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I don’t particularly understand the Providence phenomenon of WaterFire. I’ve seen it, but like a poorly written movie, I feel like I’m missing a piece of the puzzle, and I just don’t understand what the draw is. I mentioned once before, that the night I moved into to town last year was the last Waterfire of the season. So after getting stuck in traffic for more than an hour, my Human Traveling Companion and I decided to wander downtown and see what it was all about.

We stood in front of Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse (a name of a restaurant that I still, also, just don’t understand– is that because the name is stupid, or is it some steak-joke that I just don’t get?) and watched the WaterFire. We watched metal baskets of cedar burn on the river, middle-aged men and women ride around them in gondolas, and after five minutes, acknowledged that our eyes were burning from the smoke and it was time for a drink.

I’ve spoken to other people about my lack of understanding, and found that many agree. “There’s really nothing to see, it’s just fire on the water.” a crazy co-worker said once, and I agreed. So, I don’t get it, and she doesn’t get it, but it seems like thousands of people do because these things are very well-attended, and the concept is being stolen by other cities now. When I took the Providence Trolley Tour to acquaint myself with my new home, the driver went on about how expensive a single WaterFire is to put on, and what a labor of love it is etc. I can’t figure out why it’s so expensive because cedar can’t possibly cost that much, and from what I understand, the workers are volunteers…

The website is rather vague as well, perhaps in an attempt to lure people in without giving them a clear idea what they’re coming to, just that it’s free:

“WaterFire Providence®, the award-winning sculpture by Barnaby Evans installed on the three rivers of downtown Providence, has been praised by Rhode Island residents and international visitors alike as a powerful work of art and a moving symbol of Providence’s renaissance. WaterFire’s one hundred sparkling bonfires, the fragrant scent of aromatic wood smoke, the flickering firelight on the arched bridges, the silhouettes of the firetenders passing by the flames, the torch-lit vessels traveling down the river, and the enchanting music from around the world engage all the senses and emotions of those who stroll the paths of Waterplace Park. WaterFire has captured the imagination of over ten million visitors, bringing life to downtown, and revitalizing Rhode Island’s capital city.”

This Saturday was another WaterFire night that I did not attend. Instead Jewish Friend and took the train to Boston. As we were walking to the train station, the driver of a mini-van waved us over and asked if we were going to Waterfire. I thought the fact that we were both wearing backpacks and walking toward the train station made it fairly apparent that we were not, but I didn’t say that.

“We’re going to the train station.” Jewish Friend told him, indicating the building in front of us.

“Do you know where the Waterfire is?” he asked.

“Well, yeah, it’s back there, on the river.”

“What is it?” he asked.

I left that question for Jewish Friend to fumble through, and she gave him a rather succinct response about water, and fire, and experience etc.

“Do you grill at WaterFire?” he asked, “Should I bring my own chickens, or can I buy them there?”

So this guy drove all the way from New Hampshire (as his license plates indicated) to go to WaterFire, thinking it is an event that includes grilling chickens. At least I’m not the only one who doesn’t get it.

I rolled into Providence on September 1, Labor Day weekend. It was a rather odd way to start live in a new city as businesses had limited hours, and after a ridiculous time of trying to negotiate the narrow, full of people roads during Waterfire on Saturday night, the city seemed to empty out Sunday morning while I slept in. I was so overwhelmed and dazed from being in the car for three days, that I didn’t care about much of anything.

So Human Traveling Companion and I walked downtown every day to get the lay of the land, coffee in the morning and beer in the afternoon, etc. En route to what was called “Downtown Arts District” when I moved here, now is called “Downcity Arts District” (why? why? who cares?), I walk by a rather non-descript Pentecostal church . It’s not a pretty church, like every building in my neighborhood it has a chain-link fence, and it looks like it was designed for some other purpose, but the people who go there seem to have some of the most fun I’ve ever seen.

Not being of a religious persuasion myself, I really don’t know much about organized religion. I took “World Religions” as an undergrad, but that covered mainly the non-christian religions of the world outside of America and Europe. Frankly, aside from having a friend of family in the town one grows up in, I don’t know how people know anything about these other Christian denominations. I know that this church is Pentecostal because there is a sign on it.

Anyway, when I had heard the word Pentecostal before, it was generally referring to the more strict, skirt-wearing religions (correct me if I’m wrong). The people who go to this church do not fit the descriptions I’d previously associated with Pentecostal. They’re all African-American, most wear these all-white outfits complete with a kind of hat one might use to deflect the sun at the beach– and they feast.

For two days they were inside the chain-link, in what looks like it should be a parking lot eating, and dancing, and generally making merry. There are tents set up, and giant silver buffet dishes– it’s very elaborate. In the late afternoon, things would be quiet and we’d see a couple people setting up, but as soon as the sun set– the revelry began. It was a sight to behold, and made me feel more positive about religion than I possibly ever have.

Then they vanished.

Since September 4th, I have not seen anyone going in or out of that church. The sign is still up, I assume they haven’t moved, but I just don’t know. I looked forward to walking by their celebrations, or hearing the whooping on nights when my windows are open, but I didn’t get to, sadly.

The other day though, I walked by, and there were two men in the faux parking lot/party space looking like they were making plans of some kind. So I don’t know if the partying Pentecostals are coming out of hibernation, but I certainly hope so.