WEST WARWICK — They gather at Ray’s Poly-Clean to sip coffee and tell stories about the good old days.
“Who else do we know?” Albert DeSilva said, sitting inside the laundromat with his brother and two longtime friends. “I’m three or four generations away from these youngsters — what would we even talk about?”
Richard DeSilva, 100; Cleo Ritchotte, 97; and James Lawrence, 88, meet at the snack bar every Thursday. And Albert, who turns 103 in August, will be tagging along for the next few months, having just arrived in town for the summer.
A resident of Florida since 1991, Albert said it feels good to be back among family and friends in the state where he spent much of his life.
“From springtime until late summer, you can’t beat it,” he said of Rhode Island. “It’s a beautiful state.”
The guys spent Thursday morning reminiscing about the West Warwick of their youth — the various local theaters; the abundant shopping in Arctic; the diversity of the villages.
“It was a great time to grow up,” Albert said. “Nobody had anything worth a damn, but you had a lot of friends around.”
Each of them attended West Warwick Public Schools, where Albert recounted meeting kids whose families had come to the area from all over the globe.
“When we all met in school, we discussed each other’s cultures and languages and so forth,” he said.
Albert, who spoke mostly Portuguese at home, learned from his classmates to speak a good amount of French, a little bit of Italian, and “one or two swear words in Polish.”
The first Portuguese phrase that Cleo ever understood, he added, was “go home” — words that he heard uttered frequently by his neighbors.
Born and raised in Lippitt, Cleo was good friends with Manny and Arthur, two of the five DeSilva brothers. Eddie — who would go on to have a career as an administrator and teacher at Deering Middle School — was the youngest of the brothers; all but Albert and Richard, the two oldest, have passed away.
The DeSilvas’ time in the Pawtuxet Valley began around 1927, when the family made the move from Lowell, Massachusetts.
“We still had trolley cars,” Albert recalled, “and they had a fountain in Phenix for horses to drink out of. That’s how far back that was.”
Having grown tired of working for others in the mills, Albert and Richard’s parents opened a small grocery store in Lippitt in the mid-1930s. The brothers worked there, however Richard wasn’t too pleased about having to miss out on playing baseball to help with the family business.
“I told my father I’d quit school if I couldn’t play baseball,” said Richard, who stayed true to his word, dropping out of high school in the 11th grade.
Richard, who now lives in Coventry, has many fond memories of those days. But one, in particular, has remained fresh in his mind.
It was a Sunday morning, and he and his cousin were outside the market. They had been hoping for a pick-up game, Richard said, when a friend arrived with a car full of girls he had just picked up from Hillsgrove.
“At that time I wasn’t interested at all in girls. I wanted to play baseball,” Richard said. “But it just happened that one of the girls caught my eye. And that did it.”
“Uh oh,” Albert chimed in, glancing over at his younger brother. “Did you tell ma about that?”
The girl didn’t want to go back to Warwick with the guy she’d caught a ride with, Richard said, continuing his story. So, she asked Richard to join her.
“We fell in love,” he said, “and we finally got married in 1942.”
Richard and Florence were married for 71 years before she died in 2013. They had three children together.
The guys also reflected Thursday on their time in the military, a collection of black-and-white, World War II-era photographs spread among coffee cups on the table between them.
In one photo, taken in 1945, a 20-year-old Cleo is pictured with his crewmates on the ship whose engine room he worked in while in the Navy.
“I loved it down there,” Cleo said, pointing to a different photo at the ship’s lower half. “It was nice and warm.”
In his wallet, Richard always carries photos of himself and his brothers, each of them dressed in uniform — except for Albert, they all served in the Navy.
“We all went into the service, we all came back,” said Richard, who was drafted into the Navy in 1943. As for Albert, he enlisted in the Army shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and was discharged on Aug. 20, 1945.
The weekly meeting at Ray’s Poly-Clean is a tradition that goes back many years.
“It was always once a week that they would all come — it was a ritual,” said Joan Ray, who opened the laundromat with her husband more than 50 years ago. “This was a meeting place. They enjoyed it, and we enjoyed having them.”
The guys had to pause their outings for a while during the coronavirus pandemic, and during that time a few of their companions passed away.
For Joan, whose late husband had been old pals with some of them, it’s been “wonderful” to have the guys back every week.
“After the pandemic — of course nobody was going anywhere — I said, ‘don’t forget, you guys, you’ve got to come back,’” she said.
But how could they forget? The meetings are an occasion that each looks forward to, and Albert is happy to take part during his stay in Rhode Island.
“We can talk about old times,” he said, “and we’re together.”