Read an Excerpt
By Duane Swierczynski
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2010 Duane Swierczynski
All rights reserved.
Thomas Jefferson Goes to a Porno
I was sitting on my front stoop, drinking a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. At eleven bucks a six-pack, Sierra's a splurge beer, so I tried to savor every sip. I'd probably be drinking pounder cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon from now on.
After a while Meghan came out and I handed her the last one. She thanked me by bumping shoulders. We sat for a while and drank our beers in the warm downtown sun. It would have been a perfect day if I wasn't moving out.
Meghan leaned back on her elbows, blond hair hanging down across her forehead.
"You sure I can't give you a ride?"
I swallowed, enjoying the bitter taste of hops in my mouth, the bright sun on my face. Then I looked at her.
"Frankford's kind of a bad neighborhood."
"No neighborhoods are bad, Mickey. They're just misunderstood."
"No, seriously. It's bad. There was a story in yesterday's Daily News. Some high school kid there was murdered by three of his friends. And I don't mean over a dumb fight over sneakers or drugs. I mean, they planned his execution, killed him, then worked hard to hide the evidence."
"They didn't work too hard if the Daily News found out about it."
Meghan and I had been friends since the year before, when I moved to Sixteenth and Spruce, just a few blocks away from swank Rittenhouse Square. If you've ever been to Philadelphia, you know the square I'm talking about — high-end restaurants, high-rise condos. I couldn't afford this neighborhood even when I was gainfully employed.
But two weeks ago my alt-weekly newspaper, the Philadelphia City Press, decided they could get by with only one staff writer. They wished me all the best. Since no other papers were crying out for my services, here or elsewhere, I joined the ranks of the newly unemployed. Just like hundreds of thousands of other people.
So now my meager possessions were almost packed and I was waiting for a ride from my mom so she could take me to my grandfather's cramped — yet rent-free — efficiency in Frankford, which was a long, long way from Rittenhouse Square.
Normally I refused to accept any help or advice from my mom. The less she knew about my life, the less I owed her, the better. But my back was up against the wall now. I couldn't afford another week in this apartment, let alone another month. I had no money for a deposit on another apartment.
I was moving back to Frankford.
Slumming is one thing when you're twenty-two and just out of college and backed up by a deep-pile parental checking account. But moving to a bad neighborhood when you're thirty-seven and have exhausted all other options is something else entirely. It's a heavy thing with a rope, dragging you down to a lower social depth with no easy way back to the surface.
Worst of all, you can still see them up there — the friends you graduated with fifteen years ago — laughing and splashing around, having a good time.
The last thing I wanted was Meghan to escort me to the bottom of the ocean, give me an awkward hug, then swim back up to the party. She'd offered to drive me at least a half-dozen times over the past two weeks, and I repeatedly had told her no, my mom insisted on taking me.
Which was a total friggin' lie.
"You don't want to go to Frankford," I said. "It's one of the busiest drug corridors in the city. It even used to have its own serial killer."
"Now you're just making stuff up."
"Completely serious. Happened when I was in high school — in the late 1980s. The guy was called the Frankford Slasher, and he killed a bunch of prostitutes. I wrote a piece about it for the Press."
"That was Jack the Ripper."
"It was also the Frankford Slasher."
"Still think you're making it up."
I pushed myself up by pressing my palms on the warm brownstone.
"I'd better finish packing. A couple of teenagers could be plotting my death as we speak, and I don't want to disappoint them."
"Or the Frankford Slasher."
"Fortunately, I'm not a prostitute."
There was an awkward moment of silence. Then Meghan looked at me.
"Call your mom, Mickey. Tell her I'm driving you."
Frankford wasn't always a bad neighborhood. A couple hundred years ago it was a nice quiet village where the framers of the Constitution would spend their summers to escape the stifling heat of the city. I could show you the place — Womrath Park — where Thomas Jefferson allegedly kicked back and read the Declaration of Independence for the first time in public.
But take Thomas Jefferson to Womrath Park now. Introduce him to the new owners of the park — the hard young men selling little white chunks of smokeable snuff. Walk him into the triple-X theater across the street, where he'd be treated to projected images of people engaged in a very different sort of congress.
You could almost imagine him marching back down to Independence Hall and saying: Look, fellas, I think we oughta think this whole "freedom" thing through a bit more.
A century after Jefferson, Frankford the Quiet Country Village morphed into Frankford the Bustling Industrial Neighborhood. It was a popular way station on the road (King's Highway) from Philadelphia to New York City. The streets were crowded with factories and mills, along with modest-but-sturdy rowhomes for the workers who labored in them. There were cotton mills, bleacheries, wool mills, iron works and calico print works. There was a bustling arsenal and gunpowder mill. The industry thrived for a while, then sputtered, then died. Just like it did in the rest of the country.
But they say the neighborhood was truly doomed in 1922, the year the city ran an elevated train down its main artery — Frankford Avenue — shrouding the shops below in darkness and pigeon crap. White flight to the suburbs began in the 1950s. Then, in the 1960s, drugs found Frankford, and invited all of its friends to stay.
And I'd told Meghan the truth: a serial killer really did prowl the dark avenue under the El, late at night, looking for drunks and prostitutes in the 1980s around dive bars like Brady's at Bridge and Pratt. The Slasher was never caught.
A Philly band called American Dream had a minor pop hit back in the early 1970s called "Frankford El." The chorus explained that you can't get to Heaven on the Frankford El. Why?
Because the Frankford El goes straight to ... Frankford.
Grandpop's block looked like a junkie's smile. Starting from the extreme left, you had the dirty concrete steps leading up to the Margaret Street station of the El. Right next door, an abandoned building. Then, a weeded lot. A three-story building. Weeded lot. Grandpop's building, the ground floor occupied by one of those beer/rolling paper/pork rind bodegas that upset City Council so much. Weeded lot. Weeded lot.
Out of an original eight buildings on this strip of Frankford Avenue, only three remained.
My new place was up on the third floor, where it appeared I'd have an excellent view of the El tracks.
Meghan gazed up at the dirty underbelly of the El through her windshield. Pigeons nested around up there, covering every possible square inch with their chunky white shit.
"It's not so bad."
"You're right. If you squint, it's eerily reminiscent of Rittenhouse Square."
"This is probably the next great undiscovered neighborhood. Look what they did to Fishtown and Northern Liberties."
"Yeah. They could level the area with a bunker buster and start all over."
She scanned the block. Across the street was a rusty metal kiosk that, if I remember correctly, used to be a newsstand. Now it appeared to be a community urinal.
"Think it's okay to park here?"
Meghan was born and raised on Philadelphia's so-called Main Line. You remember the movie — Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, all that? That's the Main Line. I remembered watching the movie on TV as a kid and wondering why they called it The Philadelphia Story, because they certainly couldn't have filmed it in Philadelphia.
The Philly I knew was Rocky, Twelve Monkeys. Hardcore gritty tales set in unforgiving concrete canyons. Meghan claimed to love the rough-and-tumble Philadelphia from Rocky and Twelve Monkeys. I had to gently remind her that the latter was a postapocalyptic film.
Still, I couldn't blame her.
She didn't grow up here.
When I left Frankford after college I swore I'd never return. You get punched in the face often enough, chased down the block and through your own front door often enough ... well, it kind of puts you off a neighborhood.
As a kid, I mostly stayed in my back bedroom and read whatever I could get my hands on. And later, I wrote stories. Looking back on it now, it seems I was plotting my escape all along, because it was a writing career that got me out of Frankford.
And now, the lack of a writing career was bringing me back.
My mom had come up with the idea of me crashing here until I found another job. It wasn't like Grandpop Henry would know the difference. The downstairs bodega owner had found him a few hours after he'd suffered some kind of seizure and fell into a coma — the same day I lost my job at the City Press, in fact. Not exactly a banner day for the family.
My mom told me that Grandpop Henry could breathe on his own. But now he was like a TV without cable: the power was on, only he couldn't receive any programming.
"You should still visit him. He can still hear you."
"He'll only be a few blocks away."
"You're going to visit him, right?"
My mother delighted in telling me what to do, and I found a not too small measure of satisfaction doing the exact opposite.
She also told me that Grandpop's apartment was fully furnished, so I wouldn't have to worry about pots, pans or utensils. Not that I owned much of that stuff. My worldly possessions included a crate of old LPs from the 1960s and 70s; a box of Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski paperbacks — standard issue for journalists; another box of vintage paperback mysteries; a six-year-old Mac laptop; a three-year-old cell phone that didn't close right; and finally, two trash bags full of clothes and other assorted junk I've been dragging around for fifteen years, from Philly to New York City and back.
It's sad when your worldly possessions fit into a 2009 Toyota Prius.
On the upside, we finished unloading in less than thirty minutes, even though it was three flights up to Apartment 3-A. I drove Meghan's Prius to the Frankford Hospital garage a few blocks away, where I assumed it would be reasonably safe. After all, doctors parked there, right?
Meghan gave me a playful punch in the arm.
"So, what now?"
"Well, I was about to have my boy Tino mix me a gin gimlet before retiring to the terrace to watch the sunset."
"Send Tino home for the night. Let's get drunk on beer."
"Excellent suggestion. But I'll have to go get your car again."
"What, and drive back wasted? Let's go downstairs and buy a few sixes."
"The bodega. They sell beer. I saw the signs in the window and everything."
So we walked downstairs to the bodega. I bought two sixes from Willie Shahid — though I didn't know his name yet. Meghan looked like she was having a grand old time, buying beer in Frankford. Meanwhile, I worried some crackhead in a ski mask was going to pop in, wave a gun around and ask for the keys to the late-model Prius parked in the hospital garage up the street.
I was also mildly alarmed when the tab for two sixes of Yuengling came to $18, leaving me with about five bucks until my final paycheck was direct deposited the next day. But hey, the lady wanted to get her beer on. Tonight, money was no object.
Tonight, we were toasting my sad return home.
About an hour later I'd killed four of the Yuenglings and lined the empties up on top of Grandpop Henry's massive cherrywood desk. Meghan, first beer still in hand, was on the floor going through his stuff without shyness or apology.
"I'm a snoop."
There wasn't much to Apartment 3-A — just a big room with a bathroom off to one side, a small closet on the other. A rusty radiator in the corner for all your heating needs. A desktop circulating fan for cooling, which would do jack shit once summer really got under way. A small kitchenette with a miniature oven barely big enough for a TV dinner and a quarter-sized fridge that could accommodate beer or food, but not both at the same time.
Grandpop Henry moved here in 2002, but I'd never visited. I feel a little guilty about that — but then again, I also didn't go out of my way to return to Frankford either.
Every few minutes the thunder of the Frankford El smashed through the silence, and through the dirty front windows you could see the rushing silver of the train cars as they ground to a halt at the Margaret Street station, then, after a ten-second delay, started moving again, and the rumble would build to a deafening crescendo that bounced off the fronts of the buildings all the way down to the next station.
The place was reasonably clean — no nicotine buildup on the walls, no grease caked on the ceiling of the kitchenette. Grandpop Henry, it seemed, owned only two pieces of furniture: a big houndstooth couch and the big cherrywood desk. No bed, no kitchen table, no chairs. Guess when it comes down to it, all you needed was something to sit on and something to put things on.
Still, the room was cluttered, a ridiculous amount of floor space devoted to cardboard boxes, plastic milk crates and shoe boxes crammed with papers. This was what Meghan picked through.
"What does your grandfather do for a living?"
"He's retired. But he used to be a night watchman at a hospital. My mom told me he liked the hours, the lack of conscious people."
"What's the huh for?"
"He's got a lot of papers here. Newspaper clippings, genealogy charts, handwritten notes. A lot of medical reports, it looks like. I thought maybe he was a journalist or something. Like you."
"My grandpop? I don't think he was much of a reader."
After a while Meghan showed me a yellowed envelope.
She mispronounced it the way most people do: wad-chek. As in, check your wad. The kids in grade school figured it out pretty quick.
"My grandfather's name. It's Polish. And pronounced vahd-chek."
"My, that's veeeered. So wait — is that your last name?"
"Your name is Mickey Wadcheck? How did I not know this?"
"My dad played music under the name Anthony Wade. So I adopted Wade for my byline. You would, too, if you had a name like vahd-chek."
"You know I'm totally calling you Mr. Wadcheck from now on."
Bad enough I have "Mickey" for a handle. The name on my birth certificate is "Mick," in honor of Messrs. Jagger and Ronson, two of my dad's musician heroes. You can't call a five-year-old "Mick," of course, so it soon became "Mickey." And my classmates right away thought of the mouse. My childhood was full of M-I-C (see you real soon ... gaywad!) jokes, not to mention that horrible stretch in 1982 when Toni Basil totally friggin' ruined my life. I was ten, and I swore a blood oath to crush the skull of the next person to tell me I was so fine, so fine I blew their mind. The only person who had it worse that year was a classmate named Eileen, who didn't understand why her leering male classmates were suddenly talking about coming on her.
"Oh my God — will you look at this."
Meghan crawled over and handed me a photo of a man in a WWII-era military uniform. My grandpop.
"He looks just like you, Mr. Wadcheck!"
"Don't call me that. And yeah, I've been told there's a resemblance, but I don't see it. Maybe if you saw him in person ..."
"Bah. You're a dead ringer."
I twisted open another Yuengling as Meghan picked through another box, sitting on the floor, legs crossed, shoeless. I liked the way her blond hair dangled in front of her face and it didn't seem to bother her in the least.
"Did you two used to spend a lot of time together?"
"Not really. Grandpop Henry's always been a little weird. Kind of gruff, spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child kind of guy. Imagine Walter Matthau in Grumpy Old Men."
"I thought you two might be close, considering ..."
She left that hanging midair, waiting for me to finish: what had happened to my father.
Late one night at McGillin's Ale House, the oldest continuously operating bar in Philly, I'd told her about what had happened to my dad. She didn't press, I didn't elaborate. It had never come up again, until now.
I took another pull from my beer.
"Yeah, well, no. I see my grandmother a lot."
"Define a lot."
"Holidays? I see her for at least one or two of the important ones."
"Thought as much. So they're divorced?"
"A long time ago. My dad was ten or eleven, I think."
I regretted bringing my dad up, because whenever I thought about him with alcohol in my system, I started getting pissed off and morose. And I didn't want to be pissed off or morose in front of Meghan.
I tried to lighten the mood.
"So to recap: I'm jobless. I live in a bad neighborhood. And I don't have much in the way of male role models."
Meghan smiled, leaning up and touching my face. I loved the feel of her fingertips. They were cool and warm at the same time.
"And yet, you're such a gentleman, Mr. Wadcheck."
"Please don't call me Mr. Wadcheck."
Excerpted from Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski. Copyright © 2010 Duane Swierczynski. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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