by Steve Ahern
In the mid 1950s, when Ned Bachus, now 63, was five years old, he and his mother moved from Montreal to the home of a friend in Northwest Philadelphia. The move was meant to be temporary. Bachus’ mother, whose own marriage to an American military serviceman had ended in divorce when Bachus was very young, wanted company and wanted to keep her Montreal friend company in Philadelphia during the year her friend’s American husband was deployed overseas.
Bachus’ mother adapted quickly and grew to love Philly, its Northwest section in particular. She found a job as a waitress at Schrafft’s Café at 15th and Chestnut Streets and enrolled her son in school. A decade later, she bought a row home on Sydney Street in Mt. Airy that she would live in for much of the rest of her life.
Those formative years of Bachus’ life formed for him the first drops of the waters he would draw from over the years in writing his debut short story collection, “The City of Brotherly Love.” For most of Bachus’ childhood, his mother was chronically short of money. She could not seek assistance from her family, who had remained in Montreal. She hesitated to open a child-support case, fearing the authorities would side with her ex-husband because he was an American male and a serviceman at that.
Their financial problems propelled frequent relocations triggered by raised rents and sold properties. Between the ages of 5 and 18, he and his mother moved eight times between North Philadelphia, Germantown and Mt. Airy, residing in apartments on Meehan Street and Johnson Street twice and on Germantown Avenue. Those moves exposed Bachus to Northwest Philadelphia’s varied terrain and the eclectic mix of classes and ethnicities he would later adopt and modify for use in his fiction.
When he finished La Salle High School, Bachus attended Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), worlds away culturally from the section of town he moved to as a young boy. “I was exposed to the city’s racial and ethnic diversity,” he said, “and I recall seeing African Americans and whites singing doo-wop in the stairwells between classes during the cultural revolution of the 1960s.” After two years, he transferred to Temple University, where he completed a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
His first job out of college was as a high school teacher at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, a career choice “inspired by a great-aunt who had lost her hearing.” That career choice led Ned to Gallaudet University where he finished a master’s degree in counseling geared toward counseling the deaf.
Around this time Bachus was recruited to play for a newly formed amateur men’s rugby team called Blackthorn. Having never played rugby, he later formed a rugby club for the deaf at Gallaudet University. The sing-alongs after matches in pubs with his team members eventually led to his performing music independently with The Sacred Cowboys, a folk-rock rhythm and blues band he has performed with since the 1980s and still performs with today.
Bachus’ background in psychology and experience working with the deaf led to his becoming a counselor at CCP, which served as the cornerstone of his professional life. For 15 years Bachus counseled deaf students and students who were underprepared for college. In the late 1980s he transferred to the English Department, where he taught fiction writing and literature, a move that gave him summers free to focus on his writing. He retired from his post as associate professor of English at CCP early this year.
Bachus was always interested in writing, but he did not begin writing fiction in earnest until his mid- to late-30s. He began studies toward an MFA degree at Vermont College in 1986, a degree he completed in 1988. His stories have been published in literary magazines including The Louisville Review, Calliope, Antietam Review, Meridian Bound, Carve and The Evansville Review. He has also won fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and an artist residency in Ireland.
The stories in “City of Brotherly Love,” some which have been in development for the last 25 years, are strewn with recognizable street names, rivers, creeks and bridges in Northwest Philadelphia. Several of the central characters are strong women, which Bachus says “may have to do with my having been raised by such a strong woman.” Other central characters include rugby players, deaf educators, adolescent boys, a plumber moonlighting as a musician, a divorced male single parent confronting his loneliness and loss, an African American baker facing his loss of a child to crib death, etc.
“Trying to think from the perspective of female characters or folks of a different age, social class or ethnicity is part of the territory of fiction writing,” Bachus said, “unless all you want to do is write about yourself and people just like you. If you do an honest job of examining one particular community, you have a chance to get at the universality of human experience.”
Bachus, who is working on a non-fiction writing project now and has another finished novel, recently moved with his wife to central Maine, but his two children, a son and a daughter aged 27 and 31, still live in Philadelphia, as do the network of friends he has made over 60 years.
His next visit to Philadelphia will be Wednesday, Sept. 19, 7 p.m., when he will launch the publication of “The City of Brotherly Love” at the Mermaid Inn in Chestnut Hill. The book is available on Amazon.com and through the publisher Fleur-de-Lis Press (502-873-4398) or firstname.lastname@example.org.