Bunk Bed Theory

lea-elite-cross-lb-800Growing up, I wanted a bunk bed. It didn’t matter that my room was no bigger than a postage stamp (somehow this was true in all three of the houses I lived in as a child), or maybe it was because of the diminutive size of my room, but regardless, I wanted that damn bunk bed.

I knew exactly which one I would get if I was allowed to have it, the one in dark wood with the fringe hanging down from the top bunk. You know the fringe, like a tassel on a graduation cap, but covering the entire bottom half of the top bunk and gnarly as all get out. I wanted the fancy bottom bunk that wasn’t even a bed, just a desk, or a space for a beanbag, or even the seventh circle of hell. I wasn’t particular.

And I would sleep up top, after climbing the seemingly endless stairs to get up there, past the boogeyman (who hung out in my closet), and whatever else would somehow materialize in my way to stop me from getting as high as I could in this world. I would often stand on my bed (carefully, so as not to cause it to creak and alert my mom to the precarious position I was in) and gaze down at the world from that perch, imagining I was in my top bunk.

If I had that bunk bed I was going to play space invaders, with my He-Men and G.I. Joe figurines as stand ins for Kirk and Spock. I was going to drape my blanket over my entire body and pretend I was invisible. I was going to rig up a rope ladder over the edge and pretend I was descending Rapunzel’s hair after being her spectacularly heroic savior. I had so many plans, but they all lived right there in my head and went no further.

Because there was absolutely no chance I would ever get that bunk bed. Because bunk beds were expensive, and I was lucky enough to have a twin size bed that hadn’t completely fallen apart. Because we lived in West Philly, and then Southwest Philly, and the move from one to the other wasn’t quite a step up in class. Because my mother had so many other things to worry about besides helping me play space invaders from the dangerous confines of the space at the top of my room.

But it didn’t stop me from dreaming, from imagining how it would have been. It didn’t stop me from creating whole worlds that I alone lived in, that no one else was privy to, and that revolved completely around me. I loved those times, and sometimes, late at night, I reminisce about all the things that would have happened if I had gotten that bunk bed. But I also think about how boring the reality of that dream would have been had I eventually gotten it.

Sometimes the imagination of the thing is so much more satisfying than the thing itself.



300 Writing Prompts: #135

“Write about your first home: your childhood home or your first apartment or house of your own.”

5711 BroomallWow, nearly 40 years on this earth and still, when I think of home, my mind goes back to 5711 Broomall Street in South Philadelphia. It’s the place of probably my biggest progress because it’s where I learned how to find myself. Even though it was cramped, and my room was like a broom closet, it is where most of my integral memories were formed. When I think of 5711 Broomall Street I think of…

Spring baseball. I used to tape up a bullseye on my closet door at right around the area where I felt like the strike zone would be. Then I would put a length of masking tape on the floor back by my window, and I would stand behind it. I would take the ball from my over the door basketball set and play out entire games. If I hit the strike zone it was an out. If I missed the strike zone it was a hit for the opposing team. I would play as if I was both sides, and I would be exhausted by the end.

Latchkey fun. I busted my head one day when we got home from school, in that “between time” before my mother arrived. I knew the leg of the stool was hanging on by a thread, but I still tested it. I still bounced on it. While I was on the phone with my nana one afternoon it completely collapsed, I crashed to the floor, and I hit my head hard on the radiator. It was winter so the thing was damn hot. I still have a spot on my head where hair won’t grow.

Getting locked out. Once, when I was riding public transportation home from school, I walked the several blocks home before realizing I didn’t have my key. It was the dead of winter — snow was on the ground — and I huddled out on the front stoop waiting for someone to come rescue me. Eventually, frozen as a popsicle, I realized I would have to do something. So I somehow clumsily climbed on the roof above the porch and jimmied open the window to my mom’s bedroom. The radiator was my friend that day.

Making out. In high school I got my first job and my first girlfriend, not necessarily in that order. After school I would invite her back to the house even though I was supposed to be on my paper route, and we would make out for about an hour and a half each day, sometimes only stopping when we heard a car pull up outside. Sometimes I would even have to slip her out the back door. Yikes.

Making snow angels. It might have been the ghetto, and we might have been poor, but there are some things everyone did, one of which was snow angels. I recall times when the snow was still coming down thick and we would have a snow day from school. My sister and I would layer up, get on our boots, and drop down backward onto the carpet of snow, waving our arms out like we were butterflies. Mine never came out quite right, probably because I would always get up so quickly the snow would fill in part of my wings right away.

Tending the “garden.” The backyard was a lost cause, but my dad got it into his head that he was going to build a little garden back there one spring. We were pulled into service pulling massive amounts of weeds, mowing the overgrown yard, and raking the dirt when all the grass and weeds were gone. It was hot, sweaty work, and we hated every minute of it. It was not satisfying after the fact either, because the ground just wasn’t right for growing anything. The weeds eventually grew back.

Hiding beneath the stairs. I think of Harry Potter now, how in that first book he was stuck in the tiny space under the stairs, how much he hated it. It was the opposite for me. When we first moved into the house I remember racing through every room trying to find a small space to call my own, a place to hide. And there it was, waiting for me, and it looked just like that little room that Harry hated. I slid in there quiet as a mouse and made it my own. Eventually my mother decided to use it for various storage, but before that it was all mine. Shhhh.

Falling onto the couch. We called it “judu,” the art of standing on the arms of the couch and falling face first onto the couch cushions. It was such a rush, too, and I’m still not quite sure how we started doing it anyway. It was probably Joy’s idea, as most things back then were, and I followed along. The test was to hold our hands laced together behind our backs before we fell. If we unclasped our hands before we hit bottom we were disqualified and the other person won that round.

To this day I still think that “judu” was the ultimate rush. There were some really good times spent in and around that house, even though these days I spend more time thinking about the negatives than the positives. Time to fix that perception. This was a start.


Family Portrait

Thriftway-BOW-1When I was a kid family portraits meant getting dressed up in our Sabbath finery and heading down to the Thriftway where a company would apparently come in expressly to offer cheap portraits to families that couldn’t normally afford them, or just to people too cheap to get a real one commissioned. A harried woman would shuffle us into a line, usually a long one, of similarly dressed people who were probably also from the poorer section of West Philadelphia, and we would wait our turn.

As the line moved forward we would start fidgeting, because my sister and I were young and getting a picture taken wasn’t very exciting to begin with. Mom and Dad would hush us when we began getting rowdy and remind us that we were representing them when we were out in public. We would sigh, but so quietly they wouldn’t hear us, or they would pretend not to hear us, and stop moving around for a minute. Then when all had calmed down we would get into it again because it was still so boring.

Before too long, though, we would be called to go inside the makeshift studio, which was really just cleverly constructed sheets bisecting a larger room that always seemed to be a storeroom repurposed for the day, or for the week, depending on how long the photo folks would be in town taking our money in exchange for photographs we might or might not like.

I mean, back in those days we didn’t get to see how the photos turned out until they were finally printed, at least two weeks later, when we would come back to the Thriftway to pick up the envelope left for us at the service desk. My parents would hold their breath, obviously hoping that us kids had put on our brightest smiles so they could hang the picture up on our living room wall without feeling embarrassed. And inevitably we would have put on those good smiles because we knew what would happen if we didn’t.

As we got older the back of the Thriftway was replaced by the actual Sears portrait studio, and the other people in line were replaced by folks with actual appointments. The makeshift room was replaced by several photo rooms that were equipped with state-of-the-art cameras and lighting. But none of that changed my mood about it. Taking family portraits was just a waste of my time when I had other, more important, things to do. I would sit there in the chair waiting to say “Cheese!” with a frown on my face. But then the instruction came and a brilliant smile replaced the somber expression.

Two weeks later we would go back to Sears and the pictures would be immaculate. They made us look like a perfect little family, even though by that time Dad was out of the picture — no pun intended. We were immaculately dressed with brilliant smiles on our faces. No one seeing them would guess that it had been such a trying session, but we would always know. In fact, when I look back at those photos that’s what I see in my mind’s eye, not the smartly dressed happy family. I see the chaos that was barely visible underneath the smiles, but I also see the way we eventually dealt with all of that chaos, and it makes everything worth it.

It makes me grateful that we were forced into those studios across the years, because regardless of anything else those memories are important, now more than ever. As I’ve gotten older and I now have a family of my own I know now how precious having physical memories can be because we grow, we change, and things never stay the same, but the pictures remain, a reminder of that time and place.


Just Like Randall

randall-cunninghamWhen I was a kid I wanted to be Randall Cunningham. Now, if you didn’t grow up in Philadelphia, or you aren’t a big time fan of professional football since the 1980s, then you probably have absolutely no clue who Randall Cunningham is, who he was, and why I wanted to be him so much. To a young kid growing up in Southwest Philly, he was the definition of a man, even though we never met and I had no idea what his private life was like. But I felt like I knew him.

Every Sunday afternoon in the fall and early winter I would see him on television. I would sit riveted, waiting to see what he would do next, holding my breath, waiting to let it out in a whoosh when he would tuck that ball under his arm and take off for the end zone.

He was fluid, like a dancer except his leotard was padded and he wore a helmet instead of ribbons in his hair. A tall man with unabashed grace, who played a high contact sport but who seemed to avoid it more often than not, Randall Cunningham was the quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles. He was master of the field, but even more than that. When I watched Randall play, it was like watching a maestro conducting an orchestra.

It was beautiful.

My uncle brought me to an Eagles game once. I remember it well because it was like my birthday and Christmas wrapped up into one. It was at Veterans’ Stadium, that old edifice in South Philly where the Eagles and the Phillies played back then, and the atmosphere was electric. People were outside tailgating, wearing Cunningham replica jerseys as they used their car radiators and engines to cook their food. I saw them and realized we were all the same.

Then we were inside the Vet. Our seats were at the 50-yard line, about 30 rows behind the Eagles’ player bench. I craned my neck to see Randall standing in front of that bench for the National Anthem, his hand pressed firmly on top of his heart, in the exact same pose as me, and I smiled. Because it wasn’t just about him. It wasn’t just because I idolized the man. It was because he represented so much more to me.

To me, Randall Cunningham was freedom, the sense that there was more to life, more potential in existence than just living in the ghetto and “getting by.” There was possibility, like the long strides his legs took when he decided to run out of the pocket to pick up the first down. There was excitement in growing up and moving on, in realizing that the sky was the limit and I could do anything I wanted. Even if what I wanted wasn’t quite what was intended for me by others.

Randall Cunningham was so much more than just a figurehead, though. He too was still evolving at the time. And that game was a real sign of the constant shifting because he too was getting older. I could see it plain as day in the third quarter as I watched him bypass a chance to run in favor of throwing a short pass to Chris Carter. It caught the defense off guard because he had been running in those situations all game to that point. I saw him smile as they moved the chains. I smiled too.

Just like Randall.



Bruthaman selling his wares.

I was lucky, I thought, having procured a videotape copy of Jurassic Park while it was still in the theaters, guaranteeing me the pleasure of watching the biggest movie in America in the privacy of my own home. It didn’t matter that the case was a little blurry, and when I opened it the videotape inside looked suspiciously like the tapes I myself would record on at home, the label on it also blurry. And I got it for only 10 bucks, so it was a steal. You’re probably wondering where I got it from, Sam Goody? Or maybe Circuit City? Nah, I got it from a very reputable gentleman we in the neighborhood liked to call “Bruthaman.”

Not to be confused with Batman, Bruthaman was the epitome of a discount store, without the privacy of four walls to close him in. He plied his wares from the convenience of a cart or a table, and sometimes both. His car would usually be parked right next to his table or cart, making it easy for him to set up and break down (if sometimes he had to do it in a hurry). And Bruthman had EVERYTHING, from scarves, hats and gloves in winter, to watches in spring, to swimming trunks in summer, to music tapes and videotapes year ’round. Bruthman was even known to sell fancy Swatch watches, bracelets, fur hats, and electronic equipment on occasion too.

The best part was that you could often get whatever you wanted from him for no more than 20 bucks an item, even the ladies’ handbags that were in season, down to the latest Disney movies (that were also still in theaters). One year I stocked up on Christmas gifts for my whole family for less than 50 bucks altogether. Bruthaman’s cart was almost like a magical place, a DisneyLand of its own. I would see it from a block away, using my lovely sunglasses purchased from him for 5 bucks the week before, and I would smile.

Real or fake?

But things weren’t always rosy when it came to our resident super hero, as I found out the day I bought the cheap copy of Jurassic Park for myself. You see, I had always bought videos and tapes for others, but never for myself, and I guess no one felt comfortable enough explaining a few things to me. Notably, that Bruthaman’s “amazing deals” were all rip-offs because he had guys going into movie theaters with hand-held cameras recording movies. In no way were his films “legit,” and they looked absolutely horrible when you tried to view them at home, shaky as all get out. I was dumbfounded. I felt like I had been punched in the gut by a baboon, taken for a ride.

Bruthaman wasn’t a godsend after all. He wasn’t a convenience store that kept giving and never took back. He was nothing more than a scoundrel preying on the poorness of the people in the community and our need to have stuff we could never afford. He made it affordable by stealing stuff and then reselling it to us at “discount.” He made us happy by copying legitimate audiotapes onto blanks and selling multiple copies of the copies to fools who didn’t know any better. Bruthaman was a fraud, and it was almost as bad as finding out that Santa Claus was just some made up bauble to entertain kids and give meaning to a holiday that already should have had so much.

And I saw his cart after that. I often still passed by his table, set up next to his car outside of a Thriftway, or a Pathmark, or a Checkers, and I skirted it, saddened by the death of hope, the idea that something could truly come cheaply but not be cheap, that everyone was inherently good inside and didn’t take advantage of others. I would see people stopped at his table, checking out the latest movies and tapes, and I would just shake my head, walking on. They would have to discover for themselves, I figured. But as for me and my house, we would shop elsewhere.

Oh, and Jurassic Park. That tape ended up in the trash where it belonged.


Breaking Down Walls

“Sometimes you put up walls, not to keep people out, but to see who cares enough to break them down.”

We all put up walls, whether or not we realize it. Perhaps it’s in a new situation where we know we’re going to be judged by others, or maybe it’s because we don’t want to be seen as vulnerable. Other times we put up those walls to protect ourselves from the harsh nature of the world, or because we’re just afraid. Fear is the biggest reason we put up walls: fear of the unknown, fear of rejection, fear of change, and ultimately even fear of ourselves. We think that if other people saw us for who we really are, not only would it expose us to them, but if they reject us, they’re rejecting US, not just some facade we put up that we felt would be acceptable.

From the time I was very little I learned how to put up walls. First, it had to do with my family and the fact that everyone judged us from the moment we woke up to the moment we went to bed, and maybe even into the night, but I didn’t know about it because I was sleeping. The reasons were many. Continue reading “Breaking Down Walls”

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