Providence is Not a Playground

Reflections on RIPTA

The bus driver jerks his arms right, guiding stubborn tires through the right turn from Memorial Boulevard on to Fulton Street. For a moment, everyone sways, fingers gently tightening against the metal rails. The half-hidden silhouettes of the Public Health Building and the Congdon Street Baptist Church slide behind us, quickly consumed by the towering buildings of downtown. “Now approaching Kennedy Plaza.”

A few strangers begin shuffling their bags, carefully inching toward the exits. A toddler, chewing on some goldfish, tries to reach the doors first before his mother yanks him back to her. Through the windows we watch clumps of people wait beneath bus stop shelters and against the unlit streetlights. Tired eyes stare through the windows, seeing and not seeing us, or maybe they are simply looking at an ad for the College of Rhode Island. They surge forward as our bus stills in front of Stop D.

The momentary chaos of a bus stop exchange fills the vehicle. I clutch my backpack tight against my chest, hunch my shoulders, try to make myself smaller. A hundred headphones, handbags, grocery bags, jostle through the aisle. Someone laughs, someone scolds another over the phone. At the front, a woman pays the bus fare in quarters, and a man’s pass is denied. My gaze fixes on the ad spread over the wall between the passengers and driver.

SMOKERS NEEDED,” in cold, red font. A request I’ve seen before. This time, the Brown University Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies wants participants for an upcoming study, offering some significant but oddly specific monetary compensation. I wonder how many people have taken them up on the opportunity. Beneath the study’s description the Brown University crest adorns the poster like a seal of approval.

The bus heaves to a start, barreling through Fulton and onto Eddy. Cars edge nervously to the sides to accommodate the white and blue beast, narrow streets already clogged with exhaust and engine noises. I check the time on my phone, calculate when we’ll get to Public Street, and return to the ad.

Some iteration of the poster has decorated almost every RIPTA ride I’ve been on, asking for drug addicts or alcoholics or some combination of both. They’re mostly a casual part of the periphery with all the other ads, or something to read to pass the time. If I’m with a friend we can discuss what we’d do with the money if we participated in the study. Still, the initial recognition of the university logo makes it something more, connects it to my laptop stickers and T-shirt labels and part of who I am. And I’m not sure if I’m comfortable with that.

Being enrolled in Brown University means being associated with everything it does, its reputation, its image. It means answering “Do you have any course requirements?”, “Do you smoke weed?”, “Do you know Emma Watson?” countless times. It means feeling pride when a Brown staff member wins a Nobel Prize, or excitement when a Brown alum starts a cool company or does good in the world. It also means acknowledging and benefiting from the privilege and history of Brown University, a privilege and history fraught with injustice and some less-esteemed aspects of higher academia.

Specifically, Brown has had a complicated relationship with Providence and the people of Providence. It takes up a huge area of the city, doesn’t pay taxes (although it makes a series of payments to the city to compensate), and uses many Providence resources, from its public transport to its people. It does, however, provide the city with many benefits, including stimulating the economy, bringing in brilliant minds who might make positive changes and perhaps even stay in Providence indefinitely. As an undergraduate student, however, I can’t help feel a bit like a leech, gleaning experiences from Providence that’ll look good on a resume and then hightailing to New York or San Francisco or some other major metropolitan city upon graduation.

The ad is a reminder that I, as a member of the Brown community, am benefitting from Providence. Specifically, from people in Providence who might be in vulnerable positions, or might simply want to go about their lives without being incorporated into higher academia.

Although specific to community engagement, the message transcends into many facets of university life. How do we properly interact with Providence for our research, projects, and daily routines in a way that maintains Providence’s autonomy? Moreover, how do our interactions affect Providence in general? Returning to the RIPTA ads, on one hand they obtain valuable information that could go to help society’s comprehension of addiction, as well as provide resources and monetary funds to the participants involved. On the other, the ads emphasize the parasitic relationship Brown can have with Providence to the people of Providence and any person traveling on the RIPTA. Then again, how much of that assumption is just how I perceive the ad to affect them? I glance at other passengers’ thoughtful, distant expressions, similar to my own.

I pull the yellow cord to stop the bus. It settles beside a RIPTA bus stop sign covered in the remnants of stickers and spray paint. Outside the air is still warm with summer, and people walk past me in the bubbles of their own worlds. I begin walking down Public Street, considering Brown University and Providence, feeling the weight of the Brown ID in my pocket.