Last week, the iconic diner in my hometown burned down. This was one of those places that is central to small town life, where people of all ages would gather day and night to linger over mediocre food and coffee. The Crystal Lake Diner sat perched on a hill overlooking one of Haddon Township’s main throughways. Driving in from Philly, it was one of the first things to greet you, no matter what time you got home. For many people, this was a place loaded with memories and meaning – the public reaction to its untimely demise reflected this. For me, the days following the news of this loss were met with a distant but lurking sadness, much like that which would accompany the news of the sudden passing of a childhood acquaintance.
I’ve been thinking about my hometown and what it means to me since before I left it over five years ago. When I was graduating high school, I thought that I would get over it. But I haven’t. Being away from it – on the Main Line, in Italy, back on the Main Line, and now in South Philly – and experiencing this big world, reading the great books, asking existential questions, has only made me appreciate it more deeply.
A couple of months ago, I returned home to Haddon Township for something random. It was an ordinary trip. At the time, I was experiencing a season of millennial angst, unsure about myself and what I was doing with my life. Full of questions and an ironic desire for instability, I found myself in Haddon Township. And for the few hours that I was there, I felt exceptionally safe, and sure, and okay with myself. This will sound strange, but I think that some of that comfort comes from physically navigating the town. I know Haddon Township so well – the buildings, stop signs, curves in the road – that when I’m driving around it I have no doubts. The act of moving about my neighborhood is second nature. These familiar places are a part of who I am, in a very bodily way.
Haddon Township has always been a part of my identity. I’ve understood this for a while now, but I’m beginning to realize just how important that is. Who I am is rooted in a tangible place – a place that has meant something to a lot of people for hundreds of years. It’s not going anywhere. It will continue to be home to many people no matter what I do. A significant part of my identity is entirely external to me, my job, my relationships, my achievements. For an angsty, unstable, and introspective millennial, this is so comforting.
I suspect that I am not alone in this. Many people never leave Haddon Township, and those who do often return, bringing with them their families, education, and experiences. There’s a reason for this. There’s nothing particularly exceptional about this mundane little suburb, but for those that live there, being “from Haddon Township” tends to be much more than a piece of personal trivia.
And this is why, when a tangible symbol of our town and its community suddenly perishes, it genuinely hurts. That mediocre diner, like the town itself, was a part of many lives and identities. It ought to be mourned it like a childhood acquaintance.