A Mayor, a Mentor and the “First Food Truck in America”

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Greg Markley

By GREG MARKLEY

OPINION ––

With the advent of popular Food Truck Fridays in Opelika, and with Auburn also having such events, I think about my college job. It featured a colorful mayor, a wise mentor and a much-loved food truck dating back to 1888. The politician, the copy editor and the eight-seat food truck interacted with each other. So did I, from 1978 to 1981. This was in Providence, Rhode Island, less than 10 miles from my home.

“Buddy” Cianci was elected at 33 and became the first GOP mayor in 150 years. A rift in the Democratic machine provided an opening for a new face. He was popular as the first Italian mayor, enormously charismatic and in 21 non-consecutive years he engineered a Renaissance in economic and cultural progress.

 Cianci resigned from office twice because of felony convictions. His second resignation came for one count of racketeering conspiracy, landing him in prison for four years. As a populist speaking for ordinary citizens, Cianci made it clear he would not allow the iconic Haven Brothers food truck to be jettisoned from its normal nighttime space after 100-plus years.

PHOTO CONTRIBUTED TO THE OBSERVER

Some saw the truck as ugly alongside a pretty 1875 city hall. Made of cast iron and masonry, some say it is diminished by people eating fast food on the steps. Cianci said it represents tradition and stability. The area is diverse, eclectic, with drunks, Ivy Leaguers, well-dressed theater patrons and panhandlers.

   “Late-night vices demand late-night solutions,” notes a 2020 Atlas Obscura profile of Haven Brothers Diner. “Looking down the barrel of a roaring hangover, the solution is traditionally fried and smothered in condiments. It’s as true today as it was in the late 1800s, when the progenitor of the now-iconic Haven Brothers Diner wagon first graced the streets of Providence.”

In 1888, immigrant Anne Philomena Haven (1842-1912) founded the diner with money from her husband Patrick’s life insurance policy. The “lunch cart” was purchased in Worcester, Massachusetts, and began as a horse-drawn wagon. Every evening at 4:30 p.m., the owner wheels the 1949 Fred W. Morse diner car (the third wagon used) to the corner of two streets next to Providence City Hall and a large plaza. Upon closing the diner, it is wheeled to its storage location several miles away, until the next night — same time, same place.

On April 9, 2008, the diner was brought to Manhattan and parked at NBC Studios at 30 Rockefeller Plaza for employees and viewers of the “Today” show. Asked to name their favorite diner, hosts Meredith Vieira and Matt Lauer had said it was Haven Brothers. Both had worked at NBC 10 studios in Providence. Vieira is a native of Providence.

As a copyboy I was well paid ($6.50 an hour in 1981; the minimum wage was $3.35). The good pay was probably for the headaches when I went to the diner to buy eight to 12 varied orders plus plenty of coffee. Haven Brothers did not have sandwiches or any item officially named for anyone, but the “Bernie” sandwich was an unofficial name for an untoasted sandwich on white bread with ham, cheese, mustard and onions (as I recall).

 The “Bernie” here was the paper’s version of Lou Grant, the 50-ish TV character who was gruff but had a good heart. He was my mentor. Other copyboys were as old as 40, and by then had given up getting a writing job at the Journal. I wrote features and commentaries for the college paper. (A political science major, I had minors in English and History.)

Bernie often edited my stories, such as switching my “It is an incident of great frequency” to his “It happens all the time.” He spent 11 years at the daily Berkshire Eagle in western Massachusetts, covering all types of crimes. When he said, “I know where all the dead bodies are found,” we believed him.

He joined the Coast Guard during World War II, at age 14 (perhaps he looked older!). He disliked the “arrogance” of reporters there who had a pedigree and an Ivy League education, though he singled out two or three as great reporters. He was not a fan of New Journalism: writing that is more subjective than “old school impartial.” He was delighted when one of his daughters was accepted by Boston Latin, the oldest and best public schools in America.

Cianci died in 2016. Despite his two felony convictions, thousands of people celebrated his life and achievements. In 2022, Haven Brothers is going strong, as (maybe) the nation’s oldest food truck. I last saw Bernie in 1993. He praised me for my successful career in journalism, then offered: “Don’t forget the cops.” He always dropped off four or five papers at police headquarters at 2 or 3 a.m., the 1st Edition, as a gesture of appreciation and respect.

Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has Masters’ in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer for 13 years.  gm.markley@charter.net

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