Archive for pennsport

where the light gets in

Posted in Memoir with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 26, 2015 by sethdellinger

  1.

 

I awoke slowly, groggily, dry-mouthed.  Beneath my body I could feel a bed, a nice bed, cushioney and soft, but also the obtuse crinkle of a plastic sheet.  Then came the sensation of the plastic pillowcase; and then, finally, I remembered.

I was in rehab, and this was my first moment waking up there.  I didn’t dare yet open my eyes.  Who knew what kind of world this was?  

My body felt sick, tired, disgusting.  I was shaking, but not externally.  My insides shook, as if my muscle and blood were a loosely-congealed jelly.  I was hot–I could feel my body heat transferring from my head to the plastic pillow case.  I had to cough, and vomit.  Every bad thing a body can tell you, I was being told, but only slightly, moderately, on the periphery of emergency.  I was in this facility for the treatment of alcohol dependency.  I had arrived in an incredibly drunk state, and so only remembered small pieces of the event.  I did not remember entering the room I was in, or laying on the bed.  I had memory flashes of receptionists, bathrooms, swallowing pills.  Bright fluorescent lights in drop ceilings.  A hallway.  Very little to go on.  I had, in fact, no idea how long I’d been asleep.

I became aware of what had woken me: the sounds of people talking outside my room.  Still without opening my eyes, I could tell these were people standing outdoors, by a window.  As the crow flies, they must have only been seven or eight feet away from me, but of course, they were standing outside talking, while I was laying on a bed in a room with, presumably, the shades drawn.  I felt badly the need to vomit.

With great trepidation I decided to open my eyes.  I did so very slowly, not knowing if there might be someone else in this room with me, and if there was, I might want to continue feigning sleep.  Gradually I let the light in–it hurt tremendously, giving me reason to think I’d slept for over a day.  The room came into focus. Brown wood-grain particle board closets were directly in front of me, at the foot of my single bed.  To my right, another single bed–blissfully unoccupied, the sheets and blanket meticulously made.  A brown balsa wood desk in the corner to my left, and to the far right, a small door that looked like it lead to a bathroom, and beside that door, a larger door–this one presumably the door out. Probably to the hallway that existed in a flash somewhere in my memory.

The room looked frighteningly like any of the countless dorm rooms I’d lived and partied in only a year or two before, and only half a mile away.  I’d lived in rooms just like this where the closet was full of empty beer cans and liquor bottles waiting for an opportunity to go out to the trash without getting caught.  It did not seem that long ago that I’d looked at closet doors just like this one and contemplated hiding inside it, or peeing on it, or whatever.  Now here I was in a similar but very different room.  I was the same person I’d always been, nothing had changed inside me, but suddenly here I was waking up in rehab.

The sudden knowledge of the bathroom woke up a long-dormant pain in my bladder.  With great achiness and slow care, I swung my feet out of the bed and limped my way to the small door I assumed to be the bathroom.  I became aware that the entire place smelled of medicine, like an overly-air conditioned pharmacy.  It was a sterile smell but reassuring; whatever was wrong with me, I was in a place to be fixed.  Someday the shaking might stop.

The first thing I noticed was the sink.  Not because there was anything very special about the sink itself, but because of the large red sticker attached to it, imploring residents to “wash thoroughly” in order to minimize the risk of transmitting Hepatitis.   I peed into the pearly white, larger-than-expected toilet for what seemed like ten minutes.  Relieved, I limped back out of the bathroom thinking I might sleep for another entire day.

But I became sidetracked on the way to the bed by the voices outside my window.  Who were they?  What was going on?  I waddled to the window and ever-so-slightly pried open two slats of the industrial white venetian blinds.

Outside was a large courtyard, completely enclosed on all sides by the one-story brick building which I was inhabiting.  The courtyard was large enough to house two or three full-sized trees, a gazebo, benches, and some concrete walkways.  A dozen or so people were scattered throughout the courtyard, speaking in groups, smoking cigarettes, nursing tiny Styrofoam cups with steam rolling off the tops.  They looked happy—almost like this was grade school recess or a break in a business meeting.  They were of many different ages and seemed to run the gamut on the socio-economic spectrum.  It looked like an inviting place to be, but also terrifying.  I wanted to stay alone in this room forever.  I wanted to get under the blanket where it was dark and plasticy and shake until the world ended, or my parents came and got me.  Somewhere outside these walls my friends were going to work, stopping at gas stations, watching movies in living rooms.  I could hear the chatter outside my window die down as the group was being called back inside.  This was who I had become.

 

2.

 

Today I live about forty miles from the rehab I woke up in that day, which was over ten years ago.  I live in an area roughly referred to as Central Pennsylvania, although some purists insist on calling it South Central Pennsylvania.  Neither moniker is quite accurate, but anyway. 

Most places in this world are the same, more or less, although cases for distinctions can certainly be made.  Here in Central Pennsylvania, the case for distinction starts with the city of Harrisburg.  Or, perhaps more aptly put, what the city used to be.  A city on the rise throughout the 1800s, a series of events (both controllable and uncontrollable) caused the city to begin a constant descent into mediocrity and blight much like other, larger Northern “rust belt” cities from the 1920s until present day.  Intense racial division, poor local leadership and the alluring habitability of rural areas outside the city caused an outward migration that has never fully stopped.

 

Harrisburg (and by extension, Central Pennsylvania) sits on the banks of the Susquehanna River.  Although the Susquehanna appears at first glance to be a mighty, majestic river, it is in fact the longest river in the United States that is not deep enough to allow commercial boating traffic—another contributing factor to Harrisburg’s stagnation.  The river at points nears a mile wide but is often shallow enough to walk the entire way across.  Although it factors greatly in much of America’s history—the Revolution and the founding of Mormonism, for starters—its shallow depth prevents it from achieving any great level of fame, or any truly major cities from growing near it.

 

As citizens migrated outward from Harrisburg in the early 1920s they formed a network of small towns and communities so close together and homogenous that the ones on the opposite bank of the Susquehanna are often referred to simply as the “West Shore”, as though they were one community.  These tiny towns, often quaint and artisan more than they were hardy and working-class, took their names equally from American history, Native Americans, and the local landscape.  Towns like Camp Hill, Penbrook, Paxtang, Enola, Wormleysburg—each with its own identity, history, and geography, but each in turn also related to the exodus of Harrisburg.  Camp Hill is named after a church whose congregation split into two groups—one of the “camps” held their worships on a nearby hill.  Lemoyne—which used to be named Bridgeport—is a town of four thousand people that for some reason has an intense concentration of guitar and instrument stores.  Paxtang is taken from “Peshtenk”, an English word which means “still waters”, although which still waters it was named for, we don’t know.  New Cumberland hosts a notable apple fest each year despite being relatively far from where the apples grow.  If one were to travel from each of these communities into the neighboring ones, you would notice small but not insignificant changes in elevation, a tangled network of water tributaries, bulbous outcroppings of sedimentary rock, and a collection of wildlife that includes the brown bear, the white tailed deer, the timber rattlesnake, and the turkey vulture.

All of these towns, and Harrisburg and the almost-mighty Susquehanna, are inside a valley.  The Cumberland Valley is bounded by mountains from both the Appalachian and Blue Ridge ranges.  All of the mountains are on the small side, as far as mountains go, although there are certain vistas that can be quite striking, especially in instances where the mountain ranges intersect with the river. 

Although the Valley as we know it extends for only about seventy miles (and, at its narrowest, is only twelve miles wide) the Valley is part of a much larger geographic formation in the state of Pennsylvania known as a Ridge and Valley section, a land formation over a hundred miles wide that consists of repeating north-to-south peaks and valleys, formed, again, by the Appalachians and Blue Ridges.  One can imagine (can one?) the difficulty these north-to-south peaks presented (and to a degree still present) to transportation efforts which in this state show a strong east-to-west desire.

In Pennsylvania, to the north of the Ridge and Valleys lies a vast expanse known as the Appalachian Plateau—basically a continually elevated area that looks like a mountain range but is really just high eroded sediment.  This feature extends all the way to the top of the state until it drops off into Lake Erie. 

To the south of our Cumberland Valley are the Triassic Lowlands—a small misnomer as there continue to be drastic changes in elevation throughout, but there is a distinct absence of mountains in this area, and most of the soil and structure is left over from the Triassic Period—some even from Pangea.  The lowlands continue until Pennsylvania’s small Coastal Plain on the bank of the Delaware River—which supports commercial boating into Philadelphia.

However, this is how the modern human being would experience this world: be in your house.  Travel a few feet out of your house into your car.  Turn on your car, your air conditioning (or your heat) and drive to your destination away from your house.  You will do this by navigating streets, interstates and intersections that you know by heart even though they have nothing to do with you or the land in which you live.  Arrive at your destination.  Walk a few feet from your car into your new destination.  And this is how it is everywhere now—not just in Central Pennsylvania, but everywhere.  You can move all over this country and most of the world and have a relatively changeless existence, never knowing where you are, what the place is like, what made it that way.

Sometimes our destination is in a whole separate town from where we started just a few minutes before, but the speed and ease with which we travel makes noticing these changes unnecessary.  Sometimes we drive our cars over rivers and don’t notice.  Sometimes we drive them through tunnels at the bottoms of mountains and bemoan the loss of cell phone service.  Usually we don’t know the name of the mountain we drove under.  We have no idea the struggle society went through to make such seamless east-to-west travel so unbearably easy.  We see large birds gliding in circles, distant in the sky but don’t know what they are—we don’t even know that we could know what they are, that there was a time we would have known, would have been expected to know, would have been shamed by not knowing what the enormous graceful flying meat eaters were called.  We’re unmoored, unhooked, disconnected, floating in a gel of inconsequence, we don’t know and we don’t know and we don’t know.

3.

 

My first year out of high school I went away to college–twenty minutes away. I went to a State School in the town next to us, and even though it was so close to home, my parents wanted me to live on campus so I would have the experience. I didn’t take well to the college experience at first (although later I would take to it much too well); I simply wasn’t making friends or doing the whole “college thing”. I was holing myself up in my room all week, ignoring everybody except the roommate I got stuck with, spending my nights on the phone with my girlfriend back home. On weekends, I went home and worked at McDonalds. And hung out with my real friends. And partied.

One weekend I was at a party at some kid’s parent’s house. I have no idea who the kid was, or any good recollection of who was there. I’m not even sure where it was, except that it was in a guest room above their garage. I spent much of the night at the far end of the rectangular room, beside the ping-pong table (it wasn’t in use; we were too lazy for Beer Pong) on old bench seats from the local Little League field after a dugout renovation some fifteen years prior. I was with three good friends who were still in high school, and we were ignoring most of the party.

Late into the evening, as most of the revelers had left and a dozen or so inebriated folks remained, an overweight, bearded man approached us from across the room. I had noticed him all night because he was so out of place. He was at least 28 years old, and a real Red State sort of guy. He wore a camouflage baseball cap and a red flannel shirt, and not the kind of flannel that was so popular in those days: this was the kind of flannel you wore so you could do physical labor in the cold, and it was really ugly. His voice was a thick drawl, thicker than a Pennsylvania redneck; this guy was from the South. This wasn’t a Redneck party, and it wasn’t a 28-year-old party either. In fact, it was a high school party. Even I was a little old for this party. This guy was a sore thumb.

He squeezed his way past the ping pong table and stood before us. I got ready to stand and shake his hand, introduce myself, ask him what the hell he was doing there. But before I could stand all the way he says this: “I know what you guys are.”

We all sort of chuckled, waiting for the punchline or explanation. One of us said, “What are we?”

“Fags. You’re fags, and I hate fags.”

This was shocking. It was shocking because, firstly, we were all raised rather liberal kids, by parents who thought just about everybody was OK and that everybody should be treated OK. Which is not to say that I never uttered the word fag, but we were all misguided youth who thought it was OK to slur if you didn’t mean it in your heart. And this guy obviously meant it in his heart, which was disturbing. Secondly, it shocked us because we were all rather straight, and anyone who had actually observed us throughout the party would have known that. Red Flannel’s statement clearly confused us.

We tried at first to convince him. The hostess of the party had slept with one of my friends, and an ex-girlfriend of mine was also present. We called them over to testify. But the more we tried to convince him, the angrier he got. He started to raise his voice, he started calling us more and varied names (it doesn’t take a genius, after the fact, to realize that this man was quite clearly struggling with his own hidden homosexuality, and his probable attraction to at least one of us. I wish I’d have realized it at the time; things may have ended differently). It didn’t take long for the remaining partiers to flock around us. The hostess and her friends stepped between the man and us. Of course, as soon as they took up that “we’re-stopping-a-fight” position, he took their cue and began to threaten all four of us with physical harm.

While it is true that this man could not have beaten up all four of us, he would have created one hell of a mess and more than a little pain by trying.

The ruckus lasted the better part of an hour, with Red Flannel screaming at us, everyone standing between us, the four of us on one side of the room bewildered. This variety of event didn’t happen to us. We didn’t get in fights, nor had we ever had to get out of a fight, and this made it difficult for us to remain the coolest cats in the room. It was too bizarre of a situation to know what to do. Everyone was now imploring the Red Flannel to leave. At one point, someone suggested that we leave, but Red Flannel made it clear that he would not let that happen.

Finally and somehow, the man left. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Some people laughed, some stalked around, pacing out their anger, muttering about how he had ruined an otherwise chill party. The hostess was afraid the neighbors had heard the noise and would tell the parents.

This idyll lasted only briefly, as perhaps ten minutes after he left, someone reported that he had pulled his truck up to the stairs leading down from the garage apartment–the only way out. His truck was idling. He had his parking lights on, and the glow of a cigarette could be seen behind the wheel. We let out a collective groan. We waited. Fifteen minutes later, he was still there. Our hostess was elected to go down and talk to him.

She returned moments later with the grim news: he wasn’t leaving until the fags left, and when the fags left, he was gonna kick the fag’s asses.

Suddenly and strangely the tone started to shift; although no one would say it, people were clearly beginning to resent us, and somehow blame us. With the Red Flannel no longer present to directly blame, the party was still ruined and there we were. We were quite clearly now blamed, having done absolutely nothing. Us “fags” sat ostracized in a corner while Hostess and Friends tried to figure out what to do. Do they call the cops? Do we wait it out? And somewhere in their subconscious–in that Lord of the Flies part of the brain–I know they had a third option: do we sacrifice them?

The uncertainty seemed to last forever, but in reality it was only about half an hour. The tension in the room was broken by a frightening smash, followed by even louder splintering and cracking noises. Everyone ran to the door, the gray dawn sky and birdsong of the morning shocking us all. And then even more shock, as we saw the Red Flannel’s taillights driving away, faster than a gunshot down the curvy country road, and directly below us the shattered remnants of the wooden steps leading down from the room we were in. He had smashed into them with his truck, rendering most of the lower half useless lumber, and severing the top half from its landing. The top half of the stairs now hung from the building by a few weakened planks, swinging slowly in decreasing circles.

Three days later, the property damage was listed officially as the work of a hit-and-run driver, who was never caught.

 

4.

 

 

A man turns a forty-year-old black plastic knob on his forty-year-old faded white kitchen stove in Pennsport, Philadelphia.  Some mechanism inside the machine clicks repeatedly, while nothing appears to happen.  Then suddenly a small, blue flame appears below the ancient burner plate.  A man has turned a knob and a flame has quietly and simply come out of the machine.  The man will put a metal pot overtop of the flame, add water to the pot as well as other human food products and create a meal suitable to his human palette, all made possible by that quiet little simple flame.  For this service the man will pay about $30 a month, made out on paper checks and dropped in blue mailboxes.  The man does all this, and eats his food, and pays the people for their services, but he has no idea what is happening, how any of it happens.  In fact, he has such an absence of knowledge about it all, he doesn’t realize he knows next to nothing.

Outside the man’s house, if one were to travel mostly south, but a little east, for just a few miles—really just about a mile and a half, you would encounter Passyunk Avenue, a street that cuts unexpectedly diagonally across the city’s otherwise quite simple and helpful grid pattern.  Turning left onto Passyunk Avenue, you would immediately be confronted by a large but not imposing bridge, what is known in bridge parlance as a double-leaf bascule bridge, which is fancy terminology for a drawbridge, but one that has two moveable sections instead of one.  The Passyunk Avenue Bridge, as it is called, was completed in 1983 and is made almost entirely of steel and concrete, although the pedestrian walkways on either side have sections made of cast iron.  The bridge crosses the Schuylkill River, the smaller of the two rivers that border Philadelphia, but alas, like even the smallest river, we still need a bridge to cross it.  The Passyunk Avenue Bridge had to be built as a double-leaf bascule bridge to accommodate the heavy amount of shipping traffic that passes through the area due to the proximity of the Philadelphia Gas Works.

The Gas Works covers a sprawling hundred acres just outside of the city.  This treeless, brown stretch of flatland right beside the Passyunk Avenue Bridge and sidling the muddy shores of the Schuylkill is a mostly ignored eyesore, one motorists tend to not notice that they don’t even notice it.  The long wide expanse is brown dotted with yellows and reds, criss-crossed by pipes of all sizes, with seemingly-random outcroppings of unidentifiable structures, metal winged Eiffels growing out of the mud.  The flat mechanical carnage stretches as far as the eye can see, until it hits the Philadelphia city skyline; a striking vista indeed.

Most of these multi-colored pipes contain natural gas, which in turn is a “fossil fuel”, which is exactly what it sounds like.  Energy we obtain from extraordinarily old things, which in turn got their energy, during their day, from our sun, which is still around.  We dig them up and squeeze our sun’s energy back out of them, thousands and thousands of years later.  The Philadelphia Gas Works doesn’t talk much about where it gets its gas, but for the most part, it isn’t drilled here, although it certainly has been.  Now it is mostly shipped here in those huge boats that go under the Passyunk Avenue Bridge.  But see, here’s where it gets interesting: this energy from the sun was being stored in all these old plants and animals for eons under the ground.  Then we found it (probably in what is known as the Marcellus Shale) and we went to great lengths to get it out of there.  We’ve got to bust open the rocks that it is in, then we’ve got to shore up the cavity we created in the ground so that the gas stays there until we can get it.  Then we have to remove all the impurities from it, so it can be used for things like cooking macaroni and cheese.  These impurities include water; gotta get all the water and other gunk outta there.  But see, if you’re trying to transport natural gas very far, it’s pretty inconvenient to do it in a gas form.  If you can’t get it there in a pipeline (those pipelines only go so far) and you have to send it in, say, a boat, you have to now liquefy the gas.  So we bust up the ground to get it out, then we turn it into liquid and put it in a boat.  We do that by making the gas very cold.  Now this boat chug-a-lugs down the Schuylkill to the Philadelphia Gas Works and huge pipes are hooked up to the belly of the boat and all the really cold liquid gas is pumped into huge tanks.  Then there are other pipes that go from those huge tanks to what the Philadelphia Gas Works really are: the regasification plant.  We warm it back up and make it a gas again.  Then we shoot that gas out into a series of progressively smaller pipes that stretch out in grids that sometimes cover hundreds of miles, until they are in really little pipes that, believe it or not, are actually connected to your house! Then somebody who drops $30 checks into the mail every month decides they want to cook a stew, or maybe do some laundry.  And miraculously, the little blue flame shoots out.

Now this man standing here in Pennsport, he doesn’t know any of this.  And if you were to start telling him about it, he may interrupt you and ask you why it should matter to him.  After all, he’s got his gas, he pays his bill, and everyone doesn’t have to know everything, right?  That’s why there are specialists.  But if you started asking him other questions, about other parts of the city and world around him, you and he might find he continues to know next to nothing about his environment.

Why are the sidewalks in his neighborhood a certain width?  And different widths in other neighborhoods?  Why are the blocks in his neighborhood so long?  Why are they shorter elsewhere? How might these seemingly small details affect his quality of living?  Ask this man what he knows about train traffic through the city, or the history of invasive plant species in Philadelphia.  He doesn’t know, he doesn’t know, and he doesn’t care.  He doesn’t see why he should.  He is content to go to work and come back home and play with his things but the larger scope of the world and environment he lives in are completely lost to him; furthermore there is no compelling reason for him to change this.

This is the exact same thing that’s been said about kids in the country for a generation now, that they’ve lost touch with their environment.  There isn’t that big of a difference between living in the country and living in the city.  In rural areas people have become disconnected from the literal environment, in the cities it is our environment we’ve lost, but it’s all part of the same big moving parts.

In the country, there’s a difference between wildness and wilderness.  Wilderness is what people settle for now when they think they are seeing nature.  They walk on well-worn paths, drive their cars through parks, take tours.  That’s wilderness, but there’s nothing wild about it.  Wildness is self-willed, autonomous, self-organized.  It is the opposite of controlled.  It exists on all sorts of scales.  You can see wildness in the movement of glaciers, or in the star-forming regions of the Orion Nebula.  Wildness is everywhere.  It starts with microscopic particles and it goes more than 13 billion light-years into the cosmos.  It’s in the soil and in the air, it’s on our hands, in our immune systems, in our lungs.  We breathe and wildness comes in—we can’t control it.  And yet, nowadays, almost nobody wants anything to do with that aspect of the world, the real, the wild aspect.  You can live in San Francisco, ride a Google bus to work, stare at a screen, come home, stare at a screen, repeat repeat repeat and never see an ounce of wildness at any scale, but do you know how close whales live to San Francisco?  And giant Redwoods?  There is wildness there to be seen, not just the microbes in your lungs, but at a scale that can impress a human, but still it is screen screen screen, nobody glancing around them.  We are hive creatures now, far more so than in generations past, fiercely attached to our social network, which has become part of our identity.  Nature is a movie that goes by outside the car window.  And along with nature, the real world, the knowledge of the functions of the real world.

In the city, bureaucracy and layers of time and history stand in for the wildness that (only seemingly) gets lost in a metropolis.  Instead of wondering about falcons and sediment layers we can instead pick apart the mystifying nature of zoning ordinances, inter-departmental transportation squabbles, and the righteousness of green space allocation.  But we don’t, almost nobody does.  So it is that no matter where we live, we’re just lost in a machine, or parts in a machine, not knowing what function we serve, not knowing where the machine is going, what we’re really doing.  Turning on switches and turning knobs, putting on clothes we know nothing about to walk to stores we don’t remotely understand, living lives blindly, blindly, trusting in some overarching system to make sure we all get to some kind of finish line on time.

The man in Pennsport stands in front of his stove and makes a delicious meal overtop of his blue flame, eats it and loves it and gets a full belly while watching television, the screen’s glow not all that different from that blue flame, wherever it comes from.

 

 5.

 

In the winter, Erie, Pennsylvania is a cold, desolate, sometimes dangerous place. It’s not the ideal place to live alone with no friends or relatives within a five-hour drive of you. It snows almost all the damn time, and it’s so cold, and the wind just races across the lake, whether it’s the summer or the winter. Whether the lake is frozen or open, it is seven miles wide, and there is nothing to stop the wind. On one particular winter morning, I rose to an early alarm clock, to work the morning shift at the restaurant where I was a manager. Our day started pretty early, and it’s always hard to get up, but especially when it’s dark outside, and the wind howls like a coyote, and you know there’s snow out there, and maybe more on the way, and maybe more falling even right then. I crawled out of bed, put on my work outfit, poked my head through the blinds, and started my car with my remote start, one of my most beloved modern amenities. Five minutes later I was down there to hop in, excited about the warm inside of my car. It had snowed the night before, but not a whole lot, maybe four or five inches, which isn’t very much when you’re living in Erie. But it was just one of those things, one of those moments where your car and the tires are sitting just right, or just wrong, and despite the fact that you see no perfect reason why, your car is stuck. I had not left myself a whole lot of extra time to get to work, and I was in quite a bind. Being late is sometimes easier than others in that line of work, and I can’t remember the circumstances now, but I do know that I absolutely had to be there on time that day, and my car being stuck put me in a moment of desperation. With nobody to call – not even any small friends or acquaintances, really nobody that I knew – I wasn’t sure how to proceed. I was out of my car, looking all around it, shoveling the snow out from the tires as best I could, trying to rock it a little bit. All the small things one can do by yourself to get your car unstuck, but there’s only so much of that. Then, in the predawn darkness I saw approaching a young man walking down the center of the street that I lived on. I recognized the speed with which he walked and the direction he was going as a man heading to catch a bus. Yes, there were buses, but I had never even looked into that. As he came to pass me I walked onto the street, and sent to him, “Hey man! Hi!  Hey man, excuse me!  I’m in a real bind here, my car is stuck and I really need to get to work.  I’m really screwed here.  Can you help me push it out?”

He stood still and wooden, looking at me through my pleading screed.  After a pause, he said, “But, see, I’m on the way to catch my bus to go to work myself.  What if this makes me late?”

This was one of those very touchy moments in life for me.  I absolutely needed this guy to help me.  But he had a point and I knew it.  Why should he be late to work simply so I could be on time?  I was sure if he helped me, the car could come out quickly and we’d both be on time, but time was crunched so badly, there wasn’t even the moment needed to explain this.  I analyzed my chances, as well as the look of the kid, and rolled the dice.  I said this:

“That’s a chance you’ll just have to take.”

 

6.

Sometimes when driving, or riding the train, or walking around in some park, I will try to get an image in my head of what the land around me would have looked like four hundred years ago.  The same hills, the same landscape, but in my mind I’ll cover it in nothing and wonder what it was like to be the first person to chance upon it.  This is always useless to me.  There is so much wonder in this world, but I always have trouble getting past our influence, our disasters and clumsy systems.  And even in those places where there is some real beauty, like over at Bartram’s Gardens, or up on Presque Isle, or down the road on the Appalachian Trail, all I have to do is take one look at the skyline in the distance, or the cement path I’m walking on, or hear the sound of the Honda hatchback blaring through the trees, and I am out of the tenuous illusion and coldly back in reality.

We are constantly tethered to some safety line.  There is always a lantern, or a map, or a screen, or a cell phone.  These things guarantee that whatever experience we’re having is just an attempt at connecting with something foreign and old, that it’s not real, no matter how real it looks.  We’ve sketched out a new world over the old, and they are in two separate universes; the old is lost despite the remnants we see of it every day.  If properly prepared, one could live entire decades indoors, in a world of their own creation.

Before I had a family I used to stay indoors for a day or two at a time, talking to no one and doing nothing of value.  Once I did go outside after a long stretch like that, it still felt fake, like some slide in front of my eyes.  At a certain point, I’d have to tell myself, This is actually real and I am actually here, that dog or building or mountain range in the distance is a real thing inhabiting the same space that I am.  I think that must be a very modern sensation, that of having to convince oneself of reality.

7.

 

 

My father was born into orchard country. Nestled deep in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley, near the intersection of the Appalachian Trail and the South Mountain.  His youngest years were spent in rolling hills crowded by apple trees, which Mexican immigrants picked nearly year-round.  There were Mexican restaurants around unassuming bends in the country roads; I never saw them but I can imagine they might have looked out of place, if one stopped to think about them.  Dad told me a story once about a fancy-looking house that sat at the bottom of a gulley and was surrounded by Red Delicious trees.  I saw the house myself—it’s still there.  It looks like a small but stately plantation.  When Dad was a boy, the house had an in-ground swimming pool, which was quite a luxury in those days, and they’d let him and his friends swim there occasionally.  One Halloween, he was trick-or-treating and the family gave all the boys little pop guns—plastic guns that shot a cork out of a barrel.  He thought they must be rich.  He never forgot it.  He remembers it like it was yesterday.  My mother was born a mere 25 miles away, in a vanishingly small town surrounded by cow pastures, clumps of trees, and lean-to outbuildings.  Farm country.  In fact, she was born on a farm—a working farm, and she grew up doing the kinds of things you might imagine: collecting eggs from innocent chickens, watching her father and brothers shear sheep, waking up at the crack of dawn. Her dream as a little girl was to somehow, someway, move to the nearby small town and help her uncle run a pharmacy he owned there.  She pictured herself sweeping the floor, stocking the shelves, maybe keeping the books.  To her, this was a version of glamour.  Her family would take in kids from “the city” who needed places to stay; Fresh Air Kids, they called them.  Sometimes my mom’s country family swelled to great numbers; a surprising-looking bunch, I’m sure.  My genes—whatever they are—are a swirl of them.  I’ve got orchards in my blood, and my skeleton is a farm.

As a young child, I didn’t know much about my parents or where I’d come from. It wasn’t an issue I pondered.  I knew that I certainly felt like me.  I knew I liked to mostly not talk about what I felt inside.  I knew I liked drawing things, and that I sure did love the outdoors.  I liked playing with small boats in the bathtub, and Matchbox cars in the sandbox, and I hated going to sleep, and the dark scared me.  There were two neighbors who lived two doors down from us—at the time it felt far away, but it is literally just thirty yards, I just looked at it not six months ago—who must have been 50 years old at the time.  I considered them my best friends, although to them I must have seemed like a just occasional little person who happened by.  I liked talking to them and imagining what their grown-up lives were like inside that big red brick house—what the kitchen looked like, what they ate for dinner.  I miss them.  They’re dead now.

I was a fairly typical teenager. I was mostly about having fun; everything was a joke.  I could be cruel.  I smoked a lot of cigarettes and experimented with just about anything that could be experimented with.  I talked a lot.  I thought I was important and smart.  I hid secret desires and interests: poetry, philosophy, sexual confusion, the occult.  I got angry, I got sad, I read classic science fiction novels late at night in my bedroom with the door locked.  Women started to like me and it took me a long time to figure out what to do about it; when I did figure it out I tried very hard to be a “good guy” but still…I often failed.  I liked comic books, American Gladiators, and MTV.  Late in my teens I discovered Tumbling Run, a long hiking trail in the nearby Appalachians that follows a truly adorable stream, which is a trickle at the trail head and as you climb higher becomes a rushing set of falls and deep, clear pools.  I would hike it by myself, find perches away from the trail, pull out a notebook and write poems tailored after E.E. Cummings.  They were full of angst and love and fear.  I thought Tumbling Run would be like my Walden Pond, but mostly, I just forgot about it.

As a young man I encountered my problems: alcoholism and depression. But those weren’t the only defining elements of my life.  As I moved into adulthood I moved away from American Gladiators and even further from the tiny boats in the bathtub.  There were surface changes, like a deeper attraction to poetry and literature and “serious films”, but I changed for real, too.  I got angry.  Angry at everything.  I became of a mind that to judge everyone as harshly and vocally as possible was actually a good trait to have.  I smoked a lot of cigarettes, often two packs a day.  I was still funny, but now with more sarcasm and less joy.  I liked staying awake until the sunrise, never cleaning my car, and throbbing rock and roll.  I hated being alive.

After young adulthood up until this moment (what we shall refer to as life) I’ve just kept on changing.  There are always the obvious, cosmetic alterations: a sudden liking for big band music and Cary Grant films, corduroy jackets and Florsheim loafers, art museum memberships and mini-figurines of Felix Mendelssohn.  But also sea changes, but so fast; one moment I don’t want to talk to people at all, the next I enjoy the communion of strangers.  Seemingly one moment, an actual pastime of mine is driving my car through the country at night, the windows down, blasting music from my CD player, smoking cigarettes. A few nights ago I walked home through the city, listening to my music in my headphones, stopping to read the menu in a restaurant hoping there were vegetarian options. One moment I’m vehemently opposed to sports, the next I’m at an NFL game.

A month or so ago, I had breakfast with two of my oldest, dearest friends.  They looked the same as they always had, as I’m sure I did, and the little dirt-hole diner we ate in was the same as always, and the streets and parking lots were the same as they always were, when I was spending all my days there.  But having been largely gone from the area for five years, it all felt so different, so foreign.  Was that actually me that had lived here, had called these places home, these friends familiar?  Or was it a dream had by a being who calls himself me?  After breakfast one of the friends was driving me to my dad’s house, and as I climbed in his car I was overcome with a strange sensation. When I settled into the passenger seat I realized this was the car of a very serious cigarette smoker; ashes, crumpled empty packs everywhere, the stale pall of smoke infusing the upholstery.  And it looked like many cars I had in my day: old drink cups on the floor, change everywhere, ATM receipts and food wrappers.  I wasn’t grossed out; I felt oddly at home.  It had just been so long since that had been me.  It was like time travel.

If I’m able to look directly at the thought long enough, it becomes very clear that the notion of me doesn’t exist.  I’m a collection of moments, an intricate study in cause-and-effect.  I am the orchard, and the farm, and the boats in the bathtub, and the throbbing rock and roll, and walking home through the city last night.  I am time itself.  I’m not me.

 

8.

 

Somewhere everywhere bakers are opening up their shops. The tall commercial ovens click on with whirrs of electricity and gas. The little rooms get stifling and smell of yeast and flour. Today will be a ten or twelve hour shift. They will sweat through their white aprons and go home to unread newspapers. In other cities police officers are rolling out of bed, pulling their crisp uniforms on, fastening the large utility belt in the darkness of their century-old foyer while their family sleeps. The sun peeks over the rooftops and flowers open their petals in their pots along the sides of buildings. Third graders are walking to school wearing raincoats and backpacks and talking about pop singers. They have cell phones and they look up videos as they walk. The sunlight touches their necks and their tiny hairs stand up but nobody notices. A woman who works in a city newsstand arrives to open for the day. She enters through a side door and is alone in the tiny building, darkened still except for a small crack in the still-unopened front window where the light gets in. After taking her coat off, she walks outside, fumbles with the frigid padlock until finally the metal window slides open. It’s the loudest noise on the street yet this morning. Dozens of people are stepping onto an escalator. They avoid eye contact, they look at their phones, they pretend to be in a hurry. They wait on platforms, in hangars, on benches, in bus shelters, lines for elevators, by curbs for cabs, people are waiting. A man alone in a movie theater remembers an ex-lover while watching the Coming Attractions. For a moment he can’t remember what movie he came to see. At a grocery store a woman tries to decide which peach is best for her to buy and in the process she ruins five peaches. Now she can’t even remember if she planned on buying peaches today, and for a moment she wonders how there are this many peaches in the grocery store in the middle of winter, and she tries to recall if she’s ever seen a peach tree, or picked a peach, but she can’t remember, can’t remember, and now she’s thinking of her son away in college but he doesn’t like peaches either. All everywhere people are stuck at traffic signals on streets they don’t know the names of. They pass the minutes listening to talk radio coming from signals they don’t understand, from places they’ve never been, spoken by people they’ll never know. Their internal combustion engines idle beneath them-the sparks and fuel commingling to create a low-key contained continuous explosion. The light turns green and they’re off again to someplace else. An elderly man on a scaffolding nestled against a house hammers nails into shingling, and he will do it all day, all day, and more tomorrow. Grown people are everywhere furiously scribbling notes and typing e-mails and hanging Post-Its and setting reminders—there are so many things to do and to say and remember. A family of four is selling fresh fish in tables filled with ice by the side of the street. The kids should be in school but nobody seems to notice or think to say anything. The fish’s eyes are glassy and fogged up but people still buy them anyway, will still cook and eat them anyway, these hundreds of miles from the ocean. Mail is dropped through slots in doors. Squirrels pause on telephone wires, turning nuts around rapidly in their tiny hands. Landline phones ring in empty rooms and the neighbors can hear it, they can hear it, but they just have to put up with it. Waterfalls just keep insistently sliding over the cliffs, pounding the complacent ground beneath them and digging deeper and deeper holes. Somewhere deep, magma moves, hisses, is still. The tectonic plates are pushing the ground under our feet up into new mountains right now, right now, as we get onto this escalator, it is happening, the earth is forming new things beneath us right now as we ride the escalator, looking at our phones, it always has been doing this and it won’t stop until the sun, dying, swallows the whole planet. But smile anyway, you damned fools, and feel the hairs on your neck stand up in the morning sun, because there is nothing else, nothing else at all.

 

 

 

 

Scenes From My Sojourn

Posted in Memoir, My Poetry with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 19, 2015 by sethdellinger

After a straight shot drive down a highway whose number I now forget, I crested a hill around six in the morning, it still being completely dark outside, and saw for the first time the city skyline of Cleveland. I had the day off of work, and I was still exploring my immediate surroundings, since moving to what I call the chimney of Pennsylvania, so close to Buffalo and Cleveland and Pittsburgh. More than anything the prospect of Cleveland intrigued me, because I had never really considered that I might go there, or that it might be close enough, or what might even be there. So I set the early alarm, and drove straight in there with no plan. All I really wanted to do was park somewhere right in the city, find a newspaper from a newspaper

A self-timer self-portrait I did on a bench in Cleveland.

A self-timer self-portrait I did on a bench in Cleveland.

machine, and a local coffee shop, and read the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a newspaper whose name I already knew from years of attempting to be media savvy. Somehow I managed to find just the right exit off the highway, and, with my breath still showing in my car from the early-morning chill, found a parking lot that cost just a few dollars, right in the heart of the city. I hopped out of my car feeling extremely accomplished, walking across the early-morning parking lot, and I noticed many other people on foot, traveling the same way I was, heading into the city for that morning’s whatever. This was the first time I truly felt the call of the city, the desire to move in that hive, to be one of those lemmings. Wherever they were all going, it seemed like it must be interesting, different from what I knew and was accustomed to, and terribly important. Everyone made their way into their assigned nooks and crannies, disappearing down side streets and alleys and into revolving doors. In an almost astonishing short amount of time I found the newspaper machine I was looking for, and I even had the quarters ready, as I had anticipated this even before I left my apartment back Erie. I got myself a fresh-off-the presses copy of that mornings Cleveland Plain Dealer, and in an even shorter amount of time, I found myself in a local chain coffee shop called Phoenix Coffee, drinking a large caramel latte, reading about the Cleveland Browns that year, and the big high hopes everyone had for Colt McCoy.

 

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Shortly after moving in with my mother in South Jersey, a hurricane was on the way. I can’t remember what its name was anymore, because you know, they name these things, all of them. So it was on its way, and after the big news stories that the last few had been, this was supposed to be a big news story too. All the roads were going to be shut down, everything was going to flood, and we were all going to freak out. We all watched on the radar as the thing approached, and everyone from my work kept calling and texting around, wondering if we were going to have to go in the next day, and just how bad

Putzing around in the rain during our hurricane in South Jersey

Putzing around in the rain during our hurricane in South Jersey

everything was going to be. My mother and I were concerned about sleeping in our upstairs bedrooms, there being trees near the house, and that they might crash through the windows, like some goddamn nightmare. Eventually, it was decided no one had to go into work, and I was home with my mother as the danger approached. It started raining, and more than anything I was just intrigued. I’ve been through plenty of different storms in my life, and of course I’ve got the obligatory Pennsylvania drenchings from hurricanes that are almost out of steam by the time they get to us. But this looked like it might be an actual hurricane. Every hour or so I would put on all my rain gear and walk out to the development’s drainage ditch, to check the flooding progress. It’s one of those perfectly manicured little drainage ditches, it doesn’t look natural at all, obviously something that a few men with small bulldozer patted down on a Sunday afternoon twenty years ago. As the afternoon progressed the drainage ditch kept not filling up and not filling up, and the rain, although incessant and quite wet, kept being just that: rain. As Mom got bored from being cooped up inside and watching TV, and I got disappointed by the weather nonevent, the afternoon meandered into just another afternoon, one of those days wiled away looking at images on screens, or reading words in a book, the type of afternoon that you think of as a fine relaxing afternoon, but ultimately one with nothing very memorable. After it had been raining for about four hours I took my final walk out to the drainage ditch, saw that it was in fact actually less full than the previous time, and I took a short walk out to the small woods behind the development, and stood listening to the rain hit the leaves, and the small creek at the bottom of a low-grade hill behind my mother’s house. It was nice to be there, I thought. It was a nice place, and a nice time to be alive, and a very unique, circuitous path to be on. But it was also one of those moments when you think yourself, how in the world did I get here?

 

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I had been working out and dieting for about two months at this point, and had lost about three-quarters of the weight I wanted to lose. I had been living on my own in the city of Philadelphia for about six or seven months, and summer was in full swing. My new healthy lifestyle coupled with the season had invigorated me like I had never felt before. My typically high energy level was now bordering on manic, with me needing only a few hours of sleep a night, and typically reading thousands and thousands of words a day, in magazines, newspapers, books, and that was just the start of what I was able to accomplish. I would often be caught telling people that the world was actually bending to my very will. On this particular night, I had been out riding my bike all over the city, all day long. Starting out in the sweltering heat of noon, riding all the way from my Pennsport

Taken around the time I thought I could control the universe.

Taken around the time I thought I could control the universe.

apartment to the Art Museum, then back again, then out again and down to the Schuylkill River Trail, making the entire loop, miles and miles and miles of riding. Every time I would come home I would just play Pandora radio, no television on this day, the universe and all its sounds and music coursing through me. At night I threw open the windows in my apartment and let the natural air flow through, stripping down naked and playing air guitar to serious and depressing Post-Rock music and laughing and crying, the music louder than my neighbors probably liked. I put my clothes back on and hopped on my bike, and went to a late night showing of a movie at the nearby multiplex. Afterwards I still couldn’t stop, hopped on my bike and rode down the side streets as fast as I could, the good paved streets, the ones you can really get going on. At that time of night, in that part of the city, you can really blow through the stop signs, when you’re really tuned into the world and the universe like that, you can pick out the headlights if a car is coming the opposite direction, at the intersection, and you can really get up a good head of steam blowing through all the streets, not stopping anywhere, feeling the ions and electrons buzzing, I felt like I couldn’t be stopped, like I could fly if I wanted to, like my tires could just lift off the ground and I could soar, maybe just a few inches off the ground but I could soar, like I could just tell the universe anything what I wanted to do. I still remember the exact smell of that night, of that bike ride down the side streets, the exact feel of that exact quality of air, the way that I knew I could not be that happy forever, the way that I knew in my heart that life is that good, but you just don’t always feel it. I rode faster and faster,  my bike going thirty miles an hour through the streets of South Philadelphia, the warmth, the music back at my apartment, the echo of the movie from the movie theater, the lights all everywhere around, everything still swirling around in me, like some great puppetmaster. Just like every stop on the sojourn, the question must’ve popped into my mind, how did I get here? But it wasn’t very important at that moment, I was almost flying.

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Here’s a poem I wrote while living in Erie:

 

A Slowing of Pace

 

 

For at least ten years you have been preparing

to feel comfortable here in your life,

not a shutdown but a slowing of pace,

a grace of peace, of stopping on your way

through rooms of your dailiness to touch

the woven basket, the plastic vase, walking

through the evening park without voices

intoning from the trees, you must, you must—

these same dreams of solitude since you were very young,

 

and you feel, have felt for years,

that this is how you most would live,

deliberate, considered, easeful, slow,

if your life will only let you,

which it won’t, and this last decade

you have been yearning toward it, plotting,

longing for the book resting on your lap,

pages spread wide, this cup, the open door,

letting in late September air.

 

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It was a rainy, cold day in early March in Erie, and I found my wandering car pointed in the direction of the Erie Zoo.  Although I hadn’t set out to go to the zoo, this new turn of events didn’t surprise me.  I found himself there five or six times a year.  Most people contented themselves with a few zoo visits in a lifetime, but the Erie Zoo was extremely affordable, and the even cheaper off-season price (seven dollars for a grown-up) seemed more than reasonable to spend some time communing with creatures that had no business being on this part of the globe.  It was cheaper than a bad movie, and these animals were real.

 

As I pulled within sight of the zoo, I became a little worried that, for whatever reason, it might not be open.  There wasn’t a single car in the lot.  It was around 11am on a dreary, cold Thursday;  I hadn’t expected it to be hopping, but I wasn’t expecting emptiness.

 

Optimistically cautious, I parked and got out into the barking wind, driving pellets of frigid rain onto my shaved scalp, and nearly trotted the 20 yards to the zoo entrance.  Sure enough, there was a woman at the ticket window, grinning from ear to ear, presumably thrilled to see a customer.  As I neared, I summoned my best “public smile”—my I’ll-

Having a moment with a giraffe at the Erie Zoo

Having a moment with a giraffe at the Erie Zoo

pretend-I’m-one-of-you smile—and returned the woman’s “Hi!” with unrivaled enthusiasm.  Then I said simply, “One, please.”  She paused, then asked “Are you a member?”  I kept his public smile on.  “Nope,” I said.  And then she got the look on her face.  It was a look I had grown accustomed to in this version of my life.  It was a look a clerk or ticket-taker or usher got on their face when they were fighting the desire to say “What, exactly, are you doing here?”

 

I was sure I wasn’t imagining this look.  Aside from being by myself at functions and attractions that normally attracted folks in twos or more, the willy-nilly nature of my work and sleep schedule allowed me to quite often be at attractions and functions on days that were marooned in the desolate middle of the week, when the sad rest of the world were eating sandwiches from vending machines on their half-hour breaks in cubicles and smoking cigarettes under concrete gazebos on the edges of company property.  I had found myself alone or nearly alone in places ranging from early-season minor league baseball games to the Flight 93 National Memorial to the Cleveland Museum of Art.  And almost always, the middle aged woman working the door was quite visibly wondering what me, in my yellow flannel shirt and black

The house I lived in in Erie--the very first day I saw it.  The For Rent sign is still in the door.  I had the top floor.

The house I lived in in Erie–the very first day I saw it. The For Rent sign is still in the door. I had the top floor.

knit cap and imitation Converse , was doing there at 8am or 10pm or whatever the case may be.  But they never quite did ask.  They liked to leave a big pregnant pause where they thought I might offer some form of explanation for my daring to visit their job.  “Just one?” they’d say, wanting me to reply Well, my father used to work here before he got struck by lightning or some other perfectly ridiculous but totally feasible explanation.  But I stubbornly never gave any of them any kind of explanation.  “Are you a member?” the woman at the zoo window asked.  “Nope,” I replied, and still smiling I stared at her.  She waiting a second or two, then said, somewhat stubbornly herself now, “Seven dollars.”  I handed the woman a ten dollar bill, and while she made change, she said “Looks like you’ll have the place pretty much to yourself today”, confirming my suspicion that, in fact, I was the only customer here.  Smiling as large as I could muster, I said “Yeah, I kinda figured that.”  I took my three dollars in change and walked into the zoo.

 

No matter how many times I found himself alone in public spaces, it never ceased exhilarating me.  It seemed to me like I’d won some kind of covert contest that nobody else knew they were playing, as though all of life were a silent jockeying for position in which, on this day, I’d triumphed.  Everyone else was being funneled through the cattle chutes of their typical lives to the choke points of the weekend afternoons and I was outside the chutes, watching from the meadow.  I knew this wasn’t true, I was being funneled by other forces, but my superiority seemed unquestionable in moments such as walking into a zoo I had to myself.

 

Of course, during the off-season, admittance was cheaper for a reason.  Almost half of the animals weren’t on display.  Too cold for them.  Lord knows where the zoo keeps animals hiding during this time.  Some sort of safe house or bunker, on imagines.  A smelly bunker.

 

But I knew where I was going.  I had been here enough times that I had “regular” stops.  Ten minutes communing with the Red Panda (so cute!), five minutes making cooing sounds at the baby (teenager, really) giraffe, and on and on, until eventually I ended up in the orangutan building.  The orangutans at the Erie Zoo were unique in that they were a bona fide family.  A mother, a father, a daughter, and a son.  In fact, the daughter was the older child, making the orangutans a mirror image of my own nuclear family.  The son, Ollie, was still a baby.  A toddler, let’s say.  He had been an infant when I first arrived in Erie, and I’d been able to watch Ollie grow up in little spurts, every few months when I’d visit.  It was when I visited the orangutans that I always got the weird and ecstatic feeling of really, this is right here in Erie.

 

Today was a little different, however.  As soon as I walked into the orangutan building (which was completely empty of humans), Ollie and his mother were right against the glass, in the corner nearest the entryway, Ollie sitting atop his mother’s shoulders.  They looked at me from inside deeply human eyes, and both smiled, as if to welcome me.  “Oh my,” I heard myself say.  I walked slowly to the glass, so as not to scare them away.  But they showed no signed of going.  As I reached the glass, Ollie (who, on his mother’s shoulders, was eye level with me) placed his hand flat on the glass.  I, sensing a moment was occurring, put my hand where Ollie’s was—like we were visiting in a state prison in some sappy movie.  But it wasn’t sappy.  Ollie and I made eye contact and kept our hands overtop one another’s for what must have been a full minute, an odd communion between a man and a baby orangutan in northwestern Pennsylvania on a rainy March morning.  When Ollie finally pulled his hand away, I turned to look behind me to see if any people had come in and maybe witnessed the sweet, unexpected moment.  But there was only an empty walkway and the silly tape recorded sounds of an African forest.  I thought the lack of a witness was both incredibly sad and completely amazing, to equal degrees.

And it was not sappy.

 

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A poem I wrote shortly after moving out of  South Jersey and into Philadelphia:

 

Cage

headphones in, I walk Old City

as if in the presence of an intelligence,

concentrating.  I imagine myself

scrutinized and measured closely

by the passers-by, the foreign tourists,

the horses with their carriages,

the sky and the earth.

my multiple reflections from shop fronts,

high windows, and bus glass stare back at me,

show my belly, my too-long hair, my crooked nose.

wind sweeps off the Delaware, bringing with it

Camden, Governor Christie, and further south,

my mother’s cooking.  home swirls around

this new city, this birthplace city,

where I am so far from everything.

but I keep walking and walking

and it gets darker and darker

and there is a flicker of light or two

far above and beyond my cage.

 

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My mother and I did so many things together when I was staying with her in New Jersey, it would be difficult to boil those myriad lovely experiences down to a moment indicative of them all.  We would typically do one thing together a week—from something as small as going to a movie together to an all-out road trip.  We unabashedly (ok, maybe a little abashedly) called these Momma Days.  I think we both knew these were numbered days of a grown form of childhood for both

Mom and I at a Camden (NJ) Riversharks game (minor league baseball)

Mom and I at a Camden (NJ) Riversharks game (minor league baseball)

of us, but they were golden days unlike the first childhood (when nobody knows how great things really are).  I remember every moment of the Momma Days, but the best memory is my ritual: every time we were going to spend a day together, I’d wake up, roll out of bed, and promptly run down the stairs, clapping my hands like a happy toddler, chanting rhythmically Momma-Day-Momma-Day-Momma-Day in a little kid voice.  It seemed, at the time, like something just between the two of us, that we could never tell anybody, because I was 36 and she was older than that even, but here it is, in my blog, because you just don’t get a whole lot of golden days.

 

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Just a few short months after moving into Philadelphia, I was riding my bike home from work on the night of New Year’s Day. About halfway between where I work and my home, one encounters Washington Avenue, one of the last large arterial streets that cuts through Philadelphia, before you get into what I called the Deep South. When I got there, about 10 o’clock at night, there was a police barricade, preventing me from going further down 2nd St., past Washington, which would’ve taken me directly home in about a mile. But it wasn’t an accident or a crime scene, and I quickly remembered what was going on. There wasn’t a whole lot that was notable about the neighborhood I lived in in Philadelphia, except the fact that it is the Mummer capital of the world. And the Mummers are basically men who dress up in very opulent costumes and dance around and ride interesting floats on a New Year’s Parade, as well as play in old world-style string and brass bands.  It is a tradition that only occurs in Philadelphia, and at that, only South Philadelphia, and at that, almost only my neighborhood. But it also turns out, that the whole city loves this tradition one day a year, that being New Year’s Day. And then on the night of New Year’s Day – not New Year’s Eve, mind you but New Year’s Day night – my neighborhood and just my neighborhood

Mummers in the 2014 Philadelphia 4th of July parade

Mummers in the 2014 Philadelphia 4th of July parade

becomes the largest party in the city all year. I hopped off my  bicycle, very interested in what this would look like. I was a bit unprepared. I’ve never been to Mardi Gras, but I am told it is much like this, and people who have been to both say that the Mummers party in Pennsport almost outdoes Mardi Gras in some ways. The crowd down Second Street was so thick, I had to quickly chain my bike to a mailbox, as there was no getting through the crowd. Huge, almost one-story high speakers dotted every-other block, where sometimes electronic, dance or house music played, and other times old world Mummer bands played corny but danceable string music. Enormous floats, gaudy and opulent, set in the middle some blocks, some of them decorated in modern ways, with heads of what looked like aliens or monsters, while other floats simply looked like a gilded golden things, big Faberge eggs on wheels, and all about everywhere strode Mummers, men and the occasional women wearing  long flowing robes of  shiny satin fabrics, embroidered gold and silver tassels, enormous red buttons, masks that looked sometimes scary, like out of a dream masquerade, or sometimes comical, or sometimes indecipherable. It was loud everywhere, chants got taken up out of nowhere that I couldn’t understand, songs were being sung like pirates about to board a weaker vessel. Everyone was drinking, the whole world was there, not just Mummers but teenagers and people in their twenties, kids with funnels of beer going to their stomachs, people on drugs screaming about things, people wearing beads as though it were Mardi Gras but it wasn’t, and nobody was taking their shirts off, weed smoke was an ever-present cloud.  There were food stands on corners, big sliced-open mangoes on sticks that you could buy, heads of pigs roasting over spits. I kept taking pictures and videos with my smartphone and sending them to people who weren’t there, people I wished were with me, people I hadn’t seen in years.  Somewhere around Dickinson Street I hung a left, popped out onto the relative calm of Front Street, walked six more blocks down to my street, stuffed the key in the lock, went inside in time for Anderson Cooper.

 

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In the winter, Erie is a cold, desolate, sometimes dangerous place. It’s not the ideal place to live alone with no friends or relatives within a five-mile drive of you. It snows almost all the damn time, and it’s so cold, and the wind just races across the lake, whether it’s the summer or the winter. Wether the lake is frozen or open, it is 7 miles wide, and there is nothing to stop the wind. On one particular winter morning, I rose to an early alarm clock, to work the morning shift at the restaurant I was a manager at. Our day start pretty early, and it’s always hard to get up, but especially when it’s dark outside, and the wind howls like a coyote, and you know there’s snow out there, and maybe more on the way, and maybe more falling even right then. I crawled out of bed, put on my work outfit, poked my head through the

Snow tubing at a work function in Erie--essentially the ONLY perk of the brutal winters.

Snow tubing at a work function in Erie–essentially the ONLY perk of the brutal winters.

blinds, and started my car with my remote start, one of the best features that car had. Five minutes later I was down there to hop in, excited about the warm inside of my car. It had snowed the night before, but not a whole lot, maybe four or five inches, which isn’t very much when you’re living in Erie. But it was just one of those things, one of those moments where your car and the tires are sitting just right, or just wrong, and despite the fact that you see no perfect reason why, your car is stuck. I had not left myself a whole lot of time with extra to get to work, and I was in quite a bind here. Being late is sometimes easier than others in that line of work, and I can’t remember the circumstances now, but I do know that I absolutely had to be there on time that day, and my car being stuck put me in a moment of desperation. With nobody to call – not even any small friends or acquaintances, really nobody that I knew – I wasn’t sure how to proceed. I was out of my car, looking all around it, shoveling the snow out from the tires as best I could, trying to rock it a little bit. All the small things one can do by yourself to get your car unstuck, but there’s only so much of that. Then, in the predawn darkness I saw approaching a young man walking down the center of the street that I lived on. I recognized the speed with which he walked and the

Lake Erie and the Presque Isle beaches are actually an incredible hidden gem (during the summers!) in Pennsylvania.

Lake Erie and the Presque Isle beaches are actually an incredible hidden gem (during the summers!) in Pennsylvania.

direction he was going as a man heading to catch a bus. Yes, there were buses, but I had never even looked into that. As he came to pass me I walked onto the street, and sent to him, “Hey man! Hi!  Hey man, excuse me!  I’m in a real bind here, my car is stuck and I really need to get to work.  I’m really screwed here.  Can you help me push it out?”

He stood still and wooden, looking at me through my pleading screed.  After a pause, he said, “But, see, I’m on the way to catch my bus to go to work myself.  What if this makes me late?”

This was one of those very touchy moments in life for me.  I absolutely, 100% needed this guy to help me.  But he had a point and I knew it.  Why should he be late to work simply so I could be on time?  I was sure if he helped me, the car could come out quickly and we’d both be on time, but time was crunched so badly, there wasn’t even the moment needed to explain this.  I analyzed my chances, as well as the look of the kid, and rolled the dice.  I said this:

“That’s a chance you’ll just have to take.”

 

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A poem I wrote in Philly:

 

Just Past St. Augustine’s

 

where the elevated train slows

just past St. Augustine’s church

off the Delaware river

a row of busted windows

only a single one still whole

open and darkly curtained

 

that’s where I once saw this arm

slip out between the frames,

the hand open to feel for drops of rain,

another time there were two arms

raising a small naked baby

for a breath of evening air

 

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I took a trip to Niagara Falls by myself once, while I was living in Erie. It was only a little over an hour away from there, and I figured I might as well take a look at it. It was a beautiful day, and I was much more moved by the wonder there than I expected to be. I did the whole shebang, the whole big tourist thing, the boats, the ponchos, everything. But the thing that I remember most, the thing that resonated most with me, was Goat Island. It’s a small island in the middle of the Niagara River. You can take a little pedestrian bridge over to it, and walk around. When I was there, I was mostly alone, and the bulk of the island is very unassuming. It’s got a big green lawn, some pasture. You can walk around and not really know that you are

Selfie from my solo trip to Niagara Falls

Selfie from my solo trip to Niagara Falls

so close to those enormous rushing waters, and the touristy sites, and the boats and helicopters. I walked over to the shore of the river, all alone in the little clearing, looking out at the rushing Niagara just a hundred yards or so from where drops into oblivion. I couldn’t believe it. There I was, so close to the river, so close to those falls, and nobody around me. I was happy as a clam but I thought to myself, I can jump right in there. I could just end it. Death has always felt like a very close spectre to me, I’ve always sensed the razors edge that I am on, that we are all on. In that moment, I don’t think I’ve ever sensed that more, I saw it like an actual looming knife: just a few feet away, just one slip or one jump, and there it is.  I went to Goat Island by myself and for a split second I saw through the door.

 

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A few months ago I met the most wonderful woman I’ve ever known.  Her name is Karla and I’ve been gifted with the good fortune of her loving me as much as I love her.  She’s from “back home”, so now, that is where I will go. Not only to spend time with my love and her marvelous son, but to now spend more time with my father and other relatives and long lost friends.  My sojourn ends—and an incredible new one will begin.  I don’t believe “everything happens for a reason”—in fact, I believe quite the opposite.  But I do believe that my lengthy field trip away from home has fulfilled its purpose in the finding of the love of my life.  I think my mom will be happy that, in fact, I am going to get even more golden days now.

 

The love of my life, Karla, our golden days stretching out ahead of us.

The love of my life, Karla, our golden days stretching out ahead of us.

 

 

 

 

It’s Still Like a Secret

Posted in Philly Journal with tags , , , , , on November 19, 2014 by sethdellinger

Just now, I went out on a short bike ride.  I have found that with riding my bike to work and back every day, I often lose sight of the fact that I truly love riding my bike for pleasure.

It is extraordinarily cold out today, but after the horrors of last winter, I am now incredibly prepared to dress appropriately for cold-weather biking.  As I hopped on my bike this morning, I found myself quite pleased with how comfortable I was, despite the 28 degree temperature.  The sun was fully out and beaming its glorious rays onto my face.  Was I cold?  Yes, very much so.  But comfortable, for sure.

I rode west and then south, through the trenches of what is known as South Philly.  The morning was relatively quiet and calm, still almost like a mid-summer afternoon.  Here and there the sounds of a truck backing up, or the birds in the trees that nestle the power lines.  Every few blocks I would get stopped by a crossing guard ushering school kids across a not-busy intersection.  I didn’t seem to mind.

I parked my bike by my bank so I could step inside and get some cash out of the ATM, and also warm my hands for a bit.  A scruffy but polite older gentleman held the door to the inner lobby open for me, not realizing I was just stopping at the ATM in the foyer.  Oh, no thanks, I’m staying right here, I said to him.  He said Oh alright, well have a great day.

I hopped back on my bike and rode a few more blocks down to the local soft pretzel joint.  It was 10am and 28 degrees, and the pretzel joint is just a walk-up window with no seats anywhere, so of course I was the only one there.  I waited for the portly lady inside to see me and open the window.  She was wearing a winter coat. What’ll it be?  she asks.  I could smell the fresh-baked carb-and-salt goodness mixing with the crispness of the morning air; it’s a special blend of perfect that is exceedingly rare.  Just four pretzels, please.  A few seconds later she handed me a brown paper bag and I handed her four bucks.  I took my backpack off and slid my precious cargo inside.  All the way home, I could feel the warmth on my back, as the pretzels heated the inside of my bag.  At stop signs, I could even smell them.  In the cold, still morning, I had a little bag of warmth and perfection riding on my back, like a secret.

Philly Journal, 7/24/14

Posted in Philly Journal, Photography with tags , , , , on July 24, 2014 by sethdellinger

It is not unusual for me to throw whatever current book or magazine or newspaper I am reading into a backpack and bike to one of the city’s parks or otherwise unique public spaces to do some outdoor reading.  I was just about to do that this evening, when I realized that I always go pretty far away to do this–usually the mile and a half or two miles toward Center City to hang out in one of the more illustrious or famous public spaces.  There are tons of parks near me, but these are actual parks, used by the residents who are regular folks!  I suppose I’ve stayed away from them not only because they are less interesting, but because I have typically felt like an outsider at them.  But this evening I took my book straight to Mifflin Square Park, by far the closest park to my house, at only 5 blocks away.  Mifflin Square Park is unique in that it is bordered on two of its four sides by the largest population of Cambodian residents in the state of Pennsylvania.  Not everyone who uses this park is Cambodian, but I would say 80% of the folks there are in fact Cambodian. Like, first-generation, speaking-Cambodian folks.  It wasn’t my first time there, but it was my first time spending any significant amount of time there.  It was nice!  Very pleasant folks (except the group of white teenagers sitting a bench next to me who were smoking weed).  I took some pictures that you might find pretty interesting:

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Philly Journal, 7/15/14

Posted in Memoir, Philly Journal, Prose with tags , , , , , on July 15, 2014 by sethdellinger

I’m not a video game player.  It’s not 100% accurate to say I’ve never been one, though.  In the dawn of the home video game console era, for just a small slice of time, I, like every single other kid my age, was video game crazy.

I’m talking about the era of the original Nintendo Entertainment System (or NES) and the original Nintendo Game Boy, the little hand-held guy.  Those two systems were as far as I went; I never even owned a Super Nintendo.  I do remember having plenty of fun with those systems; lots of good Mega Man memories, just to name one.  The era did last a few years.

Three or so years ago, when I was living in Erie, I got oddly nostalgic for a little while for this short video game part of my life.  I still owned my Game Boy and a smattering of games, but the Game Boy itself didn’t work anymore.  I had some extra cash flow, so I looked on eBay, and sure enough, there was a Game Boy in my price range.  I ordered it.

It came in the mail and I played a few of my old games once or twice and, just like I knew I would, put it away again.  I’m just not a gamer.

But I keep this little Game Boy with me anyway.  It made the move from Erie to New Jersey when I lived with my mom.  It lived in my bedroom, within clear sight, but I never ever picked it up.  It made the move from Jersey to Philly with me, about seven months ago.  A few weeks after I had moved in, I was still unpacking some boxes.  I came across the Game Boy and its attendant games and took them up to my room.  I decided to give the Judge Dredd game (which was inserted into the Game Boy at the time; also this game seemed a lot cooler before they made two bad movies out of the comic book character it is based on) a whirl, but nothing happened when I turned it on.  The batteries must be dead, I thought.  I turned the Game Boy over to take the cartridge out, but it wouldn’t budge.  I thought to myself, well, this thing is screwed.  And I put it as well as all the games in a little cabinet under my TV in my bedroom.  I have not opened that cabinet in the seven months I have lived here.

Today, when I got home from work, the first thing I did was go upstairs to use my bathroom.  Then, I went into my spare room, where I promptly disrobed, because A) it’s hot, and B) the first thing I do, lately, after getting home and peeing is I weigh myself.  The scale is in my bedroom.

So, naked as a jaybird (that’s a weird saying) I went into my room, but immediately upon entering, there was a really weird sound in the room.  At first I wasn’t sure if it was coming from outside or was in the room.  I followed it with my ear, toward the television, which was clearly off.  As I got closer, I knew without a doubt what it was, but could hardly believe it.  I flung open the cabinet below the TV, and there was the Game Boy, its screen aglow in the dark, with the Judge Dredd start screen demanding I select One Player or Two, the terrible arcade-style theme music playing over and over again.

Kingdom of Rust

Posted in Photography with tags , , , , , on June 26, 2014 by sethdellinger

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Some video of a bike ride from Pennsport to Center City

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on April 24, 2014 by sethdellinger

I rode my bike into Center City today, and I had the idea that it might be interesting to take some video along the way, documenting the slow change in the city from sprawling neighborhoods into “big city downtown”.  It’s a neat idea, and one I hope to pull off better than this someday.  With some preparation, planned shots, and less wind, this could be an intriguing socio-political concept.  As it is, it at least shows you what it looks like to ride your bike from Pennsport to Center City.

On a nice day (like today) this ride takes me about 20 minutes and covers about 2.5 miles.  This is NOT my commute to work; it’s about the same distance, but a very different route.  My apologies for the wind noise for the first minute or so; it goes away.

 

 

 

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