Slater Park


(This is the original introduction from the first From the Backpack posting in July of 2003.)

The second piece for “From the backpack,” this essay was also written around the fall of 1991 for a class at Rhode Island College.

I have made a few modifications to this version. Most of it was done to simply smooth out some edges that seemed rather rough to me in reading it today. Nothing major was added or removed from the original.

One thing I have always left intact… from the first draft to the version turned in for the class to the one presented here… is the opening paragraph. When I first wrote the piece, I didn’t read it over and hadn’t noticed I had the gun pointing back at the ducks. When I presented it out loud at a class, everyone… professor, classmates, me… erupted in laughter. I like that memory, so I kept it.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I remember a place that in the middle of a city was all alone. Once, Slater Park was in Pawtucket, but Pawtucket was not in Slater Park. As I drove in for a visit one day, the setting of trees became more dominating as the traffic along the main road moved further behind. To the right, a pond was shimmering in the glow of the sun. The zoo had an entrance up and off to the left, just beyond the World War II gun that pointed back toward the ducks and geese which surrounded the gazebo at the pond’s distant end.

I pulled my car off to a small paved lot on the right, about one-hundred yards beyond the ducks. My grandfather used to bring me to this park years ago. We would come equipped with a bag filled with the ends from loaves of bread. The birds have noticed my approach, and seem confused. They waddled straight toward me, then, perhaps noticing nothing in my hands, appeared completely disinterested as they turned and passed.

When I was in high school I ran a cross country meet here. The race began at a set of tennis courts that hadn’t existed during my days as a wide-eyed six-year old. My grandfather came to watch me run that day. It was the first time in several years we had been here together, and it would also be the last.

I got back in my car and drove ahead into the area near the zoo’s doors. The city has undergone many changes recently, primarily through corruption and politics. The mayor was forced to resign when charged with extortion. He later pleaded guilty to the charges, which were based on his business dealings as a representative of the city. Recently, a friend told me of the plans to close the zoo portion of the park by the year’s end. I needed to make at least one more visit. I had wondered how the construction of the past few years, coupled with the news of the closing, had affected all that existed inside the walls before me.

The place was barren. No children ran beyond the sound of their parent’s call to return and stay close. No people wandered beside me through an afternoon of daydreams and fantasies. Just a few apathetic looking workers finishing up one assignment and preparing for news of their new location a month or two in the future. For them, like the animals, it seemed to be a change of locations though the overall story remained the same.

I roamed outside for a little while, passing the deer exhibit. It used to be surrounded by a fence that was the only thing separating me from their battle for position as I forced more pieces of bread through to them. Now, a cement wall with bubble windows allowed me to watch the deer as they walked around the enclosure. I almost missed how wet my hand would get when I fed them.

I decided to sneak in and visit with Fanny, resident elephant, for a few minutes. The two of us were alone in the building. She didn’t seem to recognize me. Her eyes looked in my direction, and as I stared into them, they appeared hollow and vacant. Her pen was too small, and here I understood how the zoo could be held in such low standing nationally. Not filled with sunny days of bread crusts with my grandfather, it was instead rated as one of the worst zoos in the country. I wished for the apple I used to feed Fanny, but perhaps it’s best I didn’t have one. Uniting that brilliant past with this day wasn’t something I really wanted.

The entire state has changed in the past year. Credit unions were forced to close when the state insurance company for depositors went out of business after a series of poor investments and embezzlements. Many of the closed locations have yet to reopen, and may never do so. Rhode Island was targeted as a major money laundering area by the F.B.I. Even the elected mayor of Providence has a criminal record for assault, earned when he was last in the same office. The days of innocence in the eyes of a child were not to be found again.

My grandfather passed away recently, and maybe I was trying to recapture a small token of something I had lost. On this little visit, I couldn’t help but see that all the bad this state had been through in the past few years had somehow made its way even here. But in the memories I hold of visiting this place, I found that I have something that not even the park could claim.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at