For those not from the area, Philadelphia encompasses 142 square miles and is comprised of a bunch of neighborhoods with clear boundaries delineated by streets or natural framing like rivers (and Philadelphia's got two big ones running right through it). Some of Philadelphia's neighborhoods are well-known outside of the city. Places like Society Hill, Italian Market and Old City have gotten exposure in movies and television. But there are smaller areas with colorful and somewhat puzzling names (like Graduate Hospital*, Strawberry Mansion and Fishtown) that are only a few blocks in diameter, but whose inhabitants fiercely defend the borders with pride.
The area known as Northeast Philadelphia, or "The Northeast" to locals, is situated in the far, far reaches of the Philadelphia city limits. It's a fairly large section, devoid of personality but overflowing with cookie-cutter housing developments and faceless shopping centers. Among a smattering of boast-worthy facts, Northeast Philadelphia is the birthplace of yours truly. I grew up there. Went to school there and, when I got married, got the fuck outta there as quickly as my legs could carry me. When my father passed away in 1993, I sold his house and, from that point forward, did my very best to avoid The Northeast as much as possible. As executor of his estate (Ha! "Estate," as though my father was John Rockefeller! He died in debt and left the house in which I grew up a shambles!), I was required to sit alongside my attorney at the settlement after we took the first offer on the house. I sat silently across a large table from the gentleman who was purchasing my childhood home. During the proceedings, I was asked about the origins of a lien on the property that was filed in 1977. I smiled, cleared my throat and explained that, at sixteen years-old, my parents were not in the habit of discussing their financial obligations with me. Then, the imminent buyer expressed his dismay at the current structural state of the house. "It's in worse shape than we originally thought.," he lamented. I shrugged my shoulders as I signed the last legal document. "Oh well," I smirked.
In the years since my father died, I have only ventured back into the old neighborhood a handful of times and those were handfuls too many. A great many of the houses and business have been reconfigured, though most have been boarded up or torn down. The Northeast has become a faded ghost of the charmless region it once was.
When my wife was out on her errand, my cellphone buzzed with the arrival of a photo she sent to me. I tapped the icon on my phone screen and an image popped up that did not look at all familiar.
But before I could reply with a question, she quickly sent me this photo:
Along with the caption: "This lady lives at your house now."
Wow! This was a picture of my parents' house. My childhood dwelling. The first Pincus homestead. I didn't recognize it. The last time I saw it, it was painted a faded avocado green, the result of my brother's handy work in his teen years. It didn't have those bay big windows or that fancy front door. That little patio is also a new addition... just like the cement "lady" on the lawn.
I tried to conjure memories from my childhood and that house. I remembered the many times I pushed a lawn mover across that grass, while the smell of freshly-baked cookies from the nearby Nabisco factory enveloped the neighborhood. That was pleasant. But then, I remembered riding my bike to a neighborhood sandwich shop to get lunch for my mom and me. While I was inside, some older kids stole my bike and the ones who didn't participate in the theft stuck around to spit anti-Semitic slurs at me. I remember getting pummeled with snowballs on my way home from the school bus stop. I remembered the time Dougie Salt shot me in the back of the head with a BB gun.
I quickly tried to think of fonder memories. And suddenly I realized that those memories all happened at my current house. The house I share with my wife and, until recently, my son. All of my really great memories — my happiest memories — were created over the past thirty years. Not that my childhood was unhappy. It was just.... eh. Average. Uneventful. My adult life just overshadowed my childhood one-hundred fold. That's not bad. That's good.
My elementary school seems to have made improvements, as well.
It's funny, because when I was a student there, hate felt right at home.
* the name sticks although the actual hospital closed ten years ago.