Friday, December 26, 2008

The Main Line and Killadelphia


I just received a Christmas card from the first friend I made in Philadelphia. Her name is Barb. We lived in the same apartment complex. Both of us had babies, not much money at the moment, and privileged backgrounds. We were living now in-between worlds, in the "nice" part of Philadelphia, in quaint apartments with fireplaces, french doors and crown molding, attending events such as the Devon horse show and yet not able to afford to buy a cup of five-dollar tea while walking the grounds and admiring the show jumpers. 

My issue was the economy and an ill-timed, if necessary, move; hers was a business-deal-gone-sour by her developer husband (who was then laid off).  We were just hanging on, in limbo, killing time, happy to be with our kids and yet always worried, waiting for better times. Sort of reminds me of now, in some ways.

Barb helped me get used to the city and its environs, especially the swankiest part of the suburbs. She still belonged to three country clubs, and we'd go there for (free, or at least already-paid-for-as-part-of-the-fee) lunches. How do you do it? I asked. How do you pay the dues? 

Barb explained that paying the dues was a priority in her life; to quit a club and try to sign up again later would cost, she said, $60,000.  I didn't really understand the need to belong to three clubs (cricket, golf, swim), but dropping out of the scene was not an option for Barb. I did like hitting the clubs with her, although I felt, as a non-blonde on the Main Line, that I really did not fit in. I also wanted to work. I was not like her, in many ways. I am driven; I have aspirations for a serious career. I don't like to shop.

On the hottest day I can remember, Barb and I and our kids went to a bucolic club in the pastoral part of the Philly suburbs. This  club had the most crystalline aquamarine swimming pools I think I've ever seen.  It looked like heaven; all I wanted to do was jump in.  All around us were women and kids, eating shrimp salad, sipping iced tea.

"Elizabeth, you do not want to go in the water," Barb said to me, smirking, as I juggled two babies, one on either hip. "There's sperm in there." 

Apparently, this could have been true as it seemed that every woman around us was pregnant (and very tan and dripping with diamonds).  "Hmm. Yeah. Definitely do not need that," I said quietly, sighing inwardly. 

"Lots of Catholics here," said Barb, sagely, apparently not realizing I am one. "I'm a Presbyterian. Makes me feel awkward sometimes," she admitted.

A year later, I had a job, and a house. Barb, too, moved out of "The Gables," and bought a beautiful little Tudor in the same neighborhood. Her husband was pulling himself up. I think he's a big deal now, building again, the mini-Trump of the Main Line (or at least he spends a lot on advertising). 

We sort of lost touch as I am not the best schmoozer and hence, do not make the ideal companion to drag along to club cocktail parties--especially ones where I don't know anyone else. But seeing Barb's Christmas card now, I recognize the signs of Philadelphia affluence--the $400 highlights, the pristine white clothes, the professional photography of the family unit on the dunes of the Shore. 

Good for Barb. She hung on and rode out the famine. I moved off the Main Line and started working, when I could, like crazy. At first I wasn't sure if Philadelphia would be home, but now I know it is.


I currently live six miles from center city Philadelphia, four miles from West Philly. When I drive into the city, as I often do to meet my writers’ group, I take some back roads behind my daughter’s semi-urban elementary school, drive over the trolley tracks, and down past 69th Street station. 

The houses quickly become attached in rows, increasingly decrepit. Bars become lounges become peep shows. If I were outside walking instead of driving, discarded chicken bones would crunch beneath my feet. (I speak from experience—one I’ve had in many neighborhoods of the city, actually. The bone thing bugs me, makes me feel like I’m in the Third World. I think the situation demands some signage—purely graphic. My daughter the artist has obliged.)

I have nothing against West Philadelphia—I know there are far worse places—but I wouldn’t be happy if my car broke down there late at night. The place feels neglected, abandoned. You seldom see people. You do see bars on windows. You see houses that are leaning over, the siding peeling, the porches about to collapse.

            I actually really like one area of West Philly—University City, where Penn is, and Drexel. That part of the city is really only a few blocks from some dodgier areas.

One of my favorite restaurants, Marigold Kitchen, is in an in-between area, and I would consider living there. Maybe. Or maybe not.

            As I drive down Chestnut Street, after thirty or so blocks, the landscape changes. It becomes more charming and collegiate, gentrified, less frightening. You start seeing the students and professors of Penn.

        I had a few interviews at Penn several years ago. I flew out to the university from Iowa. I stayed in the Sheraton with a newborn. 

I guess being in Iowa for a while had softened me. The constant sirens of the city made me nervous, made me think about bodily harm and crime. I didn’t like being eighteen floors up in that cramped city hotel. What if there were a fire? It didn’t seem that unlikely, judging from those screeching sirens.

            I was told that if I worked at Penn it was “strongly urged” that my family live in West Philadelphia. It is a community-building thing that Penn espouses. I would be assisted with real estate purchases (which sounded like a good deal), but we still hesitated. What about schools? Besides the universities, the rest of the offerings were not so fabulous (serious understatement). Everyone in Philadelphia, it seems, goes for private schools.

In the end, I made the mistake of naming my price. There were audible gasps (but it wasn't that bad, believe me), and I did not get the job.  That was a weight off my shoulders, actually; I worried about moving into the city, even though I had lived for quite a while in Brooklyn after college. 

There were no chicken bones there, in New York. What crunched under my feet were empty crack vials, but otherwise the neighborhood was vibrant, with lots of people, and interesting stores. Back then, the crack thing didn’t particularly bother me, though now, of course (with kids) it would be far worse than the decaying remnants of KFC.

We ended up, unexpectedly, moving to Philadelphia anyway because my husband (who was desperate to return east, where we are from) finagled a job transfer there. We settled in a Main Line suburb, where we lived in an apartment (and where I met the aforementioned Barb) while thinking about a house.  After moving—just when that lovely Iraq war was launched; ah, good times!—I was despondent to find that I couldn’t get a job at all.  I couldn’t even get an interview for a job.  That had never been a problem for me. I always seemed to get every job I went for. I was more than a little frustrated.

Being unemployed with hours to kill, I ended up taking my kids out to the zoo quite a bit. The city zoo, which is lovely, is smack in the middle of a terrible part of the city. Philadelphia, I found, is full of these disconcerting juxtapositions—tiny colonial-era roads packed with Escalades and Explorers, the charming next door to the creepy. Old and new. Rich and poor.

Still, despite being nervous sometimes, or just needing to readjust to urban life, my children and I explored the city. We took the trolleys. We visited the museums, which are amazing. I walked them for miles in a double baby jogger. I met many people, all of them—and this is what I love best about Philadelphia—even in the most questionable-looking neighborhoods, exceedingly nice.

After a few months of getting to know what life is like in Philadelphia, I started working part-time in a flower shop. I wanted to learn how to do flowers while I had some time. I made some beautiful rose and orchid arrangements, some 50-foot garlands of boxwood, mistletoe and eucalyptus. I also cleaned the bathroom until I told the store's assistant manager that I wasn’t for that, sorry. I didn’t mean to sound arrogant, but I can stay at home and clean the bathroom, and I probably should, sometimes. I was there for the flowers. (The bathroom wasn’t dirty, anyway.)

Then, out of nowhere, it seemed, I was offered a job teaching. In Delaware. I said no. It seemed too far away. Another state?

 I got offered a different job teaching college courses in Philadelphia. I said yes. I got to know the East Falls, Manayunk and Mount Airy neighborhoods. Except for not being able to park your car (a tremendous problem in some areas of the city), they are great. Restaurants, funky stores, big, beautiful old houses, running trails—everything I like.

Then the flower-shop owner told me he was starting a school in North Philly. He asked me to guest teach. I agreed, but I wasn’t sure where North Philadelphia really was.  Yeah, I found out. I should never complain about West Philly.

I worked with kids who were ESL learners, the children of recent immigrants. We talked about how to speak, read and write in English. They were highly motivated kids, but some were very meek. Some tried to be too tough. I wasn’t scared and I didn’t act scared, and they slowly warmed up.

We had some good sessions, but all in all, I didn’t want to drive into North Philly. I didn’t like the way my flower-shop boss kept snapping digital pictures of me while I was teaching. It made me really  nervous. He also seldom paid me, and unfortunately, I can’t work for free.

I focused on my college students. I learned the back roads from Bryn Mawr to Gladwyne to 76 to East Falls. Then I learned how to take City Avenue from my new house.

Always in Philadelphia the urban bits and the peeling infrastructure is speckled with hidden pockets of dells and lawn and creeks. Turning a corner anywhere in this area is a surprise. An ancient stone row house sits two feet from a major highway. An old mill juts out into an intersection. A Victorian mansion looms in between hideous 1950s apartments. There is no zoning, it seems, or very little planning.

The whole area is like this—an abandoned bubble gum factory is stuck in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Until it closed down, people tell me that the smell was nauseating. You may like bubble gum (I do, except if people are smacking it or pulling it from their mouths), but you don’t want to smell bubble gum boiling in thousand-gallon tanks. It’s just a little cloying.

I now work with wealthy kids in the suburbs, mostly high school seniors, teaching them writing and literature. My students tend to write about their summers in their family’s beloved beach house, or their trips to the Caymans or Colorado. Sometimes they go on safari.

I mention this not to rip on them. I grew up this way, too, attending a private girls’ school for years, taking elaborate vacations. But it’s just a good example of the strangeness of Philadelphia, how six or eight or two miles might as well be a thousand, how privilege can exist so close to condemned buildings, how a lacrosse game or a Cricket Club luncheon can take place so near the site of random shootings.  How people who are unemployed or underemployed or who are simply the "working poor" can live anywhere here, and these people can be right next to you, and we need to be conscious of each other, not live in oblivion.

I read recently that a girl in an inner-city writing program wrote about her hometown (she was from North Philly, I think) as “Killadelphia.” That struck me. It may certainly be true about some areas, and yet, this place, even in its scary areas, is also full of love. It’s a place I now love. Philadelphia is still a mystery to be explored, and to be better understood.


Saturday, December 13, 2008

From Good Cook to Bad

I used to be able to cook. I could make bread of every variety, chocolate stout beer, pasta sauce out of any vegetable, baked goods galore, oyster pie, shrimp saut├ęs, elaborate Indian repasts, jam without a recipe, candied pecans, you name it.

I was first taught how to cook in my sophomore year of college by my Haitian and Filipino dorm-mates. I mastered cooking skills quickly, reading cookbooks of all kinds, absorbing the basic rules. The next year, when I lived in Ireland, I cooked Thanksgiving dinner in its entirety, blowing my friends’ minds (as they were only good for cooking Mac and Cheese, basically).

Several years later, I could throw it down with French chefs in the Hamptons, and I actually did (ok--I made sauce. But it was good!). I knew a late master chef’s son. He told me I had talent.

I still do not need to measure anything (I eyeball it, and I am never wrong), but now, seventeen years after I first learned how to cook, just when one would think I’d be near my culinary peak, I have regressed. I am frantic in the kitchen. I make stupid mistakes, like forgetting the eggs or the baking powder. My food turns out bad sometimes, or terribly burned (I have a new convection oven that I still haven't quite gotten the hang of). I really don’t enjoy cooking anymore.

Meal-preparation is a chore now, and I have lost my cooking confidence. It also doesn’t help that my kitchen, for the past four years, was utterly disgusting, the worst kitchen in the world (we bought a very old bungalow; the kitchen suffered a frightful 70s redo, but for some reason, the original 1910 sink was kept, and that was not a good or charming thing. The floor was rotting underneath it, the room was dark, and while big, it had approximately one foot of counter space. Mice sneaked out of the walls at night and the refrigerator that came with the house bloomed--in hidden areas--with thick black mold).

It was, I repeat, the world’s most repulsive kitchen. I couldn’t deal with it. It was the kitchen of nightmares. I wanted to spend as little time in that room as possible.

We ordered a lot of pizza and hoped to get a home loan to renovate. The loan didn’t materialize, because too much of our house was in gutted in anticipation of the renovations, but slowly we saved up some money to rescue our house. Last year, we lived without a kitchen for just about nine months.

My husband (who is the World’s Greatest Carpenter) tore out the room, and built the island, the cabinets, the windowsills, the crown molding. He only had time to work on the room on the weekends (and some nights), and he had no help, so it took forever.

I hired a plumber to help install the new sink. I told him I didn’t have a kitchen. Everything we ate for most of last year was cooked in a toaster oven, which definitely got tiresome, and I dreamed of the day when I’d have a working kitchen again. Our refrigerator was in the living room. The whole no-kitchen-situation was actually too depressing to think about or discuss.

When the plumber came over to price out the job (he let himself in when I wasn’t there), he was shocked to find that my kitchen was just a gutted hole. “You poor girl,” he said later. “How do you live like that?” I didn’t know, and now that it’s over and my kitchen is 90% finished (it might never be completely done), I still can’t believe I survived it.

During the time we were kitchen-less, I bought a lot of prepared food from Trader Joe’s. Now that I have an oven again, and a dishwasher, I still buy the same things. Bad habit? Laziness? Maybe so. But I don’t trust myself to cook much of anything these days.

Some of it is surely my children’s pickiness. My eldest daughter used to eat everything—Mussels Arrabiatta when she was two comes to mind. Now that she is nine years old, she has adopted the eating habits and issues of the average toddler. Nothing mixed together. Nothing touching. No vegetables besides the occasional corn, potato or peas.

The hours between 4:30 and 6 are the worst hours of my day, typically, full of frantic car rides complete with lots of whining from my kids about how hungry they are. Getting in the house is like a race. Putting something on the table that my kids will eat, as fast as possible, is critical to my sanity. Once I get that done, I am usually too tired to cook anything else. Even on the weekend, when I always intend to cook a bunch of nice dishes for the week, I usually just…don’t.

Now it is the holidays, and I am expected to cook some special things (even though I escaped most of the Thanksgiving cooking due to my ankle fracture). I finally have more than enough counter space, and a clean, bright work area. But I still don’t want to cook. I will make some holiday treats for my students, for my children, for the poor of Philadelphia. But God help me, I do not want to make anything that demands rolling out with a rolling pin.

I have always hated that, for some reason. I own a beautiful marble rolling pin that I think someone gave me as a wedding gift. My baking pans are the best you can buy: Martha Stewart would be proud. I almost can’t botch this, no matter how frazzled I might get.

But I remember how long it takes to deal with these sorts of cookies, or with any kind of pastry or piecrusts. It’s messy. You have to wait for the dough to chill. I don’t have hours to spare. I am impatient. I want results for my time—batches of sweets that I actually like. I don’t much care for sugar cookies in the shapes of Santa or reindeer.

Children, though, want this. They want the whimsical shapes you can only get from a cookie cutter. They love the colored sprinkles melting on top, the whole, time-consuming shebang. It’s memory making, for them.

This year, I was actually thinking about dipping pretzels into chocolate (a Philadelphia thing) and calling it a day. My former gourmet-cooking self would be appalled. How could I change so drastically? Will the urge to cook ever come back?

I am making the shopping list for the Christmas cookies now. I still don’t want to roll out any dough. It’s almost a mental block at this point. Aagh, I am telling myself: shut up and cook. I might actually start to like it again—or maybe this is the sort of thing that women are always telling themselves.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Tri-Malleolar Ankle Fracture, Post Surgery

How Does it Feel To Shatter Your Ankle? The Proof of Shared Pain

Googling an injury or an illness? Come on, let’s be honest; everyone does it. 

realized the close connection between feeling pain and seeking comfort in online proof that others have experienced the same pain after I broke my ankle.

From what I can tell after conducting some online searches, it seems that many of the people who break an ankle in the way that I recently did (tri-malleolar fracture with plates and pins/screws installed) feel the urge to document the long journey to recovery with digital photos, blogs and web sites. I’ve certainly found dozens of them, along with posted messages written by countless people who’ve experienced the same injury.

If I see a web page about a broken ankle, then I always see hundreds of chiming postings--“Me too! This is how I broke it…this is how many pins and plates I have.” I have to wonder: is this just a bizarre example of one-upmanship? Is it screaming into the void and hoping someone hears you? And does it help to post the story of how and where you broke your ankle? I think it must.

I originally didn't list my injury or tell my story on any official ankle fracture website, but my first urge, once the worst pain eased (in response, perhaps, to all the people who asked me, “What does it look like?” “How bad is it?” ) was to post some particularly gory photos of my grotesquely swollen ankle--with its dual rows of bloody staples--on Facebook. (And, of course, I now posted this essay and the same photos on my blog. Why not?)

I didn’t do it for sympathy, though I certainly got a lot of notes from friends inquiring as to how I hurt myself, and offering well wishes for my recovery. I posted the photos, as I told one friend, to help myself laugh about this trauma now. It was bad—it’s still bad—although I am certainly not the only person in the world to deal with something like this.

I wonder just what it is about a leg fracture requiring surgery (sometimes multiple operations) that throws us for such a loop? Obviously, the not-being-able-to-walk issue is huge. Everything is harder now. Curbs and steps can be nightmares. Crutches stink and won’t stop falling over. Walkers and wheelchairs are embarrassing and tiring to deal with. But maybe it is the profound pain that is the worst, and that is the part that sears us long-term.

When you break a bone—for example, your ankle—you might not even know it at first. The body goes into shock, almost instantaneously. I got my foot caught in a storm grate while I was stepping off a curb, and my first reaction—beyond a brief yelp, and I’m quite sure I heard a crack—was to think, "Just stay conscious for your kids."  I knew I had twisted my ankle, but as for brutally breaking it, I was wearing a mid-calf-length boot (relatively flat); I really had no idea.

I looked down to see my ankle and foot piteously curved inward, like the end of a hockey stick. I knew I was in some sort of trouble. “Help!’ I cried meekly as I tried to pull myself up on the hood of a parked car. “Please help me.”

My children were waiting for me inside a grocery store. I had just dashed out to get the reusable “green” shopping bags I had left in the car. I had forgotten the bags for the past couple of weeks and my environmental guilt compelled me to go back and get them. What a mistake, that—and leaving my cell phone in my car.

A stranger found and helped me. I was so dazed that I don’t even know what he looked like. He helped me drag myself up onto the curb. I asked him to get my kids for me. I struggled to stay conscious when what I really wanted to do was faint. A woman let me rest my head on her pile of reusable shopping bags (the moral of this: we do need these things in our lives!). Police came. The ambulance pulled up. All of it seemed to happen so fast, and I thought at the time: I don’t need this.

And yet I did. In the hospital, after the X-rays, which were so painful I just about screamed, doctors asked me, “Car crash, huh?”

It turns out that my particular injury is most often seen after collisions. On a scale of 1-4 in terms of severity of ankle fractures, mine is a four, the worst. I had still been hoping it was just an awful sprain; now I knew the truth.

The pain kicks in fully a few hours after the fracture, and when it begins, it kills. Out of necessity, nurses administer serious narcotics by IV. Ankle fracture patients typically spend 2-3 days completely doped up. Being released from the hospital is almost like waking up into a new life, a strange reality, a nightmare.

You lose time when you break an ankle. You are confused and bewildered. You need to reclaim your sense of self. Perhaps writing about the injury, your accident and how many pins you have (and let me just take a minute to say that I have more than anybody, I think. I have at least a dozen) helps you to reconnect with what happened and with this very useful part of your body that you may, for months yet, have lost.

For the first three days after my accident, I was so heavily drugged that it was hard to keep my eyes open. My elderly roommate in the hospital kept trying to talk to me, but I was barely able to respond. “Honey! Hey, honey!” she’d bark, with a few claps added for emphasis.

It always felt like I was swimming up to the surface through some thick, barely penetrable gravy before I could manage to respond, “I’m sorry. Are you talking to me?” That was about all I was good for; conversations petered out quickly as I drifted back into sleep. I’m pretty sure I muttered, more than once, “For the love of God, Florence, please close your…pie hole.”

My hospital stay was a narcotically-tinged blur; it was the next 10 days at home that were the truly difficult experience. I am quite sure I didn’t leave my room (or adjoining bathroom) for several days, and when I did learn how to traverse the three stairs to my house’s lower level, I never stayed there long. The pain and pressure in my ankle were so great that I could hardly bear to be out of bed.

I cried a bit, feeling sorry for myself. I dreamed nightly—and still do—of running. I wondered why my parents didn’t come to visit me. I questioned what I’d done wrong in my life to make my husband so overwhelmed by the very idea of household responsibility and childcare that he actually left me bedridden with only a diet coke and an apple to eat—at least on the first day I was back at home.

After a couple of hours each of grading papers, writing assignments and hanging out online (I did not watch TV), my days ended, quite quickly. My children returned home from school. I loved talking to them, and yet it hurt me that I couldn’t play much with them, that I really just wanted to sleep.

Boggle and homework checks, and a couple of books read, seemed to satisfy them. Still, while I was home from work, I always felt like I was wasting time. I felt that my nightly showers on a lawn chair weren’t getting me clean. I felt like a burden, or just a living reminder of how much better things used to be.

“I feel like I’m constantly cleaning things up, lately!’ my husband burst out one day. “I can’t get anything done. I have no time to myself!” Yeah, welcome to my world, I thought—dropping the kids off at school, picking them up. Grocery shopping, making dinner, making lunches. Walking the dogs.

It took a couple of weeks to get used to not using my right leg, to hopping around the kitchen and carving out a solid hour for bathing and dressing. Everyone in my family is now learning how to get along in a new way, and perhaps that is ultimately what this is about.

It takes an accident, sometimes, to force us to slow down and consider, or re-consider, how we live. What do we do for others? How can we be of help? How do we snap out of our own self-obsessive funk and just be with our loved ones?

There is an old spiritual saying, when a door closes, a window opens. I keep hoping this is true. The bad times now are so bad; the days turn dark too quickly. But then I need to remind myself to make the effort to sit outside in the light. Work on my writing. Get out of my sickroom.

Today, we ran errands, and for the first time in weeks, I came along. I hobbled through Whole Foods on crutches. I didn’t slip, as I had been doing at home.

My leg felt swollen after shopping, but I was ok. The worst part was listening to my husband demanding to know how two bags of groceries could possibly cost $100. I tried not to take it personally—and why should I? Some things are expensive, and he has no idea. I took care of everything before. Everything. Now I can manage the bare minimum of household duties.

We went to the craft store next, because we had to. The elevator was unexpectedly broken, and I was stuck in the lobby, leaning on my crutches, for at least half an hour. Many people who entered the store said things to me like, “What a day for it to be out of order!” I chuckled in response. There was a narrow escalator I wasn’t even going to try, and a steep, formidable, three-level staircase that made me shake, even though I stayed far away from it. I would wait it out and pray that my left leg didn’t buckle. I would trust that my husband and children could find the floral supplies I needed.

Finally, they came back. I was so wiped out, I didn’t honestly know how I’d get all the way back to our car. But I did it. We shopped, we got home. I arranged flowers for a colleague’s bridal shower. They weren’t perfect, but I was pleased to have exercised my creativity just a bit.

Doug made dinner. It was excellent—very garlicky chicken over greens. The clutter and chaos of my floral work caused me to spill red wine all over myself, but I didn’t really care. It was a pretty good day, and I am thinking now: perhaps this is the first one I’ve had since breaking my ankle. Perhaps from now on, it can only get better.

I actually like looking at the gruesome post-surgery photos my husband took (for practical reasons). They remind me not of the terrible pain I’ve endured, but of how far I’ve come.

When I can walk again, I’ll take new ankle pictures. I don’t want to bother now. The staples are gone, but my ankle is still swollen. When I take my boot cast off, I see that it’s red, sometimes purple. It’s just wholly repulsive to look at, and probably not very interesting for others to see in the middle stages of healing.

I have seen the “after” photos others have posted, though. Scars run up pale ankles like roads. People beam, showing off their permanently damaged legs and feet. I can well imagine how they feel, despite the brutality of their injuries: proud to have gotten through this. Changed forever. Maybe even, somehow, stronger.

I am glad they’ve shared their stories. I realize that I also had to share mine—just to let someone else, someone like me, know: you are not alone.