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Lessons of a back yardBY: J.T. Barbarese 01.03.2012
In the tiny South Philadelphia back yard where I grew up, something very important was transpiring. Only nobody realized it, least of all me.
A (South Philly) child’s garden of versesJ.T. BARBARESE
It was 14 feet wide— one house front. Maybe ten feet separated the back room from the cinderblock wall that divided house from the garbage cans in the alley. It’s where I recreated as a South Philadelphia child.
Plays put on. Books read. Pyrotechnics with glue and sulfur cigar tube rockets. Pitching baseball cards, water balloons. Squinting into a 60- power Fisher refractor and drawing mid-winter moon maps while sitting on cold cinderblocks and the concrete steps that my father mixed and poured the year my parents moved in.
Everything in sight got washed in that house. All the furniture. All the toys. The stuffed fuzzy ones, I must have figured, got steam-cleaned. The poor black kitten— some half-mindless gift handed over the fence one day, the kitten that didn’t live long enough to get a name and played with me all of one day—in my arms, in my lap, around the yard.
But not in the house. No cats in the house. Solution: Clean the cat.
So I filled a bucket with cold water and got a second, slightly fatter bucket from a neighbor and inverted it on the smaller one. The cat was inside. When my mother found it the next day, she was moved to tears— for me (who hardly deserved them), not for the cat that no longer needed them. She was stiff and vertical, but clean.
Fences and fig trees
Moments collapse around moments. At ten, I watch the clapboard fence between us and our northern neighbors coming down and a fence made of that industrial miracle, cyclone fencing, rising in its place. Sears had it on sale first day of spring. My mother had agitated for it all winter because the old one was splintered and peeling and the next-door neighbors were people she avoided in her dignified way.
The fence to the south had fallen much earlier, to be replaced by the other marvel, cinderblock. The fig tree that still grew in the yard when my parents moved years later grew inside a modest, raised garden my father made inside a double row of cinderblock left over from building the wall.
There was a length of hose. Green, off-the-rack, inevitably Sears, between eight and nine feet long. You can’t now and never could buy hose this length. My father cut it down after the spray attachment rusted to the nozzle. He cut it twice. First to get the rusted bit off. The second because my mother wanted a hose short enough for her to wash the yard without tripping over and for him to water his plants.
Fences, hoses, fig trees. Between three and four I learned to read there— a stunt that pumped the relatives full of pride. (I subsequently clarified things by following the ten-year plan through three colleges, getting kicked out of the first two.)
Food and language
My mother taught me by seating me in a high-chair close enough to the door into the narrow alleyway that ended in the yard proper. I had to see her at the end of that brick corridor where she would hang clothes, humming or singing “Bei Mir Bis Du Schoen.” Otherwise I would cry out.
One day she heard me asking her what the letters c-e-r-e-a-l spelled and she sounded them back. To this day I associate food with language, letters, books, print, cadenced speech. I can never read anything without hearing a woman’s voice in my head. Years ago a shrink suggested that the owner of the voice was my Jungian anima. I knew better.
They sold the place five years before my father died and moved to a single-story faux-rancher up on Easton Road. Dad had a bigger yard and no steps to climb following three heart surgeries, so they got used to it. Then he died, and his death left my mother so distraught she couldn’t remember how to balance a checkbook.
“Why did he move me out here, all alone?” she said to me angrily right after he died. When I reminded her why, we both laughed. He got aggravated, I said. He came home one day (from food shopping) and couldn’t find a place to park— even double-park, the acceptable workaround in South Philadelphia. Aggravation Number One.
Then he entered the house, walked straight to the back yard— 60 feet from front steps to back door— to sneak a smoke. A squirrel was lunching on his tomato plant. Another was romping in the figs. Aggravations Two and Three.
He put it up for sale the next day. It sold in weeks. They virtually lived in their car, the one he hadn’t been able to park anywhere, until they found the house in Glenside. The hose and the fig tree and squirrels stayed behind when they moved. The hose he regarded as a particularly generous gratuity to the new owner. He said it still worked. A hose is a hose. He started a new fig tree from scratch at their new house with its vast backyard, soaring maples, dense grass, and 60 feet of tough plastic hose on a metal roll screwed to a wall.
A widow in Glenside
One day years later I caught sight of her with her grandson, handing him objects, walking him up back and around the huge back yard behind the new house in Glenside and telling him all about that fig tree. She was a widow now but I thought, she’s still got it, still had that spunky way with children that she had when her hair was darker, her face thinner, her body slimmer, her voice stronger.
I stood there mentally writing out— between taut lengths of double rope laundry line, the line he had put up for her before he died and where she still hung clothes— the song she had sung in the sunshine over and over when she was teaching me how to read and, without knowing it, transforming an utterly banal urban back yard into something sublime.♦
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