Frank Sinatra, Yock, and the Corner

At first I didn’t think I’d have to spend much time in explaining Frank Sinatra. I have, however, thought the better of it. I write for a jazz site with some frequency, and a copy editor told me I had to identify “Bird” (i.e., Charlie Parker, the alto saxophonist, sort of synonymous with the invention of bop music.) Well, for what it’s worth, I here post photos of Bird and Frank. A discussion of Frank follows. There will be a quiz. Bird is on the left.

One of these days, we should talk about Bird. But not today. Today we need to talk about Frank. And he was simply known in my youth as “Frank.” Especially in the Italo-American community. You didn’t call Franklin Roosevelt “Frank.” He was FDR. You didn’t call Philly nightclub owner Frank Palumbo “Frank” (at least civilians didn’t). You called him Mr Palumbo. Maybe Frank called Mr Palumbo “Frank”, or vice versa. They had a lot in common, including The Outfit (ok, The Mafia) and they were friends. They dined together. God only knows what else they did together. You shouldn’t ask. Anyway. You don’t need a photo of FDR, right?

Frank Palumbo and Frank Sinatra. Mangiano la pasta insieme.

From the very beginning of his career with the big bands–and that would have been with Harry James–Sinatra had a special cachet, but nowhere was that truer than in the Italian- American community. I knew that as a kid growing up in West and South Philly, and it wasn’t like anyone had to really tell me. When Frank sang “I’ll Never Smile Again” with Tommy Dorsey and the Pied Pipers, Jo Stafford could sing, true enough, but Frank was the only one who really mattered. It’s too bad this clip from 1941 is ruined by some idiotic dialog, but at the beginning and the end, there you have him: Frank the Hoboken Hearthrob. I can’t go through his ups and downs, many women, all that Godfather kind of crap (See Johnny Fontaine in the movie, who is, face it, Frank). At one point, at the end of the big band era, Frank was written off for dead. But he came roaring back. As comedian Joe Piscopo used to put it: “WWII. Japs.” Maggio in From Here to Eternity (1953), “tough monkey,” as his fellow paisan and jailer, the sadistic Ernest Borgnine called him.

It’s hard to find many good things to say about a war that killed 43 million people, but for Italian-Americans (previously, known as greaseballs, wops and dagos), WWII was one of those ironic turning points in American history. You see, it’s not as if we were, ahhh, not to put too fine a point on it, genuine White Americans before the War. And that’s not just my hypersensitive opinion. I survived grad school at Princeton and a job interview at Wesleyan, sigh. Believe me, It was the 1980s and I was still under no illusions about what some people thought of Italian Catholics.

Now I’m gonna go easy on this stuff because it will offend some people. Not that I care, but educating ignorant Americans is not my primary purpose in writing this, and if I start ranting about “white privilege” and Italian-Americans, it’s going to sound like special pleading. And it is. I like to say we got ours at Normandy, but that still rubs a lot of folks the wrong way, so we’ll let it go. But I do give you a bit of evidence. No, not Sacco and Vanzetti. It’s been done to death, no pun intended, and one of them was probably guilty anyway. But check this out.

The page below comes from a payroll book from 1906 for mostly common labor–the kind my immigrant ancestors did. Notice that with the suspicious sounding name of a foreman, Ponzello, the rest of the names are WASP, maybe a few Irish. The common labor are labelled “Italian” or “Colored.” Now, a charitable explanation is that no one bothered with the surnames of any common laborer,, so the implied equivalence doesn’t mean much. The uncharitable explanation is that “Italian”=”Colored.” Since they lynched Sicilians in New Orleans, I lean to the latter explanation. Bluntly, Italians weren’t white in 1906, just like some of my Latin students would yell “I’m white” when some university baptized them “Hispanic.” But I digress.

The deal is, WWII was a mixed blessing for Italian-Americans. Yeah, quite a few got killed. But others came home, well, if not heros, then at least, grudgingly in some cases, “white.” And guess who hit a home run, Norman Mailer or PT 109 notwithstanding. You guessed it. Frank. People will tell you Frank was in the throes of a career meltdown in the late 1940s, and maybe even finished with throat problems. Aaaah, but you saw the Godfather, right? Johnny Fontaine the singer and the story of the headless thoroughbred? “Your signature or your brains on the contract.” “That’s my family Kay, not me.” Right. Well, first Frank became a spokesman for American egalitarianism in a 1945 short that was ostensibly about antisemitism. Dis is America, pal. We don’t discriminate. Right. Dat is de American Way. Michael Corleone went off to be a war hero, much over his family’s objections. The rest is leave the cannoli, take the role in “Here to Eternity.”

Tough Monkey Defending Sis’ Honor Again Fatso Borgnine (who in real life was an Itai too)

And World War II may have been tough on Italians and Italian-Americans, but in the 1950s, Frank made a series of blockbuster movies, two of which were explicitly designed to show (well, one at least) how Frank (who never went into the service because he was 4F) and the rest of us brought honor to our people. “From Here to Eternity” was really the one, with Frank as Maggio, who defends his sister’s virtue (natch) and ends up getting killed for his troubles. There was another, lesser known film, “Kings Go Forth,”(1958) in which Frank plays a lieutenant to Tony Curtis’ bigoted playboy-phony sergeant who thinks jilting Natalie Wood, a mulatto, but raised as white in France, is a racial kick (this is oversimplified, I know). Wood had been Frank’s hearthrob, stolen by Curtis, who plays trumpet like Pete Candoli, literally. Frank is triple pissed at the racism and everything else. Curtis gets killed in the end. Frank loses an arm and Wood, but there is still honor. You might also check out “Man With a Golden Arm,”(1956) in which Frank plays a drug addict drummer by the name of Frankie Machine (sounds kind of Italian, no?). The music is great, by the way, and I think Sinatra won an Academy or one of those gongs. Frank does vulnerable very well here, and if that doesn’t grab you, there’s always Kim Novak as eye candy. It’s not as if she could act.

Frank preaches tolerance
Soldier Boy tells WASP Chick the Facts of Hood Life

By 1958, Frank had his own weekly television series, and if you think he was getting big again, you ain’t seen nothing. By the time I was at Devon Prep, Frank had been transmogrified into the Real Mr Las Vegas, friend to Jack Kennedy, sundry mobsters, oh my God, even “Strangers in the Night.” He had run through any number of Hollywood dolls and was getting read to create Ronan Farrow, but that came much later. You want to keep Frank in 1958, Hero to ordinary Italian-Americans, cause, finally, that’s where this story finally gets rolling.

Faithful readers know I split my young youth between West and South Philly, so we will skip over that (you can check: I’m in no mood to provide links today). Yeah, I grew up in part at 66th and Haverford, Bill Barrett was my Congressman (1945-1947, 1949-76) (i.e., forever), Ragni’s was the corner market (until maybe 1958) (pronounced rag-knee, youse guys), and Yock was the neighborhood purveyor of deli and pinball. Yock? What the Hell kind of name is that? Well, it’s a name that fit the neighborhood; the facing corner is shown below. This was 1949, and I couldn’t swear that Yock was on the adjacent corner yet cause I was born in 1951. But if you think it don’t exactly look like Pound Ridge or something, well, privilege is where you find it. Besides, on the SW corner there was a butcher shop called Danny’s Meats. Leading up to Easter, Danny had a pen full of live sheep for your convenience. Ho boy. A crash course in Christian symbolism if there ever was one. I never was too crazy about lamb as a result. Think about it.

In any event, Yock was a full service deli. There was a counter and a grill. An ice cream freezer that usually had a supply of Breyer’s ice cream and what we called Dixie cups. There was also a cooler with glass bottles of Coca Cola (yeah, glass) and some chocolate concoction called YooHoo. Plus a selection of Franks’ sodas. No, not that Frank, but a Philly institution nonetheless. “Is It Franks? Thanks.” Yeah. We were big on Frank. Check it (her) out.

Philly Soda. Girl not included.

Especially in 1958. Yock also had pinball on which illegal wagers were placed, especially by a guy named Johnny, who used the glass surface as a cigarette holder too. Oh, yeah. There were cigarettes for sale. 35 cents a pack. No. I didn’t smoke at seven, but my Dad did, and he thought nothing of sending me out to the corner to buy cigs. Imagine that. Not very Montessori, was he?

You could say that Yock’s was kind of the neighborhood hang out, for want of a better term. Yock was this Italian American, almost a stereotype. Slicked-back black hair. Probably mid-30s. A wolfish face on the dark complected side. Lousy teeth. Skinny, medium stature. Horn-rimmed glasses. Usually in some greasy polo shirt or Ban-Lon wannabee. Definitely not a cool guy, even by the modest standards of 66th Street. His given name was Albert Proetto. Hey. If you were named Albert Proetto, would you want to be called Albert Proetto? Yock is an improvement, capisci?

But Yock had something. Aside from the deli. Yock was an entrepreneur. Hell, he probably didn’t graduate from high school, but in those days, you didn’t go to some fancy-ass college to get a degree in “Entrepreneurship, Vision, and Accountancy” (whatever that is). You wanted to start a business, you started a business. It came naturally to us Italians, as you may have noticed. Nothing was personal. Everything was business. Didn’t need no Joe College type degree. Besides, we had lotsa models, you know. Everybody knew someone who was in a business. Numbers. Cigarette smuggling. Five-finger discount. You didn’t have to be a murderer. Just…..connected.

Anyway, Yock was an entrepreneur. And he was in a neighborhood in which the general level of education was, admittedly, not terribly high (high school, if you were lucky. The Army, if you were not.) People believed in stuff. You know, rumors. Gossip. Italian voodoo. Like giving someone the horns–cornuto–which could mean anything from “sod off” to “your wife is making the 82d Airborne happy”. You didn’t do it lightly, huh? There were folk remedies, some of which actually worked pretty well. There were bleeding Madonnas (not at St Donato’s (Hail to the Blue and Gold) but hey, she couldn’t be pulling Fatima stunts everywhere). Man, there was a lot of gossip, although not so much in my immediate family. There was a lot of folklore about, you guessed it, sex and conception. I’ll save that for another time. And about, well, I’ll stop. I never heard most of it anyway…….

So, Yock, being resourceful, must’ve been casting about for a way he could drum up business without breaking too many laws (we had Skippy for that). And, whaddya know? In 1958, when Frank was really in the ascendant, Yock met Frank. And was gonna bring him to West Philly. To 66th and Haverford. To…….Yock’s!!!!

I know what you’re thinking. Right? Why the Hell would Frank Sinatra visit Yock’s? Hell, aside from Frank Palumbo’s, why would he even come to Philadelphia, let alone my neck of the woods? He grew up in Hoboken, the son of an abortionist-midwife. It’s not like he needed more of it. Well, truth be told, there was no reason on Earth for Frank to come to Yock’s on a Friday night in September 1958. But Yock said he was coming. Ho boy, did he ever say Frank was coming. Yock took out a radio spot on one of the South Jersey AM stations, probably some low wattage operation, telling everyone within the sound of his voice that Frank was coming to Yock’s. On Friday night. September 26, 1958. Hell, it was in all the papers. At least the one that Yock had posted in window. You know,, “Frank Sinatra to Appear at Yock’s Friday Night.” I saw it with my own eyes. Hell, I was THERE!.

In those days, if you went down to the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, you could get a fake newspaper front page made, above the fold in bold letters, if you wanted. I always wanted one that said that I was joining a big band, but my Dad took a dim view of it. Yock, on the other hand, had more expansive horizons. He actually had the damn thing printed up and posted on various windows in the neighborhood. Especially his. And so the fun began.

I can’t swear I remember much discussion of the putative visit of Ole’ Blue Eyes in the week preceding the appointed evening, but there must have been some. What I can tell you is that a sizeable crowd had gathered at 66th and Haverford, basically milling around. I don’t remember the traffic jam, there apparently was one on both 66th Street and Haverford Avenue, and that the Philly cops were none too pleased. Was my Dad with me–I don’t remember, although in those days no one would have thought too long about letting a seven-year old hang on a crowded corner at 7 or 8 o’clock at night. Any event, what I do remember was the natives getting restless, as in “Where’s Frank?” Finally, some idiot wearing sunglasses, a Frank fedora, and a white raincoat showed up. Was it? There was a momentary flutter. The flutter turned into an angry grumble when everyone realized that this was not Frank. I’m surprised, honestly, that someone didn’t try to clock the guy and there was some pushing and shoving. But pseudo-Frank disappeared into Yock’s, or the night, or somewhere. I guess I went home. If I was disappointed, I don’t remember.

There was a write up in the Philly newspapers the next day. When someone pressed Yock about Sinatra not showing, his sage reply was “I never said which Frank Sinatra was coming.” Cute. You could tell that Yock was a nobody because he didn’t get hurt, or busted, or even particularly hassled. At least Skippy the Bookie would get his picture in the paper. Or his wife did.

So, yeah, what did it prove? Well, a bunch of working class Italian-Americans would fall for a transparent hoax. Really? Think of what else they fell for. The biggest hoax of all: The American Dream. They fell for Vietnam, remember, and they bought that in a big way. I talked to a kid at the local beer distributor on Haverford Avenue about five doors down from Yock’s once. He was on leave from the Au Shau Valley in Vietnam around 1970. He was in uniform and proud of it. A marine. I often wonder if he made it home alive. We fell for all that Land of the Free and Home of the Brave stuff. Hell, the Frank myth was a good myth. In 1958, the children of immigrant families were heavy into good myths. You too could be a WASP. Get a place in Delmar Village or some tacky suburb. Start today! Easy payments. Frank was part of the myth we all shared. And, sorry, we made America too. People like.Joe Villari and Stan the Man And then came Viet Nam. Some of the innocence started to wear off. By the time Ronnie Ray-Guns came along, a lot of my paysans were only too ready to listen to his bullshit. They were now “white” and aspiring gentry too.

The joke was on us. Yock was smarter than he looked. Ahead of his time even. He knew we were gullible. So did Uncle Sam. So did Frank. We were the idiots, and he provided the background music for our let’s-pretend “classless” society. As he crooned, sort of, “We’ll get along.” Yup. Frank never showed. Only in the movies. That was real life. And in the end, even Frank got screwed.

Holy ! Week !

Holy Week. It does it every time.

I realize that if you are not a Roman Catholic of a certain age (partially pre-Vatican II), you are liable to find a lot of what follows of little interest. I certainly don’t want to reduce my legion of loyal followers (maybe two dozen at last count) any further, but, like Miles Davis said about his changing styles in jazz, writing these things is like a curse. Somehow, I have to do it. But you don’t have to read it. So, go in peace if you must.

On the other hand, I want to give it to you straight. Once upon a time, I was a real Roman Catholic. And that entailed real sins, real repentance, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, real Latin, and real ritual. For some of you, this is some atavistic superstitious itch that needs to be scratched. Maybe it is. But it–writing about Holy Week in the old days–is something I got to do. Because, in part, I need to get this off my conscience and off my chest. In part because childhood memory, rituals of the sacred, and the dogmas and doctrines–even the sacramentals or material accoutrements of the faith–are powerful, even talismanic things. Today is Palm Sunday, and even though I watched the Dominican service streamed from Oxford (yeah, I am a Mass snob too), I got no palm frond to wave, no braided cross to take to the cemetery, no feeling that I have somehow tried to make my peace with two thousand or so years of co-conspirators, aka, the Church Militant, Penitent, and Triumphant. If you know what I’m talking about, you’re in select company. And if not, you could spend a few minutes doing something much worse.

Ok, not too many confessions, because you’re not bound by the seal of confession (you can blab), and honestly, my current sins are awfully boring, truth be told. But I will make one confession. Last Friday, I did the Stations of the Cross. And I mean the old version, the one that goes back to Alphonse Liguori. Really? You mean they still exist outside of some benighted clack of fanatics? No, silly. On line. It isn’t just for pornography and cat videos, or AI, whatever the Hell that is. I can get a reasonable facsimile of the One, True Church online. You know the nulla salus extra ecclesiam version? Yup. You pagans didn’t know that did you? (I had to check the gender of salus, I fear). Well, you can.

The Stations, of course, are a Lenten devotion, and not confined to Holy Week. “Stations” literally recapitulates the words of the accompanying hymn, Stabat Mater (from the Latin sto, stare, status sum: to stand and await), as in “At the Cross Her Station keeping, Stood the Mournful Mother weeping.” The devotion is a commemoration of the via crucis, or what I think of as the great existential story of Christianity: choose the right path and get nailed to a cross for your trouble. My reasons for the practice are entirely personal, but my memories of the days in which I was an altar boy (sorry, no girls allowed then) are of a piece with the rest of my life: vaguely nutty and faintly amusing. If I recall, it took three altar boys and a priest to do the Stations: two dudes holding candles, one guy hauling a Cross on a pole, and the Celebrant, who read the text of the 14 (yes, fourteen) stations and then exposed the Blessed Sacrament in Benediction afterward. Meanwhile, the parish kids howled an out of tune version of Stabat, led by an energetic nun and a technique-challenged organist. You had to be there, especially on a Friday afternoon when the inmates were all ready to make a break for it. Talk about Eternity.

The guy I remembered drawing at Prisontation was a dour type named Fr. Cassady. He was also in charge of the altar boys and didn’t fool around. He spoke with this kind of throaty drawl when he was bawling us out, which was frequent, and usually resulted in written assignments he called “lines.” Lines as in lines on a lined page of loose leaf. Man, one day, he snapped out on this eighth grader named Jimmy Ward for some reason, and it went like this:

Ward, 100 lines…….But Father!

Ward, 500 lines…….But Father!

Ward, 1000 lines…. I didn’t do anything!

Ward, 5000 lines…. Ward incoherently proclaiming his innocence

Ward left the corps d’altar boys soon after. I have no idea what he did.

Cassady did a mean benediction. He insisted on Latin from beginning to end and growled at us when we screwed up. He also really dug incense, and made the acolyte prepare him a double in the censer. Pretty soon, the altar would look like the aftermath of a four-alarm fire, and one guy, who had asthma, practically had to be rushed to Lankenau Hospital for respiratory therapy. And woe betide the kid (me) who cracked up as we processed around the nave of the church, usually because some other kid, buried deeply in a pew, was making obscene gestures. Or because some girl was grinning at me. I mean, sacred purposes notwithstanding, Stations always turned into some kind of train wreck, as did all our efforts at pageantry.

But things didn’t really get rolling until the Triduum, the old-fashioned name for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Saturday. Good Friday was the real killer. I remembering it going on for well over two and a half hours, or just long enough to get Jesus crucified and dead. Palm Sunday was nothing by comparison, and unless you were unlucky enough to draw foot washing duty on Holy Thursday (gross, I never did), Thursday was ok. But Friday, dude, we let it all hang out. And back in those days, everyone joined in the fun.

One year, it was, you should pardon the expression, hotter than Hell on Good Friday, probably early to mid 1960s. So, we had to do that stuff in cassocks and surplices, and possibly, if it was toward 1965, dolled up in little monsignor outfits with a zucchetto on our heads (cute, right). And, of course, this stuff was choreographed all around the altar, with censers, and wooden knockers instead of bells (one of the other idiot altar boys brought the thing down on his finger and yelled a most inappropriate oath at a moment of great solemnity) and covers over the statues that we could gawk at. And then the litanies, Ora Pro Nobis, which went on for half an hour and nailed every saint in Heaven. We also prayed for the perfidious Jews, which a couple of my public-school friends learned of and spilled to their parents. Sheesh, you’d a thought we were the antisemites rather than Rome. And we did a lot of Three Stooges collisions, none of which entertained Fr Cassady, who was ready to throttle a few of us. It didn’t help that one of the younger priests thought we were entertaining and kept looking away laughing. I think he left the priesthood for a blonde. So, we didn’t know what to do. And do I recall correctly, or did we read The Passion on Good Friday, with multiple actors? Man, that went into extra innings too. It didn’t help that I burst into laughter when Cassady began to chant Ecce Lignum Crucis, Pependit. He sounded like a goat in heat.

In the debriefing we usually got (i.e., the chewing out), Cassady informed me “Salvucci, you were chosen for this assignment for your ability to organize and retain information. Not be a clown.” Ouch. Yes, Father. Did I think I would ever be chosen again. No, Father. It sort of helped that I was on the verge of graduating anyway, not that I reminded the Old Tyrant of that. We still had to do the Easter Vigil, and that was an even bigger deal, with Paschal Candles, priests blowing on the baptismal water (clean it up, ok?), and lots of flowers around so that the place smelled like the Gangemi Funerals on South Broad when they were running a full house with maybe a made dude or two requiring extra flowers, like extra onions on a cheese steak. You know, special.

Predictably, there was another disaster. I have always had allergies and sinus problems. While I deeply love flowers (some of you endure my FB posts), they don’t deeply love me back. Standing up on an altar surrounded by lots of white flowers made my nose itchy, and there were a few sneezing fits that night. So, while Fr Doherty was inexpertly carving the Paschal Candle with an only passable Alpha and Omega and infusing the baptismal waters with the Holy Spirit–his–I was either sneezing or stifling a yawn because it was after Midnight. And we did it right back then, usually not wrapping up until 1AM or so. I didn’t have much to do, thank God, and it wasn’t like it occurred to me to actually try prayer. Who went to Mass to pray, after all? I do remember coming home one year and having a sandwich, which adolescent metabolism permitted. I didn’t fall down the altar steps like one kid did, but my ecclesiastical career was clearly going nowhere.

It’s funny, after all these years, memory traces can still summon up the Hound of Heaven thing. So, all that stuff, including the keeping silent from 12 to 3 on Good Friday that we did in the 1950s before any of this stuff happened, had some lasting effect. The more loused up the secular world seems, the more I’m willing to contemplate retreating to a spiritual one. Some cynic can say that approaching mortality has that effect on people, and looking for certainty has always motivated a religious impulse. It did with Cardinal Newman, so I’m damned if I’ll make an apology for it. Besides, I asked a priest to do Dies Irae at my Mom’s funeral, and he said he couldn’t. Somebody has to remember “I am A Catholic. In case of Accident, Call A Priest.” Today, you’d have to find one first.

Good luck with that.

Over Manoa Road

His name was Ernie Pellegrino. He was always dressed in white. If he had a sense of humor, you could’ve fooled me. He presided over “Ernie’s,” the barber shop at Manoa Road Shopping Center. He was a glowering presence, the yin to the yang and sunny disposition of the guy who owned the hardware store at Manoa and Rock Glen, Tommy Freed. Together they were joined by Roy J Eby, an appliance dealer who used to advertise on Gunnar Back’s newscast on WFIL-TV (Channel 6), a sort of nondescript guy whose mildness belied any of the bragging rights that fame had bestowed on him. And there was Mertz’s, a Mom and Pop market of the kind that dotted America in the 1950s, different in kind only by its Presbyterian ownership from Ragni’s, at 66th and Haverford, a similar emporium. There was a sort of deli, a dive deli in truth, owned by a guy universally called Rino (that’s Ree-no), not Republican-in-name-only, who made great lunch hoagies and stuff. There were ultimately not one, but two drug stores (no no, that’s not what it meant in 1965), the Penn Wynne Pharmacy and the Havaline pharmacy. (More on this anon). Then there was some kind of business called a Manufacturer’s Representative. None of us knew what the Hell that was. And a little further down, a realtor, d/b/a Vogel and Mullholand when we hit Penn Wynne. It did change names and owners later when the father of a classmate of Prisontation must have bought the guys out, at which point it became Bernard Drueding, realtors. and Notary Public. Didn’t know what the Hell that was either. For the better part of a decade, the 1960s, that was where I hung my hat in the mean streets of Penn Wynne. And like the gay lawyer portrayed by Tom Hanks in “Philadelphia,” said, those streets in Lower Merion were mean.

Ho boy. Where to begin? Actually, I should start with the Volunteer Fire Company that was adjacent to it, about which I have previously held forth. That was a piece of what we generically called “Manoa Road.” Now, Manoa Road actually ran quite a ways, out to West Chest Pike or State Route 3 in… got it….Manoa. Why in God’s name some farmer named his place Manoa in the 1800s is beyond me, unless he had just come back from Hawaii. In any event, Manoa Road was a surface road of considerable extension traversing both Montgomery and Delaware counties. But to the kids in Penn Wynne, none of that really mattered. Manoa Road was only a block long, functionally. And really, apart from Tommy Freed’s hardware, Rino, and the two pharmacies (and Mertz’s, as long as it was there), nobody cared. Mertz’s had a sad history, when Mr Mertz, who looked like a Mr Mertz, committed suicide. He was never very talkative; his wife did most of the human interaction. But they were nice. Mr Mertz was the first suicide I ever met. It took a long time for the ownership of that spot to stabilize.

I think Infinity Hair Designs was Ernie Barbershop 50 years ago. Reincarnation of a Sort.

Right afterward, somebody had the bright idea to put in something called Parke-Mills General Store. I couldn’t tell you what they sold, bubble gum aside, because no one ever went there. So they didn’t last. Not, however, before providing suitably adolescent entertainment to a bunch of young males (I only observed). One of the hormonally crazed Prisontation kids got put up to a prank, which was to go in and ask the young lady behind the counter, some teeny bopper, if they sold Trojans. Ok. As most of my readers know, a Trojan was synonymous with a prophylactic–the brand persists in these less reticent times, from what I can see. They are on plain view in Target or in Walmart. Very naughty in those days, and never discussed in polite company. Like we were polite? In any event, the young lady was clueless (or pretended to be) and went back in the store to ask the owner if they sold Trojans? Fun ensued.

Next thing you know, some swarthy Mediterranean type comes running out to the front of the store screaming at, let’s call him Jimmy, “What the Hell kind of store you think I got here, miserable kid? Get outta here before I call the cops.” These words were all suitably accented, and as the hirsute one gave chase to Jimmy, we dissolved in laughter on the pavement (payment, in Philly-speak) in front of the store. Well, it was funny to a bunch of 12 and 13 year old boys. Parke Mills closed soon thereafter. Ironically, in the late 1960s, I think a bridal boutique moved in(!), and today (I won’t swear) there is a personal trainer kind of deal there. Oh well. Sic transit gloria……

Now the beating heart of Manoa Road was divided into Tommy Freed’s (not visible) and the Penn Wynne Pharmacy (today some kind of fitness outfit in the photo). The Havaline Pharmacy came later, and was never as much fun because there was no…..SODA FOUNTAIN. Boring, they only filled prescriptions and sold the occasional girlie magazine that whoever was employed as the delivery boy got to thumb through as a fringe benefit. The pharmacists were nice guys, and basically said they weren’t in competition with Penn Wynne because each shop had its own customers. I believe it. We got our prescriptions from Havaline (and I later, cigarettes). But to hang, there was the Penn Wynne Pharmacy.

With a soda fountain, fountain drinks (especially a mean cherry coke), and a sweet guy who was the soda jerk, a Black guy named Randy. Everyone called him Randy. He was so well known that there was a newspaper article written about him when he retired, probably in the Main Line Times. His name was Randolph Lord, but the newspaper called him “Jones.” I guess because every Black dude then was named Jones. I’m surprised they didn’t call him Tyrone.

Ok, I gotta try to explain the racial dynamics of a nearly urban suburb in Philly in the 1960s in what was not an integrated suburb (until, maybe 1970). You gotta bear with me. This is race as it was constructed for me, at least in Penn Wynne. In Haddington or South Philly, it was very different. And if you don’t understand that, well, you might as well just skip this part. And if you are gonna start with “But he was unthreatening and subservient.” I might as well ask if you really expected Eldridge Cleaver behind the counter at Penn Wynne Pharmacy? Dude. On the couple of occasions that I got the chance to talk to Randy in more than “The Phillies blew another one” I got a glimpse of how Randy operated. He knew the White world didn’t really want him, but there wasn’t much he could do about it. So he handled himself with dignity. Frankly, if anyone (and we didn’t use the term “disrespect” then) disrespected him, they would have gotten hurt. It didn’t happen. In or out of earshot, unless you were dealing with a cynic from out of town. God knows, Penn Wynne was not one big happy family, as I have repeatedly said, and I’m sure it was racist as Hell. But Randy got a pass, thank God.

The other thing about the pharmacy was its lending library and supply of Sunday New York Times. Look, I didn’t even know what the Hell the NYT was then, and I often wondered what this monstrous stack of papers on Sunday–with people’s names on them, cause they were mostly reserved (no, the Salvuccis were not subscribers) was. When we went into the Dominican Republic in 1965, I read about it in the Inquirer which was sort of a newspaper then (not exactly the polar opposite of what it is now, but reliably Walter Annenberg Republican (such no longer exist). I didn’t really get into the Times until college and the Pentagon Papers. So I got my South/West Philly horizons suitably broadened in the pharmacy. Not to mention, the “library,” which was a carousel of paperback book on offer, such classics as The Harrad Experiment or The Carpetbaggers. The pharmacist on duty would always yell at the guys thumbing through the paperbacks, and The Carpetbaggers took such a beating that I think they had to replace it. Always seemed as if the thing fell open around page 200 or so; you didn’t have to work too hard. But, when we had a career day at Prisontation, the guy we nicknamed Hornet told the good sister that when he grew up he wanted to be Jonas Cord (you will have to look at the novel). Naturally, the usual suspects fell out laughing as Hornet tried to explain what this meant. The nun was not amused. They never were.

The other beehive of activity was Ernie Pellegrino’s barber shop. This was seriously old school, with maybe 6 barbers (pre-1965), all decked out in white outfits. Ernie, who was a horse-lover, had a salon whose primary reading material was the Racing Form as well as the usual “men’s magazines” that the kids were strictly forbidden to touch, on pain of getting growled at by Ernie, who was quite good at it. I thought Ernie hated everyone. I never saw him smile or laugh. When hair styling for men became a thing, he apparently forbade his barbers–with names like Don and Sol–from even thinking about updating their equipment (to razors), let alone their repertoire. So everyone came of the place looking like some character from a bad 1950s noir film. Ernie had a certain kind of clientele, and as age took its toll, changing fashion did the rest. I guess Ernie died or retired, not that anyone cared. The Scowling Barber of Penn Wynne. You thought your usual operator of a tonsorial parlor was personable and had the gift of gab–for business sake. Not this guy. As soon as my folks could no longer compel me to patronize the SOB, I defected to Lou English’s Style Lounge down in Overbrook Park. The staff there was permitted the use of a razor, and charged accordingly. That was like a rite of passage. One of the younger barbers tried to take Ernie’s place over and make a run with it, but I guess it failed, and by that point, I no longer got haircuts. The 1970s were rough on Italian barber dudes. I did, however, succeed in getting an autograph from an NBA player at Ernie’s. It was Dolph Schayes, who ambled in soon after the Syracuse Nats moved to Philly to replace the Warriors. Schayes didn’t care, but Ernie nearly threw me out of the place for even asking, and glowered at me every time I came in thereafter. I was glad to shake the hair clippings off my feet when I moved on. He was, as the Sicilians say, a tidadoof.

Nothing cool ever happened at Rino’s. It smelled of onions, garlic and Rino’s aversion to showers. One thing, though. On occasion, the lay teachers at Prisontation would send a pair of eighth grade boys down to Manoa Road to buy them lunch at Rino’s. You know, that was some kind of honor, like being Chief altar boy or Head of the Safety Patrol. There were 3 or 4 of them (i.e., lay teachers), and they laid some bread on you with an order. You got to escape well before lunch and take the air and “chat” with Rino. But the payoff was bringing the stuff back to school. Then you got to enter the teacher’s lunchroom and that was a trip. Wall to wall cigarette smoke, since I guess that’s how they fueled up for the afternoon with the inmates. It was sort of cool, seeing one of the younger teachers with a cigarette dangling from her lips, shameless hussy, thereby encouraging some of us in our later experiments with tobacco delinquency. It was a 30 second glimpse into the flesh-and-blood life a school teacher: too bad the example didn’t take with some of us. What a gig that must have been.

I’ve left the hardware store for last, known as Tommy’s, or Tommy Freed’s, in honor of the proprietor, who was a good guy. He never complained about having kids in the store, which was just what you would imagine, an old-fashioned a little of everything place presided over by Mr Freed and an employee. For a while, it was my cousin Tony, who lived over there on Rock Glen Road. No, I got no discount. He was a Salvucci, and we barely made eye contact. The Salvucci were not the toasty warm part of the extended kin group. Anyway, Tommy was from New York, a graduate of DeWitt Clinton High (God, he was probably a classmate of my teacher, Stanley Stein’s), and obviously a lot brighter than the average citizen of Penn Wynne. God knows how he ended up there, but I never saw him angry. Tommy was the soul of geniality, and he did a nice business. I guess being the corner store didn’t hurt, and Tommy’s was like Alice’s Restaurant, you know. You could get most anything you wanted there–‘cepting Tommy, in whom I had no interest anyway.

Tommy was Head of the Civic Association for a bit, and some kind of Republican row office holder too, so he took the civic duty stuff seriously. In a way, he was what was good about Penn Wynne. Cordial, enlightened, responsible, patient, a good employer, decent. Whenever I get back, I go past that storefront and still expect it to be Freed’s Hardware. I wish it were. I still remember the hardware store smell.

No great lessons to be drawn here, other than the two people I mostly admired from our little commercial district were a Black Man and a Jew. You’ll forgive me if I find considerable irony in that. The Pellegrino, I could have done without. There is a synagogue now across from the old shopping center, where the old rectory of Presentation BVM Church and School more or less stood. I’ll let you think about that until next time.

But What About Ordinary People? The Super Bowl Ain’t For You, Friend (or For Me. For That Matter)

I guess it was last year the Philadelphia Inquirer, which I regard as hopelessly “woke” (sorry), ran an idiotic story about the price of Super Bowl tickets. The gist, of course, was that you had to be pretty damn affluent to afford the thrill. No kidding. This is America. Money talks. If you haven’t noticed, you’re asleep and need to be awakened. Or woke. Whatever. Nobody is entitled to attend the Super Bowl, ya know. It ain’t health care.

I was getting ready to do the research and create a Super Bowl ticket price index, and a later version may incorporate it. But for now, my research skills (I charge plenty) turned this little gem up.

Yeah, click on the link, as they say, or copy and paste it into your favor browser-thingie. Anyway. I caution you about a few technicalities. I got no idea about how the inflation-adjusted prices were calculated, other than assuming the base year must have been around 2021. And then there are lots of other index-number problems, but this is close enough for a blog. If you don’t like it, go and do likewise.

Let’s take a first cut at this. If you wanted to use nothing more than the consumer price index, well, $1 in 1967 would be about $8 in 2021 (you wanna play around with this stuff in a more sophisticated way–why would you do that when some professional historians don’t?–go to (same deal, copy and paste). Now, technically, you gotta be comparing the same good, and oh my God, right there you have a problem. In 1967, Super Bowl I (I watched the game on TV in black and white, and, yes, it was “Sper Bowl” even then), I don’t remember any half-time extravaganza. The game itself is very different, so, I guess you can say you’d need a different sort of index (called a hedonic price index) to really get an accurate feel for how much improvement you’re actually paying for in “the experience.”

But forget all that. Let’s keep this simple (think ENRON accounting, where they just made it up). Figure a “typical” ticket (don’t ask) in 1967 would cost you about $80 in 2021 dollars. Yup. The list on 2021 tickets (El Cheapo, to keep the Inquirer happy) was $7,200. Let that sink in. $7200/$80=90, right? So, the “relative price” (relative to the price level in 1967) of Super Bowl tickets, on a much, much, simplified, heroic assumption basis, has increased 90 times, or 9000 percent? (Am I doing this right? So many damn zeros). My Dad’s home cost about $10,000 in 1960. When I sold it after my Mom passed 8 years ago, it brought about $190,000, or 19 times what it had cost back in the Sixties. For God’s sake, First Class postage has gone up about 15 times since them days. So, class, yes or no? Has the relative price of an NFL Super Bowl ticket increased? You bet your sweet life it has. By a lot. Y’all want to hazard a guess why?

Let’s try supply and demand, just for a start. Nothing fancy. No graphs, unless you want one. Just words. But we’ll simplify. Think (Supply) Cost and (Demand) Benefit. OK. Now, I warn you, I’m not going to get into the weeds on this. Just a few observations. Because no matter how complicated the real world is, the econ carry these little heuristics in their heads, at least as a way of sorting the basics

Ok. Supply is cost. If the price of a ticket depends on the cost (this is arguable) of providing a professional football game, you want to think of what goes into cost. Again, let’s keep this simple. When you look at pro football, the largest item in a team’s cost is its payroll–players’ salaries. I know, stadium fees and all the rest, but believe me, I’m sure if we’re looking at the Eagles’ books (wouldn’t that be fun?), it would be players’ salaries that would comprise the bulk of operating cost. Being in Texas, I looked this up for the Cowboys, and it comes out to about 62 percent. I have no reason to think that isn’t typical of most NFL franchises, give or take a few percentage points, so we’re talking around two-thirds of the cost. Hey, that’s enough. If supply is cost, then players’ salaries are cost. So what has happened to players’ salaries since 1967. Guess? They’ve gone up. By how much? A lot.

This is complicated, and I’m not about to kid you. In the 1950s, the average player made (wait for it), less than $6,000 per year. Ok. Some guys made a lot more, but I can recall the days of players having off-season gigs. The patron saint of this blog, Chuck Bednarik, was nicknamed Concrete Charlie. Because he hit so hard he almost killed Frank Gifford in 1960, right? Wrong. No, he actually was a salesman for Warner Concrete in Philly for 18 years. And Warner was God’s concrete, you know, a selling point for houses built in the `1930s and 1940s. I don’t know what Chuck made, but when I was in high school, he was doing the Communion Breakfast circuit to bring in cash, and I doubt he was getting big money. These days, the average is about $2.7 million, and the minimum NFL compensation is in the neighborhood of 400,000. So the average has gone up 450 times!!! You read that right. Even if you used the minimum today, you be talking an increase by a factor of 60. 6000 percent. Why???? Grin, back to S and D.

In 1960, there were 13 clubs. Today there are 32. That’s about 2.5 times as many. Do you really think the elite college talent pool has expanded by that much? I mean, USC, Michigan, Alabama, etc? Of course not. So for one thing, there’s a lot more competition for pro-level players today, and that itself would pull up their salaries. But wait: there’s more! There wasn’t any Player’s Association in 1960. No Collective Bargaining Agreement. There had never been a strike. No Free Agency, albeit restricted. Dude. This is modern America. Teams no longer have property rights in their players (aka, slavery). The market rules!!! And see what it’s done? So whatever else you think, costs since the 1960s have soared in the NFL. What? Profits too. Well, that’s another blog post. There’s more, since a lot of these guys could play another pro sport too, but enough is enough. Oddly enough, all these increases in cost are considered a decrease in supply.

Now, demand. 100 million people gonna watch the Birds and KC, worldwide. In 1967, it was NBC and CBS (I guess one for the NFL and one for the AFL?). Super Bowl. Who knew? A lot more eyes. And, by the way, a lot more money around, especially at the top end of the scale, right? So higher incomes, more people want to see. That’s called an increase in demand. Here’s another way of visualizing the increase of interest in the Super Bowl: an N Gram of the phrase “Super Bowl.” Ok. Convinced? No? What do you want?

So you got a decrease in supply and an increase demand. Voila. The relative price of a Super Bowl ticket rises.

According to some data that I could dig up–and who knows how accurate–at one of the recent games, 55 percent of the attendees came from households with $60,000 per year and up, Up means who knows, and, honestly, that figure struck (for household income) struck me as too low. But even so, it would mean 45 percent came from households less than that? Really? While it’s true you don’t have to sit at the 50 yard line, stay at a luxury hotel, and hit the “Meet, Greet, and Eat” with Big NFL names of the past (like Jerry Rice) if you do, exclusive of transportation (your private jet?), you’re going to have to lay out $42,000. Yeah, you read that right. Of course, Super Bowl festivities began on the 7th of Feb, so this is not a one day thing, but that amount was about yearly median per capita income per US worker in the 2020 census. Somehow, I doubt that Billy and Bonnie Six Pack are living high this weekend out there in Arizona. Where the Hell would they get it?

Max out your their credit cards–if they’re not already there? Put a reverse on your home. Well, I can say I actually knew somebody who did that and then gambled with the proceeds (I knew the person, the story is hearsay), so working class people are capable of doing very crazy things. “Hey, Yo. It’s once in a friggin’ lifetime! Ya can’t take it with you. This the greatest Birds team ever.” Check. Persuasive “reasoning” like that did make Agent Orange our President for a few bright, shining, plague-ridden years. No one thinks (or I don’t, at least), that half of Americans have a clue as to what is going on around them. So why should the willingness to go into hock to watch a historic meeting (aren’t they all, according to the shills of the NFL) not come into play? This is trickle down at its finest.

So don’t complain about the ticket prices, like the Inquirer, further covering itself in the economics of social justice. After all, people need Super Bowl tickets, just like they need everything else. Problem is, in America, other than common sense, we can’t seem to find anything we need less of. But I sound like some economist. Yes, 100 million will watch the Super Bowl. Our food banks might not be doing too well, but hey, BP and Exxon and cleaning up, and I bet some of their CFOs will be at the game. Isn’t that all that really matters. That our role models are millionaire jocks and crooked executives, plus some lamebrain from Georgia who shouts at Brandon at the SOTU soiree?

Color me disgusted?

Go Iggles. I’ll be watching from my Texas. Home of the Dallas Cowboys. Grin……..

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.

Early 1970s. Close enough

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” (, 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… 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.