The town that never changes, has

I don’t recognize my mom’s car anymore.

It’s silver, maybe; and it’s a Honda Civic, so it’s round, sort of, and smaller. There’s a silver, round, smaller car in the parking lot of her condo complex. I’ve parked next to that twice during my holiday week home and thought, “oh, great, she’s home from work.” She wasn’t.

For 18 years, she had that beat-up Chevy Cavalier station wagon, a type of model that disappeared from the Cavalier lineup after that year (1994). I was 10, living in a house, playing Little League with a Sega Genesis and two parents and two cats. Now, I’m 28, living in D.C. and visiting a condo. I played Wiffle ball a few times this year, struggle to understand my brother’s PlayStation 3, and haven’t heard from my dad in seven years. My mom still has two cats, but they weren’t in existence when the decade began.

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There’s a Little Caesars down the road where the fish and chips place used to be, was for more than 20 years, before my family even moved to town. Little Caesars used to be over on Main Street by Paradise Green, near Vazzy’s. Lord knows what’s there now. It used to be near the video store, which long ago became a 7-11. If we ever got pizza, we’d go to a local place, one of the dozen or so. Not Little Caesars, and certainly not the Domino’s next to the Freihofer’s, where for 20 years we’d stop by for bread, milk and maybe some dessert after church. That closed recently, too. I brought my car in for an oil change to the place down the street. Same name, different owner. The bowling alley is finally remodeled on the exterior, after years of work in progress. That’s a good sign of change amid all the seemingly pointless retail shuffling.

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I’m winding up eight days or so at home, and I’ve always joked that Stratford is the biggest small town in America. Just about 50,000 people, but it acts like a town of 10,000. Lots of small businesses and chains intermingled, with too many small, oddly shaped commercial lots that recycle businesses every 18 months. It’s always frustrated me, increasingly so in recent years, as the town seems too small-ish and Mayberry-meek to take action. Just a few samples within a half mile of my family’s place:

  • the triangular-shaped lot between my family’s place and our church that used to be a pet salon and several other sites and is now a PC repair shop (I think); 
  • the seemingly log-cabin-inspired building with little parking on the corner by the high school that has been several eateries and tanning salons and is again a diner; 
  • the corner space in the small center where the fish and chips used to be that used to be an old record/comics store. It was split into two spaces and has gone through an array of failures, including a very short-lived stint as some sort of generic Radio Shack.
  •  The restaurant next to the Carvel that has but a few parking spaces on a busy road and competes with Burger King and a family pizza place down the road. Greek, Mexican, Spanish, a bar, something else — all with promise, none truly lasting.
  • There used to be a supermarket on the other corner by the high school. That’s gone, and they split the lot up a bit. The pizza place and Starbucks seem to be doing great, but the OfficeMax (or Depot?) failed quickly, and it’s a classic space that’s far too big for a mom-and-pop but probably too small for a true national/regional retailer. Right down the street there’s another island that looks like it’d be too small even for a good gas station. A restaurant finally opened there after years of an empty building. We’ll see.

Stratford’s a town with somewhat of an aversion to the bar life you see in bigger or livelier cities (although that’s been changing in the former ghost town of a downtown), yet
big enough to headquarter Sikorsky, a small airport, a forest and be
within a stone’s throw of U.S. Route 1, Interstate 95 and two major
state highways. It has 370 years of history but couldn’t get around to have a mayoral system until last decade. It has a middle school with no windows, almost to remind younger Americans that architects and contractors lost their damn minds during the 1960s and 1970s.

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I moved away because the college that best fit me was out of state, and the same with my jobs. I wasn’t one of those people who found the town boring and left. I like the sameness, I like the comfort of seeing the same sites, but all of that is basically irrelevant, for I come back for the select people who actually make the town special to me.

It’s unsettling to see that I can’t recognize the house I lived in for nine years because it’s been so redone, even though I reproduce every corner of it in my mind; it’s odd to see roads and intersections re-routed when I remember how they used to be. It’s sad, though not unexpected, to see familiar names in the obituaries yet not recognize names today’s political and community players. But all those changes do is remind me that the calendar keeps advancing; they don’t shake anything at my core.

Besides, not everything has changed: my grammar and high schools still stand, Dairy Queen is still right across the street, and Salerno’s is still serving — but not delivering — excellent pizza down the street. Plus, we finally got a Starbucks a few years ago. Progress!