Relationships

The House on Baltimore Avenue

You can't go home again—even if your old house is for sale

It was a red brick duplex with a wide front porch and a set of concrete steps that led down to Baltimore Avenue. I'd grown up in this house, though now I lived in an apartment building a few blocks away—kind of a shitty place, but adequate. It was close to where I worked as an English teacher at West Philadelphia High School. My wife was six or seven months pregnant and we had talked about how it would be good to have a nicer place to bring the baby home to. I won't tell you about my deep fears and insecurities, how I wasn't at all sure that the woman I was married to was the woman I wanted to be married to and I won't even try to describe how terrifying it was for me to pretend to teach a classroom full of surly African-American young men and women.

The house on Baltimore Ave. That's what I want to focus on. I always thought it was a great house, even felt proud to live there. I especially liked that there were three flights of wooden stairs that I could jump down when my father wasn't around. I had it worked out so that I could make it down all three flights in four daredevil-ish leaps. Made me feel like Superboy. It wasn't a big fancy house. Not like my friend Joe Cohen's house, which was an actual mansion, with a tennis court and a regulation-size backboard and hoop where we played endless games of pick up basketball.

Our house had only a tiny backyard where the dirt was hard and full of gravel and nothing could ever grow. The Cohens moved out of the neighborhood in 1956 and fled to the suburbs like all the rest of the well-to-do Jewish families in West Philadelphia, because they were scared of the black families moving in. But not my dad. At least not back in the '50 or '60s. But by 1970, he was ready to go too and decided to sell our house.

His car had been broken into a couple of times as it sat parked out on the street in front. Thieves stole the battery one time, and then after he replaced it, they stole the new one. Nobody had garages in our neighborhood. Houses weren't built like that—no room, when you had to squeeze in a bunch of buildings on one city block. Unwisely, Dad then decided to go out and buy himself a brand-new automobile: a jet-black Chevrolet Impala. I was shocked. My dad did not own cool cars. There had been a '49 Frazier and a gray '54 Buick and a couple other sedate sedans. But this Impala was a great-looking car, the kind with flaring rear fins and a big engine and, though he would never admit it, Dad was excited about owning such a sharp vehicle.

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And then ... you know what's coming, don't you? He parked the car out on the street, as usual, turned on the TV, watched his shows, went to bed, woke up, looked out the bedroom window and saw only an empty space where the black Chevy had sat. That morning, he and Mom decided they'd had enough and put the house up for sale.

I tried to argue against it, but I had no standing in this decision. My objections were half-hearted in any case. My parents were getting old and they deserved to have a more relaxed life, in a place where they felt safe. Forget about what that "right" thing to do was. Dad was nearing retirement and Mom had been pestering him for years to move to New Jersey ,where many of her friends now lived. Dad was finally ready to agree, but I sensed that it was still with some reluctance and maybe even a sense of defeat. He hadn't wanted to be like all the others, a part of the "white flight."

My dad had his principles. They were observable in his actions, if not in his speech. Dad didn't speak very much at all. At least not to me, or to anyone else in the family, including Mom. I guess he believed in the dignity of silence, that if one wanted to be heard, it was necessary to say only what was deathly important, like John Wayne. Dad and I had only three conversations the entire time I lived under his roof. One was about girls and the other two about the Phillies. He thought they were a "bunch of bums." The conversation about girls, or about one girl in particular, was the best one. It meant a lot to me at the time, 13 years old and brokenhearted over Carolyn Blattner, who dumped me for Crazy Joey down the block. Dad put his arm around my shoulder and told me there would be lots of girls to come after Carolyn. He took me seriously and never laughed. But that was it. One and done.

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Distance builds walls over time and then you reach a point where there's no climbing over. Hey, I gave up too. Trying to talk to him was too hard. All I could manage was to make him angry. Maybe after a while, that was what I was trying to do. By the time I was out of college and living a life of my own, we barely noticed one another.

Mom and Dad decided they would move to Cherry Hill, New Jersey, right across the Ben Franklin Bridge, but about eight million miles away from West Philly. My sister already lived there, with her new rich husband in a house with a swimming pool. "Regulation Olympic size," the hubby informed me. My parents were moving into a condominium. Essentially, they were buying an apartment in a huge block of a building full of other apartments. Mom said it was "very snazzy." I'll have to admit, I wasn't allowing any of it to affect me very much. I wouldn't have wanted to live in a condo in Cherry Hill, but what the hell, I was not them.

What I did think, however, was: Hey, I could live in the old family house. It was all instinct, at first. The idea leapt into my thoughts as if radioed in by some outside force field. It would be great to have a real house to bring the baby home to. And the price was right. Even I could probably afford the cut rate, flee-the-neighborhood price my dad was asking. It would be weird, sure. It would mean that my wife and I would move into my parents' bedroom. Could I get over that? Make love there? But we'd make the place our own. Tear down some walls, use a shitload of paint, take up the shag carpet my mother was so proud of. Cathy, my wife, was all for it. So, I approached my father. Heart in my mouth.

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I caught him outside the old house, as he was getting in his rental car. He was leaving for work, dressed the same way he was always dressed, with a jacket and tie, overcoat and drab brown hat. The uniform of his day.

"Hey, Dad," I called to him. "Could I talk to you about something?"

"I don't have much time." Dad looked at me like I was another criminal. "What do you want?"

"Well, I was thinking ..." I stumbled.

"Yes?"

"I was thinking maybe Cathy and I could buy your house."

He looked at me like my teeth had just spontaneously fallen out of my mouth.

"I mean this house, our house," I said, pointing to the front porch. "Why not, huh?"

"Are you crazy, boy?" He got into the car, shaking his head, rolled down the window, and said, "You're in no position to own a home."

I was stunned. I didn't expect him to leap for joy, but I didn't expect this curt dismissal either. I backed off, further into the street and Dad slammed the door of the car and looked straight ahead. I stood there while he started it up and drove away.

Strangely, I didn't feel angry; it was all too shameful for that. What I thought was: He's right. Stupid asshole boy.

I never said another word about it. Not to my wife or my mother, or my father, of course. I just swallowed it, made it part of that dark place inside of myself that struggled for the next 40 years to make sense of who I was and why I had so much trouble trying to breathe.

It was on a summer trip back to the old neighborhood in 2008 that the incident came back to me. I had brought my new wife to Philadelphia, to show her where I had grown up. It was remarkably the same. Sure, Ringers Pharmacy was now a coffee house, and Berman's grocery an upscale restaurant, but otherwise, the houses remained largely the same, the trees in Clarks Park still full and pretty. Even our old house was in much the same shape as I remembered it, though without the M. Freedman, M.D. sign on the front porch. I told Bev then about wanting to buy the place way back when, still laughing self-consciously at what a fool I'd been. "It was really stupid of me," I told her.

"Why?" she said. "This looks like it would have been a great house to raise a family in?"

"You think?"

"Sure, and a great investment too. What did your dad sell the place for?"

"Ten thousand."

"Incredible," she chuckled. "What do you think it's worth now?"

"Three hundred."

"At least," Bev said.

"Yeah, that's right," I said. "Maybe I wasn't such an idiot after all."

"Maybe not," she said. Then we walked over to the old drug store and had a cup of coffee.

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