North America | United States of America (USA) | The Mid-Atlantic states | Pennsylvania | Philadelphia – Gangster Cheese Steak
Part 2: Gangster Cheese Steak
My brother stopped to get gas, and I went in to buy cigarettes for Sexton. “Would you like matches?” asked the cashier. “Uh… are they free?” that’s how much of a stranger I am in this country now.
At least Maryland and Eastern Pennsylvania highways are not peppered with the sort of billboards you find in Ohio. Last time we drove into my former home state we were greeted with: “HELL IS REAL” in giant red letters. I can think of no more appropriate welcome to the Midwestern abyss.
I grew up in a suburb of Columbus, where my dad had a job in a chemical weapons factory (something I learned only after his death). It was very far from where my dad grew up, in the slums of Philadelphia. The city was a scary place, where El trains roared and children ran wild in the streets, playing in the spray from broken fire hydrants. A few years ago a cousin and I went to see if our grandmother’s house was still there. It looked sad, huddled between 2 other crumbling buildings. Someone had put plastic pink flamingos outside. The warehouse across the street was gone, leaving an empty lot, making the place feel more dead than urban.
Philly and Washington DC are very different. DC is full of rich people. At a coffee shop before we left, a woman pulled out a roll of 20 dollar bills to pay for her latte. In Philly, we stopped for cheese steaks at a fast food joint. The staff were watching the news about the New York City subway strike on a fuzzy TV screen above the cigarette machine. The guys all had street accents and probably did not have 20 dollars between them.
Like the nation’s capital, Philadelphia also has much for tourists to see. But rather than a fancy Mall with excellent cultural centres, I somehow ended up in a downtown Philadelphia shopping mall, located entirely underground. This was where Philly’s poor shopped, strutted and had their photos taken with Santa Claus, in as large groups as they could squeeze around the bearded old man ??â¬â? to make the photos cheaper for all.
A sign in the discount bookstore read, “we now do prison orders”, meaning, I could only guess, that they deliver books to prisoners.
Outside, I saw a white van with a wheel chair strapped to a platform at the back. Bumper stickers said “support our troops” and “keep Christ in Christmas”. This is typical of the US ??â¬â? the country divided in bumper stickers, some with a subtle letter “W” with a line through it (“no Bush”) and others overdone with flags and yellow ribbons. What struck me about this particular van were the wheelchair and the license plate: Alaska. This disabled guy had driven all that way? I shouldn’t be surprised; I once met a guy in a wheelchair driving a black taxi from London to Moldova. Have wheels, will travel.
Philly has a lot of wheelchairs. Maybe it was a convention going on. About 5 of them were congregated on a street corner.
At Lord and Taylor there were no wheelchairs, just families waiting for some light display at noon. A man in a 3/4 length black fur coat and a Tribly hat walked by. I realised the slippers I picked out from the sale rack were also fur, so I put them back. Big, fluffy, warm, black, and glam ??â¬â? but my brother has pet rabbits. I couldn’t do it. It would be like wearing the cat (though I often tell my cat I will make a muff out of him ??â¬â? when he dies of natural causes at a ripe old age).
By the way, the only reason we went in the department store was that I discovered that Lucy loves shopping. She loves to run amongst the racks of dresses, shirts and sweaters, playing hiding games. She strutted on the cool stone floors of Lord and Taylor, which was for many decades an independently run store before the chain took over. My cousin tells me how the locals were upset when the original store shut down.
As my brother drove us to my friend Ms Chicago’s house, I commented that I had heard she lived in a rough area. We were still driving past relatively upmarket university buildings (colleges being the only thriving parts of the city). “It could all go to shit in a block,” rasped my brother, who was coming down with what he later deemed to be some kind of avian flu (“I caught it from Lucy Goosie”).
And it was the case; Ms Chicago’s little block was ok, a row of half a dozen ample houses across from a small playground. But within sight were housing projects, the sign of a no-go area in any American city. Philadelphia seemed to change without warning, from block to block, from ok to incredibly dangerous.
Ms Chicago and her husband moved to Philly for the same reason that my dad moved to Ohio. It amazes me that Americans uproot themselves and move to a strange city just for a job. Though in Ms Chicago’s case I can almost take some of the blame. I neglected to tell her how bleak Philadelphia was. Instead I told her to go, so I could see her move often, when I visited my cousins.
Ms Chicago and her husband bought a repossessed house from the bank. An old Cadillac was still in the garage, all marks of identification removed. Debtors still turned up, looking for long gone (probably imprisoned or murdered) previous owners. It was a nice, big house though. The couple did a phenomenal job on restoration. Their 15-month-old daughter now played in the large living room with her many toys. Ms Chicago and I had looked forward to this meeting; our daughters were a mere 6 days apart in age.
But where the diminutive Lucy would strut around any place like she owned it (even Lord and Taylor), the much larger and plumper Cora was still only crawling, and not at all impressed with this young, boisterous stranger, barging in and chewing on her toys. Cora felt so uncomfortable the babies could not even eat together. Though the adults had some very pleasant evenings and even got a babysitter and went out to a very good Ethiopian restaurant one night. This was the only night out of our entire trip, even though every night was spent socialising in some way at various people’s house.
Abyssinia, on Locust and 45th Streets, was very affordable and we had a good time with friends and cousins. Another cousin was playing at a bar later, so this really was a big night out. Unfortunately we got to the bar to find 1. it was packed, 2. it was smoky 3. there was nowhere to sit down, 4. the people were all very drunk and seemed to know each other (like an office party) and 5. they laughed at my leopard print hat. The main thing was the smoke and lack of place to sit; being a mom with an increasingly painful sinus infection meant that standing up in a smoky place was no go. I apologised to my cousin as the big night out fizzled.
Little Lucy and Cora did play side by side a few times, but in the end it was easier to keep the babies away from each other (hence my shopping excursions). Cora became so stressed out that when she caught our cold it manifested itself as croup, a nasty narrowing of the oesophagus that required a day in hospital.
While at the emergency children’s hospital a teenager with a bullet wound came in. Ms Chicago described him as having awful hair and cheap clothes. The next morning we read in the paper that the 16 year old and two other guys had tried to rob at gun point a gas line repair man, truck and all, in broad daylight at 11 am. The gas man shot at them, hitting the 16 year old in the leg.
I can’t imagine calling a repairman, who, perfectly legally, was carrying a firearm.