An alternative source for public housing info founded by a former resident of Liddonfield Housing Project who writes true stories about project life and hard times in the northeast Philadelphia neighborhood of Upper Holmesburg. Stories and articles post on most Mondays. This blog is best viewed in Internet Explorer 10 or the latest version of Firefox or Google Chrome.
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.
Every day on my way to work, I come to Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station to catch the R6 Regional Rail line. As I like to be early for everything, I often have time to spare before the train arrives. I prefer to sit at the farthest corner, in the quietest part of the station, where it is dimly lit and few people go. The benches tend to be unoccupied because most commuters wait at the center of the station or have a bite to eat at the food court. It is an oasis of serenity in the midst of hustle and bustle.
In this quiet spot, a magnificent sculpture often goes unnoticed by the throngs of people passing right by it. The sculpture is called The Spirit of Transportation. The artistic genius who created it back in 1895 was Karl Bitter, a man with far better breeding than I who attended fancy art schools in Europe. It is a spectacular sight. I love to gaze at its every detail, from the exquisite horses pulling a carriage in a procession of women and men following a child, all displaying or using a different means of transportation, to the period clothing they wear. The sculpture reveals a fantastic rendering of what is for most of us a dull subject. Gazing at it inspires an unexpected feeling of reverence for the intelligence and ingenuity of humankind. For those who notice it, time stops. Suddenly, the rush hour doesn’t exist. Your job, your boss, the train all fade away into insignificance, as if the sculpture is itself a time machine, with the power to transport us somewhere wonderful, serene and majestic.
When I sit on the bench, everyone seems to pass it by, preoccupied with their daily routine or their travel plans. But each time I stand and gaze at it, someone else comes along and gazes at it, too. It is a natural reaction among humans that if they see another person staring at something, they are curious to know what it is.
Once in a while I do it on purpose, as an experiment. It never fails. Sometimes others need help to see what was there all along. Perhaps the little boy leading the procession in the sculpture was showing me how to lead by example.
It was the late 1960s and I was coming into adolescence at a time that some called The Age of Aquarius. Utopian melodies spilled out of my little pink transistor radio, which I carried around. The songs of brotherhood and love meant everything to me, a misfit kid from the projects who was called white trash. I sang along to songs like the one from the group 5th Dimenson…
When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars
This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius
The Age of Aquarius
Harmony and understanding
Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelation
And the mind's true liberation
But the dream of harmony and understanding was marred by conflict. War continued to rage on in Vietnam. The nightly news reported the casualty count and the numbers were astounding. The battlefields of Vietnam were strewn with the bodies of young men from all walks of life. Many of those who died or were still fighting, were poor, having obeyed the draft notices placed in their housing project mailboxes. Some waved goodbye to their loved ones in the public housing complexes where they grew up, only to return in flag-draped coffins.
Somewhere in the minefields and rice paddies of Nha Trang, my brother Barry had been fighting for his country. In his letters home, he had said that the Vietnamese children were frightened upon first laying eyes on him, because he had red hair. They had never seen red hair before. So he made a special effort to entertain them, to give them treats and to make them laugh. He did two tours in the armed forces there, one in Phan Tiet and then Nha Trang. For two years I watched the nightly news with my parents, studying the images of battle weary soldiers, searching for my brother’s face in the hope that he was still alive. “Do you see your brother among the troops?” Mom would ask every evening as we sat in front of the television, “Look closely.”
She trusted my young eyes over her aging ones. I used to have to thread a needle for her whenever she needed to sew something. Carefully, I looked at the weary soldiers behind the brave reporters who traveled with them on the battlefield. “I don’t see him, Mom,” I’d say.
“Oh, God, where is my son?” she’d reply, “Look harder, Rosie.”
Barry finally came home in 1969. It was the first time he saw our house on Carwithan Road. We had moved out of the projects while he was away. He stayed with us for a while until he could find his own place. The first night he was home, he fell asleep on the couch. I awoke in the middle of the night to hear him shouting in some strange language, his arms flailing. I ran to my parents’ bedroom, and woke my mother. We rushed back downstairs. “Why is he doing that?” I asked.
“He’s talking in his sleep,” she replied, “He’s speaking Vietnamese.” She told me not to touch him, not to startle him in any way. I watched in horror as she tried to bring him out of it by repeatedly calling his name. When he at last awoke, mom told me to say nothing and go back to bed.
Later that week, I went outside and the neighborhood kids teased me because I wore the same pants every day. I only had one pair of pants. My brother risked his life in Vietnam and all they could do was torment me for not having material things, for being from the projects. And at 11 years old, I began to ask myself some very big questions. I began to think about what it meant to be American. I began to ponder politics.
Over time, the television images were of young men burning their draft cards. Many were moving to Canada to escape the draft. Bob Dylan’s voice rang out from my pink transistor radio, singing that it was time for change, that America’s youth could defy authority, their parents and even the government.
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.
The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.
I sought deliverance from the old order of things because I had been part of a marginalized populace, segregated and labeled by my public housing roots. But I was beginning to dream that things would be different. The peace songs I listened to on the radio moved me, drew me in, and led me to believe that humanity was indeed on the brink of higher understanding. Materialism, superficiality, conformity and petty judgments would soon be things of the past due to rebellion. I longed to be old enough to join the peace protesters, the hippies who spoke of freedom and lived their lives as they chose, without shame or apology, and without having to justify themselves.
I told my mother that if I were a boy, I would burn my draft card and move to Canada. “How can you talk like those people when your brother risked his life in Vietnam?” she replied. She called them draft dodgers and cowards. I quickly learned that the admiration I felt for the peace protesters was an incendiary force that set me apart from my family members. It was because my brother suffered through a war that I wanted an end to the horrors of it. But that was misunderstood, for I was silenced as soon as I tried to speak of liberal politics.
Watching the nightly news with my parents while my brother was in Vietnam had filled my adolescent mind with images of rebellion, pressing matters of politics, heavy thoughts, ponderings of individuality, and Utopian musings. Mom and Dad, who were conservative in their beliefs, had inadvertently created an 11-year-old liberal. Also, the unwelcoming neighborhood we lived in after leaving the projects was an unwitting accomplice to the birth of my liberal mentality.
And the young men who served in Vietnam received no hero’s welcome, no ticker tape parade, no accolades from an adoring public, throwing confetti at their homecoming. The poor ones returned to their housing projects, their sacrifice recognized only by their loved ones, to live under the housing authority flag once more, in obscurity.
In the house where I lived as a child, the walls bore the scars of our unhappiness. Every mark had a story behind it. There was a smudge that I accidentally made and was hit for. There was another where Mom cried and threw a plate, and a dent where Dad punched the wall in a fit of rage. Now and then the day would come when Dad brought paint cans home from his job and with the stroke of a brush, cover up all the marks, as if those things never happened. It was my child-like belief that with the past erased, we had a chance for a new beginning, a chance to be a happy family. Just for a day or two Dad played the part, humming light-heartedly, for painting was the only thing he loved.
Once, Dad was painting an upstairs room and I just had to see how he did it. I stood at the top of the stairs just outside the bedroom doorway, trying to observe him without his knowledge. He was squatting with his back to me, applying the brush to the low areas of the wall. A lit cigarette was lying unattended in an ashtray on the floor beside him. He was wearing an old pair of blue slacks and a white undershirt. That was how he always dressed at home. I made a step and the floorboards creaked. He paused, reached for the lit cigarette and took a puff. Just when I thought he was unawares, Dad turned around. “What ya doin’, kid? Why you peekin’ round the corner?” I didn’t speak. “You been watchin’ me work?” he asked. I nodded. “Come here,” he said, but I was too frightened to approach him.
Dad looked at me like I had no sense. “What you scared about? I said come here.” I took a step toward him, and then another, walking with trepidation, in dread of the punishment that was forthcoming. I thought I was in trouble for sneaking around like that.
To my surprise, Dad asked me if I wanted to learn how to paint. I nodded. “Cat got your tongue?” he said, “Never mind. Pay attention. This is how you do it, see? First, you gotta stir it up real good. If you let the paint sit too long the oil separates from the color and it ain’t no good when you put it on the brush.” He handed me a little wooden stick for stirring the paint. It looked like a lollypop stick, only bigger. “Keep stirrin’ it,” he said.
I did as I was told. When the consistency was perfect, he stilled my hand. “All right, that’s good. Next, you dip the brush into the paint, but only the bristles. Don’t get paint on the handle.” He dipped the brush into the paint can to show me just how deep it should go. “Now, don’t just pick up the brush with all that paint on it. You glide it against the rim of the can, slowly, until all the excess paint drips back into the can, like this.” He handed me the brush. “Now, you do it.”
I repeated the technique, being very careful to do it just right. When I was done, my father looked pleased. “That’s pretty good, kid,” he said. I was not used to him being so nice. It felt strange, but good. He took another drag from the cigarette. “Now, I’ll show you how to put that paint on the wall. Hand me the brush.” I handed it to him. “Make the brush strokes up and down, not sideways. Do it like this.” He let the cigarette dangle from his mouth. “The trick is in how much paint you’ve got on those bristles. Too much and it’ll streak. Not enough, and the paint gets too thin as it dries and you’ll end up needin’ three coats instead of two.”
I made my brush strokes up and down. It seemed to be working nicely. Dad put his cigarette out in the ashtray. “How old are you, kid?”
“You’re a scrawny little thing. Your arms are like twigs, but you can paint.” He surveyed my work. “Yeah, that’s a beautiful job.” He was silent for a moment then his eyes brightened. “Hey, I got an idea. Come with me.” Dad had extra drop cloths sitting in the corner. He gave me some to carry. Together we laid the plastic sheets down in the hallway to protect the floor. Dad brought another can of paint and opened the lid. He gave me a stick to stir it up with and a brush. “I’m gonna finish up in there,” he told me, “In the meantime, you paint the hallway. Don’t worry about the high places. I’ll come around and get that. With you helpin’ me, we’ll get this house done in half the time.” I just stood there. “Well, what you starin’ at?” he said, “Go ahead and start paintin’, kid.”
I began stirring the paint. Dad disappeared into the other room. No one ever asked me to do a grown-up’s job before. I felt very important. Still, I was unsure of myself. Having been left on my own to decide how to go about it, I used the technique I just learned. While I was engaged in that activity, I heard the sound of keys jiggling in the front door. The door opened. Mom had returned from the grocery store. She was talking to my sister, Sharon. After a few minutes, Mom asked, “Where’s my Rosie?”
“I’m up here, Mom!” I said from above.
“What are you doing up there?” she asked.
“Come and see,” I told her.
Her footsteps ascended the creaky stairs. When Mom saw what I was doing, she gasped. “Your father is going to kill you!”
“It’s okay, Mom,” I assured her, “Dad gave me permission.”
“That can’t be true,” she replied, “Your father would never let you do that.”
“But it is true!”
“Stop it,” Mom said. She looked at me and the paint can in despair. “What am I going to tell your father?” Just then Dad walked in. Mom placed her hand on his shoulder to steady him. “Now, Jim,” she said, “Don’t explode. She’s only a little girl. She didn’t mean to ─ “
Dad interrupted. “Eileen, be quiet for a minute and just look at that wall. The kid knows what she’s doin’. No streaks, no drips. It’s perfect.” Mom looked as confused by Dad’s praise as I was. Dad said, “I’ve taught grown men who can’t get it right. I can’t believe it. Ten years old! I showed her once, only once, and she learned it like it was nothin’.” Mom looked at the wall I had just painted and then at Dad. “Eileen, that kid is smart,” he declared. Something registered in his face that I had never seen before, or since ─ pride. Dad was proud of me, and Mom’s eyes were shining.
Eileen, that kid is smart. It was the only thing my father ever said that made me feel good about myself. The smell of paint always brought back the memory of that day.
It was late at night and all of us children had gone to bed, only I woke up thirsty and wandered into the living room toward the kitchen for something to drink. All of the lights were out, except one. My parents were sitting at the kitchen table where a lit bulb hung over them from the ceiling. My father was weeping. “Eileen, where will we go?” he asked my mother as he buried his head in his hands, “What will happen to us?” I thought the world must have ended for my father to be in tears. She held him to her bosom and comforted him. It was frightening to see Mom and Dad so distraught and without direction. Something told me not to disturb them so I tiptoed back to bed, wondering what terrible thing was about to happen to my family.
I soon learned that the Philadelphia Housing Authority had sent a notice to vacate the premises. Mom and Dad’s successful attempts to better themselves financially created a bureaucratic catch twenty-two. The rise in household income made the family ineligible for public housing and we were being evicted. Housing and Urban Development became familiar words to me as my mother cursed HUD to hell and back, so to speak, for days afterward. In the weeks that followed, my father became very depressed. There were days when he skipped work and just sat on the couch, brooding and immobilized by fear. In reality, Mom was the strong one. She came up with a plan and went to the bank for a home loan. “Put your signature there, Jim,” she told Dad when she brought home the mortgage application. She handed him a pen.
“What good will it do?” Dad said, “They’ll never give us a mortgage.” He had already given up, but at Mom’s insistence, he signed it anyway. Mom made several more trips to the bank. Eventually, the mortgage was approved. My parents bought a house in the lower middle-class neighborhood just beyond the housing project fence and we left Liddonfield forever.
Frantz Fanon once said, “I call middle-class a closed society in which life has no taste, in which the air is tainted, in which ideas and men are corrupt. And I think that a man who takes a stand against this death is in a sense a revolutionary.” I was about to find out for myself how closed a society the middle-class can be. The day we moved into our new place on Carwithan Road, I met a little girl in a yellow dress. She asked where I was from and I casually mentioned the housing project. We played and everything seemed fine, but the next day she spurned me. “My mommy told me not to play with you anymore,” she said, “You’re from Liddonfield. That’s where the poor people live.”
I ran into the house and asked, “Mommy, are we poor?” Everyone in Liddonfield had been economically disadvantaged. I didn’t find it unusual that there were things my parents couldn’t afford. All of my friends had it the same way and it seemed to be just a fact of life. Until we left the projects, I had no idea that the word “poor” applied to us and that it made us different, even despicable, in the eyes of others. Mom was upset when I told her what happened. She said the world can be cruel to people like us. Others look down on you when you don’t have enough money, she explained, and there was nothing we could do about that.
The resentful homeowners who drove past the projects with scowling faces were now our fearful and class conscious neighbors. Our leap to homeownership was not seen as an admirable advancement, but an invasion. As much as the homeowners resented the people in the housing project, at least they were separated from the rest of the community. Our arrival into their midst was taken as a sign of impending and alarming change in a neighborhood divided by class. It didn’t matter who we were now. The prevailing notion was once a deadbeat, always a deadbeat. And what they feared more than anything was that there were more of us to come.
Mom’s contention that their hostility was simply something we had to accept was left undisputed. Mainstream society did not perceive it as a form of prejudice. The fact that we were fair game for their mistreatment was too much to comprehend and so I turned inward to blame my undeserving self for being different, for being poor.
In those days, no one bothered to follow or record the experiences of public housing tenants striving to become upwardly mobile within a society that stigmatized them. This lack of diligence by public housing officials bred a false assumption that once a family left the projects, their financial struggles were over. For my family, at least, nothing could be further from the truth.
On the first rainy day after we arrived, it soon became evident why my parents had gotten a bargain on the home on Carwithan Road. The former owner had not kept up the property. The roof was a disaster. During a heavy rainfall, water leaked from the ceiling in different parts of the house. Mom sent Kevin and me to the dime store to buy buckets. “Get as many as you can with this money,” she said. When we returned, we placed them under the leaks.
My parents could not afford to get the roof fixed. Rainy days soon involved a kind of ritual. Kevin and I had to get the buckets ready. We’d go from room to room staring up at the ceiling, looking for telltale water droplets. When we spotted the first signs of a leak, we’d say, “Here it comes!” Within minutes, one leak turned into four or five, as we spotted another and another.
Kevin and I thought it was funny. Dad never got mad about it. He’d just say, “This house is falling apart.”
My mother counted every dime. A visit to the grocery store was a reminder that our family was barely getting by. I didn’t know what produce tasted like. Mom said fresh vegetables were too expensive and so were blocks of cheese. When it came to purchasing meat, Mom only bought what the supermarket had on sale and they were always the worst cuts, full of fat and gristle. By now at least there was food, though it tended to be the same thing every night. We ate mainly potatoes, canned vegetables and small portions of cheap ground beef. While bland, it was hearty enough. I was skinny but not malnourished, like my brothers and sisters had been during the leaner years.
An air conditioner had come with the house but Dad never let us use it. In the summer, we sweltered inside. In the winter, we were allowed to employ just enough heat to keep the pipes from bursting. Every penny had to be accounted for. A dollar seemed like a great deal of money. It did not appear to make sense that my mother insisted on sending me to private school under the circumstances. Were it not for that, I might have had more of the things that normal children had. Dad was not the only one in the family who thought Mom was foolish for spending much needed money in the wrong place. But Mom was trying to assure my future. Times were hard, but they were better than they had ever been and that gave me an advantage over my older siblings. Timing was on my side.
At St. Dominic middle-class norms were considered ideal, a model for the way one should live his or her life. The nuns taught us right from wrong, both in the moral sense and in terms of how we should conduct ourselves in the world. We were required to wear uniforms to get our brains accustomed to conformity. Every morning, we pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. We were encouraged to believe that ours was a democracy above reproach, with freedom and justice for all. I thought that since the American way of life was perfect, then it must be me who was flawed because I came from a family that did not measure up. Anyone who worked hard was guaranteed success, but my father worked hard and somehow success had eluded him. I envied the people I saw on television every night, who never had concerns about money. The dads were cheerful when they came home from the office and their wives cooked sumptuous meals for their families in kitchens equipped with shiny new appliances. They always had wonderful food to eat and nice clothes to wear.
Being a product of the lower class was a handicap, but I was not beyond hope. Any traits I possessed that were deemed undesirable by middle-class standards were hastily excised, removed from my personality with thorough instruction. Though well intended, as a child I interpreted this to mean that I was so imperfect I required transformation. The good news, though, was that transformation was possible. All I had to do to be perceived as middle-class was to act middle-class, because people believe what they see. I also learned that speech can signify status. Speaking in a certain way can raise one’s status, something the nuns at St. Dominic were well aware of. ”Can I be excused?” I asked one day when I was in class and needed to use the restroom.
Sister J. frowned. “Yes, you can,” she said, “but you may not until you say it correctly. What were you taught about the words can and may?”
This was not difficult for me to answer. I had simply slipped. “Can is to be able to,” I replied, “May is to have permission.”
Sister J. stopped frowning. “That is correct. Now, say it properly.”
I tried again. “May I be excused?”
“Very good,” she said, “Always speak the Queen’s English. Now, you may be excused, young lady.” I got up out of my seat and headed toward the door. Sister J addressed the class. “Never forget, children, that when you speak like proper ladies and gentlemen, people will see you as exemplary and the world will become your oyster.” The nuns were always using big words like “exemplary.” Every word out of their mouths was worth a million dollars, especially when it came to adjectives. If you neglected your homework they didn’t call you lazy, they called you lackadaisical. If you talked too much, you were loquacious. I did everything I could to keep up with this flowery language. Almost daily, I had to ask my mother for definitions of words. Mom bought a used dictionary and together we looked up their meanings. As time passed, I began speaking like someone well beyond my age. This was something adults found charming, but it only set me farther apart from my peers.
One day, as I was being picked on by two other children, I said, "It's ridiculously immature of you to act that way and you ought to behave in a more exemplary fashion."
"Huh?" replied one of my tormentors.
"You talk weird," said the other.
Dad was the opposite of the middle-class ideal. He tucked his cigarette packs into the sleeve of his undershirt. He ate with his mouth open. His speech and mannerisms were that of a laborer, and his hands were calloused and rough. He had a stocky build, a barrel chest and muscular arms. He had the pugnacious bearing of a man who carried the world on his shoulders and was furious at his destiny ─ an aging and unwilling Atlas.
From time to time he said to us, “Other people brag about their kids, but not me. I’m ashamed of my kids. I’m ashamed to be your father.” Though I had no feelings for him, those words hurt me to the core. It made me think I was unlovable. No matter how much Mom tried to make up for it by being sweet and tender, I always doubted whether I could ever be good enough.
We still depended on charity for basic necessities. Goodwill dropped bags of used clothing on our doorstep. This was a source of amusement for the neighborhood children, who teased me relentlessly whenever I went outside. Though my manners were impeccable, I was being well educated and spoke formal English, there were things over which I had no control that made others see me as inferior white trash.
On occasion, Mom would scrape up enough money to take me shoe shopping. For my ninth birthday, she bought me a new pair of shoes. A couple of days later, I was on my way home from school when a group of boys and girls from the neighborhood followed behind me, taunting me about Liddonfield and the clothes from Goodwill. I walked faster, but they kept up. I started to run and they chased me until I reached an apartment building surrounded by a padlocked fence. I climbed the fence to get away from them. The sharp metal scuffed my shoes and tore a hole in the toe. I got away. Not even the boys could scale a fence faster than me.
Mom asked, “What have you done to your beautiful shoes?” She thought I had simply been careless. I was too ashamed to tell her that I was the joke of the neighborhood. She couldn’t afford to buy another pair, so I had to wear them like that for a long time.
My brother, Kevin, was also singled out by the neighborhood children and so he had difficulty making friends as well. At least we could keep each other company. Kevin made no allowances for the fact that I was a girl or that I was three years younger, and so I did with him the rough and tumble things boys do, like climb trees, fish at a nearby hatchery and search for interesting rocks to collect.
Spending so much time with an older brother made me precocious for my age. Kevin was so enthralled by science and nature that he begged Mom for a set of encyclopedias. Mom said we didn’t have the money, but then found an old set at a flea market. We looked up astronomy in Volume A and searched the night sky for the shining light of the planet Venus and the various constellations, such as the Big Dipper. In the anatomy section, there were fascinating pictures of the inside of human body which outlined the placement of the organs and major arteries. We liked to watch birds and consult Volume B to find out the scientific names for each species. Every volume held fascinating facts our brains were eager to absorb.
This did not seem like studying to us. Looking up things was fun because they were things about the world that we wanted to know. Soon, grammar school books were not challenging enough. I was given assignments to read Old Yeller and Black Beauty. I read a few pages of each and then never finished. Needless to say I received a bad grade. My teacher thought that I had been unable to comprehend them and that I must be slow. Mom knew better. When she asked me about it, I told her, "Those books are for babies."
In fourth grade, I began to memorize all the words in the dictionary in alphabetical order, just to have something to do. This benefited me in more ways than I expected. I scored exceptionally high on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the top thirteen percentile in the nation. St. Dominic wanted to put me into an accelerated program, but my parents couldn’t afford the additional classes. This was good news to me, because I was not at all motivated to do extra work. I applied myself only to things that I found interesting and neglected subjects I didn’t care for. Consequently, though I had much potential, I did not always put forth the effort. My grades were up and down like a see-saw and the teachers were at a loss as to why I was excelling in some subjects and barely passing in others. Part 8 of this series will be posted on Monday, June 13.