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Tell Them I’m Not Home – out now!

Tell Them I'm Not Home

‘Tell Them I’m Not Home’ is a lightly fictionalized memoir of growing up in the Olney section of North Philadelphia in the decade following World War II, a place not unlike Jean Shepherd’s Hammond, Indiana of a decade earlier. The close-quarters life in a blue-collar neighborhood of row-house streets provided the author with a cast of characters, many funny, some scary, as well as a near-endless litany of stories. ‘Tell Them I’m Not Home’ is a ticket back to the Olney & Philadelphia of the late 1940s and early 1950s, a place as singular, colorful and as lost to today as Hapsburg Vienna or tenement New York.

Contact:
olney.memoir@gmail.com

More Info:
www.petebyrne.com

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Sample Chapters:

“The Glory That Was Rome
In neighborhoods like Olney, people sorted themselves out along a variety of fault lines. Phillies fans versus those who allied themselves with Connie Mack’s pitiful Athletics, those with Lionel Electric trains against those with American Flyers, the cheaper Father and Son shoes against the pricier Flagg Brothers, Luckies or Camels, and on and on and on. But the defining separation among the people who populated the neighborhood of my childhood was the religious split between Catholics and the Protestants. Among Catholics like us, the prevailing interpretation of Protestantism encompassed anyone who wasn’t a Catholic.  (Click here to continue…)

 

 “Happy Birthday Patsy Mullins”
I was coming down 5th Street when I met Eddie Matthews who was coming the other way. In the course of the kind of conversations that twelve-year-olds, newly minted twelve-year-olds, carry on, Eddie asked if I were going to Patsy Mullins’ birthday party. The question kind of bounced off me. Like what birthday party, and why would Patsy Mullins invite me to her birthday party? In the sexually segregated Irish, Latin, Roman Catholic world of late 1940’s Philadelphia where this conversation was taking place, I was very much aware of young Ms. Mullins. But although we were in the same grade in the same parish school, we had never exchanged more than a “Hi” when passing on the street. Seventh grade boys were on one floor of the school building and girls on the other. In all the years I had spent in the Incarnation of Our Lord parish school, I couldn’t remember any interaction between them and us. The seventh-grade girls could have been Albanians or Martians. (Click here to continue…)

“Kenny Bergman”
On Christmas Day, 1950, Kenny Bergman and I sat on his living room sofa smoking cigarettes. I was thirteen. Kenny’s mother was visible, working away in the kitchen. The house smelled of roasting turkey and the radio was on, Bing Crosby singing carols. On the other side of the room under the Christmas tree a set of American Flyer electric trains moved slowly around a platform filled with little houses, cars and mountain-paper tunnels. Each time the train emerged from the nearest tunnel, Kenny or I would raise his Daisy Targeteer BB pistol and aim for one of the glass Christmas tree ornaments he’d placed in a gondola or on a flat car. Several times, a smiling Mrs. Bergman walked through the living room. She never said a word. I thought I was in heaven. (Click here to continue…)

“Tell Them I’m Not Home”
I got in from school around three-thirty. At a quarter to four, the phone in the living room rings. “Oh shit,” I thought. As my mother moved to pick up the receiver, I shouted down from the landing, “tell them I’m not home, Mom. Tell them I’m not home.” I knew who was on the phone. It was Rudy Bederman, the assistant manager at the A & P on 5th Street, and I knew what he wanted. It was Thursday. I wasn’t scheduled to work until the next day, Friday. Somebody hadn’t shown up and they wanted me to fill in. I had nothing on my afternoon agenda other than walking over to Fairhill Street to hang out with the crowd at Geever’s candy store. My mother was not to be trusted in these matters. To impart a sense of urgency, I kept up my chant. “Mom! Mom! Tell them I’m not home.”  Unfortunately, in the seconds that my mother hesitated with the receiver in her hand, Rudy Bederman heard me shouting that I wasn’t home. (Click here to continue…)

 

“Do You Believe In Magic?”
In September 1954, my senior year of high school had just begun, just barely. I had flunked summer school, my third summer school in as many years. According to the rules that meant I wouldn’t be going back to my high school. I would have to go to a public school and repeat junior year. (Click here to continue…)

all content copyright Pete Byrne 2011

Just Running In The Rain

The forecast of extreme heat and high humidity led my long-time jogging partner to beg off on our planned four-miler. External conditions like the weather have rarely been the determinant of my going out to jog. In my thirty-three years of self-imposed aerobic torture, the heat has stopped me just twice, and once when morning temperatures dipped below zero, I did demur.

What has always given me pause with jogging is how difficult I find it to be. From the beginning back in 1977, it has been more often that not, an excruciating discipline for me to maintain. I have kept hoping it would get easier. It never has. Yesterday morning things were particularly bad.

To beat the forecasted ninety-plus temperatures, I did get out early. At the path around an office park lake where I go when I run without a partner, a few people, mostly geezers like me, were walking their three-quarter-mile laps. After some perfunctory stretching; I’ll do anything to delay the onset of the anticipated discomforts to come, I willed myself to begin running. It was awful. My body went into immediate rebellion. My joints, my leg muscles, my very being began signaling that I should not be doing this. How can persisting in anything that feels this bad possibly be good for me?

I promised myself that if I could complete this one lap, eight or so long minutes of red zone discomfort, I would reward myself by stopping and walking the second lap. As I approached that longed-for point, I found myself wondering if there was any way I could actually continue jogging. Things had not improved much, if at all, but something told me I might be able to keep running just a little further. I struck the usual bargain with myself, I would carry on until I could not.

Toward the end of my second lap, it began to rain. I was saved. I had an honorable out. Even dumb animals know enough to get in out of the rain. As I jogged toward my car, the rain got heavier and I realized that it felt wonderful on my overheated body. What the hell! I threw my iPod and my wet T-shirt into the car, and went back out on the path to try and continue my laps. It never did get any easier but running bare-chested in a drenching summer rain put a magical gloss on the sense of being alive, of being outside, alone on a July morning and of letting the cool rain pour on down upon me. It took another two full laps of hard going to complete my allotted forty minutes. It was finally over. I had done it, and I knew contrary to common sense, it had been an experience I would not have wanted to have missed.

With Apologies To Verlyn Klinkenborg

The measure of my distractions is that I have to keep reminding myself that I do indeed exist specifically with the continuums of time and space. This morning, a mild morning in a mid-Atlantic winter, I carried my half-cup of lukewarm coffee to our bedroom door and gazed for a few minutes out into the mature woods that envelop our suburban New Jersey home.

Seeking stillness in the pale sunlight, my attention slowly began to focus upon the wonder of that burning star we call the sun, the prime source of our continuing existence. A slow slide-show moved me through the beautiful blue improbability of the sky, the solid facts of the trees and finally, to the utterly uncommon quality of the commonplace, manifested for a moment in the perfection of a small gray squirrel perched on a garden urn. Opening myself to the agile elegance and the twitchy functionality of this little marvel of physical evolution, noting the tiny, clawed feet and paws, the silky bristles of its furry coat and the panoramic placement of its eyes, I involuntarily uttered a eureka, a “holy shit!” How can all of this be? And immediately springing from that question came the further, far stranger puzzle of what exactly is the source of this sentient consciousness, this transitory self, this capacity that allows this me to grasp, if not actually comprehend, the reality of all these small, everyday miracles just outside my bedroom door, and beyond?

A Credible Creationism

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A Highway Vigilante Hangs It Up

imagesA revelation yesterday on my way to Home Depot. On a four-lane county highway, a forty mile-an-hour zone, I was in the right lane moving slowly past an Infiniti sedan that was blocking the left lane despite there being no one in front of it. In my rear view mirror I spotted a rapidly approaching BMW, looked like a new one, a convertible with the top down. I could see that the driver; white-shirted, lots of hair, sunglasses on top of his head and talking on a cell phone, was closing the gap between himself and the Infiniti. Mr. Wonderful swung sharply in behind me, nearly riding my back bumper. He seemed to figure he could push me until I got far enough ahead of the Infiniti so he could swing left, pass me and leave the lane blocker behind. My default setting in these situations has become more and more to succumb to an irresistible urge to play fuck-around.

I slowed just enough to form a two-lane block with the oblivious Infiniti. Behind me the BMW driver was getting increasingly agitated. I loved it as I watched him, obviously frustrated, swing back over into the left lane and then back in behind me. He never stopped yakking into the cell phone

What happened next remains a mystery to me, but I found myself suddenly thinking, “why am I doing this. The guy is in the BMW is probably a fourteen-carat asshole, but what does all this make me?” I remembered that old admonition about arguing with a fool, that people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. It was also obvious that my social insecurity and economic envy had me engaging in some classic passive-aggressive behavior. Did I really want to reflexively react to the absurd and dangerous behavior of some jerk-off in such an infantile way. This guy was not my problem. Let him find his objective correlative in somebody else, a state trooper for example, and not me. Taking a deep breath, I slowed down enough to allow my nemesis a quick to swerve to the left and around me. At a good thirty-miles-per-hour above the speed limit, he zoomed past the Infiniti, toward wherever it was he was in such a hurry to get.

I made myself a promise to try never to repeat what had become of late a pattern in my driving. It is a relief of sorts to know that it’s no longer up to me to teach the rules of the road to the multitudes of arrogant, stupid or the self-absorbed motorists. There are so many others out there, some with badges and sirens, so much better-suited than me for that role.

The Iron Laws Of Sartorial Splendor

images1As expected, the bible says it best: “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity. 

Once the requirements of necessity are met; the covering of our nakedness, comfort, protection from the elements, think if you can of any plausible reason for attending to your appearance beyond the following two considerations: 

1.     To signify, hold or advance your position in society.

 2.     To get laid. 

I find it difficult to posit any other reasons* for concern about personal appearance that do not fall under those two simple umbrellas. 

This small revelation into the human penchant for adornment, for gilding the lilies of our physical selves, struck me decades ago on a rainy winter’s morning. Like Poincare’s sudden grasping of the mathematical theorem that bears his name. “I was stepping up onto the omnibus, when it came to me,” I was stepping down off a local train when I noticed the variety, narrow as it was, in the raingear of my fellow commuters. This was in the foppish nineteen-seventies, and while tan or beige raincoats dominated, the more stylish proclaimed their presence in black or russet or even among the ladies, white. Aside from the basic London Fogs and their knock-offs, there were even the retro trench-coats from a forgotten war, some with woolen collar liners, and some even had the Burberry belt clips for officer’s equipment. 

This small awakening led me to a conclusion regarding the first part of my Iron Law, the one about status. Again, once necessity is dealt with, all else represents choice, and choice in matters of style becomes statement. This is who I am, or even more important in our own times, this is who I wish to be taken for. 

Going from there, I began to study the clothing choices of my fellow worker bees and drones within the large corporate bureaucracy where I was serving my time. In sorting out the proclaimers of status form the aspirants, I noted that an absence of attention to detail was as much a statement as conscious choice. To not participate was a decision. Those who appeared to take no care in their appearance seemed also to have lost interest in the advancement of their careers. 

While many of the top-tier executives were graduates of Ivy League schools, an outsider if asked to identify the Yalies and Princeton Tigers among us would have probably chosen a couple of the aspirational night-school or day-hop graduates, several of whom  who took more care in appearing preppie than their casually entitled superiors. I can’t remember who coined the phrase about “the imposter defining the type,” but it was applied to a public-school, officer-type like George Orwell who became the compleate working-class bloke. Then there was Irwin Rommel, the lower-middle-class Bavarian as Prussian Junker.  The ambitious up-from-the-ranks guys in my office were significantly   more Ivy than the guys they were imitating. Hmmm. 

As far as Law Two, the sexual imperative: Ask yourself, why do so many   people, particularly men, cease to take care of their appearance as they age? Maybe there isn’t much point to preening when you know you are no longer in the game. As for the lifelong, competitive appearance drive exhibited by so many women, I offer the Van Morrison line that, “the girls go by dressed up for each other.” 

* The only possible dispensation I could grant to the dogmatic rules of appearance goes to the those happy souls who see life as nothing more than a continuing costume party, and array themselves in accordance. 

 

 

Bless Us Oh Lord And These Thy Gifts…

freedomfromwant1On finding myself alone at a mealtime, I’d reach for something to read while eating. It was multi-tasking, something I still considered a virtue. Too often after a mealtime spent reading, I could barely recall what I had eaten. 

As a child in Catholic school, I had been taught the Graces Before and After Meals, prayers that were rarely if ever said in the absence of clergy. On a day last year, alone in the house, and ready to tuck into one of my ample lunches, I rooted the recent mail for the latest New Yorker or New York Review of Books. To my surprise, an obvious and disconcerting reality entered my mind.  Despite my best efforts not to think about such things, I found I was facing one of my own “inconvenient truths;” there were at that moment, millions of people all around the world for whom hunger was more than a marginal urge, for whom eating was more than a function of choices. 

Unable to banish or deny the realization that there is actual widespread starvation in the world, that there were really children stunted by malnutrition, I fell back upon that long-remembered prayer, “Bless of Oh Lord for these thy gifts, which we are about to receive, through thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, Amen.” I put aside my intended mealtime reading material before starting my lunch. It wasn’t much, but it was a start. 

In the course of my life, I may have skipped a meal now and then. There were the Lenten observances and the days of fast and abstinence during my far off childhood. And even those, in our marginally observant family, were far from rigorous, and always open to the most liberal of interpretations.  But among the far too many things I’d chosen to ignore was an unquestioned assumption that I held an entitlement to eat whenever and whatever I choose. 

Being human is, of necessity, to live within the context of history. In this time and this place, we’ve been led to believe that we’ve been granted a unique dispensation from the flow of history. Solidly, if newly, middle-class in what still feels like the first of first world countries, I do not have to look very far back in my own family; three, four generations at most, to find more sobering attitudes toward the prospects of securing one’s next meal. 

I’ve no personal documentation, nor do I need any, to assert that my Irish peasant ancestors faced periods of absolute need, of hunger and exposure, experiences utterly removed from my own experience. My father spoke of his illiterate and penniless parents emigrating here from the barren West of Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century. My mother’s people, more assimilated, deracinated might be the better word, laid claims to being in this country at the time of the Civil War. Only recently was I able to parse that assertion into the probability of their being what were called at that time, “Famine Irish,” a term that carries its own horrific story. 

Never having known genuine scarcity, most of us have come to accept plenitude as our due. The very idea of “normal” presumes an unwarranted and illusory sense of permanence, an exemption from the too often dire consequences of history. It no longer seems necessary to sanctify the routine acts that are the basis of our sustenance, of our very existence. Once a year on the fourth Thursday in November, somewhere amid images of Pilgrims and Indians, we collectively participate in ritual expressions of gratitude for our bounty. For most of us, that’s about it. With my ancestral history as a personal context, the tuna salad sandwich on my plate began to take on sacral qualities, not something to be taken absent-mindedly with the day’s Op-Ed page. 

I can no longer read while eating. Instead, I do my best to focus on my every mouthful of food, be it a bowl of cereal, a fast food sandwich or a holiday dinner. Within my small   insight lies the possibility of ever more openings to gratitude, and within those, a hope that such revelations will encourage a more generous, more active charity on my part, particularly toward those who would find my need for distractions at mealtime beyond  imagining.