THE ROAD TO CHILDHOOD
I was on a trek with my wife looking for protest poetry for a book I had proposed to Oxford University Press. They gave me some advance money and sent me off to find old bar room pamphlets, “pomes pennyeach,” those poems you could pick up out of a box next to a cash register in lieu of getting back a few pennies from your other purchases. And song books, lots of song books for a century (19th) that enjoyed a lot of communal singing. That tradition of singing together in beer halls is still alive in Austria and Germany, where you can’t hum a few bars of an old song without everyone else joining you. Wonderful fun. France is great for songs that were taught in grade school that adults of all ages remember and will sing along with my daughters until the tears start to glaze their eyes. I don’t remember any songs from my childhood, except perhaps for a few lullabies. Otherwise, I grew up without the benefit of that comforting feeling of chiming in, harmonizing, even if you couldn’t carry a tune.
Alas, most of that material was so far back in the archives I couldn’t get to it in the short time I had to amass a sufficient number of songs about the Civil War, slavery, women of the streets, hard times, mining songs, sea chanteys, and union anthems. I had to dig such things out from old anthologies and finally the whole project ran out of steam and I gave up the contract. But along the way of our trek north and east, I also had the chance to look up old neighborhoods of mine from when I was a toddler and a lanky, awkward pre-teen. One of those was in the Richmond district of Philadelphia, rowhouses built in a hurry after WWII near the Delaware River. The house I grew up in faced a cemetery and was tucked in among some warehouses, a few old taverns reeking of stale beer, a candy store, some British war widows living carefully on their military pensions. Next door to us was my friend Joey, a towheaded pal taller than me and eager to try anything. He and I fought occasionally, and on one occasion I bested him after great effort. We never forgot it. But when I left town following my dad’s move to Washington D.C., I lost contact with him. Now, pulling up in front of my old, pinch-faced brick house on Belgrade Street, I felt an odd twitch in my memory – so many days idling on the stoop, hanging out in the little park up the street, waiting for Joey to do his homework so we could goof off. Those were probably painfully boring days, but in my memory some sixty years later, they seemed like sublime summer afternoons full of adventures.
I doubted anyone I knew still lived there, but as I approached the door of Joey’s house, a woman appeared, white-haired and wearing glasses, with a soft, smiling face. “You’re Paul, aren’t you,” she said. It was Joey’s mother. She remembered everything we did together, and said she recognized me the moment I got out of the car. How, I wondered. Sixty years is an epoch and I had weathered and changed, but I dimly recognized that smile and the easy, calm way she had listening to us tell her how we found a raft and drifted across the pink waste pond of the factory, and built a fort out of cinderblocks at the park, and pulled soda bottles from the trash cans and got the deposits to buy candy. Ancient history.
The neighborhood wasn’t changed, maybe a little dustier and paler in the afternoon light, but immutable. It wasn’t a place to inspire dreams and fantasies of conquering the world. But when I asked about Joey, she said very proudly he was a research chemist at the DuPont labs. He made good money, she said. I told her I had a doctorate from Penn in literature and was on a research trip. She smiled, perhaps thinking research chemist trumped being a long-nosed scholar. But she didn’t say anything. I promised to send her a book of poems I was writing, with memories of the street and my old friends. She would like that. I never got around to it, though. She was too far back in the past for me to reach her, even if I did shake her hand and enjoy a few minutes of nostalgia with her.
But there it was, the gloomy graveyard where vets from WWII buried their departed comrades with a rifle salute, wearing their ribbons and tugging on the wattles of their necks, while we kids dove for the hot bullet casings as they popped out of the rifles. The run-down candy store was still selling Chinese apples in a bin, and filling the window with candy and gum. A rickety soda machine hummed by the door. An Indian couple ran the place and knew nothing about the area except that all the kids had grown up and the old people who lived there rarely bought candy. Even the school I attended around the corner stood there, a gaunt, Dickensian building of darkened brick with grates on the doors. Inside, there were commercial sewing machines in each of the classrooms; it was now a vocational training school for immigrants. Same wooden floors, cement steps leading to more classrooms, the hallways wide and moody with echoes. The principal’s office, a dreaded place for me, stood with its door ajar, and I could see an old desk, some chairs, a faded portrait of Abraham Lincoln on the wall, a water cooler, piles of old text books ready for the scrap heap. My name might still be scrawled in one of them.
The ghosts of my youth were everywhere. Every step I took in those amber years lined my soul, it seems. The little sewer grate still hid in the mangy grass above the curb where I tripped and lost my front teeth. I could still see the blood dripping from my mouth as I mother pulled me up and led me back to the house. I saw the paving around the stoop that my father had made from the clinkers next to the rails of the freight line; we piled them up in a wagon and hauled them back to the neatly excavated square where we arranged them before slopping down cement. It was a nice job, with a few seams made from a trowel, and looked like the builder had made it. I felt those clinkers in my fingers as I looked down. No one was home when I knocked on the door of 3586 Belgrade; I was glad no one was there. I would prefer to have the memory, not the fact to dwell on.
But here I was walking the back alley, retracing my path around the park, hearing the vanished voice of the pie man coming down the alley crying out, “Hot pies! Hot Pies!” I could smell damp laundry as it hung there forlornly on laundry lines in the tiny back yards. I almost heard the creak of a dray horse pulling a cart full of vegetables down the street driven by an old farmer. It was our huckster come on his weekly rounds to sell the housewives fresh corn, green peppers, squash, pickling cucumbers, tomatoes, and in the fall, pumpkins and sweet potatoes. But he was gone, and his cart no doubt became someone’s kindling in the distant past. The horse was hauled off to the abattoir to make dog food. The fertile acre of the farm was now a ranch-type house with a climbing gym in the back. The butcher shop my mother would buy her meat from was closed; it was under the El, and the trestles still stood there, abandoned and rusty. But the Jewish bakery was open, and the onion bagels smelled sublime as we passed by.
The city slumbered in this old working class neighborhood. History had passed it by, and left behind this neglected, old-fashioned, pot-holed, eerily silent dregs of a once noisy community. Back then it was a cacophony of voices speaking Yiddish, Polish, Russian, Italian, and Spanish, sometimes all at once as the huckster’s wagon came along. Everyone had her money tied up in a handkerchief and would carefully untie the knot and remove a quarter or half dollar as the old man loaded up someone’s cloth shopping bag. The women’s eyes were slitted and their lips stoical as they watched the needle on the man’s scale and checked his math. They were from hard backgrounds, still thinking like peasants who had not quite left the Old World for the New. Those women still knew the old fairy tales about goblins and princesses, and could sing a few lines of an old Slovakian folk song, if you asked them. The rowhouses stood behind us, stern, unwavering copies of the mining towns of Wales and the English Midlands. Their hands were gnarled and swollen, and their eyes were faded with cataracts, but they could still cut an onion with more precision and speed than anyone else. They knew by smell if the soup had enough pepper, and if the meat were done as it roasted in the oven. They understood potatoes the way some poets understood myth and metaphor; they were the daughters of the earth, living now in the grubby city, with the rank smell of the river wafting up on rainy days. They bought their kids bikes with the last of their savings, the ones kept in a tin box at the back of a dresser drawer. They ironed their husbands shirts, blue-collar ones that were as stiff as cardboard from the starch. The smell of cheese lingered in the kitchen; and if it were my mother’s kitchen, that smell was from limburger cheese, an odor richer and denser and more pungent than the horse dung it was supposedly cured in.
I may not have found my protest poetry on that trip, or ever find it with the sort of vagabond life I live, but I did find another secret garden on Belgrade Street. It too had its protests and complaints, but they disappeared into the smoke of an old iron frying pan, and left behind the subtlest aftertaste of the air of stale corners of the bedrooms, the dry, unmolested recesses of a winter closet. You can’t possess this past, only remember bits and fragments of it as it dissipates its last lingering traces to the breeze drifting in from Pennypack Park.