Things began to change in the 'sixties, both in society and in my life. Our married life began as an idealistic stereotype out of a 'fifties sitcom, some laughs, a few tears and mostly tranquility.
I was 2o, she was 19. We bought a house halfway between our families, a four-bedroom Cape Cod sitting on the crest of a hill.
We had a new 1960 Studebaker Lark.
We had money to eat out at a "good" restaurant if we wanted, take a vacation trip each year and pay all our bills on time.
It wasn't because we were well-to-do. Neither of us had come from more than blue-collar lower middle class homes. Our families hadn't given us money to start married life on, beyond her dad paying for the wedding and mine giving us some living room furniture. No telegram had come announcing an unknown rich uncle had died and left us his fortune. I had a high school diploma and a certificate from a TAB Operator School that qualified me for a job I was never to actually have. She had a high school diploma and an Associate Degree in Secretarial Skills from Peirce College (now University). She was a former teenage model, I was a former jack-of-all-unskilled-labor-writer-wannabe.
But we both worked at Atlantic Refining Company in Philadelphia at above average pay for the times. I was making $64 dollars a week when we married and she made $68. That's right, she made more than me. She had started at Atlantic right out of High School. It had taken me half a year to get there. Even though she had to start as a Grade 2, one level below where I began, she was now one Grade above me. As two single "minors" living with our parents, we had saved enough to have the $3,000 needed for the 20% down payment and settlement costs on that $11,000 house. (Can hardly buy a low-end new car for that these days.) We bought a green one.
Together we made $572 a month before taxes, which were relatively low in those times. Our mortgage, including interest and insurance was $98 a month. The car payment was around $55 a month, but for only 24 months. Our utilities bills came to $20 a month. A meal for two at a fine restaurant, including cocktails, was $12. Our monthly round trip train fares to Philadelphia were around $30 each. We had no credit cards, other than my Atlantic Gas Card, and no other loans beyond house and car. You do the math. Yeah, you pay those major expenses and you're left with just over $200 a month for groceries, gas for the car (at 24 cents a gallon) and entertainment. The majority of that money left could be used for entertainment if we wished. That is why we could take vacations. Our Honeymoon had been a ten-day trip through New England, Canada and New York State. We started on the trip with $500 in my wallet and came home with around $150, and we had stayed in nice motels, eaten at the better restaurants and visited a lot of tourist attractions.
Don't think we ignored savings. When I got married I had told a friend my plans and they included having $10,000 in the bank by the time I was thirty. That was considered a lot of money then. Atlantic had something called the Credit Plan and I joined it the day I was hired. They automatically deducted a percentage of your pay and invested it in the Credit Plan and they put in fifty cents for every dollar you did. You had a choice of how it was invested, either at a set interest rate or in the purchase of Atlantic Stock. I choose the stock, probably one of the smartest ignorant choices I ever made in my life. When Atlantic merged with Richfield and became ARCo, the stock took off and doubled and doubled and doubled again. By age 27 I had $15,000 worth of stock.
But we didn't have the house anymore and at age 30 I didn't have $15,000 in stock anymore nor did I have $10,000 in the bank. I had zip, zero, nana. And a lot of bad experiences in my memory bank.
What happens when 52% of your income suddenly is gone, but your expenses haven't materially decreased? Something has to give, that's what.
My wife lost her job. My wife got pregnant. My wife had a still birth -- at home -- alone. (I've told this story in earlier posts, check out Best Days in the labels. Best Days: Oasis in the Valley of Death) We put the house up for sale. We had black friends. My wife's best friends were an inner-racial couple. Our friends visited. We got threats. Someone was going to break all our windows, do other things, worse things. The real estate market was in a slump. We finally sold the house at a lost. We moved in with her father. We bought an iguana. (Read "Ian") She took a job at a nearby hospital. She got pregnant. She fell on the sidewalk of the local political party ward healer who hadn't shoveled as the township ordinance dictated. I complained to the township authorities. The ward healer called me a liar. I complained even more when my parents visited and almost had an accident because of a missing stop sign that had never been replaced. The ward healer threatened to punch me in the nose. My wife's family started getting threatening calls if I didn't shut up. They begged me to, so I shut up. The threats were that serious and would have happened. My wife lost the baby. We bought a VW Beetle. Her father was spying on us and searching our room when we weren't there. We bought a hamster to keep the iguana company. She had an affair with an orderly at the hospital. We separated. I moved back with my parents. I dated a couple other women. I went on a ski trip with one. I quit my job at ARCo and lived off the stock sale. I wrote a novel. I took a dollar an hour job with a chewing gum company working 20 hours a week. I slung wads. I welded bubblegum. I came home covered in powered sugar. I wanted my wife back. We made a kind of peace. The guy she had the affair with began stalking her. I quit the gum factory. We tried to seek religion, but felt unwelcome at mainstream churches. We tried to join the Catholic Church but the night we were to meet with the Priest he stood us up and we said forget it. We tried non-mainstream churches, but all they wanted to do was protest the war. We tried the Ethical Society and found it silly. I got into Satanism, then Buddhism and finally Atheism. She had a fight with her father.
Our new home was an old apartment building in West Philadelphia, in what they called University City. It was eclectic to say the least. Tight behind it was a dorm for the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy. They partied a lot. We would look out our window into the wall of the dormitory. In our building were some students from the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel living off campus, but it wasn't exclusively students. There was a prostitute plying her trade in the apartment above us, drug-addled hippies in a crash pad down the hall, a couple with a Saint Bernard and Black Panthers meeting in the lobby.
My wife got a job as a Secretary at the University of Pennsylvania, and I spent my time writing or studying. [And the politicians tried to take my voting rights away.] By this time I had somewhat established myself as a writer, although I wasn't making a life-supporting wage doing it. I had also discovered a few years earlier there were alternative ways to go to college and I was enrolled as a Sociology Major at Temple University, going to classes in the evening two or three times a week.
I didn't stay unemployed for long. Between paying for college, that VW, the rent and going to those coffee houses it didn't take long to see an end to that Atlantic Stock money. I went to work for a publisher, managing a circulation department and writing book reviews for one of their magazines ( Review: John Neufeld's "Edgar Allan" ).
And in all this, I expanded my love of Philly. I walked a lot to where I went. I walked to jobs I held, walked to writing assignments, often walked north to my college classes and just walked around to walk around. I had jobs during those years in West Philly, Center City, South Philly and North Philly. I rode the subways and the elevated, the buses and the trollies. And of course I began exploring a lot of the sleazier activities that cities offer and was slipping further away from the fingers of a God I denied existed.
And my wife lost another baby.
But many of these things are for other posts at other times. This series was supposed to be about a love affair with Philadelphia, not about how I began racing down the stairway to Hell while there. So next time some final brighter views of my favorite city.
To read semi-autobiographical/semi-fictionalized accounts of some of the things mentioned in this post go to: Six Stories of the Sixties