When I was hired by Mary and Alice Moore, they gave me a lot warnings. They warned of their bickering, of the shop’s propensity to accumulate soot and dust; the freezing temperatures, the demanding customers, the tedious backroom tasks, the occasional invasion of mice and groundhogs; that I’d have to eat lunch standing up, that I’d have to wear sensible shoes, and finally, that I might receive phone calls from dirty old men looking for a massage parlor. Mother and daughter, both tall, strikingly lovely women, stood telling me this in the midst of their delightfully opulent near-fairy tale gift shop, its shelves and hearth brimming with silk scarves, cashmere gloves, silver neck chains, French perfumes, silkscreened pottery, beeswax candles, salted caramels, twinlking lights, and a rack of rainbow-colored ribbons and wrapping paper: Simple Pleasures.
“Alice has never liked the name,” Mary said. “And there’s a smut shop in Central Falls with the same one.”
And sure enough, within my first couple of weeks we got a call asking about the “four hand special.” After that, a heavy breather: “How much is a half hour?” Just after Christmas someone called to ask if we’d be open on New Years, and when we said no, he asked if we had “three girls who want to work anyway.” We always follow these questions with a pause, thinking, for a moment, that we might have the answer. And then it clicks. “Are you trying to get a hold of Simple Pleasures, the spa?” At which point said caller usually hangs up.
When the Moores interviewed me, I was still working at the RISD store. I applied for that job the day before Hurricane Irene hit. In every way I could think to, I presented myself as the ideal candidate to sell Color-Aid, Gatorade, and commemorative school mugs to the incoming students and eager parents who’d soon be knocking down the school doors. That night, the city cleaned Walgreens and CVS of votives and bottled water, taped their windows shut, filled their bathtubs, and watched the storm knock down a couple powerlines and uproot a tree. Then I was hired and quickly delegated to the job of folding two thousand RISD logo t-shirts for minimum wage, forty hours a week. I’d stand in the humid, narrow galley-shelving in the cellar, color-coding apparel in absolute, suffocating silence. Then I’d eat my lunch out back over the canal. The old illustration buildings crowded together along the brick walkway like a New England postcard. A few ducks swam by. Some students drafted at a picnic table. Then I’d go back in and stock all manner of candy, gum erasers, gag gifts, interiors magazines, Chapstick, umbrellas, sweatshirts, and sports team paraphernalia — the RISD Balls and Nads, respectively. I became addicted to Lintdor balls. I’d buy several at the register and keep them in my apron pocket to be savored through the day like painkillers. Surveillance cameras hung from all corners, including the basement, and we were not allowed to be still. Employees couldn’t chat. The part of the store I worked in was often dead for long periods, but I had to keep moving. So I’d fiddle around with merchandise, knock t-shirts from the shelf so I could refold them, talk to myself. Someone’s mother died, someone else got sick, two long-time employees quit, the soundsystem stopped working, and the fluorescent lights buzzed louder and louder. The students came in droves and we’d ring up hundreds of dollars worth of supplies and watch the horrible heavy shadow cross their faces when we announced the total. Occupy Providence formed the week I realized that my paltry paycheck — and most people’s in America — was being taxed the same percentage as a CEO at Bain.
One day I came across a book on the shelves called Providence Sketchbook, and I kept a copy behind the counter with me so I could sneak peeks at it when I felt like no one was watching. Life hinged on these little thrills! The book was full of beautiful watercolor drawings of historical buildings throughout the city. One drawing I liked in particular was of an old blacksmith forge, supposedly on Waterman St., though I’d never seen it. After six weeks, I felt thoroughly lousy. Walking home along the canal and under the mall and over the foundry, my mind was set on Yell mode. Walking there and back, all I heard was yelling: WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING HERE. WHY DO I FEEL TRAPPED. Don’t get me wrong; everyone at the store was perfectly nice. But. But what? I was exhausted, and had a spike of dread in both heels, and this expanse of joyless days, no one’s fault but my own. I was scared. This wasn’t what I’d planned on. I responded to a job listing for a tarot reader in Attleboro, Mass, and on a day off I took the commuter train to meet the proprietress. That’s another story. It was a warm, fall day, and while I was sitting on the Attleboro Outbound platform going home, two things happened: an ACELA went by, and Mary Moore from Simple Pleasures called me. I’d never seen those high-speed trains in person before. I held my hand over the receiver. The sheer velocity of the thing was mind-boggling, barreling by like a mythical beast, the force of it felt deep in my chest. The sun was warm on my back, and in just a moment the train virtually vanished down the track. It was sort of amazing. My heart was pounding. And then silence. “Sorry,” I said to Mary. “A train just went by.”
“OK…,” she said, wary, “You responded to our Craigslist ad a couple of months ago. We liked your email. But it’s taken a while to organize. Are you still looking for a job? Would you like to come and meet us?”
The following week, I hopped on a bus and navigated to Richmond Square, though the driver had no idea where it was. How could a city this small still hold so many secret places? I found myself standing at the banks of the Seekonk River, in a giant lot abutting Blackstone Park. And there was the little 19th Century blacksmith forge from the Providence Sketchbook. A fenced-in garden patio was open off to the side, and a flock of plump sparrows and morning birds flitted about the stone pots and benches. This was the shop. The door was open, and there were the Moores tucked inside.
I switched my loafers for the pumps stowed in my bag, and introduced myself to Mary. When I briefed her on why I was in Providence to begin with (recently graduated, living out Sweeney’s last year at Brown), and where I’d been working, she said, “That must be hard to be around, especially having just left a period of life that was so communal.”
She hit the nail on the head.
So I quit RISD and worked for the Moores, who welcomed me and paid me well and fed me delicious sandwiches and candies (standing up) and taught me about specialty fibers and jewelry and to properly wrap a gift, and who shared inside jokes and doubts and the great, humorous labors of running a small business for twenty years — and many other things, too. And now I think: O ye of little faith! I guess that’s why I’m telling this story. It was still a while before I felt OK. But that shop is where I convalesced. And though I’ve actually had other jobs since, a wide variety, and other trials that have nothing to do with earning money, Simple Pleasures is still emblematic to me of God’s wild, funny, and gradual way of helping find an Exit sign during a fire.
Providence’s geography is made of optical illusions. As the crow flies, it’s a small city, but the hills, highways, waterways, and 17th Century steeples create these seemingly immense distances. And because there are only a few tall structures, which are spaced few and far between, the vista is skewed. When I’m coming upon the statehouse, which sits atop a steep incline above the train station, my house appears to be miles away — though it’s only two blocks farther. Cobble streets and potholed alleys wind in and around Brown and RISD, a layout carved by horse three hundred years ago, yet I-95 seems to roar by every which way you look. Somewhere in this is a metaphor both for my life thus lived here, and for early adulthood. But I’ve tried to pin this on Providence a few times already.
After the man called Simple Pleasures asking for three working girls on New Years, Mary called the chief of police in Central Falls. “I don’t think that spa is really a spa, if you know what I mean.”
“Oh, Simple Pleasures? Sure,” he said. “Everything that you think is happening there is,” he said. “And it’s perfectly legal, what they’re doing. So I don’t really know what to tell you.” He paused. “The next time one of them calls, have some fun with it — tell them to show up wearing women’s underwear or something.”
And that, as they say, was that.