Elysha, the kids, and I went on a nostalgic road trip to Massachusetts yesterday to visit many of the places where I grew up. This was partly to show my family the places that they have only heard about in stories, but it was also to help inform a memoir that I have been writing about the years between 1989 and 1993, which contain some of the hardest, best, most eventful moments of my life.
One of our planned stops was the city of Brockton, where I once managed two separate McDonald’s restaurants in 1990 and 1992. Both were extremely important to my life. I met (and hired) the people who would ultimately rescue me from the streets when I was homeless in one of those restaurants, and the other was the location of an armed robbery in 1992 that left me with a lifetime case of post traumatic stress disorder.
I told the story of that robbery at a Moth Mainstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music back in 2016.
Though excellent therapy has mitigated and even eliminated many of the symptoms of my PTSD, it’s not an exaggeration to say that I think about that robbery multiple times per day, every day of my life. The experience of having a gun pressed against my head and the trigger pulled has changed me in many ways - some good and some bad - but the moment has always loomed over my life.
Oddly, this made the visit to my old restaurant stressful for me. Even a little frightening, though I know that makes no sense. Nearly three decades stand between that moment in 1992 and today, and yet, as I exited off the highway and drove into Brockton, I could feel my muscles tense.
At one point, I looked down to check the seat heater, assuming it had been accidentally turned on. I was sweating despite the AC running in the car.
Then something unexpected happened:
I couldn’t find the restaurant. I drove to the location that I have visited so many times in my dreams, and it wasn’t there. None of it. No restaurant. No gas station behind the restaurant. No triangular parking lot on the corner. Nothing.
We drove a little further - just a few hundred feet - and then I spotted a McDonald’s. A McDonald’s that looked nothing like the one where I had once worked. In the wrong place.
“Maybe I’m confused,” I thought. “Maybe I’m misremembering its location. Maybe they remodeled.”
We went inside, and I asked the manager about my old store.
“They demolished that store more than ten years ago,” he said. “It was down the road a bit, I think. Before my time. This store is pretty new. They wanted to move it closer to the high school. Get the kids as they leave school each day.”
I couldn’t believe it. The restaurant that had occupied so much of my mind for 27 years was gone. The front windows that the men broke with rocks to come inside. The counter that they leapt over. The walk-in cooler where the Haitian brothers hid during the robbery. The safe that I could not open. The greasy, red tile floor where I lay with a gun to my head.
I know this is crazy, but my first, instantaneous thought was of a moment in the 1994 film Forrest Gump when Jenny stands before her abandoned childhood home - the home where her father had once abused her as a little girl - throwing rocks at it until she can’t throw anymore.
Forrest watches this happen and says, “Sometimes I guess there are just not enough rocks.”
When Jenny dies, Forrest has the home bulldozed to the ground.
All of that filled my mind. The house. The rocks. The bulldozer. In an instant.
Crazy. Right? I haven’t seen that movie in 15 years. Maybe more. I asked Elysha if she remembered the scene, which takes place over the course of less than 30 seconds of a 2 hour and 22 minute film. She did not.
I hadn’t thought about the scene in more than a decade. Probably two. Yet it came to me with perfect clarity.
It took me a moment to be sure that I was happy that the McDonald’s was gone. A piece of my personal history had been destroyed. Reduced to rubble and carted away. A place that I can see so clearly in my mind’s eye is no more, and I wondered if that might upset me. If it was somehow wrong.
But it didn’t upset me one bit. In fact, I was happy. I got back into the car and told Elysha that it was good that the store is gone. It was good that those greasy, red tiles have been broken and pulverized and taken away.
I only wish that I could’ve seen it happen.
I’m certainly not cured of my PTSD just because that place is gone forever. I still expect to have nightmares from time to time, and I suspect that I will think about the robbery every day until the day I die. But knowing it’s gone is a good thing. The world seems a little less dark today. Like some shadowy corner of the universe has been wiped away.
It’s crazy. It’s just a place. A stupid restaurant that sells hamburgers. Yet there was a reason why I had not returned to Brockton for more than 25 years. Why I did not return alone. It was like that town was haunted for me. Now a little less so. Maybe a lot so.
We had a great day visiting the places where I grew up. Blackstone. Milford. Attleboro. Brockton. I had some other interesting experiences that I’m sure I will share. I remembered a bunch of stories that I will someday tell.
But driving to Brockton to find a McDonald’s where I once worked and then discovering that it is no more… that made the entire day more than worth it.
It made it a day I will never forget.