While teaching sixth grade at Praise Christian Academy in North Versailles, Pennsylvania as a young man in his twenties, I lived in a two-bedroom apartment with my maternal grandmother where many weekends were spent with my younger cousin Kenny; and one of our favorite pastimes was to watch Saturday Night Live together.
When Chris Farley had the lead role in the classic sketch “Living in a Van Down by the River” as motivational speaker Matt Foley, my cousin and I were busting a gut at his hysterical antics which even had the comedian’s fellow cast members breaking character; but we nearly wet ourselves the moment he inadvertently landed on a coffee table smashing it to smithereens.
As I watched the hilarious segment play out across the television airwaves, it reminded me of a far more somber time while living in a downtown apartment building in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania during my senior year of high school.
Although there was never any question as to whether or not I’d end up “living in a van down by the river,” there was a serious concern that my family and I might wind up living in a cardboard box under the railway overpass next to Grossman’s Family Restaurant.
Since my father was traveling around to area churches conducting weekly revival meetings and my mother was working as a waitress at Christy’s Family Restaurant along Route 65 on the outskirts of town, the out-of-work minister and his hard-working wife were doing everything within their power to see us through to the end of each month, but it somehow never seemed to be enough.
Living in the downtown apartment building was quite different than living in the church parsonage.
While my parents never wanted to burden me with their problems, I sensed that there was something horribly wrong when they were forced to borrow the coin change in my Lincoln High School Wolverines mug – something I acquired by selling one hundred dollars of assorted merchandise during my junior year – to pay the paperboy.
Unbeknownst to my conscientious caretakers, some of the copper-coated pieces inside that cherished glass stein were actually part of my prized penny collection; but following a quick inventory of its contents, I realized many of the “wheat” pennies – which took years to collect – were missing.
As I began to drown in a pool of self-pity, I quickly came to the realization as to the reason why my parents borrowed the money in the first place – they didn’t have enough to pay the newspaper carrier.
Surely, we must be broke!
Suddenly, it occurred to me why I wasn’t allowed to purchase that gnarly T-shirt when we went shopping for school supplies prior to the beginning of the new school year.
They couldn’t afford it!
Then I felt terrible for acting like an ungrateful little brat by throwing a temper tantrum in the middle of the store before storming out to spend the rest of our shopping excursion pouting like a small toddler in the back seat of our station wagon.
What was the next thing coming down the pike?
Well, I discovered the answer to that ominous question when we piled into our automobile the following Saturday morning and drove to a food bank over in New Castle to procure a couple bags of groceries to replenish our sparse pantry shelves in an effort to tide us over until the beginning of the next month.
Carl Schell – a member of New Castle Assembly of God – operated a halfway house out of their old church building in the county seat as well as a food pantry which serviced low-income families throughout the surrounding communities.
The twenty-something supplied our family with a plethora of grocery items each and every month while we lived in the second-floor apartment at the corner of Spring Avenue and Fifth Street after leaving the Assembly of God church on Northside.
“Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes,” trumpeted Carl as he welcomed our little family into the kitchen area with a warm greeting. “Since I had a feeling that the Price family would be walking through my front door this morning, I took the liberty of setting a few items aside; but feel free to browse around to fill those bags to the top.”
“You’re definitely the man with the plan,” reasoned the blond-haired minister before complimenting the businessman for his insightful ability to know his clientele’s needs. “Considering you know my children so well, you could probably fill those bags up with precision; and you could toss them out the window like a drive-thru at McDonald’s.”
In light of the fact that the affable young man wasn’t very far removed from his own high school days, I always enjoyed the camaraderie we shared every time our family paid a visit to his much-appreciated establishment; because he always had a knack for knowing exactly what I desired.
“I left something for you on my desk,” proclaimed the astute gentleman upon directing me to the back of the building. “If you walk through those double doors down the hallway, you’ll be pleasantly surprised as to what you find in the corner office; but you need to promise to share with your sisters.”
It was an entire box of Snickers bars!
“You’re the man, Carl,” I declared while wrapping an arm around the stocky man of God with deep gratitude. “While we were driving up here this morning, I never thought that I’d be going home with a whole box of my all-time favorite candy bars; and I’ll be sure to divvy them up with my siblings.”
At the conclusion of our time of fellowship at the food pantry each month, Carl always offered a prayer of thanksgiving upon our family until the appointed time of our next meeting.
Mark S. Price is a former city government/county education reporter for The Sampson Independent. He currently resides in Clinton.