"But the winters were hard for us after the colony left. My father was a brick-mason, and there was almost no work for him in the winter. Easter was important. It meant spring, the start of the good times. By then, the coal bin was almost empty, and the root vegetables you'd put away for the winter were almost gone. Yet at that moment, when you had the least, it was crucial that you come up with new Easter clothes for everyone in the family. That was understood in the Fifth Ward.
"And so, every year, a couple weeks before Easter, my father would start his rounds of the big houses, trying to get one piece of early work—mending fences, whatever. Usually it was too early, though, so he always saved one particular mansion for last. Now at this house there was a statue of a lion in the front, which he would pass by on the way to the trade entrance. And inside, my father would say, 'Looks like that back wall needs some patching,' something like that, but just about every time, the people would reply, 'No, thanks, we think it can go for a while.' So my father would put his hat back on and start to leave.
"He'd take a couple steps toward the door, and then he would stop, like it just occurred to him, like it really didn't matter, and he'd say, 'Oh, you know, the tail is off your lion again.' And they'd say, 'Well, O.K., go and patch that up.'
"And almost every year that job would take care of our Easter. But you see, what it was, my father finally told me: he would knock off that lion's tail as he passed by, so that he'd get a job. That was why he always saved that house for last. He was an honest man, but he had to have a job for Easter.
"Years later I was far away from Newport and I remembered that story, and I was laughing about it to myself, and it suddenly dawned on me—of course, those people knew what my father was doing; they knew he knocked the tail off the lion every year, but they went along, they didn't say anything, they just gave him the job. They knew they had to let that man have his dignity. The rich knew we belonged here. Otherwise, it couldn't have worked on this island."
Having grown up with an appreciation of this sensitive interdependence, Booth fears for the present fragile prosperity. He started the campaign against casino gambling. "When the Navy left, we had to get off the federal dollar, so we hustled for ourselves, and look what we did," he says. "If we let gambling in now, we settle for a master-slave relationship all over again."
Few, in fact, expect the referendum to carry. Almost all local leaders are opposed to it, and casinos are historically embraced only by a desperately indigent populace—such as was the case in Atlantic City. By contrast, Newport is prospering now as never before, and, besides, right after the fleet left, when Newport was at its most despairing, a referendum to permit one jai alai fronton in town passed by only an eyelash.
Still and all, the siren call of the casino is powerful. Lower taxes! More jobs! Johnny Carson in the Supper Club! Steve and Eydie in the lounge! And the swinging-singles, boutique economy, already in place, is seductive. Holiday Inn wants to throw up a 10-story waterfront motel, and never mind the integrity of the low skyline. There is a lovely little baseball park downtown named Cardines Field. The outfield walls are as ivied as Wrigley's, the configuration as weird as Fenway's—285 down one line, 330 down the other and a jog into center of 315. When it was built, the park had to conform with the town around it, and there was a house in straightaway center. Things had fit together on the island then.
Every night in summer, there are the so-called Sunset League games, played by failed Class A hopefuls and faded old Rhode Island high school heroes, before family and close friends and a few peaceful strangers wise enough to know that baseball is one of the few earthly things (boats are another) that can actually add to summer twilight. But a lot of people say: Cardines Field is too near Boutiqueland. There is a move afoot to raze it and lay out a parking lot in its place.
Understand, of course, boutiques are not evil. Neither are parking lots. And quite possibly, Newport is at its gooiest sweet now. Significantly, right down from Bannister's is another wharf, what used to be the old Johnny Mathinos Boatyard. On winter days, for firewood, Johnny would chop up a few of the hulks rotting about the dock, and the denizens of nearby Fifth Ward could sit around and chew the fat. But the taxes got too much for this sort of luxury, and plans were advanced to dress up the dock with more little shoppes and munch-ins.