September 2009.

Better dead than in the red?

315 Sayles Avenue, Pawtucket
(401) 728-9699

In Pawtucket there's a place you can go if you're feeling a little overwhelmed by your debts.

It's not the office of a good accountant. Nor is it a community center where you can take a class in how to manage your debt. It's not even a bakery with chocolate cake so good you'll forget how to tie your shoes, let alone remember to worry about the few measly thousand bucks you owe.

No, it's just a house—an otherwise ordinary house that displays the current national debt of the United States in six-inch-tall vinyl numbers across its front.

The house belongs to William Greenwood and his son David, who are, respectively, the chairman and party building officer of the Rhode Island Reform Party. They update the sign every week using the national debt clock on the website of the Concord Coalition, "a nationwide, non-partisan, grassroots organization advocating generationally responsible fiscal policy."

In November 2003 the debt was a paltry 6.9 trillion dollars. Chump change.

The display started with a billboard sponsored by the newly-formed Rhode Island Reform Party in the spring of 1997, when the debt was only 5.47 trillion dollars. After the '98 election Bill and Dave continued to deliver their message of fiscal awareness using the outside of their house, which you must agree is more fiscally responsible than spending money on an expensive billboard.

The weeks and the years passed and, except for a brief period during the Clinton administration, the numbers grew and grew. On September 30, 2008 the national debt hit 10 trillion dollars for the first time ever, necessitating the addition of a fourteenth number to the thirteen that had been adequate for the previous ten years. As of this writing (in May 2018) the debt stands at more than 21.1 trillion, or $64,625 for every man, woman, and child in the country.

Bill and David say they are just trying to get people to be more aware of the huge hole that our government continues to spend us into. The money to pay off that debt doesn't come out of some magical fund, it comes from us, the taxpayers, and today's debts will be borne by our children and grandchildren. Bill and David say if they can move a few of us to write or call our legislators to express our concern, so much the better. But the men say their efforts have mostly been ignored.

We're not surprised. After all, Sayles Avenue is far from a major thoroughfare. It's a quiet little street that gets little through traffic. If the National Debt Clock, installed on 42nd Street in New York City in 1989 (and subsequently moved a few times—it's located on the western side of One Bryant Park as of 2018), hasn't alerted us all to our government's spendthrift ways, what hope does a sign on a side street in Pawtucket have?

But hey, if you're feeling overwhelmed by your personal debts, take a ride by the Greenwood house and cheer up. Because as bad as your situation may be, at least you don't owe as much as the federal government.

And when your taxes go up, well, you might want to track down that bakery with the memory-foggingly good chocolate cake.

Have better things to do than to drive to Pawtucket? Check the current National Debt numbers here.

Update: David Greenwood passed away in August 2012, after suffering a brain aneurism.


Cost: free

Time required: allow 10 seconds, or a week if you want to see the numbers change

Hours: open year round, dawn to dusk.

Finding it: From Route 95 north take exit 26 to Thurston Street. Cross Newell Avenue and take a sharp right onto Main Street. Go five blocks and take a left onto Sayles Avenue. #315 is on the left.

From Route 95 south take exit 27, Cedar Street. At the light take a left onto George Street. Cross the highway, go a few blocks, and bear right onto Pawtucket Avenue. Go about 0.4 miles and take a right onto Sayles Avenue. At the intersection with Dorrance Street bear left to stay on Sayles. #315 is on the right.

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Distances between points are actual distances, without regard to creeks or temperamental zombies. Your travel distance will be longer.

This article last edited May 30, 2018

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