Archive for November, 2020
Science gets impeded by the messy mind
I’m fascinated by water in motion. Standing calf-deep in Michigan’s Bass Lake, I watched the diminished wake of a motorboat strike the shore and reflect outward in smaller, tighter ripples. Even a bluegill snapping after a tasty treat generated an expanding circle of ripples that reached the shore and flipped back out, joining a complex interaction of forms: the fish’s original rhythmic perturbations, the boat’s wake, the shore’s reflection of the wake – wind-formed wavelets and tiny emanations from all of these bouncing off the dock pilings.
Each of the various ripples kept its identity. The fish’s minute wave forms rode on top of the wake and back down into the valleys, unchanged, and the wake crossed its own reflection without interference. Oh, I know the physics and some of the math of these things. I know that’s what’s supposed to happen. But seeing it in action, it felt counter-intuitive – shouldn’t all these competing wave forms slam into each other and cancel out or create a chaotic mess?
Then I thought: Why would I expect these physical forces to act the opposite of how they actually do? Do such faulty assumptions arise from some innate brain function? And if so, what purpose would it serve? How could it aid in our survival?
I wonder, too, how this sort of half-cocked mis-reasoning might hinder our understanding of the world. Perhaps it took several thousand years for science to develop, not just because we hadn’t evolved the tools to create scientific models, but because there’s an anti-scientific bias to the human mind (as our dependence on religion also might indicate). Certainly, any number of “common sense” explanations of the workings of the world have proven wrong – that the world is flat, that the sun revolves around the earth, that fire represents the release of phlogiston.
We should pay closer attention to water.
Once inscrutable scientific mysteries are turning out to have fairly straightforward explanations.
In my high school chemistry and physics courses, terms like “friction,” “surface tension” and “catalyst” were surrounded by almost mystic veils. No one ever said as much explicitly, but we were led to believe that such (then) unmeasurable quantities, which lay below the level of the observable, operated by principles different from those of standard, formulated physical law.
I especially recall friction, which was linked with inertia: Bodies at rest don’t move because … well, they don’t want to; you have to kick their butts to overcome friction and inertia and get them going. I don’t know the official line on at-rest inertia these days, but friction – examined at the molecular and atomic level using advanced microscopes – turns out to be simple and direct.
Atoms and molecules on the surfaces of two objects in contact get in each other’s way, physically, and attract one another through hydrogen bonding and similar small forces. Long, snaky molecules sticking up from a surface get caught on most anything that passes by (the snakiest of these form adhesives). And any two objects, of like or different composition, form surface bonds between their respective atoms under pressure – even just the pressure of gravity.
In high school, catalysts were treated as big-brother entities that caused chemical reactions to proceed at a faster rate while themselves remaining “unchanged.” “Unchanged” meant that the catalysts didn’t react with the compounds they influenced, but rather exerted an almost mystical controlling force upon them. But it turns out that catalysts actually form transient compounds with the reactants they influence, then release the product – a cycle repeated thousands or millions of times each second.
These micro-recapitulates-macro examples make me wonder how quantum theory will shake out over the next 50 years. A variety of cogent mathematical arguments indicate that, at the subatomic level, particles cannot behave according to the laws of classical or Einsteinian physics. Yet who, 50 years ago, would have thought that friction would depend on a microscopic reflection of known forces and known physical reactions? Will it turn out that electrons, despite Heisenberg, aren’t doing anything quite as arcane as we suppose?
The thwarted romances of youth.
The first time, I was 10 or 11, our family helping out with somebody’s house-fixing something in the suburbs. I was inside, painting. I slowly pulled a brush along a window frame on a clear, sunny day, applying fresh off-white to the aged, underlying off-white. To my right stood a girl a year or two older, also painting. I recall nothing but her arm, the sun amplified on the blonde hairs. I loved her, loved her arm, loved that glistening hair.
I never saw her again.
In the ancient decommissioned church hall in Powelton that served as the local community center, I was corralled into a square dance. I almost never dance. My appendages don’t work that way. But square dancing is impersonal, in the best sense, and it’s hard to be obviously clumsy.
At 34th and Baring Sts., a lush Victorian house had some rehabilitation function that no one could quite explain. It housed girls who…I guess needed housing.
At the square dance, I was paired with one of those girls. I remember her face: simple, open, slightly heavy eyebrows, dark hair, shy yet engaging, asking nothing obvious of anybody. We do-si-doed, allemanded right and whatever else you do in a square dance. We barely talked. We smiled and, I think, understood each other. Ahhh…
I never saw her again.
At St. Agatha’s, my Catholic grade school, the boys and girls were taught in separate classrooms until the last grade (eighth), when the class size had pared down to “only” 40 students total, so we were all, boys and girls, shrugged together in one room.
Connie was the class beauty – a description I’ll defend to my dying day. Geeky me – short, lank-haired, sway-backed, class brain, eyeglassed with black tape on the lenses – there was little I cared about in that room but the impossible hope of Connie. Though the rest of the class must have noticed my continually glancing back at her – blonde, serene, virginal but delectable – no one ever ranked me for it. Had they, I would have dissolved.
We spoke once, I think.
After I graduated St. Agatha’s, I was invited back for excursions that honored those expatriates who had gone on to do well in Catholic high school (and shit, did I do well … academically). The first time was the grade school’s annual spring outing to Woodside Park, one of two amusement parks back then, to the north of Philadelphia.
(“Amusement parks”: You went to a place with a couple roller coasters and bumper cars and simple-ass spinning rides and balloon stands with games and wandered a lot and didn’t have to stand in line too long, bought trinkets, there was a fun house, maybe two, you sat on park benches, ate not too much, laughed at stuff that didn’t matter…. God was it fun.)
I mentally/spiritually hooked up with a brunette, short, unassuming, glasses, nothing specific to attach to, but I was snagged. I wanted to cruise with her in the “tunnel of love,” where a multi-personed gondola drifted through whateverthehell might be in there. Our little four-person squad got up to the stepping-off point and the gondolier filling the boat ahead yowled, “C’mon, we need one more.” And I, alone, stepped into that be-sataned boat. Why would I do such an absurd, pointless, self-defeating thing?
The good little boy listened to authority and lost one of the most promising experiences of his young lifetime. Sure, nothing would have happened in that wretched boat. But my day was ruined, my sense of self tanked like a decommissioned submarine. Few dumbnesses I’ve perpetrated in life have rankled with such an abiding sense of shame.
I never saw her again.
Another St. A’s high-school-reward trip took us to Washington DC. We visited the catacombs. You didn’t know there were Catholic catacombs under DC? I don’t have any idea why/how they’re there, but as a budding teen they were a load of mildly spooky fun. On the way back in the bus, I sat next to a sharp-featured girl who thought a lot of herself. You could tell that. And though she wasn’t really attractive, I thought a fair amount of her too. We sang songs together.
What songs? I never saw her again.
In my teens, on the few days I took the Lancaster Ave. trolley (rather than walked) to St. Thomas More, my high school, a cocoa-colored girl often hung from the strap of the crowded car. Oh lord. The mornings when she didn’t dangle across from me were empty.
I never spoke to her.
In the house next door to us (home of Peter Boyle’s sister), lived a girl who had a rabbit. I’m not sure why I remember that, because I was concerned only with the girl, not the rabbit. In the summer she wore shorts, unleashing lovely, abundant white legs. She would sit on the front steps with her friend, someone I recognized from back in grade school but barely knew.
Squinting out through the internal shutters shielding our seven-foot front windows, I’d pine away until I couldn’t stand it, then creep out and sit on our front steps, next to them, separated by the simple iron stair-fence between the two houses.
I never said a word. They never acknowledged me. What in god’s name could they have thought of such an idjit?
Can you overcome through time, rehabilitate the years you’ve made a fool of yourself? Oddly enough, I think you can. But maybe you have to have (again) the good luck to live long enough. Had I died in my 40s, 50s, even 60s, I would have left behind what so often seems, to me, a wasteland. Now it hangs in bemused retrospect. I could have been anybody, have probably done what most did at one time, in one way or another.
Pogo sticks (to me)
My mother’s humor was different from (even antagonistic to) my father’s, but their inherited combination forms a solid core that has been my mainstay even in the darkest times. And unlike most things, it has grown more pronounced with age (well, my nose…). I watch the blithering goofballs running the world and I picture them piling out of a Ringling clown car with their big floppy feet and red noses, bowing to the spectators – heyugh, heyugh. If only they could be that entertaining.
In my teens, I wanted to be a humor writer. I loved Robert Benchley, Stephen Leacock, and Don Marquis, the classic humor “essayists” of the first half of the 20th century. Some of their stuff falls flat these days, but a lot is timeless (like Leacock’s “How My Wife and I Built Our Home for $4.90”) . I wish I’d kept some of the bits I whacked together back then. I remember one about why elephants can’t walk backwards (oh, they can? Damn).
The Sunday comics where my reward for having survived the morning’s Catholic Mass. We bought the Sunday editions of both the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Record, until it folded around 1948, when the Evening Bulletin introduced a Sunday edition to take its place. In both papers, the comics were multi-section, an unending spill of color, adventure, belly-laugh and often superb artwork.
The Inquirer lynchpin was the eight-page insert of Will Eisner’s “The Spirit.” I started reading “The Spirit” in 1946, at age seven. I can identify the year because later, dated reprints include episodes that never left my head. (One of the most delightful Christmas presents ever was a pile of Spirit reprints from daughter Erin.)
Eisner was a towering figure in the history of American comics, and “The Spirit” was his masterpiece. Tabloid size, it slipped inside the other comic sections, each week’s episode telling a complete, often labyrinthine tale of masked urban crime fighter Denny Colt, who lived in a well-appointed cavern beneath his own supposed grave.
Tough, death-defying (though not super-powered), he was also a noir mix of startled naiveté and emotional confusion. His flawed humanity foreshadowed much of the Marvel Comics output (Jack Kirby was one of Eisner’s crew, as was Jules Feiffer, and Wally Wood of Mad Magazine fame).
Eisner excelled at both storytelling and a rambunctious sense of humor. His best stories often featured The Spirit only as a background figure, while the downtrodden of Central City lived out their fractured lives. To add to the fun, Eisner insinuated talking bulls and cockroaches, guns that shot by themselves, a little man who learned how to fly, and a ghost madly intent on posting his income tax before filing deadline.
I still read the comic strips daily – but online, creating my own “page” so I don’t have to have to close my eyes to skip over crap like “Rex Morgan, M.D.” and “Tank MacNamara.” My favorite single strip today? (glad you asked) “Overboard.” There’s nothing else quite like it for endearing looniness.
Most classic strips went to pot when the originators died off. Walt Kelly’s widow made a short-lived, unfortunate attempt to keep “Pogo” going, but its swamp humor was one man’s mind laid out for all to study. Other old strips kept going but tumbled into eternal senescence, like “Mutt & Jeff.” (“Shoe,” to my amazement, is going strong decades after Jeff MacNelly’s death, keeping its nasty sarcastic tone with help from his widow, Susie.)
Writing for the Philadelphia weeklies, my humor often got me in hot water. I couldn’t resist absurd captions for movie photos and was told by the business manager that they kept the paper from getting ads from the Hollywood PR factories. A local geographical society regularly sent in stills from film travelogues that always, no matter what part of the world, featured some old coot with chasmed lines channeling his face. I pretended these were a recurring figure, The Old Geezer – until the society politely asked me to stop.
Under my brief editorship of the Philly Welcomat in the early ’90s, we had the most wide-ranging, totally wacko group of cartoonists ever assembled in one publication – John McCormick, Tom Reeves, Kev Monko’s ”Zym Zzyzzo, the Last Guy in the Phone Book”, Ben Katchor’s “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer,” “Steve Nicks’ Other Thoughts” (unlike anything else that existed before or after), AWest’s “Duckhead.” As soon as I left the paper, the new editor axed every one of them. No accounting for lack of taste.
I never – honestly – want to upset anyone, I just find funny what most people take seriously. My worst offense was my explication for a kids’ Christmas-show photo that featured a guy wearing a massive turban like a gift-wrapped trash bag. My caption noted that he suffered from “HAIDS, a sexual inflammation of the brain.” Lord, did the PC crowd whomp my butt for that one.
(The righteous uproar over jokes really pisses me off, no matter which direction it flies. A prime example: James Watt, Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, spent his hours in office trying to strip the environment bare (in the fundamentalist belief that since Christ was coming back soon, who needs trees?). Yet what forced him out was making a pretty funny joke about the diverse composition of one of his committees: “I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple.” For that one instant, I liked the man. Moral: You can eviscerate an entire continent, but god help if you giggle about the unfortunate.)
Daily life can be a hoot, especially when it sneaks in from odd angles to slap you upside the head. After dropping my daughter’s friend off in West Philly on Halloween, I stopped at a red light on Baltimore Ave. Suddenly there’s a slam against the driver’s door – and a gorilla staring in at me. I snapped alert and then let loose a happy bellow. The teen backed off, removed his mask and waved, laughing too. I snorted and howled and whooped the whole way home.
Again: I’d just crossed 20th St. at Market, on the way to the Welcomat, when a homeless guy, probably in his 50s, turned from watching the traffic. He wore a bedspread or a tablecloth draped over his shoulders. He gazed at us workaday walkers, and in a serene, conversational but booming tone, commented: “WELL, SUCK MY ASSHOLE.” I didn’t oblige, but I did carry a smile for the rest of the day.
Maybe three times in my life I’ve gotten into physical fights, and each time I broke into sniggers half way through. One example: When my first wife, Julie, and I lived on the 500 block of Delancey St., the family on the first floor – a very loud electrician and his two even louder (and loutish) teen sons – had a chow dog that lay across the bottom step of the stairway and snapped at our ankles as we attempted to ascend. I finally kicked the beast a good one, which brought the younger, physically over-developed cretin out of their apartment to remonstrate.
We stepped outside and started swinging. To get better aim, I started to remove my sweater. I had it half over my head when it hit me how uproarious the whole thing was. I kept swinging, ineffectually, and kept laughing.
I’m glad that Linda puts up with my exponentially increasing need to pun. I make fun of death and destruction, infirmity, politics (or course!), celebrities, TV, signs (ah, signs!) animals, people, even trees. And I find myself endlessly ridiculous.
Humor, for me, is the measure of man, the justification of existence. Life is a kiddy car on wobbly wheels.
Christian Henrik Bakeland von Hessert
My friend’s festering bedsore of nomenclature.
To me, he was always just Chris, or Hessert. A college waistrel when I first met him, he was surreally beautiful (cleft chin, electric blue-grey eyes, the curly blond hair of an Adonis). The scion of a Tarrytown, NY, family that owned chunks of Manhattan and gold mines in the somewhere, he didn’t really care about any of it. Yes, Chris did use his privilege, grew up to live off his father’s inheritance, but if it had all gone away he would simply have found something else to do.
He was a depressive who plastered it over with a ratcheting, inhaled laugh like a hyena gnawing a particularly delicious bone. Those eyes chuckled and danced and his whole face radiated exuberance, even while you knew (if you knew Chris) that he was haunted, living beyond the cynical in an arena where the ways of the world were dogshit under his shoes.
He blundered through a couple years at Penn, then dropped out or was kicked out, completed a degree I don’t know where and became a mining geologist. That interest may have come from his father, an aging German pillar whom I saw only once. Or maybe he just liked rocks. Later, with his father’s inheritance, he invested in gold mines and, like several others in his trade, fell victim to a superbly orchestrated fraud pulled off in Indonesia.
Chris was the one friend I retained from college. We had known each other only tangentially at Penn, but he visited me off and on when I was living after graduation with some current students in a house on 34th St. (you’ll hear more about The House in coming months if you hang in with me).
A bit later, every year or two, I’d get a drunken phone call from Chris inviting me to something or other. The first was to his marriage in NYC. When I showed up, with my then (and several years after) Great Love Ronnie, he caught my eye and looked startled. Had he forgotten he’d invited me or just not figured I’d show?
Hard to say with Chris: The next time was an invitation to his mother’s Tarrytown home. I took the train to NYC and called ahead to Tarrytown. Chris wasn’t there, had gone off on some travel and told no one of my pending arrival. Feeling feverish and generally punk, I hopped the train back to Philly.
The drunken phone calls slowed to about once every five years. For the next decade, not surprisingly, I resisted all calls to gather. Finally, my wife Julie and I visited him (now divorced) in New York. We ended up sleeping in our van because his apartment was too small to accommodate us.
I hadn’t seen him for many years when he called this tine to say that he was remarried to a woman with whom he’d set up a mystery fanzine. They were living in Ontario but would be in Philly for a mystery-related convention. Could Linda and I drop by their convention booth?
When we tracked him down at the downtown hotel, I had to rein in an automatic startle response: with bland receding hair, and at least 100 pounds heavier, nothing about him – except the dancing eyes – resembled the shining god of yesteryear. But within five minutes I saw that the essential Chris was unchanged – the opposite of what I’d encountered with the few other college retreads. I’d found them weirdly unchanged physically but totally altered in their human aspect. (Is it impossible to retain both the inner and the outer mask?)
Another half decade later, Chris asked us to recommend restaurants in Philly where he could feed a couple business associates from Canada. From our narrowed list, he chose the White Dog, on the Penn campus, where we all gathered for one of the worst meals of my life.
I apologized profusely to everyone involved. They were all gracious – Canadians usually are (though the rightwinger business associates bitched about Clinton throughout the evening).
Somewhere along the line, Linda and I began a series of vacation trips to the farmhouse he’d bought on the Canadian shore of Lake Ontario. With his inheritance, he and Barbara had remodeled exquisitely, adding, on the side facing the lake, a light-shimmering room with a red-tiled floor and a wood stove.
That’s where we spent most of our time, since Chris kept the rest of the house at 50 degrees. I’ve never known anyone as inured to cold as Chris, except my brother Rod. (Neither of them, to my knowledge, owned any sort of outer coat.)
Our daughter Cait went with us on those visits. Chris and Barbara treated her not like a child but as another expansive member of the ensemble. We brought along Cait’s pug, Moonlight; Christ delighted in skewering her name: “Moonbeam,” “Moonshine,” and the like.
Cait had a great time tiring out their eldest dog, Bruno, a mostly-lab who would chase a frisbee until he could no longer move his legs. Their cocker spaniel, Penny, by contrast, was mostly immobile – a bloated, nasty, smelly little cur who didn’t like anybody.
I spent two weeks at their farmhouse alone one winter, housesitting while Chris and Barbara vacationed somewhere warm (Linda was teaching back home). Great fun. I love the snow, love the seasons, have never wanted to skedaddle to a place like Florida that refuses to acknowledge winter. And has no real trees.
For that visit, I flew into Toronto (on Chris’s dime), and he drove me the 100 miles to his place, while I, tucked inside my Bean jacket, shivered like a wet dog. Riding through the Canadian winter in Chris’s unheated car was an experience I wouldn’t wish to share with anyone. Except Chris.
For the Duration, they left me alone with a car, several hundred dollars in cash, full access to his computer and the run of their beautiful house. Chris may have been a major-league cynic about the human race, but with a friend, his trust was complete, unwavering, eternal (another way he echoed Rod).
Chris was a sailing enthusiast. I am not a sailing enthusiast. Once he took us out in his boat for two hours of encapsulated boredom. In his last year, he ordered a hand-crafted catamaran that was awaiting delivery when he dropped dead of a heart attack on his bedroom floor, age 59. Eleven months later, Barbara died of pancreatic cancer.
I miss few people from my past – almost none, really. Chris is one. The two pictures of him in my head – Greek god and German burger – stand side by side without conflict.
He was extremely ill at ease with life in its reality. So am I. Is that what we shared? I don’t know. But, beneath his surface contradictions, he was a complete, seamless human being.
Remembrance of hardware past
No tale of living in Powelton Village in Philly as a kid can be complete without Shuman’s.
I’ve always had a thing for places that sell stuff I can beat on, smash other things with, or cram into crevices. Over the years, I’ve been blessed with sterling examples, my earliest hardware experience being Shuman’s on the 3400 block of Haverford Ave., three or four doors down from the shop where I bought my 10-cent Walt Disney comics each month.
Shuman, in his I guess mid 30s back then (at 10 years old you have little experience with figuring ages past 16), was jaunty, snappy, confident, the first Jewish proprietor I’d run into (without my knowing his background) and still in my mind the exemplar.
He had everything that has ever existed in the hardware world. Every item resided in its place, and he knew that place precisely. Objects in each ceiling-high shelved drawer were labeled, not with inked paper, but with a sample of the included object that was screwed, glued or stapled to the drawer-front for easy eyeballing. (Over the years I’ve come to recognize that as a signal of hardware competence.)
It was sad to return with Linda in the early ’80s and find a thin, slightly twisted old man, the physical remnant of Shuman, still running the place. He was out of half the stuff we needed and tried to palm off damaged or inappropriate leftovers. (A couple years before I met Linda, he’d tried to induce her to run off to Europe with him. Well, he still had taste.)
He looked like he’d likely had a stroke, but even given that, I had trouble dealing with his late-term caginess. Another decade later, he was gone (up, I hope). Trash blew in the deserted doorway.
In my teens, still living in Powelton, I developed a fascination with refinishing furniture at a time when arcane restoration practices recommended using pumice to provide the perfect, smooth surface between coats of traditional varnish, which was created from shellac and linseed oil, boiled in turpentine. (Did you know that shellac is “a resin secreted by the female lac bug on trees in the forests of India and Thailand”? Only discovered that in recent years. I find that origin somewhat … disconcerting).
Varnish was hell to work with, requiring a steady, careful hand while drawing a boar-bristle brush through a gummy film, to prevent bubbles from forming.
Varnish also dried sloooowly, creating a long period for dust to settle while it solidified. Champion varnishers of the 19th century constructed hermitically sealed rooms which they entered naked to prevent contamination. (I find that disconcerting as well. I mean, you open the door and there’s this nude, wrinkled old guy holding a bottle and brush: what exactly….)
I never went that far, in fact I did most refinishing in the back yard. I also never succeeded in creating a varnish finish without bubbles. I don’t have a steady, careful hand.
I bought most of my sanding, preparation and finishing materials from C.L. Presser’s, on Market St. near 36th. Why not at Shuman’s? Had a change come over either Shuman or my outlook with the years? Nothing that I can put my memorial finger on. It’s especially puzzling to consider, because Presser’s was an often infuriating company to deal with.
The store was far larger than Shuman’s, and whereas Shuman worked from behind the traditional counter, much of the Presser’s stock was in the open for customer browsing – if you could comprehend how it was arranged. Service was glacial and … “peculiar” is the kindest word. It took time to unearth a salesperson, more time to make your wishes clear as he shambled in Dickensian languor through the aisles, still more extended time to complete your transaction.
Presser’s had no cash registers. The clerk jotted your purchases on a paper slip, inserted your money and the slip into the side opening of a two-inch-wide metal cylinder which he twisted closed and slipped, much like an artillery shell, into a pneumatic tube that whisked it to a troll in the basement. After consulting with his billygoat gruff, the troll blasted the cylinder back to the first floor with your change. The system worked well for the store personnel, apparently; absurdly for the customer.
So naturally Presser’s, given the predictability of human response, vanished as updated customer service practices took hold across the retail hardware industry.
Ha! Today, Presser’s thrives as a yet larger hardware emporium farther up Market. St. Linda and I bought copper screening there a couple decades back. No pneumatic tubes. Purchases were rung up at a central cash register manned, in mild despair, by Marley’s ghost.
Now we come to Kane and Brown, in Germantown, one of Philly’s most ancient and storied neighborhoods. Shuman’s was a superb hardware store, outstanding. But Kane and Brown … Kane and Brown ascended into the celestial realm of small business.
When I shopped there in the early 1970s, while my first wife Julie and I were dis- and re-assembling our Morris St. house, the owners had held the place for only half a dozen years. But in buying the business, they had inherited an unparalleled asset – Wes.
Wes, in his 80s – pot-bellied and cigar-smoking – stood like a mouldering monument at the left end of the counter in his stained undershirt, waiting for you to ask the Question. It might be “I’m looking for …?” “Where is …?” “What’s the best way to …?”
Wes knew the answer. Always. That would be impressive in anyone. What was unique with Wes was that he knew the answer to the question you should have asked. How many times did I fumblingly say, “Wes, I’m doing this complicated, unlikely diddlyfutz, and I need an obscure X.” Wes would wave his cigar and state simply, “No, you need Y,” then explain exactly why I needed Y and precisely how it was to be used in a situation I was barely able to articulate.
The sales were rung up by one of the owners behind the counter – Mort – who immediately wrote down any item that needed reordering in a lined notebook. How he kept track of the inventory is beyond me, for besides the large storefront set back from Wayne Ave., Kane and Brown controlled a scatter of small storage buildings throughout the surrounding blocks, including one narrow structure that held mostly metal trash cans of various sizes.
For me, hardware stores signify more than nostalgia. The best bring out lasting reverence. Shuman’s is long gone. So is Kane and Brown. Yet lumbering Presser’s flourishes, with a dandy Facebook presence that boasts 120 years of continuing family ownership.
Some things in life defy reason or justice.
Rainbows and dead monsignors
In 1948, both the Democrats and the Republicans gathered in Philadelphia for their presidential conventions. Convention Hall was about a mile from us, off the south end of 34 St. In memory (though unlikely an honest recollection) I could see its rounded roof from the window of the bedroom I shared with my brother Rod while he was studying chemical engineering at nearby Penn.
During the Dem convention, a double rainbow – intense, vivid, complete in its sweep of reflected colors, as beautiful as any single thing I’ve ever seen – rested its southern tip, not in a pot of gold, but on Convention Hall, a tangible blessing upon the head of Harry Truman.
What did I know of Truman at nine years old? I listened to the radio news every day with Dad, read at least the headlines of the daily papers. When Gandhi was assassinated that year, I understood the horrific impact. I recall little about Dewey. He was expected to win, but Harry beat him flat (it wasn’t even that closely – Truman triumphed by two million votes out of about 40 million cast).
Rod’s and my beds formed an L in the back bedroom of our second-floor apartment. Dad and Mom shared the immense front master bedroom, each confined by choice to a separate double bed, with a 9’x12′ throw rug at their base. (It was, I think, the only time Dad and Mom shared a room in their last 15-20 years together.) The rug had been woven by a Kentucky outfit that would convert your old woolen clothes into the carpet of your choice. This one had orange leaf outlines on a wine-red background.
The owner’s family lived on the first floor, a married couple and two children, the boy (David) a couple years younger than me, the girl (Judy) about two or three. They had removed the old servants’ stairs to create a second-floor closet where Dad, who seldom showed his carpentry skills, built floor-to-ceiling shelves to hold our miscellaneous belongings.
Our main heat came from the living room fireplace: The central heating system spilled its hot air directly into the wall cavities from untopped ductwork. (According to Mom, Rod remonstrated with the owner in a threatening fashion. After that, the heat increased.)
On my eighth or ninth birthday, my parents gave me a windup alarm clock with a brass bell on top. It meant more to me than any other possession from that time – what does that say?
Two elderly women lived next door, sisters. Blocks of ice fed their icebox, delivered by a man holding an amazing crisscrossed set of tongs that could grasp a heavy object using one hand. Their black cat, Nicodemus, 13 years old, drooled when I petted him. I thought that extraordinary, though I’ve since found that most older mammals tend to drool (pardon me while I stumble into the kitchen for a napkin).
Our dentist, Dr. Silver, had an office in his house around the corner, on 34th St. A fairly profane man with little reticence about dissing his other patients (he despised David, our landlord’s son, as a whiner), he filled many a cavity for me in the days before fluoride. The family boxer dog would visit the office and lap water from the little fountain you spit into after rising your mouth. My liking for Dr. Silver undoubtedly did much to leave me with a positive outlook on having my mouth excavated. And over 70 years later I still carry many of his fillings.
Until the 1951 city charter removed the 64-year Republican stranglehold on city government, trash was collected by horse and cart, each cart an open-topped metal cube with stout rings on its four corners. One cart would take cans, another glass, etc. (When did this post-war recycling die?) The last, followed by a shambling fellow with a shovel, collected horse droppings. Over on Lancaster Ave., a crane would hook onto the corner rings to dump each cart into an open truck.
I still delight to the smell of horseshit.
Pearl St., an alley, ran behind our house, parallel to Baring St. on the north, Powelton Ave. on the south. Stark backyard fences lined our side. The Powelton Ave. side held strings of garages, plus the rear wall of the Sunderland Apartments at 35th St., and a strange little stone castle – probably an old carriage house – at 34th.
Pearl St. was a perfect hangout for kids. Something about those walls and fences soaring straight up from the sidewalks made it feel safe, protected, un-adult. What did we do back there? Let’s not talk about that; much of it involved pissing.
Powelton fences were uniformly constructed from a beaded pine board that became popular in later decades as a decorator item. I know you’ve seen it; probably it’s struck your fancy at one time or another. To me, it was and will forever remain cheap fencing board that no reasonable being would consider for any other use.
In third grade, after we moved from the suburbs, I attended Stephens School at 13th and Spring Garden Sts., my only year in a city public school. The schoolyard was concrete; we were not allowed to run. Young kids not allowed to run! One day I was kept in from recess because I had dashed off in some direction or other. The teacher, unconcerned, talked to me in a quiet, friendly way.
The house-owner’s son and I rode to Stephens on the #43 trolley, which swept through a tunnel under the front gardens of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. God, how I loved that tunnel. Later, it became a vehicular pass-through, not nearly so enticing, that fell into disrepair.
Philadelphia’s public transportation was mostly 30 years behind the times. Oddly, the #43 trolley was of a newer breed, later considered classic. Large, clunky, efficient, I suppose, I found it uninteresting, unlike the groaning, overcrowded rattletrap cars of the #38 that ran up Baring St. or the #10 over on Lancaster Ave.
Those ancient, square-sided beasts had wooden seats and a conductor’s compartment fenced off near the central side door. The conductor’s seat, a varnished wooden circle on a steel pivot, swung out from the wall. As conductors disappeared from the scene, anyone could sit there. It became the throne of the first child to claim it.
Half a mile south of us, the 69th St. El loomed over Market St., a superstructure so sturdy it almost defied demolition when the line was chased underground a half-decade later. Forged in Mordor, rust could not harm it.
Like the #38 trolley, the El trains had ridden for close to half a century. They shimmied and heaved and their seats erupted in groin-tingling ways. The entire PTC (Philadelphia Transportation Company) operation ran late and could barely hold the throngs trying to board. The coattail of the last entrant on a #38 often waved outside its closed doors.
I gloried in my cap pistol. (Adults today are encouraged to carry assault rifles, while children are suspended from school for pointing a plastic revolver. What might Thomas Jefferson have thought of either potential?) I sat on our front steps and fired at the 34th St. traffic until I ran out of caps, 50 to a roll, usually five rolls at hand.
For fourth grade, my mother transferred me to St. Agatha’s, the Catholic school at 38th and Spring Garden Sts., within walking distance. Between church, rectory, two school buildings and a convent, St. Agatha’s took up most of a full block.
That year, Pinky Garvin (I never heard the origin of his nickname) – a tiny fellow, the most popular kid in class – died, possibly of meningitis.
A year later, the pompous, florid, small-souled monsignor who headed the parish, also died. In groups of four to six, our class was sent to pray by his bier in the rectory. We quaked and shuddered facing his fat, elevated body surrounded by candles. Prompted by I know not what, the parish’s most genial priest stopped in, looked down at the corpse and chucked it under the chin: “Poor old boss, he got kind of bloated by the end.”
I had a couple friends at St. Agatha’s. As later in high school, it was an attraction of fellow losers. Pierce lived at 37th and Brandywine, in the Mantua sector to the north of Spring Garden St. Like many of the kids at St. A’s, he was Irish. Over the years, Mantua transformed into a dirt-poor black ghetto – where Linda and her first husband lived when they came to the city and where she first taught.
Pierce had a strange, quiet voice, not exactly reticent, but it seemed to come from somewhere else. I never met his father and seldom saw his mother. He had a fish tank and in the summer we spent most of our time by the tank, talking, I guess. He seldom came to our house – almost nobody came to our house. Pierce and I went to a movie together now and then. That’s about it.
Several of the kids lived along Lancaster Ave. in three-story, faceless brick rowhouses. There dwelt Paul Mulhern and the Koch brothers (pronounced “coke”), Donald in my class, Mikey a couple years younger.
Donald was the only classmate on a lower social-loser level than myself. All the kids would chase him around the schoolyard and pound on him. Shame to say, I was one of them. The others didn’t pound on me, even though I was only one rung up the ladder. Maybe they saw the suppressed fury ready to roar out.
Why was I sent to a public school downtown, a two-mile trolley ride away? Were there really no public schools nearby? (Powelton got its own school sometime in the late ’60s, when the always-activist parents demanded one.)
And why was I transferred to St. Agatha’s the following year? Because (again) there were no public schools nearby? It couldn’t have had much to do with religion. Dad was nominally Catholic but didn’t care about it. Mom was a Protestant church secretary.
I was never consulted about any of this. Like most things when I was growing up, it just “happened” – ramming a half-rabid religion down my till-then-secular throat.
The draw of the luck
How many of you read Donald Duck comic books when you were growing up (those of geezer age like me)? Do you remember his cousin, Gladstone Gander, the guy who was always lucky, who’d always find a dollar lying in the street, whose every disaster had a golden lining?
I wonder …
Bad stuff – real bad stuff – has never happened to me, even when I and the situation deserved it. I fell off the roof working on the first addition to our house up here, and from the baseball-size black bruise on my rump, I realized if I’d fallen two inches over I’d have broken my back on a stone.
I cut a tree the wrong way in the woods, it fell back toward me, I jumped across, landed on my toolpack with a hatchet inside and got a cracked rib that bothered me somewhat for a week or two.
I cut off half a thumb and index finger on the table saw, hardly bled, had no pain to speak of.
I hit myself on the lower leg with a hand sledge hard enough to dent the bone, walked inside, got a handful of vitamin C, tied on ice cubes with a rag and went back out to finish splitting wood. Didn’t even get a bruise.
This weird intrusion of luck, even when least expected, has followed me all my life, but I only lately came to realize it.
We drove up toward upstate PA one weekend in 1998 to find a fall landscape that wouldn’t be inundated with photo-happy tourists like the Poconos. I looked at the map and asked it, “Where is there nothing?” A green, almost roadless patch answered: Sullivan County! Where and what is that?
As soon as we crossed the county line we sought out the nearest real estate agent. (Linda had just received a small inheritance from her father, the first bankable cash of our 20 years together.)
Two weeks later, we scanned the local weekly, the Sullivan Review, and found the perfect vacation house, totally hidden from the road. We scheduled to buy the property – ten acres of hillside woods and a pleasant, unexceptional house – in January 1999. To close the deal, we had to move $75,000 between banks, a process that usually takes several days, but “We need it right now.” The branch manager (whom we’d never before met) looked at our check, looked at us, shrugged and said, “OK.”
Good lord, man.
Our second summer up here, the same paper ran an ad for a elementary school reading teacher with Linda’s exact qualifications. She won the job and kept it for five years until retirement.
Do such strings of unlikelihoods happen to normal people?
Looking further back:
I got a full-tuition scholarship to Penn because someone else refused it.
My daughter Erin dropped out of Syracuse half way through her sophomore year and so missed being on the plane blown up by terrorists over Lockerbie, Scotland. Several of her drama-major classmates died.
While I was vinyl tiling a floor, a plaster bust of a Neandertal fell on my head from six feet up; I bled like a pig but needed no medical attention.
I’ve never broken a bone (besides the fingers severed by the table saw), never had a major infection, despite driving a splinter two inches into my hand and a nail an inch into my foot (neither of which was treated).
I brushed a running chainsaw against my leg and cut only my pants.
Stupid-ass jobs became available exactly when I needed them. And I’ve never been fired, even when (dumbass) I’ve told those in power that the job I held should be eliminated as useless.
When I’ve had heart problems, they ram little pieces of metal in my arteries and I’m fine again.
Linda and I have chosen to live a life that seldom brings in measurable income, but we’ve never been in debt, and money has magically appeared the few times we needed it. Not to be macabre, but we’re up here because her father left us just enough to buy the place. And a few years back, a letter showed up in the mail offering us almost $60,000 for gas leasing rights.
A final example:
In the historic flood of 2011, our creek rose high enough to wipe out our bridge across Lick Creek, our only access by vehicle to the outside world.
Wait, doesn’t this sort of indicate… the exact opposite…?
1) I slogged down the driveway to see how the bridge was doing. Holding well. Then, within five minutes, as I watched, it rose, swung sideways to rest against the near bank. Wasn’t I incredibly lucky– privileged – to be there right then?
2) The bridge could have been swept downstream and/or broken into splinters. Instead, it nestled against the bank, tethered by one corner to a concrete support.
(My personal luck does not transfer to machines. I’ve gone through innumerable vehicles, at least four dying from thrown rods. I’m on my fifth chainsaw up here, my third lawn mower. Over the years I’ve devoured computers and keyboards by the bushel. I’ve jettisoned or violently destroyed more typewriters than most people have seen in pictures – Royals and Remingtons and Underwoods, a 1915 L.C. Smith, a 1937 IBM electric, a magnificent Olympia 1950s portable. Printers? A 70-pound Xerox daisy-wheel, 5 or 6 Epsons (pieces of crap), three Canons, a gifted HP. Is it that I don’t understand machines or that they don’t understand me?)
Except for that careless misplacing of a couple finger joints, I can’t think of a single time when I’ve been demonstrably at serious risk.
This most amazes and puzzles me because I’ve known disaster-attractors whose every move brings rain from that little black cloud that hangs over their heads. Sometimes my Gladstonite blessing embarrasses, almost shames me (though not enough to wish to trade places).
I’m a wholesale materialist who has no truck with spiritual answers to the world. But how to figure this circumstantial imbalance – why Lucky Me?
a) By sheer chance, I’m on the tail end of a bell-shaped curve – somebody has to be. I think that’s the most likely.
b) I only note when my luck is working, not when it isn’t. As a depressive, a kid who grew up scared into immobility by almost every aspect of life, that seems less likely – though certainly not impossible.
c) God loves me. I’d have a couple problems with this. First, I don’t believe – I mean I really don’t believe. Second, wouldn’t any reputable god have kicked the ass of an unbeliever like me half way to Texas?
d) God has one hell of a sense of humor. Well now.
Tomorrow, an eagle may drop an anvil on my head. In the meantime…
Dodge City and the meatless diet
[This lightly-edited, older rumination seems one of the few I could put up directly after (or in the midst of) this hideous election that wouldn’t be filled with mindless anger and disgust. There’s hope – slim, but it’s there.]
Something struck me while my granddaughter Abi, a vegetarian, was visiting and I had to figure out how Linda, and I, raging carnivores, could get a decent meatless meal together – and what it means to be diet-conscious.
Growing up, I ate what I was served (hated much of it); as an ex-collegiate in the ’60s, most of my generation didn’t care what the hell we ate. Yet I see Abi’s younger generation (I won’t use any over-arching term, because every “generation” name I’ve heard demeans those it stigmatizes) being as socially agitated, as loosely leftist, as angry at our national stultification as we were in the ’60s.
So how are these two ranks of young folks, separated by 50 years, alike at heart (as I see them)? The focus may be different, but the ultimate goals feel the same.
One of the bedrocks of traditional Americanism is the stress on personal independence, untrammeled by coercion from any direction. We are each an individual entity, free to take our own course, plan our own future, with as little external interference as possible.
To those on the right, those on the left are often seen as captives, even proponents, of oppressive government that exists to manipulate and constrain our lives. In this view, conservatives are independent selves addicted to freedom; liberals are hive entities addicted to control.
But here’s what came to me while eating Abi’s excellently conceived and prepared vegetarian dinner: at the same time that these young liberals are choosing radically different diets, a good majority of their independent, free-thinking opposites are chowing down on the basically identical limited fare that their families have eaten for generations (ask Kansan Linda about this).
And thinking back, when loosey-goosey leftist males like me in the ’60s started sporting beards and ponytails – yes, I wore a ponytail and, gasp!, wooden beads – we were sneered at by the neatly trimmed who despised us for looking different from what their parents had passed along as the norm. (When I was doing freelance carpentry, I was threatened with an ax both for my “hippie” look and because I was doing work for a gay couple.)
When I brought this up at dinner, both Abi and Linda said that, like me, they had never looked that way at the right-left divide before. Somebody’s undoubtedly latched onto this comparison already, but if Linda hadn’t thought of it, that means at least 99% of the country has missed it all together.
So, here we have proponents of individual freedom rejecting those who don’t look and think like them, while the proponents of equal treatment of all (as extolled in both the Declaration and the Constitution) let us each walk the street unmolested by invective. Yup, that’s way too simplistic a picture, but I think it reflects a convoluted aspect of our social divide that we don’t usually look at, whether coming from the left or the right.
A lot of it goes back to the duality of the country’s (white) founding:
On one side, indentured servants and convicts – by both their nature and situation acting as individuals – once set free, spilling out into the Mid- and Wild West, setting up as isolated farmers and the lawless gunslingers of Dodge City.
On the other side, victims of religious persecution emigrated en masse to form the tight, like-minded, often intolerant colonies of New England, only later trekking to the less wild West as Methodists and Mormons.
As a country, as a society, we’re not homogeneous and never have been. The antagonism between the nominally “individual” and the nominally “social” has been acerbated by social media, which allow us to see each other in threatening bulk, making every opposition look larger and more significant than it is.
Maybe, over time, we’ll come to see how alike our differences are, and how silly it is to see those differences as life-defining.