Last week I visited my friend Seth at his apartment in southern Vermont. It was Friday morning and we would have gone out for breakfast at the neighborhood diner. But he’d come down with a cold the night before so we stayed in, drinking coffee and talking about the things that we usually talk about: music and movies, basketball, Massachusetts, writers, weird travel (Seth’s term), interior decor, and the various knick-knacks and diversions with which we’d filled the rest of our lives in an effort to stave off boredom and/or anxiety. While the coffee was brewing, he showed me the fish tank he’d acquired the previous year. There was a reclining-Poseidon figurine in it and his freshwater snail, Oberlus, was inching down its thigh. Across the hallway, a gnarled, prehistoric-looking *Euphorbia* cactus (a gift from another friend) glowered beneath a purple gro-light.
He poured me a cup and we sat down in his living room. The ensuing conversation took a few, meandering turns through my ongoing MFA application process (which he was supporting with a letter of recommendation) and recent drama at work before settling on our respective, Boston suburbs. Within the preceding three weeks, we’d visited each other’s childhood homes for the first time. I was killing time alone in mine, since my parents now spent winters in Arizona. And he had been kind enough to invite me over to his for Thanksgiving.
“I love an old, suburban strip mall” Seth was saying. “The one at the end of my street in Sharon is called ‘Heights Plaza.’”
“Every town has one,” I added, nodding.
“Or a few,” he continued. “Like the ones along Route 1. There are multiple Route 1’s in Massachusetts, but the one I grew up next to lives in my mind. Just lined the whole way with real, dirtbag shopping plazas. I love it.”
We traded stories about the Asian-Polynesian fusion restaurants in our towns (faux wood everything, greasy pupu platters, mai tai’s that were 90% canned, pineapple-orange juice, etc.). Mine was called Makaha and, as I discovered later that afternoon after Googling it on a whim, had closed over the summer after 50 years in business. His was called Tahiti and was somehow managing to stay open. “My parents went on a date there in the 70’s,” he said.
“What is it about these strip malls?” I asked. “Why do we love them?”
“I don’t know. I can’t quantify it. You know how there’s always that one shitty restaurant that gets a new owner and name every few years? How it can’t ever be anything else because it would cost too much to renovate? I think it has to do with the fact that east coast suburbs are just older than the ones in other parts of the country. They’ve just been around longer.”
Seth’s right about that. I’m writing this from Chandler, the Phoenix suburb where my parents now spend at least half of the year. There’s hardly anything else here besides wide boulevards, commercial parks, and shopping plazas. But they’re hardly the run-down, dirtbag types that live in Seth’s mind (beneath overcast skies, probably, with muddy snowbanks rimming their parking lots). They’re not like Heights Plaza in Sharon or the one in Hadley that he recalled hanging around as a student at UMass: “I think it was called ‘Mountain Farms Plaza’ or something like that. But my friends and I just called it the Dirt Mall because that’s what it looked like.” No way. The ones around here are newer, with stucco facades and white trim beneath the lettering. They have fitting, celebratory names (“The Shops at Pecos Ranch,” “Chandler Festival,” “Paseo Lindo”) that bestow a finishing air of comfort and grace. There are palm trees and statuettes out front. Families push their shopping carts and drive their SUV’s past little manicured patches of lawn, beds of beige landscaping gravel, manmade pools, cacti in bloom.
I’ll go to these plazas for cereal or to see the optometrist, just as I would back home. But it’s a different emotional experience. (Less brooding, maybe? Sunnier, both literally and figuratively?) Do I feel for them like I feel for a Heights Plaza or a Dirt Mall? Does Seth? I’m not sure. Probably not. I don’t know these places well enough—haven’t visited them often enough. I’m still taking it all in. I’m still floored by how they’re just, well, there, in all that desert emptiness. I’m still noticing how beautiful they look, lit up in neon at dusk.