Recently, a dear friend of mine, an economist in Mexico, made an unpleasant prediction. “It’s back to the 1970s, baby. Stagflation and all that.” Oh goody. I am unfortunately old enough to remember just what that means.
“Highest inflation in forty years,” another friend, and not a partisan of President Biden, announced gleefully to me. Since this person, off to a fine start as a bankruptcy lawyer in New York, is just thirty four years old, I wonder if he realizes what he’s saying. Very likely good news for people in his business. But very bad news for the rest of us.
Why? The just concluded meeting of Central Bankers in Sintra, Portugal, has announced the era of low inflation is over. “The process is highly likely to involve some pain, but the worst pain would be from failing to address this high inflation and allowing it to become persistent,” said Jay Powell, chair of the Federal Reserve. And what “process” would that be. It’s called raising interest rates, which is one of the things central banks can do to fight inflation. Earlier this month, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates, specifically the Federal Funds rate, by 75 basis points. Is that a lot? Well, the Fed’s new “target range” is 1.5 to 1.75 percent. Basically, the Fed Funds rates is what banks charge each other to lend excess loanable funds. Forty years ago—41, to be exact, the rate was over 20 percent. 22.36 percent, to be exact. So if the Fed’s inflation fighting medicine is geared, Holy Smoke, to what was going on 40 years ago, 1.5 percent or so is peanuts, as in Jimmy Carter’s peanuts. You’ll remember President Carter farmed peanuts in Georgia before inflation and Ronald Reagan took him out. We got a long way to go if that’s where things are headed.
There are some uncomfortable similarities to those now-forgotten times. The Russians were in Afghanistan, Ukraine already being part of the Soviet Union. Commodity prices were headed up. The international economy had been disrupted by what economists call “supply shocks,” but these were a consequence of oil prices rising and not a virus like COVID-19. Still, things did get out of control. By 1979, inflation here had hit 13 percent and Jimmy Carter had brought in Paul Volcker to whip inflation now (WIN) (something Carter’s predecessor Gerald Ford had conspicuously failed to do). Mr Volcker put us and much of the world through a wringer, and the 1980s are remembered as a “lost decade” in some parts of the world, where rising interest rates combined with foreign loans delivered an economic knockout punch. It wasn’t pretty. Ask someone from Mexico or Peru, just for starters. Be prepared to hold their hand.
The short story is that rising interest rates kill demand by making the cost of borrowed money higher. So people stop buying things, people get tossed out of work, wage increases stop, production falls. You can overdo this medicine. Like you can cure high blood pressure by strangling the patient, but then there is no game at all. Right? You flatline, you’re dead, and high blood pressure is the least of your worries.
Now, why am I going on about this? Well, turns out that in the 1980s, household debt in America was around 50 percent of GDP. In other words, in total, as much as half of national income, more or less. In 2020, house debt was about 80 percent of GDP, or 60 percent higher. Ok, so what?
Well, two things. Back in those more innocent times, a lot of interest rates were fixed—not sovereign debt, like Mexico’s, they will tell you—so arguably, the full brunt of rising interest payments was somewhat mitigated. It’s complicated, so you’ll have to trust me. I had a student loan at 7 percent, so I was effectively paying minus 6 percent in 1980. The lender was, in effect, paying me.
But bankers learned, alas, and very few consumer rates today are fixed, including credit cards and a lot of mortgages. Which means no more free money if inflation rises. You’re going to feel the increase immediately.
The implication, it seems to me, is that if you thought the 1980s were tough, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Interest payments relative to income are going to be higher this time around, which means that belt-tightening is going to be a lot, well, tighter. You know all those property mavens who took seminars about how to get rich in real estate. They borrowed a lot of money. Ouch.
Like Yogi Berra said, supposedly, forecasting is hard when it involves the future. So I don’t make forecasts. But if I did, I’d say given all our other problems in the United States, what’s on the horizon may be worse than what we’ve seen in the past few years. I’m not an alarmist. But I can count. And I’m worried.
I post this video for my younger friends. If I have any friends, aside from a couple of bros I attended DPS with, they have to be younger, because I was young–15–when this song was in the Top 40. I don’t even know if there is a Top Forty anymore, because that was AM radio days. I don’t imagine the younger people know what an AM radio is, unless they listen to some right wing windbag or a Hellfire preacher. Maybe Sportstalk, which is a guilty pleasure of mine. Anyway, “back in the day,” this was a chart-topper. I was living in Philadelphia and Penn Wynne, where you thought 85 degrees was hot. A July 4 when it hit 104 is a distinct memory, because it damn near NEVER happened. Now I live in South Texas, and I’m glad for it to only hit 90 is June or July. Sad. I will forever blame the Spanish Empire for my fate. Inside joke (why he Hell else would I have lived in Texas or California? No good cheese steaks.) As it happens, that day was July 4, 1966, so I guess looking at local temperatures down here in God’s Little Acre must have set off some synapse deep in my brain. Cause it never got that hot back home. At least BCC–Before Climate Change. Now, who knows. 104 sounds like the number of murders in Philly on a bad weekend. But, as Mark Twain used to say, I digress.
I used to really like Summer. I liked it in Philly, although it could get awfully humid around about August. I liked in in Berkeley, where watching the maritime layer (fog, for amateurs) roll in in the afternoon was a treat. It was almost never hot in Berkeley, and the little bit of it there was I could handle. And then came San Antonio.
I guess, in the abstract, I knew Texas was gonna be hot. You don’t grow cotton in the cold, right, and I had been in Andalusia (Sevilla) doing archival research once or twice in the Summer. Yeah, it was awful, and the locals had a word for it that I loved–bochornoso. I thought that meant shameful, but to the Andaluces, it meant hot and probably humid too. So while I dug going to Madrid or Sevilla, even in the heat, I always knew it was for a finite interval. In Catholic talk, they were Purgatory. Believe me, Texas is Hell. It never ends. And, that, among other things, is the big difference. We got two seasons here, Summer and Tolerable, Mostly. Summer runs from May to November. It gets old, believe me. And it’s a dry heat, right? So’s an oven, and you wouldn’t go sticking your head in one, would you? Well, what about Houston? Oh my God, forget it: literally a hot mess. But it’s not my problem, thank God.
By the time I had moved on to country life in Penn Wynne, Summer traditionally began on June 15. Year in and year out, the warders at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia set that date for parole (September 8 was the day the misery began). There had always been a few scorchers before then, when the Sister of Mercy (sic) would let us take off our hot maroon woolen blazers while we planned our upcoming escape. But the actual vacation was always a surprise. You’d go bursting out of the house at 8:30 in the morning and, lo and behold, the air was usually fresh with a cool edge from the night before. It was a real tonic after being confined for so long, and we headed off to various destinations, or sometimes just sat out on the front porch and enjoyed our freedom.
Yeah, sooner or later, you’d get involved in a game of catch or baseball, or drifted over with the gang to the park to see what trouble we could find. “Trouble” was a relative term. It usually involved some form of territoriality where various factions contended for control of an ancient gazebo. From there, various projectiles could be rained down on the barbarians–usually public school kids. Crab apples, black walnuts, dirtbombs, you name it. We also specialized in booby trapping the paths up the hill to the gazebo with lots of loose soil. Alas, there were casualties, cause someone always didn’t get the memo. Some hopeless kid would loose his or her footing and slide down the path, and go over a retaining wall, occasionally damaging a limb and falling into Powder Mill Creek. I don’t think anybody from my cohort ended up in Vietnam, but we already knew the tricks. I saw this kid nicknamed Skunky take a punjy stick to his ample fanny. He was sidelined for a week or two, poor guy. I, of course, was always in the rear. Safer there. Let the foot-soldiers contend for the high ground. A few hours of that was generally enough to guarantee that by evening, less strenuous pursuits–like The Flintstones–beckoned. No computer screens. This was the battlespace. No one knew from defilades. You burned off calories, excess energy, and aggression. For guys about to suffer from testosterone poisoning, it wasn’t the worst thing in the world.
We had other outdoor pursuits as well, but some of them were typically only available in more urban settings: wall ball and half-ball. Someone ought to write a book about how to play half-ball, except the rules varied from block to block in West Philly.
You had to start with a trip to Boodis Hardware on Lebanon Avenue to buy a pimple ball. You don’t know what a pimple ball is? You can podcast but you don’t know from a pimpleball. Doofus. See the little orb below. That is a pimpleball. Accept no substitutes. Cause if you don’t have one, you can’t play half-ball. You’ll also need a broomstick handle. Where you get that is not my problem, but it has to be wood. No plastic or aluminum. At least not in my neck of the woods. And you’ll need a good sharp penknife, or failing that, the family meat cleaver. I think a scissors might work, but I never saw one deployed.
When you cut the ball in half, there was always some kind of a residue of powder inside. Even a little moisture. I have no idea, but that was the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. The “field” was the alley that ran behind the homes facing 66th Street. You needed a pitcher, a catcher, maybe an outfielder and some gofer to chase the ball down. That was it. If you hit the thing, it was a single. If you hit it over a wire strung across the alley, a double. If you “roofed” the ball on to Reale’s Bakery, it was a grand slam. And game over because there was no way to get it. On to the roof of Caravellis’ garage was a foul and you had better have another ball, cause your little friends would kick the crap out of you for losing the ball. There were other subtleties, but I won’t bore you with them.
You pitched underhand (at least I did), and some guys got pretty good at getting some movement on the ball. You didn’t want the fat side coming down in front of the batter with no motion because that was the way to get clobbered. The only grand slam I ever saw was a kid named Hotsy who hit it off of me (figures) on to Reale’s Roof. He was a lanky kid anyway, and he got a fat pitch that I can still hear ricocheting off the green broom handle. What a humiliation. Hotsy, a/k/a Hoagie Nose going deep on you. We did kill hours that way, though, with all the requisite razzing, name calling, and pinning current Phillies’ names on to people. I got the ultimate ignominy, Chico Fernandez. Go look him up. Hotsy sealed it with that monster hit. I didn’t get to pitch much after that. Then I got demoted to the suburbs anyway.
Oh. No baserunners. If you didn’t swing at a hittable pitch, you swung (true). Three strikes, out of there. Caught on the fly (never saw), out. Three outs per “side.” This was 66th Street rules. I have no idea what they did elsewhere. Believe me, it was fun and is probably the only game from my youth I’d taken a shot at today.
Back in the suburbs, there were other pastimes (is that a word?). I don’t know if lightning bugs have been a victim of whatever Great Extinction we’re into now, but catching the poor creatures and putting them in bottles was another source of entertainment. For us, not for the poor bugs. But we entertained easily until some adult called a halt to our merriment. You could do this day after day and not get bored. At least I wasn’t.
I discovered our public library too, which had a reading program. Not that I needed much excuse, because the place was cool, quiet, and yes, some of the librarians were cute. You could stay up nights and read–sometimes with a flashlight angled under the pillow to keep your parents happy. I don’t remember a lot of fiction (any, really), but I was a great anticommunist and a war hero. You know, imaginary bullets don’t hurt and your plane never got shot down anyway. I was desperately concerned about the Commies taking over Manoa Road, so I did a lot of that know your enemy kind of stuff. This one was one of my favorites.
I went to grade school with a bunch of Cuban exiles, and they were helpful in stoking our paranoia. As were the nuns, who had more Reds crucifying communion wafer stories than you might believe. But do remember Cuba was a thing, as in October 1962. Dude, I was 11 and I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make it to 12. As it turns out, there was a lot of that going around, and if we had only known how close we were, we would’ve been even more scared than we were. And I was good and scared. So I never really got around to Venceremos until college, and even then, it was half-hearted. The Barrera brothers trained me well. And in college, aah, a classmate was a future mayor of Miami, who apparently insinuated to a young lady in whom we had a mutual interest “Your boyfriend is a Communist dupe.” Reader, she married me. Take that, gusano.
Anyway, the Penn Wynne Library was next to my Godfather’s place, so there was always that excuse too. Summer was endless possibilities back then. Not endless days of 100+ heat. Starting to see the difference?
Even going to Mass was more fun in the Summer. They dumped the 12:15 slot–too many of us downashore, or somewhere, so demand dropped off. The 11:15, which I somehow always pulled as an altar boy, was not too bad and, I’m sure it’s a trick of memory, the weather always seemed pleasant. To the point that I can remember a nice breeze across the altar and lousing up the candles, at least until they got those thingamajig wax savers. Even the priests seemed fascinated by candles getting lopsided, or at least one or two of them did. You know the Sinatra song, Summer Wind? Frank must have picked it up in Church, which I’m sure Dolly (Mama Sinatra) made him go to. But man, you’d get outside, once it was over, and it wasn’t hot, but it wasn’t cold. You walked home and got to smell the azaleas and if you played your cards right, by the time you finished lunch, there was a Phillies game on. What was to dislike, for God’s sake. Absolutely nothing. Jim Bunning might even pitch a perfect game. I saw it on the tube (June 21, 1964). After which Bunning became some kind of right-wing nut. Baseball in Philly will do that to a guy.
To be honest, I really don’t think it’s the heat anymore. It’s the responsibility. For a lot of us–at least the lucky ones–problems as a kid were abstract, as in Commies and nukes and whether the Phillies would ever win another game (some stuff never changes). And all of it was wrapped in some kind of pretty package called “The Future” which had no hard constraints of which you were aware. I could have probably lived in Death Valley and thought that was just fine. My older self doesn’t really care–in the abstract–about whether the climate in South Texas is lousy or not. You know what the real issue is:
“But at my back I always hear / Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near; / And yonder all before us lie / Deserts of vast eternity.”
Andrew Marvell got that one right. It can be 100 degrees in the shade when you’re 15. There is, after all, always tomorrow. What a luxury in any weather. Time was, as the Stones intoned, on your side.
(Apology: I have some weird formatting issues in WP. Sorry)
I was planning to write a post about Fiona Hill’s very good book, but it’s going to have to wait until after my summer hiatus. Yes. I’m going on hiatus, so there. Meanwhile, I had to write something that would make me laugh. Because, after Uvalde, I haven’t laughed much. I suspect there’s a lot of that going around. So, with no further ado, I bring you reflections on what it was like growing up in the Northeast when we had snow. Quite a bit, sometimes. I have never been one of those “I hate this stuff” people. Reason being I have too many pleasant associations from my childhood and adolescence that the white powder–no, not that white powder–bring. And, resolutely, that’s what I’m going to talk about.
“You didn’t wax eloquent when San Antonio got hammered a few years ago.” No, I did not. That’s because we lost power and heat for nearly a week, and a lot of people died needlessly because of Republican incompetence. Growing up in Philadelphia and its suburbs, I can never–not once–recall losing power, light or heat. Including in the big storm of February 17, 1958, when I stood on the porch of our Haddington residence and watched the power lines flash blue and go snap, crackle and pop. A late winter storm that brought heavy wet snow and really messed things up. Tell you what. Philly (sort of) handled it although 10 guys died shoveling a foot or more of snow. In San Antonio, where I currently reside, they can’t even do rain. You tell me. I blame Lincoln: for holding on to the South.
“All public and parochial schools, closed.” That was the voice of Duncan MacLeod on WCAU-TV in Philadelphia. Very matter of fact, baritone. Man, six words that brought joy to my childish heart. No school. You get to stay home with your grandparents and watch Our Miss Brooks and Queen for a Day on tv. Or Art Linkletter’s “House Party” from some weird place called Studio City in Hollywood, CA. And I didn’t particularly dislike Saint Donato’s, where I was enrolled. So it was just being cozy, around people you adored. You know with hot chocolate and stuff. Being a little kid. That was before AR-15s, you see. But I digress.
Snow in the city was different. For one thing, there was usually less of it; it usually didn’t last as long; and it got dirty in a hurry. Yeah, those cars and trucks and then buses really turned the pristine white into an evil black and gray pile within a day or two. Along with the inevitable slush that all the traffic eventually produced. But the actual snowstorm itself was quite lovely. I can see why Claude Thornhill wrote that beautiful tune “Snowfall” as a celebration of an event. That was pretty much the way I regarded it. Happily. I think hearing that the other day conjured this up for me. Does it all the time.
There were very entertaining aspects to city snow, especially in South Philly, when we were downa house. First, the streets were very narrow, and the homes weren’t originally set up for cars, let alone those 1950s monstrosities with chrome and fins and huge-ass bumpers and stuff. Like a 1958 Buick that Little Pete, my “cousin” had. Freaking thing was an icebreaker, and once it was snowed in, it stayed snowed in. If the city plows made it down Cross Street, they only buried the cars even deeper in the stuff. Like, where were they gonna put it?
Of course, some people had to get out. So they had to shovel the car out, which was a back breaker. And once you did, you had a real problem. That cleared space had a definite positive economic value, but no price, because nobody owned the street, right? Wrong. You never been to South Philly in the winter. If you dig it out, man, it’s yours. My paysans would put a linoleum kitchen chair–Hell, sometimes a table buttressed with brooms–as a ritual of possession. This is mine, cafone. You stay the Hell out. Says who? Dude, you could have been messing with Angelo Bruno’s mother if you tried a stunt like moving it, cause the guys in the outfit lived in the neighborhood. You want to end up seriously hurt–at least? No. Everyone knew better. Even the cops. They never touched that setup. They weren’t crazy.
But there was always, as Clemenza put it in the Godfather, some pain-in-ass innocent bystander. Some tourist who didn’t know how it worked. Oh. My. God. That’s when the fun really got started. Some dope would try moving the chairs and stuff under the baleful gaze of some goombah-grandmother who’d come out in a housecoat and curlers screaming like a banshee with a Philly accent so thick you probably couldn’t understand it. “Hey. Whaddya think you’re doing? Get the Hell OUT of there. That’s OUR Space. My husband (son) (whatever) dug that out. You think you can go just park there?” And if you tried to contest the point, the old witch would probably take off after you with a broom. Or you’d come back to find your car without tires. And nobody saw nothing. The cops wouldn’t even show. That’s how it worked in South Philly. Frontier justice. And while it pains me to admit it, I often think the system worked better than whatever the Hell replaced it. If anything. I don’t remember too many people making mistakes, at least while I was around.
Moving to Penn Wynne was a different experience, you know, country living (humor). For one thing, it was hilly. For another, it did seemingly get more snow than Haddington, even thought it was only a couple of miles west. And we lived in a house that afforded all sorts of views of storms as they progressed. In the front, you could look out and see a couple of evergreens get slowly buried as it came down. From my room, you could watch the white stuff against a brown shingle background of homes that always made things look worse than they were. The dining room looked out over the back alley, which ran from the top of the hill on Harrogate Road to the bottom. And that was a kid’s dream come true.
I didn’t have a sled, but it seemed as if everyone else did, and sharing was generally no problem. There were some Flexible Flyers that could seat two–and that was truly an experience.
The alley was concrete blocks, worse for wear in some spots, and I’m guessing a 10 degree slope. It was maybe 25-30 feet wide, and bordered by garages, walls, hedges, some individual home driveways, nothing in places but open yard. We got traction by pushing off at the top and by the time you were midway down the hill, you were moving. Of course, people were bouncing off walls and stuff, or plowing into hedges all the time. And who could resist the temptation to drag race, where hysterically yelling kids sometimes took each other out or ended up perpendicular before rolling. Somehow, no one ever got killed or even seriously hurt, but it was hairy. You had to make a sharp left at the bottom of the alley and then peter out to a stop, unless you head-on hit a garage door at the end. which was kind of unpleasant. When 10 or fifteen kids were moving in both directions–flying down and trudging back, there was always the chance of some spectacular wipe out. And if the snow was still coming down, even better. You were flying blind. Little kids have this suicidal impulse which we indulged to the fullest. No wonder you didn’t want to go to school.
There was always some grouch who tried to shovel his part of the alley dry–party pooper–so he could get better traction for his old rear wheel drive. I distinctly remember some guy doing this and a bunch of us, under cover of darkness, making use of some garden hose and soaking the concrete down so as to create a patch of what we now term black ice. Of course, hitting that at top speed on the way down was like jet propulsion. I distinctly recall this guy getting his Chevy Nova getting stuck crosswise in the alley the next morning to the great amusement of the gang, who watched him slip, fall, curse and swear, waving a fist in our direction. Sheesh, no sense of humor.
There were also these snow saucers, kind of aluminum deals, that were really nuts. One time, we built a mountain of snow in one of the yards that was already elevated and bounded by a wall. You know, a ski jump, except we had no idea of the physics involved when you flew down the packed snow and launched directly into a 5 foot drop–which we all assumed would sort of like ABC Wide World of Sports ski-jumping. Yeah, some damn fool actually gave it a shot and flew off the wall, with the saucer detaching from his body as he smacked into the ground. How this kid did not sustain some kind of fatal injury is beyond me, and the entire scene was only made worse by his screaming for help, thereby summoning his father from a nearby house. The old man promptly fell trying to run up the alley to help this idiot. I can’t even begin to describe the mix or horror and mirth with which we observed the ensuing train wreck. If memory serves, we all got a stiff dressing down from our parents and had to cool it until the next storm. Adults were definitely no fun in the winter.
Other tricks. Pour gasoline on snow. Light. Snow burns!!!!! It looks cool as Hell at night until some killjoy calls the fire department. Especially when someone was trying to spell out an obscenity. (I didn’t see nothing). Or crouch at the top of Henley Road behind a stand of trees and pelt passing vehicles–especially bread vans and such–with snowballs. This required skill, like leading a receiver in football, and we usually missed. There was one day, however, when we all hit a Stroman’s Bakery truck simultaneously. Guy nearly rolled the van. Man, that driver was madder than a hornet, but he couldn’t chase 10 delinquents at once, especially when we knew the lay of the land and he was, well, not really in good shape. Thank God he didn’t have a coronary chasing us. Or that his van didn’t somehow slip out of gear, cause it was a long way to the bottom of the hill.
By the time I had entered high school, a much calmer set of pursuits was on offer. At DPS, we had a phone tree, and a guy would call, usually the night before, and tell us there would be no school. I don’t remember who I called, but I usually was thrilled by the sound of Tommy D’s voice when he got me. I’d tell him I loved him. He wasn’t interested. Anyway, this meant sleeping until 8 AM or so which was several hours after my usual hour of awakening. Followed by a nice pot of coffee, and listening to the radio for a bit. Followed by reading a good book, or napping (I should have been practicing trumpet, but I was already losing the work ethic by then). Sometimes in the evening a bunch of kids from Lower Merion High would organize coed snowball fights. That was better than going to a dance or something. Less stylized and definitely less inhibited. Public school kids knew how to party. Occasions of sin, for sure: see if you can, er, make out without getting your lips frozen together. That was a thing.
And going out to Devon by bus, there was at least one year when the snow was so persistent that we missed about a week of class. That was the year I started to read Dante’s Inferno. And that pretty much ruined me for most everything else. If you think Dante is cool at 16, you are a weird kid for sure. So I probably owe my career to a lost week in January 1967 (maybe February) when it snowed us in but good. And I learned to drive in it too. Which, let me tell you, intimidates South Texans even more than a Liberal Democrat. You steer into a fishtail, dude? They think it’s like leaning into a punch. Very entertaining to watch them do it wrong. You really do that?
You don’t know me. I never grew up. Ask anyone. Back in a few weeks for more fun and less enlightenment. Si Dios quiere.
No joke. I owe Oscar Mayer a lot. For what it’s worth, the company paid for a good part of my college education, cause I was a Hot Dog Scholar. Well, not really, but my Dad did work for them, and I did compete for and win one of their scholarships. Don’t think I wasn’t grateful, because I was. It made life a lot easier on all of us, and it gave me a certain incentive to be serious. Not that I really needed much, but I always knew I literally couldn’t afford to fool around. Cause Uncle Oscar wouldn’t pay.
My Dad, Lou Larkins, worked for them from the early 1950s until his retirement at 62. At that point, General Foods had acquired OM and even then, corporate America, in search of shareholder value, figured that dispensing with long-standing employees was a great idea. So he got out. I wouldn’t say he loved industrial accounting, but having your intelligence insulted by some conglomerate was not his idea of a good time. And he had a defined benefit pension and very good health insurance. Remember them? You never will because you probably have neither. That’s called a flexible labor force. Economists–especially those with tenure, who by definition can’t be let go–worship the idea. Go figure. It’s why we need to make America Great Again. Except everybody got pissed off at being Made Great By Corporate America. So they voted for He Who Will Not Be Mentioned. Who Will Make Us Great Again. Said Greatness, I thought, was the problem. Got that? You win an MA in Econ from a member institution of the Southern Economics Association. And in Logic.
Anyway, the Summer I graduated from Villanova, I was, as usual, in need of money. I was going to graduate school and getting married. Both of which cost money, whatever psychic income they might bring (Princeton=Psychic Income? With Lawrence Stone trying to turn the History Department into a branch of Oxford? Guess again. No punting please. We’re American.) Anyway, after a false start waiting tables, I got a good job at OM. On the Sanitation Crew. Don’t laugh. It paid, man. We went from 6AM to 2 PM, with half an hour for lunch. So I drove down to Front and Packer in South Philly where the plant was, leaving home about 5:15 AM. Previously, I though 7AM Mass was agony. Little did I know.
Now, let’s be clear about something. This wasn’t a life sentence. I knew that from the outset. At 22, you figure you can do anything for four months, and, really, you can. You’re just too immature to know that and you still have the time horizons of a child. So four months seems like a long time. Especially when you’re actually working in a factory. It is.
I started out doing floors, by which I mean scrubbing floors and mopping and drying them. With industrial strength cleaners because this was a meat packing plant, and the Department of Agriculture Inspectors didn’t screw around–in those days. Tell me about regulatory capture, right. Uh Uh. They’d shut a line down if they spotted anything, or any indicator came up slightly wrong. So, and let me be perfectly clear, as Richard Nixon used to say: that was the cleanest place I ever worked in. I’d have eaten off the floor. I continued to eat OM hotdogs, which we made there. I ate all kinds of stuff that was produced there, including that Philly delight, scrapple (don’t ask). People didn’t believe it. You work there and eat that stuff? Yup. Never a second thought. Anybody who tells me that that inspectors were in the bag, which is why we needed “light touch” (i.e., toothless) regulation, is blowing smoke. I know what I saw. And ate. If a line shut down, whatever was lost was lost for good, because the stuff was fresh and it was not there, it was gone for good. Opportunity cost, dude. Money. And losing money is a great incentive if you don’t operate under a loused up Tax Code that encourages wealthy people to lose money (sometimes purely notional) to offset real tax liabilities. But for this, you have to ask my DP classmate, James Maule, who understands this stuff. I just started out washing floors, walls, and eventually, some production lines. On my hands and knees, if need be. Yup, people do this stuff for a living. You can’t telecommute to a sanitation job.
The entire operational part of the plant was cold. I mean about 40-45 degrees. You know, it’s a meat packing plant, so it’s not like Club Med. Fresh meat spoils. The only hot place was the hot dog tunnel, so there you got it coming and going. The dogs were getting cooked in the tunnel while the ambient area was cold. You didn’t know whether to wear earmuffs or swim trunks. I really felt for those people, because that was no fun. It’s one thing to be cold. It’s another to be warm. Be neither hot nor cold, Jesus said (more or less), and you’ll want to vomit. So the entire plant was cold (other than the hot dog tunnel), and where they stored product was even colder (I’m getting to that).
Did you ever see like pallets of raw beef, frozen, from Argentina or New Zealand. I did. And rigs from, IBP delivering frozen meat on the loading docks, everyday. It’s a meat packing plant, and yes, they do (or did) use very good beef, frozen. And it had to stay frozen. For that there was an area of the plant that was Antarctica. Like 30 below. And there were blowers (God knows why), so there was actually a wind chill. Man, you want to talk about cold. You went in dressed in a freezer coat, gloves, and whatever the Hell else you could find to keep warm. If I knew I was going in the freezer on a given day, I’d wear thermal underwear, even if it was 90 degrees outside. You were good for maybe 30 minutes before you really started to feel it–and then you could go out and take a cigarette break (but only for about 10 minutes). And then it was back to the South Pole. Now the union guys had this written into their contract, and the steward made sure they got breaks and were not in there too long. Since I was “casual” and not union, technically the foreman could do what he wanted. But he was a nice guy, a friend of my Dad’s, and had no interest in seeing me freeze to death. So there was generally no problem. Until the Iceberg Day.
I never quite figured out how it happened, but I guess a pipe must have burst or something. In the deep freeze. And, of course, the water cascaded to the floor and pretty much flash froze before they could cut it off. So there was this, er, iceberg sitting in the middle of the freezer, blocking traffic. The sanitation guys must have decided that Joe College got this one, so in I went. With a pick, a shovel, a wheelbarrow, and as much warm stuff as I could find. And thereupon preceded to start breaking the damn thing up and carting it off. At some point, I guess I decided that I wasn’t stopping until I got the damn thing done and carted away. And I did. But by the time I finished, I swear I must have had frostbite on my nose. I remember my boss looking at me and asking if I was ok. I guess I said yeah, so he told me to go outside and warm up. It was around noon, and out I went into the Summer’s heat, wrapped in a blanket, sitting on the patch of lawn in front of the plant with a bunch of other plant workers. They seemed to regard this with great amusement, and assured me that I would have no need of contraception after that day because certain organs would have undoubtedly been frozen into dysfunction. I was so damn sore that night that I could barely move, and I’m not sure how I made it in the next day. I got a taste of what it was like to be 70 well ahead of time.
You know, there were a lot of guys in the plant on pain killers who had creaky, arthritic hands and knees–and they couldn’t have been more than 40. Some guys came into work stinking of booze at 6AM and they stayed that way. It was a Hell of a way to make a living, and they weren’t there for just a couple of months. This was, barring illness, getting fired, or something else, basically life. I have no idea how they stood it. Boy, if you ever wondered about the odd behavior–brawling, gambling, porn addiction, domestic violence–among the “plant types,” well, a few days like that straightened you out. And you wonder why they were union–even if the Amalgamated Meat Cutters weren’t exactly militants like the roofers. If anything, I’m surprised at how impassive most of the guys (and women) were. I think most of them were too worn out, too tired, or too drugged up to care much. They were basically glad they had a job. If they had any dreams, they involved a six pack and a weekend in Wildwood, maybe with a wife or a girlfriend. Hell, both, for all I know. That was it.
After about a month, I got moved to the shipping cooler. I had to move because any longer in sanitation and union membership would have been obligatory. It was fine by me, but OM was like, oh no. We can’t have that. And it was a promotion of sorts. I got to stack boxes of product waiting to be picked and loaded on trucks for distribution in about a five state area. I learned how to drive a fork lift, which was pretty cool. Except for the day that I somehow got the damn thing stuck in an up position and nearly took out a pallet of beef bologna in the process. Man, you never seen guys moving so fast to get away from impending disaster. It was raining the stuff from 20 feet up. They didn’t fire “the college kid” because I guess I was sort of family, and I had entertainment value. Besides, the shipping cooler was another world entirely.
There was a packing line that looked something like out of the Lucille Ball Vita-a-Meeta-Vegimin episode. You missed a beat on assembling a box and next thing you you, you were up to your ears in some stuff, depending on what was getting loaded. The guys working that line were mostly alcoholics, and you could see why. Cold. Repetition. Repetitive Strain injuries. Various and sundry cuts and bruises. The odd chance to sneak off to the Men’s Room to smoke, only to have the damn foreman come in and roust you–even if you were in the middle of a bowel movement. This guy I worked for, Matt P, was a piece of work. One day he came in to clear the place and I was doing my business and smoking–a twofer. He started telling me to get out of the stall, only for me to reply that I was relieving myself (in much less polite terms). No matter. He wanted me out. Soooooo. Use your imagination. Matt started screaming at me “What the Hell are you doing?” as I exited with my pants around my ankles. “I told you. I was taking a crap. You said come out. So here I am.” The look on his face was priceless. “Get the Hell back in there!” “Ok, but you said come out.” “I don’t care what I said, dumb f***.” This scene was so entertaining to the other guys in the cooler that they were grinning at me all day. “College kid!” One of them took me to a secret hiding place in the stacks of product where guys would duck in for a few to make coffee with an immersion heater. That was the day I knew I had arrived. It was like Bar Mitzvah for the kid. They had the Daily News back there, everything. Even a flashlight rigged up. This is how you survived. No one abused, and there was complete racial harmony. We had a common enemy, and we knew it.
The shipping cooler was so big it had a PA system that the foreman was supposed to use to summon people. Heh heh. Except it had no security, or the security was trivial, so everyone knew the codes, even when they got changed. There was this guy, I called him Chicken Man. He’d get on one of the more remote locations, dial in, and cackle like a rooster, which boomed all over the place. Or even better, he’d call in some one “Ron Stingey, call 214. Ron Stingey, call 214.” So Ron, or whoever, called 214, whatever 214 was. So this broke up the monotony 2 or 3 times a day. I even joined in the fun. “Werner Paulus, to Dock 6. Werner Paulus.” So Werner would walk about half a mile to Dock 6 only to find no one knew why he was there or what he wanted. And Werner was, well, not too gracious about it. Every once in a while there’d be an altercation, you know, as if these guys on the Dock were jerking someone like Werner around. You had to be there, believe me. It was funny.
Lest you think it was all screwing around, I learned plenty on that job. I’m not about to say that being a tourist among the working class was the same as being working class, although I came from it, but hadn’t really that much experience of it as a kid. Dad, Joe Villari, others did, but I was “spared” that experience. Now that I think of it, I’m glad I got a least a glimpse of it. When I had some student going on how unfair I, or life, or something else was, I often thought back to some of those people at OM. I never once heard one of them complain about life being unfair. Right. They would’ve laughed. They knew that: they were examples of it. You think an accident of birth is fair? You remember Rocky’s pal in the meatpacking plant, played brilliantly by Burt Young. Paulie didn’t think life was fair, did he? And he was right.
Whenever I was tempted to quit grad school (at least twice I week), I thought back to my experience at OM. Yeah, Lawrence Stone was an sob, but my foreman in the shipping cooler was worse. Much worse. I don’t care how bad academics ever got. There’s always meat packing, man. So thank God. I think about those poor souls from Mexico who populate Tyson’s Chicken. You really want their job? No you don’t, believe me.
The other thing I learned from working at OM was economics. Yeah, old style, Chicago school, traditional price theory. It was all around, man. Production functions? Like the hot dog tunnel was a working f(x,y). Marginal product=0? The guy who tries to look busy when the foreman is around, but otherwise goofs off. Economies of scale: yeah, you can watch both those lines at once for stuff falling off. Two for the price of one. Short and long run cost curves. Sure. Fixed and variable costs? How could you miss it: it was like chords on a piano keyboard. Even if you were tone deaf (or dense) you could see it for Heaven’s sake. The equations, the derivatives and integrals, the maximizing tricks–forget it. Or finally see what they meant. It was the best education in applied price theory I ever got. It’s why I don’t have too much patience with my historian colleagues who keep bitching about unrealistic models in economics. You think? Some are, but not all of them, man. Try learning something. Just because something is logical doesn’t mean it exists, true enough, but if something exists, there is probably a logical reason for its existence. Big difference.
I got to ride on the Wienermobile once too . Big deal. We tooled around South Philly to get gas while gawking locals gave us the finger and yelled obscenities. Like being at an Eagles’ Game. And, yes, I did meet the ORIGINAL Little Oscar. He was still around then, although a bit worse for wear. He had been a munchkin in the Wizard of Oz. He was, I’m afraid, something of a pain in the ass. I mean, I guess he had his reasons, but you learned never to ask him if his weiner was in gear. He could swear like a longshoreman, and he hit too. Never piss off a dwarf dressed like a chef. I learned that too in my summer gig at OM. And a lot more.
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 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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.