Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Dollhouse - A Snapshot of a Man

This past winter I wrote an essay about my grandfather, and never did much with it. So I decided to put it here, in a series of blog posts that I'll put up over the next few days. This is my small way of preserving an ever-fading man, of paying homage to a strikingly large element of my life, and to the city we both love...

You kids break that dollhouse and I'll break your asses.

The cluster of small heads huddled around the table that held the most precious, beautiful toy we had ever seen.

Now I'm not kidding. I'll throw you all in the pond.

But because he grew up in South Philadelphia, and is the fascination of linguists country-wide, his now comes out neah'w, and you is ya.

My grandfather, William Subers, spent years building that dollhouse. The outside was designed with the color and style of his own house, and the inside filled with rooms built to scale with such detail, they required tweezers to add the finishing touches.

He collected materials from the real world, transplanting them into the miniature. The kitchen was papered with a swatch of wallpaper from my mother's kitchen. A bedroom with carpet remnant from my room. A dining room with furniture matching the set in my grandparents' house.

When I peered into the dollhouse, I felt like a giant looking into my own home. Like Duane Michael's picture within a picture within a picture, I had a portal to another world that was also my own.

Throughout my life, my grandfather has been a constant guide to worlds within my world. He has taught me about my family, and about myself. He introduced me to roomfuls of ghosts, and instilled in me a love for Philadelphia.

Over the years I have spent with my grandfather, his ghosts have grown, and my perception of who he is has expanded and transformed. If at, say, age seven, you had asked me what grandfathers do, I would tell you they build dollhouses and chop off people's limbs.

On multiple occasions he has threatened to cut off three of my fingers, my entire hand, my foot, and my childhood pet turtle's head. Extremities most often became candidates for amputation when penetrated with small objects.

Pebbles. Splinters. Bee stingers. On one occasion, a box turtle's mouth. Perhaps that's because his life was rife with people missing limbs; loved ones who lost limbs to a coal truck's or, worse, a train's biting steel wheels.

William is no longer fast with the kitchen knife. He's 75. He's slowing. And he seems even slower in a world where speed rules. In fact, it appears that none of my younger cousins have ever been presented with amputation as an option to their maladies.

This seems to pain him in a time when life moves at a breakneck pace. He watched Philadelphia change from a city with milk delivered by horse-drawn carriages to one where drivers, bikers, and walkers fight over every square inch.

Indeed, Philadelphia is a different city.

It was safe for us. We protected each other. Neighbors once noticed someone trying to break into a house in my neighborhood. Guy was on the roof. Every person on that street was throwing milk bottles at him. Every time he stuck his head out, someone threw another bottle at him. We held him there until the cops came and picked him up.

Today's rampant "don't snitch" epidemic pollutes the city, enabling drug dealers and murders to walk down the same streets William played in as a boy. With gun violence a daily occurrence in which no one is safe -- not even the police -- and a breathtaking murder rate, the city is rotting from the core.

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