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.


Rosemary Reeves, Blogger, standing on Philadelphia Skyline

Jun 27, 2011

The Liddonfielders: A Public Housing Diary - Part 10

by Rosemary Reeves 

     Part Ten:  On the Road to Delinquency

If you missed the first nine parts, click on the links below:

 I was thirteen and wondering what high school would be like the next year, when I passed a group of neighborhood boys playing street hockey.  The goalie was ready at the net, preparing to stop the other team from scoring.  In the middle of the game he fell out of position, took off his hockey mask and gazed at me with longing in his eyes.  ”Rosemary,” he said, “You’re getting prettier every day!”  The other boys laughed as the hockey puck flew past him. 
I looked away, embarrassed.  What’s more, I was puzzled.  Up until then, he had called me names like “white trash” and “ragdoll.”  I was mystified as to how a boy who despised me for so long could suddenly make such an overture.  I kept walking and did not say a word.
At home, Mom was making shepherd’s pie with potatoes and hamburger she had bought on sale.  ”Mom, am I pretty?” I asked her.
“You’re the very image of my sister Mary when she was your age,” Mom replied.  “She was the pretty one.  The boys were always chasing her around.”  My Aunt Mary lived in the suburbs.  Now and then Mom would visit her, but Aunt Mary never came to our house.  I didn’t blame her for that.  Who would want to be near my father?  He had a talent for rubbing people the wrong way.  His own family disowned him.  His mother didn’t speak to him for years.
I told Mom what happened with the hockey player.  “That’s so cute,” she said, “Do you like him, too?”
“I’m not interested in him or any of those boys,” I told her.  “They’re mean and I don’t like mean people.”  Despite the attention I was beginning to receive from the opposite sex, I was lonelier than ever.  Now that my brother Kevin and I were teenagers, he would go off and do things without me.  It was part of growing up, I guess.  When I wasn’t in school, I spent most of the time in the basement alone with a stack of library books.  I began reading the classics and developed a keen interest in literature.  It was amazing how the stories could transport me to another place in my mind.  Books offered an escape from the dismal reality of my home life and gave me something to look forward to.  There was a whole world out there to explore and revel in and I couldn’t wait to grow up so I could have adventures of my own.
There were times when I heard my father’s angry voice calling, breaking the spell the books had over me.  I sat frozen, listening intently for his footsteps, which would come ever closer to the basement door from above.  After a few minutes, the doorknob would turn and the door would be flung open with a thud.  “Are you ignoring me, kid? I know you’re down there.  Better get your ass up here now!”
Kevin and I were left vulnerable at home in the midst of adolescence.  Once, at dinner I dropped a plate and it shattered into pieces on the kitchen floor.  Dad criticized me for hours, repeating over and over again that I was clumsy and no good, and that he wished he wasn’t my father.  He kept me up past midnight. The next day I fell asleep in class.
I had it easy compared to Kevin, though.  He had become the main target of Dad’s vicious temper now that the older boys were gone. I witnessed Dad bullying him time and time again.  Dad began to use his fists, which horrified me.  On one such occasion Kevin tried to defend himself, but Dad was too strong.  Mom was screaming, “Stop it! Stop it!”  I ran and watched the terrifying spectacle from a distance with tears rolling down my cheeks.  
All of a sudden, the doorbell rang.  Dad looked startled.  He stopped hitting my brother.  “Be quiet, all of you,” Dad said as he opened the door. 
Two policemen stood on the doorstep.  “We’ve been called regarding a disturbance,” said one of them.  Dad told them there had been an argument, that’s all.  We didn’t mean to disturb the neighbors, he explained.  The officers gave him a verbal warning.  We were not to waste their time coming out for such nonsense.  They didn’t come inside to see if we were all right or ask us questions.  They seemed more concerned about the noise than anything else.  Over the years, each time the police had come, I hoped that they would help us, but they never did.  That’s how it was in those days.  Domestic violence was considered a private family matter, something to keep behind closed doors.
Afterward, a girl who lived down the street approached me as I was taking the family dog for a walk.  I recognized her face but did not know her name. I thought she must have an outgoing personality because once or twice a week, a group of girls came to her house and her mother would drive them all somewhere.  I often wondered what fun activity they had planned.  I was especially curious because none of the girls who visited were from the neighborhood.   I braced myself as she walked up to me.  I was expecting an unkind remark.   “Why did the police come to your house the other day?’ she asked. 
I had been teased about it by a couple of girls on our block.  They said my family was weird and called me a freak.  I thought she was leading up to the same and so I replied, “I don‘t want to talk about it.  Mind your business.”
 “I’m not trying to be nosy,” she said, “It’s just that I’ve been watching you all this time.  I can tell you have problems with your family.  I have problems, too, and I need to talk to someone who understands.  I think you would understand.”  She told me her name was Dolores. 
No one had ever asked for my help with a problem before.  It made me open up to her.  It was a relief to tell someone what was happening at home without fear of being teased or judged.  I told her everything. “My father was beating up my brother.  My dad says horrible things to me all the time. He’s so mean to us, I can’t stand it.”
“Let’s talk about it,” Dolores said.  She and I were the same age.  Dolores also had a brother.  He was ten.  The boy had health problems that made him unable to participate in the rough games that other boys liked to play.  The exact nature of his condition was never very clear to me.  The way Dolores explained it he was born premature with a multitude of ailments that rendered him weak and small for his age.  He could often be seen as a solitary figure crouched over his mother’s flower bed, trying to catch butterflies in his cupped little hands.  His mother worried about him so, that she kept a constant watch over him.  If he had been playing outside and was out of sight even for a moment she’d scramble among the bushes, frantically looking for him.  Dolores complained that she could not do the things she wanted to if it interfered with her brother’s needs.  She added that he received far more attention.  Perhaps to compensate for the disadvantages of his fragile constitution, his mother gave him more than his share of hugs and kisses.  Delores thought he was the favorite child and this made her feel second best. 
Their father was a nice enough fellow who liked to joke around.  However, like many men at the time, he seemed to leave most of the parenting to his wife.  Each time Dolores felt slighted by her mother, she came running to me.  I comforted her and made her feel better.  It felt good to help someone, instead of always being the person who needed help.  There were times when Dolores invited me to go along on outings with the group she hung around with, but I declined.  I was afraid her companions would not like me and influence her to end our friendship.
Though I always took her side in Dolores’ rivalry with her brother, there was a certain irony about it.  My brothers and sisters had often complained that Mom wasn’t as affectionate with them when they were small as she had been with me.  They called me the spoiled one, even still.  Mom qualified it by reminding them that they were all little at the same time and she had her hands full just keeping up with them, whereas I arrived much later on.  Though I understood  they had it far worse than I ever did, it was tough being referred to as spoiled.  Years of witnessing the abuse of my siblings and being helpless to do anything about it was a torment in its own way.  What’s more, they had been a buffer between me and Dad’s fury and now that most of them had moved out, I was experiencing a heightened sense of peril.  I was in a great deal of emotional distress and no one seemed to pick up on it.  Perhaps that is why I began to act out.
I was old enough now that all the frustration began putting angry thoughts in my head.  I felt as if I had no control over anything.  I was thirteen and my mother would not even give me a key to the house.  Her reason was that she did not think I was old enough to handle the responsibility.  Besides, one of my sisters was always there to let me in anyway.  The point of contention was over the fact that I came home every day at noon to eat lunch.  I could not eat lunch at school because I was teased by my classmates during that hour whenever I stayed.   Because I did not fight back, I was an easy target for bullies.  They thought I was odd because I was so withdrawn.  I isolated myself from the others due to fear of ridicule.  This only served to cause the very thing I was trying to avoid, because there was no one to stand up for me. 
Once, the house was empty when I came home for lunch.  I ended up waiting on the concrete steps in front of the house as my stomach growled and my temper rose.  I became so angry, I decided to break in.  Our front door had a glass panel.  I used my shoe to smash the glass then reached inside, undid the lock and let myself in.  “Now I can eat my stinking lunch!”  I mumbled as I stepped around the shattered pieces.
I helped myself to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, cleaned up the broken glass and went back to school.  All of a sudden, I realized my father was going to go out of his mind when he found out what I had done.  I thought maybe I could stay at Dolores’ house overnight.  There was no getting around the fact that, eventually, I’d have to face my father, though.  I was scared when the school bell rang at the end of the day.  I told myself that Mom will think of something.  She’ll get me out of this.  She always does.  When Mom arrived home from work, the first thing she said was, “What happened to the door?”
“I was locked out so I broke the glass,” I told her.  Mom was upset about the cost to repair it, so I pointed out that she was, after all, partly to blame.  “I’ve been begging you for a key for the longest time and you wouldn’t listen,” I reminded her, “Well, just look what happened. Will you give me a key now?”
Mom looked exasperated. “All right, I’ll give you a key! What’s gotten into you?”
I pointed at the clock.  “Dad’s coming home any minute.  Mom, what are we going to do?”
I was quiet while Mom tried to figure something out.  Mom’s eyes focused on nothing in particular as she formulated a plan in her mind. After a moment or two, she came up with a solution.  “We’ll tell him some boys were playing baseball and the ball went through the glass.”
All the worry and fear that plagued me vanished in an instant. “Mom, that’s very smart!” I said.
Mom asked, “Do you think he’ll believe it?”
“Why not? “ I replied, “Boys play ball all the time on the street outside.  It’ll work.”
Dad arrived home shortly after.  I sat on the couch watching television, trying to appear blameless.  “What the hell happened to the door?” he demanded to know.  Mom told him the baseball story, but Dad started asking questions. “Who did it?  That boy’s parents owe us money for the damage.”
I tried to remain composed as Mom elaborated on the story. “Jim, there were a few boys out there. I don’t know which one did it. They all ran.”
Dad’s face was getting red. “Damn it!” he cursed, “Somebody owes us some money!”  All of sudden, Dad was quiet.  He looked at the door and then at all of us.  “Where’s the ball?” he wanted to know.
My heart sank.  It was the one hole in our story.  There was no ball.  Mom hesitated and just when I thought I was done for, she came up with another answer.  “I threw the ball back outside,” she told him.  Dad searched for that ball all over the block.  When he finally gave up looking, he returned and said that it was awfully strange it was nowhere to be found.  “Well, those boys must have come back and taken it,” Mom said.  Dad appeared to suspect otherwise, but I suppose he was never really certain because I got away with it.
 “My mom would kill me if I did that,” Dolores said after I told her the story.  Dolores had been on her school’s swim team, but we were on summer break now.  I wondered why she didn’t have an athletic build.  “Want to learn how to swim?” she asked one day.  We took a bus to the YWCA, where Dolores gave me lessons.  She showed me how to do the front stroke, back stroke and doggie paddle. She tried to teach me how to dive as well, but I never got the hang of it because I was scared of the diving board.  I could not bring myself to look straight down at the water from twelve feet up.  “You’ve got to bend over more when you’re getting ready to jump off the board,” Dolores told me.  Each time I tried I felt like I was going to slip, so I just closed my eyes and blindly jumped.  Smack!  Without fail, my stomach hit the water upon impact.  It felt like a thousand bees stinging my torso, but I’d climb out of the pool afterward and do it again. 
By September, I was enrolled at St. Hubert’s High School for Girls.  Dolores attended Abraham Lincoln High.  She loved fashion magazines.  Dolores had a whole stack of them at home.  We’d flip through the pages and discuss which outfits we liked best.  We’d put on dime store makeup and prance around her house in exaggerated stances, imitating runway models.  Most of the time, it was great fun, but once in a while Dolores would become downhearted and say, “I’ll never be thin enough to get modeling jobs.”
At least her parents could afford to buy her the nice shoes and pretty clothes that were in the department store catalogs.  Dolores was a nice person and I was grateful for her friendship, but we didn’t have as much in common as I thought.   I found many of her complaints to be frivolous and tiresome.  She cried about her weight, though she wasn’t that large and no one made fun of her for it.  She wept whenever she broke out in pimples, but her skin didn’t look that bad to me.  She was devastated when her mother wouldn’t buy her the skirt she wanted because it was too short and fretted over the small sacrifices she was forced to make for the sake of her brother.  Her life seemed easy compared to mine and I didn’t understand why she wasn’t more satisfied with what she had.  For someone from the projects like me, it was difficult to relate to the superficial concerns of a middle-class teenager.
All I wanted was to be the same as everyone else around me and if I couldn’t climb up the social ladder then I would climb back down it.  “I want to go back to Liddonfield,” I told my mother.  It was not the first time I said those words.  When we first came to live on Carwithan Road and the children on the block refused to play with me, I begged my mother to take me back to the housing project to be with my old friends.  Mom told me to forget about that God forsaken place and that living on Carwithan Road was for my own good.  I hounded her until she raised her voice to me.  That’s all Mom had to do in order to break my heart.  Mom almost never raised her voice to me and when she did, it was devastating because I adored her so.  But I was not a little girl anymore and I was sick of being the odd one out.
Mom did not understand that the only happy memories I had were of times spent in Liddonfield.  I fondly recalled riding a rusty three-wheeler bike up and down the block, trading baseball cards with the boys and shooting marbles to win pennies.  I longed to go back to the place where I was not different from everyone else.
We lived only six blocks from the housing project where we once dwelled, but it may as well have been miles away.  “Don’t go anywhere near that place,” Mom told me, “Nothing good can come of it.”
“Don’t you ever think about the people we left behind?” I asked her, “They used to be our friends.”
“Of course I do,” she replied, “Sometimes I feel guilty that we were able to leave, but they will have to live there the rest of their lives.  You should consider yourself very lucky. ”
I scowled. “How is it lucky that everyone hates me?  I wish we stayed.”
“Don’t say that,” Mom told me, “I wanted something better for you.”
“At least in Liddonfield," I said, "they won’t judge us for not having money.  I’d rather live there.” 
“Do you know where your old friends are headed?  Jail, some of them!  And the others will be in the unemployment line.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because I’ve seen it time and time again, Rosie,” she explained, “Poor kids grow up and that’s where they end up.  It’s not going to be like that with you.  I know it’s hard and that you’re not accepted, but you’re just as good as anybody else and one day you’re even going to college.  Now, I won’t hear anymore talk about going back to projects.  I’d rather die than go back there.”

While this is a true story, some names have been changed for obvious reasons.  Part 11 of this series will be posted on Monday, July 4, 2011.

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