Monday, January 14, 2013

holy moly me oh my you’re the apple of my eye

I lived in my parent's house in Northeast Philadelphia for 22 years. The majority of my friends lived nearby and, and save for a few harrowing incidents of antisemitism, my childhood experiences were pleasant. I remember the green grass of the neighborhood lawns. In my mind, I can still see a shimmering white ice cream truck descending down my street, dispensing brightly-colored frozen treats. I recall row after row of shopping centers lining great Roosevelt Boulevard, their storefronts a gleaming color combination of pastels and chrome. Some even boasted enormous blinking neon signs glowing amiably after sunset. The new car dealership next to the Howard Johnson's with the bright orange roof displayed shiny automobiles festooned with plastic flags in luminous primary hues and beautiful multi-colored lettering painted across the huge showroom windows.

I moved out of my parents' house when I got married and, after briefly renting an apartment, my wife and I moved into a three-story twin just outside of the Philadelphia city limits. I returned occasionally — taking a quick twenty-minute drive — to dine with my parents. After my mother passed away, my son and I would meet my father nearly every Friday for dinner while my wife worked late. Each week, as I made the journey back to my old neighborhood, I noticed a slight deterioration of the surroundings. There were a few more overgrown lawns, a few more closed businesses.

My father died in 1993 and I was tasked with selling his house. I made arrangements with a local Realtor and, once explaining the state of disrepair the house was in, we agreed on an asking price. I handed the keys over and, just like Lot fleeing Sodom, I didn't look back. The house sold in two days.

I have returned to Northeast Philadelphia a handful of times in the twenty years since my father's death. I really have no reason to go back. I don't know anyone there. I have no close family there. There is more convenient shopping near my current residence. The few times that I've had reason to venture back to the stomping grounds of my youth have been disheartening.

This past Saturday, I accompanied my wife to drop off an item that was purchased from her eBay store. The mutual decision was made, by Mrs P and her customer, to meet in the parking lot of a large shopping mall at the far end of Northeast Philadelphia. We woke early, loaded the item (a Radio Flyer wagon) into my car and pulled out of our driveway. When we crossed the county line into what is officially Northeast Philadelphia, a noticeable change took place. The houses looked pale and washed-out. The grass was either overgrown or brown and dead. Small shopping centers exhibited "AVAILABLE" or "FOR RENT" signage in the majority of their darkened store windows. Obviously empty businesses showed evidence of decaying structure beneath peeling paint. We passed my elementary school. It looked small and sad, surrounded by a bleak assembly of faded houses and rusted playground equipment. We passed more empty buildings, parking lots dotted with crumbling blacktop and glistening bits of broken glass. Even the part of our route that took us a mile or so down a six-lane interstate was marked by neglected median strips and oxidized directional signs. The scenery got worse and worse as we got closer to our destination. We made the merchandise delivery in the nearly empty parking lot of a nearly empty mall in desperate need of rejuvenation.

The physical memories of my childhood surroundings have literally faded away. With apologies to Allen Ginsburg, I saw the best years of my generation destroyed by a lack of care, pride and consideration.

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