By Nancy Farrell
It was mid-summer, 1972, when I was 12 years old, that my parents sold our small row home on Clarion Street in South Philadelphia. They bought a finer row home in a suburban development dubbed Briarcliff, which rested in the Delaware County town of Glenolden. My father, Charles, was excited to own his first garage, while my mother, Violet, looked forward to the neighbors being less close at hand, albeit only a tad less. With the South Philadelphia and Briarcliff agreements of sale both signed, the clock began to tick toward our last day as South Philadelphians. That day would arrive in October, 1972.
My father had been struggling to keep his home goods business afloat. Progress was not on his side. My father’s customers were the housewives of South Philadelphia, but their numbers were dwindling. It was the dawn of the shopping mall. The drapery that my father stored in his car and carried into houses could not compete with the variety at Sears, Roebuck and Company. In 1972, the remaining housewives continued to open their doors to my father, but it was because he was a sociable, homegrown fellow. They desired coffee and conversation with him, but his home goods, not so much.
Undeniably, it was my mother’s office job at the Bell Telephone Company that enabled our move to Briarcliff. The job was a 20-minute walk from Clarion Street, and something she accomplished in sensible heels and strictly on time. The residue of my mother’s stern upbringing gave rise to her handling stacks of Bell Telephone Company paperwork with speed and competency.
Once the news of our upcoming move spread, I was forced to fathom the unfathomable. I laid in bed at night as one realization after another turned my stomach. Clarion Street would never host another of our holidays. The aroma of my mother’s spaghetti and meatballs, cooked each Sunday after Mass at the Annunciation BVM Church, would fade from the kitchen. The days of the overhang outside our back door sheltering my bike were numbered.
Life began to shift, as my mother collected ideas for modern decorating from Good Housekeeping magazine. Briarcliff would be her chance to start fresh. Meanwhile, my father declared that Briarcliff would be cleaner and safer than South Philadelphia. I felt insulted on behalf of our home, as I watched one room after another turn to dust and echo. Briarcliff-worthy knick-knacks were boxed up, while unworthy ones were placed in the trash.
The most troubling part of the move was the inescapable loss of my Clarion Street friends. There was my closest pal, Bridget, with whom I shared a birth year and every juvenile notion, such as whether a song she made up, “Little Brown Jug,” might someday be recorded by The Monkees. With her perpetual pixie hairdo, Bridget had a pureness of heart epitomized by her habit of chalking “I’m sorry, let’s make up” on the sidewalk outside my house following our rare spats.
And then there was Brenda, who was the same age as Bridget and me. Brenda was pretty and being hip came as naturally to her as breathing. When the bullies from around the corner turned up, Brenda remained unfazed. Always with a bottle of Coca Cola in hand, Brenda liked to deliberately spill dribbles onto the street, simply for kicks. Bridget and I occasionally hitched ourselves to Brenda’s hijinks because it was exciting, but we typically favored the comfort and trust of our twosome.
There was Anthony, as well. He was one year older, and our informal leader on Clarion Street. He wore his hair long and he had a drum set in his basement, where he played Led Zeppelin songs. Bridget and I found Anthony charming, even though his rock star persona was undercut by his family’s laundry, which continually drooped on a clothesline above his drum space. We believed we had a love triangle parallel to Betty, Veronica, and Archie in the Archie comic books that we purchased at Bertolino’s Pharmacy.
My last summer on Clarion Street passed much like the prior ones. We roller skated, played tag, twirled hula hoops, and told spooky stories, all the while devouring cones of ice cream from the Mr. Softee Truck and Broadway Licorice Rolls from Jean’s Grocery Store. We fell into bed at night sticky with sweat and sugar, confident that all of those things would be within reach again when the sun came up.
The gang knew that my family’s house had been sold, but this turn of events was unfamiliar. All of us had only ever lived on Clarion Street. I longed to confess my heartbreak, but instead talked up the spacious MacDade Mall/Eric Movie Theater complex located near Briarcliff. What I should have announced was that nothing could top Clarion Street. There was the Mummer’s Parade that took place every January 1st just two blocks away, and it wasn’t just the lively music and magical costumes that made the parade extraordinary. It was the neighborhood families who opened their doors in welcome to all, offering escarole soup and crumb buns. Our parents lost track of us on New Year’s Day, but never worried about our being cold, hungry, or safe.
There was also the 37-foot statue of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, that sat atop Philadelphia’s City Hall, which was visible, opportunely, from the flat rooftop outside my bedroom. And then there was the lunch counter at nearby Woolworth’s, where the price of an ice cream sundae was determined by whichever balloon a customer chose from the day’s balloon assortment. The balloons dangled colorfully above the lunch counter and contained within each was a slip of paper that was a price tag. When a balloon was chosen by an ice cream sundae customer and then popped, the treat’s price was revealed.
In October, 1972, when my family’s last day on Clarion Street landed, I felt a helplessness equal to the weight of the moving truck that rested in my line of sight. My friends watched curbside, while I leaned on our wrought-iron railing, as our forest green sofa and television were carried out sideways and stowed. I knew that my parents intended to comfort me, but were busy with last minute tasks. There were closets to be checked one final time, and keys to be collected.
With the last of our possessions amassed in the moving truck, the metal door was slammed down and the tarnished latch secured. This was my family’s cue to climb into our blue Rambler Ambassador and to begin following the moving truck to Briarcliff. I rolled down my back-seat window, and my friends peeked in to wave goodbye. I sat in the car, stricken, and closed my eyes, as our car proceeded to the corner of Clarion Street. To lessen the ache, I pretended that we were headed instead to our yearly vacation at the Lamp Post Motel in Wildwood, something I treasured. “It will be okay,” my mother said from the front seat.
And my mother’s prediction was true. Time passed, and I did gradually become accustomed to the suburbs, and to the new friends and happenings that filled my days in Briarcliff. There were stumbles, to be sure, like when I was stung on my forehead by a bumble bee as I walked to my first day at Our Lady of Fatima School. Or when my mother signed us up at the Glenolden Swim Club, where I sat glued to the pool’s ledge, filled with the terror of a non-swimmer. And then there was the ill-fated, week-long Girl Scouts camping trip I took to Sunset Hill, when I was commanded by the leader to wear a wash cloth bobby pinned to the top of my head because I had neglected to pack a hat.
Despite those missteps, I grew to accept that dipping my toes in creeks and fishing for minnows at Glenolden Park were reasonably worthwhile pastimes. And I developed a great affection for the group of Briarcliff girls who took me in. We moseyed to the MacDade Mall, where we shared pizza at Italian Delight and bought David Bowie albums at Wee Three Records.
But my memories of Clarion Street never fell away completely. One of my first visits to the block as a grownup was on a date to The Victor Cafe, an eatery that borders Clarion Street, where the servers are budding opera singers. The date was with the Briarcliff man that I would one day marry. He walked patiently alongside me down Clarion Street, past my old house, which then featured dark red awnings and a polished front entrance. Just as I had done back on moving day in 1972, I paused and closed my eyes, and I felt a tenderness borne of nostalgia, and a melancholy borne of a spell forever gone. Impulsively, I decided to ring the doorbell of my old house. Perhaps the current owner would be sympathetic to my story, I thought, and I could take a peek inside, but no one answered the door.
A decade later, I revisited Clarion Street, this time with my young daughters in tow. I held their hands, as I told them about pushing doll coaches with Bridget down the sidewalk. I told them about Brenda and her penchant for mischief. I pointed out the house where Anthony played his drums.
The friends I left on Clarion Street had never been far from my thoughts as the ensuing years rolled from one to the next. About a year after my family’s move, Bridget became a boarding school student at the Charles E. Ellis School in Newtown Square, an institution for fatherless daughters. My mother dropped me off at the school to visit Bridget one brisk, Sunday afternoon. Bridget and I strolled through fallen leaves to a nearby McDonalds, where we caught up, and where we realized that our bond had not waned. Afterward, as I sat in Bridget’s dormitory room, I worried that she might be lonely, but the opposite was true. She revealed that she was comfortable at the boarding school, and that the other girls were nice. Living at the Charles E. Ellis School was a continuous sleepover party, Bridget disclosed.
Thereafter, despite spans of time when we unintentionally overlooked one another, and when the tides swept Bridget in one direction and me in another, our relationship endured. When Bridget was married in 1981, I was by her side, and when it was my turn in 1984, she was by mine.
Brenda’s family also moved away from Clarion Street. They bought a home in Springfield just four miles from my family’s. At the time, my father and Brenda’s father, Ray, developed a companionship. They were Delaware County transplants who, in spending time together, found a way to hold on to a bit of South Philadelphia. As a result, Brenda and I saw one another from time to time, and she spoke of Springfield contentedly. A decade later, I would coincidentally acquire work at the same Center City law firm where Brenda’s sister worked, which circumstance renewed our families’ link.
With an expanding Internet at our disposal, Bridget and I, then in our 40s, decided it was high time that we discovered what had become of Anthony. Utilizing social media, we discovered that Anthony was a professional drummer in a band called Splashing Violet, and in another known as The Flip-N-Mickeys. We wasted no time in messaging Anthony, and he wasted no time in agreeing to meet us.
On a balmy, early spring evening, Bridget, Anthony and I had our reunion at the Triangle Tavern in South Philadelphia. Open since 1933, the Triangle Tavern, with its Italian grandmother-style cuisine, had prevailed despite several bouts of new ownership and an assortment of renovations. I parked my car outside the Triangle Tavern, and I kept an eye out for Bridget, as it dawned on me that Bridget and I had chosen the ideal place to meet. After all, what was our relationship, if not something that had prevailed despite many years and many changes?
Anthony was inside when Bridget and I entered. His back was to the door, but when he heard us, he leapt from his seat. He hugged Bridget and me in a warmhearted way that belied our lost decades. Anthony, who had remained boyish in appearance, wore a black t-shirt and jeans indicative of his career, and his hair still rested past his shoulders,
Over pizza and beer, we kicked around memories of the 1960s and early 1970s. Anthony recounted the innumerable times we had been scolded by our elderly Clarion Street neighbors for misdeeds as small as dripping ice cream onto the pavement, or as big as bumping a parked car on our bikes. And we nodded in agreement over the incomparable thrill of the Whip Truck Ride that passed through our neighborhood in summertime.
Afterward, as I walked to my car, I thought about what I would say if I could speak to that girl who had sat, stricken, in the blue Rambler Ambassador in 1972. I would tell her that hurdles and teary nights spent over her diary lie ahead, but that in time her self-confidence would grow, and like the South Philadelphia knick-knacks her parents once deemed worthy or unworthy, she would discover what to hold on to and what to let go.
Present day Clarion Street thrives in the revitalized Passyunk Square district. My small row home, purchased by my parents in the late 1950s for $5,500, would sell today for over $300,000 at current market prices. The former mom-and-pop grocery stores are now trendy businesses, and The Victor Cafe is a Philadelphia tourist destination. Still, when I visit, I recognize the kids outside. They do not notice me as they play with their Barbie dolls and their Nerf Super Soakers. I sigh, and then I smile, and I know it’s time to go.
Nancy Farrell is a lifelong writer with a focus on autobiographical works. She spends most of her free time with family, including a darling rescue mutt. The library is her favorite place. She works as a legal assistant in Media, PA.