YESTERDAY, I did it again. Driving from my house in Providence to my mother's house in West Warwick, 12 miles down Route 95 South, I took Exit 12, the same exit I've taken to go home since I got my driver's license in 1922. Off the exit, I come up by the Toys R Us on my right and the junior college on my left. At the light sits Rhode Island's first mall, built in October of 1957, when I was 10 years old. I got my first pair of bell-bottoms there, and a Nehru jacket, and more 45s than I can remember. At some point, while I lived out of state, they changed its name from Midland Mall to the Rhode Island Mall. But I still call it Midland Mall. At the next light, I find myself looking at the Dunkin' Donuts where my mother would take me at three in the morning for coffee and a plain cruller when I was in high school and suffered insomnia.
That's when I realized I'd done it again. I'd followed the route that is as familiar to me as my mother's Chloe perfume-cigarette smoke smell, as familiar as the pattern of freckles on my chest. Ahead of me sits River Street, the street that should lead me on a meandering series of curves and turns until I reach the hill on top of which my mother's house sits. But during the flooding here in Rhode Island last spring, the Pawtuxet River rose higher than it had in a hundred years. The shopping mall, Route 95, and River Street were under water. River Street is closed indefinitely. What I see from the driver's seat of my VW are orange cones keeping me out.
For most of my childhood, River Street connected me to the rest of the world. It was not a broad or beautiful street. It had potholes. Lots of them. Tired mill houses painted off-shades of green and yellow lined half of it. The other half had some commercial buildings: a barber shop, an Italian deli, a gun store. The roller rink sat in a lot farther back, long-abandoned railroad tracks cut the street in half, and a small bridge on one end stretched over the Pawtuxet River, which was brown and frothy back in the '60s. But at the other end there was a Dunkin' Donuts, and beyond that pink square building was the world: two shopping malls, two fancy restaurants (The Golden Lantern and The Duncan Fyffe), and the on-ramp to Route 95. Route 95 could take me to Maine or all the way to Florida. When it first opened, I imagined that all I had to do was get on that highway and magically I would be under palm trees eating oranges.
Those railroad tracks led to a big empty lot...