So, yeah, the streets in my neck of Penn Wynne were named Trent, Henley, Harrogate, Dorset, Yarmouth, Surrey and Manoa. Don’t ask me how Manoa got in with the West Riding and Public School crowd. I think it was there before Penn Wynne was, so the builders had no choice. And it led to……Manoa, a small town of indefinite origins!!! See, logic at work. You thought Hawaii. Sorry. No chance.
Recently, looking at a contemporary map, I learned that Harrogate was supposed to be spelled Harrowgate. There is a neighborhood in Philly with a string club called Harrowgate. I always thought that was misspelled, somehow. I guess not. I see both spellings used, so I’m really confused. Which is typical for me.
Even though Penn Wynne was only about 30 years old when we moved there, it somehow seemed older to my ten-year old self. It’s not like Haddington was a slum or anything, especially in the 1950s, but we didn’t have a tree on Haverford Avenue as we did in Penn Wynne. Yeah, our own Norway Maple. Right in the middle of the front lawn. My Mother hated it, apparently. I have no idea why because it shaded the house, looked pretty, attracted squirrels and birds, and turned pretty colors before it shed its leaves in the Fall. I guess that’s why Mom didn’t like it. Trees are not neat; they drip sap; leaves have to be raked; the big tree was always sending off little seedlings to grow. Birds crapped. So, Mom, who was a neat freak, hated the tree. She eventually managed to get my Dad to have it taken down, but only after fighting with Lower Merion Township, the sovereign of Penn Wynne. For some reason, the Township liked trees. Weirdos.
We also had a dogwood in the back, which was cool. Mom didn’t object because it was out of the way and only messed up the back yard, about which she was totally unconcerned. It was a pretty thing, all flowers and berries and delicate. I had never seen a tree bloom before, so I liked it. There were azaleas in the front that looked and smelled glorious in the spring, maybe a hydrangea or two, and even a Rose of Sharon or two on the side of the house. It attracted some big ass bumblebees. Never had seen them either. In the Summer, we had boatloads of lightning bugs, which I pursued mercilessly. The whole neighborhood sort of twinkled and between the quiet, the twinkling, the tree rustling, all of it. Well, I thought we had arrived. Penn Wynne was 15 minutes from Haddington, but it seemed like another world. No picket fence and no Beaver Cleaver, but it was awfully pleasant. I could tell you I missed the grittier texture of West Philly, but I’d be lying. I didn’t. At least not at first. Eventually, not at first. I hadn’t wished for it, but I got it anyway.
One of the idiosyncracies of Penn Wynne was that for night time street parking, a “parking light” was required. I have never seen them again anywhere since, and the requirement disappeared pretty early on. I’m not sure how to describe them. A light was maybe an inch long, with a red lamp on one side (I think). It was drilled into the fender of my Dad’s 55 Buick Special, and he had hooked it up with a switch inside the car. It had to be burning from dusk to dawn. So it was quite a sight, you know. Lots of tiny red lights on one side of the street lighting the way like the floor lamps on an airliner. A holdover from the days before there were street lamps? Maybe it prevented people from inadvertently sideswiping your car in the dark. The requirement disappeared before 1964 or so, but I can’t find any reference to the things anywhere. I may try Lower Merion Township some day to see if some other oddball there remembers them, or would recall. Or I may not.
Our neighbors were weird. Some of them were actually Protestant, and a few were Members of Tribe. For a kid who had never seen an Episcopalian, let alone talked to one, they did seem kind of, well, antiseptic. There were no blacks in Penn Wynne then. Italians were bad enough. I had to go back to West Philly to get diversity, but it wasn’t like it was a big deal. At Rose Playground, just off Lansdowne Avenue, there were basketball courts. Some pretty heavy players showed up, not a few of whom happened to be black. This isn’t stereotyping. There was a Summer League that got the odd NBA player, and all kinds of college hot shots. No way a little kid could run with those guys–this little kid, at least–but we all managed to hang out without serious incident. That I remember.
In any event, there were a few Catholics in Penn Wynne. Enough for it to have its very own parish, our version of a minyan. Mostly Irish, but even a few Italians, including my cousins next door. And at the corner of Harrogate and Trent, a guy who operated heavy equipment, just to stay in character. But even that smattering of paysans was too much for some of the WASPs.
One guy, in particular, lived across the street, not directly, but on an angle. His son and I were the same age, but not really friends. He went to some snooty private school–Episcopal Academy, I think, and the family sort of kept to itself. Well, This one looked like something out of Central Casting in the Twilight Zone (you know, gruff business executive with jowls), and he evidently passed a remark that there were so many of “us” on Harrogate Road that it was beginning to look like South Philly. Don’t ask, I don’t know how I knew, but I knew. He wasn’t really a bad guy, and ultimately he and my Mom were cordial. And, sadly, his son, who turned into a serious stoner, ended up committing suicide after moving to California. Yeah, suicide, divorce, unfaithfulness. Who knew? You could find it all in Penn Wynne. All totally new to me, the aspiring trumpet-hoodlum from West Philly. Ironic, no? We moved to get away from the rough neighborhood, which, Skippy the Numbers guy turned restauranteur aside, was mostly innocuous. Pious even. A ghetto, but very few rough edges. Do remember we ended up living in what had been a Nazi love nest in Penn Wynne courtesy of the Dupont family. Sheesh. This was upward mobility?
Even better, I learned some new words in Penn Wynne: dago and wop. Yeah, they came to me courtesy of some guy named Eddie C, who called me both before I knew enough to be insulted. Eddie was the scion of white trash who lived on Henley Road. His old man was some kind of salesman for, maybe WPEN, a local radio station. The Mom always looked vaguely ruined, and their home was, well, not something you’d see in House Beautiful. But, yeah, to Eddie, I was the Dago Kid, pronounced Deh-go. At some point, the crew up and disappeared to parts unknown, and Eddie and his tight running buddy, a kid with a cleft palate named Jimmy, sort of vanished without giving notice. Aside from Eddie teaching me about Dagos and Wops, I had no other interactions with him. Thank God.
Another kid, Eddie’s immediate neighbor, was not so lucky. I remember his name. His surname was Dixon, which Jimmy With the Cleft Palate pronounced “Dick-shun.” Jimmy was a nasty piece of work, always picked on Dick-shun for grins, but somehow ignored me, as if my just being a greaseball was not enough of a challenge for him. Dixon’s father was an anesthesiologist–and there was a kind of emaciated sister who was always shrieking odd gibberish that I somehow associated with Presbyterian-public school types who were unduly constricted by their underwear. They were nice people, sort of pickled in Waspishness, which I guess is what drove Jimmy and Eddie C nuts. They all somehow vanished into thin air sometime before Vietnam. Poor Dick-Shun got killed in a car accident when he was away at college in Ohio. Another story with a happy Penn Wynne ending. Humor.
Yeah, Penn Wynne had its share of odd characters and intriguing features, all of which made for some strange impressions. It occurs to me that the more I write, the more I remember, so I’m probably going to have to take this into another episode. But before we close the curtain, I absolutely have to talk about the P&W and the fire siren. All figured largely into my introduction to suburban life. The “shopping center” and Mickey Duffy I’ll leave for next time.
Why the fire siren? Well, you have to hear it, and I’m gonna play it for you now.
Scary as Hell, right? Especially in the middle of the night when you weren’t really accustomed to such a noise, cause Philly had a Fire Department. See, this was calling the volunteers to duty (don’t laugh: one was recently killed, so it was no joke), and usually, the siren was followed by the sound of some car in the neighborhood tearing-assing off to the Fire House. Like the guy right behind us across the alley was a Captain or something, so when this went off, you’d hear a car starting up and screeching off. Oh yeah, his dog howled too, just for effect.
In any event, remember, this same fire siren would double as an air raid alarm (or signal incoming in the even Rooskis had decided to nuke us, which was a real possibility in the early 1960s; Putin volens, may yet be again, God help us). There was no way of knowing, a priori, was this was a call to the end of the world or just the result of a stove that had gone up in some dumdum’s kitchen. So you stayed on edge. Do I pray, or go back to sleep? The thing was inherently unpredictable, so you’d never know when the mournful wail would sound once more.
As if that wasn’t enough, there was the redoubtable Pig and Whistle, otherwise known as the Red Arrow P&W (Philadelphia and Western). The P&W would today be called light rail, but back in the 1920s, when it went up, it was called an interurban railroad. The P&W linked 69th Street, Upper Darby, to Norristown and, for a time, Stratford. It ran on electricity, was quick, offered frequent service, stopped and picked up passengers on demand, and it was green. It is basically still there, and may yet get to King of Prussia, another now huge exurb, if the NIMBYs don’t kill it. In any event, I learned to use it quickly, could journey unaccompanied, and in high school, often counted on it as a way of getting home after all the Devon Prep busses were long gone. If you knew what you were doing, you could board at Penfield and eventually get up to Fern Rock in North Philly via subway. The system was pretty cool. Someone should have written a book about for Philly like Sam Bass Warner did for Boston. The comparisons would be enlightening, but, no, none of the geniuses in the Philadelphia Social History Project could be bothered.
Anyway, the P&W ran, in those days, 24 hours a day, and all through the night, albeit on a reduced schedule. When I was up in my room with the window open, as it generally was on a warm Summer’s night, you could hear one of the “bullet cars” making its way, literally like a bat out of Hell, East or West, and if there were no passengers to discharge or pick up, it got moving pretty good–must have been 60 miles per hour or more.
Take about ghostly. On Haverford Avenue, I could sometimes hear the whine of truck tires as the rigs sped up on their way West, usually late at night when things got real quiet. Well, Penn Wynne was nearly almost always quiet, and at 2 AM, you could hear the PW cling-clanging and tip-tapping its way into the night. With all the predictable Doppler effects. If I happened to be awake–and in the Summer, sneaking a flashlight under the covers to read a book was common enough–I could count down the hours as if I were looking at a watch. Which some motorman out there was. Funny, but it was both unsettling and oddly reassuring. You know, the beast in the night approaches and then passes safely, one of those rituals that seems so appealing to a kid. It’s as if you knew something was alive out there, but you didn’t have to see for yourself. Part of Penn Wynne might have been alien territory–hostile ground in some ways–but the P&W was your friend.
No wonder I still collect books and stuff about it. When you’re out of your element, as I was, you’ll take any kind of reassurance. Trees and stuff came at a price.
Next installment details some of the other features of suburban living. Including mobster housing, cafones acting out, Ernie Pellegrino, Manoa Road, and The Departed. It’ll be fun, I promise.