I want to be charitable to Wilkes-Barre, Pa. But it is not easy.
Wilkes-Barre, 12 miles southwest of Scranton, in the Wyoming Valley (through which the Susquehanna River flows), is where my wife grew up. It is in my home state (I’m from Pittsburgh, a five-hour drive away). I have a soft spot for Wilkes-Barre because my in-laws live there, I was married there, I have spent countless holidays and restful weekends there…and on and on.
But without these cords that bind me, no attraction could hold together long. This place for which I have a soft spot used to be a major center for the mining and movement of hard coal — anthracite, not the more pliable bituminous variety found elsewhere in Pennsylvania, as well as West Virginia, Kentucky and environs. Wrenching economic changes, plus the horrific floods that followed Hurricane Agnes in 1972, doomed once prosperous Wilkes-Barre to dilapidation, dissatisfaction, and in some sectors, dismal poverty.
I walk, drive, mow the lawn on my visits…often looking at the valley rim on either side, where trees reach up against grey skies. The valley seems to hold the town like a frightened bird in a great hand. Lower down in my vista, railroad trestles bridge scabby hills in residential neighborhoods, the sidewalks underneath pebbled with broken and ground-up beer bottle fragments. Narrow houses, placed just far enough from the neighbors to fit the out-window part of an old room air conditioner (maybe), sport dingy white siding in row after row. Two or three bad-looking houses (no money or no will) stand for every place that is valiantly made to look as neat as its beleaguered owners can manage.
And yet I am amazed, every spring, how green it can get, how determined the crocuses are, how many lovely places there are to look — instead of the dispirited neighbor’s yard full of trash behind a bent, rusted cyclone fence. The dairy near Luzerne where cows still feed on sweet-smelling grass, the church spire rising like hope above chimney smoke, happy-faced children on bikes — these things hang on.
So does my mother-in-law. Widowed, 83, eyesight in trouble but otherwise insistently self-reliant, Memaw does for herself as much as she can. And for others, too. Her giant house features a store. Yes, one of the true Mom-‘n’-Pops (her late husband used to man the cash register), a little corner convenience store with big glass windows and a broad, eclectic collection of sundries — she maintains it still.
There’s no elaborate sign. Everyone knows Urban’s Store, with its ancient but working meat slicer and its Belvidere scale on the counter. Come in, get cheese, meat, bread, a can of soup…”run down Urban’s; they’ll have it,” is the neighborhood refrain. In season, tomatoes and other vegetables are for sale, grown by my brother-in-law Joe on a couple acres of land down by the river. People flock. Joe does it alone, successor to his father Joe, my late father-in-law. Uses the same beat-up El Camino wagon to haul water, seed, tools — every day after work, spring to late fall. Somehow, every year, that old Chevy starts. Somehow — yeah. Angel mechanic, most likely.
As a revenue-generating business, the store is a disaster. As a warmth-generating community touchstone, it is a spectacular success. Tumbledown. Old. Unsophisticated. Welcoming. Past-touching. Necessary.
The Store. It’s where my wife worked as a girl, where my son helps with customers when we visit, where so many memories changed hands over the counter with loaves of bread, half-pounds of ham. It’s one of those bright corners of a troubled town struggling its way forward in an uncertain century — aging population, economic heartache, unsolvable political graft and all.
We keep telling Memaw: close it down, it’s not worth the effort…move down to Florida with us. But you know….I’m not so sure. She complains that kids wanting candy can’t even count their change these days, and prices for wholesale goods are through the roof. And then, for us, there are the safety concerns that all adult children have about aged parents, even active ones such as Memaw. But close The Store?
Feels like a door of history would shut. And lock.♦
© 2013 Adam Barr
Photos by Adam Barr