Finally the family seems to be crawling out. This is the early 1960s. Dad gets a job with his brother-in-law. Good position in a new company. A break. You are living in the suburbs, going to suburban schools, hanging with suburban kids. Problem: Dad’s a blue-collar guy who can’t kiss ass in this white-collar world. Dad: tough, and quietly sure of himself. The uncle is oily, a wheeler-dealer who, in theory, respects Dad.
So goodbye to Uncle Oily, and the suburbs. You’re back in Philly. You are the oldest of five and the family moves a lot. You attend three high schools in four years. Always the odd kid. The poor kid. The blusher. Lonely, bony, and gnomely. No overcoat, and these are cold winters. And, oh, how hunger feeds shame.
Then you reach the age where you can work part-time. You contribute. Feels good, helping out, and Dad thanks you by treating you like a man. Then Dad passes the Post Office test. He’s a sorter. It’s living death, that job, you realize later, but it’s money, security. You will never again be a suburban kid, but at least you turn your back on hunger-shame. Dad steps a bit livelier, limp and all. Mom sings around the house. Your parents buy you a winter coat.
When you graduate high school you work for an insurance company downtown that Ben Franklin started. Museum dark, library quiet. Maybe in five years you could be an agent, in 20, a manager, in 30, possibly even a regional manager, though those positions are taken by college grads. You hear the prison gate slam, but at least you can pay Dad room and board now.
But this is Lyndon Johnson’s America, and things are changing. You receive a letter from the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency telling you that because you’d scored so high on the college boards you’re entitled to free tuition. The letter comes on the Monday after Mom cooks the first pot-roast your family has had in three years. Everybody pulls away from the table full. The little sisters sing: “Food, Glorious, Food.”
You want to donate that letter to the National Archives. Instead you fold it, with a ruler, like it’s geometry. You place it in a pocket of your winter coat, the one with the zipper. It will be your coulda. Like the baseball kids who claim they were scouted by the pros on an 0-fer night.
On a dark December Sunday, as snow starts brushing by, you and Dad are taking the bus home from Grandma’s. A few flakes streak the windows, like ghosts looking in. You and Dad are talking about one of the little kids, who’d just gotten over bronchitis. Dad mentions the Post Office’s health coverage. Two years earlier, a bout of bronchitis would have sent the family reeling.
Somehow, you unzip your pocket, take out the letter. Is your hand trembling when you offer it? Dad reads slowly as the bus bumps along. Glances at you. Reads it again.
You swallow, can barely ask: “What do you think, Dad?”
“You go to college.”