One night, my friends and I drove around Phoenixville and couldn't find anything. Somebody said, "Hey, let's go to the Vale."
The Vale Rio diner was an electric pink dining car that had sat in the center of Phoenixville since 1943. As we pulled into the parking lot, I wondered why I'd never been there before. It was just the kind of place I'd want to hang out. I wasn't like my friends. When the they talked about moving to Long Beach, California, I smiled wistfully. I wanted to go to New York City or Ireland. I wanted to play my guitar, discuss philosophy and poetry with other intellectual wanderers. My friends wanted what rappers talked about in songs, "A little bit of gold and a pager." But for me, the greasy spoon of the Vale Rio was poetry.
We walked in. The Vale was packed. Kids filled the smoking section. There were band kids from our school, and some of the punks and goths from the Carrie Court apartments. My friends and I tentatively hung at the counter. In no time, the kids that we knew started hollering our names. They introduced us around. We were welcomed into the fold.
A couple punk guys invited me into their booth. Piercings covered their faces; tattoos covered their arms. They wore big ripped sweaters and smoked cheap cigarettes, just like me. They invited me to play Egyptian Ratscrew. When I told them I didn't know how to play, they taught me. We played, and told each other our life stories.
At the end of an hour, we were old friends. The boys admitted to me that they hung out at the Vale, because it kept them from drugs. At sixteen, seventeen, some of them had already been in rehab, psych wards, or Juvy. The Vale gave them a safe place where they could hang out and have a good time.
It came time to leave, and I didn't want to go. The very next night, as my friends and I drove around in search of forties and blunts, I suggested going back to the Vale. Nobody wanted to. It struck me as weird, because they'd had fun too.
The following weeks, I went through a transition. I started my senior year of high school. My summer boyfriend dumped me. By mid-October, I was hanging out at the Vale every night.
My old friends continued to drink and smoke every day after school. Like a bad after school special, they tried harder and harder drugs. Some dropped out of school. Some got stuck in the canticle of drug addiction-on and off sobriety, crime, jail time, homelessness. Some died.
The night before I left for college, I sat out on the corner of my neighborhood, talking to two of them while they snorted coke off a clear glass plate.
"Don't look down on me for this, Anne," one of them said, bending her head into a rolled up dollar bill.
"I don't," I said.
And I didn't. I looked down on our community instead.
We were outsiders. From the first day of school, teachers and school administration dubbed us as bad kids, because we weren't interested in sports, and our clothing and musical tastes skated off the norm. We couldn't relate to them, and we couldn't relate to our parents either. When unleashed from our homes, we wanted to get as far away from it all as we could.
Unfortunately, as of last week, that option doesn't exist anymore. The Vale closed last weekend. The owner sold the lot to the Walgreens corporation. There is talk that the diner will open somewhere else in town. Most townies are doubtful, too disenchanted with all the other recent renovations to Phoenixville. I don't live in Phoenixville anymore, so I don't have the right to say anything. I can only say goodbye.
A man has the right to do what he wants with his business. This is a right that I would fight for, before I'd fight to keep any diner alive.
But still, I wonder what is better for the community. I wonder where the kids are going to go.
Photo by Kelly Neff
Me in the Vale, 1997