She Divines Water

#WhereILivedWednesday: 4005 Pine St.

This post is part of #WhereILivedWednesday, started by Ann Imig of Ann’s Rants. It’s my second post in this series and I love it. Go read all the other bloggers posting about their past homes linked on her site.

4005 Pine St. the half on the right.

4005 Pine St. the half on the right.

Summer 1988. My best friend and I decided that rather than each of us go to our respective homes during the break between our junior and senior years of college, we would live in Philadelphia and get jobs. I took the train in from my college in the suburbs and found a sublet just on the edge of the University of Pennsylvania campus where lots of old row houses were shared by students. I managed to line up a job at the Penn bookstore for the summer and figured my mother couldn’t say no, just look how responsible I had been so far.

Thankfully she didn’t say no, probably because job opportunities at home were slim and didn’t pay well. The bookstore job didn’t pay all that well either but it was a respectable job and would more than cover my rent and expenses so I would still be able to save up money for the fall semester. My friend and I shared a huge room that was big enough to have two double beds in it. A real luxury for people used to cramming themselves into dorm rooms with their weirdly extra-long single beds. I think we paid $200 a month, together, for our room. The first floor had a living room that almost no one ever used, a dining room (the two of us seemed to be the only one ones who ever ate our meals there), and the kitchen.

The second floor had our room, two other bedrooms, and a bathroom. The third floor had a similar layout. I loved all the intricate carved wooden mouldings and details in the old house. Our room had louvered shutters on the windows to keep the midday sun out but let the air pass through. I was thrilled to be in the city with a bunch of other young people, no parents telling us to be in by a certain time. It was my first time not living at home or in a dorm room with your meals provided.

We would bump into our fellow housemates in the kitchen mostly and get to talking, like you do while waiting for your pasta water to boil. Sharing our floor were two other young women, one named Tracey who had a thing for Bryan Ferry, and walked with a crutch. The other woman smoked and pretty much stayed locked in her room except for when she came down to make herself a Lean Cuisine. Her mother had recently become a convert on some diet or other and ate nothing but Lean Cuisine and made sure her daughter was equally well-stocked in frozen foods. From the third floor there was the Penn student who actually lived in the house year-round, and there was William. A tall, lanky, curly-haired Wharton grad, who had graduated in 1987, gone to Wall St. for a job, and got laid off in the great stock market crash later that year. He wasn’t too upset about it because he really didn’t like finance and wanted to be in a band instead.

We loved the freedom of living on our own in the city. We even loved mundane things like grocery shopping. It was great to be able to have the city right outside your door at all hours. Just at the other end of the block was a late night place called Billy Bob’s where you could get a Frank’s Black Cherry Wishniak soda at 2:00a.m. if you wanted to, just because how great is it to buy something called Frank’s Black Cherry Wishniak soda at 2:00a.m. from a place called Billy Bob’s?! There was a record store just down the street from Billy Bob’s, an all night Kinko’s another block down, everything you could want. Of course, city living had its downsides too, as a homeless man named David more or less took up residence on our front porch for a number of weeks. We decided not to tell our moms about that.

As great as the house was, the jobs we’d lined up sucked. I’d been hired to prepare all the textbooks for the summer session at Penn, and then to rearrange all the books for the fall semester. What they thougt would take me all summer to do, I finished in three weeks. One day, as I was flipping through the free City Paper, I saw an ad for bike messengers wanted. Guaranteed weekly salary of more than I was making at the bookstore plus the possibility of bonuses if you busted your butt. My friend’s job had her walking door-to-door in some really bad neighborhoods. So we both traded jobs. She took a job in an office answering phones and I took the job outside on the streets.

Luckily my outdoor job was perfect for me. The place that needed bike messengers was a reprographics firm with dedicated clients, mostly architects and engineers who needed big rolls of plans copied in the pre-everything-digital days. We would be given a log with a couple of places listed, either pick-ups or drop-offs, and we would stop at pay phones and call in to see if we should make any other stops before bringing back our loads. When we got back, more would be waiting to go out. The plans usually fit perfectly resting on top of my red bike‘s drop handlebars, held in place by the brake cables. Though I considered myself to be pretty familiar with the city already, I developed a real knowledge of its streets, including lots of areas that I hadn’t ever bothered to go to before. I learned which streets were one way and in which direction. I memorized the grid and knew where all the streets with trolley tracks and cobblestones were (both dangerous to a bike). I knew where the bike shops were and which ones would help out a messenger quickly in a pinch.

At the end of the summer we all headed back to our usual places. A friend with a car helped me move almost all my stuff back to my campus but my bike wouldn’t fit. I left it with William, who’d moved down the block once the Penn students returned, promising to pick it up on the weekend. When I came back to get it, on the eve of turning 21, with a summer of independence under my belt, I felt older, more assured. William wondered how I would get my bike home and I told him I’d take it on the train. He wasn’t sure they’d allow it but I was sure. Even if I was wrong, I felt I could talk my way into anything.


This song comes from an album I bought that summer at the record store around the corner. *Everyone knows about divining…

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14 comments

  1. Wow, so many evocative images in here–but this one is my FAVORITE because it’s perfect: “We would bump into our fellow housemates in the kitchen mostly and get to talking, like you do while waiting for your pasta water to boil.”

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  2. wow, great song first of all. I love Camper. My friend Linda is interviewing a band member this week on our Lefty Pop site.

    I paid $300 a month for my first apartment at college in 1989.

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    1. Oh, great, can’t wait to read her piece!

      It seems crazy how cheap rents were, until I remember how little I was paid. I think the most I made at my campus job was $3.35 an hour.

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  3. I know where Pine is. I lived near Philly twice and worked on the old Navy Base that they revamped into a Business Center. Never heard of Billy Bobs though or Franks black cherry soda. Did they sell the pretzels on the street corners back then? The second time we moved there they stopped doing that, it probably wasn’t all that hygienic, but I enjoyed buying one before I got on the bridge.

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    1. I think Billy Bob’s and Frank’s sodas were hyper local so it doesn’t surprise me if you missed them. I’m sure Billy Bob’s is gone, not sure about the sodas, but I’m sorry to hear the pretzel carts are gone, That was my lunch on several occasions that summer.

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  4. Perfect song choice Ellen. One of my favorite Camper songs and I hear them play it just the other night. Swoon. Loved this post. It evokes so many memories of all the places I’ve lived BM. Before marriage. lol I used to complain about rents in NYC when I was there in the second half of the 80s. Now you can’t live there unless you’re rent controlled or a millionaire. And yes! We would love for you to come and write at ROTR!

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    1. Where did you see them? I only saw them play once, after Key Lime Pie came out. And I saw Monks of Doom once, but that’s it.

      I left NYC in 2000. My place in Brooklyn was rent stabilized but it was also an hour on the subway to my job in Times Square.

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  5. Nice images. Isn’t it a shame we never realize how amazing our lives are at that age until we’re older? Oh to be that age with this brain…

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    1. I would take more pictures, that’s for damn sure. I always assumed I’d remember everything in full technicolor and with time I find those mental images are more like old Polaroids with the color turned a funny hue and fading at the edges.

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  6. I love this, Ellen. I read it through the eyes of someone who had college apartments with roommates and independence. Then I look at it through the eyes of a mother whose daughter will be heading off on her own in a very short time.
    Also, those bike messenger people are way impressive with their city cycling skills – and you were one of them. Wow!

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    1. Thanks, Shannon! While I still have five years to go before my daughter heads off to college, I try to calm my fears by remembering that I did fine, and I’m not so sure that was a foregone conclusion at the time. 😉

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