, marking out India Point Park for the vendors to set up in, and all measure of other organizational things.
As festival day rolled around, so did the storm clouds, and we all anxiously turned our eyes to the skies early that morning to hope and pray the sun would keep the rain away. Sure enough, we ended up with glorious weather for the second annual Rhode Island Seafood Festival.
After getting the beer tent built and functional, I figured my “work” was done. TJ’s brother Andrew was set up behind the bar, so I grabbed a beer and a scallop roll and proceeded to enjoy all the aforementioned good things about the day. For about half an hour. I went back to the beer tent and found Andrew buried (figuratively) under a ton of thirsty customers.
I hadn’t done any bartending, or even bar-backing, since my college days, and even then it was just a two-week stint at the Rugby World Cup, but I asked Andrew if he needed a hand. He replied in the affirmative, and that’s where I spent the rest of the day and well into the evening. But that didn’t mean we didn’t have the best view in the house, and the opportunity to bullshit with the customers, drink on the job and enjoy perks like delivery lobster rolls just made it all that much more fun.
I worked harder that day than I think I ever had, and once all the festivities wound down, we still had to pack it all up. When it was all said and done, TJ thanked me for my efforts and said he couldn’t have done it without me. And that’s when I made the aforementioned promise:
“You’ll never have to again brother.”
And that, fellow readers, is what put the wheels in motion for me to really, seriously figure out how the hell I was going to make sure that I could be back for RISF every single year going forward. There was only so much chance to take vacation from my job back home at the same time every year, so I figured immigration would be it.
So last year, after getting news that I had a very high likelihood of jagging a green card, I started putting the wheels in motion. If I was being financially sensible, I’d have kept my well-paying job all the way through to October, done my green card interview in November, and left after that with three months’ worth of extra savings to keep my unemployed ass going.
But I’d made a commitment to a guy that’s been like a brother to me, and that was that I’d be there to help him out for the festival in September, and every September. So instead, I quit my job in mid-August, packed up my life, and arrived in the U.S. on a tourist visa two weeks before the festival, knowing full well I’d still have to return home to become a true permanent resident.
The 2013 edition of the festival was the first time we’ve done two days, Saturday and Sunday. That made for some different challenges, including how much of the beer supply to “ration” each day. The festival sells only Rhode Island brands of beer – Narragansett and Newport Storm – and we only had limited quantities of the latter. Gansett? We had shitloads, and they’re 16oz cans.
Newport Storm came to the table last year with their Rhode Island Blueberry ale, which turned out to be perfect for drinking in the daytime. It also turned out that every single person  loved it once they had one, so we absolutely blew through whatever stock we had, including the reserves we’d put away for Sunday. Luckily the friendly reps wrangled us another 10 cases to sell Sunday, mostly as a hangover cure from the night before.
Saturday was flat-out wild, and we opened beers and poured wine non-stop from opening to after the sun sunk below the horizon. Luckily we had TJ and Andrew’s younger brother, Michael, his cousin Mikey, and pretty much all of TJ’s extended family (including Nanna) helping us out. It really is a family affair, and I get a kick out of being an honorary McNulty when September rolls around.
We served people from all over the country and indeed the world – I even met a guy who had moved 20 years ago from Toowong, the suburb I’d just moved away from – to the festival, which was an absolute blast. Being able to have a beer (or 10) behind the bar also made for plenty of friendly banter with our customers, all to the soundtrack of the bands on the waterfront stage. Another thing that was incredible to see was the sheer number of people who wanted to buy the festival T-shirts that all of us working (and all of TJ’s buddies from home drinking) were wearing. Everyone wants to be a part of the action…although I didn’t see them lugging 45 cases of beer on Saturday morning.
The pace was a little more relaxed on Sunday, given it was the first Sunday of the NFL season…oh, and I guess people went to church too, probably, instead of starting drinking at 11:00 a.m. But a few less visitors gave us more of a chance to interact with the festival-goers and enjoy the sensational weather and live music.
Speaking of which, I’m not exactly the world’s biggest fan of live music (I’m the only person in the world to say that, too) but some of the acts that appeared in 2012 and 2013 (and are slated for this year) blew me away. One of TJ’s buddies, TJay Kowalchuk consistently kicks ass, and I’d been listening to Clyde Lawrence‘s EP “Homesick” all weekend leading up to the festival. I ended up buying it, since I missed out on a free copy when they gave it away on-stage, and I literally haven’t taken it out of my iPod rotation since. I’m hanging to see them in action again this September, as well as the brilliant Mighty Good Boys, should they return.
Of course, a two-day festival means that the packing-up is just delayed for a day, so we busted our asses Sunday night and Monday morning to get everything squared away. But there’s something immensely satisfying about being in on the ground floor of an event that kicks so much ass. The Saturday turnout was noticeably higher last year than it was in 2012, and I can confidently say I’m sure it’ll be bigger again this year. TJ and Dan run a tight ship and have built a top-notch event from the ground up. And I’m not just saying that so they’ll continue to let me pocket a bunch of tips at the end of the day, and stay in the houseboat for free, and drink a dozen 16oz Gansetts across the course of the day while continuing “responsible” service of alcohol.
I guess, all in all, this came off as a pretty big advertisement for the Rhode Island Seafood Festival, but I love it so much that I don’t give a damn. I spout off about it to everyone I’ve met in New England who mentions seafood, I wear my RISF “uniform” shirts to absolute rags in the off-season (by the way, TJ, I’m gonna need like 10 this year) and every night when I drive home from work, along Old Winthrop Road, I stare off to the right at the southbound lanes of I-95 and get excited all over again to hit the interstate at the end of my shift on September 4, get my ass down to Providence and start the backbreaking labor and good times all over again.
I’ve already taken a vacation day on either side of the weekend because there’s no way in hell I’d miss it. I’m also extremely fortunate that I managed to land a job in New England, just 2.5 hours’ drive from Providence, so it doesn’t even necessitate me having to buy a terribly expensive plane ticket to get there and back for the weekend. IT’S FATE, Y’ALL.
This year’s Rhode Island Seafood Festival is on Saturday, September 6 (11-7) and Sunday, September 7 (11-5) at India Point Park, Providence, RI. Entry to the park is free, and aside from the drinking and bands there’s a ton of stuff for the kids too, and other things to eat if seafood ain’t your bag (shame on you!). I’ll be at the beer tent all day both days, so come say hi!
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