A year or two ago, my old car was in the shop but ready to be picked up. The shop wasn't far away. I could have walked or ridden my bike, but it was drizzling, and so I didn't want to. I went next door to see if one of my neighbors, a nice couple named Craig and Tara, could give me a lift. When I went inside, I saw that Tara's mother was visiting. I think I might have met her briefly before, but I'm not sure. That might have been the first time.
As it turns out, she was getting ready to leave, so she said that she would give me the ride to the mechanic's. I said great, and we got into her car and headed off. She told me that she'd actually grown up right in this neighborhood and had gone to high school at the school that's about three blocks from our house. So it was strange, but nice, that Tara had somehow landed right here. (Tara had grown up in the suburbs, where her mother currently lived, and was in the neighborhood now because she moved in with Craig, who already lived here.)
The East Falls section of Philadelphia is quite stratisfied. Philadelphia's former mayor, now Pennsylvania governor, Ed Rendell, has a beautiful house in East Falls, set amoung other beautiful, old, stone houses with ancient ivy growing up their walls, which are set back from brick streets, overflowing gardens between the houses and the street. The house that Grace Kelly grew up in is also in this area of East Falls.
Then there's my part of East Falls, literally two blocks from this beautiful area I just described. My neighborhood used to be blue collar rowhomes, nicely maintained, but rowhomes nonetheless. Retirees occupied 30-50% of the houses, having lived here their whole lives and more likely than not, being second or third generation here. Another 20-30% of the rowhomes were rented to students from the nearby medical college or students from Philadelphia University. And the rest of the houses were bought by newcomers to the area, like me. This is all changing, however, as East Falls has found itself a hot commodity in the crazy real estate boom that's gripped the country for the past couple of years. The old timers, the retirees, have left in droves to be replaced by yuppies. On my block alone, half of the houses have sold in the past two years, and the prices keep going up, up, up....
Finally, another two blocks from my house, in the opposite direction of the beautiful houses, is subsidized, section 8 housing. This section of East Falls borders another, less savory Philadelphia neighborhood, and that's where my mechanic had his shop. Right on the border between East Falls and Allegheny.
As we headed that way, Tara's mom started talking about how the neighborhood had been when she was growing up. As we left East Falls, she said, "This part of Philadelphia has always been like this." I nodded, unsurprised, while we passed poorly dressed people just hanging out in front of little, dark stores with iron grates in front of their windows.
"I remember once when I was about 11," she continued. "I had this friend who was a year or two older than I was. She was troubled, had a bad family life, you know?"
"Mm-hmm," I answered, curious about where this story would take us. I love hearing stories about people's lives.
"But like I said," she went on, "I was 11, so I didn't realize that she had problems." Tara's mom pointed to a grassy area over the way. "One day, I was looking for her so that we could play, and I came over that little hill, and on the other side, there she was with three or four guys around her, guys a couple of years older than her. I didn't know what was really happening, but I do now: They were taking turns with her."
I felt a silence descend over us--or maybe just me--as the story had taken a turn I would never have forseen. The sound of the car engine changing gears, and the jingling of her keys hanging from the ignition, sounded distinct in my ears as she turned a corner, and we headed away from the grass she had pointed at.
"I was scared, you know?" she said. "Even though I didn't know exactly what was going on, I knew that it was bad."
I nodded cautiously as she spared a glance in my direction. We were only a few blocks from the mechanic's now.
"One of the guys noticed me standing there," she told me. "I was just frozen. The other guys noticed me too, and I don't know what would have happened if the first guy hadn't said, 'No, forget about her. She doesn't have anything yet.'" Turning to me again, she explained, "He meant I wasn't developed at all. I developed a little late, thank god."
"Oh," I said. By this time, we were stopped in front of the mechanic's shop. The drizzle had turned to rain, and it bounced off the glass of the windshield. The rhythmic noise of the windshield wipers sounded loud as they went back and forth.
Tara's mom looked straight ahead, but I could tell she wasn't looking ahead. She was looking into the past. Maybe she was wondering what would have happened to her if she had developed early instead of late. But that's not what had happened. I sat in the car with her. My hand was on the door handle, but the intimacy of the rain and the gray kept me there until she finished her story.
Still looking ahead, she finally continued, "So they turned away from me. I stared at my friend, just laying there in the grass, looking at nothing, and then I turned and I ran all the way home. I told my mother what had happened, and she told me that I wasn't to play with that girl again. And I never did. But sometimes I wonder what happened to her."
I nodded sympathetically. I tried to come up with something to say. It seemed like I should say something. I think I came up with something along the lines of, "That must have been scary for you."
Whatever I said, it broke her out of her reverie. She turned towards me, blilnked her eyes, and I could feel her inflate with the persona of Person Giving Ride to Friend of Daughter. "Okay then," she said, looking at my hand on the door of the car.
This was clearly my cue to go. "Thanks for the ride," I told her. "Have a nice evening."
I stepped out of the car and into the gray, rainy evening. I watched her drive off before seeking cover. She turned the corner and was out of my sight within a few seconds.
Days later, I would tell Tara about the ride her mother had given me. Her mother was sort of hippy-ish, so I assumed that she told everybody and anybody stories like that. I assumed that Tara had heard that tale, and many other tales, countless times. Apparently not. Tara was shocked that her mother had spoken to me like that. "My mother would never talk to me about anything having to do with sex," she said.