The Friend of a Friend
I was born and raised in Northeast Philadelphia, a section of the city called “Parkwood,” a predominantly blue collar, Catholic neighborhood consisting of mid-50’s style brick row houses in domino-like configurations that were prone to chronic leaks.
It was an awesome neighborhood to be a kid in the eighties. We’d play games like stick ball, wire ball, Freedom, and when we got a little older, Spin the Bottle and Seven Minutes in Heaven in the closets at basement birthday parties. One of my favorite memories as a kid was attending St. Anselm Parish carnivals every Spring. It was our neighborhood’s version of Disney World.
One of the rites of passage, in Parkwood, was to go explore the ruins and underground tunnels of “Byberry” (Byberry Mental Hospital), these creepy, turn-of-century decaying buildings with a morbid past of patient abuse and cover-ups. We’d be gone for hours, back before there were cell phones and helicopter parents.
I wrote an essay about Byberry, coining ourselves “The Goonies of Northeast Philly.” It was published in Across the Margin, a Brooklyn arts & culture webzine.
The time was September 1986, Northeast Philadelphia. I was 12-years-old, and had just experienced my first kiss, lasting mere seconds. And then there was a murder of a neighborhood girl, one year older than me, that changed our innocence forever. In the days before social media, here’s an essay about memory and how it plays out on the continuum of time.
In September 1986, I was a petite, spunky 12-year-old with metallic braces that would sometimes scrape against the insides of my cheeks. By now, I had experienced my first kiss, lasting mere seconds, with a popular boy, who’d attended a different school than me. My biggest fear, up to that point, was kissing a boy with braces as well, and us somehow getting interlocked, becoming temporarily conjoined. It was always the friend of a friend that this most embarrassing moment happened to, and it became kind of an urban legend within my circle of friends. Thankfully, the first boy I kissed was brace-free.
My first kiss attended a local Catholic prep school while I attended a small, Christian academy, where I was bussed into a different neighborhood altogether. At times, I felt like the odd-ball, non-Catholic in our predominantly Catholic neighborhood in Northeast Philadelphia. It didn’t matter that I was baptized Catholic. I’d seen the evidence of my baptism — thick, waxy-feeling polaroids of my Godparents, an older sister and brother-in-law of my mother, my aunt and uncle, holding me in their matching, blue-checkered 70’s pantsuits and jet-black, Priscilla Presley-inspired hairdo. However, by the time I’d enter primary school, my parents would have already left Catholicism for Evangelical Christianity, getting my fill of Jim and Tammy Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell’s Old Time Gospel Hour, and Harold Camping’s Family Radio by the time I was twelve. It felt like an invisible chasm had formed overnight, where before there was no chasm at all. Suddenly, it was them and us; Us and Them. Them and Me. Me and Them.
My memories sometimes came to me in snapshots and mosaics. Some came to mind faster than a freight train, while other memories came slower than a dripping faucet, but come they always did. My fascination with memory reminded me of one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes, “The Incredible World of Horace Ford.” Horace Ford is a 38-year-old toy designer obsessed with his happy childhood memories to the point of frustrating his colleagues, wife and mother. According to the episode’s Wikipedia page:
“One day, he decides to revisit his childhood neighborhood. Ford discovers, to his amazement, that it has not changed. He recognizes the boys he played with in his childhood — who have not aged. Frightened, he returns to his apartment, but he visits his old neighborhood again over the next several nights. On the last visit, he hears his old friends complaining that he did not invite them to his birthday party. He tries to talk to them, and suddenly turns into a boy again. His friends bully and assault him, as Horace realizes that his childhood was not as pleasant as he would have nostalgically recall. After his wife finds him, he “grows up” — returning to his own time period and age group with a new-found appreciation for life as an adult.”
I’d wondered if Horace Ford’s opening narration, by the too cool and collected, Rod Serling, could also be applied to myself as well:
“Ms Carolynn Kingyens, who has a preoccupation with another time, a time of childhood, a time of growing up, a time of street games, stickball and hide-n’-go-seek. She has a reluctance to check out a mirror and see the nature of her image: proof positive that the time she dwells in has already passed her by. But in a moment or two she’ll discover that mechanical toys and memories and daydreaming and wishful thinking and all manner of odd and special events can lead one into a special province, uncharted and unmapped, a country of both shadow and substance known as the Twilight Zone.”
When something big happened on the continuum of time, it was normal to unconsciously draw associations to help anchor ourselves forever to that memory. I’d imagine, for example, my mother learning of JFK’s assassination while at the hair salon, her Jackie Kennedy-inspired locks set in hair rollers; her head tucked underneath some loud, helmet-looking 60’s hairdryer.
Unable to hear anyone speaking, my mother’s golden brown eyes would gaze up briefly from her LIFE Magazine, maybe a little perplexed as she witnessed one lady fall to her knees, another clutch at her chest, a few more covering their painted, bow-shaped mouths with the palms of their hands. Maybe for a split-second in time, it appeared to my mother as an impromptu parlor game of charades with the subject line tagged — “shock and grief.”
Where were you when?
In September 1986, I was an awkward 12-year-old, when I heard the news at soccer practice that the friend of a friend had been raped and murdered, found drowned and beaten in a ditch somewhere in Bucks County. I later learned she went to my brother’s middle school, but he didn’t know her well. I didn’t know her either, but I knew people in the neighborhood who had. She was only 13 years old, one year older than me.
The news made me both sad and anxious. All the parents were warning their children, especially their young daughters, about a man going round flashing a shiny, fake police badge in order to lure away young, impressionable girls to his “unmarked” squad car on the false pretense of violating curfew. It wasn’t long until he was apprehended, and quickly brought to justice.
Not long ago, I Googled her name for the first time, and was able to see her photo. I was always curious as my generation didn’t have social media back then. She looked like a child to me now, stuck frozen in time. She had the big, teased-out hairstyle that all of the tweens and high school girls had back in the mid-80’s. Today, if she was alive, she’d be 47.
I remember a year after her murder kicking a soccer ball around at an elementary school located down the street from my family’s new home in far out suburbia. It was getting dark, and I was alone. A man in a maroon-colored car drove by slowly, then parked in the empty parking lot at the school, where I was doing my soccer drills. He walked over to me, and tried to make conversation. I could still remember his eyes. They looked wild, predatory. He kept his hands inside his pockets the entire time, and acted a bit cagey. He’d sometimes pace, making me feel uneasy. I ran straight home, like Forrest Gump, after the peculiar stranger asked if I wanted to leave with him to get some ice cream.
That night, I lain wide awake in bed, unable to sleep, thinking about the murdered girl who was the friend of a friend.
That could have been me, I’d thought.
That could have been anyone.