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Friday, February 12, 2010
Troglodytes in Fishtown and Port Richmond
The recent death of writer J.D. Salinger, author of ‘The Catcher in the Rye,’ got me thinking about why writers live where they do. Salinger, with all his eccentricities, was about as down-to-earth a fellow as it’s possible to be despite his international fame. Called “the Garbo of literature” because he refused most interviews and stopped writing years ago, the net effect of his self-imposed exile was the opposite of what he had intended: he became a “target” for literature’s paparazzi.
Salinger, who could have lived anywhere in the world, chose to live for a long time in Cornish, New Hampshire, a small town with about as much “international allure” as Fishtown or Port Richmond. But that’s just the way he wanted it. Salinger often said in interviews that he didn’t want to be around people he got “a smell” from, meaning those upscale fussy- wussy English professor types whom he called “scavengers.”
(‘The Catcher in the Rye,” in case you don’t know, is the story of a 17 year old boy, Holden Caulfield, who travels to New York City after his expulsion from a prep school. Set in the 1940s, Caulfield’s adventures in the Big Apple set the stage for his disillusionment with the human race, most of whom he classifies as “phonies.”)
Salinger, the author, hated phonies in real life. He also loathed the way successful writers become vain. (He once mentioned to writer Lillian Ross that celebrity writers “get puffed up by the same authorities who approved putting monosodium glutamate in baby food.”)
His adversity to pretense and perennial ‘hipsterism’ is one reason he refused to live in New York City, although he loved to visit the city about once every six months. That was enough for him. “A community of seriously hip observers is a scary and depressing thing,” he told Ross, meaning that he preferred communities where (as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said) “a man has aunts and cousins, must buy carrots and turnips, must have barn and woodshed, must go to market and the blacksmith’s shop, must saunter and sleep and be inferior and silly.”
Emerson’s description sounds like life in the Riverwards, if you ask me. While there may be no blacksmith shops or barns here, we do have plenty of carrots and turnips (Greens grove), occasional graffiti and probably more litter than Cornish, New Hampshire. Salinger would probably have felt at home here. Perhaps he would have noticed how many of us in the Riverwards exercise Emerson’s dictum that it’s okay to be “silly.” Consider the numbers of teenagers who walk around in funny looking hooded sweatshirts, or those gigantic Eagles blow up player “dolls” in front of some houses, or those big neon Valentine hearts in scores of bay windows. Then there’s the way we line our streets with cigarette butts, our penchant for Arctic Splash, and so on.
The lack of pretense in a small community like ours explains why, when people say, “We’re going to the mall,” they don’t mean the designer outlets at Franklin Mills but the Dollar stores at Port Richmond Village. This is a far cry from the shopping atmosphere in Rittenhouse Square (where a glass of red wine will cost you $8.00), an area that staid author Henry James once described “as perfect,” meaning, of course, the opposite of imperfect or, possibly, ghetto.
Ghetto, you say? A few times I’ve caught my wealthy Center City friends refer to my neighborhood as “ghetto.” Of course I resent it, but what can I do? I explain to them that the area is not only nice but among the safer neighborhoods in the city. Dropping me off in front of my house, they’ll ask, “Will that tough looking guy sitting on your stoop beat you up?” Once, while driving through the neighborhood, a Center City friend spotted boys playing basketball in the street and said, “Oh God! Are we safe? Will they attack the car?” One woman acquaintance even referred to the women in the Riverwards as “Troglodytes.”
A troglodyte, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is a “person characterized by reclusive habits or outmoded or reactionary attitudes.” It can also mean a caveman, or in this case, a cavewoman, or even the humanoid monsters in the game, Dungeons and Dragons.
“If you took the time to find out, you’d see that most of these people here are very nice,” I said to this friend. Most of my friends do eventually come around and learn to appreciate the area, although a few—the same sort of people Salinger had in mind when he decided not to live in New York City—remain skeptical.
But having lived in Center City for 15 years, I’ll opt for a troglodyte over a fussy- wussy scavenger any day.