ONE WINTER NIGHT, about thirty years ago, I stood in The Pen and Pencil Club in Philadelphia, listening to a man in his thirties tell me stories of his childhood.
A woman we both knew walked by, smiling, and said, “Are you listening to tales of Chester?”
I laughed. “As a matter of fact, I am,” I said.
I can’t recall what episode I was hearing for the first time that night. I think it might have been about Jonesy, who went to the store in fairly good health to buy his funeral suit and died a week later. Or maybe it was the time Buttons was almost arrested for killing a Persian cat while on vacation at the Jersey shore.
I can’t recall which true story it was, but I pretty much decided that night I wanted to marry that man.
Listening to his memories was like standing by a burning hearth. The warmth penetrated me, the room and the world beyond it. I figured anyone who could so love the flawed and idiosyncratic people of Chester could possibly love me too. For a long time. Through thick and very thin.
I married Anthony Wood and, for 27 years, I have lived by the warmth of that fire.
Compared to the human landscape in a depersonalized suburb, the people of this industrial city on the banks of the rat-gray Delaware River, living with us intangibly all this time, are brimming with personality. They are exotica. Eccentricity and its sharp singularity seem to be among the fruits of economic hardship and God’s sanctifying graces.
Though the industrial and social microcosm of my husband’s Chester is long gone, almost completely demolished and replaced with a hulking casino, vacant lots, crime-ridden streets and government offices, his stories evoked something permanent and undying. Chester was alive still.
Enough from me.
Here is Part II of my husband’s own recollections, “Tales of Chester.” For Parts One and Two, you may go here and here.
When day broke that morning, Renner was sitting in my father’s easy chair, his legs propped over the arms, smoking a corncob, a bowl of cold oatmeal on the coffee table.
“Terrible thing to lose your home,” he said.
No doubt it was. To me, though, the loss of his home was the best consequence of the fire. Since he had lost his home, he would have to stay with us. I wouldn’t have to visit him; he would be right here. More immediately and excitingly, we had become the central figures in a high drama. A neighborhood legend had lost his house in a fire that everyone would be talking about. We were giving him shelter.
School that day was endless. How could the tedium of learning decimals and fractions and penmanship compete with the excitation of being a star of such a drama? When at long last school ended, when the dismissal line finally approached my house, I burst into the front door to resume my starring role and to comfort the neighborhood legend who had lost his home.
Renner wasn’t there, to my immeasurable disappointment. I went to find him at his brother-in-law’s tobacco shop on Eighth Street.
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