Summer, 1991: Broke and Back in Philly (Part 1)

Back in Philadelphia was when I first saw my father as weak, as dependent, and as a guy who didn’t like working. Despite his lack of funds he seemed insistent on this last point—he would avoid work entirely unless he found what he considered to be his proper position. This was when I first saw that he’d possibly risk getting booted onto the street rather than take any job. In 1991 we were in the heart of the first Bush’s recession, and it didn’t seem like there were many of those idealized white-collar management positions around. My father was overweight, unemployed, under massive debt, and for the first time in my life, I saw him as old. He hadn’t had a full-time job since 1987, and I could see he wasn’t looking forward to searching for it. He knew the companies didn’t want him anymore, at least not for any kind of lucrative position. There was no more big man bouncing into the office with his Harvard tie and tales of growing up dirt poor in Jersey City; there were no jokes about a neighborhood full of families so impoverished that they couldn’t afford vowels for their last names. No, now, he was just another old guy priced out of a tight job market. The wonder story for poor kids was a closed chapter.

So when he came back to Philly, he was broke and anchored in credit-card debt. The happy Dad from my graduation soon turned into the father who needed a loan from his son. Somehow despite spending most of my savings on college, I had a couple thousand to lend him over the summer, just to get by until he sold his house. If I’m not mistaken, it was most of what I had left in the bank, and I was terrified to lend it to him even though I knew the sale was coming. That was his last chance, the home he hadn’t lived in for a decade that might still bail him out, delay the inevitable, or cushion the fall. My Dad’s plan was that he’d sell the house, pay off as much debt as he could—to his friends before the corporations—and then live off the remaining funds. That the plan was only temporary, and that the leftover money wouldn’t last more than a year or two, didn’t seem to bother him. This was my father living in the present, appropriating the AA mantra to elide his financial responsibility—one day at a time.

Of course, he did have one option—he could have stayed in Philly, settled for a job beneath him, and used that money to pay the low mortgage and live in the house again. But ten years in California had spoiled my father, and after only a couple months in Philly, he realized right away that he didn’t want to stay there.

University City has always had its nice people and nice blocks, and some of us describe it as a multicultural oasis in a city of income inequalities and racial divisions, but from my father’s returning perspective, West Philly was the bottom compared to Marina Del Rey. It was hot and humid, and black and poor. Dog shit and trash on the sidewalk pavement’s broken cement was common back then, and summer was nasty, brutish and long.

Unlike the movie-industry AA my father had sobered up in nine years earlier, the AA clubs in Philadelphia were full of downtrodden blue-collar or no-collar men—sad stories from the mean streets of West Philly and such. It was depressing. As he would tell me that summer, “I never would have gotten sober if I had first joined AA in Philadelphia.” And although my father had been a Philadelphian for nearly fifteen years previously, by 1991, he felt alien to this city and its habits, chief of which was hostility toward all those appearing as outsiders. In 1991, he felt like a man who didn’t belong.

But he had to stay in town until he could sell the house and arrange his next situation, so my father wound up in a tiny sublet apartment at 40th and Pine, where he squeezed all of his boxes into a few small rooms, and set up shop in the first floor rear. His realtor, an old family friend, and the same one trying to sell his house, let him have the place for $300 per month. Unlike California, West Philly still offered a few bargains. And my father, perhaps from being flat broke in the late seventies or maybe due to childhood poverty, knew how to get by on a shoe-string budget.

I’d visit my oversized Pa in this undersized apartment, and see an obese man who looked tired and old in his tank-top tee and sweat pants. I’d ask about his work prospects. He’d ignore the topic or worse, deflect it to my own job prospects. Despite his unwillingness to confront his own financial situation, and take a shit job, my father wanted to get me excited about chasing the same soul-draining corporate buck he was running away from.

But at the time, I didn’t want to work. I was burnt out from undergrad, and I wanted to write. Yeah, I know, and I hated the idea of looking someone in the eye, particularly my father’s eyes, and saying with a straight face, “I want to be a writer.” So there we were, two unemployed guys with the same romantic ambition—to become writers! Father and son the same. What a cliché.

So I know my Dad was disappointed in me, in my lack of enthusiasm for the “recent college grad needed for entry-level position” type ad you see all over the newspaper help wanteds.  But there he was, a living fatherly example of avoiding work as often as possible, and he had the nerve to push it on me. I’m not sure if he was entertaining ideas of living off my salary permanently—if I was ever lucky enough to earn one—but because I had already loaned him the two grand, it felt like this was an option he was considering. And that was scary. I was 22, a college grad, free of obligation for the first time in my life, at least for a few months until the student loans started up, and my Dad’s overwhelming presence was back in my life, and seemingly fixated on a permanent handout.







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