Lord of the Bus

Yesterday I learned that one of my Devon classmates had gone to the next world. It happens, right. Like Jim Morrison said, no one gets out of here alive, and besides, the pain is over then. Good point. But this particular guy had a a certain bond with me. In fact, we first met in kindergarten at St Donato’s, but his family stayed in West Philly. We met up again at Devon, and, of all place, at the Bus Stop. Life didn’t begin at the Bus Stop. For some of us, it sort of ended there, at least until later in the day. Any event, we were part of the Mafia contingent (according to a classmate I never really liked) making its way out to Devon Prep from West Philly, Southwest Philly, God only knows what Philly. It was a grind, and it started there every morning at 7:40 or so. Unless snow, traffic, or your guardian angel intervened. Never did the Bus not show. Late, maybe, but always there. Rest in Peace, dude.

Nothing special, you know, a 1960s American Superior Yellow Submarine with uncomfortable seats, lousy ventilation, few apparent safety features, and some designated driver who more or less knew what he was doing. I recall three distinct drivers, but I could be wrong. It was old school, no doubt, with a stick shift and all. If you were paying attention, you could divine the intricacies of stick by watching what happened when the driver loused up–like not giving the beast enough gas in low gear. Shake, rattle and roll, much to the disgust of the audience, who would yell “Feed her revs, you dummy.” Yup. We were all in training for LeMans at the age of 15. Occasionally, we broke out the Beatles and did Yellow Submarine, substituting “Fucked Up” for “Yellow” as a group. Happy souls we were. Animated by Pietas et Litterae and too much coffee, even then. Our stop was surrounded by gas stations and a Howard Johnson’s. City Ave and Haverford typically. Hub of the Universe. We rolled on from there, stopping at various points in Kirklyn, Drexel Hill, Havertown, Manoa, Ardmore, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, Villanova, Radnor, Wayne and then Devon. Main Line, more or less tracing out the route of the Paoli Local on the Pennsy, which was for days when you missed the bus. Because you were delinquent, or involved in extracurricular activities, or you just couldn’t stand riding the Bus again. Maybe you wanted to smoke, which was a big no-no at Devon. And even on the Bus. You could curse, swear, yell, fight, sleep, study, daydream, or have an upset stomach on the bus. But No Smoking. Ever.

You also couldn’t, eh, fart on the bus. We learned the hard way. Once, midway through an afternoon journey home, someone did the deed. And a noisome one it was. Juvenile, right? Everyone trying to get away from the point source of the emission. A small riot ensued. Since there was nowhere to go on the Bus, we all sort clumped together. The driver, who also doubled as a Hungarian and as a teacher at Devon was not amused. He slammed on the brakes. “Who made the burst?” were his exact words, angrily flung out at us. Silentium Profundum, for once. Not I, Master. Well, said driver got so pissed he tossed all of us off the Bus. We were in Garret Hill, a suburb of Bryn Mawr, which was…..aah, forget it. So we all got off, muttering some mild obscenities under our breath. How did you get home, you ask? Well, there was public transportation, and I recall we were near the Garret Hill P&W rail stop. So, no big deal, right? Now, can you imagine something similar happening today? Guy would’ve been charged with a some kind of felony. No, not the farter (no one ever confessed), but the driver. I don’t think I ever bothered to mention it to my folks. You know, “How was day, Richard?” “Aw, terrible. Someone cut one on the bus and “x” threw us all off in retaliation.” Sure. In 1967. My Mom would have thought about it and said something like “You must’ve deserved it.” Or, “Finish your homework.” Not exactly a Montessori move, right? Another day at the Office, and on the Bus.

Now you want some really good stories, right? Especially involving hazing, fisticuffs, girl watching, all the rest, right? I COULD give you plenty. All true. Including an incident of mooning a couple of girls in a convertible (who laughed); a guy beating out “A Little Bit of Soul” on someone’s head (no one laughed, but no one did squat, either); someone up front spitting out a window and nailing one of us in the back (pro move) in full flight. Another one involving a fencing operation nicknamed “Midnight Discount,” which involved some of the paisans, if you really must ethnic stereotype. The inevitable Playboy circulating through the ranks. You know, that sort of stuff. More or less routine. You think we didn’t somehow get desensitized to everyday forms of misogyny, homophobia, racism? Damn right we did. That was how you got through it. Like riding the New York Subway in the 1970s. “I see it every day. Nothing to stare at. Next.” Like it or not, that’s how a generation learned to deal with things that would be considered beyond the pale in 2022. Sorry, we didn’t know you’d be watching. Or what you would be thinking? Or even knowing sexism or homophobia was a thing. In retrospect, it was good training for an aspiring historian. See, I don’t expect people in the past to behave like us, since we were some of the people in the past misbehaving, and we didn’t know, honestly, that we were doing anything wrong, or seriously wrong, at least, we did it. Otherwise we probably wouldn’t have done it. You follow? Oh, well, not too many do, but that’s not my problem. Well, it is, but I have to get through the night too.

And there were some absolutely invaluable forms of education on the Bus that didn’t involve alcohol, women, or all that Brett Kavanaugh-Georgetown Prep kind of crap. Believe me, most of us didn’t have the time, the money, or even the requisite cynicism to behave like criminals. Most of us worked at least some time, even if work was playing a lame gig. There wasn’t enough time for sleep, for God’s sake. You did not force yourself on a guy’s sister, especially when he was sitting across from you. I don’t what the Hell went on at old Brett’s alma mater, but while we were no angels, there wasn’t any of that at Devon of which I am aware. Mostly juvenile stuff, maybe not harmless, but basically juvenile. I didn’t know any aspiring rapists. We had a phrase for guys like that: “body grabbers.” You really didn’t want that kind of rep, believe me. Nobody wanted to be around those guys.

However, there are one or two things that remain in memory. One of them involves my departed classmate. He was from West Philly, and not everyone from West Philly went to Devon Prep, or even finished high school. Forget college. You knew people who weren’t college bound, believe me. And he certainly did. In 1967 or 1968, if you were more or less fit and compos mentis (well, more or less), you got to join the Army. Involuntarily. It was called the Draft. And there was a War going on in, remember, Viet Nam. Oh yeah, Tet Offensive, Khe Sanh, Pleiku, all of that. We were all aware of it, and I suspect not a few of us thought, one way or another, we’d end up there.

So one day, my friend brings some photos–maybe they were Polaroids–onto the Bus. No, not that kind. These were of Viet Cong. Or a part of them, at least. Their heads. Being held, one in each hand, on full display, by a grinning grunt, who was my buddy’s friend. You might want to stop and reflect on that for a moment. I don’t honestly remember if this was before or after My Lei (you’re going to have to look it up, or, more likely, Google it), but I don’t think any of us had ever seen anything quite so graphic. Dude standing there, cigarette in his mouth, bare chested, grinning, holding up a couple of heads. To this day–and I have a pretty good memory–I don’t remember anyone making any crack about it–and bitter humor was one of our survival tools. We just passed it around and stared. Yup. You got to see the future. All of a sudden, those people demonstrating at the Draft Board in Bryn Mawr (that was mine) stopped looking like spoiled children, or a bunch of conshies from Haverford, you know, Quakers. We didn’t know beheading was part of Basic. I don’t think it was. It was a sunny day, though. There was that.

So, yeah, there was a lot of BS on the Bus. A certain, perhaps, undesirable socialization to what we now call “toxic masculinity” but was just “boys will be boys” then. Some sex ed, most of it inaccurate and more the product of fantasy than experience. The occasional card game. A lot of profanity. And then there were those moments. Damn few of them, but they happened. When you got a clue that this was not all fun and games, and that you too could be evil if you were given the chance. Not confessional evil. War crime evil. I never forgot that. The other stuff is no doubt offensive, but this was a lesson in how ordinary people could do terrible things. And then brag about it.

Like everyone, I was more than happy when I got off the Bus. I’m sorry if I had to darken it with the memory of a recently departed partner in crime. But, like Jim Morrison said, why be afraid of death. It’s life that hurts. On or off the Bus. RIP, bro.

Sid Mark, the Mark of Jazz

(Sid Mark in the 1950s at the Red Hill Inn. He is second from the left)

Sid Mark died yesterday at the age of 88. Many people knew him from his syndicated broadcasts of Frank Sinatra, but those were–well, after my time. I never met Sid in person, but I felt as if I knew him. There were a couple of broadcasters with great pipes in Philly–John Facenda, “the Voice of God,” and Vince Lee, and for sure, Jack Pyle, “who sounded like an unmade bed.” You grew up in the 1950s and 1960s and spent any time around a radio, you heard those guys–particularly if your taste in music ran to big bands and modern jazz. I was an early recruit thanks to my Dad. While I got into Motown and what Dad called “that degenerate stuff,” and just plain Top 40 crap, I never, ever stopped loving jazz. And for that, at least in some part, I have to thank Sid Mark.

Sid was from Camden, NJ, when you could still be from Camden. That was another world, for sure, with RCA, Campbell’s Soup, and New York Ship, even before the Walt Whitman Bridge. I don’t know anything about his childhood or background other than he was a nice Jewish boy who ended up working as a sort of factotum at the Red Hill Inn in Pennsauken, NJ after he got out of the service in the early 1950s. He was a protege of Harvey Husten, who was on WKDN in Camden, and started up a live series called Jazz in Jersey that moved around a bit before settling at the Red Hill. Harvey died tragically young, in his 30s, and the guy who sort of serendipitously followed in his footsteps was Sid Mark. Harvey was just before my time. But Sid was present at the creation.

A lot of people associate Sid Mark almost exclusively with Frank Sinatra (Senior–he was a friend to Frank Junior too), and that was entirely Sid’s doing. He had a Friday night broadcast in the 1960s and 1970s on WHAT-FM called “Friday With Frank.” I think it ran for four hours, maybe 6 to 10 PM–probably following Sid’s afternoon broadcast at the station that came on at 4 PM. Yeah, Sid and Frank were synonymous in Philly, cause you opened the weekend that way–in my home at least. My Dad would sit in the living room with a glass of Christian Brothers’ sherry and a pack of Salem cigarettes and try to remember better times–his high school days, when Sinatra was with Tommy Dorsey, in the mid to late 1930s. Sid and Frank were therapy for my Dad. Before I started to act like a teenager and get out of the house on Friday nights, we’d sit together and listen. I got a lot of Sinatra and Nelson Riddle, but always, always, narrated by Sid. I guess he had the smoothest tenor voice on the air next to Facenda. The speaker fairly resonated on my Dad’s Zenith tabletop–literally–to Sid’s matter-of-factness delivery. I suspect there were a lot of homes across the Delaware Valley where a similar scene was played out. It was ritual, and ritual comforts.

Still, Sid was a lot more than Sinatra. To a kid trumpet player learning who was who, there was no better tutor for modern jazz than Sid Mark. He came on at 4PM weekdays, “to the sound of trumpets,” and his theme was “Maynard Ferguson.” I didn’t know who the Hell Maynard was. So one day, I called Sid. Trinity 8-1122, “if you care to call,” he would say. And I did. My question to the Great Man was a simple one “Who is that?” There was a pause on the other end, as if Sid couldn’t quite believe the rube he must have had on the other hand. “Who else?” was the response. I waited. He told me. I hung up. He probably thought no more about it. With my Dad’s new Lafayette tape recorder, I had tape the Kenton tune. I must have played it 5 zillion times. Of course, Lol, I tried to play it. As long as Maynard was in human mode, it seemed possible. Then there was the rest, ending on a concert Triple C. Go listen. Check me out. Triple C. As in Crazy. I taped a lot of other stuff too.

Sid introduced me to Art Farmer, Dizzy, Gabor Szabo, Wes Montgomery, Gerry Mulligan, Ellington, Basie, God only knows who else. He’d mix in some local guys too when he was trying to help someone get established. I heard my first Coltrane with Sid, and Monk and Miles too. Yeah, he dug the Vegas types and the lounge stuff, but Sid knew what was what. So while my dopey classmates at Presentation BVM were listening to Herman’s Hermits, I was listening to Blakey. They were cool. But I won the prize.

Since Sid was trying to make a living, he also did commercials. In understand he was hawking Cento in his later years, but for me, Sid was always Sidney Arnold’s Mens’ Store in Philly, on Walnut Street, right? I wasn’t quite ready for that, but I loved to hear Sid talk about the after shave Corteccia di Pino that Sidney Arnold purveyed. Man, there was something about the way Sid pronounced Corteccia di Pino that was almost sensual. I had no idea what the stuff was supposed to do for guys. At least in that department. When I finally saw it, years later, I thought it was expensive and not my style. I was more of an English Leather kind of dude in high school. Soooo sophisticated. Sigh.

There was also a club, short-lived I gather, called Sinatrama. I don’t know if Sid had any financial interest in the place, but it was apparently a temple to Frank. They played Frank all the time. I guess they had him on endless loop. And I suppose they had red clam sauce and scungili. Yes, Sid made you want to check out Sinatrama, even if you were under age–which I always was then, dammit. Oh to be under age with Sid Mark again. Sort of poetic, isn’t it?

In any event, I did interview Sid for a story in All About Jazz a couple of years ago. I think I still have the interview of my dysfunctional Lenovo. I’m sure he was discrete when he had to be, but he actually seemed amazed when he talked about people like Lester Young and I knew Prez’s music. I suppose that wasn’t a common thing in his experience, you know, to find someone under the age of 50 who knew Prez from his Basie days. So we had a great time talking, and he was very nice to me. Just like he was when I called him up and asked him who Maynard was. No, I didn’t ask him if that particular moment in time was as lapidary an instant in his life as it was in mine. I’m sure it was.

We’ve lost Bobby Rydell and Sid Mark in two weeks. They were friends, I know. Sometimes, at this age, you can’t help but wonder, who’s next?

That’s TR 8-1122, if you care to call. Say hi to Frank and Bobby.

1950: Welcome to Postwar America

Sorry. I didn’t make it until 1951. I got there as fast as I could, but my parents were married in 1949. So, my arrival was, so to speak, out of my hands. I do hope I am around to view my 11-year old self in the Census of 1960, but, my departure will, for the most part, out of my hands. Or so I now suppose. Alas, I cannot read the mind of God. Probably better that way. Surprise me, right?

The Census of 1950, however, is now available. If you have access to Ancestry or probably some other service, you can poke around. I couldn’t wait. Not everybody grew up in South Philly, West Philly and Penn Wynne. Still, Lots of friends, Romans and countrymen to keep tabs on.

If anything, Penn Wynne seems even weirder now that when I started looking into it. My family moved in in late 1959, so curiosity got the better of me. I figured, as a kid, that everyone living there in 1960 had always been there. Not a chance. In a very limited sample, representative of nothing other than my own experience (maybe I was weird, like a few of my Prisontation classmates seemed to think), I’d say no more that 15 to 20 percent of my immediate neighbors (Harrogate and adjacent Henley Roads) present in 1960 had been there in 1950. Almost a complete turnover. That really surprises me, because I think the continuity from 1960 to 1970 will turn out to be a lot more impressive. Yeah, people moved, but more often than not, they stayed. Which is why I assumed the interval from 1950 to 1960 was equally stable. That I had seen first hand. But it wasn’t always so.

In fact, my impression was that something similar happened between 1940 and 1950. And more uncertainly, between 1930 and 1940. A lot of Penn Wynne had yet to go up in 1930 (our home was built in 1929), so the comparisons are inexact. But you do get a few interesting insights. From the 1930s through the 1950s, the people there seem to have been almost all white collar–in sales, office work, teaching, an occasional college professor (La Salle), even a former New York Giant, Harry Haines. Nice man. There were even some people labelled “servants!”

Harry “Hinkey” Haines, Penn Wynne guy

By 1960, you could see a few blue-collar people: heavy machinery operator; township truck driver; or in our case, people barely removed from blue collar employment. And, yeah, the names seem a bit less WASPish. In 1954, my favorite Catholic parish had joined Christ West Hope Presbyterian Church, which had been central to Penn Wynne since it was built out of a converted maintenance facility and warehouse for Meloney and McWillians, the builders and developers. There were three Eyetalians on one block–which elicited concern from one of their neighbors. One of them was even in a bowling league and wore a satin Jersey. Yup. There goes the neighborhood.

The other interesting thing was that between 1930 and 1960, a group of people who were “renters” in 1930 had become “owners.” In practice this meant that, in the opening days of the Depression, the builders had to be landlords if they wanted to put people into homes. By 1960, those days were long over. You smell signs of prosperity? Mobility? I do. As I said in a previous post, I thought part of the problem there was some sort of status seeking from the Philly emigrants–the wealthier ones. Place may not have been a melting pot, but it was certainly a blender. Not too many of us realized in the late 1960s was something relatively new, and not at all characteristic of America even a generation before. The funny thing is I think a guy like Richard Nixon knew just how fragile and easily divisible the whole concoction was. You remember, “Bring Us Together” Nixon? Who basically ran for President in 1968 on a strategy of driving us apart. Took 40 years, but worked. This is why we can’t have nice things in America. Places like Penn Wynne were part of the myth of our classless society. Cause we were all middle class. Right.

Well, not all of us.

My faithful readers will know I have been exploring the convoluted history of 223 Harrogate, which was seized by the Alien Property Custodian during WWII.That was my home away from West and South Philly starting in 1960. We bought the place from a family named Bridgman. And the Bridgman bought it from someone named Ruoff. Hermann Ruoff. Who was a German national at the wrong time, World War II. You will remember that Herr Ruoff was the third husband of Madeline DuPont. Yes, those DuPont. I raised the simple question, what were the DuPont doing in Penn Wynne? Truth be told, I didn’t know. And I still don’t. However, I now know a bit more. Which makes even less sense.

When the builders sold the home in 1929 “in fee simple” (ask a lawyer, but I think it means no strings attached), the buyer was a certain Effie C. Wilson. I know a bit about her now. Just enough to really wonder who she was. Who paid? Who knows?

Ms Wilson was born in 1856 and died in 1947. She came from nothing, really. At some point, her father was listed as a tobacconist, but I’d bet that was pushing it. Early on, her family owned oxen. And they weren’t growing tobacco in Pennsylvania, you know? So they farmed. She had siblings and went to school. She shows up as a “Boarder” in a Philadelphia house around 1900 and she was variously classed as a “pastry chef” or “proprietor of a tea room.” But not in 1900. This was in the 1920s. When she died in 1947, she was living in a very nice facility in Chestnut Hill, I guess a sanitarium. The property still exists, and it looks very nice. Who paid? Who knows?

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Effie Wilson took 3 trips to Germany. By ship. In quick succession? What was she doing? Who paid? Who knows? This is a pastry chef, remember. Nota DuPont.

In 1947, when Effie dies, her death certificate was signed by Mrs Madeline Ruoff. Yeah. That Madeline–as in DuPont, whose third husband, Herman Ruoff, was the owner of 223 Harrogate Road, where I lived and where Effie had purchased the home “in fee simple” in 1929. You following me?

I went through my folks’ papers and found the title history to the property. In 1947, Hermann Ruoff sold 223 Harrogate to Mr and Mrs Charles Bridgman, from whom my parents bought the home in 1959. The Bridgmans had been paying a mortgage directly to Mrs Madeline Ruoff a/k/a DuPont. Hmm. Hermann “The German” Ruoff had been acquired along the line by Madeline after a series of scandals (and I mean headline-grabbing scandals) that left her more or less estranged from Alfred and Bessie DuPont, her parents. Also, remember that Effie C. Wilson died in 1947, so the house ended up in their possession very quickly.

Let’s just say Ms DuPont-Ruoff led quite an interesting life. At one point, a servant or lady-in-waiting or something left her service complaining that she was a difficult person. This would have been around 1912., when Madeline was the respondent in a steamy divorce from her husband, the former Charles Bancroft, jr, then a Princeton student with whom she had eloped. Madeline found another squeeze, on a trip to Germany. Hi-jinks (and pregnancy) ensued. And when Madeline got back to the USA, all Hell broke lose. Use your imagination.

What about this Effie Wilson person?

I wondered, after stumbling on this, whether or not Effie Wilson, pastry cook and erstwhile owner of a tearoom in Philadelphia, could have somehow hooked up with Madeline sometime the 1910s or 1920s? And succeeded in the role as an attendant? Who also kept up 223 Harrogate Road from 1929? With her very own “servant” living there, a lady from Bermuda, which Madeline had also previously visited? And gallivanted back and forth to Germany. Maybe they met at the tearoom? Perhaps Effie served as a caretaker and courier when she wasn’t making tea and cookies. Who knows.

There are archives back East, both at Hagley Eleutherian Mills Library and at Washington and Lee University to which I have tracked Ruoff-DuPont correspondence. You know, the same way I track Lizardi family stuff all over the globe. I figure in my spare time I might as well give this branch of the DuPont–Ruoff–Wilson family a shot. After all, someone might actually want to read about all these juicy scandals closer to home. In, of all places, Penn Wynne.

Who’d have thought it? Right? Maybe Mickey Duffy. He dead.

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.

Harro(w)gate Road

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.

Montgomery County, Here We Come

In the fall of 1960, my immediate family–Mom, Dad and me–moved to a place called Penn Wynne, Pennsylvania. What the Hell was a Penn Wynne? As opposed to, say, a Penfield, a Penn Argyl, or Penn Hills? Well, it was glamorous suburban living with a view in a beautiful “modernistic” house solidly built by McWilliams and Meloney. A cottage type home: we lived in the Wm Penn model cottage. No kidding. Once again, I’m gonna show you. I don’t make this stuff up. Penn Wynne was right over the line from West Philly and 66th Street, not to mention South Philly, where I also spent a lot of time. But Penn Wynne was another world, believe me. While I’d like to think I still have a lot of South and West Philly in me, I know, my wishes to the contrary, that Penn Wynne, Lower Merion Township, Montgomery County probably has more to do with who I am today. What a thought.

A little background on Penn Wynne. You can skip if history bores you. If you are an American, it probably does. Artistic beauty. Modern Comforts. Lasting Endurance.

Almost Across the Street from West Philly

The list price of the Wm Penn model (a double home in 1928) was $10,000, so let’s say $5,000 for one (this may be incorrect). According to the good people at Measuring Worth, that could be anywhere from $143 thousand to $308 thousand in 2021 dollars, depending on what yardstick you’re using. My inclination is to split the difference, and say $221,000. It’s funny, but I think my Mom’s home sold for $175 thousand in 2016, but it needed work and certainly wasn’t brand new. So, you get the idea, more or less. Amazingly, my Dad paid, I think, $10,000 for it in 1959, so very roughly, the place appreciated at about 2.5 percent per year. Basically, that was about average annual inflation over the period. The moral of the story, my friends, if you fear inflation, buy a decent house. Anyway, so what took us to Penn Wynne.

This is another twisted fairy tale. Basically, I had the impression that my Mom thought she had to get me out of West Philly before I went native. My friends weren’t particularly thuggy, as thuggy city kids go, and, Skippy apart, there weren’t any real criminals around (that she knew of). But she worried. And, I suspect, she and my Dad probably figured it was time to go out on their own, although I don’t think my grandparents were all that happy about it. But, you know, my Dad was now over 40, and this was America, where everybody was going to the suburbs. I guess they figured it was high time. Not my call anyway. St Donato’s was not a problem (my B- conduct grade notwithstanding), but I guess that wasn’t exactly what she had in mind either. You know, city school, city kids, Italian immigrants who used word that made the Cabrini nuns blanch. We had looked at a number of developments, mostly in Delaware Country including one inauspiciously named Delmar Village(Spano realtor, the slumlord of Delco). You can see why Penn Wynne beckoned. Besides, my Dad’s oldest brother, Tony, lived there on Rock Glen Road, so I guess he had some inside information. In the Summer of 1959, my Dad began to fix the place, on Harrogate Road, up. I was just 8 years old, and man, hanging with Louie was a blast.

My Dad may have been an accountant, but he was a musician by soul and a craftsman by dexterity. Man, he could do anything–plumbing, flooring, painting, windows–he knew how to do it, and to do it right. The place was sort of a mess when we got it, which may have made it affordable. Boy did Lou Larkins dress it up. But good. He could also fix cars, program IBM mainframes, and do woodwork. Where did I come from? I never realized just how accomplished he was. We spent the summer with my eating hoagies and listening to Sinatra while he worked, by himself, day after day, so that we could move in by the Fall. We didn’t have much furniture, and a braided rug on which I watched a console black and white RCA TV. But it was home, it was warm, I felt safe, and my parents were good people. When I think now how young they were, it spooks me. I have become my grandfather.

The house, unbeknownst to me, had some history. Aside from being a Meloney and McWilliams Wm Penn gem (see below), it was probably about 30 years old when we moved in. That meant we were not the first occupants, much less the second, or even the third. Oh no. 223 Harrogate had a history by the time we came into the picture. And it isn’t too sensational to say, I blush, but Nazis lived here. Well. So I’m given to understand. No one came right out and told us that. But Our House was seized by the Alien Properties Commissioner during World War II because it was, ahem, owned (occupied, who knows), by a German national with the auspicious name of Madeleine DuPont. Yeah, a direct descendant of them DuPonts, you know, Alfred I DuPont. Don’t believe me? Well, he goes.

Alfred Irénée du Pont, an orphaned son of Eleuthère Irénée du Pont II, left MIT in 1884 to work at the family’s manufacturing powder plant on the Brandywine river. He became a partner in the company and was sent to Europe as the U.S. Army’s Chief of Ordnance. He was also assistant superintendent of the Hagley and Lower Yards. Alfred became a director in 1899.

In 1902 with a looming threat of the du Pont business being sold to competitor Laflin & Rand, Alfred and his cousins, T. Coleman du Pont, and Pierre S. du Pont, formed a partnership to buy the company. Alfred served as vice president of the new corporation and took over the black powder manufacture and sat on the Executive Committee. Alfred helped create a research program.

Yeah, that DuPont. You tell me what his daughter was doing with a house in Penn Wynne? I do have a theory, but since it’s a bit risque and unproved (not to say uninvestigated), I’ll leave for another day. Ms DuPont apparently had active love life, and I can’t imagine that a nice, unpretentious suburban hideaway, snuggled by Route One, that ran between New York and Baltimore, would have inconvenienced her unduly in her assignations. The neighborhood was still pretty remote in those days, but upscale enough to have one model priced at $20,000. You could probably figure $600,000 today, nothing to sneeze at. That home was across from the very toney Convent of the Sacred Heart, which educated daughters of the elite until 1969. What better place for a hideaway?

In 1926, before our home was built, there was my block, in yellow


Now, Mom and Dad were buying a workaday home, not a hideaway. But Ms. Dupont was, well, sort of notorious. Believe me, I had no idea growing up that we resided in a place hat had been seized by the United States government. Coincidentally, the family from which we bought the place moved in in 1949. That was exactly one year after Ms Dupont and her then German husband (there had been two other, considerably less exotic exes) were instructed to dispose of the home by the Federal government, according to papers I have found. Again, since I am afraid you’re gonna think I have an overactive imagination, I’m going to reproduce part of that here. See. I told you. We moved into a place once owned by, er, fans of the Third Reich. Ms Dupont went to Germany in 1932, must have picked up said Ruoff there, and came back to the United States in 1946. Very interesting choice of dates. Almost coincide with the Third Reich. Hmm………..

I have no idea who occupied the house during the 1940s. Or if the place was even occupied. One curious thing was that our next door neighbor in the double house was of German extraction. He had been there a long time. I never thought anything of it until sometime last week. He was an odd bird, for sure.


66th and Haverford, Skippy’s Story

I’ve always enjoyed Tolstoy’s line in Anna Karenina, which I usually slaughter. It goes something like “Every happy family is the same, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tell me about it. Italian families are subject to stereotyping, in case you haven’t noticed. I’ve been known to call on my Uncle Vito to administer retribution to someone who has gotten up in my grill. I don’t have an Uncle Vito. But everyone gets the point. It’s like alluding to Super Mario Brothers. Hey, by the way, how come you can call a video game that? I can’t refer to the Washington Redskins anymore, but Eyetalians remain fair game. I need to fix that gross injustice. Some other time, as the song goes.

So, to reprise a bit. Haddington is the name given to a section of West Philly that’s scarcely ever used any longer. But it goes back, at least, to the early nineteenth century. For all I know, it may well antedate that but I’m not sufficiently expert to say. I do know that by the 1840s, there was enough settlement to warrant a hotel called–The Haddington Hotel.

Ok. I know a good publicist when I see one, and Major W. Whitesides could turn a phrase. Now, maybe 66th and Haverford was beautiful and romantic in 1842, although looking at it today, you could be forgiven a certain skepticism. The high and beautiful scenery, well, yeah, I could see 69th Street from the second floor of 6613 Haverford, and if memory serves, on a good night, the old PNB sign (since removed as a “safety hazard”; it predicted weather by color change. So cool) In fact, I wouldn’t swear to it without a survey and a trip to the Municipal Archives, but I’m willing to wager that we (the Villari-Salvucci extended family) occupied part of the site of the hotel, along with a number of other houses. What does this have to do with Skippy? Well, not much, but in my mind’s eye, part of doing history is trying–usually fruitlessly–to see what you are writing about. Skippy’s was about a block and a century removed from the Haddington Hotel.

I should know when my people began to run the neighborhood down. See, the Haverford, Lansdowne, Haddington, Chester, Lancaster–they don’t exactly bespeak a legacy foundation by the people of the Italian peninsula, let alone the duskier varieties. I’m guessing the Italians ruined the neighborhood around the turn of the twentieth century. For now, let’s figure we were latecomers. Besides, the Lenni Lenape got there first, but aside from the name Karakung, they got no skin in the game any more. They got the melting pot treatment. But good.

I think Skippy’s dated to about 1941, or, at least, Skippy’s history with the Philly cops did. Growing up a block or so away, I had no idea that Skippy’s was a hot spot. Or that the cops had routinely raided the place. No one ever said a word. No one ever said, “Bad people there. Avoid.” Nothing. Even though my Dad grew up maybe two blocks from it, and it was directly visible from Renzulli’s pharmacy at 65th and Haverford. It was part of the wallpaper. You’d go into Yock’s deli, or even into DeVita’s furniture store–my parents bought their furniture there when we fled to Montgomery County, or into Neil Leger’s Jeep dealership (which stood where D’Anjollel’s funeral parlor now resides). But Skippy. Nope.

It was a tap room, as we called them back then. My father did not frequent such places. I doubt I knew anyone who did. But, clearly, someone patronized Skippy’s. Because it was a going concern for many years. I probably mentioned that Mike Pedicin had a regular gig there, and he was a name sax player in Philly. That’s all I knew when I was a kid about Skippy’s. Mike Pedicin played there. But there was much more to know.

As of 1965 (when I was 14, and, believe me, no innocent), Skippy had wracked up 22 arrests for gambling. Mrs Skippy, who was actually the licensee (from the Liquor Control Board) had been arrested 9 times. So the probability of Skippy getting busted for bookmaking in any given year from 1941 to 1965 was 22/24, or about 92 percent. Man, I love them odds. If someone had made my Devon Preparatory Freshman self a bet on Skippy getting busted and I had known that, man, I would have taken it. Mrs. Skippy less so, although here the story really gets interesting. And what I am about to tell you is true. No names to protect the innocent.

Italian wives of that vintage really knew how to stand by their man. Especially where the numbers racket was involved. I knew of a case where the cops arrested the wife when they were actually looking for her husband, and tossed her in jail. Knowing the individuals involved, I have a hard time believing the wife knew ANYTHING about hubby’s extralegal pursuits. But this was back in the day, and if you wanted a guy badly enough, you busted the wife. At least in Philly. At least in Vice. I kid you not. So follow this.

I’ve posted–as incontrovertible evidence–an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer on that appeared on February 9, 1960. Notice the Moll in the shades. This is Mrs Skippy. Even though she lived just around the corner from us on Atwood Road–a nice little line of stone house with lawn jockies, if memory serves, and maybe a Madonna or two, I don’t ever recall seeing her in any of the usual haunts. And that, I suppose, because she was otherwise employed. She was fully employed in not one, but two jobs: chef de cuisine at Skippy’s, and Chief Swallower of Slips at Skippy’s “bomb shelter” in the basement of Atwood Road (Skippy told the cops the war room was a bomb shelter in the basement. You know, “Duck ‘n Cover” Days then, when Republicans hated Commies). When the cops raided Skippy’s crib–more anon–the missus was found swallowing a betting slip with horserace plays and numbers slips even though she was indisposed with the grippe. I guess her doctor told her to eat only what she wanted. In any event, she got busted too. But wait, there’s more. To smoke Los Skippy out, literally, the cops dropped a smoke bomb down an air vent. Yes, the Philly cops bombed another house in West Philly.

And you thought the Move fiasco was unique, and that Greg Sambor was the only idiot who ever ran the Philly police department. Well, Bunky, I got news for you. They may not have burned down the neighborhood (thank God, the Villari-Salvucci compound was within walking distance), but the cops showed themselves perfectly willing to do something abysmally stupid to White people, assuming that Italians were White, of which I suspect some of them needed to be convinced. Now I know the Cisco Kid aka Frank Rizzo ultimately had a run at Vice, and he hassled the Skippies too. But you see, this is what happens when you overthink something involving cops in Philadelphia. To paraphrase Whoppi Goldberg, they may be racist slugs, but they beat up on everyone in those days. Take my word for it. No one on 66th Street ever wanted to see an old Red Car, which is what the cops drove back in the day. Cops were trouble, period.

The amazing thing about all this stuff is that it happened under my nose. John Facenda, the Italian American Walter Cronkite on WCAU Channel 10 never mentioned it–cause I’d remember. We never talked about the festivities a block away. Cause I’d remember that too. We had euphemisms for people like Skippy. Like someone who engaged in domestic violence and tore his home up every night (a neighbor) was called “noisy.” Maybe, if they were really plus ultra, you called them a “tidadoof.” (some kind of Sicilian pejorative) Mostly, you just averted your gaze and tried real hard to pretend these people didn’t exist. And, in way, they didn’t. They weren’t part of your world, so a discrete silence followed by a look that suggested you had stepped into something noisome was understood in the good old days in Haddington.

There was another time the Skippies got pinched and they released Mr and detained Mrs. I’m not really sure what the legal reasoning was, but I’m sure it wasn’t that the cops wanted to make her Queen for a Day. I guess they figured she would, you should pardon the expression, roll over on the Old Man. As far as I know, she never did. In March 1960, the Skippies got busted yet again. “Every time we turn around, you’re at our heels,” Signore Scaperotto complained to the police. They demanded to see the Chief of Police. He was indisposed. His deputy told them he would put them out of business. Fat chance.

They were parishoners at Saint Donato’s too, although I would have thought they might have belonged in Saint Callistus, which was this forbidding stone pile right off Lansdowne Avenue. Man, we were so insular I never knew anyone who went to school at St Callistus, let alone Mass. I think I knew someone who attended Cassady Elementary on Lebanon Avenue, which was practically another universe. Public school. No way. You were half way to Hell already.

When the Skippies left the planet, I am pretty sure they went out via Robert D’Anjolell Funeral Home, which was almost facing the tavern at 65th and Haverford. So there was a kind of symmetry to Haddington existence. You came in, worked and went out all in easy walking distance. Hell, you could have a beer and play the numbers too–hear Mass, pick up a prescription, get a cheese steak, buy great dinner rolls at Reale’s Bakery. You could even get a piano on 66th Street, although we were more the brass and woodwinds type of home. The Italian American Democratic Club was at 66th and Media, perched atop what we called Suicide Hill, where we’d let gravity send us careening down the street. Bocce courts and all. A full bar. Yellow cab had a nearby depot north of Haverford Avenue on 65th Street. We had a butcher, a baker, and a bookie. Hey, what more did you want? A full service hood. I don’t know what other services were available, but nothing would surprise me. We didn’t have a shrink, but nobody talked about that kind of stuff in the 1950s, believe me. And it wasn’t as if we all couldn’t have used one. All them cousins marrying from the hills of Lazio? Talk about inbreeding. Dear God.

Hey, don’t laugh or you’ll get hurt

Now, I should tell you one more thing about Skippy before I leave off. He was, God love him, an entrepreneur. Some time around 1964 or so, Skippy, the modest tap room, became Scaperotto’s, your place for fine dining and floor shows. Here. I’ll show you. DANCING NIGHTLY. FLOOR SHOWS. A smorgasbord (remember them) With a kitchen supervised by Mrs Skippy, who knew old world Italian cuisine, dammit. And a maitre d’ who was, I swear to God, apparently allergic to pizza flour (rumor has it, although God knows what other white powder might have given him sneezing fits). When Skippy’s went big time, it went BIG TIME. You can figure who helped finance the transition into an emporium. He made a few bucks gambling, and he had his posse. They’re right there. Miele Plumbing was a subcontractor for the Salvucci Bros, builders to whom my Dad was related (and for whom he once gigged as a night watchman), so don’t knock local finance. Debt collection was, I suspect, no problem. The Rothbard Theatrical Agency (said to handle Sammy Davis) would book the occasional singing dwarf from the Alabama: Little Linda Lou, 47 inches tall, 54 pounds, part of the Frankie Brent Review, Straight from Vegas. Don’t ask. I’m sure her intonation was perfect when she sang “Non Dimenticar” at the formal opening of Scaperotto’s Musical Bar (swear to God). Jerry Vale couldn’t make it. Frank was busy and sent regrets via Sid Mark on WHAT-FM.

Hey, this is Vegas on the Haverford

Now, isn’t that a palace fit for a King? Skippy’s “Bar” (still visible) had become a stuccoed monstrosity now gracing Haverford Avenue. 6519! I grew up at 6613! Run the numbers (well, poorly expressed). Right down the street from me, in Old Haddington, a freaking club. Complete with Caddy convertible parked out front to give the place some real class. Only thing was, by the time this went up, my family had fled the scene, to the greener climes of Penn Wynne and Penfield, verdant streetcar suburbs from the 1920s where Little Richie first heard the endearing terms “dago” and “wop”. Yes, boys and girls, from a guy named Eddie (no, not Eddie Haskell), who taught me to love the Irish Americans among us. But that is for another day. Soon. I ain’t done.

You’d think when Skippy became Scaperotto, he’d leave his penny ante bookie days behind, right? Wrong. They kept running numbers from the joint, they kept getting raided, they kept getting busted. You can’t take the hoodlum from the hood, or something like that. But by now, it was front page news in Philly, and everybody knew. The secret was out.

It was time for the Eyetalians to get away. Before even worse showed up. And they did. But that’s the next installment.

66th and Haverford

Did you ever read a children’s book, title something like “Dinosaur in My Back Yard.” I’m pretty sure I read it to my kids, although I think it made more of an impression on me than it did on them. In any event, I’ve been having some of those dinosaur moments, mostly relating to places in which I grew up. You know, sort of, what was this place like before I ever existed? I’m pretty sure these thoughts have been prompted by the realization that at some future date I will no longer exist, but McDonald’s is likely to still be around. Full of people eating stuff, blithely unaware of my previous existence. Deep, right?

If you have been following my adventures (why not?), you know my West Philly part grew up in Haddington. Except nobody ever called it that. Only the local branch of the Free Library at 65th and Girard Avenue had the Big H as part of it’s name. But my go to source for The Cat in The Hat was only known as “the libary.” That’s Philly-tawk. No one called it “The Haddington Branch.” No one would have known what you were talking about if you did. But see, we had culture. You didn’t need no picket fence Leave It to Beaver neighborhood. We were tough.

Now, this neighborhood was Italian-American and white. If if there was some doubt in the larger society about if we were really American, just like there had once been some conviction we weren’t white either. At 64th and Haverford, there was an Episcopal Church. It was called St Barnabas, Haddington. I gotta tell you that place made no impression on me whatsoever. I was so rooted at 66th and Haverford that 64th and Haverford might as well have been Ukraine. I had no clue what an Episcopalian was. I never met one. Hell, I don’t think I knew anyone who wasn’t Italian Catholic.

St Barnabas Episcopal Church, Haddington

I insert this photo only to prove I am not pulling your leg. I don’t know what it was doing there, when it was founded, zilch. If it had 100 communicants when I was a kid, I’d be surprised. The Rector’s name was Arthur Woolley. Believe me, nobody around there was named Arthur Woolley. Renzulli, Ragni, Villari, Amoroso, Rufo, Arzio. But Woolley? No way. The Church was clearly a vestigial remain of whatever had given rise to the name Haddington. It was long gone by the time my people took over. And took over we did.

Hey, Paysan, You don’t look Italian. They weren’t.

I lived directly across from the Russell Gross Post of the American Legion, which was at 6610 Haverford. That post closed up shop in 1980, but we’re talking 1950s here, and it was a going concern. Pretty place, I’d bet now it had gone up in the 1880s or 1890s, long before the home in which I lived. I even think there was a small Presbyterian church behind it cheek by jowl, but I wouldn’t swear to it. What the Hell was it doing there? If you think Haverford, Haddington, Episcopalian, Presbyterian–all of it, hints at some previous WASP existence on the Western edge of Philadelphia, I’d think you’d be correct. That’s only apparent to me now. You’d think one of the fancy types who inhabited the unlamented Philadelphia Social History Project would have looked into it. Sniff. To those guys, the West Philly Italians were the people without history. I hate to break it to you, but that was White Privilege such as I knew it. You wanna argue? Fine. I have a PhD in History from Princeton, and I know how to do this stuff, even if I never gave a rat’s backside about the places where I grew up. Who did? For God’s sake, we produced accountants, carpenters, insurance agents and butchers. Barely white collar then. Who the Hell studied history? You couldn’t make a living doing that.

However, you could make a living running a deli, a grocery store, a funeral parlor, a drug store, a bakery, a butcher, a tap room, or, Heaven help us, a tonsorial parlor (barber to you, cretin) or even an off track betting shop. Yeah, as a bookie or a numbers guy. Those were good jobs, if a bit risky.

C’mon Salvucci. You didn’t know any of those kind of people. Well, what do you mean “know,” as Clinton aptly observed? Where there were taprooms, restaurants, musicians and various shady types, there was, oh my God, the Mob. Cosa Nostra. The Outfit. Small time stuff, you know–there were no Godfathers in sight. But there were, ahem, soldiers.

There was a small taproom, in my day known as Skippy’s, at 65th and Haverford, more or less. It was, believe me, an unprepossessing place. It opened about 1943. I could only see the inside from the door that was usually opened on to Haverford Avenue. Fine dining and music. My memory suggests that a frequent habitue of the bandstand was a certain Mike Pedicin. Cause I saw his name up, and he was a well known Philly sax player. He has a famous sax playing son, Mike Pedicino (Jr), who is a monster on tenor. When he was coming up, I was as confused as Hell, because I didn’t realize Mike was not his father. I thought they had pretty good genes in that family, cause Mike, then with a full head of hair, didn’t look old enough to be a survivor of the 1950s. But his Dad was a Philly legend.

I remember going by Skippy’s on the 31 PTC trolley up Haverford Avenue, before they tore out the tracks for a bus. I’m guessing I might have been four or five years old, no older. So I wasn’t about to do the hang there. Maybe by the time I was seven I’d get to go to Yock’s at 66th and Haverford to buy cigarettes for my dad, or to eye the pinball machine–where they played for money, lol. Yeah, you can play a pinball machine for money. I saw it change hands. Definitely serious crime. The people around there were so naive that Yock once had some “newspaper” announcements printed up saying “Frank Sinatra to Appear at Yock’s Friday Night.” Right. Don’t laugh, there was a crowd of maybe 40 people waiting (including me) when some goofball in shades and a trench coat showed up, probably Yock’s first cousin. He was lucky not to get strung up, but this is the level of sophistication I’m talking. This was my childhood. In Haddington.

We were big on urban legends, halfball (a Philly game that apparently has a New York equivalent) and Robin Roberts, the Phillies’ redoubtable pitcher. Robbie had a few spectacular years in the 1950s. We thought Bobby Del Greco, the Phillies outfielder, lived on 66th street, I guess because some kid, Michael del Greco, did. Even in those days, when ball players had winter gigs at beer distributors, there was not much chance of that. But Hotsy, otherwise known as Hoagie Nose, swore up and down that he did. Yes, the children of the street were kind. We were, in today’s parlance, walking microagressions.

Hotsy was this tall skinny kid who lived vaguely if safely in the inner recesses of the hood. His rather large nose was celebrated in song: “Hotsy is a friend of mine. He resembles Frankenstein. Every time he blows his nose. There is such a big explose.” Yes, it ended on a tonic note. And there was Mister Softie, the rolling soft ice cream vendor who came rolling down 66th Street on soft summer nights to ruin our appetites and drain our forgiving parents of coins. The truck was garish, and it played a melody. Dude. This very tune.

We had lyrics to the melody. And remember, the neighborhood didn’t look anything like suburban Texas, for God’s sake. I didn’t make up the lyrics. A guy named Louie the Louse did. Here we go: “Where is the **** that brings the cream? His name is Mister Softee.” Oh. My. God. **** was a barnyard epithet. The street looked like this two years before I was born. To your immediate left was a blacksmith. Yeah. Had enough?

1949. 66th and Haverford. Salvucci Builders did the homes in the distance.

In any event, before you lose all you patience, I want to tell you about Skippy the Bookie, aka, the “club owner.” And how he interacted with the neighborhood. Now Skippy was a local dude, but I guess he had been to Vegas, seen visions, dreamed dreams. He wasn’t happy with some taproom at 65th and Haverford. He wanted more.

So, in 1963, Skippy went big time. Boy did he go big time.

Las Vegas Comes to Haddington. Floor Shows. Choice Wines. God only knows what else.

I also have an exterior photo. This is what Skippy’s had been transmogrified into. Scaperotto’s Music Bar, “the scene of frequent raids over a twenty year period.”

What hath Skippy Wrought?

Now, I don’t know how well you can read the text around the photo, but you see the door labelled “Bar”? That was the old original Skippy’s. Now well you may ask, where on earth did Skippy get the scratch to modernize (with Cadillac, see fins) his humble. Haddington operation?

Tune in for the next installment. I’m just getting warmed up. With more pictures, even!!!!

I don’t want to try your patience.

Merry Christmas, you bastards

I had previously said I was off for the holidays. And I was. But since we are facing what Michael Osterholm calls a “viral blizzard,” I think the holidays are on hold. And besides, what teacher-writer with a book to finish ever stops working. As Perry Como (channeling Armando Manzanero) wailed, “Tell a baby not to cry, it’s impossible.”

You know, if you tried to make the last 18 months up, you couldn’t. I couldn’t, and I have a Hell of an imagination. Here are a few examples. In no order of importance.

There is a guy in the US Senate named Manchin (ne Mancino, or something like that). Now, I never gave this guy much thought. Cause, honestly, I never gave West Virginia much thought. I’ve been there briefly coming or going from the Southwest to Philly. Maybe 20 minutes. It looked like upstate Pennsylvania, but worse. I figured 20 minutes was enough. No there there.

Then along comes Manchin. I am told he drives a Maserati. You do sort of wonder how some dorch from nowhere affords such things, especially on a government salary. In Mexico, this is a presumptive crime called “inexplicable enrichment.” I like that. I think we need it on the books here. Because I got the feeling that Manchin is bought and paid for, well beyond the public stuff we can scrape the web for. Pharma? Energy companies? Who really cares? Right now, I know he is holding not only the United States, but indeed, the world, hostage. He has gutted the clean energy provisions of Biden’s legislation from his perch in the Senate. Why? Because he is, as they say in Spanish, el fiel de la balanza. The balance weight. The guy who tips the scales in our bankrupt political system, the land of “one man, one vote.” Right. More like “one man, one toilet.” Cause that’s where we are. With the evidence of truly scary climate change upon up–please, spare my intelligence the denials–maybe irreversible change, for all I know, Manchin is a one man greenhouse gas producer. He is toxic.

And yet the miserable Democrats have pussy footed around this weasel in the vain hope that “he can get there.” Meaning that they can talk some sense to him about Biden’s legislation, much of which strikes me as far too important to ignore. Like, Manchin apparently thinks greenhouse gases are a “positive good.” You know, like John C. Calhoun and African slavery. Not an obnoxious byproduct of a system of production, but a vital, and, indeed, beneficial contribution to humanity. No offense to Calhoun intended.


Time’s up, and Manchin is in the way. Not of progress, but maybe of the future of the planet. So is West Virginia. If the place were Russia in the 1950s, we would’ve given them over to Curtis LeMay and let his beloved B52s bomb them even further back into the Stone Age than they currently are. As far as Manchin goes, I think it’s time for Biden and any self-respecting Democrat (Pelosi, Warren, Klobuchar are the only three I can think of) to rough him up. And as we learned from past Presidents, you can rough someone up when you want. Gee, when was the last time that Joe’s tax returns got thoroughly audited? Search me. Better yet, search him. One of them compliance thingies, where if you say you are a dude on your 1040, you have to prove it. Maybe on national television. But I think the time for doing nice nice to this slug (among others) is now long past over. Ask Jim Carville. He seems to have some clues about how to handle people like this. And I bet he wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. I wouldn’t. And I’m a nice Catholic boy. But enough is enough.

Then there’s January 6. Oh, yeah, that refreshing stroll across the Capitol grounds by the Minions of Trump. Yesterday, I read that a guy who tossed a fire extinguisher at the cops got 5 years. And what about that Howling Maniac dressed up in an animal skin. He got some time, right? Whatever it was, not enough.

You have got to be kidding me. Merrick Garland is said to have a net worth of $20 million. I am again sort of wondering where that came from? By dint of his motivational seminars? Do we still have a DOJ? Or did Trump just lay waste to the entire thing? A year later and we got a couple of chicken shit sentences for fur wearers and extinguisher tossers? What about Trump? What about Meadows? What about Rick Perry? What about Giuliani? What about the complicit knuckleheads in Congress? We now have several long volumes by Woodward et al essentially laying out a public version of what these characters were up to. Lord, if some guy in South Texas can figure it out, are you telling me that the Best and Brightest can’t? Oh, they’re dotting i’s and crossing t’s. Comforting. Here I thought they were facing down the first open attempt at rebellion in the United States since Our Southrun Breathern decided to prove their point. . I remember when Katrina wiped out NOLA, I called my Senator (Kay Bailey Hutchison) and asked her office “Where the Hell is George?” You know, W who was a no-show for days in the wake of a catastrophe. I’m at about that point now with Garland and the DOJ. Y’all home? Taking calls? This is an emergency. The house is burning down. You can nap or have a tasteful meal later.

Then there’s the newest flavor of Covid. Dear God, is this nuts or what? I looked at a shot outside Macy’s in NYC. Crowded streets. Some masks even, but you’d never know this damn thing was blowing up again. I heard some poor physician say there are two worlds: ours, and then the one in which people are pretending nothing is happening.Take a look at the streets of Berlin for comparison. They got as many antivax wingnuts there–proportionately–as we do here. But they’ve gotten serious about making people get vaccinated. By restricting access to public spaces to people who realize their actions have consequences. The vaccinated. Don’t give me this idiocy about what I put into my body is my business. What you put into MY body is MY business. How many times do people have to hear that nobody has an absolute right to anything, especially when it infringes on the rights and well being of others?

Give me a break. Rousseau talked about forcing people to be free in The Social Contract. Well, I finally get it. Took fifty years, but I hear you, dude. I think we need to force some Americans to be free.

Yeah, this is nothing but an ill tempered rant. I don’t care. You don’t have to read it or like it or agree with it. But like they used to say in my old neighborhood, lead, follow, or get the Hell out of the way.

I have a feeling a lot of people need to get out of the way. And if they don’t, maybe they need a push. And it’s increasingly likely that some of us will be willing to help administer it.

Merry Christmas. And sorry I didn’t proofread carefully. Tough.

When I was a Boy, I Walked Seven Miles Through The Snow

Yesterday was Thanksgiving (in the USA, for my faithful international readers, all 4 of them). It’s gotten to the point that you worry about celebrating any commemorative occasion that has to do with Native Americans. You know, since homicidal beginnings are almost inevitably built into the origins of all them, you figure it’s some kind of political gesture–and not a good one. And this is not a subject of humor. This year, I made a few cracks about Columbus Day (hey, I’m Italian-American. Columbus WAS first) and I ended up almost losing a friend and deeply regretting that I said anything. And I’m, at heart, a historian. Maybe that’s why I get into trouble so easily: I tend to worry about details or anachronisms or petty stuff like that, and I end up sounding like Eammon Duffy on burning Protestants during the English Counter Reformation. Well, I wish I could sound like Eammon Duffy on anything, but let it pass. Suffice it to say, these ethnobonfires are not my style. I’m sorry Squanto lies buried under a golf course somewhere. We weren’t around, or we would have told him that you don’t trust medeganz.

In any event, Thanksgiving is one of what I would call an “anchor holiday.” Now, in behavioral economics, “anchoring” has a precise meaning. Basically, it suggests that the first value you select or pay or see or something has an outsized effect on subsequent decisions you make, rational, correct, or not. The effect has been widely observed in all sorts of fields; some of us may just regard anchoring as “stubborn insistence” in the face of changing information. The first sci-fi movie I saw had slimy ET’s. I expect ET to be slimy. Even seeing a non-slimy ET (or any ET) will not change my feeling that I saw a slimy ET. Anchoring.

I think, not to put to fine a point on it, that for a lot of us, a day like Thanksgiving is an anchor holiday. You celebrate it each year–or I do, at least–but my first memories of Thanksgivings, back in the 1950s and early 1960s, have an outside effect on shaping my expectations as to what an appropriate Thanksgiving Day will be. Anything else feels weird, whether it is objectively weird or not. So I grew up in Philadelphia before climate change was a thing. I grew up at a time when you could and did burn fallen leaves from trees whose aroma spiced the chilly Fall air. I expect Thanksgiving to be chilly, and maybe burning-leaf scented, turkey apart. I just do. Even moving to another part of the country always evinced the sensation that “it doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving or Christmas” even though I had no reason to think Christmas in California was going to feel like Christmas in Philadelphia. The anchor of my early years, formative experiences, or at least what I remember or THINK I remember as formative experiences is too powerful. My narrative is set by an anchor created at least 60 years ago. Another time.

I was forcefully reminded of this phenomenon by watching a rather extraordinary film of the Thanksgiving Day parade in Philadelphia from 1934. With sound. I am going to put that up first so you can look at it too, or you can simply skip over it. I was transfixed.

Gimbel’s 1934 Thanksgiving Day Parade, Philadelphia PA

Impressive, huh. A soundie from “back in the day” documenting the way Philly’s parade used to work. A buff Santa climbing the window into Gimbel’s toy department at Eighth and Market. Santa looks like a refugee from Dickens, and the crowd, as befitting a city that was around 90 percent white, evinces no diversity. Well, those are faithful reflections of the times–when FDR and Hitler were on a collision course, a first class letter cost 3 cents to mail (still true in my childhood if you didn’t seal it), and Lou Larkins (my Dad, God rest his soul) was maybe in his junior year at West Catholic High School for Boys (he had a medical problem that delayed his graduation, and nearly killed him, not to say made him a genuine 4F, but I’m not sure what year it was). And look at the togs. Little kids turned out sweetly in little fleece trimmed coats. Dudes in box coats with Fedora hats. Wow. Must have been a chilly one. You know. Philly in late November. My Dad was forever lecturing my adolescent self about how I didn’t really know what it was to endure a walk to school in the snow, because the winters were awfully cold and snowy, And it was the Depression. Cold is colder in a depression, right. I took a comfy school bus out to Devon and lived in luxury. Tom Brokaw was right. They were the Greatest Generation.

One small problem with this story. It was rainy in Philly that day. Streets look wet and the cops are in old fashioned slickers. The high in Philly that day was 64F and the low was 56F. The average high in Philly in November is 55F and the low is 40F. It might have been rainy (it was), but it wasn’t chilly. Depression or no. Old days or not. It was, well, mild. Well, if it was mild, how come all those people are overdressed? Oh, oh.

I don’t do the history of fashion, let alone the history of American fashion.

However, I can look stuff up, and I know the men dressed much more formally then than they do now, where we go out onto the streets looking like we should be collecting FROM UNICEF. Lord, even I get embarassed. I don’t think I own a fedora–nor have I ever. And if I went out in one, people would probably think I’d lost it.

Look at this lovely photo. Now, the guy may be dressed for a night on the town, but I assure you, he didn’t go shopping in a hoodie and sweats. This was the way men dressed, modified slightly for warmer weather, but, by and large, put together the same way. No,

1930s dude. Normal togs

it wasn’t chilly in Philly that day in 1934. It was Thanksgiving. Maybe slightly dressy for the holiday, but not by much. Men dressed, and not just to keep warm. So it wasn’t chilly. It was a day in the life. It’s hard to be a good historian.

My curiosity was piqued, of course. I know that since the 1960s, the average temperature in the city of Philadelphia has risen an astounding 5F. Some of this is urban heat island effect, where buildings, roads, and infrastructure absorb and emit much more of the sun’s heat than natural areas, and the city has been built up considerably since the 1930s. So there is that. But there is an irreducible residual that is climate change, and if you have an open mind, you’re not going argue much with the idea that the average temperature was lower 60 years ago. It’s about more than temperature, of course, but this isn’t a science blog.

So I started to wonder, what was the weather on Thanksgiving in Philly in the past? If you were to ask me, I’d instantly respond, “colder, much colder.” “Are you sure?” “Oh absolutely; I remember one Thanksgiving when Dad and I went for a walk and there were snow flurries. Probably 1966 or so. Hmm. So when I was a boy, yeah, I did trudge through all that snow.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. Because we have daily records of temperature and precipitation back to 1888, I decided to do some checking. This was not intensive research, and I have a lot of questions about measurement errors and biases and technical stuff that I won’t bore you with. They are important in scientific work, but no one should sweat that for purposes of a casual discussion.

Let’s take the long view. This is a graph of the maximum (red dot) and minimum (blue dot) average temperature in Philadelphia from 1888 through 2020. They are displayed in 5 year moving average form. This way, you don’t smooth out the fluctuations too much, as with a 10 year moving average. But you also don’t get the eye-watering chop of annual observations. These days, the time-series people are always telling us not to just look because appearances might be deceptive. Problem is, when I went to school, my econ teachers said before you start getting fancy, just look at the thing you’re analyzing. Old habits die hard, so we’re gonna look at the lines. Bear in mind that a degree or two in the long run is a lot, but on a year-to-year basis, well, so what. And bear in mind this is one day a year, which, strictly speaking, proves nothing at all. Still, play along.

If you’re like me, you’ll probably say “I don’t see much of a trend at all.” Both extremes look more or less flat, no? Now, please, don’t jump to conclusions about climate change. You can’t on this basis. But what you can say, if you want to is, more or less

From 1888 to 2020, the temperature, max and minimum on Thanksgiving Day in Philadelphia, was more or less the same. Oh, sure, there were annual variations. If you wanted, you could see some brief periods when the temperatures seemed to be higher, mid 1930s and 1940s, or late 1960s, when temperatures were a little higher. But nothing really eye-popping. The 1960s really surprised me, because, like my Father, I remember things a lot colder. You know, we had real weather then.

–Salvucci Sez

Oh really? Not on Thanksgiving. Maybe if you go back to the 1880s and 1890s. But even then, they didn’t take the temperature at International Airport for obvious reasons. There wasn’t one. Wherever they measured temperature then might have been colder, but who knows? It don’t look it. And like when my Dad was young, same deal. He might have frozen his rear off trudging to West, but not on Thanksgiving. If anything, it was getting warmer then. Sorry Lou.

So if it wasn’t bitterly cold on Thanksgiving when I was a kid, why do I think it was? Well, for one thing, the Thanksgiving my Dad and I went for a walk in West Philly and it flurried really made an impression on me. How could it not? He didn’t take me for a walk every day, especially as I got older. And every day wasn’t Thanksgiving. I can see that day in my mind’s eye as clearly as if it were this past Thrusday. That is “Thanksgiving when I was younger.” It turned out to be a referential anchor around which I constructed an entire narrative. I’m certain Dad had a similar experience. There are only a handful of people in the world (the actress Marilu Henner is one) who rerun their entire lives in memory day-by-day. So the striking first-glimpsed object becomes the whole. Or maybe it’s even simpler. Global warming and climate change are a fact. I know it was different 60 years ago. So why should I expect Thanksgiving to be an exception, if it was? Different anchor?

Well, fine, like so what, as Stanley Stein used to say? Well, I guarantee you, a lot of people looking at that film clip from 1934 will say “What a racist place Philadelphia was. Where are all the people of color? You see, American is built on white privilege.” Hold it, not so fast. Maybe it is, and may Philadelphia was. Somehow I don’t doubt it. But the “evidence” doesn’t “prove” it. There’s no context: it isn’t true to say there were no people of color in Philadelphia, because there were. Yet Philly was around 90 percent “white.” Even a random sample of Philadelphians would have looked pretty white, and there’s plenty of reason to think a crowd of holiday parade attendees wasn’t a random sample. I know people in my family who always worked on holidays, and by 1934, whatever Italians were up North, they weren’t Black. They were working class and a lot less affluent than the attendees at an Epicopalian church supper. Maybe you went to the Parade. Maybe not.

Does it make me a racist to observe this? No. It makes me a historian. Or at least it used to, before a lot of Americans went nuts, call it pc, woke, whatever you want. One of the first things they used to teach aspiring historians was that a generation’s interpretation or narrative probably said as much, if not more about the generation doing the interpreting than about the “event” itself. At least I learned that in 1970, and I saw plenty of evidence to support the point (No one reads Thomas Pressly’s Americans Interpret Their Civil War any more. Maybe they should.) No, now it’s the other way around. If the past doesn’t conform to our expectations, well, the actors in the past were wrong. Like, God help us, Columbus, who wasn’t a Progressive Democrat. Right. Well, he wasn’t, for sure, but before you demonize him (or anyone else), maybe you should, God forbid, read a little “obsolete” history, whatever that is.

How we shape narratives; what works and what doesn’t; why they change; how keep some perspective on the fact that the past, as someone put it, is a foreign country where they do things differently, is a real challenge. How do you not lose your soul, or your ability to judge evil, or even simple inefficiency? You know what? There’s no simple guide. Learning to empathize with an historical actor is by no means the same thing as sympathizing with the actor. It’s why people used to spend a lifetime trying to learn to get into the heads of the people they studied. But that’s hard, and I promise you, you won’t become an influencer anytime soon. Being a good historian is a bad career move. It’s a lot easier to be censorious. Self-serving comment? Yeah, it probably is. Like one British historian said, “A moment’s thought might convince you otherwise. But thinking is hard. And a moment is a long time.”

Back after the Holidays. I know. You can’t wait.