Our downstairs cable remote stopped working (after it took a hard fall to the ground when I kicked the entertainment center during a frustrating moment in Destiny, but that’s our little secret), and my wife wanted to pick up a replacement at the local Comcast office.
This is the type of errand I’d normally let her run solo, but the place was located off of Route 38 in Wilmington. It was a stone’s throw away from my old stomping grounds in North Woburn, and I’ve never passed up a chance to revisit my childhood haunts.
In the days of my misspent youth, Wilmington (once nicknamed “The Land of Nod”) was the wild frontier where “Greater Boston” ended and Lowell’s hinterlands began. The border was marked by a solitary service station straddling the access road to the old tire dump and the northern terminus of the the MBTA’s Route 134 bus line.
Beyond it lay a long stretch of road that wove between long stretches of swampland interrupted by the occasional corporate campus, cluster of semi-shabby single family homes, or mix-and-match jumble of commercial properties. It felt remote and creepy from a kid’s eye view, and it still does even from an adult’s perspective.
Woburn — including its rough and tumble northern region — has managed to submerge its old cultural landscape beneath the a fungal growth of McMansions and condo complexes. (This very afternoon I walked into a “super CVS” that occupies the ground where the white trash favela residence of some of my grade school classmates once stood.) Wilmington, however, has retained most of its old ways — at least along the Route 38 corridor.
You can chalk it up to the scarcity of buildable space (much of the town is marshland) or the a lack of uniform municipal growth plan, but Wilmington’s essential characteristics have not changed despite forty-odd years of encroaching sprawl. There have been plenty of new additions to the landscape, but they have only added to the developmental cacophony where a recently constructed Southwest Mission-style with a manicured lawn has been sandwiched between a locksmithing business run from a single family home and a cinderblock auto body repair bunker that hasn’t seen a fresh coat of paint since 1935.
Some of the old landmarks still remain. The independent toy store that always stocked the newest GI Joe figures is long gone and the site of the old Trains and Games arcade is still on its long, slow slide into entropic disintegration. The embryonic strip mall where my grandma used to buy fresh seafood is still there, though, as is the car wash where my dad used to take his ’73 T-Bird every weekend. (Afterward he’d park by the railroad tracks and we’d watch freight trains go by as he sipped his beer and I sipped my cream soda.)
The runoff from this morning storms had stirred up the heat-kissed much in the marshes, and the aroma was particularly strong on our ride back to Woburn.
“It smells like shit,” said my wife.
“It smells like a homecoming,” said I.