Jan. 15, Paoli, Pa. – I debark the Paoli outpost of the International House of Bitterness, hard by the old train station, shortly after 8 p.m. and embark on my pedestrian ramble to the Upper Main Line YMCA.
Somehow I frittered away a good seven hours and came away with nothing. I am back in the maw of despair, trying to avoid getting swallowed whole. Why do I find it so hard to write a few words now and then, particularly when no one’s watching?
Yet I struggle. And struggle. I sequestered myself at the local Corporate Coffee Shop to escape distraction, and yet I am unable to will myself into productivity. Wherever I go, I take along my own distractions.
I’m barely out the door and I’m abreast of Seafood USA, which stands in the spot Marwyn’s Shoes occupied when I was a kid. My mom took me here to make sure I was outfitted neatly and respectably in Buster Browns and Keds. She didn’t want to send her kid off to Green Tree Elementary School in threadbare shoes. Or unfashionable shoes. The silent opprobrium of friends and neighbors would be too much to bear.
Long before Marwyn’s, Esso (Eastern States Standard Oil, we now call it Exxon, as in Valdez) did business here. According to personal reminiscences in a local historical society publication, it was first operated by a man named Freas, and later by Al Pusey. As always, the unfiltered recollections of strangers must considered with profound skepticism.The same report suggests Mr. Pusey ran a gas station here until the early 1980s, and I know that’s flat wrong. Even my mother doesn’t recall a gas station here.
But I didn’t know any of that until I got home and started wandering about the Interwebs. Other interesting trivia lurking in the fathomless caverns of the Internet: The average gas price was about 27 cents a gallon in 1949-50. That means you could pull your Pontiac Chieftain with the hydramatic transmission right up to the pump and ask the service attendant to fill your tank, check your oil and tire pressure and wash your windshield, and you still might get change back from $3.
Perhaps it’s the cold in the air, but the despair is biting down hard on me. I pull my sweatshirt hood over my head and ball my fists inside the cozy gloves my mother-in-law gave me for Christmas after she found out I didn’t have any. Ain’t she sweet?
I cross Lancaster Avenue. Did I mention the cold? The sky is an ominous quilt woven from an untold number of the darker shades of gray, and it seems to push downward against my soul. I wonder if it’s cold enough to snow. It sure feels that way.
Now on the south side of the road, I stumble upon the stone edifice that’s home to Malvern Federal Savings. I am confused. Malvern Federal appears to operate two branches in the same small parking lot. Perhaps, I think, one is for everyday depositing and withdrawing, the other for selling people mortgages they can’t afford and securities that will dry up and blow away come the next economic downturn.
I walk over to the eastern-most building and peer in through the glass door. My eyes fall on the lobby and then the counter. My mind tries to recall what it looked like in 1974. Nothing in my hippocampus is any help whatsoever. Back in those pre-bicentennial days, this was the local branch of venerable Philadelphia Savings Fund Society (PSFS).
The Wikipedia entry for the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society describes PSFS as “a Philadelphia institution with generations of Philadelphians first opened accounts as children and became lifelong depositors.”
Well, I made it to the first rite of passage. I received my savings passbook long about age 11, when I landed a part-time job delivering the late, great Philadelphia Bulletin. The afternoon Bulletin, for all its flaws, was a lively paper. And it had the dignity to die before newspapers turned into a full-blown exercise in self-parody.
I was still padding my PSFS passbook in the summer of 1979, when I worked as a grunt on a fly-by-night construction crew run by my sister’s then boyfriend Dave. As far as I could figure, my primary job was to serve as outlet for the frustrations of men who needed the job to pay rent and buy food. As a bumbling, diffident 16-year-old with no aptitude for the building trades, I was particularly suited to the role. I made 3 bucks an hour for 50 hours a week, and I still felt guilty every Friday afternoon, when I got a check for $137.50 after taxes and greedily deposited it into my savings account at PSFS.
There was a Sunoco service station just east of here. I think it sat where Sleepy’s rests now, at 62 East Lancaster Ave. During World War II they built a mountain of scrap here. I didn’t even realize Paoli was big enough in the 1940s to host a scrap drive.
My dad bought his gas here, without fail. My father, bless his soul, was loyal to a fault. It’s one more thing I never got. But now, walking through the gloomy chill on the eve of my 50th birthday, I find myself admiring his loyalty, no matter how absurdly he wielded it.
Sure, I liked the golden Sunoco sign, the flattened diamond with deep blue lettering and red arrow through its heart. It was alluring, no doubt. I also loved the thick aroma of petroleum that surrounded the pumps.
(After quizzing my mom, it’s possible I have overthought my dad’s Sunoco habit. It was the nearest gas station, and there weren’t really that many local options. It could be he just believed in supporting local business. It could be.)
Much as I liked the Sunoco logo, I preferred the Pegasus that shilled for Mobil. I used to be fascinated by gasoline logos. There was a Mobil station just north of here on PA 252, hard by the Berwyn-Paoli Little League fields. For some reason I always derived comfort from the sight of that winged horse up there on the sign, poised to defy its earthly bonds in heavenly ascent, as we drove by on our way to the Pennsylvania Turnpike for occasional trips to visit my dad’s sister’s family in Fort Washington.
I don’t remember stopping at Mobil. We were Sunoco people. Just as we were Ford folk. My dad insisted on buying from the local dealer, Matthews Ford, which sits upon the arrowhead of land where Paoli Pike washes into Route 30. When it came time to buy a new car, be it the green Ford LTD Brougham or the LTD Country Squire station wagon with the wood paneling, my dad faithfully patronized the venerable company run by Jim Matthews, a neighbor and sort of friend who lived around the corner on the next street.
The Matthews were Paoli merchants back when my family was scattered from Harrisburg to Long Island. His grandfather, Robert Matthews, operated a grocery store on the corner of Spring Street and Lancaster Avenue, just across the street and a block west of the Starbucks building. He purchased the store in the late 1890s and sold it in 1916.
Walter T. Matthews, Robert’s son and Jim’s uncle, starting selling cars hereabouts the following year. In 1921, he received the state’s first Ford franchise. In 1928, the year my father was born, Matthews Ford received the first Model A sold to a dealer.
In his 1993 recollections, Jim Matthews shared a Christmas story featuring a 1928 Model A:
“My uncle invited me to come down from Anselma to go with him over to Newtown in Bucks County to have Christmas dinner over there. (I think maybe I was his favorite nephew.) So I came down on Christmas morning. Around eleven o’clock in the morning my uncle pulled over to the curb to stop at the traffic light at the intersection of DeKalb and Main streets in Norristown. There weren’t many people out on the street on Christmas morning, but there were a few out there and they started to assemble all around this Model A Ford. Of course, the more they assembled, the more he liked it. About noon I had to walk up to the top of the hill to the police station on the left-hand side to get a policeman to come down to get us out of town. I remember that so well. That was the reception that the Model A got when it first came out in 1928.”
Back to my dad. Once he had guided his shiny new Ford into the driveway, he seemed to spend the next several years bitching about its flaws and those of the service department at Matthews Ford. It drove him crazy. Again, my reminiscences are no more reliable than the next guy’s. I could well be an unreliable narrator.
Mr. Matthews spilled a great many words talking about the primacy of customer service in the TEHS quarterly. As he recounted the customer-service awards the big company bestowed upon Matthews year after year, I began to doubt my own recollections.
“You know, when you are buying a car you can buy a good car from almost any dealer, regardless of make. And if you want to buy a Ford car, there are several Ford dealers you can buy it from. So if we want to get your business and keep your business, all that we have to sell is service. And we have worked on that theory for a great number of years. We’re now serving the third generation of a lot of customers because of this tradition.”
Still, my dad’s cries of despair resonate in the banks of my memory.
“Goddamn Matthews Ford!” he’d bellow when the fuel pump on the LTD sedan broke for the second time in as many weeks, or some similar mishap which seemed to occur far too frequently for these to be imagined memories. Either the car broke down, or the repairs were expensive enough to make him scream “highway robbery!” Or the repairs didn’t take at all. It probably was all three.
And yet when it came to buy a new car, he invariably went back to Matthews. I hope Jim Matthews appreciated his loyalty.
I cross Chestnut Street, which marks the western edge of the Paoli Shopping Center, which according to the TEHS Quarterly sprang to life around 1955. As I skip to avoid a turning car, I catch a glimpse of falling snow in headlights. It’s winter in the northeast. The local ACME supermarket held down this corner when I was a kid. Now it’s home to upscale clothing outlets like Loft and Jos. A Bank. On the east end of the center, a Talbots occupies the spot that used to house MAB Paints.
Oh, Paoli, you’ve come along way, haven’t you?
I cross 252 and push on into the enveloping darkness. What I really want to do is find a quiet place to sit and cry. But it is too cold for tears. They would freeze on my cheeks, and any man who’s not a clown looks ridiculous with frozen tears on his cheeks. (Yes, of course, I invite your clown ripostes. I accept them. To refuse them would be impolite.)
I pass a man on the sidewalk adjacent to Del Chevrolet. He must’ve been smoking a cigar, because the acrid aroma lingers in the air as I push east.
The redolence takes me back to Chetwynd Road. The Paoli I know is dead and gone. I recall hanging with the elders on the porch at the home of Larry and Jane Hines, across the street and two doors down. Larry Hines was a slight man with a wry grin and a withered right hand. I think the culprit was polio.
Larry liked to say he never had less or felt better. If you asked him what he was up to, he’d invariably respond with “about 5-foot-9.”
In the summertime, he’d hold court from a lawn chair, usually clad in golf shirt and plaid shorts. He’d have a cigar in his mouth. I think he grew up near Washington (D.C.). His favorite ballplayer was Heinie Manush, a Hall of Fame outfielder who starred for the Senators from 1930-35.
Usually Kendrick Buckwalter, his next-door neighbor, was there. And sometimes Lewis Burnett “Bernie” Jones, the crusty World War II vet who lived across the street from us, would be there, too. The sour smell of whiskey, a smell I equated with adult life, would mingle with cigar smoke amid the tenuous bonhomie that held these evening colloquies together for a while.
Kendrick Buckwalter, whom I called Uncle Ken, left his job as GE engineer and opened a picture-framing emporium on the corner of South Valley and Route 30, across from the train station. He called it Kent on the Main Line. In 1987, he patented Innerspace, a little plastic strip which separated art work from the frame. Good, old Uncle Ken died in the fall of 2002, right around the time I met Becky, but I think the Buckwalters are still making some good money off his ingenuity.
We lived on the eastern fringe of Willistown Township, which by definition, was just west of the Main Line, which ended at the Paoli train station in Tredyffrin Townsship. I think some people in my neighborhood never got over their geographical exile from the cultural imprimatur that life on the Main Line bestowed.
Uncle Ken was a funny, iconoclastic guy, and a really smart dude. I loved him, but he had some funny ideas. When I was older and floundering about after college (I kind of wish he could see me now, floundering at 50), he encouraged me to attend law school at Harvard and then enter practice as J. David Wallingford. That’s kind of what I mean about the Main Line envy that afflicted some of my neighbors.
A few years later, he was awarded another patent, this one for Innerseal, an L-shaped piece of plastic that protected art from any moisture or impurities which might worm their way into the frame. He bought a shiny new Mercedes which he dubbed the “Silver Bullet.” And he got himself a rocking in-home stereo system, with Polk speakers. I remember watching “City Heat,” a vehicle for Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood, with him while sipping Sam Adams.
He had a patrician sort of bent, and that sense of noblesse oblige allowed me to mow his lawn each week. It was one of several lawn-mowing gigs I had. I’d walk around behind my dad’s Lawnboy Deluxe and imagine all sorts of scenarios where’d I’d impress attractive girls with my imaginary cool. Occasionally I’d think this: “In the year 2000, I’ll be 37.” That was an unfathomable age for a teenager to comprehend.
Two thousand thirteen, that never crossed my mind. That existed in the realm of science fiction.
And before I know it, I’ve turned the corner at Longcourse Road and am descending upon the Upper Main Line YMCA. I think about Friday nights playing floor hockey and slaking my thirst afterward with orange soda. It seems, of course, like last week.
Nothing in youth can prepare you for merciless sweep of the ages.
I only hope my morose mood can survive an hour of endorphin-releasing cardiovascular exercise. I’d like to go home, click onto Youtube and see if John Prine and Steve Goodman can make me cry.
I’m afraid they’ve got no shot.