Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Coal Man Cometh

With this being one of the coldest winters on record - in Philadelphia and in the United States in general - memories of the men who helped keep a number of my neighbors warm came to mind.  No one sees the guys who are responsible for piping natural gas through the underground mains of this city, and the only time you pay attention to the men who pump heating oil into the tanks in your neighbors' basement tanks is when you're sitting in traffic behind the oil truck, steaming because you thought he'd be done fast.  So did the three cars that are behind you, blocking you from backing up and retreating from your mistake.

Being a kid in Philadelphia in the 1960s, there was a lot going on to keep your curiosity flowing.  Simple things often got your attention.  One of those simple things is something (or someone) that isn't around anymore is the coal delivery man.  No one heats their whole home with coal anymore, and why would they?  As a young observer, coal heating seemed dirty and  laborious.  You had to shovel the black nuggets from a coal bin in your basement into the furnace, and you had to make sure to keep the fire going.  One of our neighbors was one of the last to give in and get rid of his coal furnace and go with gas.  Until he did, his sons were given the responsibilities of stoking the fire - and don't you dare let that fire go out! I've since read that it took too much coal to restart the fire should it go out, making the furnace far less efficient.

Back to being a kid and our fascination with simple things.  I saw a newspaper story a few years ago where some people heat rooms with coal stoves and go to the dealer to buy the coal.  As a child, I saw that the only way to heat your home with coal was to have them bring it to you.  And we would sit on the steps of neighbors homes as we watched the coal man lower the chute from his truck through a basement window into the coal bin, then dump his load of mined fuel.  I guess if you were a coal customer, you bought by the truckload or the ton or whatever volume you needed.  Thankfully our society has become much more technologically advanced, so all we need to do now is turn on the heat and dial the temperature that will keep us comfortable.  No more shovels to hurl the coal into the furnace, or to clean it out.


... Coal dealers spread throughout the city.  You can still find reminders of those dealers in some parts of Philadelphia that are zoned as industrial or commercial areas.  i saw not too long ago a yard on South 25th Street that had signs that said "Coal and Ice".  There were a few dealers there under the railroad trestle years back.

... An old coworker in his senior years some time ago told me that he and his brother used to walk along the railroad tracks near his home and gather coal that fell from the hopper cars of trains.  They would sell it to neighbors to make money to help their families.  As he told it, what he thought was coal was actually coke, used in industrial furnaces.  The hotter-burning coke damaged the grates in the furnaces of his neighbor/customers, ending the brothers' short business venture by causing their parents to have to pay for the damages and them receiving a sound thrashing by their father.  In their defense, hey, they didn't know better, and tried to help!  Of course, they could have asked questions before they started selling their product, saving the cost of damages and the pain of the belt on their rear ends.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Tire Pits

    Probably all boys at some time find themselves a place where they can go to hang out and get out of everyone's way. In the suburbs, or the country, or wherever there's somewhere to build it, kids erect tree houses.  Being there aren't many places to build those things in the city, we look to other places to get off the block.  You see, just about everyone remembers having a place to disappear to.

    For us, it was behind the Goodyear tire store on Oregon Avenue between 18th & 19th. There's an area back there where they dumped old tires before trucking them off to wherever old tires go, and there were enough tires when we were younger to build a club house, climb all over, to do whatever we wanted to have our own fun. We usually hung out there in the evening or on Sunday when the guys from the store were away and wouldn't chase us. Probably the only resistance we had were those neighbors at the Oregon Arms Apartments who would once in a while yell that we shouldn't be there. They were right, but the way we saw it, what did they know?  In our minds, they were probably sheltered as kids and never crawled all over tires, or anything for that matter, and got dirty.  And if so, their moms were probably happy about that, not coming home with oil stains and scuff marks on their jeans and shirts, but that's what kids do.  Moms today have Spray & Wash or whatever their choice of stain remover, so the kids can be more free to do things like this.  We got dirty in another way while at the pits.  There were metal posts around the upper-perimeter of the pits, presumably to keep the residents of the apartments from driving off the lot and into a pit full of tires.  Someone had the bright idea to slather grease on those posts to deter us from climbing in and out of the pits and go somewhere else.  Someone thought it was cooking grease, but it seemed pretty thick, so it was probably auto lube, meaning an employee and not an apartment resident had the idea.  Whoever thought to do it, it didn't work.  We just didn't grab the posts!

    You know, there's always someone who just knows how to screw up a good thing.  We probably hung out at the pits on and off for more than two of our pre-teen years, and probably would have stayed a while longer until other interests take over and boys don't want to climb in tires anymore.  During the pits era, along came a young girl who had a fetish for fire, and that ended it all. There was a company called Pesco just to the rear of the tire pits, a warehouse where they sold pipes for all kinds of industrial use. Twice on Sundays that place went up in smoke, the first fire not too bad, but the second was really heavy.  One of the guys who hung with us was accused of setting the blazes.  He saw who did one of them, but wouldn't say anything. It just so happens that she saw him too, and told the police he set the fire. The investigators figured out who really did it, and she didn't help herself by setting a fire in her school bathroom and getting caught while doing so. Whether she did time or not, we don't know.  All we knew is that she screwed up a good thing as boys see it, and our days at the pit came to an end.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Garbage Man

Young people here in Philly will have no idea what this post is about.  For all most people know, you did one of two things with your garbage: dumped it into the garbage disposal attached to your sink, or put it out with the trash.  Well, before the days of the In-Sink-Erator, there was a much different way of ridding ourselves of the table refuse from your kitchen.  Before a plumber attached that appliance that we now take for granted, we would put our garbage in the alley in galvanized metal garbage pails - a shortened version of the metal trash can - for the garbage man to pick up twice weekly.

Those men weren't employed by the City of Philadelphia like the men who pick up your trash and recyclables on a weekly basis.  They came from farms in New Jersey, where the farmers raised pigs.  That same garbage we would rid ourselves of went to feed those porkers, which means if you ate well, they ate somewhat well.   Pigs aren't too discriminatory, so even if you ate junk, they fared pretty well.  Given the average person's diet in the 1960s and early 1970s with more home-cooked meals was much healthier than it is today with the frozen, processed food that hits most American tables, I'd say both we and the swine ate better.  Maybe it is no accident that the farmers don't send the trucks out to pick up our refuse anymore.  Much of what we eat today isn't fit for human consumption, let alone pigs.

I'd say the city trash haulers had it much better than the garbage men.  Probably the biggest hazard for the trash men is lifting a bag or box that is too heavy, causing them to blow a disk in their back.  Now I'm not saying that an injury like that is a small thing.  Ask anyone who has had to deal with pain like that - myself included - and you'll find that someone suffering such an injury rues the day that they incurred it.  Plus, the city guys are union members, so they have a guaranteed pay and benefits, and working conditions that are protected.  The garbage men didn't have it so good.  Each time they came, they had to wheel a large plastic trash can down the alleyway on a hand truck, dumping what was left in the can and having to get a whiff of the odors that came with the putrified orange peels, apple cores, and bones with bits of meat left on them.  To add to that stench, summertime brought an even nastier thing for them to have to deal with: maggots.  You see, when those cans are left to bake in the hot summer sun, especially if the lid is left ajar, flies swarm the garbage and lay their eggs.  The larvae?  Yep, maggots.  Those poor guys didn't have a choice, they had to handle the mess, garbage, maggots, whatever.

Two things probably put an end to the garbage men.  The first is the aforementioned garbage disposal.  I remember a story in the Philadelphia Daily News a number of years back that told of the work of the city sewer worker.  In that item, the reporter noted that in the nicer areas of the city where there were more disposals, there were more rats in the sewers.  They were drawn to the garbage that was flushed into the sewer system.  I would guess, and it's only a guess, that the second thing that caused their demise is that there are less independently-owned farms than there used to be. I can't see farms owned by corporations sending out truck and men like we used to see in our youth.  Who knows?  With more government regulations (some maybe good, some not), feeling pigs table scraps may not be an option today.

In the final years of garbage pickup, most cans had to be put out on the sidewalk instead of the back alleys.  Because more homes were broken into through the alleys, more neighbors banded together to pool their resources and place gates at the ends of the alleys.  What could you do, assign a neighbor to open the gates each week for the pickups?  No one would want to deal with that.  But there were far-fewer cans on the sidewalks because there were more disposals being added each year.  And so, by the mid-1970s, the garbage men disappeared from the streets and alleys of South Philadelphia, and I would think the rest of the city too.  Maybe it is not much of a thing to remember, certainly not a fond memory.  But it is a part of our history long-gone.

... Freezing your garbage until pickup day so you had less of a chance of having maggots craw out of your can and all over your sidewalk.  Some still freeze the garbage you can't send down the disposal such as bones.

...  Your mother complaining or maybe even cursing as she washed down those nasty creatures with Ajax ammonia and water.   Of course if they stayed there long enough, they'd turn into flies and fly away.  No one dared take a chance on that.  Who'd want to take the gamble between hoping they'd disappear or wondering if the new flies would leave more eggs behind?  Some things are better left to the imagination.  Or maybe not.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Mischief Night Fun

One of the rituals of growing up in South Philly was participating in the fun of Mischief Night.  Just about every kid who hung out on the streets at some time or another took the time to make the lives of neighbors and strangers alike miserable on the night of October 30th.  We all looked forward to it, some talked more about this night that they did about Halloween. 

Come sundown, so many of us were out on the street and ready to pounce, armed with an arsenal of soap, shaving cream, and eggs.  If anyone used anything else, they didn't hang around with us.  I wouldn't doubt that some more-sinister characters took to using rocks or nails, or as they did in Camden or Detroit, use fire to create much more than mischief.  In those cities, the appropriate name for their actions was called Devil's Night.  During the worst years, these cities suffered terribly, losing many homes and other structures to the flames of arsonists.  But that's Camden and Detroit.  We were in South Philly, where no such things took place.

Some were so eager, they made shopping trips ahead of time so that they had everything they needed.  You could go into any supermarket and buy dozens of eggs at any age, no questions asked.  In later years, you could only purchase a dozen or two or they'd flag you at the checkout line.  No excuses that you were preparing ahead of time to dye eggs for the annual Easter Egg hunt.  You'd think shaving cream would raise the red flag, especially for the youngest of miscreants.  Not too many 12-year olds take a razor to their faces, but even as stores got more vigilant, that wasn't an issue. 

The police stepped up patrol from late afternoon on Mischief Night, making sure that they had a handle on things.  Or so they thought.  Anyone who had got caught one year found ways to prevent getting nailed the next time around.  One of the tactics cops used to foil egg throwers was pat them down, ensuring a mess in their pockets.  I remember a cop questioning me on where my eggs were, with me telling me I had none.  With a big grin, he said, "No eggs?  You don't have any on you right now?", and proceeded to smack my jacket and pants pockets.  His grin faded as he heard no crackling or felt anything as he slapped his hands down.  Little did he know that they were sitting in the alley just a few feet away, waiting to be lobbed at windows or cars.  Of course he circled the block and came back around.  When he was convinced we were just hanging around, he left us alone, and we set off on doing the things stupid kids do when they think it's cool to aggravate those around them.

Not everyone just sat and took it.  Once in a while, you'd find someone who made you pay for your actions.  One of our neighbors, a man named Joe - we called him Chick, a shortened version of his last name - heard them coming.  A group of teens maybe 12 or 15 in all came running up Chadwick Street lobbing eggs at every window through the middle of the block, where Chick lived.  He sprung out the door just as the last few guys ran by and grabbed one of the last of them.  He told another neighbor to grab a ladder and had his wife grab a bucket and mop and other supplies and had the one unfortunate egg-thrower clean up every window that they egged.  That boy was literally crying his eyes out, but Chick told him he wasn't leaving until he was done.  A number of other neighbors stood with him, arms crossed, making sure he didn't bolt.  The rest of us stood around for a while and gawked as some of the men mocked "Where's your friends now?" or "Some friends you have, letting you clean up while they on and hit others."  I don't know what was worse for that boy, having to clean up alone, or having to hear the guys in school the next day rib him about being the slowpoke who couldn't get away.  We never got snagged, and no one ever saw us and told our parents of our mischief, at least not on these nights. 

It seems Mischief Night is just a memory now.  That's a good thing.  What seems fun as a kid is seen as foolish as you get older, especially if your property is marred by the nastiness.  I'd be angry if some idiot kid ran by and chucked an orb at my house, or scrawled with soap on my car window.  I think the supermarket crackdowns were the beginning of the end of mischief night.  The first few years, kids would buy well-ahead.  But you can't stack dozens of eggs in the fridge without arousing your parents' suspicions.  And you can't hide lots of cartons in your room without it being too cold in there.  What to do?  Well, not much.  So the tradition dies out.  A number of men would sit outside our church on this night to prevent damage, and we would see kids pass by with a look that said they were up to something.  Today, no one even thinks about it, it's a non-issue.  I suppose it wouldn't be wise for parents to tll their kids about their exploits, tempting them to take up the tradition, at least with just a dozen or two.  But for those of us who took part in the mischief, we had a lot of laughs, or at least it was funny at the time.  How those times have changed!

Friday, September 03, 2010

Kids Days at the Vet

As the Phillies push again toward the post season, I can't help but remember the highs and lows as a Phils fan. Thankfully, the past few years have been more highs! Becoming a fan during the teams losing era, it was nice to experience 1980, and again the current run from 2007 through today.

My brother and I, along with many of our friends, spent a good deal of our youth at Philadelphia Veterans Stadium, known to most Philly sports fans as "The Vet". Some remember it more as "The Big Toilet" because of the state the City of Philadelphia left it in for a good part of it's history. But as kids, we didn't even think about the condition of the concrete octorad at Broad Street and Pattison Avenue. All we were concerned about was taking in Phillies games and having fun, both watching the games and otherwise.

Back when the stadium first opened in 1971, the cost of a general admission ticket was just $0.50. That's right, fifty cents! Cheaper than the cost of monthly phone service using MagicJack. You can't by a ticket anywhere for that low a fare anymore, so every day was Kid's Day. We would spend at least one day out of the weekend there whenever the team was in town, sometime both Saturday and Sunday if we could swing it timewise. Not that we had a full schedule as kids, but as I moved into my teen years and held two jobs on the weekend making stroboli at Pizza Shack and busing tables at The Forum caterers, I had less time for ballgames.

What was amazing was that even the Sunday giveaway day games were at that low admission price for the first few years. After a few years, they raised the general admission rate to the adult price of $2.50 for the gift days, and eventually kids had to pay that same amount every game. And that didn't last long either. After the 70s, the cost of a ticket anywhere in the Vet went higher. General admission - the famed "700 level" - was pricier than the cheap seat days that I remembered as a kid. Sneaking down into the box or reserve seats somehow left me feeling less guilty after the increase.


Being able to see double-headers for the price of one admission. This was the era before what is now known as Day/Night Double Headers, where games are now played first in the afternoon, and again in the evening, a separate ticket purchased for each game.

... The events that often occurred between the double headers. I remember being there when Karl Walenda, aka "The Great Walenda", walked the tightrope over The Vet. Being a dweller of the 700 level, we were there when he came down into the crowd after his walk and got to shake hands with him. Sadly, Mr. Walenda died a number of years afterward when a gust of wind took him off the wire during a stunt in Puerto Rico.

... Charlie Frank, the king of the hot dog vendors. His cries of "Doggie-ho!" were famous, so much so that he appeared in some TV commercials and the Phillies had a special day to commemorate his service. Some folks were known to try to get tickets in his section after that for a while.

... Nasty stadium food - The Vet could never be called a ballpark. Wilted hot dogs would be forgettable (sorry, Charlie) were they not so bad. The fries weren't bad, but then again, it's hard to mess up fries. The food available at The Bank - Citizen's Bank Park - is gourmet by comparison.

... The animated boards in the outfield that predated the newer screens found in today's ballparks. In 1970s technology they seemed to be spectacular. Today they would seem woefully outdated.

... Philadelphia Phil and Phyllis, the two colonial figures that stood in the outfield. Kind of a pair of mascots that served the Phillies prior to the arrival of the Phanatic, although they didn't do anything to fire up the fans or satisfy the kids - they were after all, made of fiberglass.

... The hike up the long concrete ramps when you sat in the cheap seats. It was good for a workout, but not so good if you were older or had a handicap.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cartoons in the Afternoon (and in the Morning too!)

Long ago and faraway, there was a time when kids had a vast selection of cartoons to choose from when they came home from school. When you turn on the TV today, where are the toons? With the exception of the Cartoon Network, and The Simpsons, The Family Guy, and King of the Hill (the last three seeming to be adult-oriented), there isn't much in the way of cartoons today.

Up through at least the late 70's - and probably later than that - the Philadelphia stations that fill the afternoons with their judge programs (Channel 29), and "talk" shows that should at least be on late at night (Channel 17 with their Maury and Steve Wilkos shows) once had the hours from 2:00 through 5:00 dedicated to entertaining kids. Parents knew when their kids came home from school, they were able to sit down to watch harmless programming. Add to that lineup the now-defunct WKBS, Channel 48, and they had their choice of many cartoon shows. They may not have gotten their homework done after school, but at least they weren't getting an eyeful of trash.

For the kids yet too young to go to school, there were programs in the AM too. Channel 6 - then WFIL TV - had both Sally Starr's Popeye Theater and the Happy the Clown programs. (It was alleged that Happy was a nasty fellow who would berate the kids during commercial breaks - obscenities included - then come back on the air full of smiles for the viewing audience. The source, a friend of my mother's, is pretty reliable. She said she took her kids to be part of the peanut gallery one fine day, and would never bring them back). I don't believe the other two VHF stations had kids programming, but for at least an hour, the young ones had something to watch besides Good Morning America.


... Dr. Don Rose, the DJ from then-popular AM top-40s station WFIL, keeping kiddies occupied during commercial breaks with his cornball quips on Channel 48. Along with various cartoons, this station also broadcast the Our Gang/Little Rascals comedies of the 30s and 40s.

... Looney Toons filling a good part of the afternoon on WTAF-TV, Channel 29.

... Wee Willie Webber, the uncle-like moderator of programs on WPHL-17. Mr. Webber recently passed away, another icon of my childhood now gone.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Summer in the City - Fun Under the Fire Plug

Here we are, more than halfway through July already. Summer seems to take forever to get here and it quickly goes by. If you haven't noticed, you can see that we're slowly losing sunlight at the end of the day, something that naturally happens once the solstice comes in late June.

One other thing I've noticed is that it isn't like it used to be on the streets. As I said in my ode to summer last year (see back in the 60s and 70s when we were growing up, we were out from midday through as late as our parents would let us stay out. We didn't hang around the house.

Getting back to fresh stuff - you don't want me telling you about what I wrote last summer - one of the things I hardly see anymore are kids getting soaked under the fire plug. For those of you scratching your heads, that's what is called a fire hydrant. When summer came around, we could not wait to find someone who had a hydrant wrench and could open the plug for us. Once they had it opened, they'd hide it in someone's house and we'd all have some fun for an hour or so, or as long as we could before the cops would come and turn the water off. And this wasn't with a sprinkler rig attached, this was with the fire plug opened full bore! The only thing close to a sprinkler in those days was someone pressing their butt up against the opening and causing the water to fan out in every direction. The only friction we'd ever get besides the cops was a neighbor who would complain (maybe he called the police) and said that the water would flood his basement. Every kid on the block and from other blocks would be out there having fun.

Somewhere in the 80s, someone got the idea that it wasn't a good thing for kids to be doing such things. It was easy to say that it didn't matter, that we were adults and there were more important things to do than play at the fireplug. But still, a part of our heritage started to disappear. Kids were told that it created a danger for firefighters because the pressure dropped low when the hydrant was opened. Why not use one of those sprinkler caps instead? You could get them at the local firehouse and no one would have to worry ever again about low pressure or water levels in a drought year or kids getting swept under car tires by the tremendous pressure of the hydrant. Hey, we never met one kid who that happened to, but then again we would always open them on side streets like our own Chadwick Street, not on the more well-traveled streets like Shunk Street or Oregon Avenue. We did have common sense! But still, the Eighties were the beginning of the end for that summer ritual of cooling down with water that didn't pass through the meter at home and everyone enjoyed.

This summer, I think I've seek kids using the sprinkler cap on a fire plug all of one time. Not once did I see a fully opened hydrant. Granted, it hasn't been a very hot summer like most are (please explain, global warming advocates), but it's been warm enough to go out in the street and get wet. Where are the kids at? Parents, let your kids go out and have some fun! I've been thinking about posting this for a week or so, then my brother who lives in Blackwood, NJ was telling me today that he doesn't see any kids around on the street, let alone under a hydrant. I just knew I had to post this. Anyhow, he said something that makes sense. When kids of today get older, what are they going to talk about when they reminisce about their childhood? "Hey, remember summer, when we got out of school and..." And what? And waited for the back-to-school sales in August so we could buy our pencils and copy books and uniforms? Get out there and do something already! You've got approximately six weeks left before the bell rings again. Go out and find someone with a wrench and have some fun, or do what some of the kids did and one out of a pipe wrench and section of pipe. If someone asks what you think you're doing, tell them an old coot with a blog told you it would be a fun thing to do. Just hide the wrench so they don't take it away and you can turn the hydrant on again when they leave.