Excerpt: Somehow, He Escaped
Life in those days, for the Queenans at least, was a trail of automotive tears. Not having a car in the age of the Thunderbird was a tremendous humiliation for a grown man. It was bad enough not to have a television or a telephone, but those were minor inconveniences. Having no car left us at the mercy of the dreaded Philadelphia Transportation Company and its fleet of unreliable, herky-jerky buses, subways and trolleys, most of them going places we didn’t wish to visit. No car meant no trips to the country, no trips to the seashore, no trips to visit those few relatives we didn’t wish to see impaled on sharp sticks. Not once in his life did my father own a new car, or anything resembling one. For most of my childhood, we didn’t have a car, and on the rare occasions when we did scrape together enough cash to buy one, it would turn out to be some wheezing bomb that keeled over and died within a few weeks. To the best of my knowledge, my father also never flew on a plane or found himself in a position to order room service. The late 20th century had a lot to offer working-class people, but he missed out on all of it.
Carless, cashless, we hoofed downtown that day. Though there were several routes we could have taken, he opted to walk straight down Ridge Avenue, straight through his old childhood haunts, straight through the heart of the North Philadelphia ghetto. My father was not especially fond of Negroes; like most white people we knew, his idea of race relations was to stay as far away from black people as possible. But he was adamant in his refusal to surrender this hallowed terrain to these tetchy intruders. To him, traipsing through a slum was a way of abolishing reality, a way of insisting that the past was still the present and always would be. It was an attitude he maintained until the end of his life, when he would breathlessly tell me about his latest excursion to an unappetizing neighborhood his ethnic group had deserted two generations earlier. To him, the phrases “8th and York” and “Strawberry Mansion” forever evoked the glory of days long past. Such glories were not apparent to the uninitiated. Our trek through the urban wilderness scared me speechless; I didn’t know anything about black people except that they weren’t all that fond of white people. Throughout the arduous trek down Ridge Avenue, I kept my eyes down, my face forward. And I walked double-time; I wanted to make sure we were out of North Philly before nightfall.