Over Manoa Road

His name was Ernie Pellegrino. He was always dressed in white. If he had a sense of humor, you could’ve fooled me. He presided over “Ernie’s,” the barber shop at Manoa Road Shopping Center. He was a glowering presence, the yin to the yang and sunny disposition of the guy who owned the hardware store at Manoa and Rock Glen, Tommy Freed. Together they were joined by Roy J Eby, an appliance dealer who used to advertise on Gunnar Back’s newscast on WFIL-TV (Channel 6), a sort of nondescript guy whose mildness belied any of the bragging rights that fame had bestowed on him. And there was Mertz’s, a Mom and Pop market of the kind that dotted America in the 1950s, different in kind only by its Presbyterian ownership from Ragni’s, at 66th and Haverford, a similar emporium. There was a sort of deli, a dive deli in truth, owned by a guy universally called Rino (that’s Ree-no), not Republican-in-name-only, who made great lunch hoagies and stuff. There were ultimately not one, but two drug stores (no no, that’s not what it meant in 1965), the Penn Wynne Pharmacy and the Havaline pharmacy. (More on this anon). Then there was some kind of business called a Manufacturer’s Representative. None of us knew what the Hell that was. And a little further down, a realtor, d/b/a Vogel and Mullholand when we hit Penn Wynne. It did change names and owners later when the father of a classmate of Prisontation must have bought the guys out, at which point it became Bernard Drueding, realtors. and Notary Public. Didn’t know what the Hell that was either. For the better part of a decade, the 1960s, that was where I hung my hat in the mean streets of Penn Wynne. And like the gay lawyer portrayed by Tom Hanks in “Philadelphia,” said, those streets in Lower Merion were mean.

Ho boy. Where to begin? Actually, I should start with the Volunteer Fire Company that was adjacent to it, about which I have previously held forth. That was a piece of what we generically called “Manoa Road.” Now, Manoa Road actually ran quite a ways, out to West Chest Pike or State Route 3 in…..you got it….Manoa. Why in God’s name some farmer named his place Manoa in the 1800s is beyond me, unless he had just come back from Hawaii. In any event, Manoa Road was a surface road of considerable extension traversing both Montgomery and Delaware counties. But to the kids in Penn Wynne, none of that really mattered. Manoa Road was only a block long, functionally. And really, apart from Tommy Freed’s hardware, Rino, and the two pharmacies (and Mertz’s, as long as it was there), nobody cared. Mertz’s had a sad history, when Mr Mertz, who looked like a Mr Mertz, committed suicide. He was never very talkative; his wife did most of the human interaction. But they were nice. Mr Mertz was the first suicide I ever met. It took a long time for the ownership of that spot to stabilize.

I think Infinity Hair Designs was Ernie Barbershop 50 years ago. Reincarnation of a Sort.

Right afterward, somebody had the bright idea to put in something called Parke-Mills General Store. I couldn’t tell you what they sold, bubble gum aside, because no one ever went there. So they didn’t last. Not, however, before providing suitably adolescent entertainment to a bunch of young males (I only observed). One of the hormonally crazed Prisontation kids got put up to a prank, which was to go in and ask the young lady behind the counter, some teeny bopper, if they sold Trojans. Ok. As most of my readers know, a Trojan was synonymous with a prophylactic–the brand persists in these less reticent times, from what I can see. They are on plain view in Target or in Walmart. Very naughty in those days, and never discussed in polite company. Like we were polite? In any event, the young lady was clueless (or pretended to be) and went back in the store to ask the owner if they sold Trojans? Fun ensued.

Next thing you know, some swarthy Mediterranean type comes running out to the front of the store screaming at, let’s call him Jimmy, “What the Hell kind of store you think I got here, miserable kid? Get outta here before I call the cops.” These words were all suitably accented, and as the hirsute one gave chase to Jimmy, we dissolved in laughter on the pavement (payment, in Philly-speak) in front of the store. Well, it was funny to a bunch of 12 and 13 year old boys. Parke Mills closed soon thereafter. Ironically, in the late 1960s, I think a bridal boutique moved in(!), and today (I won’t swear) there is a personal trainer kind of deal there. Oh well. Sic transit gloria……

Now the beating heart of Manoa Road was divided into Tommy Freed’s (not visible) and the Penn Wynne Pharmacy (today some kind of fitness outfit in the photo). The Havaline Pharmacy came later, and was never as much fun because there was no…..SODA FOUNTAIN. Boring, they only filled prescriptions and sold the occasional girlie magazine that whoever was employed as the delivery boy got to thumb through as a fringe benefit. The pharmacists were nice guys, and basically said they weren’t in competition with Penn Wynne because each shop had its own customers. I believe it. We got our prescriptions from Havaline (and I later, cigarettes). But to hang, there was the Penn Wynne Pharmacy.

With a soda fountain, fountain drinks (especially a mean cherry coke), and a sweet guy who was the soda jerk, a Black guy named Randy. Everyone called him Randy. He was so well known that there was a newspaper article written about him when he retired, probably in the Main Line Times. His name was Randolph Lord, but the newspaper called him “Jones.” I guess because every Black dude then was named Jones. I’m surprised they didn’t call him Tyrone.

Ok, I gotta try to explain the racial dynamics of a nearly urban suburb in Philly in the 1960s in what was not an integrated suburb (until, maybe 1970). You gotta bear with me. This is race as it was constructed for me, at least in Penn Wynne. In Haddington or South Philly, it was very different. And if you don’t understand that, well, you might as well just skip this part. And if you are gonna start with “But he was unthreatening and subservient.” I might as well ask if you really expected Eldridge Cleaver behind the counter at Penn Wynne Pharmacy? Dude. On the couple of occasions that I got the chance to talk to Randy in more than “The Phillies blew another one” I got a glimpse of how Randy operated. He knew the White world didn’t really want him, but there wasn’t much he could do about it. So he handled himself with dignity. Frankly, if anyone (and we didn’t use the term “disrespect” then) disrespected him, they would have gotten hurt. It didn’t happen. In or out of earshot, unless you were dealing with a cynic from out of town. God knows, Penn Wynne was not one big happy family, as I have repeatedly said, and I’m sure it was racist as Hell. But Randy got a pass, thank God.

The other thing about the pharmacy was its lending library and supply of Sunday New York Times. Look, I didn’t even know what the Hell the NYT was then, and I often wondered what this monstrous stack of papers on Sunday–with people’s names on them, cause they were mostly reserved (no, the Salvuccis were not subscribers) was. When we went into the Dominican Republic in 1965, I read about it in the Inquirer which was sort of a newspaper then (not exactly the polar opposite of what it is now, but reliably Walter Annenberg Republican (such no longer exist). I didn’t really get into the Times until college and the Pentagon Papers. So I got my South/West Philly horizons suitably broadened in the pharmacy. Not to mention, the “library,” which was a carousel of paperback book on offer, such classics as The Harrad Experiment or The Carpetbaggers. The pharmacist on duty would always yell at the guys thumbing through the paperbacks, and The Carpetbaggers took such a beating that I think they had to replace it. Always seemed as if the thing fell open around page 200 or so; you didn’t have to work too hard. But, when we had a career day at Prisontation, the guy we nicknamed Hornet told the good sister that when he grew up he wanted to be Jonas Cord (you will have to look at the novel). Naturally, the usual suspects fell out laughing as Hornet tried to explain what this meant. The nun was not amused. They never were.

The other beehive of activity was Ernie Pellegrino’s barber shop. This was seriously old school, with maybe 6 barbers (pre-1965), all decked out in white outfits. Ernie, who was a horse-lover, had a salon whose primary reading material was the Racing Form as well as the usual “men’s magazines” that the kids were strictly forbidden to touch, on pain of getting growled at by Ernie, who was quite good at it. I thought Ernie hated everyone. I never saw him smile or laugh. When hair styling for men became a thing, he apparently forbade his barbers–with names like Don and Sol–from even thinking about updating their equipment (to razors), let alone their repertoire. So everyone came of the place looking like some character from a bad 1950s noir film. Ernie had a certain kind of clientele, and as age took its toll, changing fashion did the rest. I guess Ernie died or retired, not that anyone cared. The Scowling Barber of Penn Wynne. You thought your usual operator of a tonsorial parlor was personable and had the gift of gab–for business sake. Not this guy. As soon as my folks could no longer compel me to patronize the SOB, I defected to Lou English’s Style Lounge down in Overbrook Park. The staff there was permitted the use of a razor, and charged accordingly. That was like a rite of passage. One of the younger barbers tried to take Ernie’s place over and make a run with it, but I guess it failed, and by that point, I no longer got haircuts. The 1970s were rough on Italian barber dudes. I did, however, succeed in getting an autograph from an NBA player at Ernie’s. It was Dolph Schayes, who ambled in soon after the Syracuse Nats moved to Philly to replace the Warriors. Schayes didn’t care, but Ernie nearly threw me out of the place for even asking, and glowered at me every time I came in thereafter. I was glad to shake the hair clippings off my feet when I moved on. He was, as the Sicilians say, a tidadoof.

Nothing cool ever happened at Rino’s. It smelled of onions, garlic and Rino’s aversion to showers. One thing, though. On occasion, the lay teachers at Prisontation would send a pair of eighth grade boys down to Manoa Road to buy them lunch at Rino’s. You know, that was some kind of honor, like being Chief altar boy or Head of the Safety Patrol. There were 3 or 4 of them (i.e., lay teachers), and they laid some bread on you with an order. You got to escape well before lunch and take the air and “chat” with Rino. But the payoff was bringing the stuff back to school. Then you got to enter the teacher’s lunchroom and that was a trip. Wall to wall cigarette smoke, since I guess that’s how they fueled up for the afternoon with the inmates. It was sort of cool, seeing one of the younger teachers with a cigarette dangling from her lips, shameless hussy, thereby encouraging some of us in our later experiments with tobacco delinquency. It was a 30 second glimpse into the flesh-and-blood life a school teacher: too bad the example didn’t take with some of us. What a gig that must have been.

I’ve left the hardware store for last, known as Tommy’s, or Tommy Freed’s, in honor of the proprietor, who was a good guy. He never complained about having kids in the store, which was just what you would imagine, an old-fashioned a little of everything place presided over by Mr Freed and an employee. For a while, it was my cousin Tony, who lived over there on Rock Glen Road. No, I got no discount. He was a Salvucci, and we barely made eye contact. The Salvucci were not the toasty warm part of the extended kin group. Anyway, Tommy was from New York, a graduate of DeWitt Clinton High (God, he was probably a classmate of my teacher, Stanley Stein’s), and obviously a lot brighter than the average citizen of Penn Wynne. God knows how he ended up there, but I never saw him angry. Tommy was the soul of geniality, and he did a nice business. I guess being the corner store didn’t hurt, and Tommy’s was like Alice’s Restaurant, you know. You could get most anything you wanted there–‘cepting Tommy, in whom I had no interest anyway.

Tommy was Head of the Civic Association for a bit, and some kind of Republican row office holder too, so he took the civic duty stuff seriously. In a way, he was what was good about Penn Wynne. Cordial, enlightened, responsible, patient, a good employer, decent. Whenever I get back, I go past that storefront and still expect it to be Freed’s Hardware. I wish it were. I still remember the hardware store smell.

No great lessons to be drawn here, other than the two people I mostly admired from our little commercial district were a Black Man and a Jew. You’ll forgive me if I find considerable irony in that. The Pellegrino, I could have done without. There is a synagogue now across from the old shopping center, where the old rectory of Presentation BVM Church and School more or less stood. I’ll let you think about that until next time.

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

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