Paving my childhood with comfort food


Earlier this week I had some errands to run… specifically I was trying to fix my shower. The porcelain handle that controls the water pressure had come loose, fallen, and shattered. Turns out that not as many of the major plumbing supply locations as you might expect carry a handle like this, since most showers aren’t set up quite like mine. It’s a long story, involving a single handle for temperature, a separate handle for water pressure, no lettering or marks on either piece, and since the handle itself isn’t important to this essay, I won’t tell you all about it.

But there I was… driving around Rhode Island, hitting all the major plumbing supply outlets in Providence, Cranston and Warwick, looking for what I came to find out is, in industry terms, an H87 porcelain cross. For those of you not familiar with Rhode Island, those are three of the largest cities in the state. Might even be the three largest, but it’s been over twenty years since I studied that stuff in school. They also take up an area that would be hard pressed to fill Central Park. (That’s only a slight exaggeration.)

At one point as I was finishing up my search efforts for the day, and had basically accepted that I would be using the internet to find a 1-800 number in an attempt to order the part from the manufacturer, I had to switch over from a street called Jefferson Boulevard to Bald Hill Road (also known as Route 2). And it was as I finished navigating a couple of small local roads during this transition and got out onto Route 2 that the idea for this article hit me. And since it has nothing to do with my shower or plumbing supply companies, which means I’m just trying your patience with this background information, let’s get to it…

When I was growing up, Route 2 in the vicinity of Warwick, West Warwick and East Greenwich consisted of two things… The Warwick Musical Theater (Theatre if you want to be fancy) and woods. Other than a couple of owners of companies and restaurants that have been in their locations for years… and by a couple I mean you could literally count them using one hand… anyone born and raised in Rhode Island that can recall Route 2 between say 1960 and 1980 is nodding in agreement with me. The Warwick Musical Theater and woods. Miles and miles of Route 2 cutting through the woods, bringing people to the Midland Mall.

That’s not the case today. It’s the Rhode Island Mall now. And that’s not the only change…

Lechmere opened… and closed. Its location is now occupied by a Target. K-Mart moved, opened and closed. (K-Mart did all three, though I’m not sure if I have that order correct. The store may have opened, moved and closed.) There’s a Home Depot (excuse me, must get the name right, a The Home Depot), and, where the Warwick Musical Theater used to be, now a Lowe’s. There are restaurants… Chili’s, Olive Garden, Applebee’s… and lots of others, way, way, way too numerous to mention.

I could go on, but two things occurred to me, and we have enough to wade into them…

First, a huge number of places I recall being woods and fields, whether explored or not by my friends and I, are now covered with asphalt.

Second, that from my travels literally around the world, I am quite aware that even for those of you not familiar with the city of Warwick, the state of Rhode Island, or even portions of New England, all of this is happening to you too. You may never have heard of the Warwick Musical Theater. But I’ll bet you have a location or two that was a major portion of your local community’s personality. A store. A theater. A park. And I know you’ve heard of names like Outback, Barnes & Noble, and Staples… which are, I guarantee, now located in those very spaces formerly occupied by that store, theater or park.

In a way, I think this is all an example of a new, strange and as of yet undefined, kind of comfort food… or comfort shopping, or perhaps comfort travel… take your pick. I understand the traditional idea of comfort food. But think about this… away from home, kids in the back seat and they are fussy eaters. Suddenly, a Pizza Hut comes into view ahead on the road. Perfect. Works for everyone. It’s comforting to see something familiar and know basically what to expect from them.

My stepson went to college in Baltimore. Often during visits, we went out with him to pick up groceries and other items. I can tell you exactly how to get to Circuit City or Wal-Mart in Timonium, Maryland. And why? Well, in part because we needed something, knew where we could get it if we were at home, and looked for the familiar names in the phone book.

In short, it’s a comfort to have them available. I seriously doubt if anyone has explored the explosion of Subway or Best Buy across the country as a comfort, but I think you get the idea.

No one is going to argue in favor of small businesses… mom and pop operations… more than me. (Or is that more than I? I think it is. Doesn’t matter.) I take great pleasure in those hidden treasures of an area. It took me forever to find decent pizza… not good mind you, just decent… when I moved to Connecticut. I was thrilled to finally find a really good location. Now a regular, every time I walk in, the owner and several of the people working there say hello to me. I like that.

So as I slid from side street to side street to main road in areas I have known and driven for quite literally decades, it provides a tremendous shock on several occasions to drive along Route 2 and see car dealerships and plazas filled with stores representing several national chains where trees and dirt roads used to exist. It’s even more difficult to accept, because having traveled and looked for some of these very names, I understand there are times when they’re comforting to have around.

As I look back at the days of my youth and the things I did, I recall traveling with my dad to local sports stores… not the national mega-marts. I remember getting tickets and heading over to the Warwick Musical Theater… the same place my parents and grandparents went to see some of their favorite performers. And I find that the one thing missing from these superstores is character. They’re all sterile, and almost void of memories. They’re all the same. And as parking lots appear and my childhood becomes more of a blur, that unique sense of character may be exactly what I miss the most.

And there’s not as much comfort in that.


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