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 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 TheBulletin 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.
Liddonfield Housing Project has divided Upper Holmesburg for more than half a century. A long held rivalry between the Liddonfielders and nearby homeowners needs to be documented. The project has been demolished and now it is time to record the actions taken on both sides of the Liddonfield controversy.
My first year at St. Dominic had almost concluded. It was May. A bunch of kids from Liddonfield Housing Project got together and decided to have a May Procession, since this particular group of us were Catholic. This wasn’t something we did at a moment’s notice. No, Sir. It took some planning. First, we advertised by telling everybody in the project. Then we had to pick a May Queen, some little girl who would lead the procession as the Virgin Mary. Now, there was a boy in Liddonfield who preferred to hang out with the girls and play girl games all the time and that was okay. The girls liked him. But when he asked to play the part of the Virgin Mary, the rest of us voted no. He was so downhearted about it that we felt bad, so we appointed him director of the whole operation.
This still left the issue of who would play the part of the Virgin Mary. Some of the girls were shy and did not want to have all that attention put on them, not to mention the pressure. They were content to be the Blessed Mother’s helpers and hold her train. There were only two of us vying for the spot and that was Debbie and I. All of us took a vote and I was the lucky one who got picked. I had no problem tooting my own horn and felt no pressure at all. On the contrary, I was determined to throw myself into the part, like the actresses I saw on television.
The boy director asked me if I had a long blue dress to wear. “Nope,” I said, “but I have a blue blanket!”
“That’ll do,” he replied, “We’ll drape it over you and put a ring of flowers on your head. Bring the blanket out, okay?” He turned to the others. “Anybody got some fake flowers we can use?”
I went inside and grabbed the blue blanket off the folding cot that was my bed. The blanket had a hole in it. I stood in front of the mirror and draped it over me, folding it over in such a way as to hide the hole. Then I tried different poses and facial expressions. I wondered if I should stand with my arms outstretched in a loving gesture to the people of the Earth or if my arms should be at my sides with my palms open so beams of heavenly light could shoot from my fingertips, like the picture in St. Dominic Church. I would let the director decide.
“What took you so long?” asked the boy director when I came outside with the blanket. In the meantime, one of the other girls, Monica, got some fake flowers from her mother’s dime store vase. We figured out how to tie them into a ring. Then we had our first dress rehearsal. My friends were singing Ave Maria all out of sync and when I attempted to lead the procession by walking a few steps, the flowers slipped off my head. I bent down to pick them up and blanket went awry. This frustrated our director. “No,no!” he said, “I never heard such terrible singing!” Then he added that mine was the worst acting he’d ever seen.
The job had apparently gone to his head, but he was right when he told us we needed to practice a lot more times. This went on for two or three weekends. Each time we practiced, more Liddonfield neighbors came out to watch. The Protestant kids were beginning to get envious. Finally, the day came and the May Procession was under way. The housing project moms told other moms and the word spread so much that we had drawn quite a crowd. They stood on the sidewalk along Megargee Street where they could have a good view of our May Procession, which was to take place on the lawn. That is, if you could call it a lawn. It was more like a strip of grass several yards wide that ran the length of the block. I scanned the faces in the crowd and saw my friends’ moms.
“Isn’t that the cutest thing?” said one of the women.
“It sure is,” the other replied, “Our little holy terrors!”
“Okay, ready?” asked the boy director. I was a little worried at first, because my mother was not in plain sight. I wondered where she was, but everyone was waiting for the May Procession to start and I didn’t want to hold things up. I nodded and my friends began to sing Ave Maria. That was my cue to start leading the procession. I walked a few steps and then I spotted my mother. I was so happy to see her that I enthusiastically waved and shouted, “Mommy, here I am! Look at me!”
This confused my pious helpers and they stopped singing. “No, no!” the director said, “The Virgin Mary wouldn’t smile and wave! Just give a holy nod.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “All right.”
Just then, a kid named Bobby broke out of the crowd and ran toward us, declaring, “I want to be in the parade!”
“It’s not a parade,” Monica told him, “It’s a procession. Anyway, you’re Protestant.”
“I still want to be in the parade,” he replied, “Will there be balloons?”
“Balloons!” the director remarked, “There can’t be balloons in a May Procession!”
I agreed, remarking that in all the pictures I saw of the Virgin Mary, there was not one balloon. “Can we get on with this?” the director asked.
“Okay, let’s start over,” said Monica. She faced the crowd. “We’re starting over!” The singing began once more and I stepped forward ever so slowly. This time we were smooth as silk. I led the procession all the way around the block without a hitch, except for a few Protestant kids who broke out of the crowd like Bobby to help carry my train, doing their best to sing along to Ave Maria though they didn’t know the words.
Part 6 of this series will be posted on Monday, December 26, 2011
St. Dominic Elementary School was situated in northeast Philadelphia along a stretch of Frankford Avenue between Liddonfield Housing Project and Pennypack Park. The landscape has since changed. Liddonfield has been demolished. But the school and the church still stand, serving as a reminder to me of what once was and that there is a time for every season. Even now, I sometimes wonder how my life would be different had I not attended that school, how many doors would not have opened, how many opportunities would have been lost. Then again, perhaps I could have taken the world by storm when I grew up, without all those rules to douse the fire within me. Maybe I would have been consumed by that fire.
In their quest to mold little minds, the teachers there placed a strong emphasis on staid, old fashioned manners. We were constantly referred to as “little ladies” and “little gentlemen” and were encouraged to behave accordingly. It was the antithesis of housing project subculture, where toughness and survival were paramount. To be a little lady required a great deal of sheltering and I was far from sheltered. At seven, I walked to and from school by myself, having memorized the landmarks from the countless times my mother took me to the adjacent church. Even before I was old enough to attend school my brother Kevin and I often spent the entire day outside without supervision. We knew by the sun’s position in the sky when it was time to come home for dinner. We could have steered a ship by this method across the Atlantic without the aid of adults. Well, practically.
The only sheltering I received was from Kevin, who was three years older. His job was to see that I did not hurt myself and that was about the gist of it. Other than that, I was to simply tag along on whatever dubious adventure he chose to undertake. One Saturday, Kevin got it into his head that we should go fishing. We walked to Pennypack Park, which was about a half mile from the project. The park was a large tract of wooded land in an otherwise urban area and the one place a kid from Liddonfield could experience nature. We brought our homemade fishing poles with us. They were sticks with strings tied around them and a hook attacked. When we got to the park, we wandered through it a while before we started to fish. We heard there were deer in the park and we wanted to see one. Besides, we had to dig in the dirt first to find worms to put in an empty coffee can for bait.
When I was finished digging, I declared proudly that I had found us ten good worms. Kevin told me that wasn’t bad, but that he had dug up twelve. We put the coffee can lid back on so the worms couldn’t wriggle out and headed toward Pennypack Creek. At one point along the way, I noticed a bush with berries on it. I never ate a berry, other than the berries in a Tastykake Pie. Blueberry pie, to be exact. I loved blueberry pie.
“Mmmmn, berries!” I said as I plucked one off the bush and started to put it in my mouth.
Kevin grabbed my wrist. “Don’t eat that!” he told me, “Never eat wild berries. You can’t tell which ones are poison and which ones aren’t.”
I threw the berry on the ground. A little further along the way, I spotted something growing among the blades of grass. “Look,” I told Kevin, “Mushrooms!”
Kevin frowned. “Those aren’t mushrooms,” he replied, “They’re toadstools. Eat one of those and you die! Ain’t you got a lick ‘o sense?”
“I wasn’t going to eat it,” I told him.
We decided to fish on the rocks by the King’s Highway Bridge. There were other kids there fishing already. They had real fishing rods with expensive lures. Our homemade fishing rods looked stupid by comparison. “Are you sure we can catch fish with these?” I asked my brother.
Kevin was undaunted. “A fish don’t care if your rod is fancy,” he said, “Only if there’s a fat, juicy worm on the line.” Kevin took a worm out of the can and pushed the hook through its guts.
“Ew!” I said, “Does that hurt it?”
“I don’t know,” Kevin replied, “It’s just a worm. Now, you do yours.”
Kevin tried to hand me some bait. “I don’t wanna hurt it,” I told him, “Besides, it’s disgusting. I can’t.”
Kevin sighed. “You have to!”
“Look,” he said, “You can bait your own hook or you can watch me fish the rest of the day! Take your pick.” So, I took the wriggly worm Kevin handed me and ran it through with the sharp hook. Then I folded over the tail end of the worm and ran the hook through its entrails. It made me feel a little sick but I proved that I could do it. We tossed our lines into the creek and waited. After a while, Kevin asked, “Did you get a bite?”
“Nope,” I replied, “Nothin’. You said we could catch fish with these.” When it was almost dinnertime I walked back to the housing project with my brother watching over me and dirt under my fingernails. I stank of creek water and fish bait. I carried a lucky rabbit's foot in my pocket and I was the most unladylike girl you ever saw.
Part 5 of this series will be posted on Monday, December 19, 2011.
In the 1960’s many of the families who lived in Liddonfield Housing Project were of Celtic or Mediterranean descent. Some of us were first generation Americans. We were the children of poor immigrants who had come to the United States to escape poverty or war in their homeland. Before coming to America, our parents believed the streets were paved with gold. They found out otherwise as they struggled to support their families on low wages. Their pride in having become American citizens never faltered, however, and they had great hopes for their children who were born in this country.
My mother had dual citizenship because she was born in Scotland. Scotland was an English colony and therefore part of Britain. The British didn’t seem to accept any relinquishment of citizenship as that would be insulting. No, they informed her, you are still a colonist from Scotland and we don’t bloody care if you obtained citizenship from America. So, she was a citizen of both nations by default. My mother could vote in the United States and she did in every election, though until her death, she was obliged to show her citizenship papers. A life-long Democrat, she was loyal to that party. I don’t think my mother understood how political she was or that I was actually absorbing her political ideas as much as a little girl could take in.
Conversations in our home in the projects centered mostly around two things – money and politics. The two were inextricably intertwined. My mother spoke of social class and politics to anyone in the house who would listen, including me when I was little, whether I understood what she was talking about or not. Dad read the Bulletin daily, which was the local newspaper, but he wasn't one to discuss news in America, let alone Ireland.
His parents had come to America by ship from Ireland, but Dad was born here and had little interest in "the troubles." My father was an island unto himself, silent and brooding until erupting in yet another fit of anger, mainly from the stress of being poor. My teenage brothers and sisters had tired of all Mom’s Irish vs. bloody British talk. They liked the British because the Beatles came from Liverpool. I liked the Beatles as well, but I was steadfastly intrigued by my mother’s tales of oppression and rebellion.
She told me, too, how my Irish Catholic grandmother fell in love with my grandfather, a Protestant Scotsman. He loved my grandmother so much that he converted to Catholicism so they could wed. “This family is an emotional lot,” Mom said, “We lead our lives by our hearts, God help us.” And that is why I was attending St. Dominic Elementary School, because of this long chain of events that started in a place far away, long before I was born.
After Mom mended the hem of my uniform with safety pins I went to school the next day, embarrassed and hoping no one would notice. I made it through Sister M’s class without incident for once, so I thought. Just as the bell rang and I was leaving, she stopped me. “Why is your uniform catching the light?” Sister M asked as she sat at her desk at the front of the room.
I thought to myself, darn it! Sister M got up from her chair. Her eagle eyes zoomed in on my hem and she made an inquisitive face. “Is that a safety pin?” she said. She took my arm and slowly twirled me around. “My goodness!” she added, “There are safety pins throughout your entire hemline. You’re lit up like a Christmas tree!”
“My mother said she was too tired from working all day and safety pins would have to do,” I told her.
Sister M crossed her arms and replied, “Safety pins will certainly NOT do! You tell your mother that you are not to come to school tomorrow unless your hemline is properly mended with a needle and thread!”
“Why couldn’t she let it wait until the weekend?” Mom said when I told her what happened. “I’m home on the weekend!” I was hoping Mom would be too tired again and I wouldn’t have to go to school the next day. She grumbled the whole time, but she sewed my hem properly. It passed inspection by Sister M and I was glad she made my mother do it because I didn’t have to be embarrassed anymore about being lit up like a Christmas tree. So, finally, everything was set right and I was a proper St. Dominic girl.
Then the bell rang for recess and I was in the schoolyard minding my own business when someone came from behind and snatched the hat right off my head. I turned around. It was Richard. “Ha ha! I’ve got your hat!” he said mischievously.
“Give it back, Richard,” I told him.
“Sure,” he replied, “Here, take it.” But Richard tricked me. When I reached out for the hat, he pulled it away and laughed at my expense.
“That’s not funny!” I told him, “I want it back.”
Richard stood there, teasing. “If you want it back,” he said, “Then you have to come and get it.”
He was taller than me and every time I reached for the hat, he held it up too high for me to grab. I grew very angry with him. “You better gimmee that hat back right now!” I warned him, but he would not listen. So, when he did it again, instead of reaching for the hat, I pushed him. He fell to the ground, still holding the hat in one hand and wearing a surprised look on his face. I jumped on top of him to pin him down and began pummeling his face with my fists. Other children in the school yard gathered around. They roared in laughter at our scuffle.
Someone said, “Richard’s getting beat up by a girl!” and more children flocked around the spectacle. I was possessed, concerned only with serving Richard up a cold bowl of revenge.
“I warned you!” I yelled at Richard as I hit him once again in the face.
“Ow!” he said, “Quit it! Ow! Cut it out!”
I was so angry I considered forcing him to say “uncle.” Just then, I heard Sister M telling the others to move aside. “Break it up, boys!” she said sternly as she moved through the crowd of students. I stopped hitting Richard and looked up. Sister M stood with her mouth agape when she saw it was not two boys fighting. She gawked at the two of us, speechless, as I had him pinned to ground. Sister M moved her lips but no words came out, only parts of words. Then she blurted out, “What is this? A boy…and…a girl…fighting? I never in all my days!”
“He took my hat,” I said. Richard was still holding it. I snatched it out of his hand and got off him. Sister M looked at me as if I was the devil himself. She told Richard to get up. Then she grabbed both of us by the collar and marched us off to the principal’s office.
I had to see the principal first while Richard sat waiting in the hall, contemplating his fate. The principal was a nun, too, and older than Sister M. She looked ancient. “So, you’re the one!” she said sternly, “Little Miss, this is the first time in the history of this school that a girl was caught fighting with a boy! What have you got to say for yourself?”
I said, “When a boy takes your hat and won’t give it back, you have to clobber him.”
“For shame!” the principal replied, “For shame! That is most unladylike behavior, totally unacceptable and unworthy of this school!”
All of a sudden, she had a way of making me feel bad about it. I hung my head. “But what am I supposed to do when a boy is picking on me?” I asked her. It was time to turn on the water works. “My mommy gave me that hat and I love my mommy. She would be very upset if anything happened to that hat. I had to get it back, didn’t I?” I took the distress of being scolded and magnified it ten times over in my head, then I thought of my mother being upset. Presto! The water works came. Tears were streaming down my face. It just about broke the principal’s heart.
“There, there now,” she said in a kinder, softer voice, “I love my mother, too so I know how that hat must be very special.”
I sniffed and wiped away a tear. “It is,” I replied, “It’s very special and what kind of terrible boy would take a girl’s hat, anyway?”
The principal agreed. “He is a terrible boy,” she said, “and rest assured, he will be punished.”
I turned on the water works some more. “I’m not going to be punished, am I?”
“Well,” she said, “I was going to let you have it good, but I’ve decided that you’re not such a bad little girl after all. You seem very upset and I suppose that’s punishment enough. But you are never to fight anyone again, do you understand? If someone is picking on you, then you must tell an adult. Little ladies never, ever fight.”
“Never?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Never, under any circumstances, does a lady fight.” The principal made me promise to ask Jesus for forgiveness and say a bunch of Hail Mary’s. She also wrote a note for my mother telling what happened but that she was convinced I was truly sorry.
“You had a fight with a boy in the school yard?” Mom said when she read the note. I nodded.
My father thought it was a hoot. I was just glad he wasn't angry. But winning a fight was one of the few ways to please him. Dad despised weakness. He used to say that he was hard on his kids because he wanted us to be tough. We hated it. Once, my teenage brother confided in Dad that he was being bullied by another boy who was bigger and stronger. Dad called him a weakling then ordered him to fight the bully. My brother lost the fight. Dad beat my brother up again for losing.
In our home if you accidentally spilled a glass of juice, Dad would hit and berate you until you wished you were dead. But if you bloodied another child’s nose he’d pat you on the back and say, “Well done,” even if you were a girl.
Part 4 will be posted on Monday, December 12, 2011.