Where Pop Grew Up
My dad picked me up off of South Street, right before the South Street Bridge that took you over to West Philly. He had his big truck with him, and he must’ve just taken it to the wash because it looked like a commercial. The sun caught it when he pulled up. This silver chariot. I waved at him from the stoop I was sitting on, stood up, skipped down the steps, and hopped up into the truck.
“Damn, boy,” my dad said. “Looking scruffy.” He laughed.
I rubbed my chin. “Was a long weekend, Pop.”
Dad laughed again. “It’s Wednesday.”
We started driving. He had his window down. The wind that came in was cold, but I didn’t complain. I just put my hands in the pockets of my coat and drew it in closer. We were headed north.
“How you been, Pop?” I asked my dad.
“Oh, you know,” he said, letting the wind snatch up the ash from his Camel.
Personally, I thought Philadelphia was a beautiful place. But I had to confess something too. I needed light as much as I needed darkness. So on days like this, when the sky was somewhere in between heaven and hell, and the clouds were up there, loitering with bad intentions, it didn’t feel like it threatened my fate. I needed days like this, even looked forward to them. Explain that to somebody.
The people indigenous to this city were maybe like that in a way. I won’t tell you there aren’t any pretenders. Pretenders are unavoidable in life, at the basest levels of nature and its highest echelons both. But not everywhere was authenticity valued. I wasn’t sure where that originated from. Because sometimes it felt bitter, and sometimes it felt like pure joy. So maybe… that was the whole point.
“So?” my dad said. “Tell me what’s going on up here. You need money?”
“Nah, I don’t need money,” I said, a little irritated. But I dismissed the feeling quickly, because I could recall so many times I had needed it. And that my father was not asking to be an asshole, but because he wanted to get it out of the way so we wouldn’t have to hedge other topics of conversation. I got to act annoyed, indignant, but we both felt the relief of that issue passing us, knowing it didn’t have to be a source of tension held between the two of us. The ride felt lighter immediately.
“Well, you hungry?” he asked me.
“Sure. OK,” I answered.
I was a little boy, barely beginning any kind of school, and my shorts went high up my brown thighs, and my socks went up to my calves, and my hair was grown out, like a kind of curly dark halo. I was on the sidewalk in front of my father’s family home, the one he’d grown up in, in North Philly. I was playing with the pigeons, feeding them pieces of bread. I was having a ball.
All the different kinds. There weren’t just grey ones. There were white ones with brown rings around their eyes, brown ones with white wings, black ones with white bellies and green throats. Beautiful automobiles glided by, shining. In everyone’s yards, the bushes were cut and trimmed meticulously, stoops swept immaculately, and every hour, the ice cream man serenaded his way down the street like the fiddler on the roof.
“You know them pigeons just be rats with wings, right?”
I looked up, squinting. It was my uncle Chip. He was grinning at me, with his Tic-Tac white teeth, and a cigarette hanging magically from his lip. I stood up and hugged his waist.
We walked up into the house of my grandparents. The porch had a screen barrier all around it. On the couch was my pop-pop and his son, my father, smoking more cigarettes. They looked at me like they could comprehend the bucket of trouble I was.
“Time to eat!” my grandma called from inside. She sounded like she was deep inside of some cave. I could see figures past the screen door, shadows shuffling, preparing the dinner table for a feast. And wasn’t food always the way good people congregated to share their love?
I will admit, I was scared of my great grandmother. When humans get that damn old, as a child, you can’t help but feel they are aliens. I can’t remember her eyes at all. Just the huge glasses, her fake teeth, the whiskers on her chin.
I don’t remember the food like I know it now. I remember the food like the first girl you ever had a crush on. Like the first time you ever went to the beach. Like the first time you wake up with your pet dog next to you, still peaceful and adorable in slumber. Nostalgia is a trap.
I never really remembered my mother in those moments. Which is crazy, to think now. To think, now, in my life. How bigger than life she’d always been, but back then, quiet, submissive, pretty, wavy black hair, and not in the company of the men, who sat on the porch smoking cigarettes and discussing things I could not comprehend.
And when it was over, and I could be left to my own devices once again. I was back on the sidewalk, back with the pigeons. I don’t know why. I’m an adult now. I hate pigeons. As an adult, I consider them as rats with wings.
We were driving into North Philly. Dad had finished the cigarette and had the window back up.
“Dang, it’s been forever huh, Pop?”
“Yeah,” he said.
I can’t remember exactly when we’d stopped coming back. At some point, his parents died. Pop-pop. Mom-mom. There was the funeral, and then that was it. No more. I don’t remember if I asked, but I didn’t even know if there was anyone to come back to. Seems like a crazy thing to lose track of. Your family. I was only in my late twenties. I already wasn’t talking to my younger brothers. Rarely ever with my sister. And my parents? My dad wasn’t unfair to ask about money. The chances weren’t bad that I was asking for it. But right then, I was good. So I could be proud of that. As fleeting as it was. Goddamn. It’s a trip to go through life, going back and forth from being poor and having money, poor and having money, poor and having money. Tell me how I still had good credit. Tell me that then.
I crunched up the wrapper to my steak sandwich and put it in the side compartment. I licked my fingertips. Then I put my hands back into my pockets. The scenery grew more desolate. More boarded-up houses. Litter everywhere, like unnatural tumbleweeds, rolling down the gutters. There were the real weeds too. I actually welcomed the sight of them. Something true come from the earth, even if they had no admirers. Cars abandoned, wheels missing, other parts too. They were now street sculptures. And, scattered, there were corners occupied with men probably my dad’s age but appearing even older, standing there staring suspiciously, even though it was just early afternoon on a weekday. Standing out there in their coats and jackets and scarves and hats, smoking cigarettes, looking and looking. Because after all, this was still theirs. Their home, their territory. No. It wasn’t ever theirs. But neither had it been taken from them. They’d been pushed out here, far away from where anyone would see them. Except those who might return home.
“Still there, I see,” my dad clucked, as if addressing my thoughts.
“Huh?” I said back, emerging from my reverie.
“That warehouse there,” he pointed, his eyeballs just over his rimless glasses. “Used to work there, packing. Only took ‘em six months before they made me manager. Had keys to the whole place. Pop-pop couldn’t believe it. One night, I brought all my buddies over there. After the shift. Whole place was shut down. Dark. We had a bunch of beer. Got drunk as hell. Drank all night in there. I remember. Lights shined in, thought it was the cops. We were ready to peel out. Every man for himself. It was just your uncle Chip. Getting off late. We just kept drinking.”
He laughed a little bit. He slapped the wheel. Then he stopped. His face became very serious. I didn’t ask him why. It wasn’t my place. I craned my head back to look at that warehouse, the windows blown out, the roof gone, the inside looking like an empty cold oven with only crumbs left behind. We moved on.
Dad parked his big shiny truck in front of the house. The old house where he’d grown up, where I’d visited so many summers of my childhood. It had been chipping green paint back then and the green was all but gone now, leaving behind a sick, grey color.
The entire block looked like a ghost town. Almost every house boarded up. Less than three cars parked on the block. The bodega I used to go to buy lollipops and pork rinds from, when I was that little boy, big hair, baby thighs. That bodega was no more.
And the house my father grew up in. The screened-in porch was dark, the screen itself cut up, crudely, meanly. Just beyond it, the doors to the actual house were also boarded-up, like all the rest. No one lived here anymore.
“Did you know?” I asked.
“Knew someone else had bought it. Didn’t know anything after,” my dad told me, staring.
He stood there, both hands on his hips. He was wearing a suede jacket. He had a sharp haircut. I realized he’d made himself look good for this. Just in case. He almost looked young again. I remembered how handsome my father used to be back then. Hell, he was still handsome. This son of a bitch still tucked his shirt into his jeans.
“Well, well, well,” an old gravelly voice said from some unseen place. “Look at this. That you, Slim? Back after all this time?”
I looked around, everywhere, trying to see who was talking. My dad must’ve already known. He didn’t grin or laugh or anything. Stood right there, hands on his hips like he had been. Just a little curve to his lips like he knew the answer to a trick question.
“Yeah. It’s me, Whit. You still out here, huh?” my dad asked.
“Ain’t dead yet,” the deep voice said.
“Nope. Not yet.”
“Come on up. You and your boy. Look at him. He grown too, huh?”
“Nah,” my dad said. “He just think he is.”
I remembered Whit. The next door neighbor. He was old back then even. He wore his hair in dreads and always wore sunglasses, even if he was indoors. He had them on still. And his voice sounded like it was coming from the inside of an old chimney.
We three sat on the porch, the two of them smoking cigarettes. My dad took a drag off his and looked at me, not specifically, but more like noticing I was alive and present. It’s hard to express how rare that sensation can feel. Sometimes it’s all a person wants. He took his pack of smokes out of the breast pocket of his jacket and pulled back the top and offered it to me. He’d never once in his life done this before. By then, I’d already quit smoking. I reached forward and snagged one anyway. He leaned forward with a rusty, golden Zippo and lit it. I leaned forward too, and when I leaned back, I blew a plume of smoke in the air. We all sat quiet, ruminating.
“That your truck?” Whit asked.
“Yup,” my dad said.
“Big. Nice. You driving that around here, huh?”
“Just came up to visit my boy,” my dad told him.
Whit leaned up, checking me out. “You live here now, huh? Isn’t that something? And you ain’t even from here. Shiiiit. What part of town you in?”
“Around Center City. On South Street,” I answered.
Whit leaned back. “Mmhmm,” he murmured knowingly.
“Anybody from back in the day still around?” my dad asked, and his tone struck me because it sounded lighter than I’d normally recognize. An unexpected hopefulness that perked my ears and made me wonder if it were the same man but from a different time.
“Nah. Everybody gone,” Whit told him.
We sat there for the duration of our respective cigarettes in silence, smoking. Old Man Whit had an empty, washed-out tomato can that he threw all his butts in, and we honored that.
“This hood’s on its way out. I gotta take two bus rides just to do groceries,” Whit told us. “But you did all right. Got to see some of the world. You made it out.”
“I just did the military. Nothing special,” my dad said.
“But you did make it out. Only one thing I ever wonder about. And I guess it makes sense in some ways. I been here long enough. I still can see. I can’t see a lot, but I still can see. I wonder why, whenever anyone gets out, how come they never come back? How come it can only go the one way? But I get it. Why would you, right? Why come back to this? When you’d do anything to get out. I get it.”
My dad sighed. It almost seemed like he saw the question coming. Anticipated it. A dream he’d already had. He must have. “I never had a chance to get the house back, Whit. They had a lot of debt I didn’t know about. I had a family to raise.”
“Right. With your overseas wife,” Whit said, emphasizing overseas in a way I didn’t understand but knew I shouldn’t like. “Funny how the military works. Can’t be mad at you though. Wife. Family. That big truck. I ain’t mad, Slim.”
My dad stood up. “I’m glad you ain’t.”
The way my dad said that, his voice once again sounded different. Different from how he talked to most people in front of me, actually. It sounded like there was a weight attached that I had never recognized before. Never considered. I wasn’t supposed to see my dad like that. Not my dad or mom or older brother or a teacher. This was for private. I sat there, looking at him, feeling like I was all wrong to be there.
“We’re gonna walk up the block, then head out. I just wanted to take a look at things one more time. It was good to see you, Whit. You take care of yourself,” my dad said.
I stood up too. I was a man by then, but only biologically. In that moment, I felt I should’ve been crouched on the sidewalk, feeding pigeons.
“I ain’t see you at Chip’s funeral,” Whit said.
We all went still. I slowly looked at my dad. He was staring at the floor.
“No one told me when it was. I didn’t find out until after,” he said.
“Well,” Whit said. “You were missed, Slim. You and your family take care.”
My dad stood there a moment, his fists clenched. I dared not look at him straight on, only from the edges of my eye. I could see he was shaking. Just a little bit.
“You take care, Whit,” my dad said.
We left the porch, stepping down just several stairs, back onto the sidewalk. We started walking up the block. There was absolutely no one else around. It was so quiet. How it ought to be in nature, but we were deep in the city. And only early afternoon. I’d never been anywhere in my life in the early afternoon where it was this quiet. I hadn’t really begun camping yet, I guess. Anyway, I didn’t look at my dad. I just asked him.
“Yeah,” he said. “Just wanted to see.”
We got to the end of the block. The bodega was boarded up and painted over. I hadn’t seen a single pigeon. Even they knew.
“Let’s head out. We can go do something fun. You tell me,” my dad said, his hand on my shoulder. He had on his sunglasses, so I couldn’t see his eyes.