The House! – After almost 60 years, that’s still how I think of it.
After I graduated Penn, I spent a third of a year at Stanford in grad communications, leaving there to escape the dissolution of my mother (more on that elsewhere). I schlepped back to Philly by Greyhound bus and moved into a cheap apartment in The Piles – a then-decaying complex in Powelton Village – with Steve, my companion on the trip to Europe and also my successor as features editor on The Daily Pennsylvanian.
That summer I again sailed as a deckhand on a Sun Oil tanker, and while I was a-ship, my stuff was moved to a house near Penn where I was to join four guys I didn’t know.
Between sailings, when I first wandered in to psych the place out, I found the four-foot-wide round oak table I’d refinished some years before for my mother and set on hairpin legs. What determines the things you keep and move around?
Ascending to the third floor, where I knew my room to be, I also found, at one o’clock in the afternoon, an amorphous pile wrapped tightly in a sheet on what I took to be my bed. Unwrapped, it turned into Joe, a Tennessean with wildly curly hair that, I later found, he could form into a horn that stuck out six inches from his head. Joe was renting my room while I was at sea. That was fine by me.
He got up and we took a walk. Which is pretty much what we did whenever we got together over the next couple months while I was in port – walk and walk and walk throughout the city. One late night or early morning, we were loping along Tasker Ave. in South Philly. We passed a row of tiny modern homes with tiny metal flap doors for trash. In front of each house sat a tiny garbage can waiting for pickup. As we approached the end of the block, a tiny garbage truck – the smallest collector of refuse I’ve ever seen – stopped so its workman could empty the nearest tiny can.
The House, at 23 S. 34th Street, was half a block from the Penn Law School. We five paid $110 total to rent the whole place. Think about that: As close as you could possibly get to a major urban campus, with each of us paying $22 a month rent, partially furnished. The equivalent in current dollars is around $200. Don’t worry about inflation: Even then, $22 was bantam chicken feed, no matter what adjustment you may make. But in the early ’60s, People didn’t yet feel morally required to milk every last dime from every last person, situation or institution. (Penn now controls all living quarters that touch the campus. You’d pay both arms and a twice-gilded leg to live where we did – though in fact, the house was later torn down to erect a parking garage.)
The first-floor layout: in the front room – the living room – a collection of friendly stray chairs followed the curve of my oak table. Walking from the living room toward the rear, you passed through an open area (too large for a hallway, too small for most anything else), then through the dining room with its monstrous icky-green table and chairs, then the kitchen, and finally the shed where we threw the icky-green chairs that we ritually shattered at our parties.
The kitchen housed the small oak table with pull-out ends that my parents bought in 1932, along with four chairs, for $18. (Linda and I still dine at it daily, a sturdy memento in continual use for almost 90 years.)
The unfunctioned open area between living and dining rooms was home to the House phone, where you could sit at floor level in a Victorian wing chair with its legs cut off – the most comfortable seat I’ve ever lowered into.
Upstairs, we each had a bedroom of decent or, in a couple cases, almost indecent size; three on the second floor, two on the third. I had the third rear, where the sun would wake me in the morning. (I didn’t always welcome its intrusion.)
The House-holders were almost impossibly smart. Dave, a math major, graduated first in his class at Penn. He spent his days lying on his third-floor-front bed staring at the ceiling, thinking I don’t know what. Once, when he couldn’t find socks to put on, we moved his bed and uncovered 11 pairs. As the term trundled to its end, he’d pull out his books, study like a cloistered madman, and ace every subject.
Danny was number three in the same graduating class, also a math major – studying topology, a subject he extolled as having no practical use. (Since then, it’s proved quite valuable. I’ve often wondered how much that pissed him off.)
Mike was House organizer, the grumbling yet almost lovable martinet of meal-and-cleanup schedules. Barry Two (second in my sequence of live-with Barrys) – was odd man out, the butt of snide comment. In retrospect, I see that he served a worthwhile and wholly necessary function.
I was the sole non-Jew. Whether despite or because of my Catholic schooling, I have long been more comfortable with Jews than Christians. I had great fun at a seder in Danny’s home in the suburbs. For some reason the family elder – Danny’s grandfather? – decided my name was George.
I have a hazy recollection that I first met Chris Hessert (the subject of a very personal rumination here some months back) on a visit to friends in the Penn dorms. Later, he’d drop by my digs at the House to sit at my great grandfather’s desk and insult my Indian classical music with his uproarious staccato laugh while banging on the desktop with a kazoo. Then he’d ask to hear the record again. As mock secretary, he’d answer my phone for me: “Bassoon concerto, bassoon speaking.”
As also the only non-scholastic, I mostly held down part-time jobs. For the hell of it, I painted the House hallways when the others were on vacation (standing on a four-inch board laid across the open stairway, though I’ve always had a paralyzing fear of heights).
After a few months of feeling cramped for work space, I broke through the back wall of my closet to annex the tiny adjoining room as a rattletrap “office” for writing on my 1937 IBM electric typewriter (turning a little dial on the keyboard would fine-tune its key-pressure to the point where you could almost type by blowing across the keys). I set up old doors as tables that lined three sides of what had probably been a servant’s nest.
There I turned out reams of written matter. I’d swiped a carton of AP wire-service paper from the student newspaper office. It was rough, cheap, yellowish, 6 inches wide and accordion-folded into an 18-inch-long box – maybe a half-mile of the stuff. It was meant to feed into a teletype machine, but instead it fed into my IBM. I’d pound out a bit of fiction, a comment on the House, a (usually stupid) essay about science, tear it off and add it to the appropriate pile on one of the doors.
We ate communal suppers that included Howie from a couple blocks over, who paid to join the meals. Howie had an almost pathological revulsion toward fat. He would trim every last vestige from every bite of meat, then hold each forkful up to the light to be certain not a speck of lipid remained. I always sat next to him; when he had finished his repast I’d whisk the pile of rejected grease onto my plate and gobble it up – which never seemed to bother him.
We all played balloon ball in that undecided first-floor space, with its two archways as goals. Balloons batted by a crew of superbly intelligent 20-year-olds can take amazingly unpredictable flights. whap, whip, flop, swoop, wong, wurp, oop, suuuUUuupp. Unrestrained pleasure, with no rules or winner, announced or contemplated. The perfect sport.
We wrote on the filthy wallpaper in the second floor hallway, penning invented names or conversions of existing ones. Danny was undisputed champ with an appellation that will never be equaled: “Ann T. S. P. O. Nagy” (the last pronounced “nahj,” after Imre Nagy, premier during the brief 1956 Hungarian uprising).
On an ancient mimeo machine (which we later destroyed by dropping a shotput onto it from the second-floor hallway), I put out the single issue of my only (print) magazine: “Ersatz: the Poor Man’s Substitute for Culture.” I wrote up my peyote experience, there were a few poems and not sure what else. (I have lost all copies. Typical.) I sweated over the internal pressure to extend its run, but just couldn’t get myself to do it. Damned shame (maybe).
My four companions graduated that year, 1963, leaving me sole resident for the summer. In the fall, they were replaced by four newcomers, two quite bright (if not of Dave and Danny brilliance), one (Bob?) mild and middling, one – well, there always has be that odd man out. I can’t recall his name; he was from Virginia, had washed out blue eyes and typed up his organic chem notes each night – forming benzine rings with right and left typed slashes, which didn’t noticeably improve his grades.
Barry Three and David were the bright ones, Jews again. This Barry was short, burly, bass-baritone of voice, Brooklyn accented, massive headed, somewhere between a stereotypical mob figure and a gorilla, but thoughtful and a music lover. At a living room party, he and I got to dancing to Little Richard’s “Jenny, Jenny,” bellowing the lyrics and shaking our fingers at each other. One of my few public uninhibited moments.
David was skinny, geeky-looking but loud, with squirrelish intensity. An inveterate slob, he ate kosher but left his room scattered with non-porcine bones. When the rest of the house dove into a baked pork roast, he’d stand by the table and bellow, “Goddamn that smells good.” He had the strangest way of salting his food, holding the salt cellar straight up and lurching it with his hand so that the salt shot out the top and rained onto his plate.
The guy who lived next door was skewed and more than a little dense. He didn’t have a phone, so he’d come over and ask to use ours. Something about him set all of us off, so rather than saying “No,” as soon as he lifted the receiver, we’d make every conceivable kind of racket – yowls, crashes, throwing things, slamming large objects while he tried to converse. Our crowing achievement of obnoxiousness was rolling that shotput down the stairs.
Poor bastard never seemed to catch on or feel offended. The strangest part: He felt the need to pay us for use of the phone by periodically delivering fresh rolls of toilet paper.
The House! a cauldron of kinetic energy never quite duplicated.