We met often in Jim's basement somewhere on the 1500 block of South Carlisle Street (pictured left). There was an old piano off in a corner, varied chairs and a beat up old sofa, some battered tables here and there, the main one holding the Screwdriver pitcher. It was dimly lit and filled with smoke, for we all smoked. I sometimes puffed on a pipe, like my father before me, but more often I lit up an extra-long, brown-paper wrapped Nat Sherman. This must have been before I quit my job and had money because you had to order Sherman cigarette and they weren't cheap then or now. I actually gave up smoking while still at ARCo. This is where most of us in our group had met originally.
This "we" were kindred in circumstance and desire. Most of us worked at ARCo during the day and attended college at night, and all had aspirations to the arts, with the possible exception of Joe, who was my closest friend at the time who went where I went and Lois, my wife. Girard, Diane, Jim, Dot and I were writers. Maureen and Michael were actors. Jane was an artist. Dot and I were also poets and Jim was also a composer, which is why that statement came that late evening.
The people of the park would float about us in the fog of their own breath, the colors of their varied costumes, for what were the outfits of that time but costumes, all turned to ash in the garish light of the lamps. People like us, I suppose, escaping that plastic world either by their artistic dreams or by the chemicals they ingested. They waltzed in the early hours, dancing almost, happy in their delusion of freedom, chatting, chanting or chattering into the wee hours, and we stayed until those wee hours, until the life drained away from many faces and the motions slowed and when faces came close you saw either the dilation or the desperation in their eyes. In the last moments the Gay men would drift through like a little steady stream, not in bunches usually, but somewhat detached from each other, strung out like a ribbon. They didn't linger, they just passed through our midst and went wherever they went as they came from wherever they came. It was by then the hour the bars closed. And then at last we too drifted off in our own directions.
Lois and I lived to the west, across the Schuylkill River and on clear nights we walked home. It seemed safe once upon a time in Philadelphia to do that. We would walk many places in the evenings without much apprehension for there were always crowds about then. I''ve walked in many city at late night and felt that way because things were alive and people were out, New York and New Orleans' French Quarter. I fear the streets in dead cities. Atlantic made me nervous. It was like an episode from The Twilight Zone where all the people disappered. Even on a Sunday afternoon the streets were eerie for their emptiness.
We would walk or ride the trolleys or the El to the coffeehouse theaters. Our favorite was The Trauma,
I read recently a piece saying The Trauma closed because it couldn't compete with the Electric Factory, which had opened "several blocks north". In actuality, the Electric Factory opened at 22nd and Arch in an abandoned tire warehouse only about a half block down the street from The Trauma. As far as what put The Trauma out of business this is the story as I learned it at the time.
Not long after The Truama closed a barroom opened on the site, thus bring a better clientele to the neighborhood. Although The Electric Factory still exists, it too shut down at that location in 1973, the year Rizzo became Mayor of Philadelphia. It was resurrected in 1995 several blocks north of the Arch Street location on 7th Street near Spring Garden in a former electric company (how appropriate).
We also traveled out to Manayunk to a theater called Kaleidoscope, a place with a Psychedelic facade and theater seating. Acts such as Earth Opera played there. My most vivid memory of being at Kaleidoscope was it having co-ed rest rooms. Remains of the Kaleidoscope remain inside a warehouse (pictured right).
It was in the square and on these streets that I collected my stories, sometimes autobiographical and sometimes about my friends and sometimes about these strangers who touched me now and again. I'll speak to the roots of some of those stories in my next post.