Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Alligator Grin: A Story of Philly and Brooklyn

In the summer of 2001 when I was freshly 17, it was deemed that I needed more cultural experience - in addition to meeting the family of my stepdad. To the East Coast it was! I was sent to South Jersey, the Armpit of America I later deemed it.

If South Jersey was all that I had seen that summer, I would not be writing this haphazardly put-together blog.

I went to stay with my step uncle, his wife, and their 14 year old son. I was absolutely dreading this vacation. They had a log cabin style home in the middle of the woods. All I could think about were the humidity,  that one tiny bathroom shared between four people, ticks in the forest - and subsequently - lyme disease.

This vacation was going to blow, I thought sullenly. These two weeks were going to last eons. I don't care if I act like a brat. I'm going to stay in this stupid spare bedroom and fend off the gigantic moths that desperately wanted to eat holes through all of my clothing.

I guess I thought a lot about tineid moths, too. And home - I desperately missed Gig Harbor.


The third day of my vacation, at 6 in the morning (3am PST), my step aunt burst into the spare bedroom and announced that in an hour, we were leaving for Phily for the day.

"Are there ticks in Philly?" I asked, muffled, facedown in the pillow.

She sighed - that extremely heavy sigh adults expell when dealing with 17 year old asshole brats.

"What about the damn moths?" I wasn't moving.

"Get up NOW and be ready by SEVEN, or I am leaving you locked outside the house to deal with all the ticks and moths you could ever fear."

I got my ass in gear. There's nothing like a Jersey woman's attitude to scare the everlasting shit out of you.

We were on the Amtrak less than two hours later. Because they lived in the very southern part of New Jersey, the Amtrak went through Delaware before heading north to Philadelphia. I remember passing over the Atlantic ocean on the way to Dover, and it was insanely beautiful. I also remember it was the first time I had smiled since my plane had  left Seattle.


When we arrived, I stepped off the Amtrak with my purse and marched out of the station. Philadelphia's Amtrak station is RIGHT in the heart of South Philly. I looked around, standing there in the middle of this city, in my jean jacket, terry cloth mini skirt, bedazzled sunglasses in tow...and that's when I realized "Holy shit. I belong here." Not fashion-wise, I mean jesus, my fashion style was a horrible beacon of light respresenting the West Coast...but in my heart, I just knew right away that I was East Coast to the core.

We did all the touristy stuff: Look at Independence Hall. Go inside Betsy Ross' house. Bang the Liberty Bell until security waves you off. See Benjamin Franklin's grave at the Christ Church Cemetery. All the historical crap, yes it was necessary, but I was itching to get out in the streets and really mingle with the locals and get the feel of the city.

But soon it was time to catch the train back to Jersey. I remember begging my aunt to let me buy some food from the street vendor (I was dying for some cultural experience, not just history lessons). She insisted I would catch a disease, and after ten minutes of arguing, she compromised by letting me buy a bag of chips and a can of soda.

"Youse guys don't want anything else, huh?" The sweaty, burly vendor asked the other three in my party.

"Youse??" I asked. My aunt hit me in the arm.

"Yah. Youse. What's it to you?"

I felt a grin coming out in full force: Completely toothy, happy, yet somewhat devilish.

He grinned back at me.

"What the HELL is YOUSE GUYS?!" I asked him.

"It means 'you guys' now shut up and come along!" my aunt said in a hushed tone and literally started dragging me down the sidewalk. Not a hard feat, as I literally weighed less than 110 lbs at the time.

"But there’s only one of me! Ouch goddammit, let go of my arm right now…I'll see YOUSE GUYS later!" I called back at the man, continuing to grin this new smile of mine.

Like the way an alligator would grin.

The man laughed so hard, his face turned red, and he slapped his knee. "I'll make a Philly girl out of youse next time, huh!" He hollered back at me.

"When we get home, I am going to kill you and then tell your parents that the Ukranian district of Philly kidnapped you and turned you into a stew," my aunt threatened.

A Ukranian gang? Youse guys??

Oh my god, I had to get back to this wonderful city. It was in my blood now.


A week into my vacation, which was originally set to be just two weeks, my stepdad's brother and his wife were probably sick of hearing me beg to go back to Philly, so they finally arranged it where I would stay with some of their friends who owned a rowhouse in the Historical District of Center City for the remainder of my trip (I don't blame them - I would've re-homed me too). I packed up my things, threw away a shirt the moths had gotten to, and breathed a sigh of relief as I stepped onto the Amtrak again. I was going back to Philly.

Before this trip, I has always been extremely shy and timid, afraid to try new things, and I didn't like going anywhere alone. I am not joking that by the age of 17, it was the running joke in my family that I had never even gone to the grocery store or post office alone. And here I was, by myself on a train, going to a city I had only spent hours in, to live with people I had never even met, for an entire week.

The delicious irony of it all killed me. I grinned out the window and watched the Atlantic Ocean pass under me again.


The friends of family that I lived with in Philly were a 17 year old's wet dream. They worked all the time in Manhattan, so they left before dawn every morning and were home late at night, so I had total fucking freedom to do whatever I wanted. All they asked was that I be relatively safe and in by dark. I complied the best I could, especially because they gave me a generous amount of spending money as well. I had brought a little bit of money from home with me for food and souvenirs, but the transportation costs were killing me.

I combed over that city all week. I was at the Italian Market on 20th Street every single day for hours, bartering especially with this particular Sicilian man who owned a delicious meat shop and bakery. I bartered so hard to the point where we would both get very heated, scream in Italian at each other...and then eventually end up slapping and kissing each other's cheeks and sipping Turkish coffee in the backroom of his shop.
Each night I stayed with this couple, I made them delicious southern Italian delicacies my new friend had provided the recipes and ingredients to, under the strict condition that I would never share them with anyone (and to this day, no one knows how to make my secret 8 hour red sauce). Because this couple was so generous to me, both in room and money, I would also clean their home when I got in just before dusk. I think they enjoyed the homecooked food and tidied  home so much after their 12-14 hour commute/workday, that they ended up extending the offer to have me stay with them the whole summer. How could I resist?


A week later, I met up with some kids that had friends who pop n locked and would breakdance on the corners and in the alleys of Brooklyn. They invited me to take the train with them for the weekend so I could enjoy the music and dancing. I remember telling them I couldn't dance, much less breakdance, and they assured me I could just watch and enjoy myself. The couple I stayed with agreed, as long as I stayed with their friends who rented an apartment in Manhattan just right off of Times Square.

Times Square?! Once again, how could I say no?

"Just return again by Monday...we've grown attached to your spaghetti," they laughed.


I went with my friends on the train to Manhattan, checked in with the friends of friends, and soon I was on a subway headed for the heart of Brooklyn. They knew exactly where they were going, as we swiftly walked through the city, weaving in and out of crowds and street alleys.

When we finally arrived, I felt like I was straight in the middle of an early 90s music video. There was a huge cardboard box, flattened out, and taped together to other flattened cardboard boxes, creating a dance floor. People of all colors were bumping gigantic boomboxes on their shoulders, as others performed the most incredible dancing I had ever seen live. I was clapping and two-stepping along to the music when the 'leader' of this particular group of kids finally saw me, questioned me down, and then motioned for me to show everyone else, and I quote, "what [I] got".

"I got nothing!" I laughed and shook my head, continuing to clap and two-step to the music.

"Well, get up there and we'll show you!"

I felt clever. I pointed at my skirt. "Can't dance in a mini!" Crisis adverted, I thought. No reason to act a fool in front of everyone.

"Aisha!" the guy pointed at another girl, who was tying her shoelaces. "Get this girl some digs from your house."

I froze in terror.

"Then we'll see what you got." He grinned at me.

"I already told you, I got nothing," I grinned back, that alligator grin of mine.

"Like I said, we'll see."


Later that day, they all agreed unanimously. I had nothing. But over the course of two days, hours upon hours, they taught me some simple pop n lock moves that anyone could do with enough practice.

"Come back tomorrow!" the guy told me late that Sunday. I was set to get on the Amtrak in an hour.

"I...um..." I was recalling the deal I had made with the friends of my aunt and uncle. But...surely I could catch the train again early that next morning, after they had left the house, and be home again before they arrived. I'd be breaking the 'in-home by dusk' rule they imposed, but my 17 year old mind assured me rules were meant to be broken.

Alligator grin.

"Okay. I'll show you what I got!" I said confidently.

The guy shook his head and laughed. "Girl, you ain't got shit yet."


And this was how I spent my summer. On Friday mornings, I boarded the train to Manhattan, kissed the friends of friends hello, got on the subway to Brooklyn, and danced amongst my new friends. We would dance for hours, only breaking occasionally to buy Snickers ice cream bars and bottled water for the group. Sunday evening, I would board the train again to come back to Philly. Throughout the week, I would either be running wild through Philly, or I would secretly be on the train again to NYC for the day to dance some more. I remember I even got special dance clothes. Ever see the girl the guy is dancing for at the end of Dirty Vegas' Days Go By music video? That's what I looked like. Solid white Reeboks, knee high socks, little shorts, tank-top, hat just off to the side of my head, and big goddamn hoop earrings. And I was truly learning how to truly pop n lock, something I never thought I was ever capable of learning, much less doing. And I was getting really good at it.

People actually gave us money on a regular basis. I guess they figured we were homeless and orphaned kids, and lived off of dancing for a buck or two. My friends were offended at first, but I quickly shushed them and insisted that if we started saving this money, minus the costs of Snickers ice cream bars, they could get on a train and come see me and dance in Philly. So we put out a small box, danced our asses off, and each night it was filled to the brim with paper. We never lied nor solicited the money, and people never asked - they just gave it to us. People gave us so much money, that at the end of each week, there was enough money for six or seven of them to pay roundtrip train fare, and then come visit me in Philly and dance.

It was the life.


At the end of summer, I tried to convince my mom to let me stay in Philly and finish school there, and she demanded I come home and we would "discuss it further". I kicked. I screamed. I told her that she would have to let me stay, or else I would just run away. But eventually, I boarded a plane on September 9th. Two days later, the Twin Towers fell, not more than a few blocks from where that Manhattan couple lived. Amongst all the shock, sadness, and horror, I realized I wasn't going to be able to go back and live there; I realized things never stay the same. I wondered about the friends I had made there as well. In the days before cell phones and Facebook, you just didn't stay in touch. Plus, I had assured them all that I would be back. No real goodbyes necessary. And now...it was a done deal.


Before Josh and I moved to Vegas, I was sitting on the floor of our living room making crucial decisions on what to take with us, what to donate, and what to store at my mom’s house. I opened up a scrapbook I had made of my time in Philly and Brooklyn. I looked over the photos of me at the beginning of the summer, my hair smoothed straight, standing so prim and proper, a shy terrified smile tight across my face, and my purse clutched tightly across my jean jacket. Towards the end of the scrapbook, the last photo of myself is a stark contrast to the first. I am doing the 'baby freeze' (an introductory breakdance move). My legs are in thigh-high socks and are stick-straight in the air, my head is almost touching the ground, and my arms are in a pushup stance supporting my body. My hoop earrings and braids are touching the ground, my hat has fallen off and is on the floor next to me, my eyes are tightly shut, and I am laughing while flashing that signature alligator grin.

I stared at this last photo for a few moments, transfixed. At the time, I was 25 and couldn't believe I was staring at myself. I had never forgotten my experience in Philly and Brooklyn, but I had never realized that the way I felt was so visually perceptible. I looked so happy, so confident, so fearless, so...freaking East Coast. It was my coming of age experience. It had only been 8 years, but at that point, it seemed like a lifetime ago.

I stared at that photo, and couldn't believe I was once so young.

I put the scrapbook in a box, along with other memories, and left it in my mother's garage in Oregon - where it remains to this day. That sort of nostalgia is such a deliciously heart-wrenching bittersweet experience. Maybe once it's been another 8 years, I'll dig it out again. And reminisce some more.


This Saturday, I leave for Philly again. I don't expect the same experience. How could I? I am only going for five days, I am no longer 17, my body can no longer sustain a 'baby freeze' or even freaking do the most simple pop n lock move, and neither couple lives in Philly or Manhattan anymore. Besides, I couldn’t imagine anything worse than a 28 year old trying to get into a dancing group with a bunch of teenagers. Do they even have kids that dance in corners and alleys anymore there? I don’t know, but I sure hope so.

This time around, I am going for the experience of visiting a city I fell in love with upon first sight. I'm going so I can show Josh a little bit of history. I'm going so I can savor a true Philly cheesesteak after 11 years of substandard recreations. I’m going in the hopes that perhaps that old Sicilian man is still maintaining his bakery/meat shop…and I can say hello once again.

I'm also going in hopes that I can recapture a little bit of that fearlessness I once possessed. And perhaps to see if I still have that alligator grin inside of me.