Stories about life in Liddonfield housing project and its impact on the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood of Upper Holmesburg. These true stories reveal how government policy affected the lives of real people, from the project residents to area homeowners during the 5 decades of Liddonfield’s existence. Stories and articles are written by a former resident of the project.

FIGHT THE STIGMA!

FIGHT THE STIGMA!
Rosemary Reeves, Blogger, standing on Philadelphia Skyline

May 23, 2011

The Liddonfielders: A Public Housing Family Literary Drama-Part 5


Kevin and I roamed free during those hot, dry days of July 1967.  That catalytic season would come to be known as The Summer of Love, for it marked the dawning of social revolution, peace protests and flower children dancing barefoot in the streets.   “I’m going to wear my blue dress at the block party tomorrow,” I told Kevin as I tagged along beside him.  Kevin got stuck watching me again and we decided to go trash picking. 
“Who cares?” he said.  We walked beyond the housing project to the surrounding neighborhood where people owned their own homes.  Kevin was pulling his red wagon.  We were on a mission, a kind of treasure hunt.  Trash cans were lined up in front of the houses.  We had to hurry, before the trash men came and emptied all of them.  We marveled at the things people threw away – toys that only required a little fixing, like a car with a bent wheel and a model airplane with a part missing.  We fished through the refuse, taking anything that could be played with or put to use.  I thought it was fun.  I thought everyone did that. 
I batted away the flies hovering over one promising container.  Beneath balls of used tin foil and strings of sauce-encrusted pasta were the dog-eared pages of a book.  I reached inside and salvaged it.  The title was embossed in fancy lettering on the cover.  “What does it say?” I asked Kevin.  Kevin just finished third grade and he could read a little.  He sounded out the one-word title but didn’t know its meaning.  “It sure looks important,” I remarked, “I can’t wait until I can read.”  I was going to start school in September.  Kevin put the book in the red wagon along with the other things we retrieved.  I knew Mom would be happy I found it. 
A woman shouted out her window, “Keep out of my trash cans, you kids!”  She threatened to call the police.  We ran like little criminals making our escape, giggling as we made off with the goods, and Kevin pulling the red wagon as fast as he could go.  That happened a lot, but I liked it.  It was part of the excitement of the treasure hunt. 
We walked really far, past the row homes to streets where there were detached houses.  They looked similar to the quaint cottages in children’s books my mother read to me.  As I gazed at them I was filled with awe, enamored with the storybook people whose lives we were shut out of.  I admired their pretty lawns and wondered what magical things lay beyond their front doors.  I thought there were fairies in their gardens and princesses inside, sleeping on canopied beds.  And just like in the days of old, it was forbidden to enter the neighboring village due to tribal loyalty.  I belonged to the lesser tribe behind the housing project fence, and so it seemed, had no business being where normal people lived.
An elderly woman was watering her roses.  She was wearing a big, floppy hat to keep the sun off her face.  The shorts she had on were cut off at the knee, revealing the pasty white skin of her calves.  She looked so serene in her lovely garden that I paused to watch her.  The wheels of the red wagon came to a halt.  “What is it?” my brother asked.
I said, “Kevin, don’t you wish that was our house?”
“C’mon,” he replied, taking my hand, “Let’s get out of here before that old lady yells at you for staring at her.”  There was a small wooded area nearby and Kevin remarked that the trees were perfect for climbing.  He said you couldn’t just climb any old tree.  The best ones had gnarled trunks with knobs that could be used like steps and limbs strong enough to hold your weight.  The branches had to be within reach of each other for an easy ascent.  Kevin was always using logic, even when he played. 
He picked a tree to climb and I chose the one right next to it.  It was easy going up.  “Look how high I am, Kevin!” I said after a while.
“Don’t go any higher,” Kevin told me.  He brushed some leaves away from his face.
I clung to a branch.  “But I want to go all the way to the top.”
Kevin looked up at me from the limb he was standing on.  “That’s too high,” he replied, “It’s time to come down, anyway.”  My brother began his descent, carefully stepping onto the lower branches one at a time.  I ignored him and kept going higher.  Kevin made it to solid ground.  He called to me from below.  “I told you to come down!”
“Okay,” I said.  Somehow, coming down was a lot tougher than going up.  Suddenly, I was afraid of falling.  “I can’t do it,” I called to him from above, “You have to come and get me.”
Kevin looked mad.  “Oh, no, I’m not!”
“But I’m scared!”
He told me the trick is not to look down, but I had to look in order to see the branches below.   I gave it a try and my foot slipped.  After that, I wouldn’t let go of the trunk.  “I’m stuck,” I said and started to cry. 
“Oh, all right,” he replied.  He had to climb up and help me down.  After that, we went home.
 “Look what I got for you,” I told Mom excitedly with the book in hand, when Kevin and I returned to the project.  Mom ran her fingers over the cover.  Her eyes grew wide.  “Who could ever part with this?” she asked.  She told me the title of the book.  It was the Iliad.  Mom’s face glowed with delight, as if I had brought her a string of pearls.
Mom was sitting on a rocking chair that Kevin and I found on one of our trash picking missions.  It had been left on the sidewalk in front of somebody’s house.  Mom was always saying she wished she had one.  We could hardly believe our luck when we came upon it.  The arm was broken.  That was the only thing wrong with it.  Dad fixed the arm with masking tape.  The tape was yellow against the dark wood.  It looked like a cast on an injured limb.  Mom gave me a hug for finding the book and wiped the sweat from her brow.  She was in front of the fan but it was only blowing hot air.   
A while later Dad came home.  I stiffened and studied his demeanor.  He didn’t look angry at all.  In fact, it was quite the opposite.  He kissed my mother on the cheek.  “I got promoted to supervisor of the maintenance crew!” he told her. 
Mom was elated.  Dad was going to make more money now.  He talked about buying another car.  We used to have one but Dad had to sell it because he was broke.  When Mom and Dad finished talking, Dad got up and changed the channel on the T.V.  I exchanged glances with my brothers and sisters.  It was annoying the way Dad always changed the channel when we were in the middle of watching something.  There was no conversation about it.  He never asked if we minded.  It was as if our feelings weren’t important enough to take into account.  At least he wasn’t in a fighting mood.
Dad channel surfed for a while as we all tried to hide our frustration.  We couldn’t say anything because it would turn into a fight, or rather, a beating.  Dad decided to watch the Roadrunner and Wile Coyote cartoon.  That was okay with me. 
The roadrunner was too fast for Wile Coyote, so the coyote built a race car to keep up with him.  Roadrunner zoomed up a perilous mountain, stopping just short of the top.  Wile drove right past him and off the cliff.  He pushed the parachute button on his dashboard, but the parachute got tangled up in the car and Wile fell out.  The car landed safely.  Wile, however, plummeted to the ground.  Then a boulder fell on his head.  Dad chuckled.  The Roadrunner cartoon was his favorite show and he watched it whenever he was in a good mood.
There was a knock on the door just then.  A smiling, well-groomed man wearing a suit and tie was peeking inside at us through the screen.  Dad got up to greet him.  “Good afternoon,” said the stranger as he tipped his hat, “I wonder if I can have a moment of your time.” 
It was a door-to-door salesman.  Dad let him in.  The stranger smelled sweetly of aftershave.  The man talked for a long time about the life insurance he was selling.  “What do you think?” the salesman said when he was done his pitch.  Dad remarked that he wasn’t worth much alive let alone dead, financially speaking, and this was just moments after bragging about his promotion.  Dad talked about how miserable his life was and how his children were to blame.  He said we were a burden he never wanted.  The salesman squirmed with discomfort as I played nearby.  “But you have a wonderful family,” he replied, “Your little girl is a peach.”  
“Sure, she’s cute,” Dad told him, “but she’s lazy and ignorant and can’t do anything right.  She’s nothing but trouble to her old man.”  Dad turned to me.  “Ain’t that right, kid?”  He always called me kid.  Never darling, or sweetheart, or even my name.  Just kid.
  I felt embarrassed.  Dad grinned at the salesman.  “Full of spunk, that one.  Spirited.  I’ll break her of it, though.”  Mom just sat there and let him say those things.  The salesman was visibly shaken when he left.  Dad had a way of shaking people up like that.
Dad settled down in front of the television.  He turned the channel again.  This time he decided to watch an episode of the Lone Ranger.  Tonto came into town to meet with the masked cowboy.  “Greetings, Kimosabe,” he said.
Dad turned to my mother, who was sitting on the sofa.  “Hey, Eileen,” Dad remarked, “Why did the Lone Ranger stop being friends with Tonto?”
Mom looked up from the dog-eared pages of The Iliad.  “I don’t know, Jim.  Why?”
Dad grinned as he delivered the punch line.  “He found out Kemosabe means bullshitter!”  That was the first time I ever heard Dad tell a joke.  He must have been ecstatic about the promotion.  Dad threw his head back and laughed.  That’s when I thought for sure it was going to be a good night. 
Things were peaceful until the sun went down.  All of a sudden, someone pounded furiously on our front door.  The sounds from the television muffled a woman’s panicked voice.  Dad was a little hard of hearing and the t.v. was on pretty loud.  Mom looked up from The Iliad again.  “Who could that be?” she asked.
“I’ll get it,” I said and skipped over to the door.  Dad turned the t.v. down.  Now we could hear every word the woman was saying.  “My husband is trying to kill me!” she screamed, “He’s got a gun!”
I turned the doorknob.  “Thank God!” the woman said as the door came ajar.  I saw the sleeve of her yellow blouse as she pushed against the door in an attempt to enter.  Before she could, someone came up behind me and shut it from the inside.  I turned around.  My father was securing the door chain, locking the woman out.  The woman let out a gut wrenching wail.  “No!” she pleaded, “Let me in! Let me in!”
She banged on the door again and then there was silence.  I thought she had given up, but she only walked a few steps over to the window.  Now I could see her face.  I recognized her.  She lived down the block.  The palms of her hands were pressed against the glass.  She looked terrified.  I knew this was no game of cops and robbers.  This was real.  There were chills at the back of my neck.  It felt prickly.  “Please!” she cried.  
My father stared at the woman through the glass and shook his head.  She began sobbing.   Dad told Mom he was getting the shotgun in case the woman’s husband tried to fire shots at our house.  “Don’t you let her in!”  he told me.  Dad opened the closet, retrieving the weapon.  He slipped it out of the faux leather case and took the box of bullets from the shelf.  The woman motioned for me to open the door, but I just looked at her helplessly.  “Get out of here!” Dad told her, and held the loaded shotgun up for her to see. 
Mom tried to pull me away to safety, but I resisted.  Just then, police sirens drowned out the woman’s screams.  I saw a man come out of the shadows with a pistol in his hand.  The woman noticed my startled reaction and instinctively she turned around, only to see her maniacal husband coming toward her.  She was seconds away from death when the cop cars screeched to a halt in front of our unit.  Uniformed officers pulled their guns on the man and ordered him to drop his weapon.  He did so and they took him away in handcuffs before he could shoot his terrified wife.



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