I AM A GUEST in Herb Mandel's time machine, which has landed us on 10th Street above Susquehanna Avenue in the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Although Philadelphia and America were back on their heels, it was the happiest period of Herb's life, as childhood is meant to be. In the foreword to a self-published book of vignettes and watercolor sketches, the 85-year-old retired teacher and artist writes that "the reality of the Great Depression was no match for the power of a child's imagination."
I will stipulate that Herb's father always had a job and that the Mandel family didn't suffer the crushing heartbreak of millions of unemployed Americans.
The Philadelphia of the '30s is as foreign to most of us as chocolate syrup on meat loaf. Herb's father, William, a machinist in Germany who immigrated to the U.S. in 1923, bought the 10th Street house and supported a family of five - wife Josephine, sons Henry, Bill, Herb - on his salary as a pants-presser in a garment factory. Yes, one blue-collar salary easily supported a family of five.
We have more money and things today, but are we richer in what really counts?
In Herb's time-machine Philadelphia, men lit gas lamps on public sidewalks. Ice, milk, fruit and vegetables were sold from horse-drawn wagons. Wandering minstrels sang in the street for pennies tossed from windows.
A dime bought a ticket to a daylong Saturday show at the Viola movie theater, where the blowing of fans across blocks of ice was called air conditioning. Kids played Spin the Bottle instead of pimp and ho, carried penknives instead of cellphones, shot marbles instead of TEC-9s. In Herb's childhood Philadelphia, kids played halfball in the street, flattened nails under the wheels of trolleys to make arrowheads, made model planes fly with rubber bands and played sidewalk games like Buck Buck. On Saturday night, families gathered in the parlor to sing together.
With nothing, they had everything.
Herb, his daughter Carol Robidoux and I took a walk down his North Philly street of golden memory last week.
Thomas Wolfe wrote, "You can't go home again." You can, but don't expect everything - or anything - to be the same.
"Everything looks so small," said Herb as he stood on the 10th Street sidewalk in front of his home for the first time in almost 70 years. "I remember this as a big street." An illusion of youth, 10th never was a big street. The trolley tracks were not an illusion, but now they are buried under asphalt, along with cobblestones that looked like headstones. Peering down the block, Herb saw trees that weren't there when he was young, growing in gaps where homes had been knocked down.
Also knocked down was Hartranft Elementary, Herb's school. A new Hartranft arose next to the old site and Herb stopped in to chat with new principal Kelli Rosado, who happily accepted a few copies of Herb's book for the library of the school, which is mentioned often. (The book is A Philadelphia Story: My Name Is Herbert: The Original Philadelphia Hat Trick, $35. The window to a long-ago Philadelphia can be ordered from Herb via his email address: HpainterM@aol.com.)
Back on 10th Street, the corner drugstore is now a shuttered Chinese takeout, the barbershop has vanished, the Ritter pretzel building stands beaten and boarded. Out of the time machine, we see decay, neglect and a kind of poverty that didn't exist during the Great Depression.