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.

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