December 6, 2018 | Narrative
from nevsky to new dorm
More than two months after I left Saint Petersburg, I received a Facebook message from Dean, a former Brown University student with whom I had explored Russian art exhibitions and gallery openings. “Hey Rachel, will be in Prov in mid-September,” he’d written. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. After all, he wasn’t just a mentor—he was a friend, and he and his wife had welcomed me into their network of creatives from Russia.
On a Saturday in late September, I met him on the corner of Thayer and George Street, only a few steps from the Ratty. As we drove down Brook Street, he told me about illegally having a car as a freshman and parking it outside his dorm, how silly it was to do those things back then. I didn’t recognize the name he used for Keeney—West Quad, apparently. It seems that Brown has always been changing the names of its spaces. But even as the vernacular changes, the places remain the same. When Dean parked outside of Louie’s, he motioned at the restaurant and said that he hoped I knew it. “How could I not?” I replied, thinking of memorable post-exam lunches shared among friends.
We walked over to New Dorm and took the stairs to my common room, which had hosted a small gathering the night before. There were still crushed cans and empty bags of chips scattered around the room. Snacking on a bagel, I asked Dean how the rest of the summer had been in Saint Petersburg—I had left the country months before he did. He mentioned a trip to Moscow, endless work on a myriad of projects, a private tour of the Museum of Cosmonautics. Soon enough, we began talking about the stakes of creating art in Russia versus in the United States, what creativity means, and how artists put themselves at risk through the act of creation.
Central to his analysis was the recent history of Providence. Dean traced the different areas of Rhode Island art history: Providence can rightfully claim the pre-formation of the Talking Heads, while nearby Cumberland was once home to the Farrelly brothers, the filmmakers behind Dumb and Dumber. I was especially intrigued by Dean’s story of Joe’s and Joe’s Upstairs. Citing the restaurant organization methods of Dewey Dufresne as a seminal element of Rhode Island culinary history, he sang the praises of chowders and pounds of bluefish flown in from Cape Cod. He called the interior of Joe’s Upstairs “Edward Hopper-like,” and I had no trouble picturing exactly what he meant.
Talking to Dean in my New Dorm common room made the strange temporality of Brown all the more concrete. CareerLAB always stresses how useful it is to “network” with alumni, but one can have many meaningful conversations without any intention of getting an internship. I like to think of myself as an heir to the history of this university, just as all students are. I couldn’t help but recall when, while lounging around in Em-Wool freshman year, a few juniors knocked on my door, asked if they could come in, and told stories of what they had experienced in that very same room. On the one hand, it is unsettling to consider how many strangers over the course of history have eaten sandwiches on Faunce’s steps or done laundry in New Pembroke—but it is also quite possibly the most interesting thing about Brown: to be surrounded by so much memory.
We also talked about the future. Having just come from Moscow and preparing to return for a performance art piece, Dean offered a lot of advice on things to see and people to meet during my upcoming semester abroad. Dean had left Providence behind many years ago, and listening to his stories of all the places one could go beyond these familiar streets was a comforting reminder to cherish these days but not grow too attached to them. The memories (and apparently the brunch places) will still be here.
After Dean left New Dorm, he went to rehearse for a memorial concert to take place the next day at Nick-A-Nee’s. He and a few members of his old band, The Mundanes, would go on to perform in honor of their friend Charles Reckard, a Brown alum and four-time New England Emmy award winner for excellence in broadcasting. And after Dean left New Dorm, I went back to my homework, caught up on it—nothing spectacular. I picked up the crushed cans and the empty bags of chips and went up and down the stairs to the basement trash room a few times. Later, I took a walk to East Side Market, went to a birthday party, and stayed up with my friends for most of the night talking about our favorite books.
Now, in the gray state of mid-December, I think it was actually exceptional to take part in something so mundane, so material, to sit around reading on a Saturday afternoon back when the whole semester was ahead of me. There was so much time to figure out what would become my memories of this fall. I think I made good choices, and I can’t wait to tell these stories someday in the doorway of an Em-Wool room, on the couch of a New Dorm suite, or at a gallery show in Saint Petersburg.