Saturday, May 23, 2009

Bailing Out Tiverton

by Bernie Quigley

- for The Hill on 5/23/09

What a surprise when I went on to Bloomberg.com this morning and saw a picture of a woman standing in the middle of the street I grew up on holding a sign that read "Slow," then turning it to say "Stop." For this she was being paid $18.60 an hour.

May 22 (Bloomberg) -- Paula Daigneau makes $18.60 an hour directing traffic for the repaving of Main Road in Tiverton, a town of 15,000 in eastern Rhode Island. She says that’s twice what she would have earned doing chores on a friend’s farm.

“The jobs were getting pretty limited,” said Daigneau, 51, a flagger who signals drivers with a sign she pivots from “Stop” to “Slow.”

Daigneau and 31 full-time co-workers are beneficiaries of President Barack Obama’s $787 billion spending program aimed at reviving the U.S. economy. To Michael D’Ambra, president of the construction company that landed the $2.4 million contract, the Main Road project shows the effort is succeeding.

“It appears that the stimulus is doing its job,” D’Ambra said. “It’s putting people to work.”

To critics, the Tiverton project, which is scheduled to end in September, illustrates the stimulus program’s weaknesses: They say it may be creating too few jobs, too slowly, for too short a time.

Once the stimulus money is spent, “that’s the end of it,” said Harry Staley, chairman of the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition, a group that advocates responsible government spending. He said he’s concerned that the money is going to “projects that are not in fact critical” and won’t provide a long-lasting boost to the economy.


Tiverton is a bucolic New England ocean town settled by first families from the colonial days. Main Street was lined with towering elms which followed down to Nanaquarket and Little Compton like an isle in a Maedeval French cathedral. The ocean enters a gray maze of tributaries in green and coral blue in September in by The Gut, where Herb Cavaca hung low with several bullets in his back, when federal agents tracked him but did not catch him, and shot him a few times but did not kill him, bringing liquor in from Canada during the Great Depression. Herb still had the bullets in his back and walked all hunched over when he would come in to George Silva's little Stone Bridge Market in his Eighties. The elms all died at once in the early Sixties, just when Herb and his gang were dying out.

There was a lot of roadwork going in back then; always the voices of men in the distance building roads and bridges, but most of it heading out of town. I don't recall that they used people to turn signs back then. One of the workers would wave and you just drove around. There was no place to go anyway but Little Compton.

If you didn't have a car to join the regular work forces in Fall River or Provindence - they drive to Boston today - you might have found gainful employ at Brownells' historic rose gardens as my sister did, at the Standish Boat Yard or maybe the Stone Bridge Inn where I worked in high school.

This Bloomberg item is the second time Tiverton has hit the big time. In around 1967 when I was overseas, Life Magazine picked us up to tell a symbolic story of the resolute Yankee spirit rising up against Big Business at a Tiverton Town Meeting.

Some big corporation guys had come in and decided that we would be an easy pushover for big oil, and they intended to put an oil refinery in our little town.

They were stopped cold at a town meeting. Refining oil was not the Tiverton way.

The Life photo essay featured one of our formidable local lawyers, but what was striking and beautifully intuitive about the piece was that they picked a local fisherman who lived down the street off Evans Avenue on the riverside to illustrate the indominable Yankee spirit. He was a guy we called Joe the Animal because he scared the pants off us when we were little and took a joyful pleasure in doing so.

There was Joe in Life Magazine in long beard, wool shirt and suspenders, cigar clutched between his teeth, proudly straddling the bow of his flat-bottomed, 17-foot, quohog skiff.

The quohoggers were elite fishermen. They were a breed apart and Joe set the archetype. They were all Portugese men and some of them spoke little English. Joe spoke none. They all painted their skiffs gray and drove out into the morning standing in the bows of their boats with a long pole reaching back to the motors. The best ones had twin hundred-horse Mercs aligned on the back which could easily out run the Coast Guard.

They headed out to dig quohogs at about four or five in the chilly Atlantic mornings with their long tongs swaying off the back, and when we kids were going to the river in the morning they were all done with their day's work and heading home to sleep.

What I admired about them was that they couldn't swim. It was much like Tom Wolfe's description of the fighter pilots in The Right Stuff: It wasn't that they couldn't swim so much as they didn't believe in swimming. Swimming was for children like us. If they fell off the boat they would, of couse, drown, but that was the point: They didn't believe in falling off the boat and I never heard of any one of them that ever did. They keep a benign faith in the Divine Mother to keep them afloat.

Such a different day it was in Tiverton before the roads and bridge came and the elms died.

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