Friday, July 18, 2014

Share Your Family's Heritage & Story

I am looking for people of all backgrounds willing to be interviewed about their Family History & Heritage for my podcast "I Remember."

Of the estimated 108 Billion people who ever lived on earth, how many have had their stories told? We all have people in our families--parents, grandparents, great-parents--who should be shared with a wider audience.

We will use Google Hangouts to record your episode and then it would be available on my YouTube Channel or in the podcast library at iTunes as an audio file.

Check out my first episode, recorded live in a local bookstore: I Remember, Episode 1: Diane Dougherty

Contact me at if you would like to share some of your family heritage on my podcast series.

Friday, July 11, 2014

City Kids on Rooftops

Adopting a lesson from writer and educator Don Graves, I took the phrase I Remember and set to writing for five minutes with as much detail as possible. Well, it is rarely five minutes, and for me, that is part of the point. I use the same exercise to conclude my current podcast series of interviews (I Remember) with people recounting their family heritage.

I remember one summer in my adolescence as the summer of climbing.

Summers in a city are hotter than anyplace else--the heat radiates off of every surface. The old adage "it is so hot you can cook an egg" isn't about the grass and the dirt of the suburbs. It is about the asphalt and concrete, brick and steel, glass and congestion. in a city. You feel the intense heat radiate back at your from every surface.

My first climb was the fig tree. When I knew it, the tree was mature and leafy, producing sweet, plump figs. The outer skin was fuzzy and dark, soft and pliable like a pudgy child; inside, the flesh was bloody red. I climbed the tree to pluck the figs hardest to reach and laid back against a limb in the green shade and ate them until my belly ached. Beneath me was a cement backyard, not dirt and grass; around me, the aging backs of row homes and drying laundry, bleached in the sun, on ropes sagging between leaning poles.

We didn't play much in our small, cement yards. The walls, taller than the adults, were cinderblock. Behind the rear wall, a narrow and muddy alley smelled of piss and dog shit. On either side, we could hear our neighbors and they could hear us. Everything was cramped and you really couldn't play anything in that space.

Behind our house, the moon often appeared in the same wedge of sky between the houses, overheard wires, and parking garage. For several years, my bedroom overlooked the concrete backyard and sour alley. My only real view was the moon for the rest of our view was blocked by the immense stucco wall of the parking garage--it ran the length of our block of houses.

Laying in bed, I could see the moon through the glass and could hear the roar of the crowd during Phillies games at Veterans Stadium. Whenever it woke me, I grabbed the handheld transistor radio by my bed and found the game on the radio. The sound was rich with static and high pitched imperfections in the AM reception.

Sometimes I walked around the room with the radio over my head, trying to adjust the signal so I could hear the game better.

I'd end up at the back window staring at the moon, the parking garage, cinderblock walls, and dark alley.

Climbing out the back window became a real idea in my head one night--not to sneak out--just to see what the city looked like from the rooftop. Tired of the same view of nothing, I planned to hang from the ledge beneath my window and drop atop the cinderblock wall. I planned to walk the wall, past where our alcoholic neighbor hid empty whiskey bottles from his wife. I'd come home from school and hear him smashing the bottles into a million fragments against the parking garage wall in the alley. Sometimes his wife would come home and catch him and scream bloody murder at him in the late afternoon. Then he took to lobbing empty liquor bottles over the roof of the garage--it was faster and didn't attract much attention. Often, I watched him from my bedroom window.

It drew my eyes further down the row of back yards to a ladder bolted to the side of the garage wall, leading to the roof. It reminded me that a different neighbor also had a ladder bolted to the side of his house.

I wanted to walk the cinder block wall, down to the garage ladder, scale it to the roof, and look out over the city. But I could see from my window that I was too short. I'd never reach it. Not to mention, I realized it would be easier--and less dangerous-- to climb onto the cinderblock wall from the yard--not drop down from above like some fool.

Image provided by Historical Society of Pennsylvania
I climbed it on a late summer morning with a friend after most adults were gone for work. The street out front was mostly open with parking spaces. We'd play half ball for hours every day. We'd play until the adults started to return from work and the parking spaces would fill up until none were left, and some adults were left circling the neighborhood until a space finally opened on a nearby street.

We were out of half balls, and climbing to the rooftops seemed like a good way to get some back without having the buy any.

When climbing the wall, we used the side of my house and the side of the cinder block wall and wedged our feet against each. Our weight evenly distributed, we could inch our way high and shimmy ourselves up to the top of the wall. Once there, we leaned forward as if falling over he wall into the neighbor's yard, and grabbed the iron rung of their ladder.

We climbed past their kitchen window and a bedroom room. The wife saw us and started screaming in Italian, but we were already up and over the ledge. It was a new world. The heat steamrolled us. It hit us from all sides, yes, but it was the intense steamy waves rising from the tar roofs that took my breath away. The tar was sticky and soft and it stuck to our shoes and socks. It smelled of chemicals and it made the roofs in the distance warble and dance.

Dozens of pale half-balls littered the rooftops from end of the block to the other.

A pile of empty green and brown liquor bottles marked the alcoholic's house.

We walked around television antennas and explored old sneakers, aluminum cans, and bits of old, faded trash. As my friend kept walking I remember stopping and looking at the city. Tens of thousands of rooftops. The skyline in the distance loomed silent and still like a glass and steel mountain chain.

The further out I looked the more it looked like the surface of a undiscovered moon. It was craggy and colorless.

I remember it was so hot my skin tingled from burning and I had to pull my feet hard so they came free from the tar. My friend dropping stacks of reclaimed half balls into his backyard.

Our neighbor was still screaming at us in Italian which neither of us understood. As we climbed down, she ran back into her kitchen and returned with a wooden spoon that she swung over her head at us even as we stepped atop the cinderblock wall and dropped down into our yard. She never struck us--we were too high over her reach.

My friend went home and counted half balls while I spent a long time scrubbing the tar off the bottom of my sneakers.

I remember getting into a little bit of trouble once the neighbor's told on me, but I didn't really have the desire to climb back up into that world. I'd done it. Saw what I wanted to see. And stuck with climbing the family fig tree and hitting half balls with my friend back on top of the roofs.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Almost Perfect

Adopting a lesson from writer and educator Don Graves, I took the phrase I Remember and set to writing for five minutes with as much detail as possible. Well, it is rarely five minutes, and for me, that is part of the point. I use the same exercise to conclude my current podcast series of interviews (I Remember) with people recounting their family heritage.

I remember sitting by the console stereo with my fingers on the play and the record button, waiting for a favorite song to come on the radio. It spent hours with my fingers glued to those buttons.

We called radio stations and requested songs, dedicated them to our favorite 7th and 8th grade girls and hoped that they were listening too. We rarely pressed the record and play button soon enough to catch the entire song, and even when we did the DJ was usually talking over the music--right up to the first lyrics.

We made choppy cassette tapes. Fragments of songs. No rhyme or reason to what was on the tape. Sometimes it took days, even weeks, to make a full cassette of songs. We were at the mercy of the radio and the reception we got in our house that night.

Since I didn't have older siblings, my mom's album collection was a part of my first exposure to music. I don't remember her buying albums. It always struck me that buying albums was a luxury we could no longer afford once I arrived.

So many of those albums are now considered classics from the 60s and 70s. Dozens of them filled the bottom shelf on the television stand.

During the summer and we no longer had school, I sat in the house alone all day somedays until mom came home from work and I looked at album covers while an album played as loud as I could stand it.

Album covers mesmerized me. They were strange and beautiful and my first exposure to art.

I don't remember ever seeing much art and even if I did I don't remember it. But I remember those album covers.

The album covers were master classes in photography, color, and creativity. I remember a Billy Joel album most vividly. Lit by an ashy light, his face floated in a dark space and his eyes had a touch of the amber in them, like a cat. It was spooky and surreal. I'd never seen anything like that before.

In different ways the images activated things dormant inside of me.

I'd look at Led Zeppelin IV a lot. Most of my friends loved the album, the music. And I liked it too. But I was drawn to the cover of the hunched man with the bundle of sticks cinched to his back. I wanted to draw it. I wanted to see it live. It had texture I wanted to run my hands across. I pulled that album out every day.

I'd turn on the television to Bullwinkle. The music was turned up louder than the television. For a long stretch the first album every day was Goats Head Soup by the Rolling Stones. Something in Jagger's voice kept me coming back to that album day after day.

I remember laying flat on my belly on the carpet. Colored pencils and markers scattered all over the place along with the album covers. Dozens of them spread out as if threw them. But I didn't. I just kept pulling them because I wanted to see them again. Angie! wailed out of the stereo speakers and drowned out Rocky the Squirrel's whining on the television.

I filled the house with music and sound. I filled it with color and line. And I filled it with my imagination. It was almost perfect.

I drew my own album covers by copying what I saw. And then I drew portraits of made up people and I drew portraits of famous people. I drew crazy interstellar lands and I drew peaceful scenes of empty city streets. And I'd crumple up the paper and start all over again.

But mostly I sat on my knees, and looked at the album covers.

Day after day after day.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

We All Scream for Ice Cream

Adopting a lesson from writer and educator Don Graves, I took the phrase I Remember and set to writing for five minutes with as much detail as possible. Well, it is rarely five minutes, and for me, that is part of the point. I am using the same exercise to conclude my current podcast series of interviews (I Remember) with people recounting their family heritage.

I remember the beach.

Walking on the sides of my feet, my ankles bent outward because the sand was too hot for the tender soles of a city kid who never went anywhere barefoot.  Dropping the folding chairs, towels, and coolers in an unorganized heap, we hurried to plant our feet firmly back on the earth, ankle deep in the cold, lapping edges of the ocean.

I remember the beach.

The man lugging a chilled case on his back, slung over his shoulder. The fog of dry ice, like a halo, hovered above the lid. He called out like a sideshow announcer. Vowels were lengthened and amplified. Consonants were soft, a bridge to carry his breath to its next carnivalized vowel. He made syllables as palpable as dribbling wet sand into molten castles, "FU-dgIE WU-dgIE here-AH! Ice CrEAm sANd-wIch-Es! CrEAm-sI-cles...Soda pOp!" It was lyrical and familiar.

It turned our heads in the same way as the xylophone tones of ice cream trucks echoed through out our neighborhood streets at home.

Imagine the inmates at Bedlam wriggling for loose change inside unforgiving strait jackets as the ice cream truck song tortured them through barred windows.

Without money or means to make it, we only had moments to find it and beg for it. We employed every strategy at our disposal. We flipped every pillow, every coaster, and every coffee table magazine in the hopes of reviving a forgotten quarter or two. Hopping from foot to foot from wall to wall, as mom rooted in her purse for a dollar or two, the ice cream truck's song faded. It forced us to judge just how far and how fast we would have to run to catch him.

And out the screen door we'd go, sprinting. We were out of our minds insane.

Other kids, spread throughout the neighborhood, were also in full sprint with dollar bills squeezed in our fists. We were blue tick hounds and we were going to tree a fox, but instead of yelping we were screaming, "Ice Cream Man! Ice Cream Man!"

We worked together without a plan. Some ran alongside the right of his truck, some along the left. We paid attention to move ourselves into his line of vision in the rear view mirrors.

But, being city streets, space to pull over wasn't always available--and sometimes he needed a pack of Winston's more than another few sales--so we ran and ran and ran through multiple intersections, the siren song of the ice cream truck pulling us further away from home. Our hopes that the truck would soon pull over and stop were sometimes dashed.

If we ran too far, the thrill of eating ice cream would be spoiled.

Huffing and puffing, we'd gobble our ice cream down like famished wolves. It would melt and run down our wrists while we carried something back for mom.

By the time mom got her Vanilla & Chocolate Swirl Push-Up it was soft mess. A disgrace to the ice cream community. Mom would smile and say that it was alright and walk off eating it, head tilted, and feet hurrying to the kitchen sink.

But at the beach it was different.

Here the ice cream man sang and came to you. With everyplace and anyplace to pull over, he'd nod as we waved dollar bills pulled from the deepest recesses of our sneakers which pinned down the corners of our blankets.

From one stop to the next, he leaned forward to counterbalance his feet sinking into the soft sand and sang his song while trudging to our blankets. Glazed with sweat, the summers tanned and weathered him like leather.

When he set the case down next to us, relief rose like steam as he mopped at himself with a rag.

His ice cream would still melt down our wrists before we'd finish, but at the beach with the Fudgie Wudgie Man, alongside the music of the ocean, the collective aroma of thousands of bottles of tanning lotion, the UV rays lashing and drying us so that our skin felt tight and warm, and the company of family, that cheap novelty ice cream never tasted any better.