Philly, Foreign & Familiar

Kelly Salasin

In the span of one season, this unlikely sports fan is back in the stands at another professional baseball game– this time in Philadelphia.

Two decades in New England has made this mid-Atlantic city a stranger to me.   From parking-lot tailgaters to street cops to peddlers, the faces and attitudes in Philly are rough around the edges, but the connections are warmer than up north.

The air is warmer too– and filled with water.  My mountain-loving skin finds this steamy heat oppressive but I remind myself that I was once from the sea.

Cheesesteaks, soft pretzels and fries welcome me home.  Philly is a family-friendly stadium that competes with Fenway’s vintage charm with it’s own affordable seats, playgrounds and two dollar kids’ franks.  A ballpark says a lot about a city.

The huxters’ calls in the galleys are more robust than in Boston and yet more subdued in the stands where the attention is on the game. Field facing concessions and standing-room only counters keep all eyes on the players.

Philadelphia gets right into the action with a chorus of boos after the lead batter for the Cardinals slides safely into second. “It’s starting already,” someone cries in self pity, as if the “out” was entitled rather than earned.  Before inning ends, Victorina steals second– and is sent back to first.  The Phillies coach is out of the dugout and the umpire is in his face.  A sense of familiarity sweeps over me with this characteristic intrusion of personal space rarely experienced in New England.

When Ryan Howard steps up to bat, the man behind me calls, “C’mon big boy.”  There’s an emphasis on “boy” that reveals a prejudice barely under the surface.  This is a city close to the Mason-Dixon line.  Given this culture’s worship of big-name players, I can’t figure how racism jives inside their heads.

My own mind flashes to the nice white folks I knew growing up–the ones who dropped bombs like, “I’d never let a black hand in my mouth,” when the new dentist moved to town;  or “I hope I don’t get a nigger roomate,” when going off to college; or  “I don’t want a black man in my daughter’s wedding,” when the fiance brought  home his law partner.

With the election of a black president, I imagine something’s had to change in the psyche of this downtrodden city.   Just before Obama’s victory and after he passed through the town, Philly claimed their own power at the World Series– after 1oo collective sports seasons without a championship title.

I watch Philly take their new place in sports history with each throw of the relief pitcher, lifting him off the mound in their enthusiasm.  Standing together, they rattle the batter into a third out and return to their seats– satisfied– certain of their influence on the game.

A ballpark Liberty Bell rings for every home run and joyous faces are streamed on the big screen while a summer soundtrack grooves.  We belt out “Wildwood Days” and I reclaim this old home as mine.

At the seventh inning stretch, The Luau Girls dance on top of the duogout; and after two years of living among Red Sox fans,  I proudly sing out for the Phillies with “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” The  2009 Championship is in the air and I can’t wait to see these faces after a second win.

It was the afternoon of the last game of the 2008 Series when I reached back to Philly from my home in Vermont with this impassioned, but uncharacteristic post on a sport’s blog:

Philadelphia is the city of “brotherly love”– and the birthplace of our Nation.It is also home to the Philadelphia Phillies whose win tonight will clinch the Series.I can’t help but feel that this long-awaited triumph for Philly is aligned with the rebirth of Passion and Participation witnessed around this upcoming election.  Let us not forget that what we stand for as a Country is beyond the success or failure of any political party or candidate.  We the people are the ONES who demonstrate what it is to be American:  standing up for liberty and justice for ALL.Let’s reclaim that beautiful tender mission as we head into a new era of global interdependence.  And while we’re at it, GO Phillies!  May their win tonight create a surge in the tide for reclaiming our country’s Spirit with Obama’s leadership.

While I’ve never understood the link between baseball, patriotism, dollars and breasts, I did appreciate the instrumental version of the National Anthem offered by the middle-aged women in grass skirts and coconut bras.  Crossing the Delaware on the Walt Whitman, I felt a surge of pride for this foreign and familiar city.

The Sea’s Lure of the Soul

Kelly Salasin, 2007

Sound of sails in the wind, rigging clanging, lures me down a funnel to summers at the sea–even if the sound is only a flag pole outside the American Legion on the oceanless High Street of Brattleboro, Vermont.

Calls of blue jays and crows become seagulls, and I smell fries cooking in the galley and the seaweed in the bay.  The sun kisses my skin as I slip back into the easiness of childhood—-tossing coins in the boat shed– heads or tails– but they were all his: this curly-haired adolescent boy who somehow enjoyed or tolerated the daily company of my seven-year old preposterous self, and always let me have the nickels I won even though I never  anted  up.   At lunch we’d have burgers– with or without reconsitituted onions– and that’s all there was…

So, why won’t that sound of the sails leave me then? Why does it feel less of an invitation and more of a lure down an alley way of memory?   There’s some place that I need to go, but I don’t want to go, like to the doctors to get an immunization. What is this vaccine I need?  What am I immunizing against?

I peek behind the sails flapping in the wind, but I don’t see anything more.  There’s just the shed and the burgers and the boats.  Tentatively, I head inside, ducking under the dip of the velour rope to access the hidden rooms upstairs.  No youth gatherings happen here in these thickly carpeted spaces with lush budoir bathrooms –gilded mirrors and fancy chairs–in stark contrast to the day to day activity on the docks.

There among the paintings of Commandeers that circle the entire great room in grand fashion, I see my grandfather’s face and those of his friends. It’s my own “Poppop” who taught me to play chopsticks on the piano downstairs. Who knew he could play?  Who knew there were two parts to that favorite song?

I recall the stories of his dancing– the way he twirled and flipped the women under his arms, over his shoulders and between his legs.

I feel my Nana’s drunken affection lavished upon me in front of everyone, holding me hostage on her lap—-the same affection bestowed by my own drunken mother.

At 13, I help out as a “waitress” at the annual meeting of the Ladies Auxiliary Club.  While the ladies enjoy their pie, I enjoy a whipped cream fight in the kitchen–and the beginnings of male/female cellular exchange.

During coffee, the teen staff huddles in the galley, waiting for the “meeting” to be finished so that we can buss the dessert dishes and cocktail glasses– and go home.  Hearing my grandmother’s voice above the rest,  I shyly ask,  “What are they fighting about?”

About our wages,” the tall boy beside me whispers and then uncomfortably explains that my grandmother is raging against the raise.

For  years I mourned the loss of her that following summer; but upon being lured into the past, I thank God that I didn’t have to grow up under her shadow. Her strong male energy and mine would surely combust. Would I have preferred our love affair end that way rather than under the weight of a Mack’s truck’s tires on the Burlington/Bristol Bridge?

In this relief of my lifetime longing for Lila, I am flooded with images: the beauty salon hair dryer in her room… the early uncooked dinners… the screaming… the baths with cousins… the accompanying photos… the powdering of our bodies on her bed…the swan seat on the toilet and the  counter swan that held the cu-tips. What was the swan doing there under our butts and in our ears?

If my husband gets this job, I want to go back to writing.  I want to pull my voice up from anchor (chills.) I want to set out to sea (goosebumps.) I want to unloosen the rigging and leave the dock– the past, the weight of all that family– all the ways their world defined me.  I’ll head off into the sea with “me”… to the sound of my own metal clanging and the flap of my dreams in the wind.

THIS is what the luring is, a luring back into ME!

The strange dream I had last night suddenly makes sense.  That pimpish looking guy, the one standing across from me up atop a runway ramp at a cocktail  party, asks me to sing.   And I do–just like I danced a few bars for that other mother at the beach, or endured Lila’s drunken grasping, or played a song on the piano each time my parents asked or did everything that was ever expected of me because I was the oldest cousin, the oldest sister, the manager, the teacher, the mother. I was the one who had to set an example.

When I open my mouth to my voice, that pimpish guy slips something to the back of tongue, like the tiny yellow valium my Aunt Jean once gave me for a migraine.  I kept it in my jewelry box for years– in case I ever needed it.  I run from this drug pusher, pulling the pill  from my mouth, and then turn back toward him in a fury, only to find that he had a purpose in administering it.

He tells me that my voice, though beautiful, is stuck at the bottom of my self, achored in my gutt– and that this pill will help me pull it up, and release it into its fullness…   and release me from the hold of the past.

Right away I understand; I feel his meaning and know it to be true– I HAD held back.  I DID need untethering, but not here, not with a cocktail in my hand, not where others could watch and observe my undoing. I’ll save that passage for some place private.   I thank him and leave.

I wake then, get dressed and go to work.  Heading down High Street toward the wifi cafe where I search for strategic planning proposals, I am stopped by the sound of sails-and I search for them instead–without even finding a flag.

Peeking around the corner of my memory, I ask, “What? What? What are you trying to tell me?” and I let this sourceless sound echo inside my body, and follow it there– where I find more of me– and retrieve her– the true lure of my days.

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