Archive for category Growing up

Inspired by Ferguson but completely inadequate

After my parents divorced my dad bought a row house on Farragut Street in West Philadelphia. He took advantage of a discount housing deal offered by UPENN to populate surrounding neighborhoods (that were run down and high in crime) with university employees. He told my sister and I over the phone about how he was painting and fixing the place up and getting a room ready for us.

Later, when we visited my dad, we made a lot of new friends. My dad was a friendly guy who liked to have a good time. He made friends easily. In fact, he met his best friends for life, Tony and Paulette, in that neighborhood—they lived a few doors away. The neighborhood kids would often come over to play with us when we visited. We played with our toys, or we would jump rope, run races in the street, or play hide-and-seek-tag up and down the back alleys. We were never invited to their houses, and this bothered me. I understand the reasons better today. The abandoned building at the end of the block was off limits. A child’s body had been found there, said my dad, a story that terrified us into steering clear.

When we drove into the city each Friday night, we would drive right past the MOVE row houses. MOVE was a radical community of people who lived without electricity and heat. The children did not go to school and the adults did not pay taxes on their properties. When we drove down their block I would see MOVE members with their thick dreadlocks outside on their porches or talking together on the sidewalks. I started to recognize certain people and wondered about their lives and what they spent their days doing. My dad told us that the group had been given orders to leave their properties but that they were defying the city. Several years later (in 1985) when the MOVE house was bombed the faces of those people came back to me.

Also at about that time (late 70s-early 80s) there was a large community of Vietnamese people living in the neighborhood. My dad called them “the boat people.” He told us that their country had been ravaged by war and they were coming here, to Philadelphia, to this very neighborhood in West Philly, to look for a better life. My dad made me understand their hopes for a better life but also their poverty and struggle. I imagined making my way in an unknown place, an unforgiving concrete city, without even knowing the language.

It was these experiences that first taught me about my own privilege—how lucky I was to live most of my life in a big suburban home with a back yard and my own bedroom and a good school. How lucky I was to have parents who were educated and who traveled with me, to expose me to other parts of the world. How lucky I was to have food on the table and clothes that fit and to know the language of my country. That neighborhood made me understand class difference at a young age, and got me thinking about racial injustices as a result of the privileges we are born to.

When we first saw my father’s row house, many of the neighborhood children came over to meet my sister and me for the first time. And, I swear this is true, they stroked and touched our hair, saying they had never touched blonde hair before. All these years later, that specific experience sticks with me. How can we understand one another if we are still so segregated in so many ways? How can we trust each other if we have no exposure, no proximity, no concept of the struggles of others? How can we broaden our own horizons and our own limited scope of perception?

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Growing up

In the 1970s, shortly after my dad was tenured in the School of Engineering at UPENN, my parents divorced. My dad was working hard in those days and often when he took us for weekend visits we had to stop in at “the lab” to check on his grad students and their experiments.

His office and the student labs were housed in a rad 70s looking building at 32nd and Walnut in West Philadelphia. The building has not changed since then, at least not on the outside—it still has its dark sheet glass windows and boxy exterior. Inside it smelled like chalk and cleanser and chemicals. We would take the tiny elevator with is clanking orange doors to the third floor.

I remember especially the particle accelerator that he and his students had built— he allowed my sister and I to look through a glass lens at an atom shooting forward and splitting; it looked like nothing much to me at the time. I was more impressed by the immense equipment and the big lead screen that was supposed to protect us from radiation exposure, but that my dad darted back and forth in front of without a seeming care.

The desk in his corner office always had a pack of Juicy Fruit gum in the top drawer. The packs were larger back then but my sister and I would make short work of them. The smell of Juicy Fruit still reminds me of him. My sister and I would draw on the chalk board in his office while my dad consulted with his students.

As a treat for being well-behaved at the end of these visits my dad would appear with a large canister of liquid nitrogen. We were ready. We always prepared for this in advance by picking bunches of ivy leaves from the beds around the building. We took the ivy by its stem and dipped it into the canister, careful not to get too near to the billowing cloud of liquid cold. Then we would pull out the frozen leaf and throw it on floor of the tiled hallway, and watch it shatter. Sometimes we would stomp the pieces and watch them shatter more. After we ran out of ivy leaves my dad would have us stand back while he threw whatever liquid remained in the canister down along the hallway floor. The liquid nitrogen would adhere to the particles of dust and we would chase along behind them as they skittered away. Is it any wonder that I saw my dad as some kind of wizard? He once burned a wart off of my sister’s hand with that stuff- this just raised my estimation of him further.

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