Stanley, Patron Saint of Pornography

(This story first appeared in the Quarterly #FTW05 package.)

Our first apartment in the States was in a three floor brick tenement at the corner of 10th and Duncannan in North Philadelphia. The landlord didn’t mind renting to Portuguese. In fact, he once told my father that of all the new immigrants coming into the neighborhood, we seemed the whitest. In 1970 Philadelphia this was an enlightened viewpoint. And so this particular building, which had no particular distinguishing characteristics, became the entry point for about a dozen families immigrating from the small town of Alcobaça. Most stayed a year or two, before eventually moving on to bigger apartments in the neighborhood.

Most of families had kids. And took turns watching them, as parents went to work at whatever hours jobs could be found. Kids moved freely between apartments, and usually wound up in Francisco and Isabel’s. They had a tv, the only one in the building. And so lots of families would sit around the tv at night attempting to learn English.

The kids learned it first, of course. Which meant that before even starting school, most of us had already spent time negotiating benefits with our fathers at the unemployment office, or arguing about late payments at the utility office. There were no construction jobs during the Philadelphia winters, so like most immigrant kids, I learned how to extend a line of credit even before I learned long division. But like most, I could always speak it better than I could read it.

This was still at a time when buildings had supers. Our particular super, Stanley, lived in a tiny apartment in the basement next to the boiler room. Stanley mostly kept to himself, and in hindsight, I imagine he was probably the last vestige of white, English-speaking residents in the neighborhood. He didn’t much like all the new immigrants. My father returned the favor by referring to him as The Polack. Stanley taught me to read, and keeps my therapist awake at night.

On a hot evening in July, Stanley’s apartment caught fire. The oaf had fallen asleep, or more accurately passed out, with a lit cigarette in his hand. We watched the firefighters put it out from the safety of the front lawn. We watched Stanley get pulled out and thrown on that same lawn. We watched him slowly get up. And we watched as my father performed one of the few kind acts I remember from my childhood — he took Stanley a beer. It was the last time we saw Stanley.

The next morning my brothers and I headed outside to survey the damage. The majority of his belongings were piled in a wet, burned heap on the sidewalk. Most of it was junk, but we dug through it anyway. Below a pile of soggy blankets, I found a half burned box of magazines. I opened it. The edges and covers were burned, and most of the ones on top of the stack were soaked through from the fire hoses. But as I slowly peeled them apart, tossing aside the burned and ancient TV Guides and Reader’s Digests, I saw someone looking up at me from inside the box. My very first naked lady.

Time froze as I studied her. My imagination had gotten some things right, come close on others, and was thankfully wrong about the rest. I turned the page and there was another lady. And another. I was gripped with an intense feeling of… well, something that I wouldn’t understand until much later. Shame, and guilt, and the terrified joy of knowing this discovery had put me right on the path to hell, with no turning back. As fear washed over me I grabbed as many of the magazines as I could. I stuffed them under my jacket and took off up the steps to stash them under my bed.

For months, I studied Stanley’s stash. I even read the stories. As my English slowly got better and better. I found out that the lady in the bubble bath liked walks on the beach and was studying to be a psychiatrist. The red-haired lady posing in front of the windmill was originally from Sweden and liked to listen to jazz. I knew so much about them.

And always, always the wonderful smell of smoke!

Eventually, in a fit of guilt I threw the magazines away. I stuffed them back in my jacket and walked eight blocks to a dumpster behind the Penn Fruit where I was sure no one would trace them back to me. And as I walked back home I could still smell the smoke. On my hands. On my jacket. In my hair.

Two years later my father got a better job and we, too, moved out of that apartment. And as I was packing, I reached under my bed and found a Penthouse Forum. Its cover burnt off. It’s edges singed. And I held it close. And I inhaled as hard as I could.

I still have it.