The Late Great Northeast

Growing up in Northeast Philly, I desperately wanted to escape its marshmallow blandness. Now — 40 years later — my old neighborhood has radically changed. Figuring out why I find that so upsetting just might open a new window into the most mysterious swath of the city

JULY 1971
You don’t want to ask. It’s Saturday, and Dad does his own thing on Saturdays. He doesn’t take you fishing or to ball games or say, “Hey, let’s have a catch.” He’s not that kind of dad. He works every day in a stinky garage, comes home every night, sits at the head of the dinner table in his white undershirt and pork-chop sideburns, shoveling meatloaf or stew or whatever other basic fare Mom has made into the mouth of his massive, square face. A benign and steady presence, he doesn’t like fancy food, fancy places, fancy anything. So everything in his life, and subsequently yours, is plain: where you go to school, what TV shows you watch, where you live.
You stand with your two best friends in the world, Ricky Benz and Johnny Salvatore, fidgeting behind you. Ricky is tall, wiry and athletic. Johnny is smaller, darker, with mischievous Mediterranean looks that even at the age of seven telegraph a romantic danger that will become evident in later years. You are like neither of them. You are slight and sandy-haired and, compared to them, you think, ordinary. You have a talent for drawing and not much else. Except today, perhaps, if you can do this, this one thing they can’t.
“C’mon, ask,” Ricky whispers.
The three of you went to Mr. Benz first; his dismissal was precise and brutal. Then Mrs. Salvatore. She leaned out the front door, collecting the mail, and shook her head distractedly, mumbling how she had to go inside and check on her gravy. So you meandered back up two doors to your driveway, where your dad is now on one knee with a tire gauge in his hand.
Your instinct is to ask Mom, but Mom is tough with money. Squaring your shoulders, you see opportunity before you, and it’s checking the tire pressure of a blue 1962 Chevy Biscayne. “Dad,” you say, “can you give us three quarters to buy ice cream at Bea & Mel’s?”
He looks up, and for a moment it’s just the two of you. The rest of the world drops away, and Ricky isn’t there and Johnny isn’t there and the car and the driveway aren’t there. Your father doesn’t talk much. You know, though, that he is deeply, deeply kind. And so as he calmly replies “Sure,” and reaches into the pocket of his dark trousers for three shiny coins, your heart swells.  
A half-hour later, you sit with your two best friends in a vinyl back booth at Bea & Mel’s, all three of you savoring your sugar cones, because nobody in the Northeast dips a bigger cone for 25 cents than Bea. Johnny suggests going home and getting wax paper and then going to Jardel playground to slide down the sliding boards; Ricky thinks tonight will be a good night for catching lightning bugs. And you feel, swinging your pasty white legs back and forth against the front of the booth as you lick your ice-cream cone, that all is right with your world.

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