As The World Turns

When I was a very young kid, there was a soap opera. Soap opera means a show sponsored by some personal hygiene product. Shampoo. Soap. Underarm deodorant. I have very vivid memories of sitting on the floor of my grandparents’ home in West Philly and listening to the soaps on radio. Like, “As The World Turns.” Me, linoleum, and some incomprehensible story of love gone wrong on the radio. Hurricane Hazel was winding up, the sky was green, and some organ was piping minor chords to get us in the mood for some betrayal or other. Only later did it move to tv. But by then I was old enough to have some vague idea of betrayal, dum, dam, dum, as the world turns. With a globe spinning in the void.

It was a secure world, with all the normal worries of a sheltered childhood. Yeah, I had a crush on the girl next door and the kid down the street was a barbarian. Welcome to West Philly. You took the good with the bad: the Mummers, John Facenda, and the PTC. With the feral kid who made your life miserable for wanting to read a book. That was 66th Street. That was the 1950s. You walked to the movies; you walked to Catholic school; you hung out with the vo-tech kids, and you looked at the Edsel down the block. That was life. And, frankly, it was ok.

Family was very much a part of everything, in my case, three generations worth. We lived in a big old stone fortress in Haddington. It had a porch, a dining room, a breakfast room, a kitchen, four bedrooms, a bathroom, and a split basement that was part finished, and part washing room. There was a clothes chute that dropped two floors, so you could drop dirty clothes from the bathroom or the dining room (table cloths and such) directly into the washing room. You could also take a shot at dropping yourself. I was tempted, but timid. There was also an old coal bin, but it was a curiosity by the 1950s. We had something called hot water heat, whatever that was. The basement was occasionally used for soaking “fish stalk,” which I think was dried cod. It stank to high Heaven, but Grandpop liked it.

We always ate in the kitchen, with Grandpop presiding. We never used the breakfast room, and only on special occasions was the dining room summoned into service. There was a big old 1930s radio there that I was I had now, complete with multiple dials, bands, colored wheels, and all kinds of cool stuff for a kid. I messed with it, but could never get it to work. Besides, everything happened in the kitchen, where there was a little radio and a real fridge–not an icebox–and a cool linoleum floor that you could skate on by making wax paper covers for you shoes. I do remember several cracks ups involving the covered radiator on the rear wall–you could start, but stopping was tougher. My maternal grandparents tolerated all of this with good humor. And, really, for most of the time, they raised me. My parents worked.

This was a bilingual family, trilingual if you count Grandpop’s version of English. My parents both understood and could speak Italian, but rarely did. My grandparents spoke Italian to each other, and a mix of Italian and English to me. The Italian tended to come out in moments of extreme exasperation (“Ma che fai?” or on those furtive occasions when the kid wasn’t supposed to get it. So I had an odd vocabulary, little grammar, and a fairly good idea of what was going on in any language. To my everlasting regret, I could understand Italian, but never spoke it. Which explains how bad my Tuscan is now. No one was encouraged to speak Italian by the nuns at St. Donato’s School, resolutely assimilationist, where I started out, at 65th and Callowhill. We had our share of immigrant kids who could swear like sailors, and I did, of course, get some of that. God forbid one of the Cabrini nuns heard you winding up some choice obscenity. No one called your parents. You just got belted. End of story.

The neighborhood was cool. We had PTC trolley tracks running in front of the house on Haverford Avenue. They were probably distant relatives of the horse drawn line that ran through Haddington starting in the 1860s, although I had no idea then. There was no history for a little kid. Just the next day. And each day began predictably enough with an Abbott’s dairy truck, loaded with ice, trailing a dribble of water up the driveway behind the houses. You got milk in bottles. The church bells rang at 7:00 AM to call people to pray–St Donato’s was an Italian-language parish named after the small town in Val di Comino, on the Abruzzo-Lazio border in central Italy that populated that part of West Philly. We had Salvuccis, Cedrones, Antonellis, Rufos, Camillis, all related in impossible ways, going back 600 years. Oddly enough, we kept on intermarrying in America, and then wondered why half of us were nuts.

The driveway was for commerce as well as cars. Fruit vendors hawking “watermeloons, mezza pezza,” or free-stone peaches from Jersey, or huge, honest-to-God Jersey tomatoes, usually hit the block in the Summer. So did some guy pushing some concoction called Gevella water that my Grandmom used in washing clothes. There was a breadman, a laundry man, luxuries now unthinkable. Down the street there was a vegetable store spilling out onto the street where Grandmom would buy stuff and pass a few minutes gossiping with Madan’ana (I swear). At night, Reale bakers up the street put out wonderful aroma of fresh-baked bread, and I could hear the workers moving equipment around and the ovens sighing, especially with open windows in the Summer. My favorite hangout was Doc Renzulli’s drugstore at 65th and Haverford, where my Dad would go to commune with his homies and buy me a Superman comic book for a dime. Hell, I learned to read that way. Man of freaking steel. Ripped avant la lettre. In a chaste relationship with Lois Lane. All surrounded by the odor of a genuine soda fountain, where one of “Doc’s” guys made ice cream sodas. Like from scratch. If we were oppressed, I didn’t know it. And if we were privileged, you could have fooled me. I thought we were normal.

The furthest eastern boundary of my world was 63d street. That was Overbrook, and tonier then. My Dad, whom I adored, would take me to the PRR station there to watch the trains come through in the evening. Wow. The Broadway Limited would go flying through like a bat out of Hell around 7:00 PM, and there was always some enormous freight train spewing sand to improve rail traction running right up close to the station. My Dad got a kick out of the engines shaking the station apart. It scared the Hell out of me most of the time, but I can still see the Pennsy engines humping through, long before Al Pearlman and Stuart Saunders merged the PRR into oblivion with the New York Central. I learned to read the train signals and saw the station master water his plants. No, it’s not my imagination. Philadelphia was more civilized then in the 1950s, and it lingers in mind as a good proxy for what Heaven would be like if I ever get there. Yeah, sentimental. Too bad.

We had a couple of cars I remember, especially a Hudson and a two-tone 1955 Buick Century. The back of the Century was my throne and I got to watch the world between Philly and the Jersey Shore, really to the point where I could have driven it myself. My Dad smoked Salem cigarettes, the butts of which I would occasionally cadge when I caddied for him at Cobbs Creek Public Golf Course. Too bad they didn’t make me sicker . Too bad he never caught me. There was a spring just off the course, and we’d get water there. You could watch the Philly cops passed out in the Red cars, protecting and defending. I heard my first racial f-bomb casually dropped by, Ciro, the old guy who was the “attendant.” My Dad, a gentle soul, said nothing. He didn’t use that kind of language. Ever. He had graduated from West Catholic in 1937, having lost a year to a bleeding ulcer whose vestiges tormented him until he died of a glioma. Louie missed the war, but got everything else instead. To this day, I see him doing his Wharton School night class homework in the kitchen after working all day. He graduated about the same time I did from high school, a tribute to tenacity and his sense of dignity. Lou was a sax player turned accountant. He hated accounting. But he did the right thing by his family. You want to know why I don’t have much time for my current students? “But I have to work. I couldn’t study.” Really? Life’s tough, ain’t it? Did Woody Allen say 90 percent of life is showing up? Well, Lou showed up, just like his brother-in-law, Stan the Man. They were bound be a common working class ethic, a sort of code of masculinity that meant, as the Brits said, never complain, never explain.

My Dad knew there was a larger world out there. He’d take me to the Art Museum (fail), to the Robin Hood Dell (longhair music, fail), to Valley Forge (Mt Joy, total success), and when he could, to the Free Library, although that was my Mom’s gig. Me and Dr Seuss were tight, although I’m sure the political subtleties were lost on me, and still are. Dad listened to Dorsey and Goodman, but also to Bird and George Shearing. Even opera on the weekends, mostly with my Aunt Mary, who really dug it. So I knew the stuff existed, and when I wanted to start exploring for myself, I could. There was no pressure from him, just opportunity. My Mom glared at the B- in “conduct” on the report card from Saint Donato’s. That was her department. At which she was quite adept.

Grandpop worked at RCA Victor in Camden. He’d be up at 4 AM, the house still fragrant with the pepper and eggs that Grandmom made him for lunch the night before. On weekends I’d be up early, like little kids are. I learned how to make him coffee in an old percolator, which absolutely delighted him. In nice weather, we’d go and sit out on the porch. He’d smoke his pipe, Holiday Blend. Later in the day, early evening, he’d water the “rosa bushels” (more Stan the Man phonetic rendering of rose bushes) and the small, sloping patch of lawn that fronted Haverford Ave. We wouldn’t say much, but we had fun. You remember the smells, the sounds, the garish 1954 Ford two-tone (lavender and white) Ford parked by the corner. The old school mailbox on the corner. I can still see it all, permanently etched into my skull.

I never much liked Gary Wills, but he once wrote that “we grew up in a ghetto, but it was a good ghetto.” Good call, man. Some of us never really left, no matter where we ended up. It wasn’t Paradise, even then. But I don’t have to believe that if I don’t want to.

Published by RJS El Tejano

I sarcastically call myself El Tejano because I'm from Philadelphia and live in South Texas. Not a great fit, but sometimes, economists notwithstanding, you don't get to choose. My passions are jazz, Mexican history and economics. Go figure

10 thoughts on “As The World Turns

  1. OMG, this is your story but it is my story too, with slight variations.

    I grew up in farm country not the city. Grandpop was caretaker/nurseryman for the Sun Oil (Pugh) family estate. He had a stogie in his mouth 24/7. Sometimes it was lit but mostly not. His life was about watching things grow and being sure they did. Music was not part of my young life as it was yours.

    Three generations in one house. Everyone spoke Italian to each other except to the kids. Same everlasting regret not to have learned the language, understanding well enough, speaking hardly at all. We always had a huge garden and never bought vegetables at the grocery. The families canned things as they matured in the garden and supply exceeded demand. Mom came over on the boat age 9, dad was born here but couldn’t speak English when he went to first grade. Both lost any trace of an accent by the time I came on the scene.

    I had the nuns, played golf at Cobb’s Creek, of course the soaps were on every day and my grandmother followed them as if they were the news and real life. My dad was an accountant who got his degree at night school commuting several nights/week to Overbrook/St. Joe’s and who got along with less sleep than anyone I have ever known in my life and seemed to function just fine.

    The elders had a great community of friends and weekends were big meals and card games with the tight group who defined what support in life meant. Weekends were loud and full of laughter and fun.

    I never saw a table without a bottle of wine on it. The kids could drink it or not. No one cared and paid little mind.
    I know this is your blog and your story but this one really struck a chord. I could say so much more but will just stop and say you’ve got a hell of a memory and may not be able to paint on canvas but with words, you got the gift.

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    1. You know, Mike. We all came out of the same culture. So the variations were idiosyncratic. You probably watched the Friday Night fights too, because I did. And yeah, no one cared if you drank the wine or not. But it was Hammonton’s finest, and I suspect my Berkeley colleagues wouldn’t have approved. Vintage Tuesday. My family had its share of problems, some of them more funny than serious, but there were serious ones too. And I didn’t talk about the guy next door who killed 6 Germans by himself (this is documented) somewhere in the freaking snow of Northern Europe and probably had PTSD. The family was, our euphemism, noisy. Which meant he came home, got drunker (he was already plastered) and abused his wife and kids. There was another guy who literally swung around the light pole dressed in a WWII motor pool uniform and talked to himself. My Dad would look, shake his head, and say “Shell Shock.” There was a lot of damage from the war, and as I found out later, you could fight for the medeganz, but they never really accepted you. I guess a lot of what’s coming out is resentment, intellectualized, but resentment all the same. I am sick of getting told how I am the enemy. Those people–our families–worked like dogs and got rewarded with shows about Frank Nitti. It never really fazed me, but there’s a part of me who ran into this crap at Princeton and Berkeley. They can go to Hell–with all their posturing about social justice. We were the gardeners and janitors in Villanova and Princeton. That’s how the dagos got there. Don’t insult my intelligence, right? I got a bad case of chip on the shoulder: it’s just taken 70 years to show.

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  2. Same here. So well written, indeed strikes a chord.

    The adults spoke Italian to each other when it was something not for our ears, or when they were admonishing children. So why is my Italian conversational skill so bad? My vocabulary consists of words learned doing genealogy research, numbers, names of foods, and the things said to misbehaving children. And it was only recently I learned exactly what was being said in the Neapolitan dialect. 🙂 I can read Italian more easily, thanks to years of learning Latin.

    So I grew up in Newtown Square, a mix of ethnicities, old timers from England and Wales, newer arrivals with Italian, Irish, and a little Polish and German. But there were a good number of people in the parish who still had their allegiances to St. Donato’s. They went back often, though at the time I didn’t quite grasp the significance.

    By the time I started digging into family history, my grandfather was gone (he died when I was 14), and my grandmother had died before I was born (ditto on dad’s side).

    Start compiling these, and you have a book. It will sell. Nostalgia for Philadelphia neighborhood stories is a big thing (as evidenced by the neighborhood groups on facebook). I’d buy it.

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    1. Dude, you flat out amaze me. I know what it takes to do what you do. I should have your chops. I’d hire you to figure out my family, but I can’t afford you. Like I said to Mike, we all came out of the same mold, more or less. But the great angst about what to do about America’s heritage of injustice skipped us. So you got so many of these damn fools lining up behind Trump, too blind to see that he’s the enemy, and too bitter–which I get–to open their eyes. So we all end up scratching our heads and saying “Now, what?” It’s a bit late, and there aren’t enough therapists to fix all of us. I just thank God that I’ve known a few people like you and Mike and Wolper. They ignore me when I rant, which is the best thing.

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      1. I don’t consider your observations to be rants. They’re analytical conclusions. The world needs more of that. Don’t ease up. The world needs to hear what you are saying.

        I suppose what got me started looking into my ancestry was a curiosity about who I was. I grew up in a conflicted culture, a mother born of Italian immigrants and a father born of a combination of second-generation Irish and tenth-or-eleventh generation SAR lines. The Irish Catholic and Italian Catholic cultures in Philadelphia conflicted and we know who played second fiddle. I was exposed to both, though in the school and church it was primarily an Irish Catholicism I am a bizarre combination of royal and noble descent mixed in with descent from peasants and artisans. It explains a lot. My theological family tree (Italian Catholic, Irish Catholic, Quaker, Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox, Muslim, Judaism, Huguenot, the list is long) caused one of my pastors to remark, “No wonder your theology is so disjointed.” So I suppose the same could be said of my economic, social, political, and cultural outlooks. I think many people face but don’t investigate why they are the way they are and why some of their heritages have been tamped down, ignored, and even forgotten.

        But I did see people of various ethnicities (or perceived to be of one or another ethnicity), other than the Anglo-German dominant culture, treated unjustly. It bothered, and still bothers me. I saw the same in terms of people who were different in other ways. Often I said something, outspoken troublemaker that I’ve always been. The angst was there but it was muted, in the shadows. I saw the difference education makes. And that’s why it disturbs me so much to see the Trump loyalists support what is causing them such agony, much like the (usually a) woman who sticks with the abusive spouse/companion because she “loves him,” letting emotions override reason. Yes, we need therapists, but with the demand exceeding supply the next best thing is for those who understand to try to teach to help others understand. Uphill road, but God gave us gifts for a reason.

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  3. Sounds a lot like Norristown, where we grew up. Lots of parallels. Funny how our collective self-motivation was not specifically taught, but learned by assimilation.

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    1. I think what’s left of us are converging. We may have followed different paths, but we’re all gonna end up in the same place (no, not the cemetary, yet). This is why I can’t connect with some of the younger generation (hint). They grew up in a different world. They never watched a guy go out on strike even when he really couldn’t afford it. They never watched someone go to bed at 9 and get up at 4 and commute to freaking Camden, NJ 5 days a week. And never bitch. They never saw an immigrant kid in braces because of polio playing basketball and everyone acting as if “of course”. I saw all of this, and more. But I didn’t know what I was seeing. It was closer to 1940 than to 1960, or it seems to me now. Hey, I never considered Batman and Robin might have been an item. Not my world.

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