When I was a kid, my friends and I went sledding at the local public High School’s football field, when the snow allowed it of course.
Though Lincoln High School was and probably still is one of the worst high schools in the city of Philadelphia, at least if measured in terms of graduation and arrest rates — it’s always had one of the best student athletic complexes in the city. As I mentioned, the football field was an attraction for kids looking for steep hills to sled down every winter, due to it’s bowl like shape.
In fact, as we got older and the activities we participated and partook in there changed with our ages — we eventually just started referring to it as The Bowl.
I must admit, as much fun as I had there sledding as a child — it was a drop in the bucket compared to the good times different friends and I had there years later as teens. When I was thirteen I knew if my friends weren’t in front of the deli we hung at on my corner, I’d be able to find them up The Bowl.
I capitalize it because it only feels right to do so. I capitalize it because The Bowl capitalized my youth. Legendary stories took place there. It could be said neighborhood legends were born there. Though there’s no denying, it’s also where our childhood innocence was abandoned and left for dead. Any we had left in us before we solidified The Bowl as a sort of makeshift group home for the reckless, was left at the gate the first time we entered.
Though my friends and I took credit for the name and it’s popularity, The Bowl became the spot half the neighborhood kids would congregate to smoke pot, drink cheap beer, bust balls and just be obnoxious teenagers on its bleachers. It was quiet (before we showed up), secluded and not easy for local cop cars to pull into without being spotted from a literal mile away. Thus, it made for the perfect unruly teenage hangout. The Bowl became our collective home away from home. Most of us ended up attending Lincoln High School anyhow, so I guess it made sense we hung there. We practically lived there.
An early explicit teenage memory that sticks out for reasons the end of the story make obvious — is an otherwise average Friday night, two of my closest friends and I were up there drinking. We paid a local homeless guy to buy us three 40 oz bottles of Hurricane malt liquor for $5 and headed to The Bowl.
The three of us — my friends Rick, Craig and myself were all towards the end of our over sized beverages when a couple of girls we knew from the neighborhood came strolling through the gate, as we’d eventually come to catch phrase it.They were drinking as well and our party of three quickly became a party of six.
There’s no polite way to put this so I’ll just lay it out in Lehman’s terms — Rick half jokingly asked one of the girls to take him behind the bleachers and blow him. Much to all of our surprise and to Rick’s delight, she got up and led him behind the bleachers by the hand, to oblige his request.
Craig and another one of the girls headed off to another secluded corner of the bleachers which left a beautiful girl named Kim and myself just kind of sitting there together awkwardly. I had a crush on her years earlier so imagine my delight when out of the blue, in an effort to break the ice and awkwardness she blurted out “So…did you want to go do that?” — referring to what Rick and her friend were currently behind the bleachers doing.
Obviously, I said yes and off we went to find some privacy. We found a spot where we would not be bothered and a few short moments later — my oral virginity was gone. Along with any traces of childhood innocence left in me.
Kim and I had a few more similar drunken teenage run ins over the years. They always seemed to take place in or around The Bowl. They always seemed to end similarly to that first glorious Friday night, none of us will ever forget. Even though I imagine it’s one the girls involved, may prefer to. Offering blowjobs to the boys in the neighborhood when you’re drunk is probably not a story you tell your Grand kids. However, as dudes, it’s still a night my friends and I reflect on fondly and laugh about from time to time. Boys will be boys I suppose. We were all just young, stupid, drunk kids. No harm, no foul. And no — I didn’t use the real name of anyone I mentioned.
That night was just one of so many legendary nights we’d go on to have up The Bowl. Though we were all still very much kids, The Bowl was where our collective childhood innocence died. In many ways, it’s where we grew up.
In other ways, it’s where we went to avoid growing up. Our own little personal Neverland — if you will. That football field is where we went to forget about life for awhile. We felt we had the permission to truly be ourselves up there. Free of judgement from the outside adult ridden world, plagued with rules regulations, judgments and consequences. Though consequences would occasionally find us up there. Apparently, even consequences knew where we hung out at.
There was the time a kid we occasionally hung with named Iggy — who to nobody’s surprise is now dead — slammed a half of bottle of Bacardi while standing on the bleachers, before losing his balance and tumbling backwards down a good four rows of the unforgiving metal benches. That’s not how he died or anything. Word has it he overdosed on Frankford Avenue, alone. There was no money to bury him or for a funeral. A local church is said to have donated the minimum amount to have him buried, with a hastily put together wooden cross in place of a proper tombstone.
Iggy once pulled a gun on me at The Bowl when it was just him and I — for a single blue Xanax. Obviously, I gave it to him. Didn’t hang out with him much after that though. I’m one of those strange people who dislikes when their friends pull firearms on them. Nonetheless, rest in peace to Iggy. Few people deserve the bleak ending he got. Whether he was one, is not for me to say. God makes the final judgement on everyone in the end. That’s just my belief though.
One night a bunch of us had way too much to drink up The Bowl before it was brought to my attention how visibly drunk I was and I’d never make it in my door without getting caught. I tried to pull a fast one on my Dad by calling him from this girl Tara’s cell phone — and telling him I was sleeping over my friend Eric’s. He asked to speak to Eric’s mom, which I had planned for in advance. Tara sounded much more mature than she was and had a voice that could easily pass for a Mother’s. I handed the phone off to her and she put on an Academy award winning performance as Eric’s Mother. My Dad was sold. Unfortunately, Tara was as drunk as I was and didn’t end the call before we started laughing in a braggadocio fashion and celebrating her performance. My Dad heard every word and summoned me home immediately. I was grounded for months. Thanks a lot, Tara. Goddamn you, Milwaukee’s Best.
There were summer nights in the prime of our teenage years where you would find no less than thirty of us seated comfortably up The Bowl, just doing what we did. This was back when it was still nothing more than harmless fun, before any of it turned ugly for a single one of us. None of us had done a physically addicting drug. We made a lot of bad decisions but you know what, we made them together. We stood by the other when they made one before we could stop them and they did the same for us. We may have been a parents worst nightmare but we were the best of friends — and I know I speak for all of us when I say we had the times of our lives up The Bowl.
One time Craig and I were headed up there early on a Saturday afternoon. As we made our way towards the main entrance, we ran into this nice but crazy dude, who we all called ‘Flip’. We called him Flip, because he did back flips on Frankford Avenue for dollar bills. When we were really young, we thought it was cool. As we got older, we realized Flip did flips to support his crack habit. Still, an overall decent guy though. He lived on my street, everyone liked him.
Craig and I were probably fourteen at the time. Flip was a grown man. So put yourselves in our shoes, as we noticed blood pouring out of his wrist as we got closer to him. Flip had cut his wrist — purposely — and was crying hysterically. We knew we had to get him help. This was before cellphones were common but if I’m not mistaken we found a bypassing adult who had one and they made the call — taking the situation off our hands from there. Rescue came and hauled Flip off to the hospital. We might have saved his life that day.
Then Craig and I probably just went and smoked pot at The Bowl, as planned.
As much as we acted the fool up The Bowl, at some point we began taking pride in where we hung out — in the sense we wouldn’t allow others to trash it. If you showed up with a case of beer and planned on just tossing your empty cans away freely when finished, we had a problem with it. It wouldn’t be on our watch.
We brought full coolers with us to keep our beer cold and trash bags for the empty cans. We respected the property, for the most part — at least as we got older. We wouldn’t stand for bottle breaking or anything of the sort. If you had to relieve yourself, you went a comical distance upwind to do it.
I’ll never forget the night our habit of maintaining a cleanly drinking hangout paid off. It was Memorial Day weekend, sometime around 2002. A parade of us were up The Bowl, enjoying the holiday weekend and summer sun when two plain clothed cops came strolling through the gate.
Now, there were really only three feasible ways of entering The Bowl. The main way was through the side entrance — through a hole that was cut in the chain link fence. This was the entrance anyone we knew used. If you knew about the hole in the gate, chances are we didn’t have to worry about you. Once in awhile, the main entrance was unlocked and we’d use that.
Cops always took the long way around and would be spotted well before they made the trek all the way around the other side and then back across the field — a few hundred yard drive. On the rare occasion this happened, we’d quickly gather our things and make our exit through the gate, as soon as we’d see their lights.
However on this memorable Memorial day, two men who the majority of us quickly identified as cops used our hole in the gate entrance. They sat down next to my friend Eric, who was drunker than most of us, as was his norm. Though most of us had realized they were cops, we also realized it was too late to run, there was nothing we could do. It looked as though at least two of us would be going to jail.
However, Eric didn’t even realize they were cops. He was just chatting these two guys up like they were old drinking buddies. One of the cops took notice to the trash bag at Eric’s feet and asked if that’s what we carried our beer up in. Eric explained our cooler and trash bag system and how important it was to maintain a clean space. These cops were so impressed, not only did they give us a pass — they let us keep our beer and didn’t even so much as make us leave. They simply wished us a Happy Memorial Day and left. What makes this most memorable, is Eric blurting out “Happy Labor Day, Officers” as they went to make their exit through the gate. Labor Day, Memorial Day — whatever. They were all just excuses to drink to Eric and the rest of us.
In addition to being our extracurricular hangout, it was and still is where Lincoln High School faces their Rival Father Judge — the local Catholic high school — in the annual traditional Thanksgiving Day football game known as the turkey bowl. It’s funny, we had little pride in our school back then — except when it came to facing Judge in the turkey bowl. Because Lincoln got their ass kicked every year, almost by default. It became a running joke how long it was since Lincoln beat Judge. It’s a rivalry but an odd one — because outside of that one football game — most students from both schools have friends that attend both schools.
So naturally, before these games — students from each school would gather around a keg in the woods at 8 AM on Thanksgiving morning, get rambunctiously drunk and then go and barely watch the game before instigating fights with kids from the other school. I mentioned Iggy earlier, well I once seen him follow Father Judge’s team on their victory march home down Rowland Avenue, before finally running up and sucker punching the coach — as Judge’s whole team stood there in shock. If I recall correctly, he was rightfully arrested right after.
They’ve since knocked down the entire original school building most of us ending up attending high school at— home of the infamous football field. They rebuilt the entire school and in turn made much needed improvements to the athletic facilities as well. What used to be an old and barely adequate eye sore of a grass football field, surrounded by a one mile gritty dirt track — is now a a beautifully rejuvenated, artificial turf field with an authentic polyurethane tartan track.
However, the bleachers themselves have gone on to remain mainly unchanged. In fact much of our graffiti and the names we wrote or scratched into them are still visible. Some of it is almost two decades old. Most of it has been written over — time and time again — by generations of bowl dwellers who came after us, I suppose. We may have not been the last and probably weren’t the first either but goddamn man, nobody did it like us. And I say that from the heart, with an ear to ear smile on my face and a handful of regret in my back pocket. But they’re a flash in a pan to the good times I had along those hundred yards as well as in, on, around and let’s not forget behind those old dented, beat up, graffiti ridden, aluminum bleachers.
Today, The Bowl is where I go running at when the field is not being used and the gate isn’t locked. It’s where I came up for the idea of this story as well as where the ideas for many other stories I’ve written came to me at. Some of my best stories were born on two mile long runs around the track surrounding the field. Some of my best memories were made on the onlooking stands or bleachers. It’s a place of inspiration for me all around. One filled with sentimental musings of days of old and remnants of the prime of my youth.
The idea for this narrative first came to me months ago and after running around the track a total of eight times to complete my two miles.
Today I sat down in our old spot on the bleachers and began writing it. Reporting live from where the innocence of my childhood died.
Just sitting in that same spot we did on so many days and nights, for hours on end brought back endless memories — some of which I haven’t thought about in damn near a decade. Too many to put in a single narrative.
I instead picked a few that stuck out the most, for their own reasons. The Bowl may have been where my childhood innocence died but I don’t say so regretfully because it’s also where some of the best friendships I’ve been blessed with were formulated and bonded. It’s where their foundation lies.
Better than the outlandish stories of debauchery and revelry are the countless conversations I had with friends over the years growing up.
There were so many moments I went there feeling like my world was ending, due to whatever typical teenage angst problem I was going through, only to find a few friends up The Bowl who always found a way to help me forget about whatever was going on, if only for a little while. It’s where we coped, celebrated, plotted, mourned, loitered and escaped.
Most of the people I’m close with today are people in the stories and pictures above. They all may not have made the pictures or stories I featured in this piece but anyone I grew up in my neighborhood with, pretty much has a bowl story to tell. As I said, The Bowl itself is legendary in it’s own right in the neighborhood I grew up in. In so many ways, it formulated who we are today. Therefore, I felt it was only right I give it it’s proper due through this graphic narrative. Because it’s a narrative that played — and still plays — such a vital part in the much larger overall narrative of who I am and where I come from.