The Thinking 
Housewife
 

Tales of Chester

Page 1 of 11

A School Resister

September 6, 2016

I AM proud to say that I am married to a man who hated school.

From his very first day at St. Michael’s Catholic School in Chester, Pennsylvania, where he was one of 74 in his class, A. Wood hated it. He went to first grade without any of the preliminaries. No day care. No nursery school. No kindergarten. None of the cinder-block experiences that kill the spirit of defiance before first grade. He spent the first six years of his life un-institutionalized. He was “Tony” to his four siblings, parents and other relatives in his working class neighborhood.

Here is his description of his first day of school:

That first morning that I checked into my minimum-security prison, I walked to school with my three brothers. We were in the company of my mother, for the only time in my memory.

Only “publicans” went to kindergarten. Catholic school kids were not subject to blackboard tyranny until first grade. We had no introduction to school or its alleged benefits, such as learning the alphabet and the Arabic number system. The only thing I had in the way of preparation was a vinyl pencil box given to me by a deaf-and-dumb neighbor. As a testament to neighborhood insensitivity, we knew her only as “Deafy.”

My first surprise was learning that my name was “Anthony.” I saw it in print, written in magic marker on a cardboard strip and sealed in cellophane.

I was in a room with 71 other first graders whom I had never seen in my life. The room smelled of disinfectant and rotting bananas. I proceeded to talk to the girl sitting next to me.

“Anthony,” and this was the first time anyone had addressed me as such, “We don’t talk in here.” So pronounced Sister Joseph Beatrice of the Sisters of St. Joseph. The nuns wore shoe-length black woolen habits adorned with a starched, circular bib; a sash, and a crucifix and rosary with wooden beads the size of jellybeans. Their severe, starched headpieces appeared hammered into their foreheads. They were attached to the habit with stiff ear-flaps that they said gave them super-hearing.

Since I was enjoined from talking, I began to move from side to side in my desk chair.

“Anthony,” said Sister Joseph Beatrice, “We don’t move in here.” I’m thinking, okay, so what do we do in here. Read More »

 

Snow in Chester

December 22, 2015

 

Rooftops in the Snow, Gustave Caillebotte

Rooftops in the Snow, Gustave Caillebotte

HERE is the latest installment in “Tales of Chester,” my husband’s recollections of growing up in the factory town of Chester, Pennsylvania, a place alive in memory but long since gone as he knew it.

My first memory of snow is delightfully ambiguous, textured, deeply embedded. On a Monday morning in January when I was five, the house had a different feel, shut off from all light, blessedly isolated. I opened the back door and saw the yard layered in snow untouched by human feet.

From examining the records, I now know this would have been the first major snowstorm in my lifetime. What a magnificent sight, and the wearisome odors of exhaust, factory smoke and decay were replaced by a scent bracing and stunningly fresh.

Yet, the most-enduring memory isn’t visual or olfactory. It is the profound silence. Chester was a noisy place, and never noisier than on a Monday morning when the workweek sounds prevailed with new vigor after a weekend of rest. Low-flying planes were taking off from and approaching Philadelphia International Airport, nine miles away. We lived a half block from busy commuter train tracks. Our street was a major traffic artery. Punctuating the chronic noises were the factory and fire whistles, school bells and church bells. The snow muted them all, as if the city had been sealed in a vault. The only noise was that of distant-sounding tire chains moving slowly atop the snow pack, urban sleigh bells. This was a morning of unprecedented tranquility. I wanted more.

Chester, Pennsylvania was not in an exceptionally snowy area. It was not a place of avalanches or howling blizzards or St. Bernards rescuing travelers buried up to their necks. And yet from Thanksgiving to late March, after that initial snow, I would come to live in anticipation. If it was in the forecast, I couldn’t sleep until I saw the first randomly falling flakes, those wintry fireflies, flashing against the dim street light through a well-rubbed circle of a dirty bedroom window. Then I couldn’t sleep, period.

Worse, I couldn’t hide this passion from adults; no kid wants adults to have access to his inner thoughts, especially thoughts so clearly childlike. And childlike, they were. For snow was bad, and all adults despised it.

Weeks after that initial experience, the snow that had enchanted me long gone, I spied Charlie Buckley, an elderly friend of my father’s who often ate dinner with us, approaching our house on the brick sidewalk. The air smelled of snow. How I so desperately wanted to see the dirt outlines of the bricks iced with white, and then watch the snow make the walkway vanish! I wanted an all-conquering snow, like the one that entombed our house earlier that winter, to erase the concrete and the blacktop, to blanket the homely roofs, to veil the factory smoke, to redefine the hideous town. I ran to meet him and anxiously sought assurance that it was about to snow. He was disappointingly noncommittal. Mr. Buckley was the essence of dignity. He always wore a starched white shirt and a tie to match his perfect suits. My mother said even his toenails were perfectly cropped. He had too much decency to tell me the truth.

While he waited for dinner, Mr. Buckley read the paper in our living room. He called me over to the chair by the lamp. “It is going to snow,” he announced, not looking up from the paper.

How do you know?

“Look.” With an index finger he pointed to an “s” in the far-left column of the front page, and “n” in the third column, an “o” in the fourth, and “w” in the far-right one. “See,” he said. “S-N-O-W. It’s going to snow.” I was ecstatic. I composed a song. “It’s going to snow … It’s going to snow … you can bet your life it’s going to snow.”

You would have lost that life.

In the 1950s, before the Weather Channel, Accu-Weather, Doppler radar and the chat boards, publicly available information about the weather was sparse. Forecasts were delivered soberly on the local TV stations by anti-children weathermen who professed to hate “that white stuff,” although one of them was having a hard time disguising a rooting interest.

My three older brothers were convinced that TV weathermen, being adults, were militantly anti-snow. They believed our lack of snow was tied to a media conspiracy. “You hear that?” my brother Frank would say. “He said ‘snow,’ and then ‘Oops.’” I could not admit that I missed the reference. On another evening, although I missed it once again, a weatherman must have mentioned snow overtly, because my oldest brother, George, insisted that we all report to the basement immediately to sharpen our rusted sled blades.

Of course, it didn’t snow.

My peers and schoolmates also craved snow, but I did not share their casual, practical and outlaw attitudes toward it. They wanted enough to close the inherently loathsome schools. They wanted enough to ride their brakeless sleds down Crosby Street hill, which emptied into the aforementioned Seventh Street, where years before a cousin had been run over by a car and tragically killed. The “big guys” wanted enough to go “car-hopping.” This was another life-threatening practice in which the participants grabbed onto the bumpers of slow-moving vehicles, squatted and used their galoshes for street skis. They wanted at least enough to make snowballs to hurl at the buses and the unfortunate men who inhabited the Rescue Mission. I never saw anyone in the neighborhood attempt anything as wholesome as building a snowman. I was with them on the school issue, but I was wary of brake-less sledding; too wise, if not too chicken to hop cars, and I couldn’t make a snowball, let alone a snowman.

For me it wasn’t about sledding, car-hopping, snowball-hurling or the snowman. It was about the snow itself. I wanted to have it, to luxuriate in it, to roam around the dingy city admiring its power to transform. Read More »

 

Marx by the Sea

July 24, 2015

 

wildwood

HERE IS Part 6 of our ongoing series, “Tales of Chester,” my husband’s recollections of growing up in a working-class neighborhood in the city of Chester, Pennsylvania during the 50s and 60s. In this episode, Buttons, the family dachshund, faces capital charges during the annual summer vacation at the Jersey Shore. It’s somewhat disturbing, and for that, I sincerely apologize.

 

PHILADELPHIA MAGAZINE ONCE opined that Wildwood-by-the-Sea, New Jersey, had achieved the Marxist ideal. It was absolutely classless.

The writer obviously was not from Chester. We knew of no better place on Earth. We went there every year for the first two weeks in August. We savored the absolute purity of the humble white-washed cottages, the candy-colored apartment houses, and the futuristic motels that evoked an alien paradise far from Wildwood – the Eden Rock, the Rio, the Lu Fran. We luxuriated in the dazzling sand that burned our feet; the taste of marine depths in the air; the exotic sensation of being on an island; the enormous tomatoes, and Cokes spiked with vanilla extract.

Wildwood-by-the-Sea was a magnificent refuge. The novelty of the school year’s end had worn off by the day after school closed, and we were left to the brutal heat, the demoralizing odors of bad suppers in the languid air and the horrid realization that we had nothing to do. The sultry days passed at a glacial pace. The nights were too hot for sleeping in our flea-infested beds. The only relief came from a tiny rotating fan that scanned the bedroom, parceling out ineffective puffs of warm air, too weak to blow the mosquitoes away from our ears.

We did not need the fan in Wildwood-by-the-Sea, New Jersey. We had the sea breezes and house-high waves. Instead of the cracked railroad bridge along Sixth Street, we had a Boardwalk with roller-coasters and bumper cars. Instead of the odors of bad suppers, we had the fresh and salty smells of the sea. Instead of the loud fights of bad marriages that had invaded our rusty, hole-pocked window screens, our wonderfully exhausted bodies fell asleep to the rhythmic roars of those waves.

And what a sleep it was after a day of body-surfing and castle-building and football on the beach. What a contrast to those tedious steamy afternoons on The Corner, counting cars and watching dogs chew their hopelessly itchy backs. At home a three-block walk to the grocery store was an odious errand. In Wildwood, the three-block walk to the beach was enchanting, full of reverie and anticipation even as the sun-heated asphalt scorched our feet as we crossed the streets. Would the waves be 20 feet high? Was this the day I finally would be tan? Read More »

 

Khrushchev Comes to Chester

June 9, 2015

a-bomb-drill

 

HERE is the latest installment in the ongoing series, “Tales of Chester,” a first-hand account of my husband’s childhood in the industrial — and strategically-vital — town of Chester, Pennsylvania.

The End of the World

We were not surprised to learn that the living Satan himself had added the strategically-vital town of Chester, Pennsylvania, to his itinerary. Chester was home to one of the world’s great shipyards and would be a magnet for Russian atomic bombs. So it only made sense that the great conqueror and oppressor and hater of all that was holy, Nikita Khrushchev, would want to see this inviting target firsthand when he visited the United States.

The buildup to Khrushchev’s visit to America evoked images as threatening as a gathering of thunderheads along a storm front, the way we imagined the sky might look when Gabriel sounded the trumpet to wake the dead at the end of world. Normally, the Chester Times devoted its pages to Iocal Republican politics (the only kind we had) or the exploits of fullbacks at St. James and the basketball superstars at Chester High, the only kind of kids worth a damn in this town. These were extreme times, however. In the summer of 1959, on the eve of Khrushchev’s visit, the paper rolled out an extensive series under the headline, “We Will Bury You!” It was described as the Communist “Blueprint for the Future,” and we had every reason to believe the Russians could execute to the letter their plans for world domination.

Mr. K and Grandchildren

Read More »

 

Housing Matters

April 24, 2015

rosette

HERE is Part IV of my husband’s recollections of growing up in Chester, Pennsylvania during the 1950s and ’60s. Earlier installments can be found here.

Renner was going on trial. The neighborhood drama, which had receded to the haunting reality of Renner’s ransacked property, was getting new life.

His fate was the only subject of discussion during the daily afternoon gossip sessions at our dining room table, sessions specifically convened to address the crisis and enlivened with beer. The assembled talked of adult matters that I was not to be part of, and I was expected to have the good sense and courtesy to be in another part of the house. They themselves were too courteous to ask me to leave the premises, and I voluntarily consigned myself to the living room, where I was free to watch “Bandstand.” Read More »

 

Crying Angels

March 1, 2015

 

angel

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 thin.

I married A. 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 III of my husband’s own recollections, “Tales of Chester.” For Parts One and Two, you may go here and here.

 

 Crying Angels

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.

Read More »

 

The Weirs

February 15, 2015

 

 

7th_edgmont_c1919

TALES OF CHESTERmy husband’s recollections of his childhood, continues here with his memories of his neighbors, the Weirs.

Weiry, as in “weary,” that’s what we called her, had slicked-back gray hair and a face very much like Renner’s, only puffier with prominent swellings beneath the eyes. She looked like a man, and she had the most unusual walk. With every other step, her head would drop a foot or more, so that if she were walking on the other side of our hideous wooden fence, you would see her head appear and then disappear in a dolphin-like rhythm, as she walked to the end of the yard to water her tomato plants.

After the fire at Renner’s, which happened when I was ten, I began spending more time with the Weirs, who inhabited the ground-floor apartment in the red-shingled building on the north side of our house. Their place was across an alleyway that was so narrow you could shimmy up to the roof by bracing your hands and feet on the brick walls on either side. Their lives had been far different from Renner’s.

We often said that if Weiry had gone on that old TV show, Queen for a Day, she would have walked off with the studio. We watched Queen for a Day every afternoon. Three women chosen from the audience would tell horrible stories about the abject state of their lives. The audience would vote for the most-pathetic case, the results tabulated on an applause meter. They applauded hardship. The winner got crowned by the host, Jack Bailey, and received a gown and a Speed Queen washing machine.

No one we saw could match Weiry.

Read More »

 

Tales of Chester, Part I

February 8, 2015

 

Scan 56

My husband as a child

 

A FRIEND told me once that he walked into a bar in North Philadelphia many years ago and noticed a crowd of people gathered in the back of the room. The crowd was standing around a young man of modest stature with red hair and it was listening with rapt attention to him speak. He was telling stories of his childhood.

That man was my future husband and I have listened to those stories too.

When I married 27 years ago, I didn’t just marry a man. I married a whole community. A community that no longer existed.

Read More »

 
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