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

Dec 26, 2011

The Taming of a Public Housing Child Part 6

by Rosemary Reeves

If you missed the first 5 parts of this series about a Liddonfield kid attending St. Dominic parochial school, click on the links below:


 

I passed the first grade at St. Dominic Elementary School with a lackluster report card.  My second year as a student there was punctuated by an unexpected move out of Liddonfield Housing Project.  The Philadelphia Housing Authority sent my parents a notice to vacate.  The increase in household income since my mother went back to work made us ineligible for public housing.  All kinds of curse words went flying through the room for weeks after my parents got that letter.  

My parents managed to get a house on Carwithan Road, a few blocks from the project.  Mom and Dad struggled to pay the mortgage.  This marked the end of our brief flirtation with prosperity.  We were back to being broke.  Mom kept me enrolled in St. Dominic, even though it was a hardship for her to pay the tuition.  We continued to attend mass every Sunday at St. Dominic Church.  Even church services offered no respite from our cash-strapped existence.  I’m referring to the dreaded collection plate.

One Sunday, Mom and I went to church by ourselves.  Like always, Mom’s eyes got big with fear as people were passing the collection plate and it came closer toward us.  I watched how much money each person put in.  Some people plopped in five or ten dollars.  A few even coughed up a twenty dollar bill.  Then there was Mom, frantically fishing in the bottom of her purse for change.  She just about looked like a deer in headlights by the time the collection plate reached her.  Mom tossed the coins in – a few pennies, a couple of nickels and some dimes.  Fifty-three cents all together.  The coins made a clanging sound as they hit the plate. That awful sound that drew attention to broke parishioners like us.  There may as well have been blinking neon lights on our foreheads with the words “poor as a church mouse.”  Mom passed the collection plate to the next person in the pew like she couldn’t wait to get it out of her hands, as if it was a grenade with the pin removed.

We breathed a sigh of relief once the dreaded collection plate was behind us.  All of a sudden, the priest announced, “I hear change!  No one should be putting change in the collection plate.  All I should be hearing is the flutter of bills!”  I wanted to slide down to the floor and hide under the pew.  We tried to pretend it wasn’t us, but we could not hide our red faces.

“That priest gets on my nerves,” Mom said as we were walking home after the church service, “Someone ought to tell him we’re not all Rockefellers!”  

I had my eyes glued to the ground, like I always did when I was walking.  You never know what you’ll find on the ground.  “Mom!” I said, “Look!  A quarter!”

Mom stopped in her tracks.  “Quick,” she said, “Pick it up.”  I made a move to pick it up.  “Wait,” Mom added, “Make sure no one’s looking first.”  We both tried to be incognito as the last of the parishioners disappeared from view.  Mom gave me the okay and I picked up the quarter.  “Well, what do you know?” she said as I handed it to her, “Jesus gave us back half our money.”

I shrugged.  “Why he didn’t he give us back all of it, then?”

“There must be some other family that needs it more,” she told me, “The other half of the money will buy them a loaf of bread for their dinner table.  Now, two families will eat tonight.”  Mom was deep.

By mid-winter, the cheap shoes Mom bought me from the five and dime had been worn through at the sole.  When I walked to and from St. Dominic Elementary School, I could feel the frozen sidewalk beneath the balls of my feet.  I did not ask my parents for new shoes.  Everything we had was to be used until it could be used no more.  When my socks stretched out and fell down all the time, Mom taught me to secure them with rubber bands.  That way you didn’t have to buy new socks.  We kept the safety pin and rubber band companies in business.  And who knows how many poor horses perished for all the glue we bought.  Glue, pin and tape were accessories in our wardrobe.

So, when my soles wore down and the frozen sidewalk chilled my feet, I had the ingenious idea to stuff my shoes with newspaper.  Dad read The Bulletin regularly.  Now, I found a way to have the Bulletin keep my feet warm.  I thought myself quite clever for having come up with this idea on my own.  It worked like a charm.  The tricky part was folding the paper inside my shoes in such a way that it would not be noticeable.  Sometimes the paper would slide and the daily headlines would peek out from my shoe.  This took constant adjusting.  I was enormously self-conscious and gazed enviously at the shiny new department store shoes my classmates were wearing.  It also became very hard to focus in school, as I was constantly checking on my shoes and looking around to see if my classmates noticed.  On the up side, I always knew what the date was because each day I used yesterday’s paper.  Most of all, my feet were warm.

But this temporary fix did not last very long.  The sole of my right shoe eventually became almost completely detached.  With every step, it went “flop.”  To compensate, I developed what looked like a limp and it was impossible to hide my predicament any longer.  One of the St. Dominic nuns pulled me aside and said quite simply, “Tell your mother to buy you new shoes,” as if it was the easiest thing in the world.  

Now, the most often used phrase in our house after “I hate you kids!” and “I’m gonna beat the shit out of all of youse!” was “We can’t afford it.”  It was an ordeal to ask for something.  There would be all kinds of reasons stated as to why you could very well do without.  There would be platitudes about wasting precious money.  There would be tears and upsetment and sometimes declarations of war.  Even if my parents forked over the cash, promises would have to be made.  You’d have to swear allegiance to the careful preservation of whatever they bought you.  You’d have to guard it like Fort Knox, cherish it like your first-born and endure lectures about how you won’t get another one anytime soon.  So, when the well-meaning nun at St. Dominic said to tell my mother to buy me new shoes, she had no idea of the depth and breadth of everything that entailed.  I went limping home that day in my “flop, flop” shoes, rehearsing how I would approach my mother about it, the newspaper headlines peeking out as I went along.

The Conclusion of this series will be posted on Monday, January 2, 2012.

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The Taming of a Public Housing Child Conclusion

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