Archive for April, 2021
For all my attention to 130 Hastings Ave., the house itself wasn’t the Place; the Place embraced the yard, the street and the creek. The three-block stretch of Hastings Ave. and the (at most) quarter-mile trail through the woods set the tone for what existence should be – because existence, then, should exclude the intrusion of people.
During the war, we had two vegetable gardens out back, and though I was as much a carnivore then as now – rhubarb is like snot but less pleasant – fresh peas and string beans were a treat, even when served up by my mother, the maternal epitome of wretched cooking. (Her Boston baked beans would have defeated the British singlehandedly, and her perloo – a Spanish-rice muck that lurked in the bottom of a simmering pot for four hours – wept at its own fate when served).
Along with the gardens, Mom spent much time weeding the lawn and tormenting our many bushes and shrubs.
A barberry hedge ran across the entire front, which spanned two lots. Most neighbors had privet hedges, which don’t say or do much. A barberry, though, grows wicked thorns and small red berries. Mom hacked and tooled the hedge into a boxy shape but developed a wicked allergy to it. At night she kept her hands wrapped in gingham cloth mittens, soaking in bowls of liquid. Looking back, I wonder if it was an actual “condition” or a weird affectation.
After the war, she grassed over the main garden area, leaving a four-inch-deep depression in back, the width and half the depth of the house, and we switched to canned vegetables. In case you’ve heard rumors that there may exist something less palatable than 1940s canned vegetables, don’t believe it for a second.
But the fruit trees…. wonderful.
The cherry grew on the left side of the house, and brother Vic, intrepid hero, would harvest the fruit from the porch roof outside his bedroom. (I, by contrast, had such an absurd fear of heights that I got vertigo looking down from a first-floor window.)
The apple, squat and imposing, grew at the very back of the yard and produced scrumptious fruit. Between it and a steel pole hung Rod’s rope Navy hammock, fun to lie in, though the least wiggle dumped you unceremoniously on the ground.
(Rod later told me we had a pear, tree though I can’t recall it.)
Mom, oddly, was good at desserts. She made excellent pies – cherry and apple – plus a luscious custard that I can still taste, over 70 years later. The kitchen seemed a magical place of process, with its odd assortment of small hand-machines: a simple two-inch pincer for grasping and wrenching loose the green attachment of a strawberry; a manual egg beater with a circular collar between the rotary handle and the beaters, that fit snugly onto a flat-bottomed translucent blue-glass bowl with inclined sides; and, especially, a small table-clamped metal contraption with interchangeable rollers.
When outfitted with two rubber rollers, it grasped the stringy terminus of a pea-pod, forcing open the opposite end and shooting pea artillery into a bowl. Exchange one roller for a cylinder of parallel knife-blades and it julienned the hell out of green beans (I first heard the term “julienne” thirty years later; I still hate its French snootiness).
In the summer, I loved to mow the yard, as much as my six-year-old self could, with our clunky hand mower. I must have been a peculiar sight – short, lugubriously skinny, almost albino and wearing glasses with squared-off black tape on the lenses to channel my vision – huffing and puffing a machine twice as big and weighty as myself.
A special note on our willow tree: There’s nothing more beautiful in all creation than a weeping willow, and I doubt I’ll see a more magnificent one than ours, dominating the expansive side yard. Today, if you look up “130 Hastings Ave. Havertown PA” on Google street view (please don’t), you will be presented with a house that replaced that willow, while my 130, in its shrunken domain, has been demoted to 128.
Willows slurp up huge quantities of water – we had the driest basement on our block – and I sincerely wish the cellar of today’s 130 awash in lethal sewage.
But beyond anything else, growing or otherwise, rested the ineffable joy of summer – a succulent, unquestioning enfoldingness that, were the universe properly ordered, would obliterate all other seasons. The sun, the heat, the sense of endless nothing-to-do, of no-one-to-tell-you-want-is-expected: Catching lightning bugs (“fireflies”? feh!) and incarcerating them in a jar with a perforated lid, their stale, musky odor wafting from my fingers. The rash rasping shudder of a cicada – all the music the spheres could invoke. I’ve felt intensely lonely much of my life. But those summers were a time of serene, accepting aloneness.
My few acquaintances ranged from goofy-uninteresting to just-plain-mean. Charley, a year younger than me, rode his trike along the sidewalk. It was his most interesting activity. Donald, from the next block over, called shit “grunty,” which about sums him up.
The boy I spent the most time with (name? lost) probably evolved into a small-time hood, but at least he was brighter than Charley or Donald. Our “friendship” was broken off by Mom after he accepted my dare to piss on my leg in the woods.
Previous to that, he had cut a hole in the side of a refrigerator box in his back yard to create a neat hideaway. One day, a slightly older, preternaturally nasty girl named Barbara, seconded by her bespectacled female lieutenant, held Charley and me prisoner in the box, a humiliating experience. When I broke free and ran home, my mother handed me a broom and ordered me to go back and threaten retaliation. I did, in a frightened, half-hearted way, resulting in a pointless standoff.
(I view the 1940s as a low point in American music. Even as a kid, I actively disliked big bands, with special animus directed at Tommy Dorsey. We had no phonograph in those days of 78s, but the radio pumped out insipid crooners (Vic Damone – good god!), patriotic ditties, light novelty songs and Broadway show tunes (another grey area for me). Though my passion for summer was built at Hastings Ave., not so my passion for music.)
There was nothing wrong with the Oakmont public school on Eagle Road, but it was the seat of the unholy terror of school constantly nipping at my drawers. I remember almost nothing of my classes there, but I can see the maypole we actually danced around, and I loved watching the sky-writers who enlivened almost every celebration in the days before jet contrails made them obsolete.
A teacher at Oakmont, Skipper Dawes, ran a daily dinner-time radio show, “The Magic Lady,” that featured bits of a continuing story and young singer/actors. One was Eddie Fisher, who grew up to sing “Oh Mein Papa”, marry Debbie Reynolds and Liz Taylor, and become an all-time celebrity jerk.
I enjoyed remarkably few foods as a kid. I hated all nuts, ketchup, mayonnaise and marshmallows. I hated scrapple with such passion that I would slather it with ketchup because anything was better than scrapple. I disliked onions, most fish, dry cereals except Kix and (oddly) Grape Nuts, and would have created a special circle of hell for shredded wheat. Oatmeal, as Dr. Johnson suggested in his dictionary, should be fed to horses. Wheatena was invented by the Turks in an early attempt to exterminate Armenians.
Milk held a special horror. In those pre-homogenized days, little mucus-like blobs of cream would float around the top of the glass and slime my tongue. Left too long in in the sun, it formed a stinking funereal scum. Was I forced to drink this cow excrescence, or did I simply never complain because any complaint about food was improper in our family?
Dad, as the morning cook, firmly believed in big breakfasts. When I was spared cereal, he made wonderful soft boiled eggs, toast with butter and strawberry jam, but under the dread of school, my stomach was in no mood to accept or even recognize morning nourishment. I often threw up in the sink before leaving for educational oblivion.
On Sundays, Dad made Bisquick waffles or corn fritters for late breakfast (“brunch” was an unknown term). He cooked the waffles in a wonderful old round waffle iron (I greeted the advent of square irons with shouts of “Heresy!”). Using the same simple ingredients, I’ve never been able to match them. The fritters were heavy pancake batter chock full of corn, fried in deep bacon fat until they fluffed and oozed. (Fuck my arteries – I wouldn’t mind lopping a few years off my life for a return of those babes.)
A bakery somewhere along Eagle Rd. (the corridor to everywhere) made luxurious sticky buns, and a shop in Manoa (which sounds like a cow plop) produced “submarine sandwiches” that could face down most any hoagie today.
I’m not looking for understanding with this nostalgia binge, because at some level there’s nothing to be understood. It is just a slow unfolding, an examination, the me-that-is intrigued by the me-that-was.
Why should that address loom so important to me?
Maybe because what happens to anyone during ages three to six is central to life. Psychologists seem to think so. Or maybe because it was the only place that felt like “home” to me until Linda and I came to Sullivan County in 2000.
In the mid-1940s, my family moved from the Long Island town of Port Washington (then a nothing-much, now a posh-something) to South Ardmore (now Havertown), a western suburb of Philly. After typing what Mom claimed was 350 letters to realtors in search of a place during World War II (why we needed to move was never clear), she secured rental of a two-story house on a quarter acre of land – a plot figure that’s always stuck with me for some reason.
Nominally suburban, the neighborhood was closer to rural. Through an undeveloped block overwhelmed by blackberry bushes, my brothers and I would traipse to the end of Hastings Ave. and enter the woods leading to Cobbs Creek – which, of course, I considered the Most Important Stream in the World. (It was the only body of water in which I have ever attempted to fish. I caught nothing.)
130 was partially fronted by a porch that elled around the left side. The rest of the first floor was shingled in wood, painted or stained green. The second floor was stuccoed.
You entered a square hall, where, for whatever reason, the phone resided – one of those old models where the receiver hung separately from a hook. The stairs to the second floor ran along the left wall, turned at a landing, then scooted up the rear.
The living room opened to the right, through a wide doorway (sliding doors? possibly). The radiators sat trapped inside rounded metal enclosures painted white; diagonal gridwork let the heat seep out. Bracketing the radiators, snakeplants speared their yellow-edged leaves from water-encrusted, white, chipped ceramic pots with a molded leaf design. You could sit on a red horsehair couch that assaulted your legs with pinprick stickers. White organdy curtains framed the windows; they stank of ancient dust.
The walls hosted the neatly framed drawings of flowers that followed us everywhere, drawings so sad and uninterested in themselves they might have been commenting on the death of a weed relative. They were simply What We Had – which is what I assumed everyone had.
Behind the living room, but reached directly from the hall, the dining room waited patiently through 90% of the day for someone to make use of it. From there, you entered the kitchen through a swinging door. Listen attentively: Anyone who has not enjoyed a swinging door has missed one of life’s grand pleasures. A swinging door opens in either direction at the gentle push of a hand – then returns to the neutral closed position of its own volition! If only the rest of existence worked so dependably.
Two bedrooms lined each side of the upstairs hallway. Mine was on the left front and shared with Rod when he was home from the Navy. Next to mine, looking over the side porch, was brother Vic’s room. Vic was then in high school.
Mom had the room across the hall from mine. Next to hers was what had to have been Dad’s room, though, like so many things of Dad’s, it’s largely a blank. He never slept in the same room with Mom. I don’t think he ever entered hers.
The attic, gloomy under unfinished rafters, sheltered Mom’s trunks and a pair of wall-mounted pull-weights for strengthening the arms, installed by the former owner, Mr. Quirk. It also held (in my mind) the ghost of Mr. Quirk, who had fallen to his death from a ladder mounted against the house. Strange, then, that I set up a chalkboard there, mounted on an easel, though I had no artistic ability and a shuddering fear of ghosts.
Of the basement I recall only the time Rod’s water snake pupped (or whatever snakes do to produce young), leaving the area overrun (overwiggled) with itty-bitty snakelets. Though frightened of almost everything in the human world, I was content, even serene, around snakes.
Why spend so much time on the layout of a house? Because Place has always, always been vitally important to me.
I slept under dark blue blankets with a top border of red lines and white stars. Today I realize they were threadbare – ancient or merely cheap. I suppose the room was cold; in winter, Dad would made up a hot water bottle for me – a half-gallon wine jug to rest my feet against.
My repulsive pre-sleep habit was to spit on the bottoms of my feet to liquefy the accumulated dirt, them stamp them against the striped wallpaper under the window next to my bed. It made a shitful mess. The day I learned that landlady Mrs. Quirk was coming to visit and presumably inspect the place, I shivered with panic that she would call me out for this abomination of her house. Of course, she said nothing; I never even met the woman.
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Conspiracy theory of the day: Opening our latest vitamin bottle, I noted (as always) that it accounts for 6 pieces of trash, including both an inner and outer lid seal. Soooo… what if the Tylenol attack in Chicago that brought this on was planned not to kill some random back-pain sufferer, but was instead a clever ploy by the packaging industry?
Someone is making a killing on those billions of superfluous bits of plastic and foil.
This is one of those pieces that will probably bore you silly, another of my obsessions.
Give it a chance.
Modern society is built on waste. It’s not an accidental byproduct of consumer life but deliberately inserted to assure that anything we buy – any process that we undertake – will include unnecessary elements designed to make their creators profit at your expense of time, energy and money.
Waste has been endemic throughout history (look at the discovery of Troy, several levels down in a Turkish midden), but it’s mostly been a byproduct of time and circumstance. By contrast, today’s insertion of the worthless – stemming from the Industrial Revolution – has exploded into entire industries that provide only material for our external and internal landfills.
- • You need hinges to hang your door. Once, you plucked them from a bin marked “hinges” at the hardware store. Now they come packaged in pairs, with cardboard backing, plastic front and a tightly folded piece of paper of minute, indecipherable instructions on how to install said hinge. If you’re putting up a heavy door, you need three hinges. So you’re forced to buy two packets of two; the fourth hinge lies in your junk drawer gathering dust and rust; the packaging goes in the trash.
- • I ordered chicken with dirty rice and a soda at Popeyes (despite what follows, I’d suggest anyone do the same: This is some of the best fast food on earth). For the hell of it, I counted the number of trash items produced by that simple meal. Including the disposable tray doily, the paper cup, the straw, the straw wrapper, the plate, the fork, the spoon, and whateverthehell else: 13 bits of trash.
- • Bottled water: You buy a free item (water), sequestered in a plastic bottle, which you heave. So you’ve paid $1+ for the privilege of disposing of a piece of trash. You’ve also wasted a resource (the hydrocarbons used to make the plastic), your money, and the time, energy and money spent to dispose of a piece of junk.
- • No one repairs anything electronic today. Instead, your un-upgraded computer is sent to a Chinese village where it’s beaten with hammers and twisted with pliers to remove precious metals. The rest is lung-invading toxic dust.
- • Register receipts. You can’t buy a bottle of dish detergent without getting a forearm’s length of curling paper that tells you a) how much you’ve saved by presenting the “discount” card that every single patron carries as wallet trash, and b) how much more you can save by buying items you don’t want on a specific day when you won’t be shopping in that store.
- • While whole continents try to deal with starvation, we turn half our corn crop into ethanol to feed our cars. An astonishing waste of food – and intelligence.
- • Medical forms. Before any procedure, you sign next to the X. In theory, these scribbles protect your rights, your privacy and your access to information. In fact, 99.9% of us never read a dammed one of these things or have the least idea what advantage they procure. Picking up a prescription, I once remarked to the pharmacy clerk, “I wonder if I just signed myself into slavery?”
- • You buy a bottle of 100 aspirin. The bottle is crammed inside a cardboard container that you wrestle open so you can throw it away. The bottle has a plastic cap with both an external clear plastic seal and an internal cardboard seal. Inside the jar rattles a desiccant to keep dry a substance that will get wet only if your house floods – plus a wad of cotton to fill up the bottle that’s made double size to convince you you’ve bought twice as many aspirin as you receive. So, three relatively necessary waste items: bottle and cap and seal. Four unnecessary items: second seal, cotton, desiccant, outer box.
- • The oil, gas and coal underlying our rolling hills and shifting deserts took roughly 65 million years to accumulate. We’ve blasted, tunneled, drilled and syphoned most of it in under 200 years. My home sits atop the Marcellus Shale, the largest deposit of natural gas yet uncovered in the U.S. These gas reserves give us a chance to stick our heads in the sand for another 50 years while we devour what’s left of dinosaur shit and decayed ferns from the Cretaceous.
Examples of self-selected waste:
- • We’re invited to a dinner served on paper plates. Why? It takes no longer to wash real dishes than to bag and dispose of their po’ boy cousins – and food just tastes better on real plates. You know that. You’re served a packet with a plastic knife, fork and spoon incarcerated in a plastic wrapping. After you’ve used the fork and knife, you throw them and the unused spoon, along with the plastic wrapper, in the trash.
- • Many folks buy a single item at the store and expect a useless plastic bag to put it in –even a gallon milk bottle with a built-in carrying handle. The cashier will look startled if you say no to the bag. Their hands grip reflexively in that “stuff it in” motion.
- • If you own a dishwasher, you’ve bought an extra set of dishes because you never know what’s dirty, what’s clean or where most of your plates are hiding. (I don’t own a dish washer, can process my dishes in the sink faster than a dishwasher, and always know where my plates are – they’re either in the drainer or in the cabinet.)
- • Peeling vegetables: How did this become a basic approach to food? Fear of dirt? Aesthetic assumptions – mashed potatoes must glow white and creamy? Much of vegetables nutrition lies in or just beneath their skin. Removing it tosses half your food value. I’ve made mashed potatoes with the skin on for 40 years. Haven’t skinned a carrot in a couple decades. Ginger? East Indians don’t scrape it. (No, I don’t eat shrimp with the shells on – c’mon.)
Another interesting (if absurd) statistic:
At home, we recycle our food garbage by heaving atop our garden. And, every evening, after washing the dishes, when the water drains, I dump the tiny collection of scraps from the sink drain collection basket into the counter-side compost tray – half an once, maybe.
Here it is: Collecting that half-once every day adds up to 182 ounces – 11.4 pounds – a year. Now… if every one of the country’s estimated 126 million households would salvage that almost minuscule amount of organic matter every day… it would amount to 718,00 tons annually.
No, I’m not plumping for everyone, everywhere to clean their sink drains. It’s just an extended example to exuberantly show that many a mickle makes a muckle. And, oh, are we muckled.
Americans, left or right, wonder why the country is going down the tubes. In part it’s because our collective mind is going down the tubes. We chug along our little tracks, social automatons in search of the perfect snack, perfectly preserved, perfectly reproducible, perfectly bland, perfectly wrapped in pure plastic for us to toss in the trash can.
Does life get any better than this?
Let’s hope so.
This ramble started from reading an article on “Concrete Cowboy,” a Netflix movie about a Black urban horse-riding group in Philadelphia (starring Idris Elba, who’s always fun – which reminds me, if you ever get the chance, see “Beasts of No Nation” (2015), with Elba as supporting actor and the utterly stunning Abraham Attah, age 14, looking about 9, the star, about child soldiers in Africa).
Apparently, Black “urban cowboys” is a phenomenon in many American cities. That article, in turn, pointed me to a youtube short on the origin of the term “cowboy,” which started as a term for Black cowhands, then somehow spread wider. That story is fascinating. See it here:
Part of what follows is a repeat from an earlier piece, but with copious additions to keep you awake.
I moved with my parents to Powelton Village in Philly in 1947, a Victorian enclave across the Schuylkill River from the Art Museum. At that time and into the early ’50s, a lot of stuff was delivered by horse and cart – including the mail to some of the narrow alleys down by the Delaware River.
Aristocrat Ice Cream had neat wagons. Can’t remember most of the other commercial outfits (maybe Abbott Dairy), but at least until the 1951 city charter broke the 64-year Republican stranglehold on city government that had led to slow strangulation, our West Philly trash was collected by horse and cart.
A line of carts trotted along, each an open metal cube with stout rings sticking up from its four corners. Some form of recycling was still in effect from WWII: One cart would take cans, the next glass, etc. (No idea when or why that recycling ceased.) The last cart was followed by a shambling fellow with a shovel, who heaved the accumulated horse droppings up into the cart. Over on Lancaster Ave., a mobile crane would hook onto the corner rings to dump each cart into an open truck.
Food garbage was collected separately. You set your little can out by the curb, and a cart from one pig farmer or another who collect it for hog food. (Sounds like an excellent environmental cycle. It was, for the pigs, I suppose, but, unregulated, it was also a major source of the continuing bouts of trichinosis circulating through the nation’s pork supply.)
Today, I still delight to the smell of horseshit.
Another unlikelihood of the time was the Curtis Publishing electric trucks. Yes, electric – each fueled by 45 car batteries secreted under the truck’s floor planks.
Boxy but oddly elegant, they crawled along the downtown streets at a maximum 12 mph, hauling massive rolls of paper to print the Saturday Evening Post and the Ladies Home Journal, or taking the finished mags to the post office. These beasts, dating back to 1912, are still running here and there around the country, long after Curtis and the Post folded. Nice article on them at:
Odd times to look back on, when philthy Philly died at 5 pm and had no restaurants worth the bother except in Chinatown, where they were also the only places you could get a meal out on a Sunday night.
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Some total nonsense (set to the old spiritual, “Twelve Gates to the City”):
Oh, what a beautiful kitty
Oh, what a beautiful kitty
Oh, what a beautiful kitty
Four legs to the kitty
There’s two legs in the front,
Two legs in the back,
Two legs to the left,
Two legs to the right,
Four legs to the kitty
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Happy Easter! And remember to celebrate the resurrection of a Jew with a big ham.