Record Store Days

"Yonge Street, Yorkville, the hub of Toronto's music scene in the 1960s, with A&A Records, Steel's Tavern, and Sam's Record Store." Photo/caption included in Neil Young: The Definitive History by Mike Evans (2012 Sterling Publishing, NY)

“Yonge Street, Yorkville, the hub of Toronto’s music scene in the 1960s, with A&A Records, Steel’s Tavern, and Sam’s Record Store.” Photo/caption included in Neil Young: The Definitive History by Mike Evans (2012 Sterling Publishing, NY).

For Christmas, Gail gave me the book from which the above image is included.  (Quite a Neil Young Christmas morning, as Jake had given me Waging Heavy Peace, his memoir, which I recently finished).  Flipping through the pages – the above image arrested me.  Taken in the 1960s when the LP was king, this image brings me back to the not-so-distant-past when record stores were so very important to me.  Through the years they might have lost their neon over-the-topness, but record stores always served as a place of refuge for me (I’m not exaggerating).  Oh, to have visited Toronto in the album’s heyday and to have visited A&A Records (“World’s Largest”) or Sam’s (“This is Sam the Record Man”). What undiscovered treasures would await?

Somewhat Necessary Information Leading Up To The Importance of Record Stores.

My first record purchases were at Garwood Mills in Atlantic City.  Then Two Guys in Atlantic City (kind of the KMart of its day).  I remember the record department in Two Guys, maybe five aisles (how accurate is this?) I do remember getting George Harrison’s All Things Must Have there, the three album boxed set.  How could one man, even if he is an ex-Beatle, have created so much music? Aside: Aunt Dora, Mom Mom Liz’s sister who lived in the pink apartments next door to our house on Atlantic Avenue in Margate, used to call it the “Three Guys.”  We used to laugh and kid her that she was always exaggerating, but she would go right on and call it that.  Family lore).  Other place of early record purchases: Ben Franklin 5&10 near Upland Road.

My record purchasing really took off once I started heading into Center City with dad on Saturdays.  I had accompanied him on some Saturdays growing up.  He’d bring me into his office on Rittenhouse Square and I’d kind of just hang out.  Play with the copy machine.  Meet some of his colleagues also working on a Saturday.  Eventually heading over to the YMHA on Broad Street where he’d exercise.  There was an elevated track over the gym, and if you would do 25 laps around it you’d have gone a mile.  The curves were banked, which was cool.  There was a sauna and a steam room, a big room for massages, and a big tanning room where you’d don these little plastic covers for your eyes and sit under all the light bulbs.  Lots of old guys walking/lying around with towels slipping off. Then there was the relaxing room – about 20 lounge chairs in a darkened room.  You lay down and watched the tv that hung from the wall.  The only time in my life I watched college football.  Dad used to get me a can of pineapple juice.  Man, I can remember the inside of the Y so clearly.

Back to Record Stores.  Philadelphia.

in sixth grade the Y no longer interested me, but the streets of center city Philly started beckoning.  And it was the record stores that really got me to explore. The first one I ever went in was probably on 20th Street or so, right near dad’s office, and it was like a new world.  I had only bought records in department stores or 5&10s, now here was a store completely and utterly devoted just to music!  And there was so much to explore, so many artists I’ve never heard of, so many incredible album covers.  It was as if a door to a whole new world suddenly opened and the possibilites were endless. The money I earned from allowance, from shoveling snow, from selling greeting cards or plant seeds, now had a purpose.  I could buy albums.

Okay - I've never been to this shop.  But this store, on 11th and Market St. in Philly, is representing all the records stores I did frequent growing up in and around Philadelphia.

Taken fall 2012.  Okay – I’ve never been to this shop. I love the name of the store – the whole marquee.  This store, on 11th and Market St. in Philly, is representing all the records stores I did frequent growing up in and around Philadelphia. Funko-Mart is here.  Every store I ever bought records from is gone.

The first store was a small shop, but bigger shops soon lured me.  Chestnut Street.  Market Street.  Saturday’s my friends and I would take the 44 bus to center city to shop at the record stores.  I remember Listening Booth – other names are gone to me now.  But walking in you’d see this dazzling display of albums covering every inch of available wall space.  Sheer saturation.  And the music would always be cranking, and you would get dizzy with all the possibilities of what to buy.  There was so much!!!  So many new records you never knew about… so many older records you never knew about.  But you were starting to learn.

Once in high school, we used to explore Lancaster Avenue in Ardmore, and we discovered Mad’s Records.  And in my senior year Mad’s started to sell promo copies of new records at a very cheap price.  They had promo stickers on them warning the albums were not for sale, but Mad’s – and probably many other stores – was selling them anyway.  I started buying records by artists I hadn’t even heard on the radio – taking chances.  Getting three albums for the same price I would get one “new” one for.  My record collection started to really grow.

The top facade of the building housing Funko-Mart seems a good example of some terrible architectural decisions that took place in the 1960s that are still extant today.

The top facade of the building housing Funko-Mart seems a good example of some terrible architectural decisions that took place in the 1960s that are still extant today.  I have no idea what those holes are for.  The letters spell out “Robinson” on the side – “Robinson” wins as the ugliest building I have ever seen, but this is kind of what Market street looks like  – and has looked like – in places

Record Stores in Boston.

I’ve always lived outside the center of a city, never in the center of a city.  But as a new student starting my sophomore year at Emerson, living in a dorm in Kenmore Square, I was completely in the thick of things.  I realized very quickly that this is where I always wanted to be. Within a few minutes walk from Fensgate (my dorm) was Music City and Strawberries (both record stores) and Nuggets a used record store.  What a minute… a used record store??  This was something I had never experienced before.  Mad’s had sold promo copies, but here was a place where people could sell or trade in records they didn’t want and Nuggets would resell them, sometimes for ridiculously low prices.

An interior shot of Nuggets circa Fall 2012.

An interior shot of Nuggets circa Fall 2012.  On my recent trip purchased a Robin Lane and the Chartbusters Live ep from 1980, which I used to own but somehow got rid of it years ago.  Also, a Robert Fripp solo LP from the early 1980s.

And Nuggets still exists.   In November 2012 I was pretty well shocked to park on Commonwealth Avenue, a few blocks from the heart of Kenmore Square and see Nuggets huge clock on the sidewalk.  It’s not the same location – the Nuggets I knew

Nuggets still exists!  The store has moved, and is a thriving business nearly 30 years since I last purchased an album there!

Nuggets still exists! The store has moved, and is a thriving business nearly 30 years since I last purchased an album there!

was a basement storefront.  You walked down about four steps to enter.  Since I left Boston they acquired a much more visible space.  I walked in feeling absolutely giddy, and I felt completely in touch with my old self fingering through the vinyl (now much more expensive) overflowing in their bins.  In my time in Boston, there were so many musical discoveries I credit Nuggets with.  So many artists I took a chance on because their albums were so cheap.  I’d visit Nuggets after class, before class, on the weekends.  Many times I’d have a few slices at Al Capone’s (now gone) before heading over to Nuggets.  Slices were 40 cents.  And they were big and great.  At Nuggets I’d trade in albums from my collection for other people’s stuff (though it was never easy to give up albums from one’s collection, no matter how ashamed or embarrassed about what one listened to earlier).  Walking into Nuggets I was always discovering something new, and coming home with something new.

Nuggets is above ground now, and still alive with lots and lots of vinyl.  Pricier now, and more-than-slightly retro, since almost all vinyl is 30 years old, or older.  It exists for the older music fan; I wonder if I were a 19-year-old today, would I still frequent the store? What would be my record store of choice? Would I even have one, content with listening to anything I want online rather than collecting?

What a van! What a face!  Newbery Comics van kinda reminds me of the face of the Whooping Cranes and Zip Records

What a van! What a face! Newbury Comics van kinda reminds me of the face of the Whooping Cranes and Zip Records.  This was parked near their store on Newbury St.  Unmistakable.  Just looking at it now makes me want to shop for music and spend money.  At the store, bought new cds from Calexico and Tame Impala (who weren’t even born yet when I lived in Boston).

For me, Newbury Comics is my current record store of choice.  There are a number of them in the Boston area, and all of them postdate me.  How I wish Newbury comics existed when I was there (but then again, my Boston years predated the cd).  Vast indie selection, and a good many used cds.And their vinyl selection seems to be growing now that vinyl is a niche products.  But it seems in the years that I’ve visited more and more of their inventory is non-musical: clothing and accessories, gag gifts, dvds/videos (now also decreasing).

Music City – Kenmore Square

Inside of City Convenience, former home of Music City.

Inside of City Convenience, former home of Music City.  Where all the merchandise is now stacked against the walls used to be rows and rows of album covers, floor to ceiling.  You’d walk in the store and immediately be dazzled by the visual display.  On the far right, employees would take turns sitting to keep an eye out for shoplifters.

A good question at this point would be “What is the above shot doing in a posting about records stores?”  The bones of City Convenience are what attracts me, not the current contents of the space.  That store, at 543 Commonwealth Avenue in Kenmore Square was once Music City, and I worked there during my first year at Emerson, my sophomore year in college.

Click on the image.  Magnify it.  I see myself almost 35 years ago working there.  See the sunlight streaming in? That’s the main entrance.  The vantage point I took the shot was from where the cash register used to be (pre scanner – I actually had to punch the prices).  The stuff in the store is colorful now – it was just as colorful back then, filled with vinyl albums not cans of shaving cream and bags of Reeses Pieces.

Life at Emerson College was in technicolor compared with the monochromatic world (for me) Connecticut College, and one huge difference is I was able to be part of and even start working in places that I enjoyed.  Places in

The corner store in Kenmore Square in Boston where Music City used to be.

The corner store in Kenmore Square in Boston where Music City used to be.

the city proper (which made sense, because Emerson advertised that all of Boston was its “campus”).  At Emerson I took full advantage of the city (more so than the college itself, I’d say.  And the job at Music City, working nights during the week, just a few minute walk from Fensgate, was pretty tremendous.    I felt alive in a world I never felt existed in New London, CT.

It was at this store that I wasn’t just a shopper; I was an employee (and a shopper, of course.  Part of my pay check kept me in new records).  It probably helped getting the job that I had worked the summer going into my freshman year at Sam Goody in Ardmore selling stereos, so I was somewhat familiar with the retail record business.  At Music City I worked with folks older than me (how twerpy I must have been to them?)  Tony, one of the cashiers, had actually been to Woodstock (I learned that when once we were all talking about the famous festival, and I proudly stated that I saw the movie); Milo (who worked there briefly) also wrote for the Boston Phoenix; Barb Kitson, who always wore tight outfits befitting the lead singer in a band (outside the store she was the lead singer of Thrills, a Boston punk band who played at the Rat across the street).  During down times we’d talk of music, and I learned so much.  My ears started opening up more and more working there.  Barb would challenge me to listen to more aggressive music, more punk.  It was 1978 and 1979.  I started listening to punk rock and new wave, started going to shows.  My life felt continually saved by rock and roll.

Record stores in NYC.

In my adult life, shopping in record stores has always been a form of therapy for me. Gail and I moved to the Village in 1985, and it was just around the time the first NYC Tower Records opened at 4th and Broadway.  Up until that point, the record stores I frequented were small stores, mom-and-pop varieties, where I would slowly wander through the aisles (though I remember the record department of the Harvard Coop as being pretty massive, with new releases set up as columns, 200, maybe 300 albums tall.  The Coop had a tremendous selection of new records; it was always worth a trip to Harvard Square to go record shopping there). Tower Records was a different beast entirely.

Gail took this shot of Tower Records in San Fran (with the always dramatic Coit Tower in the distance) on a solo trip - one of her many - to the west coast in the late 80s.

Gail took this shot of Tower Records in San Fran (with the always dramatic Coit Tower in the distance) on a solo trip – one of her many – to the west coast in the late 80s.

Tower Records in the Village, then on the Upper West Side (near Lincoln Center), was a department store full of records.  Multiple floors.  Entire separate departments for Jazz, for Country and Folk, for Classical, for Soundtracks.  Walking into Tower Records not just the first time, but time after time felt as if I were on top of the world.  I am waxing on, I realize, but I felt like Holly Golightly did about Tiffany’s, that nothing bad in the world could ever happen there.  The selection was fucking incredible.  It started out just with vinyl, but as the eighties progressed the cds started taking up more and more floor space until it was nothing but cds (cassettes were for sale on the basement level for a while).  I knew rock, but they had everything.  Entire catalogs of bands, not just the few popular lps.  I could buy anything and everything.  For years, the Christmas present and birthday present Gail would get me would be records/cds and gift cards to Tower.  I had a Tower credit card, in which I would earn points to buy even more music.  If I had time to kill, there was no better place than Tower.  I didn’t need a bar, I didn’t need drugs, I could just walk the floors and let my fingers search the bins.  In these early days I could buy an album for six or seven bucks, or a cd for twice that.  I started saving to buy albums I truly wanted on cd, and records I was taking a chance on on lp.  I was balancing between two worlds.  I loved the old world and vinyl, but cds sounded so real and brilliant.  And they never scratched.  The future was the cd, but indie bands could only release vinyl.  Both of my collections were growing simultaneously.

I started working at John Jay College in winter 1991, and shortly thereafter a Tower opened up in Lincoln Center, about a ten minute walk away.  Though my world – being a dad, supporting a family –  wasn’t as carefree as it was living in the village, playing in bands, I could take a vacation from the stresses of life and lose myself among all the cds for sale (by this time the changeover was pretty much complete and cds reigned supreme).  I’d hit Tower at least once a week, many times not buying anything, but flipping through the cds, fantasizing about my eventual purchases.  Then at some point they (whoever “they” is) instituted listening stations, where customers could listen to chosen albums via headphones in stations throughout the store.  Now I could spend longer and longer in the store, and get turned on to music I never might have taken a chance on.  And like anyone who buys a lot of music, I purchased some amazing records, and some that clearly disappointed.  But each trip there was going to be something new to discover, something newly released (or rereleased).

I look at this shot, and all I see is Tower Records that anchored this corner of 66th Str. and Broadway in NYC (as far as I'm concerned).

Walking in the present but thinking of the past (part 1).  WHERE IS THE RECORD STORE???   I look at this shot, and all I see is Tower Records that anchored this corner of 66th Str. and Broadway in NYC (as far as I’m concerned). Taken fall 2012. 

4th St. and Broadway in the Village was the former site of Tower Records

Walking in the present but thinking of the past (part 2).  WHERE IS THE RECORD STORE???? 4th St. and Broadway in the Village was the former site of Tower Records. Taken fall 2012.

And as the century came to a close, another big record store launched in NYC: Virgin Music.  First in Times Square, then Union Square.  Massive.  Bigger even than Tower.  More listening stations.  The one I spent a lot of time in was in Times Square (near Pop Photo, so I could head over there for a quick shot of therapy if I needed it).  They even had a book department and a movie theater on one of their levels!  They didn’t even have front doors – you could walk right in from the sidewalks of Times Square.

Sounds on St. marks Place was a fixture in my life while living on 10th St. in the 1980s.  Walking by it in the fall 2012 - the facade is still there, but it's closed.  As in permanently.  I bet its gone by now.

Sounds on St. marks Place was a fixture in my life while living on 10th St. in the 1980s. Walking by it in the fall 2012 – the facade is still there, but it’s closed. As in permanently. I bet it’s gone by now.

Living on E. 10th Street in the mid to late 80s, I was a frequent shopper at Sounds.  Sounds filled the empty space left by Nuggets eight or so years earlier.  Where Nuggets was in a basement, Sounds occupied a second floor.  You had to walk up the outdoor stairs to get in (as you can see by the above shot).  All the new indie music was there in the racks, on the walls, and playing out the speakers.  Vinyl.  I’d by new there, and used, and sell some stuff as well.  A short walk from our apartment.  There were other small stores around, but I had a loyalty to Sounds, and even though I  no longer frequented it, it was a fixture for many years after Gail and I moved away from the neighborhood to raise our family in Teaneck. Sounds opened a branch right next door that sold just cds, and as my collection was growing in cds, that’s where I would shop went visiting.  The cd store closed years ago – the original store started selling both cds and vinyl.  And as of my visit this past fall, all that’s left is the facade and all the remnants of glory days past in the windows.

 

Fifteen years ago, I would never have imagined a time when record stores would disappear.  And, largely, they have.  A few remain, which I enjoy visiting, but the time in my life in which I would literally spend hours in record stores is a memory.  A solid-gold memory, but a memory just the same.  The world has changed, and our music buying habits have changed.  The way we listen to music has changed.  In some ways, no, in many ways it is for the better.  As I’m crafting this I’m listening to Ennio Morricone’s Ultimo – L’Ollchio del Falco on Spotify, one of hundreds of Morricone albums I can now stream online – then to my stereo – through my laptop.  I own about half a dozen Morricone albums, but I now have access to an entire world that would take me over a year to listen to! I don’t need to buy anything.  As long as I’m online I can play music.  I still buy cds – largely through Amazon.com, but how much longer will that last.  Our cds and lps still surround us (though much of our lps are behind doors of the big cabinet in the living room or stacked in the basement), but will they all be needed in the future when all of music is available either via the cloud or computer/pad/phone?  I have realized that places and spaces necessarily change, and I know that other aspects of the life we have taken for granted change as well.  But, damn, I truly miss record stores and the worlds that they represented.

Moving on Up (to Upland Road)

It looks like a great big house, especially after Sorrento Road, and it was.  Except this house is actually two.  It's a twin.  218 Upland Road is what you see here - it was connected to the house next door where the Goldmans lived.  My bedroom was on the third floor - you can see my window below the roof line overlooking the driveway we shared with the Krasnoffs.

It looks like a great big house, especially after Sorrento Road, and it was. Except this house is actually two. It’s a twin. 218 Upland Road is what you see here – it was connected to the house next door where the Goldmans lived. My bedroom was on the third floor – you can see my window below the roof line overlooking the driveway we shared with the Krasnoffs.

We moved into this house at 218 Upland Rd. in Merion a few weeks before Robin was born in June 1965.   Though there were many houses (34; I counted) crammed into the short block (which didn’t seem so short nor so crammed back then), it felt like a different world.  Lots of trees lined the block (and still do).  Even though the front yards were tiny, every house had one so there was a sense of deep green all around.   218 had a big covered porch, which a few years later Pop Pop Henry would convert to an enclosed den (the room you now see in the front of the house).

The Krasnoffs house right next door.  We shared the driveway.

The Krasnoffs house right next door. We shared the driveway.

Two houses would share a long driveway, and these driveways would become our playgrounds.  But unfortunately we lived next door to the Krasnoffs, a couple who seemed to be even older than our grandparents.  Mr. and Mrs. Krassnoff had a

The driveway we shared with the Krasnoffs.  Our garage, on the right, never had a door and still doesn't.

The driveway we shared with the Krasnoffs. Our garage, on the right, never had a door and still doesn’t.

Lincoln Continental and a chauffer! How did that happen on Upland Road?  He would sit in the car during the day in the front of the driveway by the Krassnoff’s front door waiting for them to appear.  And their Continental had those back doors that hinged toward the back, so the doors all opened like the Continental on the opening credits of “Entourage.”  It was kind of frustrating as a kid, so I remember using the Markowitz’s driveway across the street more than ours as a place to play.

The distinct quality of these twin homes is that you shared a wall with your neighbors.  Your house was actually half a house.  The houses on Upland Road were kind of narrow in comparison to freestanding homes, but were complete in their verticalness.  218 had a basement and three floors, and I had the finished attic all to myself.  My first night up there was on moving day.  I was five, soon to be six, and not only did I have my own room, but my own floor.  There was a staircase the curved (to accomodate the narrowness of the house). You walked up the stairs and faced a window.  You turned the corner and on your right was a full bathroom with a tub; on the left was a banister overlooking the stairs you just walked up.  Continuing down the hall there was a storage closet on your right next to the bathroom and then directly in front of you a door.  And in through that door my bedroom.

The first night I was terrified.  On Sorrento Road we lived in a cozy row home in which the three bedrooms were all right next to another.  If I needed something, or woke up in night, I just had to barely whisper “mommy” and she would be there.  On Upland Road, there was no way.  I could be attacked by monsters and no would know.  Mine wasn’t just a separate room, and it wasn’t just down the hall; my room was up and away from everyone else’s on a whole separate floor.  And there was a door at the landing and a door in front of my room.  I was very excited for my new room during the day, but at night – at that first night especially – there was much to be afraid of.  There was so much separation, how could I possibly survive the night?  No body would no about me up there, all alone and terrified in my big-boy independence and my big-boy room.

But I would survive that night, and the night after and the night after.  I would realize that having not just my room, but my room on a separate floor was really cool.  I could make things my own.  No one really ventured up unless they had to; no one could just walk by my bedroom, they would have to head up a whole flight of stairs to visit me.  Early on I was in charge of keeping my room clean, and in charge of the bathroom.  And I did keep them all neat.  As I got older and started buying records, the records would all be organized (according to when I acquired them).  First only Beatle albums, starting when I turned seven.  But from there things ventured widely and wildly as I became a fifth and sixth grader: Carole King’s Tapestry.  James Taylor’s Mud Slide Slim.  The Doors L.A. Woman.  As I got older and started reading magazines, I would keep them all in piles, almost as a librarian would, in their chronological dates.  First Mad Magazine (or which my entire collection is still with me), then Hot Rod, Car Craft, National Lampoon (as a seventh grader).  Rolling Stone when it was a tabloid-like  newspaper (I threw them all away save for one; I wish I still had them), Zap comics (and boy I wish I still had those).  I had a big desk that Pop Pop Henry built for me – actually a a big formica top with two dressers on either side to house my toys/games.  And my bed was to the left as you walked in the door, and Pop Pop built a loft area on top where I housed the “B.Lazaroff Motor Speedway (Under Construction).”  Of course, as all slot car or model train enthusiasts would understand, it was always under construction.  By the time we moved out of Upland Road when I as 15, it was still in chronic disrepair, and my interest in that model car world would not be reignited.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Just bought a house! Mom, Dale and I on Upland Road in spring 1965.

Just bought a house! Mom, Dale and I on Upland Road in spring 1965.

There are distinct memories of moving day to Upland Road in Merion (though not of posing for the picture to the left) beyond the initial night terrors of realizing I would be sleeping a floor away from the rest of my family.  Mom Mom Ruth was with us that day to aid in the transition, and she walked Dale and I the few blocks to the stores on City Line (the same City Line that was a few blocks away from our house on Sorrento Road, but in that course we were walking a few blocks west toward the “city line” that separated city and suburb; now we were walking a few blocks east, from the suburbs, to the same city line).  Those few blocks to City Line would be a defining walk for most of our childhood.

It was great to be in walking distance of… so much.  We would quickly learn that our street had wonderous treasures of its own (lots of houses on the block meant lots of

Like so much else throughout America, once beloved landmarks have become a Starbucks.  In this case, this storefront on the corner of Old Lancaster Road and City Line was once my beloved Dake's Drugs (Dake's Pharmacy - a true pharmacy - is now across the street). But the years disappear when I gaze at this image.

Like so much else throughout America, once beloved landmarks have become Starbucks. In this case, this storefront on the corner of Old Lancaster Road and City Line was once my beloved Dake’s Drugs (Dake’s Pharmacy – a true pharmacy – is now across the street). But the years disappear when I gaze at this image.

neighbors whom we would get to know), but the best part was that City Line existed just two blocks away.  There we would discover Dake’s Drugs, which sold a tremendous assortment of candy (in my memory of it), and a tremendous assortment of comic books and magazines (in my memory of it).  It was in Dake’s that I first purchased Mad magazine, then a few years later car magazines and Rolling Stone which would completely pique my interest then my “career” goals.

And just a few storefronts down would be Ben Franklin 5&10, which had everything.  A few key purchases I remember: buying my dad a shoe horn set with horse heads as handles (huh?), and a purchase I’ll always remember, in late spring 1970 standing in front of their record rack (very limited, but they sold albums), and feeling torn between

The sign over the storefront in the image reads "Saint Joseph University."  The sign over the storefront in my memory will always read "Ben Franklin 5 & 10."

The sign over the storefront in the image reads “Saint Joseph University.” The sign over the storefront in my memory will always read “Ben Franklin 5 & 10.”

the brand new Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers (the working zipper) and the Doors L.A. Woman.  I’d pick up one.  Stare at the cover.  Put it back.  Then pick up the other.  Stare at the cover.  Put it back.  Which one should I get (I only had money for one).  The winner: The Doors.  I don’t remember how I got there, but I do know that record would greatly impact me because Jim Morrison would die a few weeks later, and my fascination with him and the band would keep growing and growing (and the woman I would marry would have her own Doors story: as a nine-year-old her folks took her and Nancy to seem live at the Filmore East in NYC… but that’s another story).

Finally at the end of this long block of City Line would be our car wash.  The pronoun “our” is deceiving: we were much to young to drive, and we spent not a dime in there.  But it would be yet another City Line destination.  The car wash was the type in which you would get out of your car at the entrance.  There was a walkway with huge windows.

This shot looks like nothing.  A sour lane major road with a car zooming by and a Wendy's in the background.  Where the Wendy's is now (along with the Pep Boys nearby - out of the shot) is where the car wash used to be.  Maybe the owners incurred such extraordinary orange-ade bills they were forced to sell?

This shot looks like nothing. A four lane major road with a car zooming by and a Wendy’s in the background. Where the Wendy’s is now (along with the Pep Boys nearby – out of the shot) is where the car wash used to be. Maybe the former owners incurred such extraordinary orange-ade bills they were forced to sell?

The idea was you walked along the walkway keeping pace with your car while it was being scrubbed, brushed, waxed, and rinsed by all the brushes, rollers, and sprayers along the automatic car-wash line.  As kids we would walk the walk, watching other people’s cars geting cleaned, but most importantly we would hang out there because they had an orange-ade dispenser for customer use that would dispense ice-cold orange-ade.  Free.  FREE!!!  Dale and I both remember the joy of the car wash and the unabashed drinking that went on there (we never remember getting kicked out either).  What joy!!  Everyone’s childhood is different, and I know mine has its own unique stamp when one of my most pleasurable memories is of walking a few blocks from home after school to a nearby car wash to watch the cars and drink orange-ade. Not quite unique: Dale shares it with me.

Wait a second... that hill used to be monstrously big!  This is the hill by Saint Joseph's University, right across City Line from the car wash.  After every snowstorm we would head here to sled down the hill

Wait a second… that hill used to be monstrously big! This is the hill by Saint Joseph’s University, right across City Line from the car wash. After every snowstorm we would head here to sled down the hill.

On Upland Road we bordered many different worlds.  Our immediate neighborhood was crammed with homes and stores, adjacent to it was a seminary with tremendous open space that I remember riding my bike throughout (but getting kicked out by security guards).  And the Barnes Foundation, with its opulent grounds, was available by cutting through the Latches Lane apartments. I remember playing “Mannix,” (popular show in the late 60s of a private eye) with Freddie and Lee in the gardens of the Barnes before getting kicked out by security guards. All other kinds of huge private old mansions sat on big pieces of properties on North Latches Lane, nearby Upland Road, with our 34 homes (remember, I counted) on top of each other on one tight block.

Another world nearby was Saint Joseph’s University, which has come to dominate City Line.  I imagine some residents of Upland Road now work in or for the college.  Maybe students even live in some of the homes of Upland, Edgehill, or Stoneway Lane (all three are parallel, with homes on Stoneway backing onto the stores on City Line – you can see them behind the Wendy’s in the earlier shot). Growing up, I used to joke that I’d love to go to St. Joe’s – I wouldn’t have to move and I could even come home for lunch (and mom, I must say, loved that idea).  I think of that now as I commute 31 miles to my college, over multiple bridges, and stuck in traffic.  But Gail has that walk-to-school commute I fantasized as a young boy.

Back to St. Joe’s.  And the picture.  When significant snow would fall, I remember falling into action.  First I’d shovel our walkway, then I’d go house to house looking for shoveling work.  The houses were so close together that the work wasn’t that arduous. Each house had a limited sidewalk.  So I could make some money, then head down to St. Joe’s to sled with the other neighborhood kids.  We’d cross City Line to the school and its beckoning hill.  And the hill seemed huge.  We’d careen down the hill – no trees to hit – and it would level off where we come to a stop, then pick up and head back up the hill.  It was so big back then, and today it looks so puny.  And the fall-off of the hill has been shortened.  It now ends in a parking lot.  With cars.  I can’t see kids there sledding in the winter, but kids find their own joy.  St. Joe’s existed for us as active sledders in the late 60s and early 70s, maybe there are different destinations for kids today?

There are many places in my life I did not want to leave.  Leaving Upland Road at age 15 I felt a profound sense of loss.  Looking back, it wasn’t just the house and neighborhood I was leaving, I was more importantly leaving behind a sense of the world having permanence.  By the time I was15, three of my grandparents had died, and my parents had split up.  I didn’t want to leave Upland Road, but what I really wished for was for things not to change – for everyone to stay alive and to stay together. Leaving Upland Road challenged me to grow, to begin to learn to accept change.  And I would slowly learn that one didn’t have to give up what one loved and cared for in that change.  And one could discover new people and places to love and care for in the future –  though uncertain and unknown from the vantage point of the present – while still holding the people and places of the past as vital.

On Sorrento Road

2609 Sorrento Road in West Philadelphia, where Dale and I were born (well, brought home from the hospital).  We lived there from 1959 until spring of 1965.

2609 Sorrento Road in West Philadelphia, where Dale and I were born (well, brought home from the hospital). We lived there from 1959 until spring of 1965.

“The past is never dead.  It’s not even the past.” – William Faulkner from Requiem for a Nun (1950).

Sorrento Road is part of a huge semicircle.  Dale and I park up on Lenape Road – up from Sorrento but part of the semicircle – because I want to walk to our old house

If we were walking from our house on Sorrento Rd. and up Lenape, this is the view (Conshohoken Ave. is the next insection).  You can see our Honda Civic - we just left the car when this picture was taken..

If we were walking from our house on Sorrento Rd. and up Lenape, this is the view (Conshohoken Ave. is the next insection). You can see our Honda Civic – we just left the car when this picture was taken.

from a certain vantage point.  I remember Lenape:  And on this beautiful early fall day the homes here are very well-maintained: distinguished-looking row homes and single family homes, close together.  It is a few weeks shy of the election, so there are lots of “Obama / Biden” signs posted on small front lawns or taped to casement windows.  I remember walking up this block

On the other side of Lenape, looking down toward Sorrento Rd.

On the other side of Lenape, looking down toward Sorrento Rd.

many times in my childhood days, or maybe being strolled in a stroller.

Maybe because the sidewalk never ended – Sorrento just “became” Lenape as the semicircle bent – I possibly walked on my own as well.  I had some walking adventures living here when I was just a toddler.

Because of the Bala Golf Course behind Sorrento Road and the surrounding streets and avenues, there are no intersecting roads.  As a three-year-old I wandered away from dad one day while he was “watching” me and Dale in the backyard.  I was gone a long time, walking what seemed like forever at the time. From Sorrento Road I took a right onto Conshohoken Avenue and then a left onto Belmont Avenue.  And I was able to keep walking, past the Inglis House for “the incurables” (now home for the “physically disabled.”) Past the Hayes Manor Retirement Home.  All because there were no intersecting streets to cross, just a sidewalk that seemed to stretch on and on.  I may have been three, but I knew I shouldn’t cross any streets.  I didn’t and I kept walking. Eventually I got scared, and somehow found my way into an apartment complex (probably Hayes Manor) where there was a nice lady (who gave me some cookies and probably called the cops).  The next thing I remember is being in the back of a police car with mom who was crying and hugging me.  She would retell the story throughout the years, and with say my disappearance, even if only for a few hours, was one of the most agonizing times of her life.   In our recent visit, Dale and I reconstruct the same walk I undertook as a three-year-old, and it was indeed far, and there were still no streets to cross. We were very impressed.  And disturbed.

Sorrento Road and its long sidewalk, stretches out.  Our house would be toward the back of the row homes

Sorrento Road and its long sidewalk, stretches out. Our house would be toward the back of the row homes. October 2012.

Dale and I climbed the front steps and took a chance: we knocked on the door.  No one was home.  We lingered for a few minutes on the front porch and took pictures  .

Dale and I climbed the front steps of 2609 and took a chance: we knocked on the door. No one was home. We lingered for a few minutes on the front porch and took pictures.

Here's dad standing in the same spot - in 1959.  How similar it all looks.

Here’s dad standing in the same spot – in 1959. How similar it all looks. Looks like mom (I’m assuming she’s the photographer) cut off a bit of his right side (Maybe to include the telephone pole?)  But that pole (or a future generation of it) is there in the 2012 shot.

Standing on the front porch, looking up toward Conshohoken Avenue circa 2012.

Standing on the front porch, looking up toward Conshohoken Avenue circa 2012.

The same spot, circa 1959. I'm assuming that's dad's black VW bug parked in front.

The same spot, circa 1959. I’m assuming that’s dad’s black VW bug parked in front.

Looking at the above photos (and even more convincing: being there) so much of this block, of this neighborhood, seems impervious to change almost half-a-century later.  When I was young, my whole world was in this neighborhood, and the others nearby where my parents would take me and Dale (grandparents’ houses; Bala Cynwyd shopping center just over City Line, about three blocks away; and of course Atlantic City in the summer).  Dale and I had our friends, Richie (a few years younger) and Robin (Dale’s age)  Markowitz just two doors down, and in 1965 when we moved to Upland Rd., the Markowitz’s followed suit, left Sorrento Rd. and bought the house right across the street from us.

This house on Sorrento Rd. must have felt a continuation of sorts for my folks.  They were both raised in row homes, and they began their new family in a row home.  They were so close to the worlds that they knew: when they moved in, both of their homes in which they grew up were less than a mile away from here and for mom, the site of her grandparents home in Bala was only about four or five blocks away.  They must have still felt in the middle of it all.

Places imprint so strongly.  You were only five years old, yet you remember these streets and the way the houses look, the way that sunlight reflects off of surrounding surfaces.  Something about that Philly reflective sunlight that brings you right back.  You think of long days that seemed to stretch on and on.  Visits to parks, to people’s houses, to stores.  Yes, you remember those ghostly visits, but you also remember smells.  Not just the expected Philly smells of cheesteaks and soft pretzels, but your own family smells.  Mom Mom’s kitchen.  The pizza truck that parked in front of Har Zion Hebrew school in Wynnefield (slices were 25 cents).  And you remember the smell of walking into Lord & Taylor’s.

There was something about the smell of the vestibule of Lord & Taylor’s at the Bala Cynwyd Shopping Center that sticks with me to this day.  There was black rubber matting on the floor, and the smell that emanated I still identify with so strongly.  Mom was lucky enough to have an upscale department store so close to our home, we probably went there often.  I do remember a kind of puppet/variety show that they held there, maybe to placate the little terrors while their moms shopped.  But that smell still takes hold (though in our visit, the vestibule was under construction.  There were smells, but not MY smell).

Just a short walk from  Sorrento Road to the Bala Cynwyd Shopping Center.  Of course all the stores have been replaced (save Lord & Taylors).  Where the Olive Garden now stands used to be Horn & Hardharts.  I loved that place, and considered it a great treat to eat there.  My favorite meal: Pancacks and potato chips.  Though the neighborhood around Sorrento Road hasn't much changed, City Line has.

Just a short walk from Sorrento Road to the Bala Cynwyd Shopping Center. Of course all the stores have been replaced (save Lord & Taylors). Where the Olive Garden now stands used to be Horn & Hardharts. I loved that place, and considered it a great treat to eat there. My favorite meal: Pancacks and potato chips. Though the neighborhood around Sorrento Road hasn’t much changed, City Line has.

Return to Georges Lane

On the corner sits 1771 Georges Lane in Wynnefieild, home of my grandparents until they moved to Ventnor in 1967 and home to my dad until he got married in Nov. 1957.

On the corner sits 1771 Georges Lane in Wynnefieild, home of my grandparents until they moved to Ventnor, NJ in 1967 and home to my dad until he got married in Nov. 1957.

It was a beautiful fall day when Dale and I drove up to the house we knew of as Mom Mom and Pop Pop’s.  We had not been back there since they moved down the shore some time in 1967, so doing the math that makes it… 45 years or so.  Man oh man.  We didn’t know what to expect (though I did some research using Google Maps before our trip just to prepare myself in case it had been torn down so I learned it was still there and intact).   The house looks to be in great shape, and under sun-drenched skies we get out of the car and walk towards it.

It’s a feeling of celebration heading toward the house: it’s still here!  There’s been changes, as there should. New casement windows in the front of the house (along with security sign in the window), vinyl siding on the second story, the stubbed roof over the first floor is the foundation for a small satellite dish.  Any older home that keeps its value will have seen such changes.  But the special character of the place has stayed the same.

Approaching the cement steps leading up to 1771 Georges Lane.

Approaching the cement steps leading up to 1771 Georges Lane. Photo taken October 16, 2012.

Pop Pop Harry with his next door neighbor sitting on their shared steps at 1771 Georges Lane.  Photo taken in 1959.

Pop Pop Harry with his next door neighbor sitting on their shared steps at 1771 Georges Lane. Photo taken in 1959.

Look at these two images – taken over 53 years apart.  The older image must have been taken on the landing between the three steps that lead to the sidewalk and the six steps that lead into the houses.  The windows are still there (though the neighbor’s windows now have bars.  Now, in the recent shot, a black wrought iron fence separates the two properties.  “Good fences make good neighbors” is a New England truism, but is there really a need for a fence dividing the step?   Reading the older image, I can’t imagine my grandfather or his neighbor wanting to put a fence up between the two of them.  Look at the drain pipe at the left of my grandfather – its still there (probably – hopefully – a newer incarnation but in the same location).  My grandparents are in the prime of their lives in these old images, and in paying tribute to them by visiting their house, I continue to feel them with me.

Mom Mom Liz and Pop Pop Harry posing in front of their home in 1959.

Mom Mom Liz and Pop Pop Harry posing in front of their home in 1959.

I have so many memories of this house – big family Passover dinners and sleepovers in which Mom Mom and Pop Pop would tell stories of the old days.  There was always a candy store on the ground floor (in the picture above you can see a sign for money orders and Tareyton cigarettes – the store still existed).  I have no memories of the store itself.  For me, the ground floor, once home to the store, was a large storage area form the stuff my grandparents had accumulated.  I do remember fixtures, but the store had long been closed.  I remember stacks and stacks of old newspapers from World War II.  Maybe because their son, my Uncle Milt, had served in WWII they saved every paper.  I also remember a big victrola with a horn and a cache of 78s.  I wish that was saved, but it wasn’t.  In their big move to Ventnor, a lot of old “worthless” stuff was tossed, I later learned, including the victrola and old records.

As Dale and I were looking and taking pictures of the house, a young man opened the door and walked down the steps.  It seems he grew up in the house.  I spoke to him about this project, and he went inside to get his mom.  She then came out and, interested in what were there for, told us she had lived in the house about 20 years, fixing it up as she along.  She had her suspicions that a store used to be in the first floor, which she fixed up to rent out as a separate apartment.  She didn’t invite us in, and I’m unsure what I would have done if she had.

On the other side of the intersection on Montgomery Ave. and Georges Lane

On the other side of of my grandparent’s house is the intersection of Montgomery Ave. and Georges Lane, circa 2012.

Returning to the car for a wider view of the neighborhood, we look down Montgomery Avenue that the Georges Road house intersects and I take the above shot.  The Community Mini Market, across the street from their old house, is the latest incarnation of a grocery store that was there 45+ years ago.  I have memories of sleepovers at Mom Mom and Pop Pop’s, and a highlight would be going across the street to pick out dessert (it seemed I always selected ice cream sandwiches).  And it was right across the street!  I have always felt the need to live near commerce – to be near places that sold usable stuff.  Last night, in fact, hanging out in Teaneck about 9:30, I walked over to Bischoff’s to get Gail an ice cream sundae. It was a cold night mid-December night, but Bischoff’s is only a few blocks away.  It continues to give me a great feeling to walk to places.  And – carrying on with the family tradition – Jake’s new apartment in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, has a supermarket and a 24/7 diner right across the street.  Throughout my life, every place I’ve lived has been in walking distance of local shopping.   Maybe it all stems from having a grocery store right across the street from my grandparents as a young boy, and realizing the comfort and opportunity such a location brings.

Mom Mom Liz, as I'll always remember her, in the kitchen.  This was taken Passover 1967 in Georges Lane.  Look at the smile on her face! We should all be this happy and fulfilled.  One of many sayings: "You don't need to be hungry to eat!"

Mom Mom Liz, as I’ll always remember her, in the kitchen. This was taken Passover 1967 in Georges Lane. Look at the smile on her face! We should all be this happy and fulfilled. One of her many sayings: “You don’t need to be hungry to eat!.”

Passover 1967.  Mom, Mom Mom Liz, Robin, and Uncle Milt in the dining room in Georges Lane.  I have such strong memories of the wall paper.

Passover 1967. Mom, Mom Mom Liz, Robin, and Uncle Milt in the dining room in Georges Lane. I have such strong memories of the wall paper!

Back to School

Merion Elementary School.  Traditional-looking school, blue skies and kids getting on the yellow school bus: this looks like a quintessential scene played out through suburban America

Merion Elementary School. Traditional-looking school, blue skies and kids getting on the yellow school bus: this looks like a quintessential scene set in suburban America. Oh wait… it is!

Dale and I visiting our elementary alma mater, Merion Elementary School, on October 16, 2012.  And like other sites we went to, this wasn’t a drive by but a walk-around-and-get-a-sense of the place.  Our visit took place near the end of the school day, and

the back field of Merion Elementary.

The back field of Merion Elementary.

we walked around the school, looking at the huge field to the left as well as behind.  I saw myself as a young kid on the monkey bars in the (rebuilt: much safter) playground in the distant. I saw myself running down the small hill that separated the sports field from the upper playground area.  And then we walked to the back field that stretched all the way to Narberth.  Moms started arriving,

Sixth grade school friends gathered in the back field of Merion Elementary, circa 1970.

We here here once! Sixth grade school friends gathered in the back field of Merion Elementary, circa 1970. From left Brad Farquar, David Fink, Lydia Yingling, Lee Slap and Steve Patterson.

meeting their kids and Dale and I felt a bit like outsiders?  What were we doing here? Not only were our years at this school many years before, our own kids are long past elementary school age.  The next time we’ll be spending this much time at an elementary school is with our grandchildren at their school play or something.

It all comes back though, and the years both disappear and show their distance.  We move to the front of the school, and sit on a curb watching the kids charge out of school at the end of the day, meeting their moms (still largely moms) or their school buses.  This was once us: our whole world revolved around this school and the friends we met there.  How could another world exist anywhere else?  New things getting discovered everyday – new realities emerging.  It

The main entrance to Merion Elementary School hasn't changed since Dale and I went there in the 1960s.

The main entrance to Merion Elementary School hasn’t changed since Dale and I went there in the 1960s.

was all emerging.  The beauty of being young is discovering everything for the first time.  I look up at the entry way of the school and think back to my own school dismissals at the end of the day.  How we would wait inside on the rows of stairs if it was raining or snowing.  The school bus ride home where home life would be a continuation of school life.  Meeting with different friends after school.  Elementary school bleeds into Jr. high where friendships become cemented and new discoveries are made.

How lucky we were as kids.  Here we were in Merion, Pennsylvania, living just a few blocks from City Line, separating Lower Merion from West Philadelphia, but living a world away.  Though our twin-home on Upland Road had to be one of the most modest in this rich suburb (spending time in Merion on this recent visit, seeing some of the huge manor-like homes, Dale and I remarked how we easily were in the 1%), as kids we were oblivious.  As an educator I’m aware of that kids need space (though kids will make the best of almost any situation).  Merion Elementary has a lot of space, and walking around the school 42 years after I graduated, it all still felt large. Kids there have many, many possibilities.

All in the family: William P. Mann school in Wynnefield, where I went for kindergarten and both my parents attended.

All in the family: William B. Mann Public School in Wynnefield, where I went for kindergarten and both my parents attended.

If one had to make a snap judgement, Mann school doesn’t show the same promise to a visitor.  It’s only a few miles away, but it’s in a fairly beaten-down stretch of 54th Street that winds through West Philadelphia.  Though the above shot shows the school seemingly surrounded by trees, it is in the middle of an inner-city block.  There’s a lot of history here, because not only did I go here (at least for kindergarten) but many other relatives as well (I’m sure).  I look back on my kindergarten class picture and see a mixture of different races presented, much different than the lily-white make-up of Merion Elementary.  My schooling began here; I didn’t go to a nursery school (was pre-K even a term back then)?

Bebber Middle School, where both my parents went (many years apart)

Bebber Middle School, where both my parents went (many years apart).  You can see Abbie, Michael, Dale and Robin heading into the school to check it out.

As mentioned in previous posts, some of these key visits took place on what would have been mom’s 74th birthday.  Abbie, Michael, Dale, Robin, and I drove up to Beeber Middle School in Wynnefield, and I was quick to get out of the car and take pictures.  I walked up to the steps to photograph, but stopped because there were two guys sitting

Mom on the same steps on the day of her Jr. High graduation, June 1953

Mom on the same steps on the day of her Jr. High graduation, June 1953.  The columns still stand, but the brown doors are now painted red.

there.  I couldn’t just take the picture with them in it.  I explained the project, and how today was my mom’s birthday and instead of visiting a cemetery we are here, at the middle school she attended in the min-1950s to honor her, to pay tribute to her.  They were interested in the story, and as everyone left the car to join me, they ushered us inside to check out the school.  Abbie had attended Beeber nine years

Mom Mom Ruth on the same steps at mom's graduation June 1953.

Mom Mom Ruth on the same steps at mom’s graduation June 1953.

after mom, and he had never been back inside.  I waited outside, wanting to get a feel for the place, for the street, wanting to soak in the environment.  And I was thinking about the slides, two of them pictured to the left, that I recently came across going through old family pictures.  It is a gratifying feeling that places still remain, though people are gone.  And I know that this is a lucky feeling; for many folks, their places are gone, whether by bulldozer, fire, or hurricane.  It felt tremendous to stand at the steps of Beeber with my family and feel connected to those who aren’t here physically but are always with us.

Overbrook High School stands almost as an island in West Philadelpha.

Overbrook High School stands almost as an island in West Philadelpha.

I don’t mean to get dramatic here, but If not for Overbrook High School, I would not exist.  Dale wouldn’t exist.  Robin wouldn’t either.  Drew, Michael, and Gail would probably be married to other people and would never know each other.  Geoff, Alli, Jake, Kevin, Emily, Carlie???  Not a chance guys.  I don’t mean to get all Back-to-the-Future on you, but if not for dad deciding to be a substitute teacher at Overbrook, nothing else would exist.

Dad is a substitute teacher at Overbrook and mom is a senior and he is instantly smitten.  He is seven years her senior, but that made no difference.  He found the one.

Dad as a senior, culled from the 1949 Overbrook High School yearbook

Dad as a senior, culled from the 1949 Overbrook High School yearbook.  I love the last line: he hadn’t changed throughout the years.

He was a student here years earlier, and was here working trying to earn some money while attending law school.  He had graduated Temple University, but never strayed for.  Worked at bingo joints in Atlantic City in the summers.  Lived at hom at 1771 Georges Lane in Wynnefield, about a half an hour hike to get to high school back in the day.  He had always lived at home – such was life in the 1950s (he would only leave after he and mom were married – the same with mom).

Mom’s World

Dale, Uncle Abbie, and cousin Michael outside the Trianon apartments in Bala Cynwyd.

Dale, Uncle Abbie, and cousin Michael outside the Trianon apartments in Bala Cynwyd.

In thinking of this sabbatical project, I had a vision of returning to Philadelphia and visiting cemeteries where my grandparents are all buried, where mom is buried.  But those were half-hearted thoughts.  True, I do actually enjoy walking through cemeteries (as does Gail – she maybe even more than me). There’s a quietude walking among graveyards that makes one – even one with no connection to anyone buried in the premises – feel both at peace with those who have passed and at peace with the concept that time is passing.  But in my visits to Philly, I didn’t have any interest in visiting the dead in a graveyard.  I’ve never done it, and now writing this post almost two months after the visit, I still don’t feel the need, even the desire.  Instead, on a beautiful fall day – October 17, 2012, what would have been mom’s 74th birthday – her brother (our uncle) Abbie, Abbie’s son (our cousin) Michael,  Dale, Robin, and I visited the foundational places and spaces, the neighborhoods, houses and schools where – for Dale, Robin and me – our grandparents and our parents were vibrantly alive many, many years ago.

The Trianon apartments on Conshohoken State Road in Bala Cynwyd hasn’t  always been there, I know this now.   The permanent sign in the front announces “apartments available,” and I wonder if apartments were always available there. Who might be looking for a place in Bala: those new to the area and looking for a place to launch themselves? Newly-married couples just starting out? Middle-age couples years later scaling down?  Young adults moving out of their parents’ homes? Husbands fresh from leaving their wives? This looks like any apartment building (albeit well-maintained with fresh flowers donning the sign), but on this spot many years before my great grandparents owned a large home on a farm. We never lived far from this site: growing up, our house on Sorrento Rd. in Philly, and our houses on Upland Rd. in Merion and Grasmere Lane in Bala were all only about a mile away at most.  But I only knew of this place hesitatingly, in passing.  As a kid, we’d be driving past it, on way to the back entrance of the Bala Cynwyd Shopping Center or taking the back road to Philly to avoid City Line, and once, maybe twice, mom would point out.   “That’s where my grandparent’s lived and Pop Pop [her father] grew up.”  Mom was never at a loss for words, but she never delved into the mystery of the place or talked about memories of it.  For me, looking out the passenger-side window, all I saw was a generic apartment building, completely devoid of any meaning, that quickly disappeared in the rear-view as we drove past and moved on.

Walking up the main drive of the Trianon

Walking up the main drive of the Trianon

So happy birthday mom – and today we’re stopping.  Abbie drives us in to the parking lot and starts to tell the story of their grandparents.  My head was reeling with the narrative and I couldn’t possibly take it all in – in order, with names – so we parked in the rear parking lot, got out, then stood around the car listening while Abbie spins the tale of Leibowitz.

He spoke of his and mom’s grandparents Abraham and Hannah, a young married couple with a young daughter Esther, coming to America from Romania via Ellis Island in 1908.  Penniless.    Somehow Abraham was able to buy a donkey somewhere in New Jersey, with dreams of heading down what is now US 1 to Florida (he had heard it was a good place to grow grapes, which piqued his interest; he was a winemaker back home in Romania) .  How long that trip would have taken – with or without a donkey – in the early 1900s is a mystery.  The story goes that the donkey dropped dead in Philadelphia, and Abraham took that as a good a sign as any to make this spot his home.

_MG_0768

The parking lot of the Tranon. Notice the railroad tracks in the distance. This whole parking lot was farmland where my great-grandfather would grow grapes in the 20s and 30s.

So this is a living, breathing narrative of my great-grandparents who died before I was born: now in America, the young Romanian couple starts having more kids, and they have a lot, eventually six girls and two boys, one being Henry, my grandfather.  Abraham works many jobs, including opening up one of the first gas stations in Philadelphia.  This leads to that.  Profits from gas stations enable him to buy real estate and he becomes quite successful.  And as Abraham establishes himself financially in the 1920s, the lure of grape growing leads him to consider leaving the city for the open space of Bala, right over the city line (but a world away).  However,  folks back then wouldn’t sell to Jews.  Somehow a friend, John Facenda, who would later become a fixture in Philadelphia sports and newscasting, acts as a middleman and buys the farm for my great-grandfather.  The family lives and thrives there, Abraham growing grapes on the property which bordered the railroad tracks (still extant and pictured above).  What I never knew before our tour was that Henry went to – and graduated from – Lower Merion high school, where I would attend and graduate from many years later.  Many of his siblings attended as well, but Abbie is unsure how many stuck around to graduate.

Among his other investments,  Abraham would own the Elmwood swimming pool in South West Philadelphia, where a young Ruth Langnas would be working as a cashier in the mid to late 1930s.  And this was how my maternal grandparents met.  Henry would help her out; if Ruth was short he would give her money to make up the difference.  She was 16 and attractive, and maybe thought that the owner’s son, four years older, would be a catch.  And they sure caught each other: Ruth got pregnant, and, probably early 1938 with Ruth pregnant with my mom, they get married.

They young couple then settles in the paternal home in Bala. It seemed as if all of Henry’s sisters ended back in Bala with their spouses.  I can only imagine the constant energy inside the house, with everyone trying to make the space their own.  Probably a lot of drama.  Ruth gets tired of it all, and maybe before or shortly after my mom was born in 1938, Henry and Ruth moved our of Bala and into an apartment in Strawberry Mansion that was also owned by the family.  Other family members ended up moving there as well, all living off of Abraham’s success.  Henry, as the sole surviving son, worked for the family business, maintaining many of the properties his father owned.  Eventually Ruth, Henry and their baby Carol leave Strawberry Mansion and move Wynnefield.

Abbie on the stoop of the house in which he grew up : 1963 N. 52 St. in the Wynnefield section of Philadelphia.

Abbie on the stoop of the house in which he grew up : 1963 N. 52 St. in the Wynnefield section of Philadelphia.  My mom would spend her entire single life in this house, her baby brother Abbie coming onto the scene when she was nine.  .

All my life I’ve seen snapshots taken inside the house on N. 52nd Street.  I’ve heard stories.  But I have never been there.  Or if I had, I was too young.  Mom would talk about the past, but she never returned to the scenes.  Maybe she was afraid of the neighborhood it had become once white-flight set in and all the Jews fled, settling in Overbrook Park (like her parents did) or the suburbs.  Returning to the block circa 10/17/12 was like a homecoming to an area I seemed to know my entire life but had never visited before.  Our house was at 1963 (I take complete liberty to use the pronoun “our” to ascribe ownership to a place that I’ve never visited before, yet alone lived).  Mom’s best friend Sue was a 30-second walk away (on a perpendicular street.  As Abbie tells us, when he and Carol were growing up there were many friends and family members in the immediate neighborhood. Henry was always very generous, helping to buy homes in the neighborhood for his in-laws, Morris and Amelia Langnas, as well other relatives.  Henry helped Ruth’s sister Rose procure the house right next door to them.

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The alley right across N. 52nd Street where as youngsters Abbie and his friends would play

Behind the house on N. 52nd was an urban version of the secret garden

Behind the house on N. 52nd was an urban version of the secret garden.

Abbie's son Michael, a builder and real-estate developer, inspecting the rear of what was once his grandparents' home on N. 52nd St.

Abbie’s son Michael, a builder and real-estate developer, inspecting the rear of what was once his grandparents’ home on N. 52nd St.

Back to the present: We walk behind the rowhouses (there was a small cutaway past one of the houses that led you around back)  to where the garages are.  There is a dirt road connecting all.  And a cliff to one side, where if you’re not careful… It looks treacherous now, and Abbie assured us it was treacherous then.  You couldn’t drive back here.  A retaining wall had given way before Henry and Ruth they moved in, and whose extant remains are still there (see above).  Since the rear of the house faced an embankment, with just a wooded area below, Henry would dump all his trash at back down the embankment.  Mom and Sue would sneak out and smoke cigarettes by the this retaining wall (which back in the day was hid by bushes, their “secret hangout”).  A train trestle nearby (not pictured)  would influence Abbie’s love of trains.

Looking up the block from the ancestral home

Looking up N. 52nd Street from the ancestral home on 10/17/12.

Mom posing in front her house before leaving for her ninth grade graduation in 1954

Mom posing in front her house as a teenager in the mid 1950s.  Almost sixty years later the block looks very similar, though the tree on the sidewalk is gone and many of the houses now have vinyl siding (which covers molding detail underneath the roofline).

the image is fairly dark, but you can see Pop Pop Henry behind the wheel parked out in front of the house on N. 52nd St. (I recognize the house across the street from our recent visit).  Taken sometime in the mid-1952.

The image is fairly dark, but you can see Pop Pop Henry behind the wheel parked out in front of the house on N. 52nd St. (I recognize the house across the street from our recent visit). Taken sometime in the mid-1952.

Though Henry and Ruth’s life was now centered on N. 52nd St., Henry’s parents and various family members remained in the huge Bala house.  Abraham died in the late 1940s (Abbie was named after him).  Abraham’s death ushered in a succession of losses: with no one sharing Abraham’s business acumen, the once thriving family business was sold off piecemeal, and a few years after Abraham’s death Hannah succumbed as well.  The house, once filled with the vitality of a large family, was left unoccupied and thieves eventually broke in and stole much of the possessions the family had left there.  The big house and its farm-like property, was sold about 1960 to a buyer who would tear down the house and dig up the fields to construct the Trianon apartments, completed in 1962.  Henry and his siblings received 1.3 million dollars for the sale (split six ways) , which would enable Henry to construct a brand new home a world away (but only a few miles).  At this point, mom had not only been married, both Dale and I were born; until she left to get married, mom spent her entire life on N. 52nd St.  So while mom was raising her own family, Henry, Ruth and Abbie settled into the new family home on Sherwood Lane in Overbrook Park, still in Philly, only a few miles away from N. 52nd St.  But, figuratively, a world away.

Though hidden by dense foliage, this is my grandparents' house at 6925 Sherwood Lane in the Overbrook Park section of Philadelphia.  This was the only home I would ever know my grandparents to live in.

Though hidden by dense foliage, this is my grandparents’ house at 6925 Sherwood Lane in the Overbrook Park section of Philadelphia. This was the only home I would ever know my grandparents to live in.

Margate Now Margate Then, Part 2

This is the senior center, circa September 2012, on the beach, right near our old house at 8206 Atlantic

The view of the same senior center, looking pretty lonely on the big lot, taken from the deck outside my folks’ bedroom, in the early seventies.  Look at those boss cars!! I can remember this lot before the senior center, before the Margate Public Library, when it was just a lot.  When they were building the senior center, my sisters and I found a box turtle on a construction trailer.  We took him home and named him Sammy.  Sammy lived in a box on the kitchen floor in our house on Upland Road, until mom and dad suggested  – I’m sure the reality was much harsher – that we put him back in his original habitat.  On a subsequent trip down the shore, we pulled the Plymouth Belvedere over somewhere in the swamps of Jersey off the Blackhorse Pike near AC and tearfully bid Sammy adieu.  I have strong memories of this!  I “see” Sammy in the black and white shot.

Why when I look at old photographs, the world looks more real in black and white?  Maybe it’s less of a literal interpretation – the scene was obviously in color.  But the monochromatic tones allows me to interpret the image in a way that color sometimes doesn’t.  Black and white gives a crucial layer of distance to the viewer familiar to the scene; his own memory has to come into play.  It’s a challenge.  To make a photo come to life the viewer needs to allow the characters to move, to speak, to come alive. But in black and white photos the viewer has to work that much harder.  When one looks at old pictures of one’s parents or grandparents (“one” who is in his fifties, at least, as I am), one has to color up their imagination.  Or not.  The reality of that old world was black and white.  As if color never existed.  I’m not as interested in watching archival video of my own kids, or the old home movies of when I was a kid, because the reality in the moving image is too literally represented.  It’s the sounds, the moving pictures, that seemingly trick the viewer to almost feel as if we are all still there.  Videos can be a colosal mind-fuck: there’s no room for reinterpretation.  There’s no room for romanticization.  It’s the cold hard moving pictures of a long-gone reality, and the current you is there no longer.  No – I like photographs.  There’s room for me now in the photographs of old.

The new Margate Public Library. Well, new is pretty relative. It was built when we lived on 8206, and it was new because we remembered the “old.”

Libraries hold a sacred place in my heart.  There is so much untapped potential in a library.  There are so many books to read; even if your town has a small library, 95% of those books will go unread by you.  There’s no way you can read 5% of what a library offers.  Because – and listen to me – as soon as you are catching up the library will be buying new books so the end result, the ripping reality: you can never catch up.  You are always behind, so get used to it.  Again, the untapped potential.  There are gems on the shelves just waiting for discovery.  You can say bookstores are the same way, record stores too (sad sad sad, but that’s another future post).  There is so much to read, so much to listen to.  But in the stores you need to pay money.  With the library, it’s all there for free.  It’s for you, ten, fifteen books at a time if you can stand it… if you can read them…  Sometimes I like taking books out that I truly never intend to read, just to see how they look sitting in my house.  So many possibilities…

This Margate library was sleek.  I was wowwed.  Sunlight filtered in, and there were rows and rows of books and magazines.  Sleek modern wood shelving.  I brought

Carved in the cement is the date “1979.” This bricked area was added a year after we stopped going to Margate

homework with me from Philly and spent some time there working on this project or that, but maybe romanticizing what all the books and magazines meant to me. The key word in the above sentence: “some” time.  It opened when I was, what,  a junior? A senior? in high school.  And spending time in the library just wasn’t as important as compared to the kid that I was a few years earlier.  This was the “new” library which opened on the big empty lot a few years after the senior center.  It somewhat beckons me in 2012, but it mainly serves as a reminder of the old library, which still exists.

The old Margate library on Jerome Avenue is still standing.

The old Margate library on Jerome Avenue is still standing.

How can this tiny building be a library.  It looks like an outpost, a storage shed, a doll’s house.  Something so tiny as to be impossible to have any real use.  On our Sept. trip, after the three of us left Iroquois Ave. we walked down to Ventnor Ave. and Dale and I got to talking about other memories.  And something we channelled right away was the old library.  We both had strong memories of the building, and decided to see if it was still there.  We walked a few blocks up Ventnor, turned the left onto Jerome, and about half a block in, there it was. How could you miss it?  Rather how COULDN’T anyone miss this.  It is so small, so seemingly inconsequential.  A “For Sale” sign on the bit of lawn in the front. However, it seemed to be reaching out to us, saying, “Appreciate me now, because tomorrow I might not be around.”  Someone will buy the property, and tear the diminutive structure down (it won’t take much – you could wrap some rope around the building, attach it to the trailer hitch on your entry-level Subaru and just touch the gas.  You’ll hear a “pfffftt” – and that soft sound is of the place falling down).  This building will not last, but for me the memories will.

The cover of a Hardy Boys book I possibly/probably read as a youngster at the Margate Public Library.   I

It was small, but it served for years as the Margate Public Library.  I remember two rooms: an adult room and a children’s room.  You’d walk in and be completely surrounded by books.  I would spend many comfortable hours in there, but what comes back to me so strongly are the Hardy Boy series.  Maybe I was in third or fourth grade and during a rainy day (it has to be raining, right? in the late 1960s what else would be there to do in a shore town on a rainy day but go to the library. In my mind, it has to be rainging). I was probably looking at the spines of the books (or maybe had the recommendation of the librarian) and some how came across a literary force that – I still feel this way now – changed my life.  One book let to two, three, four… I think by the end of the summer I read every Hardy Boy book.  Death defying adventures, friendship, engaging family dynamics (the brothers were a team and rarely seemed to fight), chaste romances – I was completely in the world of Frank and Joe Hardy and their escapades in the city of Bayport on Barnet Bay (You can read about the Hardy Boys today, and find the stereotypes that “Franklin W. Dixon” employed were horrible, though editions after 1959 were revised to acknowledge changing societal norms).  One after the other after the other.  I had read the Bobbsey Twins before this (same author), but the twins seemed to be kids’ stuff compared to danger and peril involved in the Hardy Boys’ mysteries.  My love of reading, that love of discovery, cystalizes in the tiny frame of the former building of the Margate Public Library.  I still love small spaces, in which everything is within reach, in which you are surrounded by everything you need.  I love being surrounded by books, by the possibility that exists within every cover.  This is a life feeling formed in this library.

The entrance way to Casel's food store, an iconic fixture in Margate since I was a boy.

The entrance way to Casel’s food store, an iconic fixture in Margate since I was a boy.

I can go so deep into snapshots.  This – like many of the images throughout this blog – should be meaningless to the viewer.  But to me, this image shows so much.  It’s the front entrance of Casel’s supermarket circa 2012, but through the power of the image I can go way back. Casel’s is on Ventnor Ave., about a fifteen minute walk from the old library (maybe longer on younger, shorter legs).  Casel’s was Mom Mom’s favorite place to go.  Every day.  Everyday she would shop at Casel’s (later a Pantry Pride would be built nearby – it is the site of condos today – and she would alternate between the two).  She didn’t drive, and she would wheel an old blue baby carriage to the store, a bootleg version of a shopping cart that did the trick.  I laugh at the memory of our grandmother walking the sidewalks of Margate wheeling a baby carriage loaded up with groceries.  And we loved going with her.  Mom Mom had no compunction about opening up bags of potato chips and letting her grandkids eat the bag in the store (never to pay for it).  She would cook food for the deli guys behind the counter, and they in turn would give her ridiculously cheap prices at the deli.  She was the queen of Casel’s and Pantry Pride.  And I don’t exaggerate: every day!  It was a daily mission, because nothing gave Mom Mom pleasure like cooking food and seeing her grandkids eating it – and the more the better.  One of her favorite expressions: “Who says you have to be hungry to eat?”

Casel’s brings Mom Mom back to me, but it also brings back my first employment opportunity.  I always wanted to work.  I wrote on some blogs earlier about various boardwalk jobs, but I was always trying to jones for some money: selling seeds and greeting cards door to door (from advertisements on the back of comic books), delivering papers, carrying beach chairs and setting them up on the beach for family friends, getting to the Margate Public tennis courts early in the morning to reserve courts for players later in the day.  But I was a self-appointed shopping bag carrier at Casel’s, a pint-sized entrepreneur.    On summer days I’d leave the beach, wash myself up, then walk over to Casel’s where I would position myself at the front of the store (right near the yellow fire pump).  Then as shoppers would emerge I’d ask them if they wanted any help with their bags.  Simple.  Most people said no, but those who couldn’t resist an earnest ten-year-old, would let me wheel the shopping cart to the parking lot, and I’d put their bags in the car for ten cents, twenty-five cents, and even the very rare dollar.  There were a few summers I seem to remember being there all the time, coming home with newly-earned coins jangling in my pocket.

Last night Gail and I watched the final episode of the current season of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.”  The episode was titled “Margate Sands” – an homage to gangster hideaways in undeveloped parts of Atlantic City in the 1920s.  These Margate Sands were no longer wild in the 1960s and 1970s, and the area has continued to change, develop and grow as the 60s begot the future decades.  I was there then, and  I can still sense much of it all these years later.