Banner photo of Larry Eugene Meredith, Ronald Tipton and Patrick Flynn, 2017.

The good times are memories
In the drinking of elder men...

-- Larry E.
Time II

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Old Haunts: Some Changed big and Some Not So Much

 My long time friend, Ronald (pictured left) called from the Land of Sussex last week and asked if I would chauffeur him to a suite on Philadelphia's Walnut Street (hired me actually). He was going to take a bit of a holiday for a week and needed shuttled up and later will require shuttling back. Yesterday was the shuttle up.

I decided to take the opportunity to show him where in the big city I had lived once upon a time, as well as one of the locations I had worked. I was driving so he had little choice but to go where I went.

I really wanted to take a couple photographs of these milestone of my past because I took none at the time they occurred.  There are many old haunts of mine left unrecorded by me. I didn't take so many pictures years ago because it was both a hassle and an expense. There were no digital cameras, no computers, no little memory cards and no multi-task phones. You had a box or reflex camera and perhaps an eight millimeter movie camera.

I had a number of cameras during my youth, beginning with a little Kodak Brownie as a boy.  You
put a spool of film within, being extremely cautious to avoid any direct light while doing so for fear such exposure would ruin the precious stuff. I mean, it cost a bit to buy a roll of film. You only got eight shots then, usually black and white. I believe color film was available, but too precious for my budget. Once you snapped the subjects of your choice, you again carefully unloaded the spool in a dark room and took it for developing. Several stores about might have such a service. My family always went to Hutchinson's Drugstore, to a little window in the rear where you dropped it off, and then we waited several days to go pick up the results with crossed fingers that none of the prints was blurred or blank or blackened.

Sometime in the early 1970s I finally managed to afford a Minolta 35 millimeter reflex lens camera.

This was certainly a leap forward in technology. It had a lot of settings and even had a timer allowing me to be in photos, too. Color film was more available and affordable and you got 35 prints on a roll, not just 8 or 12. You still had to buy the stuff and then pay to have it developed and wait to see if your hand was steady when you pushed the shutter. I took more pictures, but still not a lot and I remained very choosy about what it was I shot.

I did own in that time period a Kodak 8 millimeter movie camera, with three lens that you could spin
into place for different range filming. I never really took many movie, though. I also had a couple Polaroid Instant Cameras, which
eliminated going to some processing service and waiting for results, but these brought their own set of drawbacks.

At any rate, there were a number of places I lived and worked that I simply never bothered getting a photo of and later regretted not having one. Thus I thought I could rectify this a little bit on our drive into Philly.

Our first stop would be Welded Tube Co. of America, the largest maker of structural steel tubing in the United States during the period I worked there, which was from January 1973 until November 1978.  I began my Welded Tube career as an Assistant Bookkeeper.
Within three months I was promoted to Assistant Controller  and I had complete responsibility for the General Accounting. In 1976 I was promoted again and took on in addition to my accounting duties the position of Computer Systems Operation Manager.  (On the left is me at my accounting desk in 1974 and on the right [or at least most of me] in my office as Computer manager in 1978.)

I liked my jobs at Welded, but in 1978 times grew tough in the steel product industry and a decision was made to move all operations to Chicago. I was offered a fairly large raise to go along, but we didn't want to leave the Philadelphia Area, so I went to another employer.

So yesterday Ron and I want to visit the site on Weccacoe Avenue in South Philly, not far from the docks along the Delaware River or the sports stadiums complex off Packer Avenue.

Well, I found my way to the area easily enough, but driving out Oregon Avenue I could not spot Weccacoe.  I ended up on Columbus Avenue and thought I would look for the back entrance to the
street, but all to my wondering eyes would appear was a large shopping mall. This used to be kinda a run down industrial backside, with a few small shacks along the street selling sandwiches and hoagies to nearby workers on break. Now it was an Ikea and several other big stores surrounding a huge parking lot. My first inclination was they had torn down my old employer and buried it and Weccacoe under this retail smorgasbord. But after having a lunch of Swedish Meatballs at Ikea, I drove around the back of the buildings and lo and behold discovered the old place.

Weccacoe looked kind of shabby and my old
place of business was forlorn and weathered. I had worked in the offices, a modern-looking (back then) brick building. I thought it was a beautiful structure then, but now it looked an old woman who's face was worn and shorn of makeup. We couldn't get close due to a locked gate and a fenced yard, but I still got my  pictures.

And so a lot had changed here, different company, something missing inside the gates and a certain shabbiness to building and street that hadn't been there once upon the time. And where some shabbiness and desolation had been, was now a bright and active purveyor of goods and food and life.

We drove on from there and back a few years in time, back before I ever heard of Welded Tube when I was busying myself with being a writer. I and my wife had moved from the suburb of Drexel Hill to University City in West Philadelphia. My wife got a job in the Chemistry Department of the University of Pennsylvania and I tapped out articles and stories all day on an old Underwood Typewriter.

We had rented a studio apartment on the first floor of a place called The Commodore. We were to have two apartments in the place eventually, first
Number 106 and later a one-bedroom Number 112, which was at the rear of the floor. (On the left is Lois and on the right am I in Apartment 112 near the end of our residency there.)

This location proved much simpler to find. No shopping mall had replaced anything in the area off Baltimore Avenue between 41st and 42nd streets. Frankly, the whole area was little changed from what I remember from my Hippie days. O'Malley's, the little grocery on the corner of 41st and Baltimore, where I often picked up a morsel or two of food, was something else now. There was a little deli on the block of Chester Avenue that had not existed then. Otherwise it was like we just stepped back to that period. The old Number 13 Trolley, which I sometimes took to Center City, even rumbled by while we were there.

There had been two trolley lines I had my choice of, the Number 13 and the Number 11. I guess both still service this route; however, that bright white engine that passed by was certainly more inviting than those dingy, dull, dark rust red machines I rode on.  It was along the tracks of these lines, at the corner stops, that I would search for dropped change to buy myself some lunch. We didn't have much money in those days.

On the next block from where we had lived was Clark Park, a place I used in some of my short stories about the 'sixties, especially "Community Park" and "Singin' in the Streets". I had to get some photos here. Ronald took my little camera so I could be pictured with Charles Dickens and Little Nell.

The park was deserted, except by two men camped out on the side of the path near the statue. I assumed they were homeless given the amount of stuff they had piled about, but perhaps they were college students just taking a break. They didn't approach us or ask for anything, just sat and watched these two silly men snapping photos of themselves.

We then walked up the block of Chester Avenue between 42nd toward 41st, where Lois and I once
lived. Ron wasn't overly thrilled with this. The area made him nervous and he wanted to leave. "We're gonna get robbed," he said, but I wanted my photos. The area looked pretty much as it was when I lived there, even down to the litter along the buildings. The only change, and it was recent and of little consequence, was the name of the apartments. They were no longer called The Commodore. That name once etched in stone above the door was gone, chiseled away and now a new name was there, The Lexington. My, my, are we going upscale? It appeared only in name. When I told my wife about this change and that I guessed from the place's website they had renovated it, she asked, "Did they renovate the roaches as well."

To his credit, Ron saw our mission through and took me standing at the front doors as if about to enter as once I had entered. The doors were locked. The only change was a control panel and intercom next to the portal that would allow entry using a code. This did not exist in 1968. In fact, I don't think those outer door were even ever locked. We had a key to the inner doors. Between the doors were the apartment mailboxes. Beyond the second door was a small lobby, where a group of Black Panthers used to hold meetings.  One time this group helped me bring a refrigerator up the front steps.

I took a final shot through the glass of the doors
before, much to Ron's relief, we hustled away from there. The inside looked as I remember it. It has probably had several new coats of paint since then and much turnover in clientele. Our first apartment was behind the second door down the hall on the right. The hallway bends in an L and the couple who lived in the apartment at that bend had a drug problem. She would be out in the hall yelling at imaginary things sometimes. I saw into their place once and the floor was covered with mattresses.

Around the bend lived a prostitute with a young boy. She would put her son out into the hall when she had a customer. I would awaken at 2:00 in the morning to the sound of a Big Wheels clacking up and down the hall. Another prostitute lived directly above us. There was clacking there as well, for it seemed she never removed her high heeled shoes and had no rugs. I don't think she took those shoes off for anything. When you were in our bathroom you could hear everything that went on in her place. We had an X-rated bathroom.

Many of the tenants were college students living off-campus from Penn or Drexel. I don't know who rents there now that it is The Lexington. Perhaps there is no more clacking and no more screaming in the hall. Perhaps it is a quiet clientele of elderly ladies and gentlemen.

Doesn't matter, I got my picture.


Ron said...

Nice post Larry. I'm glad we could make the trip. I'm going back for a week in early May. You up for another visit to Old Haunts?

Ron said...

I believe it was two days later that Pat took me to see a house he was interested in buy-in the 2200 block of Kater Street. That was on the OTHER side of South Street, dangerous territory when I lived at 24th and Naudain (on the RIGHT side of South Street) in the 70's. Yes, I was nervous. Old time survival fears are hard to discard on command. I only survived living eleven years in Center City Philly by knowing what street I could walk and which ones to avoid. Even so, I was still mugged once between 22nd and Spruce Streets.
If you want to visit your old haunts again this spring when you chauffeur me up to my rented digs at 22nd and Walnut Streets feel free to do so.