Oh, Rhode Island, I will never leave you: The 2014 RISF Breakdown

My happy place.
My happy place.

 

“You must be the guy with the blog,” one of our first customers said to me Saturday morning in India Point Park. “We wouldn’t have known about it, if it weren’t for reading that post!”

My fellow bartender Pat and I fell about laughing at the surreal nature of the comment. There I was, 220-odd miles from home, hungover and opening beers at 11:00 a.m. in Providence, R.I., and someone puts my accent and my weekend job together and recognizes me from this irreverent and over-promoted blog post.

And that’s just one of about 15 million memorable moments from this year’s Rhode Island Seafood Festival, which to my mind was the best one yet. Read on for more…

First thing’s first: The title of this post comes from the lyrics of a song by one of the bands that’s played the festival the last few years. The song is below (and just look at that scenery. Look at it.)

Now that you’re in the mood, let’s go. I took three days off work (Thursday, Friday, Monday) to help TJ put the thing together and pull it apart, but that’s way too long and involved for a chronological report and no one gives a shit about that anyway. So instead, I’ll break it into sub-categories or something.

THE WHO

Surely the biggest contingent of out-of-state visitors to the festival every year has to be all of TJ’s high school and college buddies and their respective girlfriends, boyfriends and whatever else.

Pat, mere hours after meeting him for the first time, rocking out to live band karaoke.
Pat, mere hours after meeting him for the first time, rocking out to live band karaoke.

I met a lot of them in the months after 2011’s inaugural event – which I couldn’t attend – so it’s a huge kick to be able to catch up with them all on the Saturday of the festival. While I came to Providence from the north, this crew comes north from New York to eat, drink and be merry, and I’ve started to feel like an honorary member of that family, at least once a year when I’m doling out beers by the handful.

Inevitably one of their classmates, TJay Kowalchuck, plays the final set of Saturday as the sun goes down over Narragansett Bay. Beer sales have trickled (I repeat: sales – “friends of the festival” just help themselves by that point), which gives me the opportunity to get out from behind the bar and rock out a little bit with the gang from Carmel, who generally make up half the remaining attendees.

There’s never a shortage of calls for “one more song,” which this year (I’m pretty sure) was a cover of Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’. Five days later, my voice has still not recovered. I was seeing new photos on Instagram and Facebook from that twilight performance for the rest of the weekend, and I’m equal parts cringing inwardly and excited about seeing the GoPro footage from the final set.

And every year I seem to meet a few more guys and girls who hadn’t been around the previous year. This time the fresh faces included Pat, who had me in stitches from virtually the minute we met and who had a line for every second woman who came to the beer tent (I got the others); Rhoades, a college buddy of TJ’s who met a gorgeous little brunette at one of the vendor tents but had his thunder stolen by the aforementioned Pat; Angelo, one of Dan and Devon’s friends from Queens who’d volunteered his bar-backing services for the weekend; and James, another one of TJ’s workhorse younger cousins who couldn’t even have a free beer because he was well underage.

Given the lack of proximity I have to my own family these days, it’s unbelievable to be surrounded and included by the extended McNulty clan, which treks from points as “close” as Connecticut and New York, and as far as Florida, for the event. In the space of 24 hours I got an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner, matchmaking advice, approximately 5,000 hugs from aunts and an equally large tally of “welcome backs.” I can’t help but love being an honorary McNulty for the weekend.

I also had a couple of friends come down to see me – my buddy Kam, whom I met when she studied in Australia in 2011 and who lives not too far from Providence, and my pal Bonnie, who’s had plenty of mention in these pages. She and her boyfriend Brian decided the festival was the perfect weekend around which to build a celebration of Brian’s birthday, so they came down and hung out in the park for the day, although they didn’t even let me shout them a single boozy drink. Next year, you guys. Count on it.

THE VENUE

Providence, you beautiful bitch.
Providence, you beautiful bitch.

Ugh. I mean, what can I really even say about it? Look over to the right-hand column over there at my Instagram photos (assuming they’re still there). See for yourself. I’ll even throw a gallery in. But my words can’t do it justice.

The festival is held at India Point Park, which hugs the waterfront. It’s a huge piece of land, but we only currently use a wide section of it that’s directly below the India Point Park Bridge that lets pedestrians cross the highway. There’s a wide pier jutting out that serves as a big stage for the live bands, and provides an absolutely gorgeous backdrop for sitting and eating seafood. Oh, and drinking. Did I mention there’s drinking?

From the first time I set foot in the park on Thursday afternoon until I left Monday morning, I was in a constant state of awe. I don’t know whether it’s because I associate it with such a fun annual event, how naturally beautiful it is, or a combination of both, but it’s one of my favorite places in the world.

Our initial setup work began on the Friday when we unloaded a truck full of folding tables and chairs, which we’d then have to lug into place the following day. The carnies and Blount’s Clam Shack were next to enter and drop off their gear, as well as one of the art vendors. Everyone else came in early on the Saturday morning (not that I’d know; I didn’t get there until 8:00 a.m. which, contrary to what you might think, isn’t early on TJ McNulty’s schedule).

I love watching it transform from a big piece of grass, where people are doing solo capoeira and walking their dogs after work, to the bustling and colorful festival that sees thousands of people getting after it over the course of two days, and then back again to a place of casual and quiet recreation on the Monday morning. Of course, the latter means that it’s all over for another year, which sucks.

THE (FOOD AND) BREW

Since I started helping out in 2012, the hard-working beer tent staffers have always been on the receiving end of the occasional delivery of a bite to eat, generally when TJ or Dan comes over to see if we’ve had a break yet and realizes we’ve been behind the tables for five straight hours and subsisting only on as many Narragansett cans as we can drink (read: a lot.)

Bartenders of the year, and a probably dissatisfied customer.
Bartenders of the year, and a probably dissatisfied customer.

This year I feel like it changed a little, and we worked out some quid pro quo arrangements with a couple of the food trucks (who shall remain nameless, not that this blog has that wide of a readership). We’re all in it together, after all, so it’s no thing for me to deliver a couple of cold beers to the guys who are working so hard to feed the masses.

As I’ve written at length before, my dietary intake has been somewhat different since I moved to Maine and have had unbelievably easy access to great seafood, to the point where I could find a lobster roll or clam chowder for lunch every day of the week if I so desired (although I don’t). But even though at previous festivals I’ve been pumped to eat a year’s worth of crustaceans between bread in two days, my current address didn’t slow me down this time.

If memory serves, the tally: was one load of fried clam strips, two lobster rolls, two scallop and bacon rolls, three raw oysters, two pulled pork tacos and an order of chicken fingers for good measure. Such a fat kid.

The main reason that memory wouldn’t serve, of course, is that my main task during the daylight hours was facilitating people’s buzzes. I was a purveyor of booze. In fitting with the theme, we only sell Rhode Island-branded drinks, and our beer list consisted of two of the big guns: Narragansett and Newport Storm. It never ceases to amaze me how fast we burn through the latter’s IPA, given its potency and the fact that people are drinking it in the hot sun, but who am I to judge?

We also had some local wines, and carried liquor for the first time this year, in the form of Thomas Tew dark rum. We only had four cases, and we burned through them on Saturday. We were making Dark and Stormies with a local ginger beermade by Barritt’s, and they sold like wildfire. I think even us bartenders only got one each – how were we supposed to sell the product if we didn’t know what it tasted like? – and the rest just disappeared. Looks like we’ll be bringing THAT one back next year.

It’s always a pleasure to be behind the bar at the beer tent and behold the looks of sheer surprise and joy on people’s faces when we tell them that not only are the beers a bargain-basement $4 (up a buck from last year, but still cheap as hell), but they aren’t restricted to just buying one or two at a time. We’re not that sort of stuffy festival, man. Of course you can have four! Just be over 21, and don’t forget to tip your bartenders.

On the ID thing: the last couple of years, I was outright hopeless at it. Everyone’s licenses looked utterly foreign to me, but now at least I know where to look quickly to catch a birthday. And one of my most tired and overused (but funny to me) one-liners is to tell patrons – mostly women, so sue me – that it’s “the fakest ID I’ve ever seen” and “I hope you didn’t pay much for that?”

The punters, of course, weren’t the only ones drinking. Not by far, my good friend. By my count, Pat’s and my first beer of the festival proper was a Gansett Del’s Shandy around 7:30 a.m. Saturday before we headed to the park to help out, and by the time we’d moved all the tables, unloaded the cases and hundreds of pounds of ice from the truck and built the beer tent, all bets were off. There were very few points throughout the day where there weren’t at least three, if not more, half-consumed cans or bottles at the ends of the bar tables – for us, not them. On more occasions than I care to remember, Pat or I would turn around and say, “hey, that’s MY beer you’re drinking. Yours is over there man.” and we’d fall about laughing.

And as you can imagine, if the guys serving the beer were as drunk as the patrons, there are going to be corny pick-up lines and shitty jokes aplenty. Most of them went down fairly well (we think), but others…not so much. Like the time that I told a girl to stand still because she had a dragonfly on her arm, and then slapped it to squish it. It was a tattoo, and I’d just TECHNICALLY assaulted a customer. Or when Pat flicked an ice cube at some guy’s chest while I served his girlfriend a beer. But hey, what’s TJ gonna do – fire us? (Please don’t fire us.)

We had a far bigger team behind the bar this year, which meant the tips had to be divided up between more of us, but we still made out like bandits for what’s hard, but immensely fun, work.

THE AFTERMATH

I left Providence on Monday at noon, and got to Portland around 4 p.m. absolutely spent. I needed a shave, two or three showers, and 72 hours of bedrest. What I had totally forgotten from last year was that festival weekend is probably the most physically taxing thing I’ve ever been a part of, and I lift weights four days a week.

My hands are covered in small cuts from bottle tops and from plunging them into barrels of ice searching for that elusive can, and one large cut on the heel of my left hand will always remind me that plastic trash bags are no match for broken wine bottles. My legs are covered in bruises, my hip flexors were screaming from spending three days squatting to pick up cases of beer. Although that pain could be worse: it could’ve been my back.

I had a free night in a hotel in Portland, and I’d planned to spend the last day of my five days away by spending my tip money on a good meal and some beers, but I already felt so fat, creaky and old from a weekend of manual labor and debauchery both at and after work that I probably should’ve just driven back to Augusta and slept for 20 hours.

I didn’t, of course, and ended up extending the mild hangover and overindulgence into Tuesday, like a real piece of shit would. I managed a workout Tuesday morning, and when I arrived at work one of my coworkers asked me “how my vacation was.”

All I could do was laugh and reply, “compared to the weekend I had, this comfortable office job is my vacation. I worked like a horse down there.”

And truth be told? I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love being a cog in the Rhode Island Seafood Festival machine, and to be able to help out my good buddy TJ as much as he’s helped me out. Seeing how much fun people of all ages have at the park every year is an awesome reward for all the hard work – and let’s face it, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being paid in as much beer and seafood as I could jam in my pie-hole.

Goddamn, I can’t wait for next year. I sure am hungry.

#sureamhungry
#sureamhungry
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