Saturday, July 15, 2017

A Home Of Our Own

We would spend seven years in this house. To put this in perspective, I moved from Tonawanda before I was eleven. I lived in Royal Oak for seven years, at Adrian College for two, in my parent's new home in Clawson for two weeks, at the seminary for three years, Morrisville for two, Darby for three, and Kensington for under two years. Seven years represented real stability in my life!

Gary had found us an affordable post-WWII rowhouse in East Oak Lane/Olney, a northern Philadelphia neighborhood. The block's original owners were primarily WWII refugees from Europe, including Polish Catholics and East European Jews. This home's original owner had died, and her daughter, a social worker, wanted to meet with us and talk about the community.

We bought a home at the worst possible time, with an interest rate of 15%. 
She called it a 'pocket' community, an economically stable neighborhood surrounded by lower income areas. The neighborhoods to the south, east, and north were primarily African American of varying economic status. To the east was Olney, the location of a burgeoning Korean community.
view of our block looking north from the front door
View of  our block looking south
Our block was made up of original owners in their golden years, policemen and firemen and nurses, and several young childless two-career couples. There were families of all nationalities and color, and even a house rented by students attending the nearby Philadelphia School of Optometry.
Our home
A few blocks down our street was the northern terminal of the Broad Street Subway, offering an easy ride into Center City. A train station was a block away.

Our new home was three stories: the ground floor was accessed from the 'alley' where the garage, laundry and furnace room, and a family room was situated. The first floor held a living room, half bath, dining room and kitchen. The second floor held three bedrooms and a full bath.

The house had been beautifully maintained by proud homeowners. But not our style! There was a pink master bedroom with a very bright, deep pink carpet. Every year we redecorated a room. We took up the worn living room carpet to discover pristine oak hardwood. We installed the first dryer in the house.

My full-time sales job was with a family business. They had hired a female intern who had proved very successful. The owners wanted to recruit more women salespeople. The present salesmen were coming to retirement age but held major accounts like Jefferson Hospital. Another woman, Darlene, and a young man were hired soon after me.

My boss's daughter was a writer for Saturday Night Live; his wife knew I was writing and seriously suggested I divorce Gary to marry a rich Jewish doctor who would support me so I could write!

I was given thick books with all the local businesses and told to drum up new accounts. I have never liked talking on the phone. I tend to be shy in new situations and around new people. Women were just beginning to enter careers in outside sales. The 1980s would see a huge growth of women salespersons. I found several books on women in sales and worked up my courage.

It was the 80s and a power suit for women was required. I bought a navy blue Brooks Brothers suit, oxford cloth button down shirts with ribbon ties, a good pair of heels, and a briefcase to hold my order sheets, pens, calculator, and catalog of office supplies. At night I read the catalog over and over, memorizing important price lists.

Most of the buyers were men and I was met by smirks. One man held up his pencil and asked about costs. "Ticonderoga HB2--" I identified the pencil and told him the price breakdown by units. He held up his tape dispenser. I rattled off the brand and the prices by units. I got a sale.

I went into the working class areas, playing the sales game the way I did Monopoly: lots of steady small clients instead of a few big ones. One client was Neatsfoot Oil in Port Richmond. The woman who ordered supplies liked me, and I had to always come on the day her church had a luncheon and she would treat me. But I also visited Center City businesses with plush offices.

Darlene recruited me to be a Mary Kay saleswoman, so I also had a side business and several recruits of my own.

Gary worked for the life insurance company only for several months. He realized he was not able to close a sale. His pastoral skills did not translate to business. He applied for a job at the Glenmeade Trust Company, part of the Pew Memorial Trusts, for a position as a Religious Grants Officer. The interview seemed to go well, but he waited for several months before he heard back and was hired.

Gary's new job was situated at Rittenhouse Square, one of the five public squares in the original city plan by William Penn. Across the street was the Curtis Institute of Music. This location is the setting for the beginning of the movie Trading Places!

When I was in Center City I would meet Gary at the end of the workday in the Rittenhouse Square park. One day a silver-haired man in a business suit sat down on the bench next to me and we chatted. The conversation took a turn when he asked what my plans were for later in the day. I said I was meeting my husband. The man asked what my husband did for a living and I said he was a clergyman. The man turned a bright red and was soon off! It was then I realized he was not just being friendly. My Midwest friendliness often was misinterpreted!

I was very naive but also nonplused when encountering men with indecent objectives. Mary Lou and I were meeting up at the Free Library on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and I was looking at display cases of rare books. An elderly, respectable but shoddy, man started chatting with me. He invited me for a drink, and when I declined he invited me to his apartment, explaining he had an old-fashioned European regard for women. The more I resisted, the more explicit he got! I was in near laughter when Mary Lou finally arrived. Another visit I ran into a man I knew from Temple and we walked back to Center City. On the way, he said he had an apartment nearby and perhaps we could meet up for sex!

One day I was shopping at Encore Books downtown, totally immersed in the books. I heard heavy breathing behind me and turned to find a business man exposing himself. He apologized. I went to the counter to inform them of this man's presence. Another Encore location brought another encounter of the same type, but this time a teenager. After graduation, I did research at Temple's library. One time a man came up and asked if I wanted to meet at the end stacks. Another visit and I realized a man was following and watching me. I began to think I should not be around books without an escort.

During 1983 and 1984 Gary was asked by the Conference to be an interim pastor for churches that were closing. Ebenezer UMC was in the Fairmont section of Philly; Taylor Memorial was in North Philly and was being reopened as a Hispanic church. So he had a second job as well, helping churches celebrate their past and make peace with the future.

In 1982 the Mastersingers performed the Mass in B Minor by Bach and in 1983 Elijah by Mendelssohn and Hodie and Dona Nobis Pacem by Vaughn Williams.

One of the soloists that The Mastersingers had hired, Noel Velasco, was in The Tenor’s Suite by Joseph Summer. We saw Virgil Fox perform on the University of Pennsylvania organ, the Peking Opera, and in 1983 Concert for Humanity with conductor Ricardo Muti, Andre Watts, and an address by Jonas Salk. We saw Peter Pan starring Sandy Duncan at the Academy of Music. Also, a one-man play about Woody Guthrie, several plays by Federico Garcia Lorca, and Dracula: A Pain in the Neck.

Philadelphia Museum of Art
We were members of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I had my favorite paintings: Fish Magic by Paul Klee; Carnival Evening by Rousseau; In the Luxembourg Gardens by John Singer Sargent; the Impressionist gallery; and paintings by Corot, Courbet, and Van Gogh.

We still sometimes visited Longwood, but also went to Valley Forge, and Temple University's Ambler Arboretum.

Just north of us and outside the city limits in Abingdon we discovered a shop that sold British imported foods and bakery items. I loved Eccles Cakes and pork pies. We drove out to Plymouth Meeting and King of Prussia malls. We bought chairs and tables at the first American IKEA store in 1985.

In my poetry, I was still dealing with Nature vs the Manufactured and urban life. A visit to a nearby park resulted in this poem:

Tookany Creek

By the waters of Tookany Creek
late summer, the oak and tulip
dipping low over the scattered gold
of a late afternoon's sunlight
and dry burnt grass,
the air cooling, nearly pleasant:

Children's voices split the air from far off,
the furtive sounds of cruel games.
They hide in the tunnels of the trash-strewn river-side
shouting words gratefully unheard.

Downstream, the river pools brackish
caressing the carcass of an abandoned automobile,
a strange island, the scarred victim
of youth's dark, incommunicable terror.

By the endlessly journeying singing creek
whose ageless song wafts gently
upwards through the leaves
and down the dry beaten paths,
angels and devils united play
mocking those who search for divisions
in what by nature was created one.

Pippin and I on vacation to the Finger Lakes
We took Pippin on walks to the Philadelphia School of Optometry campus just a block away. There were large green lawns and a tennis court. Pippin loved to find lost tennis balls to bring home. Sometimes we let him run off the leash.

One beautiful, glorious, morning I took Pippin for a walk to the school and let him off the leash to play fetch. He saw a stay dog on the sidewalk near the busy street, quite a way off, and he started to run to the dog. I called him and he stopped, but then when I caught up but before I could hook the leash on, he ran off again. 

Pippin ran into the street and was hit by a car. He died instantly. The driver of the car and his family were shocked. I lifted Pippin up and wrapped him in my military surplus trench coat and carried him home in tears. I had to tell Gary, who was completely unprepared. I felt completely guilty for Pippin's death. I lost confidence in my judgment and became super vigilant.

We soon went to another pet store where another black and tan dachshund claimed us. He had Kennel Cough, but we didn't know it. We named him P.J. or Pippin Junior. He was so unhappy alone in his box that we brought him into our bed. He never left. Night after night after we were asleep he would burrow under the bedding at our feet and crawl into bed with us. When he grew hot he came up at our heads and walked back down to lay at our feet. P.J. would be the last dog allowed on the bed!
P.J.

P.J.
After P.J. got over his Kennel Cough we discovered his true personality. He was not cuddly and needy. He was Top Boss and was ready to run the household. P.J. loved to have his belly scratched. He would get on my lap and flip onto his back, legs in the air so I could tickle his belly. It was humiliating!
P.J.'s X-rated sleeping preference
P.J. needed stimulation in the form of playing fetch. He was deadly serious about the game. He would get into position, his eyes never off the ball as we hid it behind our backs and changed which hand it was in. We would pretend to throw it. We could not fool P.J. The moment we finally tossed the ball he would jump up and catch it.

The Harrison Building from an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
My employer was in the Harrison Building on Filbert St. The building was old, dusty, and antique. In 1984 the Harrison Building burned down and it was no surprise. The desks were on a balcony overlooking the main floor, once a showroom. Some days I was in the building for a short time and I parked in the alley behind the building. A delivery truck backed up and crumpled my Bug's fender. We took it to a body shop and fixed it up. A few months later another truck backed into it again.

One hot summer day I found a dead dog under the car. Some employees took the body and threw it into the excavation where the Gallery mall was being expanded just in front of our building. You can see the Galley building site in the movie Blow Out with John Travolta. In fact, that movie is full of the Philly we knew at that time.

My employer moved into a newer place and converted to a stockless system. Customer's orders came right from the supply company. No longer could I grab orders for personal delivery. Customers were disgruntled about the wait time. Monthly parking rates were much higher near this location. 

I was told it was time to go on straight commission. My sales amounted to about $20,000 a month then, but my take-home pay would be $12,000. If sales declined, so would my income. Our VW was about ten years old and we needed a new car. I didn't see how I was going to make that $20,000 advertised when I applied to the job. There was too much competition in town. I decided to find another job. My boss offered me an inside sales job. 

Instead, I applied for a job as an assistant manager at a Center City stationary supply store, Ginns. I could commute to work. There would be little need for a car. We could walk to a grocery store at Broad Street, and being the only white face didn't bother us. We could walk to downtown Olney to CVS. Who needed a car?

I was on the new job only a few days when a call came into the store asking for me. It was my old boss's wife checking up where I was employed. She reminded me of the non-compete clause in I had signed-- under pressure, being told I was not to talk to anyone about it. I explained to the regional store manager that I could not contact my previous customers. I am sure he hoped I would bring my business with me.

The store manager and the other assistant manager were younger men. I had outside sales experience, which made them envious. We all had stocking jobs to do, and I was given the worst job in the store: hauling cartons of paper upstairs to restock the shelves.  I wore a skirt and was not a strong person, but I was not going to let those men prove me weak. I just carried those heavy boxes upstairs. They hated preparing the end of day accounting and gave me the job. I was never a whiz at math and it took all my concentration to add the daily sales and money and make them match. I only had an adding machine to work with. One young sales clerk loved to interrupt me while I was working. 
Gary and I at a Ginn's office gathering
One day Nero Wolfe the conductor stopped in while in town. When I saw him sign his charge card I was so excited.

The experience of riding the Broad Street Subway into Center City every day gave me a lot of time for observation and quiet time to think. People did not talk to each other, or even look at each other. I wrote this rather abstract poem:

Summer

sun
     light glints,
                    springs
from glass
                     blindingly.

Sun-blind
              herds forge
       into civilization
wild as humanity.

Diesel aroma
          and cacophony calls
                 craze
like old porcelain

                                until perception,
                       overwrought
pleads for blinders

seeking
           singular solitude
 an autistic aura
                       of aloneness.

Fast racers delve into dank dimness
willingly compressing
the sea into Fundy,
maw of a Cyclops hungering for their fullness.
Inside the belly of the beast
reduction reigns
all are without form and
void.

(Breathe on me breath of
God? One puff to make me
human anew. )

Strobe-lit travelers,
angels unawares,
I ask you:

do the lilies neglect to notice
sisters shooting sunward,
brothers budding
from the common bulb of birth?
And the leaves of the sycamore,
do they cringe when breezes
crush them into common branch?
Even the ants salute one another,
and the bees dance their story.
And if God’s early attempts out-distance us---
well, what then?

Cyclops heaves a sigh
opening
spewing forth its heavy portion.
All scatter
like wind-blown thistledown
or water spewed by the fountain.
Emptiness.

The sun is still high.
Glass glistens in gutters.
A child’s shout
pierces humid heat,
echoes down the empty street.

I was always scanning the want ads for a better job. I saw an ad that a weekly alternative newspaper was looking for an advertising sales person. I was hired. 

The editor attended the church we were going to. The owner had been a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. The paper covered Philadelphia nightlife, the arts, restaurants, and news. Advertisers included a tarot card reader, macrobiotic retailers, colonic flush providers, and many restaurants.

At first, I worked from the Germantown office, calling clients and setting up visits. Several things impacted my decision to become an independent contractor, working from a home office.

First, my boss used language while talking to friends on the phone that was unprofessional. I did not want that talk in the background when talking to clients. And he made several suggestions that were inappropriate. What was it about the 80s? Later we would call this behavior harassment. 

For two years I worked an extra job in October through December to raise Christmas gift money. I did telephone surveys in the evening. 

Gary and I both got free tickets through our jobs. We saw Issac Stern from a balcony seat above the Academy of  Music stage, close enough to see the sweat on his brow. Gary was working with grants for the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. and The Bronx Zoo, and took me along when he made visits. I got tickets to see the Preservation Hall Jazz Band playing Zydeco.

We had joined the First United Methodist Church of Germantown, known as FUMCOG. We both attended when Gary was not an interim pastor, otherwise, I went by myself. Dr. Ted Loder was minister for 37 years at FUMCOG. He was known for his sermons, original prayers, and for addressing social issues of civil rights, integration, poverty, and world peace. He had attracted liberal minded persons from within and outside the church and the congregation was integrated racially and economically.

One of the associate pastors, George, was a friend from The Methodist Federation for Social Action. He asked me to help him with the youth Sunday school class. The teens were a diverse group drawing from the top schools and included unchurched, Christian, and even a Jewish member. After a year George went on sabbatical and I led the class alone. The kids would decide what they wanted to study and I created lesson plans. 

Around 1984 I changed jobs again when I saw an opening at the Lutheran Publishing House at 2900 Queen Lane--the same location where I sent so many orders when I was managing the seminary bookstore! I was hired as a copywriter-copyeditor.

Meantime Gary was under pressure at his job. There were changes in leadership and staff were being replaced.  A clergy friend alerted him to an opening at the United Methodist Committee on Relief, part of the denomination's mission board. The job was in New York City, near Grant's Tomb, Columbia University, and Riverside Church. He got the position in November 1984. 

The coming years were some of the most stable of our married life.