It had been nearly a year since I’d been there, long enough to be surprised by the changes and surprised by what I had never noticed. On my way to the parking lot, I saw a hulking new building made to look old on the hill next to the Blue Mermaid. Surprised, I drove on to the lot, pulled into a spot, cut the engine, and got out of the car.
Walking down Congress Street on this beautiful fall Sunday, I noticed just how dingy Portsmouth still is, despite all the cutesy renovations. The buildings on the end are depressing flat and cheerless, like shopping centers from the seventies. That’s what they were; I guess I had just grown used to them. I walked toward the Friendly Toast, the best greasy spoon in the universe. On my way, I noticed that Bailey Works was gone. So too apparently was Stuart Shane’s and with it, the displays of horrid women's eveningwear (the bad men's suits were still in the window). I’d never set foot in Stuart Shane’s, still, the thought of its no longer being there made me sad.
Second Time Around, a small chain of upscale resale shops in Boston, had opened a shop where Tonic had been. Nahcotta, a newish art gallery/living space shop, was still there. I spotted the owner inside, a woman I had known rather well, but I decided not to go in and say hello. Punk kids were huddled in the doorway of Stuart Shane’s. Some things don’t change, though I had no idea who these punk kids were. They look young enough to possibly be the children of punk rockers. Passing them, I stepped inside the Toast. Oh yes, the smell. Sweet grease. It sounds disgusting, and it is, but having gone without this breakfast for so long, I felt like I was home.
Funny how I’d wanted to be alone with my thoughts and my book, and I’d gone to the one place where I know more people than in the town where I grew up. The hostess smiled at me, and I smiled back. I knew her vaguely but didn’t feel like engaging in small talk, so I just sat down at the table in the window. I looked around the red room with an exposed ceiling, decorated with some of the worst art and kitsch ever produced. I was happy to be there. Glancing over at the kitchen, I saw that a waiter I’d known still works here. His beard is gray now. He didn’t see me. I didn’t wave.
A svelte young lad bearing a strong resemblance to David Bowie (though he dressed to try to hide it) brought me water and asked me what I’d like in a voice so quiet I had to ask him to repeat himself. I ordered the Basic Breakfast with cinnamon toast, even though it was well past one. The best thing about the Toast is that breakfast is always being served, and the breakfast is always good. After I’d ordered, I took out my book and read half-heartedly. I looked out the window at the building across the street, up to the window where my office had once been. Looking back down at the street, I saw a friend’s ex walking by with their daughter. She’s grown. She’s probably in the first grade.
True to horrendous service form at the Toast, my breakfast arrived a long time after I’d ordered. It was, alas, not as good as it had always been. The huge slab of homemade cinnamon toast was overdone, and the homefries underdone. Normally there’s more food on the plate than anyone could eat in a year, but this time the portion was something approaching normal. However, the food was still greasy, and still a hell of a lot better than anything I’d had in the past year. I ate. The waiter I know walked by and said hello, and we chatted before he had to go to another table. David Bowie brought me more coffee, I drank it, paid the bill, and left.
More building shockers. I knew they’d taken down the decrepit camera store, the one with a vintage sign that somehow defined the square. What I didn’t know was that it was replaced by yet another fake-old complex. The local bookshop, RiverRun, had reopened there, and there was also a new bakery. The church was being renovated. Ganesh Imports had left. I was really hoping that Choozy Shoes was still there, because that shop was what led me to Portsmouth to begin with. It was. Oh hurrah. Some of the best shoes I’ve ever bought, the kind of shoes people stop me in the street to admire, came from there. Unfortunately I didn’t see anything that caught my fancy. I looked at everything again, just to be sure that it wasn’t my mood that was keeping me from festive shoes. It wasn’t. Sigh…
I left and continued toward the square, noticing everything that wasn’t there anymore. No Atlantic Video (it had been long gone since before I left town), though I saw the old manager walking down the street. The parking lot behind Eagle Camera was also gone, and I could see the condo complex in the background. The Starbucks still was there. I knew that, but it still surprised me that it could continue to limp along, despite the competition from Breaking New Grounds, now located in the old Brioche spot. Breaking New Grounds had customers galore sitting around the tables, enjoying the sunshine. Starbucks had a couple of tourists. I kept going. The tacky Hallmark place is still there, for some reason that comforted me. Lovell, where I had worked part-time was still there, but I didn’t know the woman keeping the shop.
I rounded the corner and noticed that Ganesh had moved into the old Breaking New Grounds spot. That surprised me. The location is prime real estate, one of the quaint, truly older buildings in town, but it seemed as though the place should have been reserved for food. One of the stores across the street had changed hands. The RiverRun bookstore sign was still where the old store had been, tucked in the back of an old building. The move to the fake-old location must have been recent. Most of the rest of the street was still the same.
I kept walking, crossed the street and went into Macro Polo, local purveyors of new kitsch. I wandered around there for a while, noticing that nothing really new was there. That also made me feel better. I left and went into Odd, a little shop featuring handmade crochet items and vintage tackiness. I don’t know the woman who runs it personally, but I had read that she knew Eliot Smith back before he was famous and before he was a drug addict. Was she still sad, I wondered. She was on the phone to her uncle (I wasn’t listening, but I caught the Uncle ___ at the end of the call). Wandering past the counter, I noticed some puffy Michael Jackson stickers from the Thriller era. I have the same ones in my dusty sticker collection tucked away in my parents’ attic. I touched them. Still puffy. There was a pair of funky old dance shoes that caught my eye. Cheap enough to be worth getting, but alas, also too big. Some older punk kids walked in, one of them was pregnant. They started talking rather loudly, so I left.
I crossed, giving the tourist who was blocking the sidewalk with his car a dirty look, and took the little side street. The Thai place was still there, and the décor could still really use some help. The depressing federal building loomed over me as I passed the fabric store and the horrid Mexican place (frequented by preppy drunken college students).
As I neared the intersection, I took a deep breath, yes, the Press Room, the best bar in town, was still there. I thought about getting a pint, but decided that I didn’t want to be stuck in town for an hour. Wait, is Kilim, the funky coffee house run by the pervy Turkish guy, gone? Yes. It was gone, the space newly painted. I didn’t go there all that often (the guy really was pervy—he’d look down your shirt in the mirror behind the counter while he fixed your drink—and he wasn’t all that pleasant either), but I couldn’t believe that it hadn’t survived the latest stage in the yuppification of downtown Portsmouth. So the yuppies can’t have any funk?
I had to get out of there, so I walked the rest of the way down Ceres Street in a huff. Wait, Lucky 7s miraculously still existed. The very hip older woman who runs the place was listening to Prince and crafting away when I stepped inside the shop. Oh, joy. I wanted to buy something just to say good for you for living through this, but alas, some of it is just too pricey (probably how she stays in business—if the stuff was cheap, the yuppies wouldn’t have it). So I chatted with her (the only person I really talked to that day) before I left to wander back to my car.
On my way, I went into RiverRun to see if they had the latest George Saunders book (they didn’t). I picked up a copy of the Wire there and noticed that the lead article was on architecture—I wondered what it would say. One last stop in Bull Moose Music. ITunes must be doing a number on this place, I thought, but I admired the fact that they were trying to get rarities in there. I just didn’t have the heart to flip through them, however, and it was time to go. I made my way back to my car and left the back way through town.