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View From a Rowhouse Balcony

The Philadelphia “rowhouse”: one word; two stories. Porches on the first floor and/or balconies above. RSA-5 or RM-1 zoned. Gentrifiers and families, students and immigrants, cops, robbers, entrepreneurs, and eds & meds professionals.

From my balcony, I imagine a row of faces in the buildings across the street. The front steps that hang down like tongues from porch to sidewalk. The chipped teeth of the pre-1940s white picket railings. The balconies like eye sockets. Jamband whispers and smoke wisps coming from one balcony down the block, soul and laughter coming from another. Christmas lights in August. The people in each foxhole like mitochondria, pulsing with energy, giving life to their facades.

One time at 4 am, I watched a group of policemen and EMTs emerge from the rowhouse facing mine, carrying a neighbor I had never met. He appeared to be unconscious. They had him balanced upright on a chair; his head bobbed up and down as they carried him down the steps toward the flashing blue and red lights of their idling cars and ambulance. Drug overdose or heart attack, I thought. Or both. I tried to remember every detail, in case I was ever called upon as a witness, knowing that stranger things have happened. I never was. The next night, he was back on his porch, as if the previous night was just a bad dream, undone by waking up.

Another time, I tried to start a garden up here. I bought basil, cilantro, dill, and spearmint seedlings for five dollars each and placed them down where it would be not too sunny nor too shady. When I awoke the next morning, three of the plants had been knocked down and torn apart, and there were peanuts all over the balcony. That meant squirrels, finally welcoming me to the neighborhood. Only the spearmint survived. I picked a leaf and ate it. And? As with Archimedes in the tub, it was like a light bulb had gone on. From that moment, I watered it religiously. At the end of the summer, I planted the spearmint in the empty mulch garden patch down by the front porch. I didn’t think the downstairs tenants would mind. The following spring, the spearmint boomed. It was everywhere. I had a lawn full of spearmint, I boasted to my friends. What if we all planted lawns of spearmint? Think about how much more stormwater runoff we would capture, how much less fertilizer we would need, how much fuel we would save not lawnmowing! A few weeks later, my landlord came to fix a light bulb and ended up weed-whacking the entire patch back down to mulch. If only I had told him sooner it was spearmint, I might have saved my lawn.

At time of writing, I am now entering my fourth year living here, keeping watch on my block and over my latest garden. Not including childhood, it is the longest I have ever lived anywhere. But I am entering my thirties now, and that means changes: marriage, kids, house… And yet last month, I visited my friend and his girlfriend at their downtown apartment on the 24th floor, and we spent the afternoon on their roofdeck, by a swimming pool, surrounded on all sides by good-looking yuppies in bathing suits, passing around White Claws, drink of the summer, barbecue blowing in the cool luxury tower wind, and all I could think about was how much I preferred my balcony, my squirrels. A fresh pot of coffee. A blank page. A Philly rowhouse, each and every single one of them across the street -- and mine.




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