Monday, March 25, 2013

The Tire Pits

    Probably all boys at some time find themselves a place where they can go to hang out and get out of everyone's way. In the suburbs, or the country, or wherever there's somewhere to build it, kids erect tree houses.  Being there aren't many places to build those things in the city, we look to other places to get off the block.  You see, just about everyone remembers having a place to disappear to.

    For us, it was behind the Goodyear tire store on Oregon Avenue between 18th & 19th. There's an area back there where they dumped old tires before trucking them off to wherever old tires go, and there were enough tires when we were younger to build a club house, climb all over, to do whatever we wanted to have our own fun. We usually hung out there in the evening or on Sunday when the guys from the store were away and wouldn't chase us. Probably the only resistance we had were those neighbors at the Oregon Arms Apartments who would once in a while yell that we shouldn't be there. They were right, but the way we saw it, what did they know?  In our minds, they were probably sheltered as kids and never crawled all over tires, or anything for that matter, and got dirty.  And if so, their moms were probably happy about that, not coming home with oil stains and scuff marks on their jeans and shirts, but that's what kids do.  Moms today have Spray & Wash or whatever their choice of stain remover, so the kids can be more free to do things like this.  We got dirty in another way while at the pits.  There were metal posts around the upper-perimeter of the pits, presumably to keep the residents of the apartments from driving off the lot and into a pit full of tires.  Someone had the bright idea to slather grease on those posts to deter us from climbing in and out of the pits and go somewhere else.  Someone thought it was cooking grease, but it seemed pretty thick, so it was probably auto lube, meaning an employee and not an apartment resident had the idea.  Whoever thought to do it, it didn't work.  We just didn't grab the posts!

    You know, there's always someone who just knows how to screw up a good thing.  We probably hung out at the pits on and off for more than two of our pre-teen years, and probably would have stayed a while longer until other interests take over and boys don't want to climb in tires anymore.  During the pits era, along came a young girl who had a fetish for fire, and that ended it all. There was a company called Pesco just to the rear of the tire pits, a warehouse where they sold pipes for all kinds of industrial use. Twice on Sundays that place went up in smoke, the first fire not too bad, but the second was really heavy.  One of the guys who hung with us was accused of setting the blazes.  He saw who did one of them, but wouldn't say anything. It just so happens that she saw him too, and told the police he set the fire. The investigators figured out who really did it, and she didn't help herself by setting a fire in her school bathroom and getting caught while doing so. Whether she did time or not, we don't know.  All we knew is that she screwed up a good thing as boys see it, and our days at the pit came to an end.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Garbage Man

Young people here in Philly will have no idea what this post is about.  For all most people know, you did one of two things with your garbage: dumped it into the garbage disposal attached to your sink, or put it out with the trash.  Well, before the days of the In-Sink-Erator, there was a much different way of ridding ourselves of the table refuse from your kitchen.  Before a plumber attached that appliance that we now take for granted, we would put our garbage in the alley in galvanized metal garbage pails - a shortened version of the metal trash can - for the garbage man to pick up twice weekly.

Those men weren't employed by the City of Philadelphia like the men who pick up your trash and recyclables on a weekly basis.  They came from farms in New Jersey, where the farmers raised pigs.  That same garbage we would rid ourselves of went to feed those porkers, which means if you ate well, they ate somewhat well.   Pigs aren't too discriminatory, so even if you ate junk, they fared pretty well.  Given the average person's diet in the 1960s and early 1970s with more home-cooked meals was much healthier than it is today with the frozen, processed food that hits most American tables, I'd say both we and the swine ate better.  Maybe it is no accident that the farmers don't send the trucks out to pick up our refuse anymore.  Much of what we eat today isn't fit for human consumption, let alone pigs.

I'd say the city trash haulers had it much better than the garbage men.  Probably the biggest hazard for the trash men is lifting a bag or box that is too heavy, causing them to blow a disk in their back.  Now I'm not saying that an injury like that is a small thing.  Ask anyone who has had to deal with pain like that - myself included - and you'll find that someone suffering such an injury rues the day that they incurred it.  Plus, the city guys are union members, so they have a guaranteed pay and benefits, and working conditions that are protected.  The garbage men didn't have it so good.  Each time they came, they had to wheel a large plastic trash can down the alleyway on a hand truck, dumping what was left in the can and having to get a whiff of the odors that came with the putrified orange peels, apple cores, and bones with bits of meat left on them.  To add to that stench, summertime brought an even nastier thing for them to have to deal with: maggots.  You see, when those cans are left to bake in the hot summer sun, especially if the lid is left ajar, flies swarm the garbage and lay their eggs.  The larvae?  Yep, maggots.  Those poor guys didn't have a choice, they had to handle the mess, garbage, maggots, whatever.

Two things probably put an end to the garbage men.  The first is the aforementioned garbage disposal.  I remember a story in the Philadelphia Daily News a number of years back that told of the work of the city sewer worker.  In that item, the reporter noted that in the nicer areas of the city where there were more disposals, there were more rats in the sewers.  They were drawn to the garbage that was flushed into the sewer system.  I would guess, and it's only a guess, that the second thing that caused their demise is that there are less independently-owned farms than there used to be. I can't see farms owned by corporations sending out truck and men like we used to see in our youth.  Who knows?  With more government regulations (some maybe good, some not), feeling pigs table scraps may not be an option today.

In the final years of garbage pickup, most cans had to be put out on the sidewalk instead of the back alleys.  Because more homes were broken into through the alleys, more neighbors banded together to pool their resources and place gates at the ends of the alleys.  What could you do, assign a neighbor to open the gates each week for the pickups?  No one would want to deal with that.  But there were far-fewer cans on the sidewalks because there were more disposals being added each year.  And so, by the mid-1970s, the garbage men disappeared from the streets and alleys of South Philadelphia, and I would think the rest of the city too.  Maybe it is not much of a thing to remember, certainly not a fond memory.  But it is a part of our history long-gone.

... Freezing your garbage until pickup day so you had less of a chance of having maggots craw out of your can and all over your sidewalk.  Some still freeze the garbage you can't send down the disposal such as bones.

...  Your mother complaining or maybe even cursing as she washed down those nasty creatures with Ajax ammonia and water.   Of course if they stayed there long enough, they'd turn into flies and fly away.  No one dared take a chance on that.  Who'd want to take the gamble between hoping they'd disappear or wondering if the new flies would leave more eggs behind?  Some things are better left to the imagination.  Or maybe not.