Nope. Not Downashore. Maybe Joe Villari said downahouse, but I don’t think so. When I was a kid, “the House” meant only one place on Earth. The house of Pietro Delia and Maddalena Mangano. You didn’t know I was part Mangano? Learn something.
They lived a lot places in Philadelphia, but “the house” was 913 Cross Street. It was, as they now say, a two story “townhome”. Yeah. Between Passyunk Avenue and Moyamensing. Passyunk Avenue was simply “The Avenue.” Moyamensing, was, to me, where the prison was. Scary-looking place that no longer exists. The damn thing was so old it looked like it was out of the Middle Age, at least to a five-year old kid. That was the hood. Youse might call it South Philly, or we did. God knows what fancy-ass name they have for it today. These were my people. My real people. The Salvucci were add ons. Nice name, you know. It still can get you somewhere in Italy. The Delia, on the other hand, were nobodies. They were wonderful. The Corleone without guns, money, or “honor.” Talk about warm. You wanna know why I am 50 percent SOB today? Blame the Delias. I reached the age of 15 thinking everyone on Earth was like them. Fat chance. I’ve spent the rest of my life finding out what bastards most people are. Actually, it would be “basstids” in South Philly patois. I’m multipatois due to them.
For a lot of people, 913 Cross Street was the Center of the Universe. That would’ve been before World War II. I got there a little too late. But the glow was still there. They had already taken the NRA sign down, and the Blue Star too. No, tidadoof, it wasn’t Democratic propaganda although they sure as Hell all were Democrats. If there was a Republican on Cross Street, they sure weren’t a member of St Mary Magdalen de Pazzi, over on Montrose. Whatever they were, we didn’t know them.
By 1940, Pietro and Maddalena were Peter and Madeline. I knew my great grandfather as Peter Delia, and Great Grandmom as Great Greatmom. She was my Mother’s namesake. Big Petie and Little Pete were named after Pietro. It’s an Italian thang. You wouldn’t understand it. See, by 1940, we were All American. You can thank Mussolini and Hitler. What? You thought everyone loved Itais? Guess again. Now I may drop a few hints about our less-than-beloved status among the medeganz. Chances are YOU are Medeganz. Get over it. I never forget it. Part of my charm. Look it up.
Great grandmom and grandpop (the only ones I ever knew) had a peripatetic existence in Philadelphia. Actually I want to say that Pietro had lived somewhere else before making it to Philly. Unfortunately, he apparent had had a less than sympathetic boss whom he had hit over the head with a shovel before he made his way out of—I want to say Detroit, but I may be wrong. I have no idea. He was the sweetest man on Earth, so I figure he must have whacked a medeganz, who undoubtedly had it coming. Or so Delia lore has it. All I know is that by the time I knew him, he was over 80 and his eyes were shot. When we came into the living room (the townhome had an entryway, you know), he’d usually be lying on the sofa with a fedora covering his face. He’d normally light up and call me “picidu” which was a Sicilian term of affection for a kid. And he’d pinch my cheek. Then he’d lie down again.
Great Grandmom was similarly affectionate, but she didn’t speak much English, or Italian for that matter. From the sound of it, it was mostly Sicilian. For those of you not lucky enough to be part Sicilian, Sicilian is a language, not a dialect. Delia, in fact, is a place in Central Sicily near Caltanisseta, and, from what I know, has its own variant of Sicilian. To me, it was nearly incomprehensible (e.g., “He” in Tuscan or “standard” “Italian” is Lui. In Delianese (I think), it is “Idu.” Go figure. I think, but won’t swear to it, that you can hear a variety of it coming from Salozzo in The Godfather. and maybe from a young Vito. For those of you who sometimes wonder why I love that movie, it may have something to do with how much of it brings me back to my remote childhood. No blood. But plenty of idu). It’s a Sicilian thang, you really wouldn’t get it. Oh, and it is Delia. NOT DeLia, although even some Delia spell it that way. A medeganz made them do it.
The House only had a downstairs. A living room, dining room, kitchen, and a small yard with an outhouse. Yeah, you heard that right. My cousin Richie d’Adamo, who was a stellar violinist with the Pittsburgh Symphony, locked me in it once with Chico, this nasty Chihuahua who mostly barked a lot and didn’t like me. Richie has recently apologized to me to that atrocity, although, I have to tell you, I have no memory of it. Some trauma, right. The worse part was the outhouse smelled of, well, outhouse. There was an upstairs, of course, but not once did I visit it. My hang was mostly the living room and the kitchen. So it was for most of us.
Great grandmom is memorable to me for a few reasons. One of the best was her love of Liberace, whom she watched faithfully on the black and white tv. The other was her bawdy singing, which emerged mostly toward the end of her life when she was an invalid. I wish to God I could remember one of her favorite songs, which I can’t other than the imperishable verse, “Fishie stalk e baccala.” She swung that mother in 6/8 and I can still hear parts of it. Again, go back to the Godfather, the wedding scene, where Momma belts out a “Luna Mezz” same rhythm. In “real life,” incidentally, that was Morgana King (Messina, to you, medeganz). Great grandmom was definitely not Morgana King, but they could both blow and could both be raunchy. It’s a Sicilian woman thang. I’m not sure I get it, but it cracks me up all the same. Politically incorrect. Yeah.
rThe thing about the House was that it was small, but it was a social center, especially for my Mom’s generation. In the 1940s, my Mother–a Villari (Vallari, ok)–and her sisters. who looked like a bunch of fashion models, dear God, moved back and forth between West Philly and the House on a sort of daily basis. My Mother, Maddalena (the eldest daughter, named after her Mother’s mother) actually went to Southern (South Philly high) and not some namby pamby Catholic girls’ school in West Philly. I can imagine Joe Villari wasn’t having it; besides, my Mom must spent most of her time in South Philly with her cousins. You know, in those days, they could take public transportation at night and not worry. Think about that, if you want. I’d rather not. There was Maria Goretti on 10th Street. Don’t say nothing, ok? I think Lilian Reis went there.
In any event, by the time I had arrived, just getting to the House from West Philly was an adventure, for a little kid, at least. Grandmom didn’t drive, so it was PTC all the way, busses, trollies, subways, els (The Metro, right…..), transfers, tokens, no air conditioning, open windows, and all the sights and sounds of Philly you could take in. My God, I loved it. The 31 PTC trolley stopped on Haverford Avenue probably in front of Ragni’s old market at 66th Street. I got to ride “free” cause I was a little dude, which they judged by a bronze height marker on a pole by the operator. Those trolley tracks didn”t come up until maybe 1957 or 1958, so I’m going back to being 5 or younger. And the trolley was the old style, wooden sided kind. Man, what a trip. It must have been 50 years old then. Green and bumpy, but I loved it. We then proceeded to 63d and Market, where we boarded the El ( Market Street Subway Elevated, for outsiders).
Yeah, we took the El. All the time. It was safe. No one thought twice about it. When I firststarted riding it with Grandmom, the old cars were still in use, and they must have gone back to 1907, at least. With wicker seating, ivory fixed place strap-hangers, open windows, and busted wheels that screeched around every turn once you got underground. I’m so old I can still remember when the El must have gone all the way into Center City above ground. They were building the tunnel at 46th and Market when I was riding, and I remember the construction, and that was between 1952 and 1955. So, dude, I couldn’t have been much more than 3 or 4 at the time. You’re talking to what’s left of the real Philadelphians, and I doubt there’s that many of us. The Phillies stank; I didn’t know about the Eagles; and the Warriors had Wilt Chamberlain. Period. The City had a unique skyline, and no one had ever heard of Comcast or Amy Guttman. Thank God.
We’d ride the El to City Hall, where we transferred to the Broad Street Subway. The Subway only went South. Lol. Except coming home from South Philly. I had no conception that there was a city North of City Hall. Hell I never went there, so who cared? Maybe the Mummers did, or Frank Rizzo on one of his vice busting jaunts, but you could’ve fooled me. To the best of my memory, we’d ride the Broad Street subway down to Tasker Street, which today, I think is Tasker-Morris. Grandmom would pay her gas bill at the PGW store on Broad, and then–and I’m not real clear on this–I think we took another trolley on Tasker where we got off within a block or two of the House. And that’s when the fun started.
The House basically consisted of my Grandmom’s sisters and brothers, only two of whom married, and one, Kay, lived at 20th and Oregon, which was not much of a stretch. Johnny, Connie and Little Pete (there was also a Big Pete) lived on Cross Street. Little Pete was a sweet guy, overweight and had become agoraphobic by the time I knew him. If I had this right, he was my Grandmom’s nephew by her brother Tom, but his Mother had died and when Tom remarried, his second wife rejected Little Pete, whom my Great grandparents took in. Pete was a sort of mascot guy who was always there who always seemed slightly baffled by the world. He lived out his life on Cross Street and died of a heart attack at home when I was in college. Every Italian family has a Little Pete, more or less, lovable but sort of ineffectual.
Johnny and Connie both lived on Cross Street and I called them Aunt and Uncle. They were very close to Grandmom and to my Mother, and were always really sweet to me. Johnny was about 5’7″ and man, he reminded me of Maggio in From Here to Eternity, but much nicer. Just every bit as tough. He took a German 88 shell walking down a lane in France after D Day and ended up in hospital in England for a long time recuperating. He brought pieces of the shell back that he kept as a souvenir. He was keenly interested in world affairs even though he hadn’t finished high school. I remember him talking to my Dad about Europe, the Soviets, Italy, and stuff that people like Drew Pearson wrote about it. He was no dummy and I respected him. I saw a picture of him in uniform and believe me, he looked like he meant business. He was so tough that he died of cancer, but no one ever knew it because he just kept going until he couldn’t. He either smoked Camels or Lucky Strike, he had a wry laugh, and my memory of him was that he was a bit of a cynic. He may have been on disability after the War, but he was a blast to be around.
My Aunt Connie was tall and pretty, and she never married. She and Johnny took care of Great Grandmom and Grandpop and Little Pete. She was soft spoken, and I’m not entirely sure what she did for a living. I think the House was out of the labor force, but in a nice way. Gentle people, with an easy smile and an easy laugh. The place was small, but immaculate. We always had cold cuts around the kitchen table, which was the usual gathering place. Mostly it was small talk, chit chat, you know, family stuff, but never, to my recollection, anything mean. You know, they were just down to Earth and dutiful, the way that generation was. Nobody drank. The only vice was the numbers, which they played and I learned about early. What the number was on a given day, what you should pick, how you should play, oh boy, that was a class in itself. My favorite was when someone saw a number in a dream, which was quite Sicilian. I’ll be damned if I have any idea of anyone ever hit, but everyone played. From time to time, I was given the honor of picking a number from some menu of crazy choices that could include the birth weight of some family member’s newborn, the Eagles’ score, anything. I never hit anyway. That was it as far as vices went. Everybody knew who the local bookie was, but nobody, as far as I knew, played the horses.
For entertainment, we sat on the stoop. Them days, it was white marble and kept spotless. You’d hang and talk to the neighbors, or just watch people, or just just. I had a crush on the girl who lived next door, but she was, alas, in high school, an older woman. So my crush never prospered. She humored me.
We always went down the House over the holidays, which usually included an adventure in trying to park in a snow clogged side street in South Philly. The locals would shovel out a place for their car and then put a chair in it. Yeah. Usually a linoleum kitchen chair. God help you if you tried to park there, public street or not. The cops did nothing–they knew better than to mess with the locals’ definition of a property right, and Hell, half of them probably came from there. But you could always count on a full house at Christmas, and man, the closest I can come to telling you what it was like is to say watch the Christmas meal in The Godfather. Coppola got it right. My other cousins, Richie, Johnny Micomonaco, and Phil Delia would be there, and that was hysterical. I looked up to them (when Richie wasn’t locking me in the outhouse with Chico) and Johnny Mic was probably one of my favorite people on Earth (Phil was good too, but Johnny Mic was the kind of guy who graduated from Newman and LaSalle, joined the Navy and went to OCS during Vietnam, and then did the gunboat thing with the Marines. “Out of a sense of duty.” He was impressive, man, something out of the movies, and a great role model (and a dab hand with the ladies, I must say). Hey, we all had to learn, you know. I still talk to Richie and Johnny by phone and I’m always glad to see Phil. By contrast, I see none of my Salvucci cousins. I don’t know who half of them are. Nor do I much care. Tells you something. The Delia-d’Adamo-Micomonaco boys were always a trip, even a little kid got that. The older I got, the more fun they were. I’ll leave it at that.
Coming home with Grandmom from our visits was amazing–another PTC special. I got to ride the trolley down Ninth Street (what the Medeganz call “The Italian Market”). Man, in those days, it was really going, with lots of fruit and vegetable vendors, cheese dudes and butchers who had cages in front of their places where you could pick your dinner. It was always crowded as Hell, smelled to high heaven in the Summer, and was its own world. If you see Rocky, you can still get a feel for what it looked like in the early 1970s, when it had already begun to change. I loved watching the people, smelling the food, yelling at the animals (the real animals, not the human ones) and Grandmom never seemed to mind.By the time we reached the Benjamin Franklin Hotel, we were about read to dismount, but I was always intrigued by the acts at the Kite and Key club. Nah, I was too little. I only made it to the CR Club and Palumbo’s, and that was with my Mom and Dad right before I went to college. Did you ever see Sergio Franchi and Harry Guardino live? Well, I did. Another fringe benefit of being part of the South Philly scene.
Look, I know there were all kinds of problems. I wouldn’t tell you about any of them, and we had our share of, um, characters. They were human. But I have to tell you, and this is the God’s honest truth, they were not haters. I never heard a racist word come out of any of their mouths. The slang terms for Black Americans. NEVER. So when I watch these idiots carry bats up to Marconi Plaza to defend Columbus, I can honestly say I have no idea who they are. Or if I do, they weren’t my people. I learned a few words to describe them, but I’ll spare you an education. When people seem a bit confused by what seems to be a vein of sympathy for the Trumpers in South Philly, I don’t say much. But I know where some of them were coming from. I came from there too. And then I left. I sometimes wish I hadn’t, but in this life, there are some mistakes you have to make. There’s still a bit of South Philly in me, and if you want to know where my chip comes from, well, we all know Sonny had a temper.
May my relatives, now gone, rest in peace. I miss them. I don’t miss Berkeley or Princeton, but I do miss South Philly.