The White Marble Steps
I was born in North Philly and lived on Darien Street near 8th and Diamond during a time when people scrubbed the white marble steps in front of their houses with Ajax cleanser every Saturday summer morning. They washed and hosed and swept the steps, sidewalk, and street, and when there was no more suds in the gutters, the little kids came out in their underwear and played in the street and under the fire plug. Darien Street was so narrow that two little kids sitting facing each other with their legs stretched out in front and their feet touching was all it took to make a "dam". With the fireplug running full blast, the water got deep enough to float Popsicle stick boats.
Eventually, the Philly Water Department came around to shut off the fireplug, but it was no use. Someone on the block always had that special wrench you needed to turn it back on. Usually, that took awhile, and we'd wait, because you had to send somebody to find the guy with the wrench. When he would finally show up, waving the wrench in the air, there would be a big cheer, which got louder as the water gushed out of the hydrant again.
Rootie's Basement Pretzel Factory
We actually had a real soft pretzel factory right on our corner. The factory was called "Rootie's", or at least that's how it was pronounced, and it operated in the basement of a corner building. A large double metal door in the sidewalk opened to reveal steep steps that led down to the factory. You could look right down and see the moving conveyor belt and the men making pretzels.
On the long waist-high conveyor belt were parallel lengths of rolled fresh dough "noodles", evenly spaced, ready to be hand-twisted into a real Philly soft pretzel. Men stood on both sides of the conveyor belt twisting the dough noodles into pretzels as they went by. We kids would watch from the sidewalk above through the open door as the men put the raw pretzels on metal baking trays. As the trays got full, another man would come and put the tray into an oven to bake.
Sometimes the conveyor belt went a little fast and the men would miss some of the dough noodles. The untwisted dough would fall off the end of the belt into a basket on the floor. By our kid's logic, if the men missed a noodle and it fell into the basket, that meant it was ours. We'd wait until the basket got nearly full, then when we felt bold enough, we'd quick run down the steps, grab a handful of raw dough and run back up the steps and scatter out onto the street. No one ever chased us.
The raw dough was very valuable to us kids because it had so many uses. You could chew it, although I don't think any of us actually ate it. You could mold it into different shapes and let it bake hard in the sun. Or you could have dough wars, which is mostly what we did with it.
Near my street, on the corner of a vacant lot, was a small run-down old shack. In the shack was an old woman named Stella who sold newspapers. People would walk up to the shack window and buy a paper. I was only about six years old, so I don't remember much else about her, or what else she sold in that shack. I'm not even sure why I remember Stella at all. There was nothing extraordinary about an old woman who sells newspapers. She obviously made an impression on me though. I think she must have been a kind person because, although I don't remember anything about her, I still have a strong feeling for her. She lived a simple life, and probably knew everyone in the neighborhood. I wonder if she had kids. I heard that she died in a fire in that shack.
The Ice Man
I have to mention the Ice Man, because he was an image in my childhood I'll never forget. He had a very long braided pony tail that went all the way down his back. Every summer the Ice Man would drive his horse-drawn wagon, filled with big blocks of clear ice, up and down the streets of North Philly. He sold the ice mostly to people who had "ice boxes". These were the equivalent of refrigerators, except that they were just big insulated boxes. You'd put a block of ice inside and it kept the food cool for a week. I remember the Ice Man because he was very friendly and he'd let you feed sugar cubes to his horse (and keep a few for ourselves). He would also use his ice pick to hack off small chunks of clear cold ice for us kids to suck on during the hot summer days.
Margie lived across the street from me when I was about six years old. She was around seven or eight years old and I had a gigantic crush on her. She was the first girl I ever loved. One day I decided to tell her how I felt about her, so I wrote her a love letter. I remember asking my mom how to spell "Margie". The letter simply said, "Margie, I like you. Do you like me?" We were in the middle of Darien Street, in front of my house when I handed her the note. She responded, "You know what I do with notes I don't like?". Then she tore the note up right in front of me. I was crushed and horrified, but I don't think I cried. I never spoke to her again, nor her to me.
Don't think for a second that six-year-old kids don't fall in love. Things are magnified when you're six, and the feelings, good and bad, are there in all their intensity.
Morning Glories are my favorite flower. When I walked to school in the morning in North Philly, there was a tall fence I'd pass on the way. The fence towered over me and was covered with great vines of Morning Glory. I thought the flowers were beautiful - all pastel yellows, pinks, blues, and rose. Most were still open and full, but I knew that when I came home in the afternoon, they would all be closed - asleep until next morning.
The Day I Fell in Love with Possums
I had an incredible experience today that I have to mention. I let the cats (Archie and Rocket) out in the back yard today (9/9/2005) as usual, and while outside I happened to see something in the recycle can. I didn't know at first what species of furry creature I was seeing, but soon I realized it was a soundly sleeping baby possum, curled up like a kitten, with his paws covering his eyes. I wasn't sure it was alive, so I just looked to see if he was breathing. Sure enough he was alive, but ignoring me completely. As I looked, Rocky got up on his hind legs to look into the can. When I chased him away with a "shoo", the possum woke, looked at me with one eye open, winked, then went back to sleep. I was surprized by the cuteness of the little animal. I always associated them with rats. Curled up like a little kitten! I wasn't gonna try to pat him or anything, but he didn't seem as vicious as his reputation. I decided to look up "possum" on the internet. To my surprize, the first thing I found out is that possums are related to kangaroos! They both carry their young in a pouch. They're both marsupials and possums are the only marsupials in North America. A possum's first line of defense when threatened is to run away. Their second line is to hiss and show teeth, and even though this is a scary sight, possums are rarly aggressive. Their last line of defense is to "play possum", that is, they play dead. Except for that skinny tail, the long nose and whiskers, and the creepy way they walk, they're nothing at all like rats.
When I was six, my older brother would sometimes let me hang out with him and his friends on the street. My brother was nicknamed "Onion" because he liked onions and would eat them like an apple. He'd have a salt shaker in one hand and an onion in the other. He'd be walking, shaking on some salt, taking a bite, cool, like everybody does this.
So what's this got to do with potatoes? Nothing yet. But I had to tell you first about my brother and his friends. We'd go into this vacant lot, make a small fire, then wait a while till it burned down to embers. While we waited we'd look for something to sit on. There was always something - an old tire, a box, a piece of wood. We'd get comfortable sitting around the fire, talking and feeding the fire anything that would burn. When the fire was right, we'd bury a few potatoes in the hot embers and goof around talking and feeding the fire. When they were done, we would pull them out of the fire with a stick, dust them off, put on some of my brother's salt, and eat them. Nothing much else happened. Times are good when you can sit on a box in a vacant lot, roast a potato with your big brother and his friends, and feel like you're on top of the world.
When I was about fourteen, my older cousin Burt demonstrated for me the chemical reaction between potassium permanganate and glycerin. First, he made a little pile of the black potassium permanganate crystals on the basement floor of my parents' house. Then from a small glass vile, he poured a little of the thick clear liquid glycerin right on top of the pile. He told me to stand back. Nothing happened. I watched and waited. What seemed like a long time went by, and when I was sure I would be disappointed, a little smoke started to curl up from the mixture. Immediately, the whole thing blazed up with bright purple flames, hissing loudly, and giving off great plumes of white smoke. Why does that happen? How does it happen? I was mystified and forever hooked on chemistry.
So in 1961, (I was 17) long before any worries of terrorism, my parents generously gave me exclusive use of the garage for my chemistry lab. Actually, the garage came to serve several important purposes for a growing teenager. Besides the fully equipped chem lab, the garage was also a photographic darkroom and a hangout for my friends. There was a gas heater, a sink with running water, small refrigerator, telephone, a few chairs, table and a small bed. The garage entrance was from the driveway, but since the hangout was also a darkroom, you couldn't tell from the driveway if lights were on inside. No one ever knew when we were in there. This was the perfect teenage hangout. My parents never interfered, or knew, or asked what was going on down there. Aside from the chemistry and photography, my friends and I would sometimes hang out, bring girls over, and listen to music. This was the beginning of the sixties and kids (including me and my friends) were still dancing on Bandstand when it was in Philly. We weren't hippies yet. That didn't happen for me and my friends until around 1967. Except for the few minor legal infractions, it was all pretty innocent.
Let me say right off that no one ever got hurt as a result of the chemistry experiments. I was always very careful, especially if friends were around. Of course, there were a few mishaps. Making "black powder" was a favorite pastime since it was easy to make and could be used for all sorts of fireworks displays. At the time, you could buy the main ingredients at any local drug store - which we frequently did. Anyway, I was testing a new batch - more than a pound of the stuff. I put a small amount on the floor to light with a match, but didn't move the main container far enough away. Sparks! Luckily, it wasn't such a good batch, so when it ignited, it didn't go off very violently. However, it took longer than usual to burn out and gave off tremendous amounts of smoke and stink and my parents' house got totally smoked. No permanent harm done though. After a few hours with the windows open, the house was back to normal.
But not for long.
A few weeks later, I made a small batch of tear gas, which is actually an oily slightly greenish liquid. It evaporates easily and becomes a gas when exploded in a tear gas bomb. The garage-lab has a cement floor, so when I accidently knocked the open bottle of liquid onto the porous floor, the potent concentrate soaked right in and the whole house got gassed again.
Nothing bad ever happened as a result of preparing a small batch of pure concentrated essence of skunk, another potent liquid, chemically known as "butyl mercaptan". It's easy to make and small amounts have a very powerful and lasting stench. Good thing I'm a nice guy. When I'd tell people I made a batch of skunk oil, they'd always ask me if they could smell it. So I used to just let people smell it. I always thought that was kind of nuts because that stuff really stinks, but people are curious. I had to smell it, but you wouldn't want to smell it too much.
How could I forget the still! This was another experiment that took place in the Garage. The idea was to make 200 proof ethyl alcohol. The reaction is pretty straightforward. Common table sugar dissolved in water will decompose or "ferment" in the presence of baking yeast. The yeast doesn't actually take part in the reaction - it facilitates the reaction by acting as a catalyst. The reaction products are carbon dioxide gas which bubbles up through the mixture, and ethyl alcohol, which remains in solution.
When the mixture stops bubbling after about 10 days, it has to be distilled to separate and concentrate the pure alcohol. This is where the still comes in. Distilling is just the process of boiling a liquid until it vaporizes, then passing the vapor over a cold surface until it liquifies again. Since alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, the first vapors to come out are mostly alcohol. The most efficient way to do this is by several distillations. This helps to maximize both the amount of alcohol retrieved and the concentration. The ideal, which is never reached in practice, is that you want to get all of the alcohol, but none of the water.
As tested with a "hydrometer", my alcohol came in around 180 proof. I was pretty satisfied with that, because further concentration would have meant loss of some alcohol and I was concerned as much with quantity as with concentration. Everything is a compromise.
Here's how I built the thing. A still is nothing more than a long copper tube coiled into a spring shape, and submerged in running cold water. You boil the fermented liquid in a vessel which is fitted to one end of the copper tube. The vapor enters the tube here. The other end of the tube is the outlet for the pure alcohol. The vapors change to liquid (condense) as they pass through the cold copper tube. The whole spring-shaped coil was fitted into two coffee cans that I soldered together. With cold water constantly running into the cans, the copper coil was kept cold.
I've loved cats ever since I was old enough to hold a kitten. On Darien street, we had an attachment to the back of the house, a shed, where we kept the ice box and kitchen supplies. There was a broken window in the shed that never got fixed and stray cats from the neighborhood would always find their way in. Whenever I saw a cat in the shed, I would let it into the house to feed it and play with it. There were two cats I remember, a black one and a gray one. Of course I named them "Blackie" and "Grayie". My mother would chase them out and I would let them back in. This went on for a long time and was probably the beginning of a life-long clash of personalities between my mother and myself. It wasn't that my mom didn't like cats. As it turned out, she loved them too - she just didn't want to adopt every cat in the neighborhood. She didn't want to adopt any cat in the neighborhood.
It wasn't until I was 10 and we had moved to the northeast that my mother let me have a cat. There was this gray and white stray that used to come around. One night it was raining and I saw the cat outside. My mother wouldn't let me bring the cat in, so I got an umbrella and sat outside on the steps with the cat. I decided right then that if it rained for a week and I had to live outside with that cat under the umbrella, well, then I would live outside for a week. I wasn't out for more than a few hours when my mom finally broke down and let me bring the cat in the house. The cat turned out to be a female, about one year old. We named her "Boots" because she had white-tipped paws. She was a wonderful cat, playful and affectionate and she followed me everywhere in the neighborhood. If I visited a friend, she'd follow me and wait for me outside for hours. When I'd come out, she'd walk home with me. We had her for fourteen years. I was 24 years old when she died. My mother came to love her as much as I did and wrote a poem about her entitled "Bootsie". Here it is in my mom's own handwriting:
"Bootsie" - Written by Shirley Arnold, 1968
In case the above reproduction is too hard to read, here's the text of her poem:
By Shirley Arnold
She came one day and stopped at our door
Not much larger than two by four.
With a cute pink nose and hazel green eyes
She was so cute and just the right size.
She would romp and play all over the house
Then at times she was just as still as a mouse.
She was no bother and took little care
But was just loads of fun just being there.
I don't think she knew that she was a cat
But thought she was "people" and sat where we sat.
She was our Bootsie, our dear little cat.
Then one day without saying goodbye
She was hit by a car that went flying by.
And that's where I found her, our poor little friend
After fourteen good years, now this was her end.
Our kind gentle Bootsie who loved to be pat
Dear little Bootsie who was not just a cat.
1953 - 1968
I rarely drink alcohol and I don't condone excessive drinking, but sometimes when people get drunk, it can be a very heartening and funny scene.
I once made ten gallons of beer in one of my garage-lab experiments. It's easy. Four pounds of sugar, three pounds of molasses with hops, a little baker's yeast, and water sufficient to make ten gallons. I mixed this up in an old wooden beer barrel and stored it in the garage-lab, which is nice and cool.
A reassuring steady fermentation fizz starts after only a few minutes and continues for about ten days. After a few hours the whole garage has this terrific smell, like a cross between a bar and a bakery. It's a warm pleasant smell and you know that something very good is happening.
You have to listen to the fizzing every day and learn the sound of the reaction because it's critical to not let the fermentation go too far. If you do, you'll have totally flat beer. On the other hand, if you bottle it too soon, the bottles will explode. The safest thing is to bottle it just before the fizzing stops. This is where the skill of the beermeister comes in. If you listen carefully to it every day, you'll know when this time is. It sounds the same for several days, but near the end of the fermentation, the fizzing slows down. Also, you must use good clean bottles. I used some empty four-liter Nitric Acid bottles from the lab where I worked. They were perfect, especially since they had the big POISON label and the skull and crossbones.
Considering that this was my first batch, it came out pretty well. It tasted like beer and it looked like beer, but it didn't have much of a fizz. I bottled it a little too late. Still, none of it went to waste. One day I came home and walked into the living room. The first thing that I see is four or five empty nitric acid bottles lying around on the floor. Then I see my father and a half-dozen of his cronies from the street all sprawled out on the couch, stoned drunk on my home-made brew. A beermeister couldn't possibly get a better compliment.