Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Taps for Bickfords

Teenagers have no native habitat to call their own. There are places generally associated with the young adult crowd; shopping malls, fast-food joints and Dunkin Donuts. These establishments are good for teenagers to congregate in, but they encourage leaving quickly. Order your Chalupa, buy your American Eagle jeans, get your Coolatta and get the hell out. Other than Starbucks, there are few places where a group of kids can sit and hang out for hours on end.
When I was in high school, the place we could go to and sit for hours was Bickfords. Bickfords is your typical family restaurant: the plastic "leather" booths, coffee mug with broken bits of crayons given to children or insistent teenagers, breakfast served all day long. The waitresses were brisk but patient with us as we spoke in our loud teenage voices, getting louder with every refill of the bottomless cups of coffee we'd all order.
On a whim, my mother and I decided to go to Bickfords in Hope Valley this past weekend. I was home for the weekend and, for some reason, I had no desire to go to our usual breakfast place. We drove down the barren end of I-95 and got off the highway. My mother and I expected the parking lot to be full like it was when we'd go when I was young, but the lot had only a few cars parked outside.
"I'm glad we came late," I said, parking by the front door. "The old people crowd must have moved on by now."
My Mom and I walked to the front door, where a small typed sign read "Today, March 13, is the last open day for this restaurant. Please visit our locations in Mystic or Warwick."
My Mom and I were surprised. Neither of us had been to Bickfords for years, and like things you don't see for a while and don't give much thought to, we expected it to be the same as we left it, but the restaurant had changed. There was still the ice cream menu above the counter in the front of the store. There was still the "please wait to be seated" sign by the doorway into the restaurant, but it was distinctly different. Gone were the plastic coin banks that had a dog come out of a doghouse and "eat" your money. The cash register wasn't by the front counter anymore, but a bank of stuffed animals. There was only a coin-operated sticker machine and an ancient Pac-Man machine where there was one of the claw machines and a kung-fu video game.
The waitresses moved slowly between the six booths that had customers in them. One woman sat my mother and I near a booth by the window, and as she brought my mother her coffee I marveled at how much the place had changed in only a few years. The Bickfords in my memory was always bustling with harried waitresses bringing juice and water to tables full of families with multiple generations eating together, tables with old women out for their weekly breakfast, Harley guys guffawing as the waitresses joked with them about the weather.
There was no music playing so the restaurant was eerily quiet. A group of teenagers got up from a table in the middle of the room. My Mom and I listened in as people asked their waitresses why the restaurant was closing.
"They called us on Friday to tell us we'd have no jobs after Sunday," one older waitress sniped to the booth next to us. "I'm nearly fifty years old, and I've never been on unemployment, never been on TDI, and here I am," she finished, tossing a towel over her shoulder and sauntering away.
"That's horrible," my mother said to the waitress, who ignored her.
"I know how they feel," I replied. Shortly after I graduated from high school the Discovery Zone I worked at closed without notice, leaving scores of kids without a place to have their birthday parties and me without a job. "I hate when companies treat people like that."
"Well," my mother said, sipping her coffee and grimacing, "that's corporate mentality. The hell with the little guy."
"It's really sad. Remember how we used to come here all the time with Bill?"

My Mom nodded. We'd come almost every Sunday with my stepdad when I was really young, but we didn't come as much shortly before they got divorced. Bill would get a Big Apple (a pancake as big as a pizza covered in chunky applesauce) and my mother would get a Baby Apple (the same thing, but only as big as a normal plate). Sam and I would color on our placemats and try to find quarters so we could try to win a stuffed animal from the claw machine when it was time to leave.

"And I used to bring Ms. Fell's kids here when I babysat for her."
My high school math teacher was going for her masters, and she and her new husband needed a babysitter to watch her seven and nine year-old kids on Wednesdays. I'd met the kids when Ms. Fell dragged them to a drama club presentation of Alice in Wonderland. Her daughter Allyson and I hit it off immediately. Her son Joe was old enough to play cool at first, but we bonded over playing Tetris and Mario Brothers 3 on their ancient Nintendo. Sometimes Ms. Fell would buy pizza strips for me to cook, but most nights she'd hand me twenty bucks and have me take the kids to Bickfords. I remember this well because one time I wasn't feeling well and ate a thanksgiving sandwich (turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce on thick bread) and later that night I came down with the flu.
I think I came down with the flu after having jumped in the ocean a few weeks prior. It was January, and my friends and I had just finished our midterms. Since we had half-days on exam week, we had a whole afternoon before us with nothing to do. We got together at Will M's house since it was only a mile from the high school to figure out what we'd do.
We were wired on the adrenaline of test-taking and winter. Will wrote "I have finished my exams" across his thermal shirt in Sharpie. Ben put Nine Inch Nails on the stereo as we waited for everyone to show up.
"Let's go swimming," Will suggested. We all laughed, and decided it was a good idea. New Year's had been a few weeks before, and the image of people doing the Polar Plunge at Narragansett Town Beach was still in my mind. They all had smiles on their red faces, happy to be in the ocean, if only for a moment.
Before we went to the beach, we stopped at Bickfords. Will had added "and I am going swimming in the ocean" to his shirt, and the waitress chided us for the bad idea. The restaurant was full even in the middle of the afternoon, so we had to sit in the smoking section. I coughed as I ate my grilled cheese and we spoke in screams like teenagers do.

"It's like eating at a funeral parlor," I commented to my Mom as we ate. She had a baby apple and I had pancakes and an omelet. The waitresses were sad, and the old women behind us lamented not having a place to eat breakfast anymore.
"You can go to Mystic. They have a buffet there," the waitress offered.
"Oh. Well, that's nice dear. Thank you," one of the women replied.
My Mom and I flinched, thinking about the old women having to drive an additional twenty minutes down the highway for their Sunday meal. The waitresses bickered with the cooks in the kitchen without much enthusiasm. It was as if the life of the place had been sucked out long ago, and we were watching the carcass be lowered into the ground.
After we ate and paid the bill, my Mom left the waitress $10 and I tossed my last five onto the table with it. "She needs it more than I do," I commented, "and that's saying something."
Fare thee well, Bickfords. You'll be missed.

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