books & writingcreative writing

Back and Broke in Philly

No Gravatar

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.

Despite the fact that he didn’t have a job or much in the way of prospects, he still managed to get a girlfriend that summer—and who knows what that means about the lack of “eligible” middle-aged men, why we seek relationships, his oral acumen, or anything else. My mother was kind enough to get him a membership at the University City Swim Club, so my father would have a place to take in some sun while he tried to sell his house. I suppose that’s where he met Julie, a local college professor. He was a burnt-out techie, and she studied the history of technology, so in this way, they had something in common. It was funny to see them together because she was the tough-minded, socially liberal, self-described “lefty dyke Marxist,” who was critical of all things reactionary and Republican, and so my father played the “man” role, held the doors open, and expressed and exaggerated some of his more conservative views.

Not working didn’t warm him to other folks on welfare; in fact, even though he was receiving food stamps for the first time in his life, he was perfecting his Archie Bunker routine. That Dad and the country were skidding downhill together was a fact worth noting and blaming on women’s rights, civil rights, or some other kind of progress or change. Later when fortune’s wheel handed my father the late nineties boom economy and its Y2K-scare bonuses for experts in old computer languages, I’d see a happy father quite removed from this impoverished act from early in the decade.

His Archie Bunkerism of the early 1990s was also a defense mechanism to returning to West Philly, and being surrounded by poor blacks. During the summer, his car was stolen, and of course, he couldn’t afford any theft insurance at the time. This was his crème-colored ’83 Buick, which now looked more like a dirty whitish car with some rust spots. Luckily, the police found the car abandoned in Mantua, one of the poorest pockets of West Philly, and the country for that matter. The trunk lock had been broken, and my father’s camping equipment was stolen, but he was lucky to get the vehicle back. The car was one of the few things of value my father owned.

He also found walking past the young black guys out on his corner somewhat harrowing. They didn’t greet his smile with warmth; rather, they wore grim expressions or ignored him or maybe he even felt they were laughing at the fat old white guy sauntering past. This racial animosity seems far less common today, and of course, we can only describe what is felt, not what is intended or real. But in L.A., they keep the poor blacks separate, away from the coast, so sure, my father wasn’t used to the East Coast ethnic animosity after ten years of California cool. And as with Archie Bunker, the racial tension can seem all the greater if you’re down on the bottom rung, competing for the table-scrap employment thrown from the more well-to-do.

So Dad and Julie certainly weren’t a match made in heaven, although it was another example of how my father often gravitated toward women he would struggle with. He didn’t necessarily like or respect the ones that wouldn’t call him on his bullshit. Somehow, Julie was the perfect match for this period of his life, but by the end of the summer, their mutual antagonism wore each other down, the pool closed for the fall, and they went their separate ways. My father still didn’t have a job or a definite buyer, so he moved out of the summer sublet at 40th and Pine, and into his Pine Street house for the third and last stay in his primary residence in University City.

***

And then, out of options, he tried desperately to create a buyer in the middle of a recession, but houses weren’t selling for what they should; in fact, nothing much was selling at all. There were a couple shadier investors who were talking about my father doing owner-backed financing on an 85K sell price. That sounded all well and good save for the fact that the owner would need to have good credit to get that kind of deal approved. I believe my father’s first asking price for the house was fair market value of around 115,000 dollars. But as the weather turned, and all of my father’s leads dried up, and his cash—my cash—slowly dissipated, he was forced to sell it for 65 grand in a straight cash deal. The buyer was Alan Stern, a local real estate developer, and from his perspective, he probably thought he was doing my father a favor. Favor or no, this was close to a “short sale” before the phrase was plastered all over our country’s headlines and lawn signs. A lowball for a quick sale is what a man accepts when he has no other options.

Years later, I remember my father comparing himself to the “Alan Sterns of the world,” men who make the prudent financial moves throughout their lives, and wind up with a tidy nest egg to show for it at the end. If my father had held onto the property until his passing, even if he did little or no repair work, he probably would own a house worth roughly $300,000. Plus, even with the mortgage from the original sale, he could have profited on rent over the next decade. But my father was my father. He lived in the moment and was resistant to staying in Philly and working. He just wanted out of the deal. I think he felt like he had to sell it so he could pay off the cash loans to friends. He would have paid the credit card debts if he could have, but the loans he owed people in California, plus the money he owed me, were the debts that ate at his conscience.

That fall, when he was able to return the money to me after selling his house, I was  relieved. This was my first experience with supporting a parent financially, and although the loan was repaid within six months of the borrowing, this sort of financial entanglement with my father made me nervous. Occasionally, throughout the nineties, I would give cash or write a check as a present, but I’d never loan him a significant amount of money again. He just didn’t seem like a reliable credit risk.

After he received the cash from the sale of the property, my father was happy. He moved into a discounted studio apartment owned by the local Catholic Church, and he was on easy street until the dough ran out. So rather than do the practical thing and look for work, he did what he wanted to. He strolled downtown to center city AA meetings (not so dour as the West Philly ones), sang loudly and poorly in church choir, wrote his occasional poems and journals, breathed the fall air, and enjoyed his life.

He’d bounce into Borders Bookshop to come visit me after his walk from University City to his AA meeting. Both walking and AA gave him a real lift, and it showed in his expectant smile. A few bucks in his pocket, he was living in the moment, reading, writing and seeing his son almost everyday.

You’d never know how close he was to economic calamity, and it bothered me more than him. In fact, being in the same city as my financially devastated father was both harrowing and depressing for me. I was thinking of the inevitable future, when unless he found a job, his bank account would return to nil, and he wouldn’t own a property to bail himself out.

Borders was my first job after college, and I was earning $6.25 per hour, less than I had earned at my summer job during college. I had taken the job in July, and loved the chance to be around books and “read for free” as much as possible. I was already dreaming of writing my own stuff, but my cramped room in my mother’s apartment was just too claustrophobic for me to get much done. By the winter, I devised my plan, my escape from two-parent living. I decided to head back six hours north, back to my alma mater, and enroll in the Master’s in Liberal Studies Program. I’d take two courses. One was called Workshopping the Novel, and the other simulated an introductory law-school course. The latter was my alibi, something to tell the folks, but the writing course excited me.

When I broke the news to my father, I played up the practicality of taking the courses, and exploring my career interests. I don’t remember him being visibly upset with my decision to leave Philadelphia, but it did seem to affect his own plan. He’d come back to town with some idealized version of father and son catching up on all they missed during his decade in Southern California—all that couldn’t be covered by regular phone calls. But now, son was ditching. The stolen car incident had revitalized his negative views of West Philly, and when he looked outside he saw garbage strewn across the streets, and open displays of fresh and stale dog shit on the sidewalks. This was well before real estate began to soar in University City, and I’d feel priced out of my own neighborhood, so my father’s lasting impression was of West Philly in its most negative light. I think it reminded him of the seventies, and all the drugs he had done, and now he saw that period as wasted time. Because he was sober now, and he just didn’t feel comfortable in this neighborhood he associated with his 1970s—growing your own and contact highs and the occasional pot plant left in the window and forgotten about. The house was sold, the woman was gone, the son was headed back north, and so my father was ready for the next plan B.

“Summer, 1991: Broke and Back in Philly” is an excerpt from The Book of Jay, a memoir by Alex Kudera with journal selections from his father, the poet Jay Roberts. It’s a work in progress that will consist of intertwining memories of each writer’s father. “The Bicentennial with Grandpa Andy” is an earlier excerpt that was published here and at the Atticus Books blog where the above section first appeared in two parts. If you would like a complimentary copy of the collected poems of Jay Roberts, e-mail or message to arrange for delivery of such.

Alex Kudera's Fight For Your Long Day (Atticus Books) was drafted in a walk-in closet during a summer in Seoul, South Korea and consequently won the 2011 IPPY Gold Medal for Best Fiction from the Mid-Atlantic Region. It is an academic tragicomedy told from the perspective of an adjunct instructor, and reviews and interviews can be found online and in print in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Inside Higher Ed, Academe, and elsewhere. His second novel, Auggie's Revenge (Beating Windward Press), and a Classroom Edition of Fight for Your Long Day (Hard Ball Press) were published in 2016. Kudera's other publications include the e-singles Frade Killed Ellen (Dutch Kills Press), The Betrayal of Times of Peace and Prosperity (Gone Dog Press), and Turquoise Truck (Mendicant Bookworks). When he's not reading or writing, he frets, fails, walks, works, and helps raise a child.

Latest posts by Alex Kudera (Posts)

Print This Post Print This Post

Discussion Area - Leave a Comment