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The Middle Years, Part Two

childrenhouse

The other half of our twin house had been chopped up into apartments but the tenants were stable.  An old man and his much younger wife, somewhat simpleminded it turned out, and their mentally challenged little boy – a sweet child, lived on the first floor.  The old man spent much of his time washing his ancient but still gleaming car which he parked at the curb of his house.  A young veterinary student, his wife and two large, ailing dogs lived on the second floor.

Mr. Jones and his wife lived alone in the house to our right.  They had lived there for more than forty years.  We recognized no others on the block.  On Sunday morning the children and I would sit on the front porch to read and watch the people going to mass –  many older whites, and many well scrubbed black children.  The influx of black children into the neighborhood had made St. Francis’s school viable again.  “Them Catholics!”,  sneered four-year old Stephen.  Where did that come from?

A shooting in one of the many bars along Fifty Second Street near Market Street, a busy but rundown commercial area:  one dead, two wounded.  Hey, that was fifteen blocks away. 

I’d get my haircuts at John’s, an old Italian barber on Baltimore Avenue near Forty Seventh.  Next door to him was a small Jewish delicatessen whose grandmotherly owner scooped the butter out of a wooden tub.  Down the block was an old ice cream parlor where we’d sit on bent-cane chairs at glass topped tables.  The shop was deserted on week nights.  How did they hang on?

Margie’s job at EEF provided cultural fringe benefits for the whole family.  Each year the Eisenhower Foundation (EEF) brought twenty-five fellows to the United States for six month fellowships.  These were men and women in mid-career, not students. They came to the United States to observe how Americans practiced what they did in their own countries.

margie-at-eef

Margie was one of three officers who planned their professional programs, sending the fellows to their opposite American numbers all over the country.  EEF encouraged its staff to invite the fellows to dinner while they remained in Philadelphia;  home hospitality, the American way of life..  EEF paid us paid $3.50 per head, $7.00 per couple to entertain them.

That was enough to buy pasta, the chicken, a head of lettuce (NOT iceberg!), and a bottle or two of Gallo Hearty Burgundy wine.  A French fellow pronounced the Gallo Burgundy as good as the table wine he drank at home.

One bitter February night Margie and I drove to the airport to meet Solomon Uwaifo, an electrical engineer from Nigeria.   He emerged from the plane wearing a tropical linen suit.  I lent him the sweater I had been wearing under my heavy coat and we rushed him to his hotel in center city.

Next morning I accompanied him to the department store where he bought warm clothes. He was awed by the profusion of goods in the store.  Solomon, who had a wife and six children. was not impressed with the black women he saw in the store.  He said Nigerian women were more beautiful. Toward the end of his six-month stay, he said he had seen some good looking women.

An armed robbery on Fiftieth and Walnut Streets. A high-speed police car chase on Market Street toward Cobbs Creek Parkway.   That was many blocks away.

We socialized with Margie’s coworkers.  Not with Hampton Barnes, the Director, who was affable but not a friend. Every year he invited his staff, their spouses and the departing fellows to dinner at his estate in Glenmore.  He was properly segnorial but genial.

Hampton was an acquaintance of the men – Thomas McCabe of Scott Paper, Thomas Watson of IBM, Thomas Gates, Secretary of Defense under Eisenhower. – who had spurred the founding of EEF in 1951, to honor President Eisenhower.  They had considered erecting a statue but when they consulted Mamie Eisenhower, she told them Ike would hate a statue.  “Give him something to foster international relations,“  she said.

A shooting in a bar on Fifty-fourth  and Walnut Streets:  one patron dead, one policeman injured.  That was a long ways off.

The old man next door died suddenly.  His wife, his son and his car disappeared  just as quickly.  The first floor was chopped into two small apartments, soon occupied by college students.  One of them had fancy hi-fi equipment and I had to remind him about the noise.  Meanwhile life went on.  Fernanda was happy at Friends Central School, and eventually Stephen went there too.  We continued going to Cape May for our summer vacations, at first for two week stays, then three weeks, then four.  I’d join the the family on weekends and for the final two weeks.

At the Free Library, the hierarchy decided that I’d make a good administrator.  I was flattered but had mixed feelings about the turn away from books.  To broaden my experience, they asked me to run a neighborhood branch for a while.  The branch was in a tough part of the Cobbs Creek area, about twenty blocks from our house.  Except for the reference librarian and the children’s librarian, the staff was made of people from the neighborhood.  They made it easy for me.

I won over the high school kids, mostly girls, who came evenings to study and to do their homework.  But their presence attracted unruly boys who  were  at times disruptive.  When blandishment failed, I came down hard, especially on their leader.  On one occasion, I threatened to call the police.  They left the library, defiantly upending a chair as they sauntered out.  One of the girls called me aside:  “Watch out for so-and-so, (the leader); he carries a gun.”  Later that year, so-and-so joined the Army.  “How come?” “ I asked.  “Better than going to jail.”

Dorothy Guinn, a circulation desk assistant,  had a son was an art student at what later became the University of the Arts.   I suggested we display Mike’s paintings on the library walls.   We hung about thirty paintings and drawings,  The show was a mild success –  mostly relatives and friends, but nobody bought a painting. I admired a painting several  times.  Dorothy asked me if I’d like to buy it.

“I’ll give him forty dollars,”

“That’s too much.” she said.   “Give him twenty-five.”  My son now has the painting.   I left the Cobbs Creek Branch after nine months.

A police car chase down Baltimore Avenue.  The stolen car crashed into a row of parked cars at Fiftieth Street.  Close, but who knows where the car  came from.

My next assignment was in the The Library for the Blind whose head librarian was out on longterm sick leave.  The “books” consisted of thousands of  LP records packed in sturdy black, mailing containers.  Two of our women  sat at the phones, taking requests.  The women would type up an address label and they’d hand it and a copy of the phone order to one of two young men who collected the LPs from the stacks.  They’d affix the address labels and place the ready-to-mail containers on book trucks to await the post man.  We had a few patrons who came in to browse among the Braille books in the stacks.  At day’s end, we’d send somebody to check the dimly lit stacks for stragglers.

Jack was often a straggler.  He was a fourteen year old, the son of an Australian war bride whose husband had abandoned her.  He was a brilliant student at the one of Philadelphia’s elite public schools.   He was a voracious reader.  His mother said she had to check under Jack’s  blankets at night to make sure he wasn’t hiding a book to read into the wee hours.

We received a request for Dr. Spock’s book, which in Braille takes up fourteen volumes.   The reader was a twenty-two year old Catholic mother who had had two sets of twins in twelve months.  She made all the Philadelphia newspapers.  Our women who spoke to her on the phone said she was a delight, always upbeat.  The grandmother of the twins, who sometimes called the library said she was exhausted. I left the Library for the Blind when the regular librarian returned from sick leave.

My next assignment was as  head acquisition librarian for the entire system:  the Central Library, the Regional Library ant the forty branches.  I supervised twenty three people.  I was now dealing more with budgets and people than with books as intellectual artifacts  The books were merely items to be ordered, received, processed and distributed by the tens of thousands.

A purse snatching on Fiftieth and Springfield Avenues. The woman held  on to her bag and her assailant knocked her down, breaking her arm.  Some young punk.

Next door first floor back, a one bedroom apartment, was rented to a woman with six children, the oldest eleven, the youngest less than a year old.  We seldom saw the mother;  someone told us she hung out in a bar on 52nd Street.  The eleven year old daughter, a sweet tempered child, went around with the baby on her hip.  She kept her siblings in line as best she could.   The children would appear on the adjoining porch at meal times, gnawing  on uncooked hot dogs.  Their father showed up occasionally to spend the night., surreptitiously, so as not to endanger his “abandoned” wife’s welfare status.   He would remove his car’s battery and carry it into the house,.  He must have lived in a tough neighborhood.  Did he know something about our street that we didn’t know?

Our uneasiness turned to alarm.  Two years had past.  We felt besieged but we continued at our jobs; we visited relatives and friends; we attended concerts in center city.  On weekends, I sought out interesting activities for the children.  We never entertained a neighbor in our home, no neighbor ever invited us into their home.

We’d sit on the front porch to eat ice cream. Three or four little faces would appear at the railing separating our porches. Should I buy ice cream for them too?  Where would that lead?  We stopped eating ice cream on the porch. One night the father of the children came slinking in as usual, but in the morning they were all gone, for good.

Two men, in their forties, moved into the second floor apartment.   They came to our door and introduced themselves, first names only.  They were well-mannered, well-spoken.  They’d be running a mail order business from their apartment.  They seemed nice.  Sometimes they’d sit on their front porch to have a cigarette.   A comforting change, but Margie and I had already lost hope.

Jack Brown, of Marquis Publications, one of the many publisher’s representatives who regularly came to call, told me about a job at a new County College in Pemberton, New Jersey.   I applied, I was interviewed and I got the job:  Acquisitions Librarian and Bibliographer.  I would work with faculty members to select a new book collection, across all disciplines.  Arnold Toynbee would have been daunted, but at my price, I wasn’t a bad choice.

A loud crash.  The house shook.  It was one o’clock in the morning.  I leaped out of bed and ran to the window.  Margie sat up, frightened:  “What is it?”  Someone, a drunken driver, still slumped in his car, had smashed into our parked car.  The impact drove the car across the sidewalk and into the front of the house.  A total loss, the car, not the house.

the-crash

I called George Funderberg of Urban Developers.  George had sold us 911; maybe he could sell it when the time came.   George had reinvented himself since we last saw him:  he was now a fair-skinned black (what he had always been), with an Afro hairdo, a colorful dashiki shirt and a toothy smile.  He was turning the neighborhood over again.

I commuted to the college during our final year in Philadelphia.  Enroute I’d identify towns that might serve our needs:  schools, schools schools.  I’d stop to examine the town on my way home.

I’d ask the librarian about the town’s schools, about housing, about taxes.  I’d walk up and down Main Street.  On Saturday or Sunday, Margie and I would return to the best prospects.  Moorestown towered above all towns we visited:  excellent schools, tree lined streets, attractive houses, pretty neighborhoods, healthy Main Street, EXPENSIVE. We chose it. We’d be the poorest family on Main street instead of the richest on 47th Street.

We were wakened by a splintering crash and our bedroom turned white from the glare of a spotlight that swept over the house fronts.  We heard thundering footfalls on the stairs next door.  A police raid:  the two nice men next door were producing illegal drugs.  They were taken away.  A policeman stood guard at the demolished front door all night long.  We remained calm – in a few months we too would be gone.

An afterward:
911s47th
911 in 2016, forty-eight years after we bought it in 1968. Wow!  Should we have stuck it out?  No!

THE END

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5 thoughts on “The Middle Years, Part Two

  1. Anonymous says:

    A wonderful writing style indeed. I enjoy every detail with the photographs to add. The local news inserts give the setting.
    Diana

    Like

    • Thank you, Seth. Stephen’s fleeting bias obviously came from me. Mine came from my early encounter, at an impressionable age, with the supercilious, paternalistic, Irish-American hierarchy in a largely Italian parish. Stephen has always been free of that kind of prejudice whereas I have had to overcome mine. Those early ethnic neighborhoods were tribal. C.

      Like

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