Hope is a meatball sub
In the end, the sandwich shop came to Hazelton in January, which is the optimal month for a small town to gain something new, since post-Christmas winter only takes, denies and negates. If anyone or any place needs bolstering, it should happen in the latter half of winter.
We had been holding fast with six-inch and foot-long submarine sandwiches—elsewhere called hoagies, heros and grinders—in our heads since the beginning of July when word of a genuine fast-food franchise started floating around town. Was this more shuck and jive, another rumour like so many that dangled employment before our hungry eyes only to whisk it away so tauntingly? A sandwich tease instead of a job mocker?
I was in Toronto for a month last summer and, though it was difficult to think about mundane subs while surrounded by Harveys, Five Guys, soft-serve ice-cream trucks and wondrous Italian bakeries, I still envisioned returning to Hazelton to assume a mid-week meatball sub routine. It wasn’t a scenario that aspired to much beyond novelty and marinara sauce. Word reached me on the other side of Canada that the business would be open by late August.
Every day in Hazelton people drive past the remnants of a more prosperous time. Empty shops and stores are widely scattered across the far-flung community, and there’s even an abandoned elementary school—the newest one in town. These boarded-up buildings remind us of an era before our friends and family members moved to find work. Hazelton had always been a scruffy underdog, but since the mid-’90s it has deteriorated into a mangy mutt.
After such a long period of loss and strife, the prospect of the arrival of something new in town—an outpost of a global chain no less—beggared belief. So when September rolled around to reveal only the rudiments of renovation in the space, speculation arose that we had been set up once more to have our hopes dashed.
As falling leaves turned to falling snow, the mind swung to more pressing matters like “Do we have enough firewood?” and “Where is my toque?” and “Who should I blame for the NHL strike?” Set in a mostly vacant strip mall on Highway 16, the storefront revealed that construction was continuing, but at a glacial pace. Eventually, as Christmas loomed, people forgot about the joint.
Then, early in the New Year, various trucks could be seen outside the place, prompting a resurrection of optimism. One fine Saturday afternoon I received a text message from a Hazeltonian living in Prince George. In sarcastic breathlessness she thumbed, “Stop whatever you are doing and venture to the Subway! I expect an immediate review!” The promise of seven-days-a-week sandwich access had finally been fulfilled. Alas, it wasn’t until Sunday that I sallied forth to find, disappointingly, that the proprietor was out of meatballs. Somehow that setback seemed appropriate, all things considered.
Of course, Hazelton doesn’t need a fast-food restaurant like it needs more work. And by work, I mean industry; yes, the kind that somehow exploits natural resources to make employees decent dough. Sure, we can attract tourists from May to October—perhaps more will come now, enticed by our new source of hoagies—but what about during the bleak months of the year, the best time to be occupied? I know too many fellows who have to commute to other towns to make a living; I know even more Hazeltonians who reside elsewhere out of need. The addition of an outlet for cold-cut-based meals won’t bring vitality back to the community. But the fact that a global franchise has deemed the town worthy of its business suggests that the place is not so shabby that it’s beyond hope. Someday this hungry town will be sated.