The House That Mickey Built

On the morning of June 7, 1968, I got a haircut. I walked from my home down to a “stylist” in the City Line Ave shopping center. I was wearing a corduroy jacket, so I guess it wasn’t that warm. I took my usual route. Ronnie, the styling dude, had a black and white tv on in his place. I sat there basically out of it. After a bit, I noticed the tv seemed chaotic, with lots of people running around, breaking in, talking, the whole nine yards. So finally I asked Ronnie, “What’s going on?” He looked at me as if I were kidding. “They shot Kennedy last night. Killed him, I think.” Since one Kennedy had already gotten his brains blown out in Dallas, this could only mean one thing. Someone killed Bobby Kennedy.

I remember that moment as clearly as I remember the moment in 1963 when I heard the Jack Kennedy had been shot. Every detail. You don’t forget those moments. They go with you into the next world, wherever the Hell that is.

So I was at City Line Shopping Center, which was a sort of regular hang for me. There was the movie theater, the City Line, where I saw Easy Rider. There was a SunRay drugs. There was an Acme Markets (Ackame, to Joe Villari, “the American Store.”)There was a Fidelity Bank where I had a Christmas Club. Remember them? That would be a financial microagression today.

But what was really cool about City Line was what lay on the Montgomery County side directly across. There was this 1920s style whitewashed sort of swept up style mansion with A Black Palm tree on the facade that looked as if–a few years later–the place could have been in The Godfather, complete with profane Movie Mogul and Tom Hagen asking for a small favor. Hell, a horse even. The place looked like a mobster palace because it was a mobster palace, or had been. When I was a little kid, we’d drive by and my Dad would utter “Mickey Duffy.” Who the Hell was Mickey Duffy, and what was he doing in Penn Wynne? Didn’t we move away from West Philly to get away from those sort of people? Here we move to the suburbs and graduate from petty criminals to the real thing. Weird, right?

No. Mickey was not there. Mickey had gone to his final reward 36 years earlier, down in Atlantic City, where he had gotten rubbed out under mysterious circumstances. Everything about Mickey was mysterious. He was actually not Duffy, but Cusick, a Polish kid from Gray’s Ferry. But he went by Duffy. He had married a hat check girl named Edith Dukes. Who also went by Duffy. Mickey, you see, was a bootlegger. During Prohibition. What was he doing in Penn Wynne? I don’t know. What was a daughter of Alfred Dupont doing there? Why was there a house at Harrogate and Overbrook Parkway (still there) where they had two “Negro” servants? Who knows? In those days, there was still pretty much no there there. So that’s what they were doing. Nothing. With nobody. Nowhere. Penn Wynne clearly hadn’t been defined as home to the middle class. Not yet. Which I suspect was one of its problems.

Mickey’s house was at the corner of Harrogate and City Avenue. Oddly, it was at the base of a hill, or built on a hillside. You would a thought Meloney and McWilliams would have built the place for him on top of the hill. So he could survey the terrain, or his posse could, assuming he had a posse. Maybe Mickey didn’t like heights. Maybe he couldn’t afford a lot further up. Maybe there was already something there (one photo I’ve seen suggests this). Or maybe easy access to Route 1 was highly desirable, because he was living on Route 1. There was no wall, and you could drive right up to the front of the place. I think. Mickey must have been pretty secure. Or cocky. Or stupid. Maybe all three.

But he was Penn Wynne’s mobster. A real, if minor one.

We didn’t have a lot of mobsters in Penn Wynne, but we had our share of cafones. Cafone is not a flattering term in Italian-American argot. It conjures up uncouth, boorish, mouthy, loud, ignorant, abrasive, grasping, and smug. It’s a Hell of a combination. Cafone implies a degree of intentionality. I guess it’s hard to be unwittingly cafone. You want cafone? Jersey Shore is cafone. Uber-cafone. Sonny in The Godfather is cafone, for sure, but Michael is not. Nobody has to tell you if you are cafone. Trust me, you know. It’s part of your problem, and you’re always acting out.

There were a bunch of cafones (cafoni is the proper plural, but we’ll stick to the anglicized cafones, if needed) in Penn Wynne, and, especially, Prisontation BVM. Mostly, they were kids (I only knew the kids; you can only imagine what the parents were like) who came from families that had a few bucks more than the rest of us. They tended to live on the other side of Haverford Road in what we called Greenhill Farms, but, trust me, it was a glorified Penn Wynne. The houses were bigger. Furnished tastelessly (I got to glimpse one of two), and they had “artwork.” Oh my God. Like maybe a rec room with a bar and cheesy pinups that were decorously airbrushed out in strategic places. I kid you not. Not for Junior’s eyes. The really hot stuff was restricted to the Viewmaster that was “locked” away with the booze, although, somehow, someone at a kids’ party always knew how to get access. That’s when the advanced cafone kids got to play “Ten Minutes in Heaven” in a darkened garage. Don’t ask me. What 13 year olds did in a garage with soft core and the Old Man’s blended whiskey is anyone’s guess.

The real problem with the cafone kids was that they tended to be aggressive as well as out-of-control. A lot of them had anger issues, as we say. Or authority issues. Always getting in schoolyard brawls. Getting in scrapes with the Lower Merion cops for loitering at the Manoa Road strip mall. Making phony phone calls to random dudes in the white pages using someone’s name (probably yours) to identify themselves. Probably getting into a fight with you.

Knocking out someone’s front teeth (true).

Decking a nun monitoring yard recess at Prisontation (true).

Stealing a car (yup).

Getting gunned down in a drug deal (sorry).

Getting shot in a robbery gone bad.

Getting hit by a car driven by your “friends” and dying in the woods.

Holding up a bank and getting your picture all over the papers thanks to a security camera.

They all happened. And you were there, to paraphrase Ed Murrow.

At this late date in my life, I look back at this stuff and think “acting out.” A lot of loused up kids who were confused or lost or anxious about something, like they didn’t know where they really belonged. Which was the problem. What the Hell was Penn Wynne? The East End of London or Sussex (remember the street names, Henley, Harrowgate, Surrey)? Who knew? Who defined it? The developer? The people who moved in? Who were an odd mix of gangsters, Nazi sympathizers, and finally, goombahs from West or South Philly? Talk about identity problems. Here you had this brand new melting pot just over the city limits, and just what this thing was, who owned it, who defined it–all up for grabs. It was very obvious in the 1930s. You’d have thought by the 1960s, once the place was more built out, that wouldn’t be a question. Sorry. It was.

So you had your lawyers, your doctors, your accountants, and your heavy equipment operators. Your Jews, Cathlicks and Protestants. You had AMERICA! Yeah, with everyone trying to pretend they were better than someone else. Or that they had the perfect life. Or that they were Good Catholics or, well, observant Jews. Well, not so much. We got more money than you. A nicer car. A color tv. A house downa shore. Dear Lord, so much neurotic competition, so much trying to be part of the Affluent Society. In Penn Wynne. Right. Hey, we were all middle class, right? No, wrong. And I think at some level all of us sensed that. You were in. No, you were out. Dear Lord, my Mother complained that Sunday Mass at Prisontation was a “fashion show.” From Dewees? Right. You get the picture? They publicized dollar contributions by family per month to the Catholic Church. In the “parish bulletin.” Get the message? I hate to say it, but the underneath it all, there was a lot of ugliness.

So, Mickey Duffy tried to pass himself off as being in the “real estate business”. Yeah, with his Dusenberg parked out front. And Edith Dukes, his wife, from some nowhere place in Pennsylvania, and a hat check girl by trade. She was Mrs. Duffy. You starting to get the picture? No wonder so many of the unfortunate children were acting out. Wasn’t everbody?

So Mrs. Duffy “disappeared” after Mickey got bumped off. Actually, she went to New York. And she turned up living in Florida in the 1960s, where she died. I don’t think she was going by Duffy at that point. Like Joltin’ Joe, he had left and gone away. It all makes sense now. All of it. Plastics. Finally, I get it.

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

8 thoughts on “The House That Mickey Built

  1. Wonderful writing style. Some passages made me laugh. Others made me cringe. It wasn’t unique to Penn Wynne. Well, I don’t think there was mob presence where I was (at least I was unaware of anything along those lines). But there were the kids acting out, later committing crimes, dying in reckless behavior. I don’t recall, though, any nuns getting clocked.

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  2. Was I out of touch!? I came from Broomall. A quite happy little community, filled with quiet happy little people. We never ventured into Philadelphia except for the museums on the Franklin Parkway, and the historic sites.
    I can relate to City Line Center. For a while it was the closest movie theater to us. Saw my first movie there, The Wizard of Oz (1955 rerelease). Also remember “The 10 Commandments” and “Sleeping Beauty”. Remember the long lost art of opening curtains and raising a scrim?
    The were also many trips to the Boyd Cinerama! Wonder how I made a career of it?

    Thanks for your blog posts, they inspire memories, even though it seems our youthful experiences were vastly different.

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  3. whoa. I like the style also. In wilkes-barre I don’t think we had anyone offed although I know where Russell Buffalino lived. Its true because it was what you saw, heard and believed. Josh Collins liked my writing style and John Edgar Wideman at Penn sai I had to earn to write like that! ha eat me!!

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