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Truths on the Strip

Here, customers at national big-box, chain stores and restaurants have been pre-sold before they arrive. This is retail of choice.

At 5 on a sparklingly clear afternoon, the late-winter sun throws fingerlike, mauve shadows across the suburban landscape. Rush hour traffic builds.

Directly across from Southpark Mall, vehicles glide into Southpark Crossing, a strip center housing a Marshalls and a large pizzeria.

"Welcome to Ci Ci's," Mitch Uehling, a square-jawed, young manager with ruddy complexion and short, spiky hair, cheerfully greets each clump of customers. This Dallas-based chain has a twist: It's all buffet — no waiting 20 minutes to an hour for pizza. A dozen varieties of pies are baked and laid out under heat lamps. The pies are already cut, ready for consumption: perfect for families with places to go, things to buy.

The restaurant is spotless with attractive, wall-to-wall carpeting. Red and green helium-filled balloons, tethered to each chair, lend a festive air.

Two Latino cooks meld wads of dough onto round aluminum pans. A teenage bus girl cleans tables to keep up with demand.

"Try our new chicken pizza," the gung-ho manager urges anyone within earshot, as he multitasks— working the register (cash only), eyeing the salad bar, grabbing the phone for a takeout order and acknowledging the latest arrivals, "Welcome to Ci Ci's."

The pace is slower off Temple Avenue on Highway 1.

As vehicles whiz by, two men and a power saw show no mercy to overachieving clumps of pampas in front of the faded Johnson Oil Company building. The beige brick structure with understated art-deco details has deep red woodwork. Paint peels from the building's signage.

"We're trying to finish and get to the dump before it closes," says Lewis Johnson Jr., 64, a distinguished-looking man and proprietor of the family-owned, petroleum-products company. Taking a break, he pushes a shock of thick, white hair off his brow. "We brought this pampas from Nags Head maybe 10 to 15 years ago." His son Michael, 43, continues to hack away and load grass onto a trailer.

Now it's past the peak oil-sales season, and father and son have time to tidy up the place.

Johnson explains that in the early 1990s, when Southpark Mall opened, some predicted that businesses would suffer along the Boulevard. That's the name for U.S. 1 as it slices Colonial Heights, stoplight by agonizing stoplight.

Be advised: Go slow. Colonial Heights is still a notorious speed trap.

If ever a street didn't live up to the promise of its name, it is the Boulevard. There are no shade trees, no landscaped medians and precious few sidewalks. But rather than die, the Boulevard became a viable service corridor. It's now a classic American strip, where entrenched florist and auto-repair shops stand next to newer fast-food and convenience stores. Customers drive from spot to spot; there is no foot traffic.

And the strip may be freshening up. "I'm on the city planning commission and we have a new landscaping ordinance," says Johnson. "Things were looking a little dreary in front of the CVS, and someone must have called its corporate headquarters because the next thing you knew, they are planting trees."

Immediately south of Johnson Oil is a grassy, vacant lot. "There was a big old frame house that got torn down," Johnson says. "A palm reader lived there. They were always having gypsy weddings in the back yard. She read the palms upstairs."

Johnson says he's seen lots of changes over the years. "My father left another oil company in 1946 to start this business," he says. "Oil rationing was going on at the time. Supplies are tight right now. We're looking for low-sulfur diesel and kerosene. But the only other crunch I can remember was the oil embargo of 1973."

When asked if the current war in Iraq is about oil, Johnson cuts a sharp look and hesitates to comment. But he does. "You've got to have your eyes shut if you think that's not part of the equation," he says.

Suddenly a friend strolls up as if out of nowhere. Bill Rawlings is assistant pastor at nearby Highland Methodist Church. This spring, he will retire as a math teacher at Colonial Heights Middle School.

Conversation turns to changes he's seen in his 27 years of teaching. Rawlings mentions increased bureaucracy and the demands of the federally mandated "Leave No Student Behind" initiative.

"There are a lot of latch-key kids these days," he says, "Fifty percent are from broken homes. But some kids aren't going to study no matter what. You can feed them ice cream and it's still not going to work."

But what gets Johnson and Rawlings going is the subject of Rawlings' upcoming nuptial. Widowed three years ago, he recently reintroduced himself to a girl he met when she was 16.

He says his bride-to-be, a woman of a certain age and a divorcee, had all but given up on finding a new husband, "She told God that she would only marry someone who came knocking on her door."

A mutual friend informed him that she was now single and suggested he should visit her. He drove to her house and, yes, knocked on her door.

The wedding is May 3. And Johnson is among the 200 invitees. "I'm going to be there to harass them both," he says.

In a small Southern city, not smothering commercialism, speeding vehicles, lack of sidewalks or other amenities can impede certain time-trusted truths — hospitality, the beauty of a father and son working side by side, treasured friendships and, yes, romance. S

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