Saturday, May 19, 2007
The Obscure and the Routine
I could never have appreciated how obscure my family was when I was growing up. A poor family in northwest Philadelphia, too hot in the summer, and too cold in the winter. I thought we were big time. I thought we were important people. I thought the world really revolved around my family. We had this way of understanding everything. There was nothing my father could not explain. And even if it was bad, we always knew what was happening. It was a terrible strain, but I began to understand that it was worth it. We had no modesty, any of us. We were fierce in our self-importance. We were really important to ourselves. Our lives were important and what happened to us was important. The day's small plans and obligations engrossed us. Going to school. To work. Shopping. My father going to union meetings every two weeks on Thursday nights. It was all terribly important. And so when, in adulthood, I took a shit job at one of the largest law firms in the country that was managed by a close friend of the President of the United States and the former Ambassador to Russia it seemed plausible that these important people had taken an interest in me. It was not delusional. It did not have the vapid essence of illusion. It was real. It was substantial. I was important. It was like the world had finally agreed to what I always knew that we were important people. Recognition was just. It was more than just, it was unsurprising.
But where we lived, growing up, always seemed to me the essence of obscurity. In northwest Philadelphia connected rowhouses fill each city block. Two stories high they line the streets mile after mile. Kids grow up around doorways, on stoops, in courtyards. And in the dark living rooms with their wooden floors, and aging decrepit furniture. One block after another. Miles of rowhouses with their rooms of cooking smells and their armament of garbage cans at the curb. From the prominence of our little house on Seventeenth Street I could see around the ranks of rowhouses. Beyond my sight I knew there were more streets, more rowhouses interspersed every fifteen or twenty blocks with a red castle of a school just like mine. Surrounded by this monotony of architecture, we were protected from worse things -- storms, fireballs, the marches of ants, floods from the sky -- nothing in this part of the world being worth such energy, such destruction. I had it all worked out. We were important in this world of the obscure and the routine.