I Feel Home, Part Deux

Once upon a time, when I got my first adult job and moved a whole three hours away from home to a second-floor, one-bedroom apartment across from a Greek diner I weirdly only ate at twice, I would occasionally watch The Office when I was feeling homesick. This only occurred the first few months or so, when I was getting used to being a real adult and figuring out how to make adult friends.

But it turns out I didn’t need to make adult friends in Lancaster, PA. I ended up having a solid network of college friends (plus my siblings) living and working within an hour and a half drive of me in Southern Pennsylvania: Lancaster, Harrisburg, West Chester, and then Philly and its surrounding suburbs, specifically Conshohocken and Manayunk. I spent many evenings in my early twenties having one too many drinks, one hour a little too late, at some southern Pennsylvania bar that was just a little bit past its prime.

We’re going to make an abrupt subject switch, but hang onto those opening thoughts, because I’m circling back soon.

Quite a few famous movies were filmed in the Asheville area. Dirty Dancing and Last of the Mohicans were filmed in Lake Lure. The Hunger Games was filmed in the DuPont National Forest. And most recently, the Oscar-winning Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was filmed in Sylva and Black Mountain. I was talking about this the other day with some people who said it’s a shame that with all the movies filmed here, there’s nothing set here, nothing that captures that spirit of what makes Asheville unique.

I’ve had the same complaint about movies and television shows set in Pennsylvania. PA is a weird state, with weird food, weird traditions, weird people, and weird accents, but most media set here doesn’t quite capture the spirit of what makes Pennsylvania unique, either. Nothing set in PA ever feels recognizable. Yes, I just mentioned watching The Office when I used to get homesick, but the part that felt familiar was actually the opening credits. The show itself did good incorporating local references into the script, but you could’ve set the show in Utica with local Utica references or Nashua with local Nashua references, and it wouldn’t have changed the characters or tone.

I’ve become one of those people who doesn’t watch much new television since I’m interesting and don’t own a TV, but was peripherally aware of Mare of Easttown, mainly because Kate Winslet in a Wawa is a big deal. I didn’t plan on watching but found myself signing up for an HBO Max Amazon Prime add-on last week to see what the fuss was all about. Why? Truthfully, I was a little homesick. I’ve had a rash of visitors over the past two months: friends, cousins, my uncle, my parents, my brother, and was about to enter a month of being on my own–which is mostly good (I need a month of nothing) but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling a bit bummed, feeling that maybe a slice of PA (albeit fictionalized) on a Sunday night was just what I needed.

I watched the first two episodes that were out, and I liked it. I like that it seems just as interested in being a character study as it does a mystery. I like that it isn’t dark for the sake of being dark and that parts of it are legitimately funny. I liked the smalltownness of it all. It reminded me quite a bit of Broadchurch, if you’ve ever seen that…and it reminded me more than a little bit of growing up. I might’ve grown up three hours north of the Delco location (PA’s Delaware County for the uninitiated…remind me to tell you about my night at the Delco Country Club sometime) but these characters, these towns, and just the general feeling…the general spirit felt familiar.

And I don’t think I’ve ever related more to a scene on television than I did during a scene from last week’s episode. It starts outside a bar that’s seen better days. Glowing Miller Light, Coors Light, and Budlight signs from yesteryear hang in the windows. There’s a full parking lot, because like so many Pennsylvania watering holes, it’s not within walking distance of anywhere. Despite being shitty and ostensibly not really near anything else, the bar’s packed, not just with young kids but people of all ages. Kate Winslet sits glumly drinking a Rolling Rock at a horseshoe bar littered with Yuengling bottles and cheap plastic baskets of spilled popcorn, Christmas lights hang from the walls, and the air’s cloudy with cigarette smoke because this place clearly doesn’t serve food.

Winslet runs into her overserved police-detective partner at the bar and listens with an I’m-too-sober-for-this look as he essentially has a mini-meltdown, saying of life, “here’s what I thought I’d be…and here’s where it actually is.” And man. I’ve been there so many times. Maybe it was with my friend Eric at The Mansion House in Conshohocken. Maybe with Maura at Dawson’s Pub in Manayunk, my cousins at The Fell Inn in good old Simpson, my sister at Cavanaugh’s on Philly’s Headhouse Square, or with my brother and friend Jacki at Harry’s Hotdogs (yes, a real place…with very Delco-vibes) just off route 30 which might be in Parkesburg or might be in Coatesville. I could smell the smoke. I could taste that popcorn. This was something I’ve lived.

The cherry on top? Mr. Brightside was playing on the jukebox the entire time. I love that song. The opening riff never fails to pump me up, and I have so many delightful memories of listening and/or screaming along with it at so many Pennsylvania bars slick with Yuengling, spilled popcorn, and deep conversations that fill you with a slight embarrassment the morning after. And it’s such a quintessential Philly song for me. Whoever made the set choices on Mare of Easttown did their homework. Or, like me, had these experiences.

I’ve watched the scene probably ten times now. And I’ve yet to not be completely delighted by it. I’ve yet to not feel home.

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