April, 2004. I was living in Willimantic CT in an apartment in a converted municipal building, I had a job at the downtown grocery store. I was about to start a new career as a minister and due to start classes at Andover-Newton Theological School in the fall. I was dating a young singer/guitarist, a wonderful person who was also an aspiring teacher and passionate Quaker.
May, 2014. I’m moving to Willimantic to be closer to a new assignment for work. I’ve applied for a part-time job at the same downtown grocery store to supplement my insufficient income. I’ve been accepted to a community college and hope to start a new career in nursing in the fall. The woman I was dating, now my ex-wife, lives just outside of town; our daughter splits her time 50/50 between the two of us.
Yeah, it’s definitely funny how so much changes and so much stays the same.
I took River to the public park yesterday as we did business in town. The playground was inexplicably placed next to the sewage treatment plant. The ground was littered with beer cans and broken glass, and a homeless man screamed at no one in particular from the nearby woods.
Willimantic was once a thriving mill town that imported immigrants to work in the textile and dye plants. My grandfather, who worked in the mill at 14 and later became the town’s mayor, spoke of the time with great fondness. But the social divisions of that era are still apparent in the town’s layout: high on the hill on the north side of the town are grand Victorian homes, while close to the valley floor and the filthy Willimantic River public housing complexes abound. When the mills closed, the wealthy departed and the immigrants, with no work to do, sank into bitter poverty. Crime and drug use soared to such an extent that even Connecticut’s largest newspaper, The Hartford Courant, dubbed it “Heroin Town.” The final blow to the town’s once vibrant community came when the big-box stores moved in. Main Street, once dotted with locally-owned shops like Nassiff’s, The Victorian Lady, and The Bench Shop is a long stretch of boarded up storefronts and empty windows. No one can compete with Wal-Mart in a town where 56% of the residents are on SNAP or other government assistance – and I say that without judgment; after all, I shop there to save money, too.
I suppose it would be easy to view my return to Heroin Town as a defeat. Yet there are positives. I’ll be minutes from work, and with gas at $4 per gallon in my area that will save me quite a bit of money. I’ll be closer to River and her mother than I ever have been. And best of all, I will be poised to begin this new and exciting chapter of my life. Naturally, I wish I’d known in 2004 that ministry would not be a good fit for me or a sensible career for someone who likes, you know, food, shelter, and the ability to provide basic necessities for his child.
But it’s never too late to begin again. Stay positive, friends.