Little Dickie Powers died, and what could I do? We were both 8 — or rather, I was; Dickie was now of no age, zeroed out by what my parents told me, without further explanation, was a burst appendix. I pictured him blown apart in his bedroom. That seemed like a poor choice of imagery for the sympathy card I was making, but was I even sympathetic? I hadn’t liked Dickie much: He once called me a name that was shorthand for “dirty Jew.” His family, then? My mother had hinted, perhaps for my sake because I was a junior hypochondriac, that the Powerses lacked access to adequate medical care: Dickie died because he was poor. My mother, too, had grown up poor; she’d lived above a dime store, dying to get out. I wondered if that was why, aside from it being November, my parents sent his parents a turkey. On my card I finally drew a turkey, too, but with its fancy jewell-tone feathers, mine looked more like a peacock.
I didn’t and still don’t know whether Dickie was actually poor, and whether, if so, that would amount to an excuse for anti-Semitism. But I did know that his house, like most of those in Belmont Hills, was small and old and awfully close to someone else’s. Mine, in a neighborhood called Penn Valley, whose border with Belmont Hills was marked by the smokestack of an incinerator I feverishly connected with Auschwitz, had been completed just 12 years earlier, in 1954, on a generous half acre. My parents were its first owners, and though we didn’t have a pool, our next-door neighbours did. If you look at satellite imagery of that corner of Pennsylvania even today, you can see that on the sliver-size lots of Belmont Hills there’s sometimes barely room for trees, let alone pools, but the lush green cover of Penn Valley is dappled with light blue polka dots, rectangles, kidneys.
Though Dickie was just one of several Hill boys who called me names in those years, I was only vaguely aware that there was a larger enmity between the two neighbourhoods. Less still did I understand what the enmity might be about. Phrases my parents mentioned — “income inequality,” “social immobility,” “dead-end jobs” — made no sense to me. I didn’t care about income unless it involved pennies for my coin collection. Nor did I care that the fathers on my street fixed teeth, arranged divorces and drove to offices in Philadelphia, while the fathers on the other side of the incinerator fixed boilers, built houses and worked in something we hazily called factories. Those jobs seemed more interesting anyway, certainly more than my father’s at a bank. Still, I did know one thing that made Belmont Hills different: Nearly everyone was Roman Catholic. They got smutched on Ash Wednesday. The girls wore crosses. Many of the families had beautiful Italian surnames: DiGiovanni, Fulginitti.
It was possible to see them as exotic. Their houses, built decades before neat suburban planning took hold, clung haphazardly to a series of bluffs above the Schuylkill River in a way that struck me as romantic if not Roman. Many years later, I would recognise the hills, and even some homes, in the work of the artist Francis Speight, who had trained in Philadelphia in the 1920s and often painted en plein air nearby. For one 1930 oil, he evidently set his easel at the vertiginous top of Jefferson Street, a spot I knew well. Though the neighborhood, once known familiarly as Goat Hill, was by then called West Manayunk, Speight titled his painting “Little Italy.” Some twenty years later, around the same time my corner of Penn Valley was developed, West Manayunk wishfully and redundantly rechristened itself Belmont Hills.
Whatever its name, I cringed when we drove through it. Jefferson Street as Speight depicted it — a dirt road devoid of cars and lined with terraces carved into the slope — was by my childhood a heavily trafficked feeder to the expressway into town. Neither the 90-degree turn at the peak of its rise nor the 45-degree pitch down to the river had been the least bit mitigated in the intervening decades. A ball dropped in one yard might roll through many others and bounce over retaining walls before coming to rest several blocks below. Often, I feared our car might do the same; I was a fearful, dramatic child, for whom topography was not just a matter of hills and valleys but a physical mapping of internal anxiety. I was, that is, a Jew, as Dickie Powers somehow understood, in the same way I somehow understood he wasn’t. Had there been any Black kids in either neighborhood, I’m sure they, too, would have wound up, as I did, barricaded in closets and pummeled down hallways and banged on the head with strange pieces of metal.
When any of those things happened — usually at school, often at recess — I at least had my tree. Belmont Hills Elementary, which opened in 1919, was built on another of the neighborhood’s bluffs; children in the playground were kept from tumbling into the abandoned quarry below by a chain-link fence guarding the perimeter. Mature trees stood in a staunch queue every 20 feet or so along the inside of that fence. One of them, an ancient maple with surface roots that snaked out from the trunk in thick esses, was where I showed up most fair days, without appointment, to play with my friend David.
Like half the school in those years, David was from “the Hill.” His round face and olive complexion and bowl-cut straight hair somehow struck me as true Italian, circa Vesuvius. He was small and quiet in class, neither of which I was. Still, we were compatible and, on the playground, so in tune with each other that we did not need to decide what our game was. In any case, it was always the same, called Neighbourhoods, at least by me. Among the roots of the maple tree we built houses and stores with twigs and leaves, occasionally accoutered with treasure from home. A Monopoly token. A Matchbox car — one of the roots reminded me of Jefferson Street.
I don’t remember the stories we devised to accompany our city-planning efforts. I do know that mine would have involved ordinary life, quietly lived. There would, surely, have been a school, with two little boys building a school outside it. No cops and robbers, though: My neighbourhood would have police but no crime. Even so, there was decay and calamity, for they were ordinary, too; every day, at the bell signifying the end of recess, we had to abandon what we’d built, leaving it to be rained away overnight or swirled into angry little eddies by the wind.
No angry little eddy ever disrupted me and David. Close play among children is a kind of love, and we were close, at least at school. Our homes were a different story. Though less than two kilometres apart, his and mine were sufficiently distant psychologically, with the incinerator in between, that we rarely saw each other after 3pm. on weekdays or on weekends anytime. If he came to my birthday parties, it was likely because my birthday was in June and the parties thus took place at my neighbor’s pool. My parents, who thought a pool was a frivolous expense for Jews, apparently thought it was a fine one for Armenians, especially if they lived next door.
Other Hill boys sometimes came to those parties, too. One, named Tony, may have been designed by God to show just how dissimilar people from similar backgrounds can be. Like David, he was Italian, but big and outgoing, unafraid of a belly-flop, with ringleted hair and a Michelangelean nose. Perhaps as a result of working with his father, whose landscaping outfit cut our lawn and trimmed our trees, already by junior high he had muscles.
But also by junior high, Tony and I were no longer friends.
Nor to my knowledge, after sixth grade, did I ever speak to David again.
It was as if a law had been passed. For the rest of my childhood, even on birthdays, no Hill boy visited my house unless in the company of his workman father. We came apart, spun out, demulsified. Were it not for ironic gym teachers and the accident of alphabetisation, I would never again have played a game with Tony or David. Though our last names were contiguous, we were as dead to each other as Dickie Powers was to everyone else. But what had burst?
I suppose I must say, for the sake of symmetry, that a year after Dickie died, I almost did, too. Playing soccer one day during recess, having not, for some reason, met David at our tree, I tripped on the ball; I was not good at sports. Upon trying to get up, I realised that the pencil I had left in my front-right pants pocket had pierced my abdomen where it folded into my leg. Unable to uncurl from my kneeling position, I stayed there, as if at prayer. A surgeon told my parents a few hours later, after opening me up and digging around, that the pencil had come within millimetres of — yes — my appendix, which, had it perforated, might have quickly led to a fatal case of peritonitis.
We shall leave aside the multiple symbolic interpretations of the pencil, which was kindly returned to me, snapped in the middle and stained with Betadine. As I recovered, first in the hospital and then at home, I passed my time assembling a 4,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, watching “Jeopardy!” and reading the dozens of cards that my schoolmates, even the Hill kids, had sent me. (No turkey, but admittedly it was spring.) The bigger puzzle remained unsolved: Did I survive because I had “access to adequate medical care” — because I was not poor? Or just by luck? Either way, I was, for a shining moment, not just blameless but pitiable and pitied.
Bullying has an insistent evolutionary logic, though. When the only objectionable thing boys could identify about me was that I was Jewish, that’s what they fed on. When I became notably bookish as well, they could attack me from behind and send my books spraying. Worse was still to come when, in the years after my accident, I gave up my failed attempts at sports, which made me a faggot before I was even gay. Any two of these defects were apparently tolerable, but the trifecta produced a jackpot of rage.
At least the rage no longer came from the Hill. Though we didn’t speak, David would never hurt me, of course. Tony, who in high school captained the wrestling squad, and could have squashed me if he wanted, silently protected me instead, or so I came to believe. The other Hill boys left me alone, my familiarity having worn down their hostility, as theirs had worn down my interest. We “kept our distance.”
Instead, by a principle you might call the perseveration of enmity, a new population stepped in to take up the slack: mostly middle-class Protestants from other suburbs now mixing with ours at a new school. It was easy to assume from the words they used, and sometimes from the particular details of their violence, that their beef with me was a bizarre transformation of sexual dominance: Dickie Powers indeed. How else to explain that the girls, who could be quite vicious among themselves, left me alone, or even befriended me?
But it wasn’t as simple as what I would later call homophobia. When I found myself unable to smile at David as we passed in the halls, or thought I’d seen Tony, king of the hill, almost imperceptibly nodding hello from the middle of a ring of jocks, I knew there was a more powerful force than prejudice or even income inequality keeping us apart. That force felt geological to me, impervious to human intervention, as though something antimagnetic in the earth’s core wouldn’t let our types mix once the loving fog of childhood burned off. To go against that, from either side, would be, it seemed, to go against nature.
A nice theory, anyway. But now I think it was merely cowardice. I can’t speak for the Hill kids, but I see why it might have been reasonable for them to shut down contact, even hostile contact, with someone like me. The world gradually encroaching on us offered them less than it offered a boy from Penn Valley; they could not waste their social capital the way I might have afforded to. Instead, I was stingy, more afraid of their poverty, if that’s what it was, than they were of my privilege. I didn’t want to get mixed up in anyone else’s troubles, not because they were troubles but because they weren’t mine.
And perhaps those troubles weren’t so bad: Though many of the Hill boys still live in the neighborhood, they appear to have done just fine. I was, as I said, a fearful, dramatic child. Later, as an adult, when I would drive down Jefferson Street in the years before my parents left Penn Valley forever, I found to my surprise — and, to be honest, disappointment — that the hill wasn’t even so steep.