Lou, Zenith and WJBR

For some people, music has an odd effect. You hear something, maybe even a few bars, and all of a sudden, you’re in another world. Usually, that world has a few miles on it, as do you. But for a few seconds, or a few minutes, you’re there. Sights, sounds, nous, cultural milieu, things otherwise irretrievable perhaps until those legendary last moments when we make our exit (or so it is said) from this world. Hey, cheer up. Would you rather listen to “Louie, Louie” or drop dead? For me, no contest.

I had one of those moments today, one of unaccustomed clarity and an almost magical transport. And, you say, what produced this moment of penny mysticism, oh Wise One. Well, to tell the truth, it was a fragment of a tune by Antonio Carlos Jobim, something he wrote called “Wave.” You probably know it, even if you don’t know the name. It’s that kind of cultural signpost. And it flashes “1960s” like few others for me. I’ll tell you why, since I’m sure you’re dying to know. And if not, learn something.

Now, it is remotely possible that “Wave” might have been used as an identifier for a station called WDVR (Delaware Valley Radio), which was also a “beautiful music” station,” but let’s not get hung up on trivial details. Tom Jobim never set out to write “beautiful music,” but it’s no surprise that it ended up attached to one of the call signs. It was pretty, no?

Wave: Still in Print, By the Way

Can’t you just picture yourself (or some impossibly young version of me) stretched out on Early American style sofa, and sort of nice and secure with our clanging steam heat making the thin winter light of a Northeast day in late December seem the epitome of a cozy middle class home. Hell, I thought so. I didn’t know we were lower middle class because no one ever bothered to tell me until I got to graduate school. We were part of 1960s Affluent America. Don’t knock it. We never had it so good, before or since. Literally. And if the Dutch pane windows were rimmed with frost, so much the better. We might have been sitting 15 miles away from a nuclear bullseye, but the separation seemed complete. It was cold outside, but not in the living room. Besides, we had WJBR on.

My Dad, Lou Salvucci, was a former tenor sax player, and a different kind of guy. He dug music of all kinds (well, like Buddy Rich, not C&W, and he had no time for most rock either), read a lot, was curious about the world, and most of all, loved Swing Music from the 1930s, when he had been in high school–although he was hip to Bird, Tatum and a lot of other stuff you wouldn’t have expected of a white kid from West Philly. He apparently had a massive collection of 78 records (I vaguely remember seeing them in my Grandmother’s Haddington basement), but, alas, he got rid of them, in part because I think he was aware that 33 records, Hi-Fi, LP, all that 1950s stuff, was the future. I remember listening to a reissue of Tommy Dorsey around 1956 in LP form called, I believe, “Yes, Indeed.” Man, that was my introduction to jazz, and it came on an old turntable/speaker/vacuum tube contraption that played 45s too. The sound was, I guess, ok, but for Dad, it was super, and when Glen Gray starting issuing his Sounds of the Great Bands series in HiFi (and then…..STEREO), well, we were happy campers. I say we because I damn near memorized most of those arrangements, Goodman, Shaw, the Dorseys, Basie, Ellington. I loved the stuff.

When my folks moved to Penn Wynne, our sound system remained pretty modest. Dad had gotten another turntable and he had somehow rigged up a speaker system (he was self-taught in electronics; doesn’t ask, cause I have no idea), but it was ok. I mostly used the old record player to death in my room. And then, it happened. It being, our FM radio. Big deal, right. Yeah, you know it. A big freaking deal on Harro(w)gate Road.

Now don’t be asking me questions about AM, FM, line-of-sight, all that stuff. I never really wanted to know. I just wanted to listen, and technology was never a thing with me. From the layout of this blog, you probably are saying “It still isn’t.” Ha, ha. But check the date of the ad (1961). That was about a year after we moved from West Philly to further West Philly, or Penn Wynne. There were like eight FM stations in Philly then, and my Dad was definitely interested in listening to one of them, which, it happened, was WJBR during the day, and WHAT on Friday nights. By the mid 1960s there was also a WPBS (Philadelphia Bulletin Station) (98.9 ) which tended to be on on Saturday nights, because that was when the great Jack Pyle did the Big Bandwagon, a show he had taken over from Ed Meehan, who was the station manager (I think). Don’t get frustrated, this is all going somewhere, eventually.

One day, Dad came home from his favorite store, Midway Appliances, at 7690 Haverford Avenue in Overbrook Park (colloquially known as Tel Aviv in those more innocent times, in honor of its mostly Jewish population, and just a few steps from Greenberg’s Bakery, that I grew up with, along with Reale’s and Orlando’s. ) (safe in those days, and remained so into the 1980s). These guys discounted in spite of fair trade laws (price maintenance laws, you know, before economists “improved” public policy in the US) and got away with it. What Dad brought home was a spanking new Zenith table model radio, and boy, did it make a big difference in our cozy cottage. Yup. As unimpressive as it is 63 years later, this was a device that made our home a home and helped wire my memories for sound in an, well, unusual way. It is so Old School it even had vacuum tubes. And it kept on playing. When we moved to Wayne PA in 1978, my Dad “lent” it to us, and, set on AM, it became the go to for KYW, WCAU, and on FM, WRTI. We left in 1980, and it went back into my Dad’s garage. After he passed away, I went down to the garage, fooled with his weight set, and turned the damn thing on. Dad passed in 2002, so were talking a forty year old vacuum tube powered dinosaur whose only fault was a 60 cycle hum (bearable). When’s the last time you bought something made in the USA (ha) that lasted 40 years?

My Dad went over the moon at this little radio. He’d sit by it on the sofa and say “Clear as a bell!” Lou Larkins wasn’t spoiled like we are. Little things meant a lot to him. And this FM radio sure as Hell did. It was really how he spent Friday and Saturday nights, listening to Sid Mark with Sinatra on WHAT-FM and The Big Bandwagon on WPBS-FM on Saturday nights. And until I started disappearing in my later high school years, so did I.

But I also had my favorites, and they were Sid Mark and Joel Dorn on WHAT-FM. I can still feel that late summer languor at 4 PM when Sid came on with “Maynard Ferguson,” the feature piece that Kenton wrote for Maynard. It would be a still August afternoon until Maynard cut through the tranquility, and you might be able to smell the heat, but it all went away. In some ways, Joel Dorn was just as important. He had different tastes from Sid–he loved a lot of brothers like Sonny Stitt and Fathead Newman, so I learned to love them too. Dorn’s theme was “Hard Times,” and I learned to play the head on the trumpet. A neighbor used to say it sounded as if I were crying when I played it, so you could guess it was a blues. Well, here. Just in case. 1958, and as fresh now as it was in 1961.

Even better in person with Cedar Walton

Yeah. How could you beat that? And that little Zenith belted it out as I pressed my head up against the speaker to catch every nuance. Now, I don’t think my Dad was into Fathead, but he didn’t object either. Of course, Dorn came out at Noon, I believe, so if I were home, or it were Summer or something, I (or my Mom) would be doing noonish things. The living room looked different at noon than at 4PM–more morning, less day is done sort of stuff, less breeze, especially in the summer, when a storm hadn’t blown up yet. Yeats later, in 1976, I blew someone away in Mexico City by scatting every bar of the tune when it was on UNAM radio. That’s how much it got into my head. No. I couldn’t do Nat Adderly’s cornet solo.

I can’t tell you what my Dad thought about when the FM was on. But I can tell you what he talked about. It was Big Bands I and II, mostly from his high school years (1932-1937), with a lot of Goodman and Shaw. I was probably the only 14 year old within 50 miles who knew who was in Benny’s 1935 trumpet section (and, I’m sure, the only one who cared). The few times–and they were later–when we disagreed about something, like whether or not Sinatra was a thug, he’d basically tell me “Look, you don’t understand what he meant to people then.” And Louie was right, as usual. I say the same thing to my son about Bobby Kennedy now, knowing full well he will be as unconvinced as I was. But Dad was in Sinatra’s world too on Friday nights, just where he wanted to be.

But the real kick is when I think of the ritual snow days of the mid to late 1960s, when we actually had a few rough winters in Philly. Now, why would a radio conjure up a blizzard. Blame Ray Conniff. Yup. Blame Ray Conniff. Specifically, “You’re An Old Smoothie.” You’re kidding, right. Who? What? Elevator music for back-office refugees from Decker Square.

I’m guessing this was early December 1960, and the storm was a doozy. In our house, you could watch it come down from my bedroom window or the dining room bay window outlined again the brown linseed oil-stained shingles of the houses are us. And it was coming down, leaden gray sky, shrubs around the house gradually turning into big soft-edged snow stones. In the course of an afternoon, the whole neighborhood looked, felt and sounded different–muffled you know, only a few cars braving “hilly” Penn Wynne. And in the background, The Ray Conniff Singers yammering on about being an old softie. I am right there right now, over sixty years ago, down to the braided hook rugs my Mom preferred with her Early American style furniture. Hey, it was not plastic seat covers and French provincial yuck in every Italian American home. Some of us had aspirations……..

I could compile a whole list of these associations, because, certainly, they didn’t stop in the 1960s, and I could go well into the 1980s (leaving Philly, revealingly, killed a lot of it off for a while). But you’d get bored–so would I–and there would be nothing to add.

You know, for some of us, music isn’t just music. It’s part of our wiring and the way we process the world. And we’re better off with an earworm or two, even if it’s “Baby I Need Your Loving” or “Devil With a Blue Dress.” Because it’s not the song. It’s everything, including sights, sounds, moods, meaning, sentiments, and even family members long gone who come to life again, palpably. Even a cheap FM radio was capable of doing that for me as a child. So you’ll have to forgive my sentiment that it’s just as important for a kid to learn about music as it is about coding or “entrepreneurship.” One is a part of our humanity. The rest, as Alex Ross famously wrote, is noise. Or worse.

Again, forgive the typos. They have a way of sneaking by my aging eyes and brain. And short is probably better.

A King Fit for A Mall and Other Travel Stuff

So, for the first time since Covid, I got out of Dodge, otherwise known as San Antonio. Yup. I took the plunge to go see my daughter, Rosie, in Germany, where she is a free-lance bass player and all-around interesting person. It took more nerve than I thought I could summon up. See, I am a Covid Virgin (no smart remarks) and unlike the other sort of inexperience, I was (am) in no hurry to lose this status. I won’t make excuses, other than to say I don’t think we understand this illness too well. At the tender age of 71, I’m not eager to find out what it can really do to your body, other than kill it. So, I tended to stay at home, amazed at the recklessness of my fellow Americans. That’s probably you, no offense, but I’m not about to be diplomatic. Sorry.

Having to get on a plane and deal with air travel was not exactly a dream of mine. I dislike the airlines, my fellow passengers, airports, and all the crap thrown at you in an effort to find out what you will pay to avoid misery and discomfort. I get the economics, you know? But getting and liking are two different things. Besides, I remember when air travel was actually pleasant. Believe it or not. If you think leaving stuff to the market will create the best of all possible worlds, I give you modern airline travel as an example of how delusional neoclassical economics can make you.

Getting on a plane is like riding a bicycle. You don’t forget how to do it. For an awful moment, after standing around in the airport thinking unkind thoughts about the vagaries of natural selection, I had the feeling I had never gotten off a plane. Other than new marketing gimmicks, no “free” “food,” and some ding-dong actually screening porn at his seat (on some “device”, oh my God), it was the same. Less room, seemingly–protests to the contrary–less ventilation (I swear), a couple of fellow mask-wearers. Three years had elapsed without noticing. Maybe I had been abducted by some alien named Greg Abbott. You never know. Time flies when you’re having a blast on a UFO called Texas.

In any event, it’s a long way from Texas to Berlin, in more ways than one. I made an intermediate stop in London to actually do some archival work at the Bank of England. First, I had to survive Heathrow and deal with the consequences of Brexit–if anything, worse than anyone said. But I had known for years that my alternate project on the Lizardi Brothers merchant bank (“Atlantic history” with Mexico thrown in) was gonna require a trip to the Bank. And boy, was I not mistaken. The Bank was a delightful surprise. The staff was, get this, politely helpful. They wanted you to read documents (NB: AGN, Mexico, take note) and were happy to help you ferret out more. No plastic gloves that could only be purchased at the Archive at tienda de raya prices. But, I digress. I am still printing up hard copies of the several score of photos I shot. And, what’s more, I have, don’t you know, a different perspective on our friends. one less dependent on larceny and Santa Anna, and more like the usual business of an acceptance house. Stay tuned. I suspect there is more where this came from.

I flew on to Berlin to see Rosie, my daughter (click for her webpage, please!), now a successful free-lance musician in Germany. She had the courage to drive out to Berlin’s new airport (more later) to get me. And while I was waiting, some sketch cab driver came up and tried to talk me into his cab, protesting that I didn’t need a mask in Germany. Yup. Drivers have actually told Rosie to take her mask off, but I guess I looked too sullen to pull that. Covid is all over the place in Germany, so we were always careful, really tough for a musician in an orchestra, you know. But she doesn’t take crap from anyone, a desirable characteristic for an expat female bassist. We had a good time, even though she was working a lot.

Now, my favorite excursion was to the King of Prussia. Yeah, you heard that right. Wait. I thought King of Prussia is an “edge city” about 15 miles outside of Philadelphia. It is. It is also one of the most successful and upscale malls in the United States. No, I didn’t go to that King of Prussia. I went, instead, to see the original King of Prussia in Potsdam, and his famous palace Sans Souci. Oh, yeah, the King, he dead. I saw his grave! And quite a character, apparently.

Now I’m gonna give you a condensed version of who he was, and what the Hell he has to do with King of Prussia. Confused? I hope so. You may also recall a movie, In The King of Prussia, with Dan Berrigan and Martin Sheen, which I will also briefly summarize. Cause Dan Berrigan had been to King of Prussia too. Really confused? Good.

First things first. Who was the King of Prussia and why does he matter and why am I obsessed with this stuff?

Well, first, when I was a kid, my Dad and I would journey to Valley Forge PA, in those days, a ride into the countryside, still basically, in the 1950s, undeveloped. All Philly school kids got this post card patriotism, defined by the number of places you had seen or visited, of which Valley Forge was framed in hymns to the suffering of the Continental Army. No battles, right, but much privation and George slept there, so to Cold War kids, this was civics in action. Not to mention yet another way of getting you to take a bullet for Team USA if the time ever came, as our teacher-nuns and Cardinal Spellman insisted it would. Dad especially liked to go up the observation tower on Mount Joy and you could put a penny in the viewing machine and gaze at the beautiful open Chester Country farmland for

What the area around Valley Forge and KOP looked like in the 1950s. Before Progress.

miles around. Today I guess you’d gaze at just another suburb glitzed up with the souped up KOP Mall, but this was long before that existed. But you knew you were near King of Prussia, which was a place, not a thing. I guess I had some vague idea that the King had fought with us against the British in the Revolutionary War, cause why else would his name be floating around out there? I mean, we’re talking mid 1950s, maybe 1960 at the latest. This is how you got your history, aside from them little blue books we used in Catholic school. At least we knew who the Hell William Penn was. I wouldn’t bet on that today.

Blood By Berrigan

Me and Lou Larkins would do the tower whenever we went. King of Prussia was out there, somewhere. They tore the tower down or moved it in the 1980s, which is why we can no longer have nice things in Philly. I loved going there with Lou Larkins, by the way.

But there is another way-out-of-chronological-sequence reason for knowing something about King of Prussia today. Here I want to cite Carolyn T Adams, “King of Prussia Pennsylvania” (https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/essays/king-of-prussia-pennsylvania/), which neatly (and accurately) summarizes the history of the area.

Highway construction in the mid-twentieth century set the stage for King of Prussia’s rapid development into an edge city. The Pennsylvania Turnpike, constructed from west to east across the state, arrived at Valley Forge in 1950, and by 1954 it extended eastward to the Delaware River. Almost at the same time Philadelphia was building its Schuylkill Expressway, which fully opened in 1958. That same year, spurred by the turnpike’s arrival near King of Prussia, Boston developer Cabot, Cabot & Forbes acquired rights to 710 acres north of the turnpike interchange and began signing up companies like Western Electric, Smith Kline and French, Merck Sharp and Dohme, and Pennwalt to occupy warehouses, office buildings, and factories. Since the highway interchange made it a reasonable commute from many other suburban communities, jobs quickly multiplied in what was then called the King of Prussia Industrial Park (later known as the Business Park). While some companies came from outside the region, others moved from Philadelphia to this convenient suburban location. For example, General Electric in 1962 relocated a major division from West Philadelphia to King of Prussia.

Subsequently the business park hosted software, biotech, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, finance, and insurance firms. From the beginning it welcomed defense contractors, one of which became the target of a famous anti-war protest by the Plowshares Eight. In September 1980 antiwar activists Daniel (1921-2016) and Philip (1923-2002) Berrigan with a half dozen other protesters illegally entered the General Electric plant in King of Prussia, vandalized the nose cones of several nuclear warheads being assembled there, and poured blood on company documents. Their arrest and trial sparked the Plowshares Movement, which grew into an international Christian peace movement. The business park continued to house numerous defense-related firms, most notably Lockheed Martin Space System Company, which took over the General Electric facility through corporate mergers.

Whoa. Wait a minute? A second ago we were talking about bucolic Valley Forge and Chester County. Now we’re talking about nose cones, blood, and the Berrigan Brothers? Well, someone is likely to know that KOP was the site of one of the most famous peace actions of the 1980s, the Plowshares Movement, that Phil and Dan Berrigan led, and which is memorialized in an interesting film, “In The King of Prussia.” The GE facility (“Reentry Systems Division” was the innocent sign out on the front lawn of the place) did not show up until development was well underway in the early 1960s. When we went out there, in subsequent years, we all stupidly thought that this had something to do with NASA and Project Mercury, Giant-Step-for-Mankind and all that stuff, and not, for God’s sake, assembling MIRV nose cones that were going to torch the Russkis. Hell, there was barely any security evident there, so why would any of us think that King of Prussia was a kind of Philly Lawrence Livermore? We didn’t. Believe me. Look at the photos. Little Richie Salvucci thought King of Prussia was a vast picnic ground from his experiences in the 1950s. Not some damned equivalent of Los Alamos. So on this jarring note, realize, as Carolyn Adams points out, for most of us, KOP was retail Heaven, maybe a movie theater (Linda and I saw Close Encounters on a cold winter’s night out there in 1977), or a place to hang and catch a burger). Not the Pentagon, for Heaven’s sake. And you wonder why so many of us don’t trust Uncle Sam. Whatever else they did, the Berrigans tried to wake us up.

Now, What about this King of Prussia guy, and how did he get on the map in Chester Country? And hang in there, because so much irony hitherto unrevealed to your blogger will soon be apparent. Patience.

Precisely because King of Prussia was even then a Gateway to the West (Ohio, as the Pennsylvania Turnpike signs once reminded you out there), foot and arse-sore travellers needed a place to stay. Philadelphia was then dotted with all sorts of inns, all now long, long sacrificed to shopping centers, bus terminals, and such. Well, in the eighteenth century (1719) , an enterprising family put up an inn–which miraculously survives–the King of Prussia Inn, although it wasn’t called that at first (It was, to be accurate, a farmhouse first). Now there was a king in Prussia in 1719, but he’s not our King of Prussia, who dates from 1740.

This guy was mentally unbalanced–all that royal inbreeding took a real toll–and was, as it turns out, father to the Man, our King of Prussia (actually, at first, he was technically the King in Prussia, but if you want to know the difference, do what I did and read his biography, by Tim Blanning, which is marvelous, by the way). I’m glossing over a lot of detail including the annoying habit of all these king types to be named Frederick, which is confusing as Hell. It’s all in Blanning, plus a lot of stuff that the founders of the KOP Mall never seemed eager to publicize, assuming they knew about it at all.

When Frederick the Great (I think he called himself “Great”) (1712-1786) got rolling after Daddy died around 1740, all Hell broke loose in Central Europe, especially in Silesia, “a large and wealthy province on Germany’s north-eastern border” (see Jeremy Black and Roy Porter, A Dictionary of Eighteenth-Century World History) that had been a Hapsburg possession until Frederick the Great invaded it and took it over for the Hohenzollern family. a move that caused no end of trouble for the rest of the century. It became a core of Prussia after 1763, and of this, old Frederick really was the King of Prussia. He was a figure of heroic stature, so I guess his name stuck.

He was a bit of a party animal, which sort of fits in with the KOP I knew in college , famous for a classmate’s beer emporium (still there!) that seems to have everything. Somewhat less conventionally, Frederick the Great was probably gay and he definitely was an atheist. He was also apparently, a Hell of a flautist, a running buddy of Voltaire’s, an enormous patron of the arts and palaces, an advocate for feeding the poor with potatoes (his grave is decorated with them still!) and military mastermind (Blanning points out the Prussians lost half their battles and beaucoup troops during the Seven Years War), although there do seem to have been some false steps along the way to that apotheosis. I take it the apottheosis was mostly in Frederick’s head. Now, think about General Electric assembling nuclear nose cones in KOP, the thing that sparked the Berrigans’ protest and trial. Sort of fits, no? Nukes, Frederick the Great, a Catholic priests raising the Devil (Frederick had no time for Catholicism either). I mean, it’s damn near perfect. Other than for Frederick’s sexual proclivities and unbelief. Now the real King of Prussia sure wouldn’t go down to well in King of Prussia. Like a pylon shouting “Welcome to King of Prussia Mall, named for a Gay Atheist. Have a Blessed Day.” Heh, heh. And you think they got Columbus in a box in South Philly (actually, he’s out for now)? Holy Mother of God, I can see it now. A movement to rename KOP the Great American Mall. Hmm…..A magamall not a megamall? I know there were big Trump rallies out there. Lol. The cunning of history.

If you haven’t actually been to KOP mall, which dates from 1963, a lot of this will escape you.

Today there are two parts to the Mall: the Plaza and the Court. Dude, I grew up with the lower-middle class Plaza, which was only upscale if you thought Gimbel’s or JC Penny’s was upscale. Look at the photo. You can smell cigarette smoke, Jade East cologne, and lousy coffee.The Court is much newer, and it is pitched at what my friends in Mexico call gente fifi. The thing about the Plaza was that it was a site of adolescent sociability, and it continued to be a hang for penurious grad students (like me and my wife, Linda) into the late 1970s. We had no money, but you could always look. When I was in high school, at Devon, a ride to the Plaza meant you got to smoke, flirt, and pretend to be cool–which none of us were. You know, I had a girlfriend who worked there, and some of my classmates knew people who had small businesses in the Plaza. It was a pizza kind of place. Not the Champs Elysee. The Court is, well, nicer, but of more recent vintage, with all those kind of fancy shops Boomers are supposed to adore.

Now, The KOP Sans Souci has had its share of problems lately, including carjackings, attempted murder, you know, urban stuff. But KOP IS urban, so what would you expect? Trees and birds and tranquil vistas? Those are long gone. Hell, they may even run light rail ought to KOP, with which only Heaven knows what result. One only hopes KOP does not look like Philly in a century, but then maybe Philly will be nice than and the suburbs will have gone to Hell–a bit of a temporal and spatial juxtaposition of the city going back to the 1950s. You know, history repeating itself, all that? I won’t be around, so it’s not my problem.

Ay my age, I’ve reached the damning conclusion that life is hiding in plain sight, but no one ever tells you when you’re still young enough to see and learn. At least there’s no Fuhrerbunker in King of Prussia. Yet. Time will tell.

Hail to the Blue and Gold

Yeah, there was one of them glinty balls that reflected spots of light all over the auditorium. And on special occasions, the nuns would fire it up. You know, it was like something out of the Roaring Twenties. That’s because it was something out of the Roaring Twenties. Today we call them Disco Balls, but there wasn’t no disco in 1917 or so when the thing was designed. That’s because Woodrow Wilson didn’t boogie down. Or if he did, only his paramour (he apparently had one according to Arthur Link, one of my grad school professors, who called Wilson’s sexuality part of his “eclat.” That’s a direct quote. I couldn’t possibly make that up. Yeah, so aside from being a phenomenal bigot even for his day, Woody Woo was a horndog) knew for sure.

The question is what on Earth was this thing doing in the auditorium of a parochial school in the 1950s, the school in question being Saint Donato’s (“Hail to the Blue and Gold, Colors So True”) operated by Cabrini nuns who looked more like they were outfitted for a Sharia koffee klatch than some flapper’s fling of reckless abandon. Yeah, the Taliban would have gotten them, for sure.

Anyway, my Dad, Lou Larkins, the one real hero in my life, would have known, cause he was a students at SDS (Saint Donato’s School) in the 1920s. I even have a picture of him standing out in front of the “old school” (the original school, as opposed to the 1954 red brick addition) with his class under the watchful gaze of a Miss Piselli, to whom he was no doubt some kin, ’cause his brother Tony married a Piselli, aka, “Aunt Edith.”

SDS was no ordinary parish school. The parish was founded in 1910 (the parish school in 1912) explicitly to serve the needs of the Italian immigrant community (hey, that’s us), although the the man parish church was not dedicated until 1922. It was a big deal when it was. The church was designed by Francis Ferdinand Durang (1884-1966), “the son of one of Philadelphia’s most successful architects of Catholic projects,” Edwin F Durang. Since Edwin passed away in 1911, we can be pretty sure that Saint Donato’s was Francis’ handiwork. The Church was dedicated on Christmas Day, 1922, with a solemn high mass celebrated by Dennis Cardinal Dougherty. We’re talking Philadelphia Catholic royalty here, so pay attention. Preceding the exercises, we are told, more than 1000 members of Italian societies paraded in celebration through the streets around the parish accompanied by bands. The building reportedly cost $160,000. A realistic modern estimate would say that looks to be about 6 to 10 million dollars now, so you can understand why the school had a reflecting ball. We’re talking serious ethic pride here. Too bad we have no moving pictures from back then…..On the other hand, I am willing to bet that what my paesani in San Donato Val di Comino (Abruzzo) do on the annual feast of the the Saint must couldn’t have looked all that different in 2013 from what people saw in 1925. So take a few minutes and watch this exceptional video, and then we’ll go on. Mutatis mutandis, this is what folks saw, and I’ll bet a few of their descendants are in this video

The bottom image after the video is of the interior of Saint Donato’s church after it was rehabilitated in 1956 (I believe) by then rector Monsignore Pasto (not Pasta, please). The patron, Saint Donato, is over to your left in the corner. The same icon you see in Italy, sans threads. Over to the right hand side is Mother Francis Xavier Cabrini, of whom more anon. Behind the main altar is a very impressive mural of Cavalry and the Crucifixion. Believe me, everything in that place said “This is serious, kid. No fooling around. Your immortal soul hangs in the balance.” Pre-Vatican Catholicism, and I was born into it. None of this granola-kumbaya stuff.

Maria Francesca Cabrini, Mother Cabrini to us, and St Francis Xavier Cabrini to the medeganz, was born in 1850 in Sant’Angelo Lodigiano in Lombardy. She was one of 13 siblings, only 4 of whom survived. She was frail and pretty, not the stereotypical battleaxe some of us would have you believe all the nuns of her order were.

In 1880, still in Italy, she founded an order known as the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. When she came to the United States later to work with immigrants, became a citizen in 1909, and spent some time in West Philadelphia in 1912 organizing the convent and orphanage that were then part of Saint Donato’s on North 65th Street. There was, even then, a basement Church, which is where she attended Mass while in West Philly. She may not have been canonized until 1946 (she died in 1917), but the entire parish is a kind of kind of second-class relic as a result. Since the Archdiocese has not been very scrupulous in its demolishing churches or selling them off in its quest for liquidity in the light of the judgments against it which shall not be mentioned, I’d strongly encourage them not to mess with St Donato’s. It’s not nice to fool with Mother (Saint Francis Xavier) Cabrini, first “American” saint.

Any event, I started school at SDS in 1956, I think. I vividly remember my first day of kindergarten. My Grandmother took me to the morning session and left me off. I was none too happy, as I recall, but at least I wasn’t wailing the way some of the kids were. I wanted to, but for some reason, I held off, sitting in a a little chair. Badass from the beginning. My teacher was Mother Cecilia. She was nice. I remember my report card, studded with a few gold, some silver, a lot of green, and, oops, a couple of red stars. Sort of like a Christmas tree. I was, I fear, no angel.

By first grade, they had us in unis–white shirt, blue tie with gold SDS insignia, black shoes. The classes were huge–some as large as 100, although I can’t honestly say I remember that. Man, can you imagine classroom management of 100 little savages by some half pint nun like Mother Gennaro, who must have been all of 5’6″, but packed an Italian inflected wallop? She taught first grade, but all I really recall was her singsong version of the Rosary, which I guess I could record. Here she is, below.

Mother Gennaro’s Rosary Chant

Of course, this was all part of getting into the club. That involved memorizing the Baltimore Cathechism, a lot of which I can still recite. It went through a number of editions, so maybe our was 1953 and not 1891. But I guarantee it went like this:

Who made us? God made us.

Who is God? God is the Supreme Being that made all things.

Why did God make us? God made us to show forth His goodness, and to share with us the everlasting happiness of Heaven.

You know, even if you ended up in Catholic university with Theilhard de Chardin and Bernard Lonergin in Thoeology class, you NEVER got that out of the scaffolding of your consciousness. You could make jokes about it, but, believe me, they were dubious jokes. The Guy in the Sky always accompanied you in process theology, watching, waiting for you to louse up. In my case, the journey started at SDS. Talk about schizophrenic. Some guy told me I was a PhD with a 3d grade Catholic mentality when I wouldn’t eat meat on a Friday in Lent. But then he was a Jesuit product, so what would you expect? All heretics.

Not that it was all bad. There was a young novice, I guess, Sister Elizabeth Ann, who was entrusted with getting the heathens ready to make their Communion, usually at age seven. She was very sweet, and patiently explained to us how our milk bottle souls worked. See, the soul was like a milk bottle (we got milk in bottles in the 1950s). If you were full of grace with no sin (warning: mixed metaphors on the way), you had a full bottle of milk. If you had committed some minor infraction against God’s Law (like taking a swing at the obnoxious public school kid who lived down the street and said something about your Mother), you were guilty of a misdemeanor, i.e., “venial” sin. Now your milk bottle had a black path (these were chalkboards, remember), and whether that was tainted milk of some miraculously empty space in an otherwise full bottle nobody (except some kid who ultimately went to MIT) bothered to ask. But that was ok. You went to confession (we’re coming to that), got absolved, did a little penance, and went on your way. You could even take Communion with a venial sin, although nobody encouraged it. BUT–big but–if you happened to die with a venial sin (hey, man, this is what I got out of it), well, then, you had a problem.

We were taught you ended up in this place called Purgatory (which a lot of dopey kids spelled Perkatory, as if it were a variety of Maxwell House Coffee). There were a lot of souls in Purgatory, and you spent half your life praying for them. If you hit the day’s number (humor), you ransomed one (maybe more), and they got to go to Heaven where they would see the Beatific Vision (I always wondered in this was somehow related to Beatrice in Dante’s Paradiso once I got to that). The Beatific Vision was you got to see God. Exactly what that meant no one was too sure, but it was evidently pretty cool. It involved music, and nine choirs of angels, and stuff like that. “Eye has not seen and ear has not heard, nor has it entered into the mind of Man all the wonderful things God has prepare for those who love Him.” Sorry about the sexist language, but this was 1957. There were still only 48 States in the American Union and no Walt Whitman Bridge in Philly. I generally worked on my deceased relatives. No use wasting your breath on total strangers who probably would never return the favor if they were in some sort of state of Ecstasy. At least my Great Grandmother knew who I was and gave some signs of actually liking me.

But wait, there’s more. Talking back to your Mom was one thing. Committing adultery, for example, was another. That, dear friends, was a MORTAL sin. Oh, oh. Now you’re in deep trouble. A mortal sin was a serious offense against the Law of God. Should you happen to check out in a state of mortal sin–you were, as they said–no longer in a state of grace, you were in deep do-do. You didn’t even, it seemed, get the customary interview with St Peter up at the Pearly Gates (admittedly, they were vague about this, so you had to use your imagination…..). You just went straight to. Well. HELL. Ho boy.

What the nuns, probably even Sister Elizabeth Ann, told and showed us about Hell would have made Jonathan Edwards soil his britches. I mean, dude. Eternal fire. All these assistant Devils with red eyes, fiery breath and bullwhip tails sticking you with hot pitchforks, probably in your tender parts. And then Satan himself, who looked something like the Creature From the Black Lagoon (the movie was out then) who apparently kept the entire place in flaming effulgency when he wasn’t out “prowling the World seeking the ruin of souls.” You got no food. No water. No relief. No break. You just burned. Forever. And ever. And ever.

Can you remember how long 10 minutes seemed to you as a child. As in, “Are we there yet?” Well, think, “Hey, Satan, is it Eternity Yet?” Whoa. Your milk bottle was no only empty. It was gone. And what would you have done to deserve this? Well there was adultery, “As in Thou Shalt Not Commit….” You mean like if behaved like a grown-up with a job and stuff, I was going to Hell? Forever? Well, wasn’t that “adultery,” you know, behaving like an adult? Don’t laugh. That’s what I thought for quite some time. And when I asked my parents, they frowned and said, ask Sister. Who in turn said it was doing evil “things” especially impure ones. Like, going to work every day? Man, talk about confused. Murder I got. But what the Hell (you should pardon the expression) was this?

I particularly remember one Holy Week–which San Donato’s and the pre-Vatican Church did very well, when we got to sit in contemplation of the Crucifixion as Monsignore explained how we had put Christ up there, and how only we could get how down. Oh, man. How was that? By living according to the 10 Commandments and doing what the Church told us to do (especially when we became wage earners). If not, well, we got these little comic books printed by some company named George Pflaum (see below for a sample) that featured an usually ticked off Jesus separating the Sheep from the Goats and saying “Depart From Me Accursed Ones intro the Everlasting Fire.” Oh, man. Even the Italian kid next to me in the pew shut up for once. Believe me, if the point was to scare the Hell out of us, it worked. We were on the straight and narrow, for at least a day.

Talk about social control. And all of it lead up to making First Communion, which was the actual reception of the transubstantiated body of Christ in the form of the Communion Host, a little wafer which all of regarded with a mixture of awe and horror. I am not gonna try to explain Church doctrine here, other than to say no one was kidding around. Half of our pre-communion instruction consisted in being told how to swallow Communion without chewing on it, which was a sacrilege. When the day came–a big one in parish life then–you wore a new blue suit, carried a rosary, and stuck your tongue out at Father Desimone, who put Jesus on your tongue.

I remember thinking that this was going to be like swallowing cardboard, and it stuck to the roof of my mouth. I almost fainted, but the reflex must have done the trick, so me and Jesus had a heart to heart afterward (you got 15 minutes, supposedly, but no one ever managed to give thanks that long except some sissy girls who were already shooting for the convent). I was mostly relieved.

You also have to remember we did our first confession before this, on a Friday. I can’t imagine the poor priest locked up in box listening to tales of disobedience, sibling brawling, talking in church, sticking your tongue out at one of the teachers, or slugging little Tommy di Giulia out on the playground at least 100 times or more, but they did. I just kept saying that I did things “many times” which presumably accounted for everything I had done since the age of three to my confessor’s satisfaction. I can’t remember my penance, but I could rattle off the Act of Contrition, still can, and don’t need a cheat sheet (they provide them these days) like these wimpy millenials who can’t read cursive. Which is another story for another day. Febes. I can always tell when a priest knows he’s dealing on of the few remaining real Catholics of my era. Most of them seem grateful. Even if we finally had some clue as to what adultery was. Confession ultimately got to be a deal breaker for a lot of adolescent males of my generation, none of whom we real keen on detailing their weekend entertainments to a priest who knew exactly who you were. And that was, I fear, the least of it. Enough said.

I mentioned social control, or maybe socialization, and that’s what a lot of Saint Donato’s was. Remember, we were immigrants in a foreign culture, and the nuns knew that part of their job was to instill proper US of A values in us, which they promptly did. You NEVER spoke Italian unless you wanted to get clobbered. I saw that first hand in an old school assembly where my Dad must have watched the Disco Ball do its thing in the 1920s. You learned the words to the National Anthem. You learned the words to the Pledge of ‘Legiance (as we called it). And you learned to speak when spoken to, listen to the Safeties, line up, and never get out of turn. Or else. The else was not usually physically enforced. But you got a report card that divided up your record into academic stuff and behavioral, which included conduct, cooperativeness, effort and self control. Self-control. Hmm. The first couple never seems to be much of a problem. But I do remember “self-control.” Now what exactly I did to tick off my first grade nun was never clear to me, because I simply participated in the general give and take of a rambunctious collection of immigrant miscreants. But that was enough. I remember bringing home a B- in self control. At first we weren’t sure of the minus mark, but we concluded that’s what it was. I sort of remember trying to rationalize why this happened: remember, you were guilty until proven innocent. You know, “What did you do?” Not “Why Is Mother Assumpta Bruta so unfair to you?” It only happened once because it only had to happen once. I knew better than to do whatever it was I was doing, so I went silent for the rest of the year. It must have worked.

Don’t get me wrong. I liked St Donato’s. I liked the kids I got to know, and remember them very fondly. There were some real characters, including an Italian kid who, at age eight, sang an obscene version of the then-current Coasters’ hit “Charlie Brown” which included a chorus of “Why is Everbody always picking on me?” Which ended up as “Why are all you f++++ers always pickin’ on me.” Yup. Eight years old. His old man was a steelworker on the Walt Whitman Bridge, so you can imagine his vocabulary…..in English.

Why Are All you Fcukers Always Pickin On ME?

I don’t care. I was happy at St. Donato’s. Moving out to the suburbs and to Prisontation BVM was a big shock. Even today, I wouldn’t have recommended it. Too bad that world is gone.

Philly is the New Ciudad Juárez

Warning: This won’t display well on a smart phone. Sorry

Anyone lucky enough to know me will already know what I did for a living. By training– some colleagues in other disciplines might dispute this–I was (and) am an economic historian. My principal field was Colonial Latin America, but I have stuck to Mexico. Why Mexico? Well, you can get there from here, whether here is Philly or San Antonio, where I currently reside. I’ve lived in Mexico for extended periods, although, sadly, not lately. I’m not going to go into being Latin Catholic, or wondering at the obvious disparities in income and wealth between two neighboring countries (no, not Canada, obviously) as source of interest or affinity. I like Mexico. I love Mexico City and will use any excuse to go. My closest friends all live in Mexico. And my colleagues, obviously, are all from Mexico. So that is my point of reference.

Unless you have been living under a rock for the last half century, you will know that Mexico has about an ambiguous reputation in the United States as the United States has in Mexico. You didn’t know some Mexicans don’t have much time for us? Welcome to my class. The fact that we grabbed half their country in 1848 (after starting with Texas in 1836) may have something to do with it. You didn’t know that? Well, I guess you didn’t get that far in American history.

This is September 13, 1847, when Gen. Winfield Scott hoisted Old Glory over the National Palace at the conclusion of his successful campaign Mexico City. Notice the furtive dudes fixing to throw rocks in the lower left. See, even then some of them weren’t too happy to see us. Sore losers. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the war was signed the following year. And we lived happily as Good Neighbors (“Buenos Vecinos”) ever since. Right. Well, not exactly. But you’d have to spend more time than you want with me to get all the ins and outs of this forced marriage, so we’ll pass on to the present, and to Ciudad Juárez, or just plain Juárez. Since it’s a pain in the ass the get accents into Word Press, we’re just gonna call it Juarez. It’s actually misspelled that way, but what is a wink and a nod between amigos (friends, you dig)?

Now, a lot of Gringos get most of their information from the tube. And Mexico doesn’t do real well in that department. Admit it. If you know anything about Mexico aside from Cancun (accent on the “u”, but hey) and Vallarta, maybe Baja, you probably know that lots of bad stuff happens there. They’ve been going commie forever (so I’m told), and an awful lot of the bad stuff comes specifically from this Juarez place, up on the border with El Paso, TX. Do you know where that is? I’ll help. The upper image is the border complex with El Paso the less densely illuminated upper half. You could think of Interstate 10 as the border (it isn’t), but it’s easy to make out as it snakes almost diagonally across the photo.

Murder City. Right? Says it all, right, Drug Lords, vice, sin, shoot outs, a killing field right on our border. Terrible, right? You didn’t watch “Narcos”? Well, I’m not saying it’s good, but it gets worse. Cause if you think you have a terrible image of Juarez from broadcast media, wait until you see what the State Department says about it. Now, this is official, and I haven’t edited a word of it. Read it (You may want to read the entire Mexico advisory, but, buckle up. I’ve never seen anything like this from our buddies at State). The link is below. I’m going to select just a part of it.


Reconsider travel due to crime and kidnapping.

Violent crime and gang activity are common. Most homicides are targeted assassinations against members of criminal organizations. Battles for territory between criminal groups have resulted in violent crime in areas frequented by U.S. citizens and U.S. government employees, including restaurants and malls during daylight hours. Bystanders have been injured or killed in shooting incidents. U.S. citizens and LPRs have been victims of kidnapping.

Sounds awful, right? Yeah, it does. But wait a second. Why focus on Juarez? Look a little closer to home. A lot closer to home, maybe.

Welcome to Philadelphia. City of, lolz, Brotherly Love. You really think it’s that much better than Juarez? No way Philadelphia could be as violent as Juarez. You’re right. The homicide rate is much lower (in Philly). But let me tell you, we’re working on catching up. I left Philly in 1981 and always wanted to go back. Now, forget it. You know all that stuff about how the rule of law doesn’t exist in Mexico. Dude, it doesn’t exist in Philly either. And that’s a fact. We’re already up to 416 murders in Philly as of October 7. And Juarez. Well, they got to 400 in June, but while theirs were going down, ours were going up. Convergence, big time. How can this possibly be?

Let’s start with the usual suspects, shall we? Of the fatal shootings, 91 percent involve males. 93 percent involve Blacks and Hispanics. 50 percent involve people under the age of 30. These are facts


So, those people are destroying Philly? Well, I guess someone could make the argument, but maybe the direction of causality is of some interest. I’ll admit, at this level of generality, it would be hard to frame a way of sorting out cause and effect, other than to say, well, is it possible (and I mean possible) that the converse is true? That Philly (or even something bigger) is destroying Blacks and Hispanics? If you’re really worried about even-handedness, maybe we might admit that both propositions are possible, because causality rarely runs in just one direction. This is just thinking about a city that I once knew very well, liked a great deal, and figured I’d eventually get back to some day. I very much doubt the latter at this point, so maybe all I’m trying to work out is why.

I recently read a very interesting and enlightening book by Anne Case and Angus Deaton. It is called Deaths of Despair. If you say I don’t have time to read a book, I’ll make it easy for you. You got an hour? I’m going to put up a link to Anne Case discussing their findings in a very accessible way. And then I’m going to assume that I can talk about about what they’ve found and why I think Philadelphia, too, is dying of despair. Race is an element, no doubt, but maybe not in the way we might think. This is not finger pointing. This is not racist. But it is a way of saying that we have met the enemy, and they is us. You don’t have to watch it all, because the last half is Q&A. You can skip the intro too.

I’ve put up two maps of interest. The top one is a 1932 map of property rating districts in Philadelphia. The cross-hatched area is Center City Philadelphia. The coral pink area is literally “red-lined,” or rated unsuitable for mortgage lending by a combination of the public and private sector (a very long story). The yellow areas are somewhat better. The rest is a go. Now look at the bottom map (sorrow for the blank space, but Word Press routinely defeats me). The red dots are real time fatal shootings. While it’s true that Central Philadelphia doesn’t look too hot, it’s where commercial activity is centered. You know, where the money is. If you look at the rest of the map, and compare it to the top map panel, you’ll see where the money isn’t–at least as far as mortgage lending is concerned. And look at Southwest Philly, the lower left. Lots of fatal shootings there too. Interesting. In case you wonder where the current festivities in that part of town originated.

The red-lined areas to the North of the commercial part in Philly are very striking.They are some of the roughest neighborhoods in the city today, and include places like Kensington, Harrowgate, Fairhill, Alleghany West–sort of generic North Philly for the outsider. The average annual incomes range anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000 per head, assuming you have a job, or formal income. It is, in large reason, why over 20 percent of Philadelphia lives under the poverty line (For individuals, about $13,000–scale up to a family of three, you hit $23,000 more or less). And frankly, it is one of the reasons why Philadelphia has become so damn violent–the New Ciudad Juarez, if you will. It’s no accident, believe me, but it is awfully complicated. This is not some liberal bromide about society is responsible for its own problems–you know, blame society. know. Poverty causes crime. Uh uh. It’s not just that, I fear. You want a condensed version of Case and Deaton. Ok. By their logic , Philadelphia is slowly committing suicide, bleeding to death. It is a massive case of “deaths of despair.”

No surprise, but life expectancy at birth more or less reflects a similar pattern (darker green is worse: look at West (Haddington-Carroll Park, my “old” neighborhood, or one of them, at least) and Southwest Philadelphia as well. Get the picture: death by homicide (gun-style) reduces life expectancy. That’s not too hard to see, is it? Sort of intuitive. More guns, shorter lives.

What this has to do with Case and Deaton is, at first glance, not obvious. Their big finding was, more or less, if you went back to about 1930 and sorted by birth cohorts (basically people born in the same decade), something suddenly jumped out. Sometime for cohorts beginning around 1950, and getting progressively worse, life expectancy at birth for people without a BA (Bachelors Degree) began to diminish. Yup. Fall. After basically steadily rising for as long as we could figure out the data, the life expectancy of people without a BA started to fall. And not just any people. White people! Whoa. What happened to white privilege? Never fear, it’s still there for white people with a college degree. But for others, not so much. It also turns out, when they did the study, it did not seem that the same was happening to Black Americans (in passing, I should note a wry Doonesbury cartoon in which a Black Dude explains to his White friend that, in America, Blacks were always stressed out, so why should any new stressor affect them one way or another. Amusing, but I suspect no longer true.)

And what’s with college? Why should that give you some protection from deaths of despair? I thought college was death by debt, so isn’t Biden really helping people who are really already in better shape? Ah, that’s sort of the point that even progressive economists have been making for quite some time. You know, this is regressive (helps those who need it least), on the whole (that doesn’t mean for each individual). Don’t trust me. I don’t want to have too many links here, but


is, alas, based on evidence as opposed to partisan politics.

Any event, it’s clearly that university is a sorting device. In part it makes higher incomes possible. In part it keeps people out of jobs whose only qualification is a strong back, which have been rapidly disappearing in the United States since the 1970s (“deindustrialization” and globalization). And in part it opens people to a wider world, perhaps one in which the need for short term gratification is lower because there is a long term. Case and Deaton don’t run any fancy models to “test” their hypothesis, but that’s just as well. Sometimes that stuff obscures as much as it clarifies. Their argument comes down to the health care system, opiods, the erosion of social capital (unions, churchs, supportive kin groups) and the destruction of what little social safety net America had (and it wasn’t much, compared to Western Europe, for example). These things really began to impact–wait for it–working class white Boomers (sorry, I know the”Blame Boomers” meme makes for social-network influencers, but I’m more impressed by demographic work than some inane sloganeering on FB). You may say, and with reason, that a lot of cause and effect gets swept under the rug in the “deaths of despair” trope, not to mention the actual mechanisms themselves. I agree. But it’s clear they’re on to something. Correlation isn’t causation, but it isn’t not causation either. Maybe we should be looking harder, especially after the rise of the Fascist Right in the United States and the election of He Who Shall Not be Indicted. And unlike Deaths of Despair, that has a European parallel, right?

But what does this stuff have to do with Philadelphia, race, and the Demolition Derby of human life that claims more victims there even as I write this (oh, yeah, Go Phillies)? Case and Deaton explictly allude to something of the sort with the urban Black Community in the United States with the rise of crack cocaine in the early 1980s, but they sort of give the impression that peaked before the real thing got started. On the other hand, if you look at Philly, fentanyl, the gentrification of places like Point Breeze or Parkside and Brewerytown (as a service to the community–just wait until it hits Mantua), the deluge of guns–especially semi-automatics that can be suitably modified to get off dozens or rounds in no time (no match for the primitive Zip guns of my youth)–and the disastrous impact of Covid-19 on minority communities (and I have the feeling we’re just beginning to see the implications of this, let alone understand them), well, you can connect the dots. A lot of angry, rootless, anomic people out there. Acting out. With fatal results.

You can die all at once, or you can die a day at a time. You know, the choice is yours. People who have been treated badly enough for long enough will begin to behave very badly, which, if you mutter “Where is BLM now?” you well enough know. And because we cannot have a rational discussion of race in America (add that to taxes, climate change, the corruption of the political system by money, hey, take your pick), it’s almost impossible to say why are poor people who happen to be mostly non-white killing each other with such reckless abandon? I don’t think either political party is going to give you anything other than an opportunistic answer, and leadership, real leadership, seems to have gone the way of the rotary telephone. Bobby Kennedy is dead, in case you haven’t noticed. His killer is still alive. Ironic, isn’t it?

So, I watch my once-beloved home town bleed out, one murder at a time, a mix of opportunity, no future, and no social capital (you can’t blame a society that isn’t there, friend). I don’t say that Case and Deaton is the answer to why Philly is the New Juarez, but they have something to say. And no, the Phillies and the Iggles will not save the situation, the idiotic celebration of Red October in Philly notwithstanding. Time to grow up and face facts, if we are allowed to conceive of the world in terms of facts: brute, socially constructed, or otherwise.

By the way, I’m sorry if this is meandering, but I really don’t care. You want a refereed piece, with a nicely constructed argument, spend $1000 on a journal subscription. You get what you pay for.

Madeline and Her Sisters

Any Resemblance to a Woody Allen movie is entirely intentional

Believe me, I have thought a great deal about this one. I wasn’t really sure I could even write it, even though I’ve written about lot of others in my family, including my Dad.

Yeah, it’s, as the cliche goes, complicated. Writing about my Mom was never going to be easy because in her own simple way, she was an interesting bunch of people, none of whom I knew completely. And to include her sisters, well, why? Doesn’t that just make it harder?

Yes, it does, but to know my Mom and to know her sisters was to get a glimpse of alternative worlds, because Mom, Dot (Domenica) and Rita were not interchangeable pieces. In appearance, Dot favored Grandpop, at least as a kid. As I got older, a lot of people assumed, by appearance, that I was Dot’s son. This, of course, thrilled my Mom to no end. I guess at some level she figured if she had to put up with me, she was damned if anyone else was going to get the credit, if you want to call it that. So if you’re thinking there must have been some sibling stuff going on here, I’d say, well, you’re right. It was the 800 pound Goombah in the room. This is going to take some explaining, including speculation about stuff that happened long before I was born. So, you know, for what it’s worth.

My Mom, Maddalena Villari (she spelled it Vallari in high school for a time. I used to think that was just Mom being contrary, but a second cousin of mine has got me thinking it may have been more significant than that. My Grandmother’s (Francis Delia) midwife–one at least, was named Vallari, which has set off a wave of speculation about degrees of affinity in the family–which I think is possibly significant. I’ll explain later). Dot was the eldest. Mom was a year younger. and Rita was the youngest. They were all born in the United States, and my Mom in 1924. She died in 2015 at Bryn Mawr Hospital. I wasn’t there. She wasn’t supposed to die just yet, but crossed signals were always a problem for us. Until the end.

Mom went to Horace Furness Public School, which opened in 1912 (at least that’s what the cornerstone says). It is still at 3d and McKean in South Philly, although it is now a high school. She never talked much about it, other than to tell me once that she had a classmate who publicly said he wanted to be a trash man when he grew up. When queried about this considered choice of occupation, Mom said he replied “Someone has to do it.” Unlike us 1950s and 1960s veterans of parochial school, she had no tales of nun-sadism, cruelty, or savage Commies devouring Communion wafers. Stuff was different in 1930, I guess.

She did not go to parochial school, I strongly suspect because her father, Joe Villari, was a wee bit anticlerical, as many Italian men of his generation were. Or maybe because the nearest parochial school would have been at 11th and Jackson, The Epiphany, which went back to 1889. Since 11th and Jackson would have been right around the corner from 912 Tree Street, where she lived, it was closer to home. Furness, was a 15 minute walk, a lot farther for a little kid, even then. Joe didn’t much like priests in the 1950s. I can’t imagine what he was like in the 1920s.

The Villari Manse on Tree Street, 2019

I think that place on Tree Street was probably new (built in 1925, supposedly) when my Mom was a kid, so Grandmom and Grandpop were doing ok by our standard. They could afford a home. Not that East Passyunk was Merion, but, like I say, I never heard any complaints. It looks sort of typical South Philly today, with window units, a “custom” door, wrought iron railing–but observe the stoop. White Marble. Accept no substitutes. In today’s prices, it would have been worth about $42,000, or working class in Cobbs Creek or Feltonville. That sounds about right.

Hannah and Her Sisters: Mom, Rita and Dot

Mom never really talked much about her childhood. When I do think about it, I think of Luke 10:42, “Mary has chosen the better part.” I gather my Mom was studious in a conventional way, but that Dot, who had ambitions to sing opera, was more of an intellectual. Which meant that when it came to getting housework done and the girls were supposed to chip in, Mom would clean (she said) and Dot would sit and read a book. This rang true, because I knew my Aunt to be a reader later in life (she lent me copies of stuff by Jack Paar) while my Mom wasn’t, so I can just imagine the friction between Mom and Dot, you know, the Martha and Mary of the Villaris. Mom was the National Honors Society type. Dot and Rita, I have no idea, but I don’t think so. And with Mom, of course, inevitably, it was about grades. Well, where do you think I got it?

At some point, maybe it was junior high, or at Southern, in high school, in Philly, that stuff got a little out of hand. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but the gist of it was that Mom flunked some test and, as she put it, “made herself sick.” Whatever the Hell it was, it must have been a doozy, because she had to drop out of school for a semester. Looking back on it, I now figure my Mom must have had some kind of “breakdown” (as they then said) which presented itself in something akin to pneumonia. Over a test? Well, if you knew my Mother, this would not have seemed totally implausible. I have no medical qualifications, but it’s safe to see Mom suffered from some kind of anxiety disorder. These seem to have run through most of the Italian families I knew growing up, although no one called it that.

A lot of the Italians I knew were wound pretty tight, and they could be very inflexible. It was typically well intentioned–to keep a kid out of trouble–but it ended up making a normal adolescent instinct to become independent turn some of us into, well, distant and and bit touchy. You know the type. Michael Corleone, for one. I had to laugh when a colleague said I got this Michael Corleone look on my face when someone pissed me off. I hadn’t noticed, but it’s sort of useful at times. And, at times, not so much. I don’t blame my Mother. I didn’t have the common sense to step back and realize she was hurting. Not trying to hurt me. Which, believe me, I regret more than people might suspect.

Well, enough of that. I heard more funny stories about Madeline and her sisters as they grew up than I can remember. You know, they were three very attractive young women with an old-fashioned Sicilian father, which I gather made for some hysterical incidents. One of the best was one my Mom told on Dot and Rita, who happened to get involved with two nice Polish/Hungarian American boys, both of whom they eventually married. Grandpop apparently decided he had to keep an eye on someone, although whether it was Dot and Rita or Stan and Joe was not real clear.

So if they were entertaining their beaux in the living room in the evening on Haverford Avenue, Joe Villari apparently worked up a powerful thirst at least twice an evening. He had to come down from upstairs–he should have been sleeping–to get a glass of water in the kitchen. Which meant he had to make an appearance coming and going. Now we had plumbing, you know? And running water upstairs. But he–not Grandmom–felt the need to come down and make sure everything was on the up and up. He didn’t say anything. Since he was a pretty square-jawed Sicilian–sort of 5X5 guy–this was a little like having a more benign version of Luca Brasi being your chaperone. My Mother seemed to regard this with a sort of “served them right” attitude, as if Louie calling her up and playing Body and Soul on the tenor sax maintained the proper distance and affectionate air. I wish I could have been there for any or all of this, but, well, that would have presented a problem in temporal sequence, especially in those more chaste times.

Madeline and Joe Villari (aka Luca Brasi)

Of the other sisters, I was closest to Dot. I think that was because she was most like me–which bugged everyone other than Dot. Stan, he husband, was a buddy of Gene Krupa’s and going to Dot’s place meant I could listen to music without seeming….distant. As I got older, I had a lot of fun needling Dot, particularly after she moved to Delaware Country and became a Reagan Democrat. She actually became a Committee-Person (is that ok?) and was friends with the former Mayor of Marcus Hook and 10-term crooked Republican Congressman (and Trumper) Curt Weldon. I never let Dot forget I thought Weldon was a sleaze, which the FBI apparently agreed with, ” raiding” his daughter’s home right before his final election, which he lost. Fortunately, for Dot, she was gone by the time Curt was doing his Abscam thing. But Dot had been the Executor of my Grandmother’s estate, so I take it that my Grandparents figured she was the capable one, and they were right. She’s another one I miss a great deal, and she adored Linda. I think she figured I was lucky and better not louse things up. So far, so good.

Things with my Mom sort of were in a bad equilibrium. I lived far away, first in California, then in Texas. She wouldn’t fly. Mom loved her grandchildren, so we did a lot of traveling. She lived alone, and as she aged–she died at 92–it just got more complicated. I tried to get her to come to San Antonio–at one point a cottage home across the street from us was for sale, but no way. Of course not. It made too much sense. Her health steadily deteriorated–I hadn’t realized how much–until she fell and, well, you know what happens from there. The rest is still not something I want to talk about. Other than to say, there must have been a better way and I live with the feeling I should have been the grown up. You live and learn, or else. Did I tell you my daughter, Rosie, has a lovely cat named “Maddie?” Mom hated animals, especially dogs and cats. In this family, Irony is the only God.

Rest in Peace.

Aunt Frances to You, But Grandmom to Me

Francesca Delia Villari. We suspect she made the dress she was wearing. She was a crack seamstress.

“Weren’t there any women in your family?”

No. Italians reproduce asexually. At least married ones.

Look, there were some people in my family who were too good to be true. My maternal grandmother was one of them. So if you are as cynical as I am, you will stop right here. But that doesn’t change anything. This is all true

Before I get going, I should credit at least some of this to my second cousin, once removed, Christine Rogers Walls. More than some. She is a fellow Villanovan, albeit of the modern era. I had to ask her how exactly we were related because the only person I know who can figure that stuff out is James Maule. He can tell you how he is related to Jesus Christ. He is also a Villanovan, by way of the law school, where he is a distinguido profesor. Maybe it’s something in the water on the Main Line, or some Catholic gene. Anyway, give credit where credit is due. Christine has got the Delia-Villari franchise. So in the event I can’t tell you, maybe she can.

Where to start?

Francesca Delia was born in 1899. Maybe. She arrived at Ellis Island on board a ship out of Naples with her Mother and brother, Santo, on July, 9, 1903. So she was four or so. We (Christine and I) think her father, Pietro, was already here, although exactly where “here” is a bit hazy. Maybe Philadelphia. Maybe Pittsburgh. Don’t really know. But she made it. I once asked her about her memories of being a little girl. She thought for a moment and told me she saw Teddy Roosevelt as President. That would have been between 1903 and 1909, when she was at most ten.

From that day forward I put my grandmother in another category of humanity. It was as if she told me she had been at Gettysburg when Lincoln spoke. The connection to an iconic figure in American history must have cemented her status as out of the ordinary herself, which she certainly was. In 1960, both of us went to Upper Darby, PA, to see John Kennedy on a drizzly Saturday in October. She was there at my nagging, because I wanted to see him. So we went. You get the picture? Your nine-year old grandson says he wants to see a presidential candidate, so she must have figured, why not? I saw TR at nine and never forgot. Grandmom became an integral part of my memory, not to mention an early enabler of my political socialization. We were both Democrats, as was her husband, my grandfather, Joe Villari. I won’t say in my home there were no Republicans, because I know better. My Mother had registered as a Republican to get a City Hall job back in the prehistoric years before Joe Clark and Dick Dilworth ran things, when Bernard Samuel was the last Republican mayor of the city in an unbroken partisan line controlled by Republicans since 1884 and only ended in 1951, the year of my birth. But I don’t think anybody liked Republicans, even then. They weren’t our kind of people. If you know what I mean.

Grandmom was laid back before laid back existed. She was even tempered, to the point where I don’t think I ever saw her angry. She never used bad language. Never raised her voice–well, maybe in exasperation to my Grandfather occasionally, like when he exhibited symptoms of a fatal illness he was inclined to ignore. She was, in my life, a perpetually gray-haired lady who did nothing but treat me kindly, a surrogate Mother when my Mom went out to earn a living. This was what extended immigrant families did, ideally. And mine was pretty close to ideal. And I mean that. She was wonderful. Who knew from day care? I had Grandmom. I had no idea how lucky I was. Even now it’s hard for me to write about this without getting emotionally involved. But then someone will say I’m maudlin. Yeah, and that’s too bad. Stop reading. No one’s making you do this.

Since I really grew up–if the first decade or so is growing up–Grandmom and Haddington and Haverford Avenue are all together in my mind. It was a big two story stone house with basement (where there was another stove), and man, she cleaned every inch of it every week. On her hands and knees. Using a bucket and a wash brush. She did the wash and hung it out on the line to dry. She cooked every meal every day. She ran the household by herself. And that meant shopping and all the rest while keeping an eye on me–at the very least. Do you have any clue how much work that was? She had three daughters too, you know, and, forgive me, at least one was high maintenance (they all were, honestly). Guess which one? I won’t talk about the various private matters that came up, other than to say she somehow kept us all together. God knows how.

Let’s take the little matter of running the household. Now by the time I was on scene, Grandmom was in her fifties, ok? You know, not old, but no teenager either. She cooked dinner for at least five people every night, and I mean cooked. You know, she may have bought bread and spaghetti, but that was it. Meat came from the butcher, ordered over the phone–West Philadelphia Meat Market. And from specific parts of the beast–usually, “from the loin.” She knew the difference and the butcher didn’t fool around. This was a once or twice a week call, which I remember. There were closer butchers, but this guy handled Grandmom, whom he politely called “Francy” when he delivered. Vegetables came from Madon’anna (I swear) or from the hucksters in the summer selling freestone peaches, tomatoes, and watermelons (mezza pezza, watermeloon!). Cold cuts from Mr Furia at 65th and Haverford. Jesus, we ate well. Fresh bread, fresh meat, fresh vegetables. And guess who prepared this stuff, every day? No complaints. None. She was always in a good mood. God only knows how. Her specialty was bracciole, but there was also a soup called, forgive me, scudol’ (escarole) and pastafazool (pasta e fagioli, to you), along with the occasional pie from Hanscom’s on 69th Street or Horn and Hardart. Dish washer? Uh uh. That was family stuff, but she was right there too, every day. I never heard “I’m too tired.” Or “I don’t feel well.” Doesn’t compute. And that was just dinner.

Of course she made her own spaghetti sauce and meatballs. Usually Sunday mornings and man, did the house smell good. I’m there watching Bertie the Bunyip and Larry Ferrari on tv and she’s already got the madinad (actually, we called it gravy in my family) (marinara, thank you) going. Before we went to Sunday Mass. Before. You dig? Now, in those days, Joe Villari opted out of Mass, but the rest of us went. As a group. Amidst all this cooking and hustle and bustle. I have no idea how she did this. None.

Did I tell you she made time for her family in South Philly at least once a week? Yeah, that too. With me in tow as a little kid. I guarantee you my Mom never worried if I was in good hands.

And she never took a holiday. No. Usually a big one (Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, New Years Day) began three days before, because she had to bake. Yeah. Bake. I still cry over her biscotti. Forget Termini’s. You know, like, “What is a weekend?” from Dalton Abbey. “What is a holiday?” And remember, she did peppers and eggs pretty much every night for Grandpop to take to lunch at RCA in Camden, because he got up at 4AM to commute. Yeah. He got the gold watch (literally), but she made it possible. So now you know why I don’t like anti-immigrant talk. I haven’t forgotten. Even if some of the cafones who love Trump have. And never a trace of bitterness, racism, all the stuff that drives the woke police to bestow “white privilege” on us from time to time. My ass. My family’s white privilege was Normandy.

I realize this whole discussion is going to displease some people. I don’t care. Stop now, because if this is “Momism” or some damn thing, you’re only going to get even more unhappy. Because she didn’t do self-realization. Grandmom was too busy being the anchor for a frequently difficult, neurotic, querulous group that would have fallen apart very quickly had it not been for her. I know she saved at least one life, and she was a friend to Linda and me when we really needed one in 1975. And do remember that everything of which I speak took place after she had raised three daughters, whose creativity in causing agita was pretty much unmatched. Grandmom was the polar opposite of her daughters in temperament. You tell me.

You know, this was even before the move to Haverford Avenue from South Philly, let alone to Penfield in the 1960s. I can’t tell you much about that, because I wasn’t born yet, so this story starts in the early 1950s. A half century after she got to Ellis Island. So, what, if anything do I know about that? Not much, and my cousins, especially Richie d’Adamo (God rest his soul) and Christine Rogers Walls have led me to a lot of this. To Richie, Grandmom was Aunt Frances. Richie, if possible, may have loved her even more than I did. He was her nephew, and she did tell him stuff she never told me. About family. Really amusing NSFW stuff. Cause she was no plaster saint, believe me. A saint, yes; plaster, no.

A lot of people think of old Italian ladies as dressed in black, solemn, and religious in a peasant superstion-y way. Grandmom wasn’t. She did not see Gesu on the burnt toast., even if she lit candles. I don’t think I ever heard her praying, although I did hear her sing “Oh how I miss you tonight” as she washed windows (for real). She and Grandpop did have some kind of difference about contributing to a building fund at Saint Donato’s (which I’m sure the Archdiocese of Philadelphia will dump as soon as it can so that some professional atheist can knock it down and put up a condo or some crap), but that was about it. She went to Church and was no rebel. But, here’s a clue. When one of my relatives–who had a penchant for blondes and matrimony–had latched on to yet another one (she was cute)–Grandmom got exasperated. You know, here we go again, with all that expense of weddings, divorces, property settlements. “Why don’t you just live with them,” she asked? Maybe she was 70 at the time. Good question, Francy. Good question. And not very appropriate for an Italian Catholic grandmother. You obviously don’t know much about Italian Catholic grandmothers.

Grandmom and Grandpop had an arranged marriage, and it lasted close to 60 years. Can you imagine? I thought, silly me, that all couples were as well suited to each other as they were. The question has recently come up, arranged by whom? Well, of all the things I wish I had asked Grandmom, that may have been the biggest one. I assume–and please enlighten me if you have some idea–that there was some kind of established procedure in Sicily for just this–but I have no idea of what it might have been. My cousin speculates–on pretty good evidence–that the families (Delia-Villari) may have well have known each other in the old country, and certainly did in Philadelphia. I can’t prove it, but, as James Maule has explained to me repeatedly, in small towns in Italy, a marriage market only included so many families, and over hundreds of years, families would intermarry. I suspect that I spotted one such occurrence among the Salvucci in Philadelphia, and it is hardly beyond the realm of possibility that the Delia and Villari were related in Sicily. Although Grandpop came from Bordonaro and Grandmom from San Filippo (there are two!) (both near Messina), I was thunderstruck when this possibility first came up, but it now seems much more logical to me. It’s going to take a lot of archival work in Italy (or maybe online in the Antenati records for Sicily, or both) to get to the bottom of the question, but I have the feeling that Ms. Rogers Walls will, some day. I can only hope I’m around to hear the answer. In any event, Grandmom did not know a lot about her family in Sicily. She was too young to remember, which is why her English was as fluent as her Italian. She was a child in the United States and learned English here. I said she learned English. The way all immigrants should.

When Grandmom moved out to Delaware County to be near her daughters, I continued to see a lot of her. She never seemed to slow down, and there were times when I stayed over as an adolescent and we’d watch the Late Show together. We’d always watch the Voice of God on Channel 10 (John Facenda) prior to that, and I spent a couple of New Years Eves with her watching the Times Square ritual when Guy Lombardo was doing it. I can still date a lot of events in my childhood and adolescence to circumstances on Haverford Avenue or Penfield, and that means political events, snowstorms, holiday football games, that sort of thing. Like the Packers and the Lions always played at Grandmom’s on Thanksgiving, and the game typically meant something then (the Lions were pretty good and the Packers under Lombardi were, well, the Packers). At big family gatherings there, on holidays, Grandmom would put out a huge meal. We’d all be stuffed and she’d look around disapprovingly and say “Nobody’s Eating.” Linda and I still laugh about that, mostly because we miss it so much. We still use her recipe for gravy when we want to do it right, with sausage and meatballs. It’s not hers, but we try.

In her last years, Grandmom was delighted by her great-grandchildren. She loved Martin and Rosie and she clearly saw “Little Rosie” as some kind of live doll who brought the biggest smile to her face. Rosie doesn’t remember, and I’m not sure how much Martin does. That’s really too bad, because a lot of what I think and feel owes less to my parents’ generation than to Grandmom and Grandpop, who really raised me for a long time. I think, in a funny sort of way, I have 1940s and 1950s sensibilities and values because of them. It probably explains why I dislike what the world has become so much, because I am much closer to her (their) world than ours. I spent so much time with her and Grandpop. It makes for some uneasy moments these days. If I could go back, I would. That’s just life. My middle name is Joseph. I’m sure had I been female, it would have been Frances.

Grandmom, Aunt Francis, Francy, she was a remarkable person. She used to tell me she wasn’t afraid of passing on because Grandpop was waiting for her, having died some years before her. And she passed on at 94. Tell you what, I hope Grandmom and Joe Villari are waiting on me too. St. Peter. Meh. I’m counting on it. If that makes me a heretic, well, so be it.

Special Edition: Inflation…It’s Baaaaack

                Recently, a dear friend of mine, an economist in Mexico, made an unpleasant prediction. “It’s back to the 1970s, baby. Stagflation and all that.” Oh goody. I am unfortunately old enough to remember just what that means.

                “Highest inflation in forty years,” another friend, and not a partisan of President Biden, announced gleefully to me. Since this person, off to a fine start as a bankruptcy lawyer in New York, is just thirty four years old, I wonder if he realizes what he’s saying. Very likely good news for people in his business. But very bad news for the rest of us.

                Why? The just concluded meeting of Central Bankers in Sintra, Portugal, has announced the era of low inflation is over. “The process is highly likely to involve some pain, but the worst pain would be from failing to address this high inflation and allowing it to become persistent,” said Jay Powell, chair of the Federal Reserve. And what “process” would that be. It’s called raising interest rates, which is one of the things central banks can do to fight inflation. Earlier this month, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates, specifically the Federal Funds rate, by 75 basis points. Is that a lot? Well, the Fed’s new “target range” is 1.5 to 1.75 percent. Basically, the Fed Funds rates is what banks charge each other to lend excess loanable funds. Forty years ago—41, to be exact, the rate was over 20 percent. 22.36 percent, to be exact. So if the Fed’s inflation fighting medicine is geared, Holy Smoke, to what was going on 40 years ago, 1.5 percent or so is peanuts, as in Jimmy Carter’s peanuts. You’ll remember President Carter farmed peanuts in Georgia before inflation and Ronald Reagan took him out. We got a long way to go if that’s where things are headed.

                There are some uncomfortable similarities to those now-forgotten times. The Russians were in Afghanistan, Ukraine already being part of the Soviet Union. Commodity prices were headed up. The international economy had been disrupted by what economists call “supply shocks,” but these were a consequence of oil prices rising and not a virus like COVID-19. Still, things did get out of control. By 1979, inflation here had hit 13 percent and Jimmy Carter had brought in Paul Volcker to whip inflation now (WIN) (something Carter’s predecessor Gerald Ford had conspicuously failed to do). Mr Volcker put us and much of the world through a wringer, and the 1980s are remembered as a “lost decade” in some parts of the world, where rising interest rates combined with foreign loans delivered an economic knockout punch. It wasn’t pretty. Ask someone from Mexico or Peru, just for starters. Be prepared to hold their hand.

                The short story is that rising interest rates kill demand by making the cost of borrowed money higher. So people stop buying things, people get tossed out of work, wage increases stop, production falls. You can overdo this medicine. Like you can cure high blood pressure by strangling the patient, but then there is no game at all. Right? You flatline, you’re dead, and high blood pressure is the least of your worries.

                Now, why am I going on about this? Well, turns out that in the 1980s, household debt in America was around 50 percent of GDP. In other words, in total, as much as half of national income, more or less. In 2020, house debt was about 80 percent of GDP, or 60 percent higher. Ok, so what?

                Well, two things. Back in those more innocent times, a lot of interest rates were fixed—not sovereign debt, like Mexico’s, they will tell you—so arguably, the full brunt of rising interest payments was somewhat mitigated. It’s complicated, so you’ll have to trust me. I had a student loan at 7 percent, so I was effectively paying minus 6 percent in 1980. The lender was, in effect, paying me.

        But bankers learned, alas, and very few consumer rates today are fixed, including credit cards and a lot of mortgages. Which means no more free money if inflation rises. You’re going to feel the increase immediately.

         The implication, it seems to me, is that if you thought the 1980s were tough, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Interest payments relative to income are going to be higher this time around, which means that belt-tightening is going to be a lot, well, tighter. You know all those property mavens who took seminars about how to get rich in real estate. They borrowed a lot of money. Ouch.

         Like Yogi Berra said, supposedly, forecasting is hard when it involves the future. So I don’t make forecasts. But if I did, I’d say given all our other problems in the United States, what’s on the horizon may be worse than what we’ve seen in the past few years. I’m not an alarmist. But I can count. And I’m worried.

Hot Town, Summer in the City

The Spoonful….When Summer Was Fun

I post this video for my younger friends. If I have any friends, aside from a couple of bros I attended DPS with, they have to be younger, because I was young–15–when this song was in the Top 40. I don’t even know if there is a Top Forty anymore, because that was AM radio days. I don’t imagine the younger people know what an AM radio is, unless they listen to some right wing windbag or a Hellfire preacher. Maybe Sportstalk, which is a guilty pleasure of mine. Anyway, “back in the day,” this was a chart-topper. I was living in Philadelphia and Penn Wynne, where you thought 85 degrees was hot. A July 4 when it hit 104 is a distinct memory, because it damn near NEVER happened. Now I live in South Texas, and I’m glad for it to only hit 90 is June or July. Sad. I will forever blame the Spanish Empire for my fate. Inside joke (why he Hell else would I have lived in Texas or California? No good cheese steaks.) As it happens, that day was July 4, 1966, so I guess looking at local temperatures down here in God’s Little Acre must have set off some synapse deep in my brain. Cause it never got that hot back home. At least BCC–Before Climate Change. Now, who knows. 104 sounds like the number of murders in Philly on a bad weekend. But, as Mark Twain used to say, I digress.

I used to really like Summer. I liked it in Philly, although it could get awfully humid around about August. I liked in in Berkeley, where watching the maritime layer (fog, for amateurs) roll in in the afternoon was a treat. It was almost never hot in Berkeley, and the little bit of it there was I could handle. And then came San Antonio.

I guess, in the abstract, I knew Texas was gonna be hot. You don’t grow cotton in the cold, right, and I had been in Andalusia (Sevilla) doing archival research once or twice in the Summer. Yeah, it was awful, and the locals had a word for it that I loved–bochornoso. I thought that meant shameful, but to the Andaluces, it meant hot and probably humid too. So while I dug going to Madrid or Sevilla, even in the heat, I always knew it was for a finite interval. In Catholic talk, they were Purgatory. Believe me, Texas is Hell. It never ends. And, that, among other things, is the big difference. We got two seasons here, Summer and Tolerable, Mostly. Summer runs from May to November. It gets old, believe me. And it’s a dry heat, right? So’s an oven, and you wouldn’t go sticking your head in one, would you? Well, what about Houston? Oh my God, forget it: literally a hot mess. But it’s not my problem, thank God.

By the time I had moved on to country life in Penn Wynne, Summer traditionally began on June 15. Year in and year out, the warders at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia set that date for parole (September 8 was the day the misery began). There had always been a few scorchers before then, when the Sister of Mercy (sic) would let us take off our hot maroon woolen blazers while we planned our upcoming escape. But the actual vacation was always a surprise. You’d go bursting out of the house at 8:30 in the morning and, lo and behold, the air was usually fresh with a cool edge from the night before. It was a real tonic after being confined for so long, and we headed off to various destinations, or sometimes just sat out on the front porch and enjoyed our freedom.

Yeah, sooner or later, you’d get involved in a game of catch or baseball, or drifted over with the gang to the park to see what trouble we could find. “Trouble” was a relative term. It usually involved some form of territoriality where various factions contended for control of an ancient gazebo. From there, various projectiles could be rained down on the barbarians–usually public school kids. Crab apples, black walnuts, dirtbombs, you name it. We also specialized in booby trapping the paths up the hill to the gazebo with lots of loose soil. Alas, there were casualties, cause someone always didn’t get the memo. Some hopeless kid would loose his or her footing and slide down the path, and go over a retaining wall, occasionally damaging a limb and falling into Powder Mill Creek. I don’t think anybody from my cohort ended up in Vietnam, but we already knew the tricks. I saw this kid nicknamed Skunky take a punjy stick to his ample fanny. He was sidelined for a week or two, poor guy. I, of course, was always in the rear. Safer there. Let the foot-soldiers contend for the high ground. A few hours of that was generally enough to guarantee that by evening, less strenuous pursuits–like The Flintstones–beckoned. No computer screens. This was the battlespace. No one knew from defilades. You burned off calories, excess energy, and aggression. For guys about to suffer from testosterone poisoning, it wasn’t the worst thing in the world.

The Hallowed Ground of Penn Wynne. Imagine a cartwheel over the wall.

We had other outdoor pursuits as well, but some of them were typically only available in more urban settings: wall ball and half-ball. Someone ought to write a book about how to play half-ball, except the rules varied from block to block in West Philly.

You had to start with a trip to Boodis Hardware on Lebanon Avenue to buy a pimple ball. You don’t know what a pimple ball is? You can podcast but you don’t know from a pimpleball. Doofus. See the little orb below. That is a pimpleball. Accept no substitutes. Cause if you don’t have one, you can’t play half-ball. You’ll also need a broomstick handle. Where you get that is not my problem, but it has to be wood. No plastic or aluminum. At least not in my neck of the woods. And you’ll need a good sharp penknife, or failing that, the family meat cleaver. I think a scissors might work, but I never saw one deployed.

This here is a pimpleball. It’s got to have a star.

When you cut the ball in half, there was always some kind of a residue of powder inside. Even a little moisture. I have no idea, but that was the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. The “field” was the alley that ran behind the homes facing 66th Street. You needed a pitcher, a catcher, maybe an outfielder and some gofer to chase the ball down. That was it. If you hit the thing, it was a single. If you hit it over a wire strung across the alley, a double. If you “roofed” the ball on to Reale’s Bakery, it was a grand slam. And game over because there was no way to get it. On to the roof of Caravellis’ garage was a foul and you had better have another ball, cause your little friends would kick the crap out of you for losing the ball. There were other subtleties, but I won’t bore you with them.

You pitched underhand (at least I did), and some guys got pretty good at getting some movement on the ball. You didn’t want the fat side coming down in front of the batter with no motion because that was the way to get clobbered. The only grand slam I ever saw was a kid named Hotsy who hit it off of me (figures) on to Reale’s Roof. He was a lanky kid anyway, and he got a fat pitch that I can still hear ricocheting off the green broom handle. What a humiliation. Hotsy, a/k/a Hoagie Nose going deep on you. We did kill hours that way, though, with all the requisite razzing, name calling, and pinning current Phillies’ names on to people. I got the ultimate ignominy, Chico Fernandez. Go look him up. Hotsy sealed it with that monster hit. I didn’t get to pitch much after that. Then I got demoted to the suburbs anyway.

My life as a Hispanic Wannabee started early.

Oh. No baserunners. If you didn’t swing at a hittable pitch, you swung (true). Three strikes, out of there. Caught on the fly (never saw), out. Three outs per “side.” This was 66th Street rules. I have no idea what they did elsewhere. Believe me, it was fun and is probably the only game from my youth I’d taken a shot at today.

Back in the suburbs, there were other pastimes (is that a word?). I don’t know if lightning bugs have been a victim of whatever Great Extinction we’re into now, but catching the poor creatures and putting them in bottles was another source of entertainment. For us, not for the poor bugs. But we entertained easily until some adult called a halt to our merriment. You could do this day after day and not get bored. At least I wasn’t.

I discovered our public library too, which had a reading program. Not that I needed much excuse, because the place was cool, quiet, and yes, some of the librarians were cute. You could stay up nights and read–sometimes with a flashlight angled under the pillow to keep your parents happy. I don’t remember a lot of fiction (any, really), but I was a great anticommunist and a war hero. You know, imaginary bullets don’t hurt and your plane never got shot down anyway. I was desperately concerned about the Commies taking over Manoa Road, so I did a lot of that know your enemy kind of stuff. This one was one of my favorites.


I went to grade school with a bunch of Cuban exiles, and they were helpful in stoking our paranoia. As were the nuns, who had more Reds crucifying communion wafer stories than you might believe. But do remember Cuba was a thing, as in October 1962. Dude, I was 11 and I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make it to 12. As it turns out, there was a lot of that going around, and if we had only known how close we were, we would’ve been even more scared than we were. And I was good and scared. So I never really got around to Venceremos until college, and even then, it was half-hearted. The Barrera brothers trained me well. And in college, aah, a classmate was a future mayor of Miami, who apparently insinuated to a young lady in whom we had a mutual interest “Your boyfriend is a Communist dupe.” Reader, she married me. Take that, gusano.

Anyway, the Penn Wynne Library was next to my Godfather’s place, so there was always that excuse too. Summer was endless possibilities back then. Not endless days of 100+ heat. Starting to see the difference?

Even going to Mass was more fun in the Summer. They dumped the 12:15 slot–too many of us downashore, or somewhere, so demand dropped off. The 11:15, which I somehow always pulled as an altar boy, was not too bad and, I’m sure it’s a trick of memory, the weather always seemed pleasant. To the point that I can remember a nice breeze across the altar and lousing up the candles, at least until they got those thingamajig wax savers. Even the priests seemed fascinated by candles getting lopsided, or at least one or two of them did. You know the Sinatra song, Summer Wind? Frank must have picked it up in Church, which I’m sure Dolly (Mama Sinatra) made him go to. But man, you’d get outside, once it was over, and it wasn’t hot, but it wasn’t cold. You walked home and got to smell the azaleas and if you played your cards right, by the time you finished lunch, there was a Phillies game on. What was to dislike, for God’s sake. Absolutely nothing. Jim Bunning might even pitch a perfect game. I saw it on the tube (June 21, 1964). After which Bunning became some kind of right-wing nut. Baseball in Philly will do that to a guy.

To be honest, I really don’t think it’s the heat anymore. It’s the responsibility. For a lot of us–at least the lucky ones–problems as a kid were abstract, as in Commies and nukes and whether the Phillies would ever win another game (some stuff never changes). And all of it was wrapped in some kind of pretty package called “The Future” which had no hard constraints of which you were aware. I could have probably lived in Death Valley and thought that was just fine. My older self doesn’t really care–in the abstract–about whether the climate in South Texas is lousy or not. You know what the real issue is:

“But at my back I always hear / Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near; / And yonder all before us lie / Deserts of vast eternity.”

Andrew Marvell got that one right. It can be 100 degrees in the shade when you’re 15. There is, after all, always tomorrow. What a luxury in any weather. Time was, as the Stones intoned, on your side.

(Apology: I have some weird formatting issues in WP. Sorry)

Snow Daze

I was planning to write a post about Fiona Hill’s very good book, but it’s going to have to wait until after my summer hiatus. Yes. I’m going on hiatus, so there. Meanwhile, I had to write something that would make me laugh. Because, after Uvalde, I haven’t laughed much. I suspect there’s a lot of that going around. So, with no further ado, I bring you reflections on what it was like growing up in the Northeast when we had snow. Quite a bit, sometimes. I have never been one of those “I hate this stuff” people. Reason being I have too many pleasant associations from my childhood and adolescence that the white powder–no, not that white powder–bring. And, resolutely, that’s what I’m going to talk about.

“You didn’t wax eloquent when San Antonio got hammered a few years ago.” No, I did not. That’s because we lost power and heat for nearly a week, and a lot of people died needlessly because of Republican incompetence. Growing up in Philadelphia and its suburbs, I can never–not once–recall losing power, light or heat. Including in the big storm of February 17, 1958, when I stood on the porch of our Haddington residence and watched the power lines flash blue and go snap, crackle and pop. A late winter storm that brought heavy wet snow and really messed things up. Tell you what. Philly (sort of) handled it although 10 guys died shoveling a foot or more of snow. In San Antonio, where I currently reside, they can’t even do rain. You tell me. I blame Lincoln: for holding on to the South.

“All public and parochial schools, closed.” That was the voice of Duncan MacLeod on WCAU-TV in Philadelphia. Very matter of fact, baritone. Man, six words that brought joy to my childish heart. No school. You get to stay home with your grandparents and watch Our Miss Brooks and Queen for a Day on tv. Or Art Linkletter’s “House Party” from some weird place called Studio City in Hollywood, CA. And I didn’t particularly dislike Saint Donato’s, where I was enrolled. So it was just being cozy, around people you adored. You know with hot chocolate and stuff. Being a little kid. That was before AR-15s, you see. But I digress.

Snow in the city was different. For one thing, there was usually less of it; it usually didn’t last as long; and it got dirty in a hurry. Yeah, those cars and trucks and then buses really turned the pristine white into an evil black and gray pile within a day or two. Along with the inevitable slush that all the traffic eventually produced. But the actual snowstorm itself was quite lovely. I can see why Claude Thornhill wrote that beautiful tune “Snowfall” as a celebration of an event. That was pretty much the way I regarded it. Happily. I think hearing that the other day conjured this up for me. Does it all the time.

There were very entertaining aspects to city snow, especially in South Philly, when we were downa house. First, the streets were very narrow, and the homes weren’t originally set up for cars, let alone those 1950s monstrosities with chrome and fins and huge-ass bumpers and stuff. Like a 1958 Buick that Little Pete, my “cousin” had. Freaking thing was an icebreaker, and once it was snowed in, it stayed snowed in. If the city plows made it down Cross Street, they only buried the cars even deeper in the stuff. Like, where were they gonna put it?

Of course, some people had to get out. So they had to shovel the car out, which was a back breaker. And once you did, you had a real problem. That cleared space had a definite positive economic value, but no price, because nobody owned the street, right? Wrong. You never been to South Philly in the winter. If you dig it out, man, it’s yours. My paysans would put a linoleum kitchen chair–Hell, sometimes a table buttressed with brooms–as a ritual of possession. This is mine, cafone. You stay the Hell out. Says who? Dude, you could have been messing with Angelo Bruno’s mother if you tried a stunt like moving it, cause the guys in the outfit lived in the neighborhood. You want to end up seriously hurt–at least? No. Everyone knew better. Even the cops. They never touched that setup. They weren’t crazy.

But there was always, as Clemenza put it in the Godfather, some pain-in-ass innocent bystander. Some tourist who didn’t know how it worked. Oh. My. God. That’s when the fun really got started. Some dope would try moving the chairs and stuff under the baleful gaze of some goombah-grandmother who’d come out in a housecoat and curlers screaming like a banshee with a Philly accent so thick you probably couldn’t understand it. “Hey. Whaddya think you’re doing? Get the Hell OUT of there. That’s OUR Space. My husband (son) (whatever) dug that out. You think you can go just park there?” And if you tried to contest the point, the old witch would probably take off after you with a broom. Or you’d come back to find your car without tires. And nobody saw nothing. The cops wouldn’t even show. That’s how it worked in South Philly. Frontier justice. And while it pains me to admit it, I often think the system worked better than whatever the Hell replaced it. If anything. I don’t remember too many people making mistakes, at least while I was around.

Moving to Penn Wynne was a different experience, you know, country living (humor). For one thing, it was hilly. For another, it did seemingly get more snow than Haddington, even thought it was only a couple of miles west. And we lived in a house that afforded all sorts of views of storms as they progressed. In the front, you could look out and see a couple of evergreens get slowly buried as it came down. From my room, you could watch the white stuff against a brown shingle background of homes that always made things look worse than they were. The dining room looked out over the back alley, which ran from the top of the hill on Harrogate Road to the bottom. And that was a kid’s dream come true.

I didn’t have a sled, but it seemed as if everyone else did, and sharing was generally no problem. There were some Flexible Flyers that could seat two–and that was truly an experience.

The alley was concrete blocks, worse for wear in some spots, and I’m guessing a 10 degree slope. It was maybe 25-30 feet wide, and bordered by garages, walls, hedges, some individual home driveways, nothing in places but open yard. We got traction by pushing off at the top and by the time you were midway down the hill, you were moving. Of course, people were bouncing off walls and stuff, or plowing into hedges all the time. And who could resist the temptation to drag race, where hysterically yelling kids sometimes took each other out or ended up perpendicular before rolling. Somehow, no one ever got killed or even seriously hurt, but it was hairy. You had to make a sharp left at the bottom of the alley and then peter out to a stop, unless you head-on hit a garage door at the end. which was kind of unpleasant. When 10 or fifteen kids were moving in both directions–flying down and trudging back, there was always the chance of some spectacular wipe out. And if the snow was still coming down, even better. You were flying blind. Little kids have this suicidal impulse which we indulged to the fullest. No wonder you didn’t want to go to school.

There was always some grouch who tried to shovel his part of the alley dry–party pooper–so he could get better traction for his old rear wheel drive. I distinctly remember some guy doing this and a bunch of us, under cover of darkness, making use of some garden hose and soaking the concrete down so as to create a patch of what we now term black ice. Of course, hitting that at top speed on the way down was like jet propulsion. I distinctly recall this guy getting his Chevy Nova getting stuck crosswise in the alley the next morning to the great amusement of the gang, who watched him slip, fall, curse and swear, waving a fist in our direction. Sheesh, no sense of humor.

There were also these snow saucers, kind of aluminum deals, that were really nuts. One time, we built a mountain of snow in one of the yards that was already elevated and bounded by a wall. You know, a ski jump, except we had no idea of the physics involved when you flew down the packed snow and launched directly into a 5 foot drop–which we all assumed would sort of like ABC Wide World of Sports ski-jumping. Yeah, some damn fool actually gave it a shot and flew off the wall, with the saucer detaching from his body as he smacked into the ground. How this kid did not sustain some kind of fatal injury is beyond me, and the entire scene was only made worse by his screaming for help, thereby summoning his father from a nearby house. The old man promptly fell trying to run up the alley to help this idiot. I can’t even begin to describe the mix or horror and mirth with which we observed the ensuing train wreck. If memory serves, we all got a stiff dressing down from our parents and had to cool it until the next storm. Adults were definitely no fun in the winter.

Other tricks. Pour gasoline on snow. Light. Snow burns!!!!! It looks cool as Hell at night until some killjoy calls the fire department. Especially when someone was trying to spell out an obscenity. (I didn’t see nothing). Or crouch at the top of Henley Road behind a stand of trees and pelt passing vehicles–especially bread vans and such–with snowballs. This required skill, like leading a receiver in football, and we usually missed. There was one day, however, when we all hit a Stroman’s Bakery truck simultaneously. Guy nearly rolled the van. Man, that driver was madder than a hornet, but he couldn’t chase 10 delinquents at once, especially when we knew the lay of the land and he was, well, not really in good shape. Thank God he didn’t have a coronary chasing us. Or that his van didn’t somehow slip out of gear, cause it was a long way to the bottom of the hill.

By the time I had entered high school, a much calmer set of pursuits was on offer. At DPS, we had a phone tree, and a guy would call, usually the night before, and tell us there would be no school. I don’t remember who I called, but I usually was thrilled by the sound of Tommy D’s voice when he got me. I’d tell him I loved him. He wasn’t interested. Anyway, this meant sleeping until 8 AM or so which was several hours after my usual hour of awakening. Followed by a nice pot of coffee, and listening to the radio for a bit. Followed by reading a good book, or napping (I should have been practicing trumpet, but I was already losing the work ethic by then). Sometimes in the evening a bunch of kids from Lower Merion High would organize coed snowball fights. That was better than going to a dance or something. Less stylized and definitely less inhibited. Public school kids knew how to party. Occasions of sin, for sure: see if you can, er, make out without getting your lips frozen together. That was a thing.

And going out to Devon by bus, there was at least one year when the snow was so persistent that we missed about a week of class. That was the year I started to read Dante’s Inferno. And that pretty much ruined me for most everything else. If you think Dante is cool at 16, you are a weird kid for sure. So I probably owe my career to a lost week in January 1967 (maybe February) when it snowed us in but good. And I learned to drive in it too. Which, let me tell you, intimidates South Texans even more than a Liberal Democrat. You steer into a fishtail, dude? They think it’s like leaning into a punch. Very entertaining to watch them do it wrong. You really do that?

You don’t know me. I never grew up. Ask anyone. Back in a few weeks for more fun and less enlightenment. Si Dios quiere.

Oscar Mayer (OM), as in I Wish I Were

No joke. I owe Oscar Mayer a lot. For what it’s worth, the company paid for a good part of my college education, cause I was a Hot Dog Scholar. Well, not really, but my Dad did work for them, and I did compete for and win one of their scholarships. Don’t think I wasn’t grateful, because I was. It made life a lot easier on all of us, and it gave me a certain incentive to be serious. Not that I really needed much, but I always knew I literally couldn’t afford to fool around. Cause Uncle Oscar wouldn’t pay.

My Dad, Lou Larkins, worked for them from the early 1950s until his retirement at 62. At that point, General Foods had acquired OM and even then, corporate America, in search of shareholder value, figured that dispensing with long-standing employees was a great idea. So he got out. I wouldn’t say he loved industrial accounting, but having your intelligence insulted by some conglomerate was not his idea of a good time. And he had a defined benefit pension and very good health insurance. Remember them? You never will because you probably have neither. That’s called a flexible labor force. Economists–especially those with tenure, who by definition can’t be let go–worship the idea. Go figure. It’s why we need to make America Great Again. Except everybody got pissed off at being Made Great By Corporate America. So they voted for He Who Will Not Be Mentioned. Who Will Make Us Great Again. Said Greatness, I thought, was the problem. Got that? You win an MA in Econ from a member institution of the Southern Economics Association. And in Logic.

Anyway, the Summer I graduated from Villanova, I was, as usual, in need of money. I was going to graduate school and getting married. Both of which cost money, whatever psychic income they might bring (Princeton=Psychic Income? With Lawrence Stone trying to turn the History Department into a branch of Oxford? Guess again. No punting please. We’re American.) Anyway, after a false start waiting tables, I got a good job at OM. On the Sanitation Crew. Don’t laugh. It paid, man. We went from 6AM to 2 PM, with half an hour for lunch. So I drove down to Front and Packer in South Philly where the plant was, leaving home about 5:15 AM. Previously, I though 7AM Mass was agony. Little did I know.

Now, let’s be clear about something. This wasn’t a life sentence. I knew that from the outset. At 22, you figure you can do anything for four months, and, really, you can. You’re just too immature to know that and you still have the time horizons of a child. So four months seems like a long time. Especially when you’re actually working in a factory. It is.

I started out doing floors, by which I mean scrubbing floors and mopping and drying them. With industrial strength cleaners because this was a meat packing plant, and the Department of Agriculture Inspectors didn’t screw around–in those days. Tell me about regulatory capture, right. Uh Uh. They’d shut a line down if they spotted anything, or any indicator came up slightly wrong. So, and let me be perfectly clear, as Richard Nixon used to say: that was the cleanest place I ever worked in. I’d have eaten off the floor. I continued to eat OM hotdogs, which we made there. I ate all kinds of stuff that was produced there, including that Philly delight, scrapple (don’t ask). People didn’t believe it. You work there and eat that stuff? Yup. Never a second thought. Anybody who tells me that that inspectors were in the bag, which is why we needed “light touch” (i.e., toothless) regulation, is blowing smoke. I know what I saw. And ate. If a line shut down, whatever was lost was lost for good, because the stuff was fresh and it was not there, it was gone for good. Opportunity cost, dude. Money. And losing money is a great incentive if you don’t operate under a loused up Tax Code that encourages wealthy people to lose money (sometimes purely notional) to offset real tax liabilities. But for this, you have to ask my DP classmate, James Maule, who understands this stuff. I just started out washing floors, walls, and eventually, some production lines. On my hands and knees, if need be. Yup, people do this stuff for a living. You can’t telecommute to a sanitation job.

The entire operational part of the plant was cold. I mean about 40-45 degrees. You know, it’s a meat packing plant, so it’s not like Club Med. Fresh meat spoils. The only hot place was the hot dog tunnel, so there you got it coming and going. The dogs were getting cooked in the tunnel while the ambient area was cold. You didn’t know whether to wear earmuffs or swim trunks. I really felt for those people, because that was no fun. It’s one thing to be cold. It’s another to be warm. Be neither hot nor cold, Jesus said (more or less), and you’ll want to vomit. So the entire plant was cold (other than the hot dog tunnel), and where they stored product was even colder (I’m getting to that).

Did you ever see like pallets of raw beef, frozen, from Argentina or New Zealand. I did. And rigs from, IBP delivering frozen meat on the loading docks, everyday. It’s a meat packing plant, and yes, they do (or did) use very good beef, frozen. And it had to stay frozen. For that there was an area of the plant that was Antarctica. Like 30 below. And there were blowers (God knows why), so there was actually a wind chill. Man, you want to talk about cold. You went in dressed in a freezer coat, gloves, and whatever the Hell else you could find to keep warm. If I knew I was going in the freezer on a given day, I’d wear thermal underwear, even if it was 90 degrees outside. You were good for maybe 30 minutes before you really started to feel it–and then you could go out and take a cigarette break (but only for about 10 minutes). And then it was back to the South Pole. Now the union guys had this written into their contract, and the steward made sure they got breaks and were not in there too long. Since I was “casual” and not union, technically the foreman could do what he wanted. But he was a nice guy, a friend of my Dad’s, and had no interest in seeing me freeze to death. So there was generally no problem. Until the Iceberg Day.

I never quite figured out how it happened, but I guess a pipe must have burst or something. In the deep freeze. And, of course, the water cascaded to the floor and pretty much flash froze before they could cut it off. So there was this, er, iceberg sitting in the middle of the freezer, blocking traffic. The sanitation guys must have decided that Joe College got this one, so in I went. With a pick, a shovel, a wheelbarrow, and as much warm stuff as I could find. And thereupon preceded to start breaking the damn thing up and carting it off. At some point, I guess I decided that I wasn’t stopping until I got the damn thing done and carted away. And I did. But by the time I finished, I swear I must have had frostbite on my nose. I remember my boss looking at me and asking if I was ok. I guess I said yeah, so he told me to go outside and warm up. It was around noon, and out I went into the Summer’s heat, wrapped in a blanket, sitting on the patch of lawn in front of the plant with a bunch of other plant workers. They seemed to regard this with great amusement, and assured me that I would have no need of contraception after that day because certain organs would have undoubtedly been frozen into dysfunction. I was so damn sore that night that I could barely move, and I’m not sure how I made it in the next day. I got a taste of what it was like to be 70 well ahead of time.

You know, there were a lot of guys in the plant on pain killers who had creaky, arthritic hands and knees–and they couldn’t have been more than 40. Some guys came into work stinking of booze at 6AM and they stayed that way. It was a Hell of a way to make a living, and they weren’t there for just a couple of months. This was, barring illness, getting fired, or something else, basically life. I have no idea how they stood it. Boy, if you ever wondered about the odd behavior–brawling, gambling, porn addiction, domestic violence–among the “plant types,” well, a few days like that straightened you out. And you wonder why they were union–even if the Amalgamated Meat Cutters weren’t exactly militants like the roofers. If anything, I’m surprised at how impassive most of the guys (and women) were. I think most of them were too worn out, too tired, or too drugged up to care much. They were basically glad they had a job. If they had any dreams, they involved a six pack and a weekend in Wildwood, maybe with a wife or a girlfriend. Hell, both, for all I know. That was it.

After about a month, I got moved to the shipping cooler. I had to move because any longer in sanitation and union membership would have been obligatory. It was fine by me, but OM was like, oh no. We can’t have that. And it was a promotion of sorts. I got to stack boxes of product waiting to be picked and loaded on trucks for distribution in about a five state area. I learned how to drive a fork lift, which was pretty cool. Except for the day that I somehow got the damn thing stuck in an up position and nearly took out a pallet of beef bologna in the process. Man, you never seen guys moving so fast to get away from impending disaster. It was raining the stuff from 20 feet up. They didn’t fire “the college kid” because I guess I was sort of family, and I had entertainment value. Besides, the shipping cooler was another world entirely.

There was a packing line that looked something like out of the Lucille Ball Vita-a-Meeta-Vegimin episode. You missed a beat on assembling a box and next thing you you, you were up to your ears in some stuff, depending on what was getting loaded. The guys working that line were mostly alcoholics, and you could see why. Cold. Repetition. Repetitive Strain injuries. Various and sundry cuts and bruises. The odd chance to sneak off to the Men’s Room to smoke, only to have the damn foreman come in and roust you–even if you were in the middle of a bowel movement. This guy I worked for, Matt P, was a piece of work. One day he came in to clear the place and I was doing my business and smoking–a twofer. He started telling me to get out of the stall, only for me to reply that I was relieving myself (in much less polite terms). No matter. He wanted me out. Soooooo. Use your imagination. Matt started screaming at me “What the Hell are you doing?” as I exited with my pants around my ankles. “I told you. I was taking a crap. You said come out. So here I am.” The look on his face was priceless. “Get the Hell back in there!” “Ok, but you said come out.” “I don’t care what I said, dumb f***.” This scene was so entertaining to the other guys in the cooler that they were grinning at me all day. “College kid!” One of them took me to a secret hiding place in the stacks of product where guys would duck in for a few to make coffee with an immersion heater. That was the day I knew I had arrived. It was like Bar Mitzvah for the kid. They had the Daily News back there, everything. Even a flashlight rigged up. This is how you survived. No one abused, and there was complete racial harmony. We had a common enemy, and we knew it.

The shipping cooler was so big it had a PA system that the foreman was supposed to use to summon people. Heh heh. Except it had no security, or the security was trivial, so everyone knew the codes, even when they got changed. There was this guy, I called him Chicken Man. He’d get on one of the more remote locations, dial in, and cackle like a rooster, which boomed all over the place. Or even better, he’d call in some one “Ron Stingey, call 214. Ron Stingey, call 214.” So Ron, or whoever, called 214, whatever 214 was. So this broke up the monotony 2 or 3 times a day. I even joined in the fun. “Werner Paulus, to Dock 6. Werner Paulus.” So Werner would walk about half a mile to Dock 6 only to find no one knew why he was there or what he wanted. And Werner was, well, not too gracious about it. Every once in a while there’d be an altercation, you know, as if these guys on the Dock were jerking someone like Werner around. You had to be there, believe me. It was funny.

Lest you think it was all screwing around, I learned plenty on that job. I’m not about to say that being a tourist among the working class was the same as being working class, although I came from it, but hadn’t really that much experience of it as a kid. Dad, Joe Villari, others did, but I was “spared” that experience. Now that I think of it, I’m glad I got a least a glimpse of it. When I had some student going on how unfair I, or life, or something else was, I often thought back to some of those people at OM. I never once heard one of them complain about life being unfair. Right. They would’ve laughed. They knew that: they were examples of it. You think an accident of birth is fair? You remember Rocky’s pal in the meatpacking plant, played brilliantly by Burt Young. Paulie didn’t think life was fair, did he? And he was right.

Whenever I was tempted to quit grad school (at least twice I week), I thought back to my experience at OM. Yeah, Lawrence Stone was an sob, but my foreman in the shipping cooler was worse. Much worse. I don’t care how bad academics ever got. There’s always meat packing, man. So thank God. I think about those poor souls from Mexico who populate Tyson’s Chicken. You really want their job? No you don’t, believe me.

The other thing I learned from working at OM was economics. Yeah, old style, Chicago school, traditional price theory. It was all around, man. Production functions? Like the hot dog tunnel was a working f(x,y). Marginal product=0? The guy who tries to look busy when the foreman is around, but otherwise goofs off. Economies of scale: yeah, you can watch both those lines at once for stuff falling off. Two for the price of one. Short and long run cost curves. Sure. Fixed and variable costs? How could you miss it: it was like chords on a piano keyboard. Even if you were tone deaf (or dense) you could see it for Heaven’s sake. The equations, the derivatives and integrals, the maximizing tricks–forget it. Or finally see what they meant. It was the best education in applied price theory I ever got. It’s why I don’t have too much patience with my historian colleagues who keep bitching about unrealistic models in economics. You think? Some are, but not all of them, man. Try learning something. Just because something is logical doesn’t mean it exists, true enough, but if something exists, there is probably a logical reason for its existence. Big difference.

I got to ride on the Wienermobile once too . Big deal. We tooled around South Philly to get gas while gawking locals gave us the finger and yelled obscenities. Like being at an Eagles’ Game. And, yes, I did meet the ORIGINAL Little Oscar. He was still around then, although a bit worse for wear. He had been a munchkin in the Wizard of Oz. He was, I’m afraid, something of a pain in the ass. I mean, I guess he had his reasons, but you learned never to ask him if his weiner was in gear. He could swear like a longshoreman, and he hit too. Never piss off a dwarf dressed like a chef. I learned that too in my summer gig at OM. And a lot more.