Back then we called him Charlie (he goes by Charles now). He was nine years old and I was up in Philly visiting all of the relatives that live in that area. I was alone, neither my Mom nor my brother Mike came up with me on that trip.
I had already been to the Italian Market in South Philly a couple of times; at least one of those trips was with Charlie and his father, Jeff. I also had gotten a tour of a couple of cheesesteak places. (And no, I do not like cheese ladled onto my sandwich. It is just “not right”.) The highlights of the trips to the Italian Market area near Washington in South Philly were, as usual, the Di Bruno Brothers original location and Sarcone’s Bakery (some of the best bread ever).
Anyway, on this particular outing Kay (my half-sister, Charlie’s mom) was taking me out for what she assured me was another signature Philly cultural experience, a genuine water ice. Now, if you don’t know what a water ice is, it will be difficult to tell you because comparisons do not really do them justice. I suppose it is something like a shaved ice, a snow cone, and a slushy … but better than any of them and truly unique. I recall that what I had that day for the first time ever is far superior to anything else that is “sort of like it”, but I couldn’t tell you how or why it is so much better.
As Kay explained to me on the way over, one important thing about Philly water ices is that you really ought to order one of the flavors that is made from fruit that is ripe and in season for that time of year. I can’t recall exactly when it was, but it was summertime, probably late August. As we drove along, Kay suggested something made from fruit that was at its peak that week, and announced the particular flavor that she would be having, peach perhaps. I ended up choosing strawberry, and though Delaware Valley strawberries were past their peak, I was completely thrilled with my selection when it finally did come.
But this story is really about Charles, a young man that even at age nine was incredibly perceptive and intuitive
As we pulled up Kay said she would wait in the car while Charlie and I went to get our order. The place was a comfortable-looking stand situated near a busy thoroughfare with parking ringing the little building. It looked like it might have been a burger stand in a former life. It was near Germantown, but not close by where Kay and Jeff lived. I can’t recall exactly what neighborhood we were in. The place had faded signs and a very loyal clientele.
In this late August mid-afternoon the line stretched from the ordering windows for at least 20 people. And, there were two different lines. I immediately noticed something else. Everyone waiting in the lines was African-American. Also there was a friendly banter between the people in line, many of whom seemed to know one another. This definitely was a neighborhood hang-out.
As Charlie and I got in line I noticed a few of the other customers “checking me out”. It looked like a mostly “hip-hop” crowd with a few “church-lady types” mixed in. Quite a number of kids, too. I began to get a sense that some of the fellas in line were beginning to give me questioning looks. Here am I a late-thirties white dude with Charlie, an obviously African-American nine-year-old. I began to make small talk with Charlie, but quickly ran out of things to say.
Then I noticed Charles … he was looking at some of the guys that kept looking back at me. I was looking around trying to “seem at ease” (instead of looking straight ahead or at the ground). So, I was obviously over-thinking things and probably looked almost as ill at ease as some of the guys who kept giving me side-long glances. Two of them in particular seemed to take notice of me. They didn’t look menacing or anything, but they did look like they could’ve taken care of themselves if they ever needed to. Gold teeth, some gold chains. I would not have ever wanted to cross them in any way, no sir.
I began to feel that I was intruding into something. This was a special neighborhood place … and I was obviously not from the neighborhood. I looked back at Charles. I could see his face, looking at the people around us and then back at me.
He was quite obviously pondering the situation. Almost as soon as I noticed Charlie’s face “come up with a solution” to my social dilemma he began to speak.
He said (loud enough for everyone within earshot to hear) —
“Uncle David? What flavor are you going to have? … Mom wants peach.”
He emphasized the word “uncle.” I think that maybe that was the first time ever that he had directly addressed me as “Uncle David”. I had only visited Philly a couple of times at that point in his short life.
Now … he already knew that I knew that his Mom was having peach. And … he knew that I had already mentioned that I would try the strawberry flavor. Thus, there was no legitimate context for him to be asking me what I was having or to mention his Mom’s choice. So in his own way he had figured out how to “announce” that I was his uncle … and that everything was cool.
Sure enough, a couple of the fellas in line that I had imagined to be wondering …
‘Who the heck is this cracker with the Southern accent and what is he doing here at our water ice stand with this black kid?’… Sure enough a couple of them immediately looked around and noticed Kay waiting in the car.
Then I picked up on an immediate change in aspect of the crowd – the crowd of nice folks waiting in line for the best water ice in Philly … at “their neighborhood place”. It was a vibe of relief washing over all of us. And, at that moment a gentle breeze blew through the shaded area where we were standing in line, gently stirring some discarded flyers. It was a cooling sweetness.
Now, everyone knew who I was, who Charlie was in relation to me, and “what in the heck we were doing there”. We were obviously there to enjoy the best water ice in Philly … and then go off and brag on “their neighborhood water ice place.”
Charlie was only nine … Like I said, even at age 9, Charles was intuitive, perceptive, and deep.
Charles, I love you, man.
– Uncle Dave