Peter Stone Brown, March 2010
Oxford Circle was just a neighborhood, (well it still is a neighborhood) in the section of Philly known as the Northeast. At the time, my parents moved there the Northeast was still kind of uncharted territory and still growing. A few miles further north, there were still farms, even when I was a kid, though now it’s all developed.
Philly is known as the city of neighborhoods and there are literally hundreds of neighborhoods within the city. I’m really not exactly sure what the boundaries of Oxford Circle actually are, though I know some of them. It was only in reality maybe a couple of miles long though when I was a kid, that seemed like a long distance.
Its name comes from an actual traffic circle (you probably call them rotaries or something like that) where Oxford Avenue which was a street that ran in a diagonal crossed Roosevelt Boulevard, which was a huge boulevard of several divided lanes, but there were several other streets converging there as well such as Castor Avenue, which was kind of the main street of the neighborhood, which sort of runs north and south, but on the other side of the boulevard takes a lot of crazy turns and ends up at the Delaware River. Eventually on the two inner lanes of the Boulevard, which was also Route 1 (the Lincoln Highway in Woody Guthrie songs) which goes from Florida to Maine. When I was a kid, when we went to NYC, my dad would just go to Boulevard and turn left. It was still pretty new when my parents bought their first house there. They were the second owners.
I guess the house was built in the ’40s. All the houses were row homes (my house now is a row home, and if I remember correctly, your mom’s house was a row home). Actually our house wasn’t that different that your mom’s house, though maybe the rooms were a little bigger. From the street you’d walk into a living room, which led to a dining room and off the dining room was a kitchen which had stairs down to the basement. The kitchen was big enough to eat in. Upstairs there were three bedrooms and a bathroom.
Our house was a little different inside than the other houses on the block because sometime, maybe when I was eight or so, my parents painted the living room and the dining room the colors of a Van Gogh painting. My uncle Josh, my cousin Jon’s father was an artist and figured out the scheme and and how to mix the paints. However when that happened, he didn’t exist yet.
Each house on our street, in fact most of the houses in Oxford Circle had a little lawn in front and a driveway (or alley) in the back. While most of the homes in Oxford Circle were row homes, some were semi-detached homes, and some bigger than others. At the north end of my block, there were about six older homes, all row homes, but they had porches.
The driveway where those pics I posted were taken was where all the action was when I was a kid. It was where everyone played. Every house had its own little driveway off the main driveway which was big enough for a car, though most people didn’t park there, and hardly anyone used the garage for their car. Our garage was pretty much our playroom. There were bikes, and little cars like in the pic, a wagon, a scooter and lots of other junk in there. This was before everyone had a dryer or even a TV, and all the mom’s would hang the clothes on a line in the driveway. There was also a small patch of land for a garden, though some people paved that over. My mom had a garden and would grow tomatoes, and cucumbers and radishes and flowers and other stuff.
There was always something going on in the main driveway. A baseball game, other games. The kids played in between the clothes drying and the clothes were good for say games of hide and seek and other stuff. The garages were also good for putting on shows, having circuses, whatever other games kids played. All day long various trucks would drive up and down all the driveways. Farmers from New Jersey selling fresh fruit and vegetables. They’d call out, “Jersey tomatoes,” “cucumbers, watermelons, strawberries.” One was Herman the Huckster, whom my mom always bought from. The big red Salvation Army truck would drive up looking for donations of clothes and furniture, and various other hucksters selling or looking for stuff. Sometimes an organ grinder with a monkey would come. Sometimes a guy giving pony rides.
There was one strange guy who would walk the driveways maybe twice a year, a rather demonic looking guy, who would shout out in this weird voice, “I’m buying men’s clothes.” He carried on his back kind of a suit carrier. And then of course various ice cream trucks, but they’d also drive down the street as well, usually at night after dinner. Basically you stayed on your block when you were little. As you got older, you’d go to the next block and then farther and farther.
Castor Avenue was the big shopping street where there was a trackless trolley. The trackless trolley would take you to the El (elevated train) which would take you to downton Philly. When I was real little, every night I’d go down to the corner and wait for my dad to get off the 59 trolley.
Castor Avenue ran parallel to the street I lived on, and on the block of Castor Avenue that was the same as mine, there were tons of stores, a movie theater, a pharmacy, a supermarket, a furniture store, a delicatessen, a bakery, a butcher shop, a comic store, a candy store, a hardware store, barber shops, beauty salons and a bank. But back then you’d have a lot of stuff delivered. We had the milk man, the egg man, the soda man, the pretzel man. Years later, I found the egg man, well our egg man was political. He was the son of Mother Bloor, who was a big time red (look her up on google).
When I lived there, Oxford Circle was either Jews or Irish Catholics. The Jews went to public school, the Catholics went to parochial school, in this case St. Martin of Tours, which was this huge church a few blocks down our street. The parochial kids all had to wear ties and uniforms, the public school kids didn’t.
When the first black family moved into Oxford Circle, who were actually part Hispanic, my parents considered it to be their civic duty to become friends with them. I don’t think any other blacks moved in while I was living there. The weird thing about finding this one friend on Facebook was the simple realization. I used to have the picture he posted, don’t know what happened to it. But I can’t tell you what it was like looking at the picture and all of a sudden realizing, wait a minute, he was my friend! And I had pictures of him too, at my eighth birthday party and some I can’t find that are probably gone. I sent him the pics and they totally fucked him up. It opened up brain cells that hadn’t been used in decades and all kinds of things came back.
I also found in that group a neighbor. Her brothers (well half-brothers) were the twins of the block and of course were known as the twins. We started a little correspondence. One of the twins is dead now. They were a couple of years younger than me. The other strange thing is how many people I knew when I was a kid, either friends or people from school turned out to me musicians, like my friend Jerry. I think I told you he was Brian Wilson’s personal assistant for awhile.
Also my friend, the DJ, Harvey Holiday who took me to see Bob in NYC last fall as it turns out is also from Oxford Circle. Small world. But in discovering my friend Jerry, one of the things I realized (and I’m not even sure if we were still friends when my family moved out of there) is that when we moved, I really didn’t get to say goodbye to my friends. It just happened so fast. I was just kind of whisked away to my step mother’s apartment and a whole new life. My father, and of course his wife just didn’t think about that part of it. Nothing I can really do about it now. But it did bring that back.