Saturday, July 8, 2017

Nancy and Gary Burn Out

Kensington was the birthplace of American industry, particularly for textiles. It is where John Hewson set up the first textile factory in America; his chintz prints are well known to quilt historians. Quaker Lace,  Rose Mills, and Stetson Hats also had factories in Kensington. Irish Catholics came for the jobs and worker's rowhouses were built to accommodate them. This is where Anti-Catholic Nativist Riots broke out in 1844. Along the Delaware River, just south in Fishtown, is where William Penn signed the treaty with the Native Americans.

Gary and I about 1981
We moved into the Kensington parsonage on July 1, 1980, on a typical Philadelphia summer day, the weather hot and humid. The parsonage was a porchfront rowhouse dating to the early 1900s, known as "Doctor's Row," upscale houses once near the city limits. People were still alive who recalled when there were cow pastures just north of the railroad.

A snapshot of me with the parsonage in the background, the second from the left.
The house third from the left has the original porch. 
The neighbor kids who lived in the rental house next door peeked in the open door as the movers brought in our household goods. They told me the house was pretty. I invited them in and they "ogled and ahhed over the smallest things." The kids said that the previous pastor was 'a gay bird' and 'someone had hit the front door with an M-80'. This is the first we had heard there had been trouble.

I was furious. The house was filthy. There was carpet in the kitchen that was tobacco colored, except close to the cabinets were it was shades lighter. There were nice wood floors in some rooms and I hoped to take up the horrid carpet. And the paint and wallpaper were ancient and faded. The old fashioned fuses kept blowing. We could not use the hair dryer if the bedroom window AC was on, or the toaster if the radio was on. The screen door needed repairing, and the parishioner who did the work said the door had "been abused with a hammer."

The enclosed front porch opened to a long, narrow living room that led to a dining room and an eat-in kitchen. Off the kitchen was a small cement yard which led to the garage and the back alley. Homeless people left evidence that they slept in the garage at night.
View from the back door to the garage (ours on the right)
and the factory on the next street over.

Our VW in front of the garage; Dad's truck is in the garage.
Upstairs was a large front bedroom, a bathroom, and two small bedrooms with the original clothes closets with shelves, dating from when people folded their clothes instead of hanging them. The middle bedroom window opened to the neighbor's house window just a few yards away.
Back bedroom with old fashioned closet

The view from the back windows showed an industrial area in decay.



Allegheny Avenue had heavy traffic. Philly was never a very clean city, but here the sidewalks sparkled with broken glass as well as blowing trash.
View from our front door looking east
Directly across the street was John B. Stetson middle school, named for the hatmaker. I learned that police walked the teachers in and out every day. Every corner had a bar and a mom and pop store for essentials like cigarettes, beer, and milk and bread. At night we heard the booming of the jukebox from the bar a half block away. We were lucky my grandmother had given us an ancient air conditioner which we used in the bedroom, or I would never have slept during the summer.
Kensington retail row. Photo by Gary.

Photo by Gary from El
Needless to say, we had more cockroaches than ever, and mice, too. One parishioner laughed about the mouse that jumped out of her toaster one morning. It was just life in the inner city. Every day I washed dishes and cleaned the oven and stove top before I used them. Otherwise, when I turned on the oven I smelled roasting mouse turds or the acrid smell of urine. I found roaches in the medicine cabinet and they ate holes in my sweaters. One night I woke when a roach ran across my face.

The streets our parishioners lived on were built for the factory workers. The Stetson hat factory and Quaker Lace factories had once been big employers but were now empty shells. Workers commuted to the suburbs for jobs. Their houses were valued at a few thousand dollars so they could not afford to move. Instead, they went on cruises and spent weekends at the Jersey Shore. After Atlantic City casinos were built, people took the casino buses which included $5 in quarters and a free lunch. 

Local Kensington street where Gary's parishioners lived.
Photo by Gary.
There was no off street parking or lawns or trees or parks or playgrounds. In the evening people sat on the 'stoop', the front steps, to visit and chat. Teens and young adults gathered at the street corners under the street light to talk, drink and smoke weed. Without jobs or housing, young people coupled and had babies while still living with their parents. Unlike downtown Darby, here we were surrounded by families.

When Gary walked to Mt. Pisgah people would greet him, "Hello, Father." Parishioners would invite him in for beer or a glass of wine. Church meetings were held around kitchen tables in a haze of cigarette smoke.

Kensington Ave., 1980. Photo by Gary.
A few blocks walk away was Kensington and Allegheny where the main shopping district was located. The Franklin Elevated train ran overhead. This was the neighborhood the movie Rocky was filmed in.

My brother Tom, me, and Gary on Kensington Ave.
There was a Chinese restaurant that made the most amazing egg rolls. They would be lined up on tables to cool when we went in.

Gary had a two-point charge. Providence UMC at Front and Allegheny was the larger of the two churches. 
Providence UMC at Front and Allegheny Ave, 1980

Providence UMC, Front & Allegheny. 1980. Photo by Gary.
Mt. Pisgah UMC was nestled in the middle of rowhouses at Kip and Cambria.

Mt Pisgah UMC at Kip and Cambria, 1980. Photo by Gary.
The churches were part of the ten church Kensington Area Group Ministry, united in shared ministry and support. On move-in day the founding director of the group ministry and another group pastor stopped by to greet us. 
That evening the director took us on a tour of the group's churches and to dinner in Chinatown. This group offered support to both Gary and me during our tenure in Kensington.

July 4 was hot and humid. We went downtown and saw a free play on Dolley Madison and had ice cream at On the Porch at Head House Square. There was a hot air balloon lift off. We walked to Independence Mall to hear the Philly Pops and see the fireworks display then took the El home. We were lucky; those who drove downtown and parked in the underground garage suffered from monoxide fumes because of the long backup getting out. It was 83 degrees at 11 pm. 

July 5 was our first day of church. Two churches meant two services, two receptions, and two sets of people to get to know. We were given a plant and flowers and leftover cake from the receptions. A parishioner took us to lunch. Our calendar was booked for weeks with all the invites we received. People were very informative, telling Gary about the parish and its history and the needs. 

The previous pastor was a single man who became over-involved with a teenage boy. There had been accusations of inappropriate behavior, but we did not know anything except we heard through the grapevine that the pastor was in therapy. 

The neighbor kids would greet us at the door. The boy said he believed the kids who set off the M-80 would like us better, which tipped me off that these were the kids behind that incident!

A teen youth group member told us that the motto of the street was "don't get mad; get even." Our pacifist beliefs brought smug smiles as they knew we had lived in a bubble. It was hard to deal with their racial prejudice and outdated views of women. And yet the women of Mt. Pisgah were strong church leaders.

It took weeks to get settled in. Temps rose to 99 degrees, and there was no shade, just the sun reflecting off the cement. I was drained of energy and was frustrated that I had no time to write. I was not practicing my music or art either. My whole routine was off. 

We painted the entire parsonage with the churches footing the cost of paint. We tore up the kitchen carpet and vinyl flooring was laid, and we replaced the kitchen wallpaper. I bought new curtains and a bedspread for the master bedroom and made a shower curtain and bathroom window curtains with Marimekko sheets.

That fall I found work as a part-time church secretary to one of the first ordained Lutheran women pastors. I took the El north to Frankfort. I ran off the bulletin on an ancient mimeograph machine. My boss had previously been an editor for the Lutheran publishing house. She told me that when she was working there a divorced man proposed a trade of sexual favors for job advancement. She declined, but another woman who was married accepted. 

With the rest of my day, I was finally writing again, poetry and even a historical fiction novel based on the Munsterite Rebellion.

The Blind Man and the Child at the Window
1980 

Child, what do you see?
The dappled starling and homely sparrow
timid among the leaves and winter residue.
Child, what do you see?
The mourning of the naked trees
exposed to this late winter sorrow.
Child, again, what do you see?
The vagrant in his clownish clothes
come sowing vaporous songs
while shuffling she goes.
Child, and now what do you see?
A decayed and unkempt vanity
where scattered lie the shells
of what was once worn so well,
and a hungry mouth filled with milk
overflowing, and last,
the nations’ deepening sleep.

Around this time I first heard of Stephen Hawking on a news show.

Day By Day Living
for Stephen Hawking

We learn to live day by day
the way a child learns to walk
step by step
giving over familiar things for a mystery
our solid stance for a risk of wings.

Icarus strove to exceed man’s limit,
but toppled back to earth again;
why, then, do we forget these things?

Vain man,
worming galoshes over shoes
a tedious task for a slight protection
against spring’s thaw
and the brisk wash of April.

There is a genius in the frailest frame
that will not be contained.
The blind take up their canes
and venture to learn the street.
A man’s unresponsive body strains
to verbalize in pain
visions which will stun the world.

One day I was waiting on the El platform. I was to meet Gary who was at a church meeting in lower Kensington. A man in a camel coat came up and asked me for the time. I told him. He took off the coat and draped it over his arm, and came back and asked me what time it was again. He stood closer to me this time. I was alert but was unwilling to stereotype him based on color. After a while he asked a third time, this time leaning over close to look at my watch. Then he left the platform. He had picked my wallet from my purse. I had perhaps $2 cash. My idealism had left me an easy mark and perhaps gave the thief some practice. The wallet was found by a schoolgirl and returned but I had already replaced my driver's license and cancelled the bank card.

It was easy to get downtown from Kensington, taking the El into Center City. It was the best thing about Kensington--it was easy to leave for someplace else. We went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the symphony, movies at the Ritz Theater, and to eat out. 

We drove to Reading Terminal to shop for fresh veggies, fish, meat, and Amish homemade cottage cheese. There was a bakery in Old Kensington with the most delicious Hamantashen, my favorite kinds being prune and poppyseed. 

We went to repertoire movie theaters in local neighborhoods like Mayfair to see $1 movies. The theaters dated to the 1930s. One had strange Art Deco murals on the walls that looked like a combination of Greek mythology and futuristic sci-fi.

We continued singing with the Mastersingers. In fall of 1980, we performed A Ceremony of Carols by Britten and The Holy City by Vaughn Williams. The selections in 1981 were amazing: The Coronation Mass and Requiem by Mozart and the Manzoni Requiem by Verdi. We went to the Mann Music Center to see Sherrill Milnes and Mozart's 35th Symphony and Tosca with Luciano Pavarotti.

I was writing city-inspired poetry. A historical tour of Kensington taught me about its history.

The City Dead

A hot, humid Sunday in late July, the atmosphere
an elixir of chemical smells.
No human voice breaks the stillness of hazy air.
Here is only the arid stretch of concrete,
the glare of sun on trolley tracks,
the vacant, lidless, terrible black holes
of abandoned factories
whose broken walls spew silent sighs
into deaf, empty streets.
The sky is faded to a worn blue-gray
cloudless under the early strong sun.

The people gather in the chapel,
choose a seat, and wait,
desiring only the luxury of a distraction,
a moment's shelter from the sun.
The organ fills the silence,
the ritual is comforting and known.

On such a morning can be seen
mirages wavering in the air, ghosts
of the city dead re-enacting wasted lives
tied to the mechanisms of mills long silent.
Pale, spare faces of women earning meager wages
working long days, then, weary, walking the long way to home
where a supper of potatoes and flour gravy awaits them.
Men snared by ignorance, their fear turning them tyrannical.
Whispered are things we had forgotten
or never knew:
the mass burials of the victims of cholera and yellow fever,
summer visitors whose holiday wrecked havoc;
the bloated still bellies of women
whose luckless life left their living children
to be raised by some other woman.

Under blackened bricks of rowhouses a hundred years old
fossil cells of antique illnesses recount a history of loss.
Apparent now again, the names stamped upon the bricks:
Donovan. Jones. Campbell. Nicholson. Milnor. Turner.
Reilley. Guenther. The Irish, the German, the English
the Scotch, men and women who came
seeking happiness, now content with a long rest.

At twelve o'clock, the sanctuary empties.
The people walk home in the scorching heat,
imagining neighbors walking the boardwalk at the shore
enjoying the salty ocean breeze.
The children are opening the hydrants,
running through the water, mindless
of the broken glass and trash of the gutters.
In the early evening the bars will fill.
The gaiety of the German beer halls stilled
back during prohibition, today they will watch TV
and talk about sex or crimes committed.
The people will drink until the air cools
to seventy-nine degrees, then return home
for a restless sleep until dawn.
Roused by early harsh sun glare,
they will return to the factory docks
and the warehouses. Monday, and
the endless cycle begins again.

Every shopping mall had a pet store full of puppy mill dogs. When Gary was a teen his parents adopted a mill dog, a red dachshund. He always wanted another. One day we stopped in a pet store and played with a dog who crawled into my winter coat sleeve and fell asleep. We fell in love with him.
 Gary named him Peregrine Took and we called him Pippin.
Pippin was our 'baby' dog who loved to cuddle. He was high energy and loved to play fetch, too.
We tried to adopt a shelter dog to keep Pippin company. She kept running away from us, and she bit me. We took her back.
Me and the dogs at our front 'stoop'
Walking the dogs in Kensington
We took Pippin camping with us on a trip to the Finger Lakes, Watkins Glen, and Letchworth State Park. He also went with us on a trip to Acardia National Park. He would run ahead down the paths on our walks, then run back to us again.
Me and Pippin in the Finger Lakes

One day there was a fire in an abandoned factory down Allegheny Avenue. I was terrified the fire would spread. When the Phillies won the 1980 World Series there was a huge celebration in the 'hood, with gun shots all around. 

The neighbor on our other side kept to themselves. Their teenage son was disturbed. I would go out the back door into the cement yard and the boy would jump from his roof to his yard, landing on his feet. I knew he was trying to get a rise out of me and I would not give him the pleasure, so I would just say 'hi' and carry on. The pastor's wife who followed me told me that boy broke into the parsonage and stole from them. And a few years later we read a horrifying news story; the boy had beat his girlfriend and then beat his own head in with his car door and died.

One day I was walking to the El to work and I saw a nine-year-old boy smoking a cigarette. Realizing he would disregard any advice, I quipped, "You are smoking! Wonderful! Cancer by age thirty!"

Gary ran into conflict with church members. He changed Mt. Pisgah's order of worship and was threatened physically if he didn't change it back. The offering had to be early in the service so the counters were done by the end of the sermon. Strangely, that same man and his entire family came to like Gary and me very much, our biggest fans. Providence had illusions of being 'better' and were jealous of time we spent with the smaller Mt. Pisgah. 

A year passed and Gary was still feeling uncertain about his calling. Mt. Pisgah liked him, and he was impressed by their wonderful outreach ministries. They sent teens from the street to church camp where for the first time they saw stars and woods and discovered silence. It unnerved them! The church also hosted mentally impaired people for a social time and meal every week. Providence parishioners were jealous of our time spent at Mt. Pisgah but they did not have an outreach ministry. I had stopped going to both services weekly. One week I sang in the Providence choir, and the next week I attended Mt. Pisgah.

Gary could not rally from his malaise and self-doubt dating to Darby. We were tired of fighting the vermin and walking our dog along the glass shard littered streets. We longed to have a home of our own. Gary was 30 and I was 29 years old. We needed a change.

I saw an ad for an outside sales rep with a Center City office supply company. Seeing a salary of $20,000 a year I got starry eyed. And I always did swoon over paper and pens. My sales experience amounted to running to seminary bookstore, but I got the job with a base salary of $12,000. In these days female outside sales persons were still rare. Gary searched for a house we could afford and was hired for a sales position in a life insurance company. 

After a year and a half at Kensington, Gary went on a leave of absence from full-time ministry. The Mt. Pisgah parishioners were very sad. They said Gary was the best pastor they had ever had. The rental neighbors were sad to see us go. They said we were the nicest neighbors they ever had.

Kensington  later became a vibrant Hispanic community, but by 2011 had declined with the highest drug and prostitution crime in the city. 



The Children

Our children are dying.
Their eyes, full of broken wings, haunt me,
their questions sear the air like exhaust fumes.

How can we shatter such purity so?

Childhood's haven destroyed,
there is left no serene rock 
upon which to root and grow.
They learn to walk on the jagged edges
of broken dreams, and to feast
on the small parcel of silence
between abuse and misuse.

And who we cannot kill, we strip
of immunity, prey of disease, 
the lure of easy money.
Playing on their porches
they are victims of war.
In the school yard
dogs are let loose on them
or sprays of bullets.

I have seen them on the streets
longing for a place to belong to,
knowing the world is a hard place,
learning to be hard to survive.
Dwarfed, afraid, they murder,
enacting dreams of power and control
over things too big to ever control,
filled with visions of Hollywood glory.

And this is the generation we will age under.

Years hence when we are confronted in anger
we cannot plead innocence:
These children alone are innocent.
Our children are dying.


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