Issue # 11
June 2, 2000
Ode to Phoenixville
By Rich Wilhelm

There is a cartoon on Sesame Street, where a little boy jumps around all over the place, giddy with excitement, singing, “I’m six, I’m six, I’m six years old today.”

Today, June 2, 2000, I am that boy. Except I’m singing, “I’m 35, I’m 35, I’m 35 years old today.” Today is my 35th birthday and I intend on completely celebrating and embracing my “35ness.” I was, in fact, going to write about turning 35 for this week’s column, but that article has become a little bit more complex than I can deal with this week, so I’m making a last-minute substitution. The following column is a piece I wrote last fall and sent off to an area magazine, Main Line Today. I haven’t heard from them about this article yet, but that’s fine with me. The real reward was in having the experience I describe and in being able to get it down in writing so soon after it happened.

Next week, I’ll treat you to my birthday story, which will be titled “The Big 3-5.” However, since I haven’t written a good Jimmy story in awhile, this week I’ll present my “Ode to Phoenixville,” which just happens to be a good Jimmy story. The amazing thing to me when I re-read this, is just how much Jimmy has changed since last October!

Ode to Phoenixville

My wife Donna and I had to laugh when we read in the September Main Line Today that Phoenixville is becoming a "hot spot alternative" for homebuyers. We did not laugh because we didn’t believe Main Line Today’s claim, nor did we laugh because we were coincidentally going to become homeowners in Phoenixville that month. We laughed thinking how much of a happy accident it was that we found ourselves living in Phoenixville in the first place.

Back in the fall of 1996, we were looking to move out of our apartment in Northeast Philadelphia. Neither of us worked in the city anymore and the wage tax and car insurance payments were, quite frankly, obnoxious. Since I was working in West Conshohocken and Donna was in Wayne, we decided to look for a place somewhere in the western suburbs.

On a tip from a coworker, Donna suggested we check out an apartment complex in Phoenixville. We drove out together on our lunch hour and, before we went back to work, we'd put down a deposit on an apartment in a town that we'd never even visited until that hour. We generally felt like our intuition as a married couple was on target and we hoped it wouldn't fail us now.

Fortunately, our intuition was right on track. The apartment turned out to be quite decent for the two of us, and we liked the church we joined (our first real contact with people who lived in town) very much. Phoenixville had a small-town vibe that really appealed to us after living four years in the Northeast, a feeling that seems increasingly hard to find these days. Plus, with a theater that can be seen in the classic horror film, The Blob (the Colonial, which has been renovated and reopened recently); with diners that have names like the ValeRio and the G Lodge; and with the waterfall you pass on Route 23 at Pickering Reservoir on the way into town, Phoenixville had a slightly quirky quality that appealed to me very much--it reminded me of Twin Peaks (my all-time favorite television show).

Within a year after moving to Phoenixville, our son Jimmy was born. I guess you could say he was a “new apartment, new baby” project. As he got bigger, our apartment began to shrink, so earlier this year we decided to buy our first home. It quickly became apparent during our house search that no other criteria mattered as much as finding a nice house in Phoenixville. “Location, location, location” suddenly made perfect sense to us. Jimmy was in a daycare center that he (and we) liked very much and we felt like we'd made friends in this community, something we'd never done in our old neighborhood. We wanted to stay awhile.

We found a house and moved in late September. Of course I was happy and relieved to become a homeowner, even as I was more than a little scared—after all, now came taxes, learning how to properly grumble about taxes and the realization that, hey, I’m not exactly the handiest guy on the block. The first few weeks in the house were exciting, but it was not until a little over a month later that I realized just how right a house in the "hot spot alternative" of Phoenixville was for me and my little family.

It was a transcendently beautiful autumn morning, the Saturday of Halloween weekend. Jimmy had announced “dadamamabubblelawmosideside” which, loosely translated, means “Dad and Mom, I’d like to push my bubble-making lawn mower around outside now, ” so he and I hit the sidewalk around nine. He pushed his mower along happily, stopping as often as possible to observe the sights of his neighborhood, his world. There were all kinds of spooky Halloween decorations to look at, but in Jimmy's world that day there were only dogs, sticks, lawn mowers, cars, airplanes, acorns and the occasional ant.

After awhile I began to make some observations of my own. The first thing I noticed was the silence. That’s it. Just beautiful silence. Gradually, layered atop the silence, I heard a variety of birdsongs and then I noticed that, as far down the street as I could see, leaves of many autumnal shades were lazily drifting toward the ground. Finally, I made the mental note that I’d been outside far more often since we’d moved than I had been for quite a long time, and it felt good.

We walked around the block and found a yard sale. Everyone there made a big deal about Jimmy and his lawn mower as I perused the videos and CDs being sold. One video for sale was Smoke, a movie starring William Hurt and Harvey Keitel. Keitel plays Auggie, a New York City cigar store owner who is so in tune with his sense of place that every morning at the same time, he takes a picture of the corner where his shop is located. It is one of my favorite movies. I introduced myself as a new neighbor to the women running the yard sale and told them I'd be back in a little while with my wife.

Later, after Jimmy and I got back home, he heard the magic sound of a lawn mower. It turned out to be Hank, the neighbor behind our house. We watched Hank, a World War II veteran who has lived in our neighborhood for longer than I’ve been alive, mow his lawn as Jimmy yelled out “law mo" over and over, occasionally stopping to look at the dogs a few yards down and yell out "dogs". Hank stopped to talk for a minute, then went back to mowing at a leisurely pace, as Jimmy leaned against the fence and watched intently.

Eventually, Donna, Jimmy and I walked back over to the yard sale, where we talked with the neighbors, Jimmy communed with the dogs and I bought Smoke. And, while I don't know if I'll start walking out in front of our house to take a picture of it every single morning (although I did take a great picture of Jimmy “mowing” our front lawn), I realized that gorgeous Saturday that I understand more than before where Auggie the Cigar Shop Owner is coming from. I found out for certain what I'd suspected for a while: this town we came to live in because of a spur-of-the-moment decision made during a lunch hour feels right to us.

Hot or not, Phoenixville is Home.

(Please feel free to email to others who may be interested or to print hard copy for them but remember: The Dichotomy of the Dog is copyright 2000 by Rich Wilhelm. If you plan on making a bazillion dollars from this piece of writing, please let me know so I can sue you or something.)