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“All kids do today is play video games,” rants my neighbor Stace, out on her steps with her kid Little Stace. She’s bleeding from the bare space between her brows where she overplucks. “She can’t even jump rope, can you believe it?” In Stace’s window is an O’Bama sign, the Irish-American Barack Obama one, with a shamrock as an apostrophe. “You’re learning today,” she says to Little Stace. She has a length of clothesline. She makes me take one end. “I thought you were Italian-American,” I say to Big Stace. We turn the rope for Little Stace, who, it’s true, can’t jump rope to save her life. “I just liked the sign,” Big Stace says. They turn for me instead, but Little Stace can’t get the rope up high enough to go over my head; it keeps getting caught in my hair. Or maybe I just can’t jump rope anymore either. “I thought you were a Republican committeewoman,” I say. “For local politics,” Big Stace says.
We sit down on our rowhouse steps, Pennsylvania blue marble, two steps each. Little Stace fools around with a pack of Wolf Pack Bang Snaps she gets out of her Princess Pink Backpack-on-Wheels. They’re caps—gunpowder wads, chalky paper wrappers twisted around the explosive core like toffees. Three boxes for a buck in the Italian Market. Super Loud says the circus-colored package, with its graphic of a snow wolf trio with its mouth fanged open. Big Stace reads the business page of the Inquirer. “Our houses are losing value,” she says. “I should sell and get out. But where would I go if I move?” Little Stace throws caps to the sidewalk off her top step for maximum impact. Tiny crack-crack explosions. “New Jersey?”
Our quiet street is narrow, one row of parked cars and a lane of one-way traffic. When we come back from taking Maisie and her SUV of a stroller in the car out to Fairmount Park for a walk, or when I’ve got to unload the 20-roll toilet paper pack, mega-pack of Huggies, mommy-sized laundry detergent, child and the three cheap toys I couldn’t resist impulse-buying for her after a Target run, if there are no parking spaces—and usually there aren’t—I park in the middle of the street to unload. My neighbors understand, because they do the same. Other people flip out.
Mid-afternoons, parents pick up their kids from the school at the end of the street, build a daily traffic snarl. They idle their engines, honk for their kids to hurry up, cars chunked fender to bumper, scream whorebitch youfucking. If I’m unloading they scream at me. I used to yell back, but these days I’m on a mission to stay calm. I go up to the honker’s window, explain, and if they stay mad, I say “There’s this really great device in your car. It’s called the shift, and you can use it to put your car in reverse.” I say it quietly. I’ve learned the quieter I say it, the madder it makes them. Righteous malice is so much more satisfying if you don’t get all upset and foolish yourself.
Sometimes I don’t have to do that, though. If Stace is out, she comes flying down the street. “I’m so sick of you people coming into our street thinking you have a right to do whatever you want! You’re fat, your kids are fat, you should get off your asses and walk!”
One time, a woman threatens to call the cops. Stacy screams, they’re nose to nose, I keep unloading, the cop arrives, the cop tells me to move. Of course by that time I’m done, Stacy and the woman are threatening to file charges against each other, the cop looks determined not to laugh. I get in and drive around till I find a parking space a few blocks away. When I come back, the woman’s gone, the traffic jam’s gone, the quiet street is quiet again.
A few years ago, I moved to Princeton for a two-semester writing fellowship. We’re waiting outside for our renter to arrive. She’s an Austrian linguist, a coming star in her field with a two-semester fellowship with UPenn’s Humanities Council. Her taxi drives up, we help her with her bags, pleased to meet you, shake hands, it’s a little awkward, she has a thick accent, here’s Stace, who gives her a big hug. “Honey, if anybody gives you any trouble while you’re here, let me know,” she says.
In Princeton I see a lot of deer out the window of my apartment building, which abuts on a golf course. At the end of the year, we move back to Philly. My renter says this wasn’t the America she expected from watching movies and TV. She loved the house, she loved the neighborhood. Especially she loved learning to jump rope.
O’Bama, I mean Obama, is likely to win Philadelphia, but if he wants to microtarget Philly neighborhoods, all he has to do to get South Philadelphia completely on his side is address an issue of national import: The parking problem.
There’s a poem somewhere in all this, isn’t there? Or is it all too much malicious feelgood?
Our houses continue to lose value. I could sell and still make a ton of money, since I bought undermarket before the bubble, but where would I go if I did? New Jersey?