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City Life


Living across from Campbell Soup and down the street from RCA  gave a world of entertainment as a child.  I was only about ten years old at the time.  I say about because it is difficult to remember my age from place to place.  My mother lived in New Jersey where she had married and started a new family.  At the time I tell this story she would have had two new children from that family, my sister from our previous family and me who drifted landing at whatever location needed help in some form.    An Aunt Cora lived on the other side of the alley way with her family that consisted of children from a previous marriage and current marriage as well.   The husbands of these sisters were brothers.   It was very close setting.  They were migrations from the mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia.  Although they are very beautiful places to live, they are not good for finding work.  After serving their countries which was customary at that time, these brothers took employment at RCA  in Camden, NJ and earned good wages to provide for wives and children.

The streets there were very active.   I had come from  a suburb in Virginia were I lived with grandparents of both my father and  mother.  The location was  very different  than  the city.  Really!     When stepping out to the street  the  Greek  or Italian restaurants were a few feet away,  and a bar on every corner.  You knew as a child not to get to close to the bars as someone could barrel out and fall on you as they were most likely intoxicated.    It was much different than sitting on my Grandmother’s porch sipping lemonade in Virginia.   I found a lot to do to help with the children or clean the apartment.   Mom would send me to the post office or to take things to the landlord who lived a few blocks away.

My Aunt who I mention earlier was  a character and she would take pleasure in teasing the workers from Campbell Soup when they were on break.  Sometimes,   she would raise the blinds and window and begin to shout  “Help” “Help”.    The men of course would scramble to the base of the building thinking that perhaps she was falling.   As they lined up to see what could be done for this   call of distress,  my Aunt would then laugh  loudly and close the window and blinds.   It was really strange to watch someone enjoy  the  reaction of strangers and then dismiss their kind efforts.

Tony , the  fruit and vegetable  Man  was  a wonderful  and friendly soul.   He never failed to put extra into our bags knowing that we came from a large family across the street.    The Italians were very generous people in the neighborhood.

One of the best memories  was  of the donut  truck which would arrive in the late evening.  He would open his window  to sell the donuts  to the workers   on break and the smell would enhance our lives.   When  our parents went out on Fridays and we would babysit the younger children,  it was then that we would purchase  a dozen of those donuts  for $1.00.   I still remember the powdered crème donuts and the taste of Heaven.

Those days were not all good memories.   We lived  the best  that could be provided for us, however it was not so good.    Sometimes we played  in ally ways which were inhabited by  the homeless.    We knew these people and they knew us.  As they would leave the warmth of our alley in the morning , my mother would send us down to place whatever food we could spare on the step so that they could see it as they left.    Smicker Woman was our favorite and we would run from her in fear of the look of someone who does not live in a home environment .   Under the dirt  and the weight of  bags  she carried  her person,  someone we never got to know.    Watching a person eat  bologna from a trash can with cigarette ashes  attached to one side  is a revelation even for a  ten year old.

I wasn’t supposed to play with the Chinese Laundry kids, but I did.  I liked Buck, and his sister  Lin.  I am sure these weren’t their real names but ones that we could understand and so the kids would fit into society.   Now days ,  it is common that the names are selected to separate the kids so that the name is the most different from any others and mostly that it cannot be like anyone traditional as this is not acceptable by the  standards of today.  They were nice and  we laughed a lot on the way home from school.   One day when I arrived home my Mother instructed me to go to the porch  where she began to cut  my hair to a length of about an inch from my scalp.  Then she proceeded to pour  kerosene     on my head saying that she had told me that I would get lice from the Chinese kids.  I thought that their hair looked pretty  good.     It was many years later that when visiting Philadelphia  I took the train and as I sat down  I looked over to the older but familiar face of the driver, it was  Buck Chen.  He smiled and I smiled back.

Going to the park to run and play and sing to the statues, making up stories that made no sense but was a great diversion from the stress of city life was also a part of the scene that sticks when thinking back.  There again we would come upon our favorite “Bums” as they were called then.  Sometimes  they would reach out to grab us and we would run screaming and hiding.  I suppose that is why the children today are so  indoor oriented.    We would take cardboard boxes from the back of the restaurants and set up house in the same alley ways that the homeless stayed in the night before.  We would lay the boxes open and flat to pretend to sleep on and my older sister would be the Mom and tell us what to do.  I would collect cabbage leaves and pretend to make cabbage soup.  This was  not a sterile environment for certain.   However, it did set the tone for survival and problem solving which has been a  gift that keeps on giving.

Well,   More stories to come later.  I’ve got to  go live now .