Hey Stranger…

This past weekend I took a road trip to Philadelphia with a friend from work. This trip had a dual purpose: 1) eat tasty vegetarian sandwiches from a restaurant that opened up since I left the city (discovered and enthusiastically recommended by said friend); and 2) drive by my childhood home just because.

We lucked out because, in spite of consecutive weeks of miserable weather consisting of rain, sleet, and snow, we planned our trip for the first weekend the sun and warmer temperatures had emerged since the beginning of winter. Almost 60 degrees and sunny – certainly an occasion calling for rolled down windows and good moods. So we excitedly hit the road in my VW, driving nonstop from Brooklyn to Govinda‘s (the tasty veggie spot) at S. Broad & South – btw, check it out if you’re in the area.

I was born and raised in Philadelphia. And although I lived in a couple of apartments in different Philly neighborhoods as an adult during the law school years (including the one year of semi-unemployment following law school), I lived in the same house with my parents from the time I was a baby until I went to college. Same house, same neighbors, same park, same mailman (well, maybe not the mailman). In a sense, the stability of my childhood can be viewed in stark contrast to the adult life I’ve carved out for myself, which is somewhat less stable. But since I left Philadelphia in 2004, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been back. My mother was the only family member I still had ties with in the city. And when she moved and sold the house in 2006, there really wasn’t a reason to be there. Fast forwarding to last weekend, I was looking forward to taking a quick drive down memory lane – and dragging a friend along for the ride.

So after stuffing our faces with veggie chicken cheese steak sandwiches and buying more sandwiches to eat later (seriously, check out this place if you’re in the area), we drove out to Southwest Philadelphia for the memory lane drive-by. I used to drive that route on a regular basis, visiting my parents when I lived no more than 20 minutes away. But I haven’t made the drive since 2004.  In spite of the 6 years of distance, it felt like no time had passed as I made right turns and left turns, straddled the trolley tracks, and avoided the potholes.  As we approached my block, I said to my friend, “wouldn’t it be funny if we ran into someone I knew from back in the day?”  It all felt so familiar, it wasn’t such an unreasonable expectation.

So he said, “hey stranger.”  We hadn’t been pulled up in front of my house for more than 30 seconds before the two men standing across the street, attending to a disabled car, were bridging the gaps between present and past.  Peter and Gordon both remembered me.  I only remembered Gordon.  And strangely, I also remembered Peter’s dog, Sheba. Regardless of my failing memory, Peter is the one who acted like we were friends at one point (we weren’t), noting how long my hair had gotten since I first started growing it (1995) and asking about my older sister’s well-being.  Oh, and I remembered that Gordon and I used to ride the school bus together.

After learning that a new, quiet family has moved into my old home (described by Peter as being either Haitian or Jamaican…I bet they’re West African), chit chatting a bit about vague updates, and sharing a few anecdotes about my childhood with my friend, that was it.

The experience was strange in a way. So little had changed, with the exception of Gordon’s voice, of course. And running into two people who knew me as a child, and feeling so familiar with my surroundings, made me feel a sense of home and belonging. I didn’t realize I had that at all, much less in a city where I no longer have any ties. But I actually do!  And there I was, proving it to a real life witness.  Felt pretty good.

We drove back to Brooklyn with full bellies and happy moods. I enjoyed my second sandwich the next day.


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