I moved to South Philadelphia in the brutal cold of winter, long before it gentrified. Not that geographically far from my previous apartment, but as the prices soaped on windshields decreased the further I walked down Broad Street, so too did the neighborhood change from transient high-rises, to two-story row homes, often occupied by the same families for generations. Those first couple of weeks, it was a frozen ghost town as I walked my dogs, Umlaut, the unimpressed, and Fester, the cuddle-addicted. Old folks would spy me from behind their curtains, hiding if I saw a disturbance in the windows. Occasionally a Cadillac would slowly trail me, and a gentleman with furry eyebrows would roll down his shaded window and inquire about my presence.
“Is it true?” I asked my neighbor, Stella. “The whole mob thing? Or is that just over-romanticized?”
“Don’t you worry,” she said, taking a long contemplative suck on her cigarette. “Nobody gets shot around here unless they’re supposed to.”
But with the prospects of spring, more people were greeting me now. I met Cindi, the lovely dancer from across the street, who, to my embarrassment, had to explain that she wasn’t in the arts. And I got to meet Judy, the manic woman from down the block whom for months I thought was bellowing in the night for her husband, but as it turns out “Larry” was her philandering Chihuahua.
People were now congregating on their stoops, often into the late hours. I learned to keep my legs moving as I said hello, lest I be detained for hours with no graceful reason to excuse myself. No questions were considered rude in this hood. The only breezes on a stagnant day were from the wagging of tongues. Certainly, my privacy was compromised, but I was learning to appreciate the benefits of being known. My neighbors had my back. I felt like I was finally fitting in. Or more importantly, that I wasn’t standing out. This occurred to me one evening, when I was waiting in line, holding a case of beer with a lottery form in my teeth, still wearing my bathrobe and pajama pants. This fazed exactly no one.
My neighbors next door, Franky and Lucinda, were the alpha-gregarious type, so their stoop was bustling on any given evening. With my stoop being adjacent to theirs, it wasn’t uncommon to open my door and find myself blockaded by the wide rumps of strangers occupying my steps. They were always friendly, inviting me to join them. If anything, it was getting to be rude of me not to, but the truth was I felt so awkwardly shy.
One night, there was a large crowd outside. Some were visiting from out of town. Feeling festive, I offered them wine, home-made beer or just normal beer, or even the old bottle of gin I had tucked away under the sink with the cleaning chemicals, but they declined, content sipping their coffees from the Dunkin Donuts around the corner. Lucinda pulled up a beach chair for me. I had a pleasant, tipsy buzz about me and was thoroughly enjoying their company.
But there were a few nagging observations. Boy, did they smoke a lot. And should they be drinking so much coffee this late at night? And normally, when one regales me with depraved lore, I marvel, and recall similar stories with which to reciprocate my humiliation. But these tales, excessive if not criminal, left me mute with defeat. I’ve just never had the inclination to drive into a tool shed or vomit on a police officer.
As I puzzled and toiled with the flow of conversation, one woman named Marie kept stink-eyeing me. I glanced down at the bottle of ale perched upon my knee, and realized, finally, long after most would, that I was in fact sitting in an informal alcoholics anonymous meeting. I cringed in my chair, hiding the bottle snugly between my legs, cursing myself and my neighbors for not telling me. My dogs watched me from the window, beseeching me to come back home, but there was I stuck, afraid to move. I sat there for hours, mortified, until the last jittering coffee fiend left. It was good to keep listening though, because underlying the fun and chitchat, was the hard won theme that a person does get to begin again. And that’s what I planned on doing, the next time I saw my neighbors.
Laura Jean Carney is a former short filmmaker and cartoonist. She has also worked as a global operations coordinator in the consulting industry. She is currently working on a collection of essays.