Tasker Homes, Philadelphia, 09/54 – 08/55

Donny was my friend before I knew about friends.  I took my prized Handy Andy Carpenter Tool Kit over to his house.  A fourth year birthday present, I’m very proud of the real kid size tools.  These are not for pretend like those fake rubber ones they gave me before.

As I leave his house, some older boys gathered across the courtyard.  One calls out, “Hey White Boy.  You think that toy box makes you a carpenter?  You going to build a house?”  Donny calls back to them, “You leave him alone.  He’s my friend.”

Having friends means something in the Tasker Homes project.  Those boys never bother me again.  Maybe ’cause Donny has older brothers.

Another time, Mother sends Letty, my older sister, and me to the Hoagie Shop.  A boy I don’t recognize, older than Letty, asks me as he jogs past, “Hey, aren’t you Donny’s friend?”  After I say yes, he continues, “Well, you’d better go around the other way ’cause there’s fixin’ to be trouble up here, pretty soon.”  Oh.

Sure enough, up ahead, kids pour out from every direction and swarm together across the street.  I watch, amazed, not scared.  I don’t know how Letty feels, but we continue on to pick up Mother’s steak sandwich.  We tell Mother.  She asks us a lot of questions, but we don’t know the answers.  When Letty asks, “Don’t you believe us?”, Mother said she does.

“That hoagie sure smells good!”  Letty’s jaw drops and her head starts shaking no before Mother replies.  “Fried onions aren’t good for young stomaches.  They’ll give you a bellyache.”  Oh.

Letty has a friend in the project, too.  She came home with her after school a couple of times anyway.  Mother allows me to have snack with them.  But otherwise, I’m just a pesky little brother.  Told to leave them alone.  I think her name is Vera.  She has frizzy hair and may be colored or mixed.  I’m most interested to know how she gets away with swinging her feet at the table.

Mother made friends in the Philadelphia project.  Annie and Joan are white.  Donny’s Mom, Lillian, isn’t, but I don’t know it matters.  I’m supposed to call them, ‘Aunt’ Annie, Joan and Lillian.

Mother and her friends call themselves a ‘coffee clash’.  They will help each other sometimes, but mostly, they ‘yack’.  They meet at our house most because it’s easier.  Mother has two kids at home and another on the way.

When Mother has to leave during the day, I will go to Donny’s house.  I had my first peanut butter and jelly sandwich there.  Mother will take my baby brother, Lindsay, to Annie’s or Joan’s.  Their kids are younger, too.  Donny comes with his Mom and by himself.  I don’t know if his Mom has to go somewhere or not.

When Mother was in the hospital, Lillian came over to ‘help Letty’ make dinner.  Mother came home with a crying blanket.  Nadine’s diapers are real messy and stink worse than Lindsay.

Mother starts giving me jobs after Letty goes back to school.  Just during the day when Dad isn’t around.  Rocking the cradle or carriage, or fetch her this and that.  Nadine has colic or diaper rash, some excuse to cry.

I didn’t mind, at first.  Mother was full of appreciation, at first.  I was, “Mother’s little helper”.  Nobody likes the crying, it’s good to make it stop.

Sometimes, the rocking won’t help.  Nadine goes on crying.  I think Mother knows it isn’t my fault.  But, she can’t prevent herself from making me the problem.  She  needs relief and I’m not making that happen.

Mother will tell me she has to do this and that or such and so, but I know she’s usually taking a nap.  I saw her.  If after a while, Nadine is still crying or starts back up, she’ll call out, “Charl Dee are you rocking your sister?”

Mother only, but always uses my middle name when I’m in trouble.  Ok, I admit, sometimes I will get distracted.  I am only four.

Anyway, the coffee clash yacks.  And yacks.  And yacks some more.  Soon it’s, “My God” or “Lordy me”, “look at the time.”  They yack about all sorts of womanly concerns.  It might surprise you, especially if you’re a guy.  They yack freely, without much concern that I’m listening.  If I’m not looking at them, I guess they think I’m not listening, even when I am.

Mostly, I’m not listening so much as hearing.  I don’t know what many of the topics are, but I record them.  Not with any purpose or plan, it’s just what happens. It’s what I do.

Diarrhea, vomiting, pregnancy, miscarriage and other nasty stuff.  Shouting, pushing, hitting.  Stuff even kids aren’t supposed to do.  Sometimes they laugh when nothing seems funny, so I figure it’s another joke I don’t get.

They air complaints and difficulties they have with their men.  That’s what they usually call them.  My man.  Your man.  The men.  Men.  Sometimes, they are Mister So and So.  Or even, ‘that So and So.”

Sometimes they have names.  Van.  Walter.  Donald.  Except for Annie’s.  If he has a name, I never heard it.  They avoid saying husband because Annie isn’t married and this bothers her.  She calls her man, “my bum.”  So, for a long time I thought bums were men that didn’t marry.

One subject I understand and give my undivided attention without being instructed to is yacking about the project.  Annie described life here as, “Crime, grime and doing time.”  I’m not sure if she writes poetry, but she does like to rhyme.

Everyone is at Tasker temporarily.  Everyone has a reason for being here and a plan to leave.  Just as soon as…

We’re here so Dad can get treatment at the VA Hospital.  He walks funny and sometimes cries out like he hurt himself.  We have a picture of him sitting in a wheelchair, outside.  He got crutches and then a cane.  Sometimes he crawls, just like Lindsay.  It isn’t funny, though.

I ask a lot of questions.  About everything.  They say he had growths on his ankles, but I heard that as “groans”.  That made sense to me, considering the way he cried out when he moved.  They don’t know why he got them.  Dad told me the story of Achilles and says his heels are his weak spot, too.

I’m not sure where the Levittown brochure came from, but the ladies get all excited about it.  They talk about how great it would be if they all could move there and still get together for coffee.

I thought they were serious, at first.  But, over time, the other ladies drop out of the dream.  One by one.  Each has a different reason.  Joan announced she is pregnant, again, so not a good time, definitely not.  Annie is concerned her bum wouldn’t get a job and besides she has her heart set on California.  Lillian just says Levittown isn’t for her kind.  Oh.

I never hear my parents talk much about Levittown.  I guess that’s because they talk most after us kids are in bed.  Mother says I sleep like a log.  Fortunately, she tells her friends what they are planning, so I know, too.

Levittown is a planned community.  Planned for families.  Good schools.  Playgrounds.  Swimming pools.  Shopping.  All in walking distance, but with public transportation, too.  Big front and back yards.  Modern, cheap oil heat.  Built-in washer and dryer.  Picture windows.  I believe suburban and utopia mean the same thing.

After I stop 12 year old Joey from messing with my baby sister’s diaper, the reaction is overwhelming.  At first, I don’t understand what all the fuss is about.  I have to tell the story over and over.  I think I might have done something wrong, but I don’t know what.  I have to guess.

We are all in the backyard, which is sort of open to all the other backyards.  There used to be chain-link between them, but much of the fencing and some of the support pipes are gone.  Mother says she went in to answer the phone, but I don’t remember hearing it ring.

I’m playing with my dump truck.  Lindsay has a wooden car and is working on his ‘Varoom’.  When I see Joey pulling at her diaper, I holler, “Stop that!”, run and push him over, away from the carriage.  He gets up and runs away as Mother comes back out.

When Dad comes home, he goes over and knocks on Joey’s door.  Dad says no one answered, but someone peeked out the upstairs window.  My parents decide to call the police.

The policeman seems suspicious.  Of me!  He asks me if I make up stories.  He asks me if someone told me what to say.  Just when I think I might really be in trouble, you know, for pushing Joey over, he says I am a hero for protecting my baby sister.  Boy.  Grown-ups sure are hard to figure out.

Mother tells her friends the policeman said it wasn’t the first time Joey has been in trouble.  But, I didn’t hear him say that.  Joan calls me, “our little man” and rubs my head.  I like Joan.  She’s way tall and her voice is gravelly.

Anyway, it seems Mother began her crusade to move that day.  Her friends are very supportive.  As each piece of the puzzle falls into place, she seems more sure that this is the right move.  Annie starts calling Levittown, “the Promised Land.”

At some point, the coffee clash must figure out that I’m listening even when I’m not looking.  Or maybe they just figure I’m getting older.  Oh well.

But, I do hear them yacking about me getting a dog.  A dog!  I like dogs.  I almost say it, but catch myself.  I slowly look up to find them all looking at me.  Then they laugh.  Joan asks me if I would like to have a dog someday.  Sure I would, but I figure they’re just teasing me.

Mother keeps in touch with her coffee clash friends.  Letters, Holiday cards and the rare phone call.  Especially with Joan, who did visit us with her family after they got a car.  Lillian promised she would bring Donny to visit, but she never did.  I never visited him either, but I asked Mother if I could.  She says I’ll have to make new friends.  Oh.

Copyright Charl Van Schoick, 2012                          Next Story