Mole Street

Who would think there could be such a name, outside an English novel? But I lived there for the last two or three years of my undergrad days at Penn.

It’s a tiny back street of narrow brick rowhouses only a block and a half north from Philly’s City Hall. “Kelly’s on Mole St.” notably graced the separated  South Mole – a seafood restaurant where you sat at long, seaman-like tables, while nautical plates rested on a ledge above your head.

Our North Mole extended no more than a block and a half. The old rowhouses on our (east) side of the street were part of an estate administered by a downtown bank that charged the even-then ridiculous rent of $125 a month – which was why we could afford to live there. I have no idea how Mom discovered this place, but she had an unerring homing device for decent downscale living.

Two or three doors up the street lived the daughter of an Inquirer sports staffer. I wept for this wondrous teen female, whose name I can’t recall. Never spoke to her, of course, since I was still petrified of approaching a girl, but I could dream. Oh, I did dream.

Halfway through college I’d never had a date – yes, it (I) was that bad. At that point, Mom levered me together with Barbie (she actively called herself that), an overweight blonde who was volunteering for Mom, then secretary at Christ Church on Second St. Barbie was my first kiss and my first delicious grope, in the living room of Mole St. 

A few home-dates later, she resisted said grope (all above the waist). I kept at it – should I have? Christ, I don’t know – until she gave way. As she buttoned up, she asked, “Do you love me or was I just easy?” “Neither, I think,” I answered, which was truthful but about as insensitive as one can get. But I didn’t love her, and 15 minutes of getting access to those last two buttons was anything but easy. “I love you,” she said (or that’s what it sounded like, spoken low). Later, she lost both weight and interest in me. Can’t blame her.

No other house I’ve lived in so well reflected what it should be. The living room was the epitome of Mom’s superb sense of interior decoration. She covered three walls in yellow wallpaper with moss-green accents; the front wall and woodwork she painted a deep teal that sang of the tropics. Gorgeous, warm, settling.

The bathroom, too. Bathrooms should be as large as your living space will permit (where do you think the term “commodious” comes from?). On Mole St. there was room for a potted tree in the center and a free-standing wooden cabinet that held washcloths and towels (a Hoosier design, I later found out). A clawfoot tub, of course. You could shit, wallow, recline without restraint.

We traveled from floor to floor by piecrust stairway. I lived in the garret that enveloped the top floor, a long room with slanted ceiling and small windows front and back. A simple horizontal rail protected me from lurching down the stairs. It was a perfect, personal space, despite continual peeling of the thin outer layer of plaster. 

Dad, as usual, chose the tiniest room, a narrow bedroom next to the bath, and placed in it his chifferobe, a cheesy armoire-y thing whose undersized hinges continually worked loose. Every few months he re-invigorated the screwholes with matchsticks and Plastic Wood. If you ever encounter Plastic Wood, run; that item this worthless is still sold is a mark against the free enterprise system. 

Mom took the large second-floor bedroom that faced the street. 

I remember nothing of the kitchen except the semi-automatic Thor washing machine (you flipped a lever to advance cycles), our first non-wringer washer – odd to have purchased an appliance named for a god who threw hammers. 

The house backed up to the Philadelphia Friends Center on 15th St. The Quakers are quiet by nature, and we heard never a sound beyond the 6-foot-high, textured brick wall terminating our small back yard. We might have been sequestered in an ancient countryside village, inside that English novel.

The yard was a small, square space floored in concrete, with one raised flower bed against the Friends’ wall. During the first summer I trebled the size of the bed and built a low brick wall between us and our left-hand neighbor, topping it with a wooden gridwork to support vines. Next to the kitchen wall I sledged a hole through the concrete, on which we sat an unbottomed pot holding a wisteria to grow over the fence. 

I spent some of the happiest single hours of my life in that silent, isolated yard, reading, listening to our tiny radio, sometimes thinking. I wish there had been more of them.

Those years (1959-61) were a cultural in-between: Men stopped wearing hats, and no one noticed or commented on it. Women’s skirts grew shorter (thank you, Jehovah).

Tired of my childhood years of being sickly, miserable and cold every day of winter, I walked the two miles to Penn each morning wearing as little as I could without freezing to the sidewalk. 

Released from the formalism of my Catholic high school suit, I did not, as stereotypes of the time might suggest, become immediately cruddy and scruffy. Instead, I chameleonized, retaining the general societal form but radically changing color and content.

I wore one or another brightly colored shirt with black-and-white checks, fastened at the color with a contrasting, equally colorful, equally checked clip-on bow tie. Against the cold I slipped on a sleeveless, eye-searing-red V-neck sweater, overlaid by a plaid, not-quite-Spike Jones sports jacket. I didn’t own an outer coat.

I looked ludicrous and knew it, but for the first time in my life I not only didn’t care, I gloried in my bird-of-paradise absurdity.

Those were my last days of nuclear family, of being protected from and denied access to the world. Later came hell and high (intellectual) water. All-in-all, the change was a liberating one. But for every gain, they say, comes a loss.

Or maybe that’s just a statistical approximation.

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