Published• Wed, Jun 05, 2013
By Thom Nickels
Baby Bob, just 3 months old, looks like he can’t wait to walk. At least that’s what I see when I see him squirm in his mother’s arms and when he holds his arms out as if he wants to give the whole street a hug. Neighbors like to stand around and watch his baby gyrations: how he puts his hands to his mouth, squints in the sun, sucks his fingers or rubs his eyes before ruminating little streams of clear spring baby spittle all over his chin. Old timers call this "the mystique" of baby watching; an activity I didn’t know could be such a sport until I ran into Baby Bob’s family and friends the other day and stopped for a moment to introduce myself to the new Mercer Street resident.
There were a lot of eyes on him then, as well as a lot of competing baby talk expressions from the adults, since everyone wanted to be the first to make Baby Bob laugh. I offered a competing "Hello", then stepped up close as he looked in my direction but of course in no time at all his gaze had switched to someone else. Babies are like that; their world is a fast-moving visual smorgasbord. On that afternoon he wore a miniature pair of jeans, a small black t-shirt and white socks.
The conversation turned to possums. Actually, the correct word is opossums, ‘possum’ being the popular colloquial term. Karen, Bob’s mom, told the group how she saw a very large possum walk in front of my house and then waddle past the gate that separates my house from my neighbor Tom’s. I don’t know when this gated alleyway became Possum Alley, but it must have been a couple years ago when I saw a small possum back there for the first time. I was in my dining room polishing an antique desk given me by my great-aunt when I saw a furry thing balanced on the top of my patio fence. I knew straight away it wasn’t a cat because its body was too wide, besides which, cats don’t have thin rodent-like tails. The solitary creature was hiding in the dark of night and probably getting ready to feast on a diet of snails, slugs and cockroaches.
Possums have to watch their backs because they have more predators to worry about than someone stuck in a bad section of Philly in the middle of the night.
I don’t think Baby Bob has seen a possum yet, though his mother was eager to continue her story of the possum that waddled past the alley gate. This possum, she said, looked like it had small blobs attached to its body, although later she was able to see that they weren’t blobs at all but little possum babies, possibly protruding from the animal’s pouch. The sight, Karen said, reminded her of Velcro stick-ons, but once she realized they were babies going along for the ride she said she shivered because the look of it was creepy. The irony of Karen’s comment struck me: How odd, I thought, that she should see a mother possum so soon after the birth of her own son—although Karen, being a human being, has far more class and dignity than to go walking around like that.
"You know," I said, "Possums get a bad rap. They are almost vegetarians. They eat insects like beetles and cockroaches and have even been known to go after rats. And did you know that on the intelligence scale, they rate higher than dogs and are generally on the level of a pig."
The unfortunate thing, of course, is that they are very ugly. But "not too ugly to eat," I added. "Possums made delectable soup for some in the 1800s. And when not used in soups, they can be smoked and stewed." Of course, I would never eat a possum, though I might be tempted if I was on the verge of starving.
Baby Bob put his hands to his mouth and made a little noise. Was he trying to say something about possums? His sister, Ava, barely four years old, stared at him from her plastic cycle and gave him a curious look.
"Ew, I would never eat a possum," Karen said, who I knew liked fresh delivery pizza, Chinese take-out and then topping it all off with one of her long, slender cigarettes.
"Well, it’s not like Applebee’s sells possum stew," I said.
"Look, that old abandoned house up the street is filled with possums," Karen said, pointing to the most notorious house on the block that’s been an eyesore for so long neighbors here are beginning to get its history mixed up. "They all go in there. Feral cats too. It’s Animal House. They crawl in and crawl out. Can you imagine what it looks like inside? The smell?"
"I can’t," I said, having written about this boarded-up monstrosity for years without as much as a nod or wink from the city, leading me to the conclusion that nobody cares. I have even heard some people say that the rotting house is a good thing to have on the street because it keeps property taxes down. "If things look too spiffy, too much like Northern Liberties, then the city will come by with its hand out," one person suggested.
"It’s nice that the owner provides a shelter for wild animals," I offered, trying to remain upbeat. "Mother Teresa would be proud."
"He probably knows somebody in City Hall," somebody else said before reaching for Baby Bob, who gave a really big shout out.
"All I know is, people need to watch their animals," Karen’s aunt chimed in, pointing to the drying doggie doo spot caused by yet another little dog whose owner didn’t have a plastic bag. It was Karen’s aunt who earlier went in and got a plastic bag from her own kitchen and cleaned up the mess for me. She was demonstrating how to be a good neighbor, and for that I thanked her.
Sometimes in life you can literally "talk things or people up," because no sooner did we finish the doggie doo story than Karen spotted someone coming down the street walking their dog. "I wonder if it was them," she said, referring to the illegal doggie doo. "No, that dog is way too big," Karen’s aunt said. We stared at the dog walker and got a stare back. No offense, of course, but it makes you wonder.
"There’s no way to stop this kind of thing except by putting quicksand all around your tree, but then the tree would be swallowed up," I said, trying to make a joke but still thinking of the possum colony in the abandoned house and how many Velcro-baby-attached possum mothers might be in there sniffing around for slugs.
By now other neighbors had walked over to our circle, and a fresh round of baby talk began. Baby Bob was getting it from all sides.
"Such a sweet baby!"
"Gooey gooey goo!"
Overwhelmed by the cacophony of voices, Bob opted to stare at the sky. A jet plane was flying low over the neighborhood, although we couldn’t see it because it was hidden behind the clouds. Baby Bob wiggled, frowned, but then something across the street caught his attention. It was not a possum but old man Blitzer, fresh out of the hospital, but back on his regular diet of beer and cigarettes.
"God bless him," everybody said. "You got to do what you gotta do."
Or, as Philly writer Christopher Morley once wrote, "…If he finds his pleasure on a park bench in ragged trousers let him lounge then, with good heart."
The famous Possum and Feral Cat House on the 2600 block of Mercer Street, near Stock's Bakery. The City of Philadelphia turns a blind eye to this boarded up mess. Another 22nd and Market waiting to happen? Who cares! The possums are happy!