A street list memoir of Bethlehem

Posted on January 23, 2011


This begins a memoir of Bethlehem organized around addresses of places I have lived or had memorable experiences. The organization of the project has its genesis in my having run for Bethlehem City Council in 1989, and having walked door-to-door, asking voters to elect me to one of the four seats. In the same year that the Cold War began to unravel on the international stage, I knocked on about 3,000 doors by my estimate in a little post-industrial city in eastern Pennsylvania.

Bethlehem is a place that I left twenty years ago, but I will always have a deep fondness for and loyalty to my home town, town of music, town of gritty iron ore red sunsets, home to a long, rusty dinosaur of the steel entombed by the Lehigh River, town of Asa Packer’s enterprise, town of drunks who recycle their glass bottles.

Arkady, my eight-year-old son, and I had an improvised lunch with my father and then zipped off to rendezvous with my old friend (another faculty brat, as I am) David Amidon and to visit his father, who taught in a self-created special subdepartment of history at Lehigh University, urban studies. As we came up over Wyandotte hill and down the other side, greeted by a topless bar where I applied for a job as a waitress some time in 1979 (but decided not to work there because there had been a knife fight the week before), I was filled with sweet nostalgia for the grungy little neighborhoods clinging to the mountainside and I began to sing softly to myself:

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

Arkady repeated back to me the second-last line, “the hopes and fears of all the years…” and commented, “That must have been a scary night.” He was, of course, not thinking of the Christian mythology of the imminent birth of a messiah, but something more like how he and other ordinary people experience their hopes and fears. I tried on what his matter-of-fact perception of the lyrics might be like, the hopes and fears of the people all around me in the tiny gray, pink, and beige aluminum-sidinged houses teetering precipitously above Fountain Hill, and I replied, “Well, I think every night is like that–people’s hopes and fears come together.”

The next stop after lunch with my 79-year-old dad was to visit Big Dave Amidon, retired professor of history at Lehigh University.

Chandler Ullman Hall

Big Dave Amidon and the urban studies program. I remember that Yugo that Big Dave drove. He would leave tires on until they were completely bald – and when he got into that car, it literally sagged lower from his body weight.

Weirdly, I never took a single class with him, but I used to hang out and talk to him all the time. He taught me the true meaning of “diversity” something no liberal ever could.

Fritz Laboratory. I’m not completely sure I was ever IN Fritz lab. I do remember a contest (open to the whole university population) OUTSIDE of Fritz lab that I won – to make a contraption to protect an egg from being an egg from being broken for the fall off of the top of the building. There were some pissed off Physics majors with regard to an English major winning the contest. I put the egg in a small empty carton for orange juice (re-filled with popcorn) inside a second empty half-gallon milk carton also re-filled with popcorn. The egg remained unbroken for seven trips off of the top of Fritz Laboratory.

Joanne Dinsmore, whose father had his office there and says that she “practically lived in Fritz Lab” says, “It was so cool when they inaugurated the big stress tester. After smashing some shit, they cleaned off the plate and put an egg on it. Down came the crusher plate. Slowly. Slowly. It rested on the shell. Then a tiny bit more. A crack in the surface. They raised the crusher plate. A chick poked its head through the crack. Way cool. I’ll always remember that.”

Packard Laboratory. The huge, cattle-call 8 am lectures of Engineering 1 (taught for my incoming class in 1979 by Robert Johnson, angry at the world because he had just found out he had multiple sclerosis) and Economic 1 (taught by Richard Aronson, the last of “my” generation of professors to retire) took place in the auditorium at the basement level.

In that same year, there were roving fraternity dogs all around Lehigh’s campus – without collars or ID or anything. A pair of them got up on the dais and one started humping the other during a lecture for Eco 1. Not to be upstaged, Richie Aronson quickly made signs and taped them on the dogs, labeling the humper “supply” and the humpee “demand.”

Packard Laboratory. I also took Engineering I here. An 8 am lecture taught by a professor named Robert Johnson. He had just found out that year that he had multiple sclerosis and he was angry at the world. He stood in front of nearly a thousand students and told us that it was his job to flunk half of us – and he was fully enthusiastic about living up to that task!

Vine and 4th Streets. McAdoo’s, that was such a sweet place. David Stengle’s and my VERY first date was at his parent’s house at 520 West 3rd Street and David cooked for me. The whole family had cleared out so we could have privacy. Our SECOND date was at McAdoo’s. I am not completely sure which store front it is, but will take several from which you can choose. I paid for dinner, which was a pleasant surprise to David.

Joanne Dinsmore: I waitressed at McAdoo’s during Jimmy Carter’s campaign. Adrienne: 1980 was the first presidential election in which I was old enough to vote. I was a contrarian and therefore voted for Anderson.

(Formerly) Union Bank on West 4th Street. Jodi Dinsmore: My dad walked out of this bank one day and looked up and saw several flying saucers. Everyone on the street did. Several walked over to the Globe Times office to tell them. Dad has no recollection of this. Did I dream it?

Um, can’t help you with the flying saucers. I know that David Dowling told me that he saw flying saucers. He just in an untimely way in 2010. I do remember the fire at the theater at the corner of 3rd and Broadway, across from New Bethany Ministries, if that helps.

Posted in: the social world