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.