In Providence: Providence Place Mall

I wanted to find someone as old as Providence Place.

When I passed by a banner in the mall letting me know that the capitalist center I used to beg my parents to drop me off at in high school was turning 20, I knew that I had to write about it for this column.

It may seem strange to wrap a shopping center up in that much sentimentality, but if the third season of “Stranger Things” has taught us anything, it’s that America really, really misses the days when you could have the time of your life in the middle of a food court — even if aliens weren’t involved.

“Oh, I was here all the time. This was my home away from home. Sounds nuts, right? I was pretty nuts back then for a few years. I was in a weird place.”

In a way, I managed to find exactly what I was looking for — just not the way I thought I would.

After speaking to a few 20 year olds, I ended up making the acquaintance of someone who started their new life right around the time Providence got a new addition to its skyline.

“I was 24. I was out of college. Two years out of college. And my boyfriend at the time — he decided to pursue his education here in Rhode Island. In Providence. That meant I was moving to Providence. That’s all there was to it. Never thought all that much about it. I was very much in love.”

She’s in her 40s now, and we meet in the food court while a baby screams nearby and a group of teenagers runs up the escalator leading to the IMAX.  I think I hear one of them say something about an upcoming movie they want to see, but it’s hard to tell. All you get are snippets of conversations. Little slices of a lot of lives. I decide to focus on the one right in front of me.

We both opted for a rice and noodle combo, and I tell her that after we’re done, I’ll buy her Pinkberry. She asks me if this is where I usually eat when I come to the mall, and I confess that I find very few things in the world as delicious as really cheap General Tsao’s chicken.

She laughs, and I have to say, she’s got a really great laugh. Her beauty is like something out of a movie from the ’80s. There’s an artistry about her that reminds me of Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club, but all grown up, and more majestic than mischievous. Her t-shirt has Patti Smith on it, her coat is too big for the warm weather, and only eight of her fingernails are painted raspberry. The other two are a chipped ruby, but she doesn’t seem to mind.

“I got a job here. At the mall. At the Cheesecake Factory downstairs. I was a waitress. My boyfriend used to come in and sit at the bar. We’d look at each other from across the room and he’d crack me up. We’d crack each other up. He knew I was homesick and that he was my home while I was here, so he liked being around me as much as he could be. He knew how important that was to me. Friday and Saturday nights the place would be so busy, and he’d come in, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I got this.  I’m good.’ Then he started coming by less and less. School got busy for him. Things, uh … I just didn’t see him as much. I wanted to keep myself busy and distract myself from what I knew was coming, so I got a second job. I was working at one of the kiosks, and I would just — I would forget what I was doing there, because I would just start watching the people going by and I would think about all these strangers. All these strangers and their strange lives and how they’re walking by not paying attention to anything. Not me. Not anything”

She was from Philadelphia, and when things ended with her boyfriend, she considered moving back there, but she didn’t want to admit that following a boy a few states away was as dumb as everyone told her it would be. So, when one of her co-workers at the Cheesecake Factory needed a roommate, she found herself moving into a small room on the second floor of a house off Wickenden wondering just how she got there.

“I was young and I was being young. I — the girl I was living with, she would bring home people, and we’d have drinks. We’d eat. We’d just have a good time. I liked some of the people she’d bring home and some of them liked me too. It was good for me, because I didn’t have my own people, and that’s how I made friends. For Halloween one year, we all dressed up like, uh, from that movie Empire Records. We all dressed up like that, and we just walked around the city — the whole night. It was fun. I had a lot of fun that night. Every night. Too much fun sometimes. Sometimes too much.”

That apartment was her home when she met the woman she’s still with today. A woman with “the best lips” and a master’s degree in education. But she didn’t let this woman come visit her at work no matter how much she liked seeing her. She wasn’t comfortable letting people know who she was and who it was she wanted to be.

“We met at a concert at this little place in Boston, and when she told me she lived in Providence, I was like, ‘Damn, is everybody in the world from Providence?’ Because that’s how it was starting to feel. I’d never been with a woman. I’d never loved a woman like that. I don’t–I don’t think I’d ever loved anybody like that. She brushed my hair away from my face, and that was all it took. We both went back to Providence that night, and I remember it was like, Okay, now I’m home. Now I’m really home. She and me lying in my bed and me thinking I was– But the truth is, I was a long way off from being comfortable with all that. It was a process that I wasn’t always ready for, but I wasn’t ready to do anything else. It was time to see how things were going to shake out for me.”

About a month into her new relationship, she quit her job at the Cheesecake Factory, but she stayed at Providence Place, bouncing around to different stores, and finding herself clinging to the mall for some reason.

“It was a lot of change all at once, and I needed … I needed something to remain the same. I think that’s why I kept taking jobs here. I knew all the people at one point or another. But people come and go. When you’re talking retail and food service and all that it’s very– People come in and out. And I liked that about it, I think. That nobody really has time to get to know anybody on a deep, deep level. If you’re lucky, you become a little more than strangers to them. To each other. I never got much farther than that with people. I would learn a little bit and that was enough. That was all I could do.”

She tells me about a night after a really bad fight with her then girlfriend.  One of those fights when you think it’s all over, and you’ve messed up so bad it’s hard to imagine staying in your skin to deal with the repercussions of it.

“I walked over from my girlfriend’s place off North Main — all the way down North Main — and up past the State House to the mall. I didn’t know where else to go. Walked into the parking garage and up to the roof. Just stood there. Didn’t want to live without her. Didn’t want to keep starting over. Didn’t — couldn’t go back to Philly. I just stood there. Thought maybe security would come by. They didn’t. I was all alone. I knew that if I was going to get myself off that roof, I was going to have to– It’s like that moment when you…When you really face what it is going on inside you, and you say, ‘Okay, this is it.  What do you got?’ I thought of how I came here for a boy. I was up on that roof because of a girl. Most of the people in my life were giving me just a little bit of themselves and I was giving them nothing of me and if I jumped off that roof nobody was going to be able to say anything real about me. About who I was. I didn’t want it to end like that. With me keeping everything all to myself. Something about that didn’t sit right with me. I stood there for — must have been an hour. Maybe more. But then I came down. I had to come down.”

The reconciliation with her girlfriend that had seemed impossible only required a phone call to achieve.

“‘You’re not getting rid of me.’ That’s what she said. ‘If you ever tell me to go, I’ll go, but unless you tell me that, I’m going to be driving your ass nuts forever.’ I said, ‘Damn, that sounds like a proposal.’ She said, ‘Maybe it is.’  We got married as soon as we could. Had to wait for it to become legal, but by the time it was, we had already done a ceremony. Done the cake. Done all of it. By the time it was legal, that was all just a formality. We had love before we even had each other. I don’t know how to say it better than that. She was waiting for me all her life and that’s how it was for me too. I know who I am without her, because she made me work on that, but she’s who brought it out. She brought me around to myself.”

Now she works in North Attleboro, but she and her wife still live in Providence, although she doesn’t get to the mall as much as she used to. We engage in a Rhode Islander’s favorite past-time — talking about what’s not there anymore.

She tells me about a guy she got high with once who worked at Fire + Ice. I tell her about being in high school when the mall opened. How some of my friends would take the bus from LaSalle Academy down Smith Street to the mall on a Friday after school so they could buy an outfit with a group of friends, go over to one of the friends’ houses to change into the outfit, and then head right back to the mall where they’d see who they could bump into from school. How it made a bunch of kids feel like adults. How walking around the third level felt like being inside some kind of spaceship. Something enclosed and safe despite what our parents told us they’d heard on the news or from their friends.

She tells me about getting yelled at every time she’d stop by the CVS to read the latest copy of Vogue instead of subscribing to it. How the manager would tell her to go down to the Borders where they wouldn’t care if she stood around all day not buying anything. I tell her about the boy a bunch of us at school had a crush on who worked in a tech store on the second floor, all because he was one of the only out gay guys any of us knew who was already grown-up and working and in that elusive space known as “the 20s.”

She tells me about the WBRU concerts across from the mall and how they’d jam up the parking garage whenever they were all over. I tell her how my friends refused to park at the mall because they had a philosophical objection to paying for parking that I never understood. She remembered how it was promised that one day the parking would be free — once the mall was paid off — or maybe it was all a rumor. So many things were.

Names are mentioned by both us to see if we have any mutual lost friends in common, but no such luck. She confesses to spending too much time looking at clothing she could never afford. I tell her how I’ll always associate my first Pride with the mall, because I spent most of the day hiding out there with my only gay friend at the time while we tried to figure out exactly what it was we were supposed to do to celebrate ourselves.

She lists all the long-gone food court staples. I tell her how oddly heartbroken I was when Nordstrom’s closed, because of how many summer days I spent eating at the cafe there, looking out at Providence and wondering if I was ever going to leave, or if I’d be looking out that window forever.

“That’s what happens when you think you’re going to be looking out the same window your whole life,” she tells me. “Somebody comes along and moves the window. They move the window, and– Sometimes they move the whole house. And that’s how you know it’s time to move on. That’s when you know it’s time to start looking somewhere else.”

As she says this, we both glance to our right and look at the floor-to-ceiling windows beyond the two food court elevators showing off the Providence River. The crying baby is gone, the movie-going group of teenagers is probably halfway through the trailers at this point, and as I look around, I realize that while we’ve been talking, nearly everyone around us has left and been replaced — maybe a few times over.

In two decades, you might wonder how many people have left a little bit of their lives slip out as they moved through Providence Place, but she doesn’t.

“I got to love who I have. That’s not to say I don’t have love for everybody, but it’s hard. It’s hard to try and do that. Sometimes it’s hard enough just to love yourself. You know about the people who have died in this mall? Who jumped from an escalator? Or from the top floor? Who couldn’t live with whatever it was they were living with? That could have been me. I’m glad it wasn’t. I have love for those people, but I’m glad I’m not them. It’s a blessing to be able to sit here — however I got here. It’s a blessing.”

She nods as she says this, as though she’s not totally sure of what it is she’s saying, but maybe if she just keeps saying it, she can convince herself it’s worth buying.