1. Hoagies and Huggies for lunch
For a kid growing up in the Northeast, a perfectly great lunch was an Italian hoagie with Utz chips on the side, accompanied by a lime-green Huggie to drink and a butterscotch krimpet (or other favorite Tastykake or Kandy Kake) for dessert. Cheese or tuna hoagies were great alternatives on Fridays during Lent, and Greenman’s Deli made the most epic hoagies of all.
2. Facing down the supernatural as a rite of passage
Childhood and adolescent tests of bravery often had the special twist of facing down the supernatural. I was initiated by conjuring Bloody Mary alone in a powder room, in the dead of night, in a haunted house, and to this day can’t look into a mirror in the dark. The pounding of sneakers and panicked gasps of breath echoing through the sprawling maze of tunnels under the abandoned Byberry Psychiatric Hospital still haunt my dreams. My stomach drops thinking about our idling car being drawn up Gravity Hill. And I remember, in my bones, the chill in the air that choked me in the vaulted corridors of Eastern State Penitentiary, and the clammy hand that gripped the back of my neck alone in a cell, that said though I could run, I could never forget the truths of where I am from.
3. “Knocking for friends” in springtime
Come late March, icicles thick as zucchinis melting from our corrugated awning dripped a steady tick-tock onto the side steps. A few sparse birds would start tweeting between the drips, then the glass in the door would get replaced by the screen. Fresh air and Mom’s singing would fill the house as she arranged lilacs on the kitchen table. Finally, a knock on the thin metal beneath the screen, followed by, “Can Lauren come out and play?” righted the world entirely again.
4. Advancing to South Street
A driver’s license was like a graduation diploma from the neighborhood roller skating rinks and malls. Mobile young teens trekked to South Street from all points on weekend nights to pay homage to the marvel that was Tower Records and to methodically examine every last shocking item at Condom Kingdom and the nearby leather shops. After, most would go to The South Street Diner or Manny’s to brag over pancakes — a bit too loudly — about how cool they and their friends were, and plan for how awesome the next weekend would be.
5. Fridays with Frank and Sundays with Sinatra
Certain things in Philadelphia just go together, like soft pretzels and yellow mustard and Will Smith and “Summertime.” For the Philadelphia diaspora, these homegrown pairings light up memories full of family, friends, and traditions. For me, the smell of an 8pm cigar mingled with Fridays with Frank on WPHT, and the promise of frying scrapple, highlighted by its morning counterpart, Sundays with Sinatra, will always bring me back to the second floor of our family’s twin home where my dad taught me to distinguish “real music,” and I learned to sing about the glory of doing everything exactly “My Way.”
6. Playing outside in summer
You could tell it was summer in Philly by the buzz in the streets. Kids of every age were suddenly everywhere, popping fireplugs — sometimes with the help of the fire department! — splashing around in the giant fountains on the parkway, and crashing 4-ft pools to make vortexes in their vacationing neighbors’ fenced-in yards.
On my block, we caught fireflies after dusk “out front” on our 18’x18’ lawns and made a mess of the grass “out back” running around under Donald Duck sprinklers. Kids cut the bottoms out of milk crates to make basketball nets, hacked tennis balls to make half-balls, and chopped the bristles off brooms for stickball. Most outgrew Suey (suicide) and Chinese Torture pretty quickly, but Kick the Can never got old. We played all day until the street lamps turned purple to tell us to head home.
Special trips took us to Dutch Wonderland, Hershey Park, and Great Adventure when the weather held up. Smart kids, like me, put statues of the Virgin Mary in their windows the night before every adventure to keep the rain away and made friends with others who could get them into the swim club. Sun tea was the drink of choice until the corn grew high and it was time to go back to school again.
7. Shopping on 9th Street
I did not like the smell of the trash burning in the drum barrels where vendors would cluster to stay warm, or the huge slabs of animal hanging on display in the butcher shop windows. I really did not like the smell in those butcher shops, or the clawing of live crabs and lobsters over chipped ice in the seafood stores, though I did love the meatballs and gravy and spaghetti and crabs that resulted from purchases there within. I hated when my 10-year-old brother drew the attention of DiBruno’s gorgeous sons to my 14-year-old self with his high-pitched diatribe about the impossibility of something being “extra virgin,” as the best bottles of olive oil in the shop boasted.
I liked very much the riot of exotic fruits and vegetables lining both sides of the street in stalls protected from rain and sun by weather-beaten awnings. I loved the smell of The Spice Shop and the way my fingers would get all oily from plunging my hands in the barrels of coffee beans from all around the world. Fante’s was a multi-leveled maze of kitchen stuff that would keep my mom occupied for hours, so I could chase the painted footsteps up and down the wooden ramps to my heart’s delight. I adored the attention from all the dark-haired boys on the street after I got bored with the ramps and waited outside for it finally to be time for falafels at Bitar’s before heading home.
8. Celebrating Christmas for a month
Philadelphia’s many neighborhood parochial schools buzzed for the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Kids would dress up their uniforms with little red and green pins, and girls wore special hair ornaments and earrings. We made decorations, sang Christmas carols, hid secret Santa gifts, and shopped the Christmas Bazaar for tiny presents the whole month. After, we would “skate race” home over thickly iced streets to watch the Charlie Brown “specials” on ABC. I especially loved visiting Santa at Feeney’s because they had a petting zoo in their Christmas Village.
My favorite thing, though, was dressing up and going downtown to see the Wannamaker’s Light Show. Thousands of lights towered seven stories high came to life with the narrator’s booming voice. Hundreds of kids sat rapt on the red carpet, praying Frosty would not melt this time. The drama was intense as the world’s largest pipe organ moved us from scene to scene. Like so many things in Philly, Christmas was not for the faint of heart!