Thursday, December 21, 2006

A Season of Lights

Here we are, just four days before Christmas 2006. This year went by quickly. The month sped by like a meteor entering earth's atmosphere. It's amazing how time goes by, especially as you get older.

One of those things that have always made the Christmas season special is the lights that illuminate the neighborhoods starting a day after Thanksgiving and going through "Little Christmas" in January. Being we have to deal with the shortest of days in December, it's great that the Christmas lights make those days a little brighter.

While the lights we have today are nice, it's my opinion that things were brighter back in the day. And more colorful. Look out your door today, what do you see? Mostly a sea of white light from small bulbs. What happened to color? It's almost as if we went from celebrating Christmas to wanting to make South Philly look more like Vegas. Especially with those homes that have the lights surrounding the entire front. It's really "production" looking and detracts from the Christmas feel.

Thankfully there still is some color around. The lights strung across our block remain in color. In our own home, we went back to multi-color lights after the long-standing white strand died a timely death. There are still many who make their decorating jobs look special. But the grand-daddy of them all around here was a man named Frank DeAntonio. It was said that Frank was one of the main decorators at the old John Wanamaker store in Center City, and his work was a testimony to that. Every year, we waited for him to put up his lights and decorations and the block really shined because of it. There were others here who tried to outdo him, but they never had the skill. I remember Mr. DeAntonio had a small n-gauge train layout in his basement window, totally crafted it himself. A nice winter snow scene with Disney characters and two sets of tracks with the trains going in opposite directions. All the kids loved it, we would go to his window often to watch.

Mr DeAntonio also had a large snowman between his bedroom windows, just like you'd see at the Christmas Light Show at what was Wanamakers and now is a Macy's store. It's arms would wave up and down in lights, a really nice piece of work. To finish the job, he used large colored bulbs for his lights, nicer than what we were used to around here. This guy knew how to decorate, and his work is missed. Frank DeAntonio passed away a number of years ago, shortly after his wife's death. He was a great guy, and always seemed to get a charge in watching the kids watch his creations. It was said that when he retired the train layout when he got older, he donated it to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. If this is so, I hope they still have it, those kids there would love it.

The folks on Smedley and Colorado Streets (2700) still do a fantastic job with their lighting. Do they compete? I don't know. Only about a block apart, I guess it's easy to believe that one of the blocks could do a better job than the other. Competition or not, who cares? Both do Christmas lighthing right, and it's really great for the neighborhood. I still see car and van loads of folks slowly driving around Smedley to have a look. The traffic pattern of Colorado makes it a quick trip up and out.

Friday, December 08, 2006

A Kid's Day on the Town

This date, December 8th, was a day that my brother, sister, and I looked forward to for almost an entire year. No, it wasn't as important a date as say, Christmas, or your birthday. But December 8th was important for two reasons: It was a day off from school, and it was a day fully-spent in Center City (we called it going uptown) visiting the department stores and their
Christmas attractions.

The day always started with us sleeping in a little later than usual. After all, it was a day off, so you had to put it to good use and get a little more sleep. It was just a little, maybe an hour or two more, but then our feet hit the floor and we started to get ready.

We always took the route 2 bus north on 16th street into town. My mom and her friends didn't trust the subway, they thought too many bad things happened down there. So we stayed on the surface. The first stop once hitting Market Street was a short walk to John Wanamaker's to see the Christmas light show, which was a must, and still should be for families today. Afterward, we'd head up to the 9th floor to the toy department where there were two things a kid had to do: ride the monorail around the toy department, and go shopping for your parents at the Little Santa shop that the store set up for kids. The doorway into the shop was really low, giving the impression that only kids could come in, no adults allowed. We were so into it that we didn't think about how the adult cashiers and sales helpers got into the room. I think it's safe to say they weren't shrunken momentarily to allow them entrance, but we didn't care. We finished our trip to Wanamaker's with a stop for lunch in the fancy dining room they had there, at least fancier than places kids go most times of the year.

After lunch, we'd trek east on Market to Lit Brothers department store at 8th Street. This was before the pit they call The Gallery was built down the street. Lit's had an attraction called The Enchanted Village, an animated Christmas town that was enjoyed by kids and adults alike. We'd line up through the length of the store to wait to get to see it. The trip through the village took only maybe fifteen minutes, but we got to clown around with each other while waiting and the time wasn't wasted. The Enchanted Village survived until Lit's closed in 1975, and should someday rise again when the Please Touch Museum moves into the current Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park. If you haven't been there as a child, start a tradition with your family and head there every year around Christmas time. Although I haven't seen it in three decades, I believe kids will still be interested, even in the world of high tech - which the village definitely isn't. When it's back, take them and let them decide whether or not it's for them. My bet is that they'll love it.

There was a third big department store on Market St. East in those days, but to our knowledge, Gimbel's didn't have anything like the other stores did. The only thing we can remember is that on Thanksgiving Day, they were the sponsors of the parade, and Santa Claus would ascend the ladder of a Philadelphia Fire Department ladder truck and enter the window of one of the store's upper floors to usher in the Christmas season. After that, nothing. It's a shame really, because they missed out on drawing in the kids with their parents and what could have been some tradition for some families.

The common thread in all this was the big department stores. Those that survive or have started in the more recent decades fall short in a lot of ways. They're just not the same. When you look at it, the average department store has two, maybe three floors of goods for sale today. Wanamaker's had nine in Center City. Retail is a different animal than it was back in the day, and that's sad, because generations of kids and entire families will miss out on what we remember from just thirty years ago.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

When We Spent Holidays Together

Here we go, just a few days before Thanksgiving. We're on the heels of another holiday season. While it's great to look ahead and know that memories will be made and joy will be shared, it's almost preferable to look back instead of ahead. That may seem odd, as it's almost always better to look forward than backward. But when you get older and family and friends go away, you really do have something to be thankful for. You should be thankful for the memories of times past as well as those that are to be created in the present or future.

This Thanksgiving Day, we'll be spending the day at my sister-in-laws / brother-in-laws house, and my wife and I are always happy to spend time with them. I'm glad for it for another reason too, as my wife hasn't had the opportunity to spend too many holidays with her family. We've spent more of them with my family than with hers. I feel bad about that, because looking at it, I believe she's been denied the chance to look back when we get older on those times that could have been and probably should have been. She's never, ever complained, but a spouse deserves as much time with their family as with yours.

Why do I think about these things? Because I can sit here and think back to a time that was and remember a dinner table lined with family members who won't share those holiday dinners anymore. As I already mentioned, some have passed away. My father and my grandparents aren't around anymore to spend those holidays with. Some others won't be there because of changes in family situation where they've married and have their own to care for. And like all families, sometimes it's impossible to get everyone together because of someone who can't stand to be in the same room with another or someone said something stupid to another a decade ago and it's still remembered to this day. With many folks having the day off after Thanksgiving, maybe we should have a Forgiveness Day too, a chance for all who harbor ill feelings because of things petty or significant to come together and correct the wrongs.

What will your holidays be like this year? If you say they could be better because of something that can be corrected but hasn't, maybe this is the year to see those things resolved. If you've placed selfish things ahead of family and/or friends, put them aside temporarily. There will be other days and times for those things. Someday the folks you can make the best of things with aren't going to be there anymore. And someday, you may look back at what could have been instead of what should have been. It's always better to make the changes now while they mean something, rather than regret what you can no longer do.

...My grandfather roasting nuts in an old 1920s era gas oven in the basement of their home on 17th street. No pilot light, you turned on the gas and lit it quickly or you'd get a nice "whoosh!" from the built up gas igniting.
...Conversation. Everyone stayed in the living room, dining room, or kitchen. No one ran to the sanctuary of their own room once the dinner plates were cleared, and if someone watched TV, we all did, and still talked all day.
...Everyone showing up before noon and not leaving until evening. No rushing to dinner and out the door.
...Two things were always available to drink at my grandparents: a bottle of wine for the adults and a few quarts of Frank's Ginger Ale for the kids (or adults who didn't drink much wine). We didn't guzzle the soda like kids do today. You drank it from maybe 6-ounce glasses or jelly jar glasses (remember the Flintstones glasses that Welch's sold their grape jelly in?) and made it last.
...Wresting in the living room of my grandparents house with my brother and cousin while my grandmother would yell that we were going to hurt each other. We almost never did (I remember one of us hit our heads on the marble coffee table once), but we did get to imitate our favorite wrestlers from Saturday morning TV. Never broke any furniture either.
...A full-course dinner as found in most Italian homes. Macaroni (none dare call it pasta), meatballs, sausage, and bragiole, turkey and stuffing, and then the salad (salad always came last, and always with vinegar and oil, no bottled dressing). Bread fresh from Lanci's Bakery on Jackson St. was always on the table.
...Along with the walnuts, chestnuts, and brazils, cheese from Cilione's (also on Jackson St) was on the table before and after dinner, along with bottles of Jacquin's Anisette and Blackberry Brandy. My grandmother would never let a holiday go by without stopping by the State Store to get bottles of both.
...My grandparent's neighbor Pete always knocking on holidays to say hello and to give my brother, sister, and I a quarter. As we got older, it became half dollars and we looked forward to getting those Kennedy heads, always checking to see if we got a silver one.

I know, the memories all seem like simple stuff, and they are. But they're my memories, those of time spent with people I loved being with and those gone that are really missed. Although they seem simple, I think I'd rather remember things like that than remembering that we spent the day around the PlayStation. And I'd rather see everyone in one room than going from house-to-house. Those times were times well spent.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Mrs. M

Life leaves you with a lot of time to look back and either regret the things you did or laugh about them. Or both. A lot of what I write about happened when we were young kids through our very early teen years. So I can claim that we were young and stupid and give myself enough slack and know that there's no need to carry too much guilt about youthful indiscretions. If you grow older and do the same stupid things, shame on you. If you're a kid and do stupid things and grow out of them, you get to share a laugh with others and move on. I've moved on.

I've moved on, but you get the benefit of reading a story that should leave you laughing a bit, or maybe a lot, depending on your sense of humor. Or you'll call us all jerks and wonder how we didn't end up with a felony conviction or three. You decide.

The neighbors here on the bottom end of the block didn't have too many kids here to point a finger at when something happened. So we - my sister, brother, and myself - would usually be on the stubby end of those fingers when someone had an accusation to level. Alright, sometimes they were right, but they lacked the evidence. They were wrong too at times, but not always. One of those neighbors was an elderly lady who we'll call Mrs. M.

Mrs. M lived across the street and a few doors down, in close enough proximity to still make her a mark for our youthful mischief. I'd like to say she'd look back and laugh about it now that we're older should she still be with us, but I doubt that would be true. Some never forget. Elephants and old neighbors to name a few.

Had we realized the people could get hurt and we could get in trouble for it because of our mischief, we may not have done some of the things we did. You may say that's a load of fecal matter. You may be right. Why wonder if we'd change things, they've already happened. One of those things involved clothesline and doorknobs. You may be wondering if we had a fetish with all things lengthy, such as rope and fishing line, especially considering the post a number of months ago about Dave, who just so happened to be Mrs. M's next-door neighbor. What we did - a number of times, although not nearly as many as with the fishing line - is to take the clothes line and tie it to both of those neighbor's door knobs, with just a little bit of slack. Just enough for them to open the door almost halfway. Once the line was tied, we would pound on their doors and hide behind the cars - and laugh. What ensued was a unique version of tug-of-war in which there was no winner. And it lasted for a number of minutes, until one or both gave up. Then there was enough room for someone to cut or untie the line and the fun was over. Until the next time.

Another incident involved a ski mask, rain coat, and two older kids putting a little guy up to doing something that would get you arrested for indecent exposure today. No, I was not that little guy, nor was I either of the two who egged him on. But he'd laugh about it rather than blush if you were to mention it to him today. What that kid was put up to was that he was asked to dress in nothing but the rain coat, ski mask, socks and shoes, and knock on Mrs. M's door and flash her. Imagine if you would a maybe nine or ten year old kid flashing an eighty-year old woman. I don't think she'd ever imagine it possible had she not experienced it herself.

Anyhow, she was much sharper than anyone had expected. As soon as the flash that made neighborhood history occurred, the first thing out of her mouth was "I know that that's you, _____ ________". Of course, the name of our flasher is omitted as even under the law, youthful offenses are sealed. But there's a small handful of us here who know exactly who he is. Maybe he'll become a neighborhood legend now if enough folks read this post. The Phantom Flasher. Imagine that.

Well, you're wondering why we all did such stupid things, and the answer is the same as why you did your own stupid things. We were bored. Maybe you'll say, "We never did things like that when we were bored." I know you didn't. That's because we were much more creative than you were. Live with it. How would I feel if a kid on the block did that to me today? I don't know. Maybe be stuck between thinking him the product of parents not watching out for their kids and actually getting a huge laugh. Were our parents negligent in our rearing? Not at all. But I think if we were to tell them of some of the things we did in our youth, they too would wonder what they've raised - and then laugh!

Sunday, October 29, 2006


I've noted in a number of posts here in this blog the hard working men and women of South Philly who made their living doing everything from running the local candy store to collecting rags from a horse-drawn cart. All of us know folks who made their money honestly and worked their entire lives without complaint. They earned their entire living.

But on the street, there are always "entepreneurs" who strive to make a buck however they can. As you read this, you may be thinking that I'm referring to the local street pharmacists who stand on corners or make deliveries to the neighborhood junkies to keep them from going into withdraw.

I met on Oregon Avenue this week a certain salesman, trying to sell me something I got a day later for free. This guy already failed to sell me his product the minute he opened his mouth. A good salesman should know his customers. For some odd reason, this guy thinks my name is "Mazucca" and calls out to me, asking, "Hey Mazucca, you use Fusion razors? I got a load if you need them." I've had a number of guys on the street try to sell me everything from unbreakable drinking glasses (well, he said so, but wouldn't bang the mouth of the glass against his tailgate when I asked), pot, flimsy shirts, whatever. But the first ever time I found a neighborhood razor salesman.

Anyhow, the very next day, by way of the US Postal Service, what did I get in the mail? Yeah, you got it. A free Gillette Fusion razor. Pretty nice razor too, has five blades to make sure I get all the stubble. A plug for Gillette, I didn't nick myself at all when shaving with the Fusion, so you got my vote for razor of the year. That was Thursday, and on Friday, my brother too got one in the mail. Maybe all of the tri-state area males did. So where did this guy get his load of Fusions? Maybe stole a load from the local post office? Maybe they fell off the truck and landed at his feet? Who knows? But somewhere in South Philly, some knucklehead bought a Fusion or two at a deep discount, only to get one free the following day. Whatever happened to honest salesmen?

...The guys who used to try to sell you a VCR (or computer, or TV), but wouldn't allow you to open the box. "Bad for business, selling products in open cartons" they'd tell you. If you were foolish enough to buy them, I hope you enjoyed your carton of bricks. I've heard of a few guys who paid a hundred or so for them.

My favorite was the guy who approached me while I was working in Center City in the early 90s. Said he had a camcorder to sell. I asked to see it. "Can't open the box man" he told me. Said it was an 8mm VHS camera. "Which one?" I asked, "8mm or VHS?" "Yeah", that's the one" was his answer. He had to unload them quickly, the School District needed to clear their inventory and needed the cash. I could believe they were strapped for bucks, but since when does the Board of Education need to move inventory? Naturally, he got no sale from me.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Full Service Gas Station

Alright, that debacle from last Friday with the gas lines has me remembering the old service stations as compared to the new "mini-mart" stations where you get no help. So bear with me while I continue this theme.

Again, you older guys and gals can remember the way things were done when you filled the tank. You didn't have to do a thing except drive up and then pay at the end of your transaction. The neighborhood service station was a model of customer service. Once you pulled up next to the pump, the guy holding the nozzle pumped your gas, washed your windshield, checked your oil and maybe your air pressure, and sent you on your way. He wore a uniform, gave you a smile, and kept you from having hands that smelled like 98-octane or from getting grease on the sleeves of your shirt.

Today the full-service station still exists, especially when you drive over the bridge to New Jersey. Their state government still doesn't think it's a good idea for you to have an option to save a few cents on a gallon by pumping it yourself. Then again, that full-serve really isn't. What they call full-serve is merely the attendant pumping your gas. You get none of the other services. Hey, you can't even get a free road map or free air anymore. I won't be surprised if someday they charge us for driving directions when you pull in lost on your way to your grandma's house. Maybe by then GPS systems will be less money and you'll have one, not having to rely on directions that will have you driving in circles or leave you about 35 miles from your actual destination.

And You May Remember...
...The Sinclair station at 18th & Oregon Ave. It's a Dunkin-Donuts now, but at one time, you could see your friendly Dino the Dinosaur on the sign and pumps at that station.

...There were also two Esso/Exxon stations here that disappeared long ago. One was at Broad & Oregon, a subway station now sits there for the Broad Street Line. The other was at 20th & Oregon, now a Checker's burger joint. I remember a family member left his car running across the street from that station at an ATM once. When he went back to the car, it was gone. He left it in neutral with the hand brake on, and it slipped. It was funny hearing the attendant saying, "I thought he was coming in for gas until I saw there wasn't a driver." The car hit the wall, but no real damage was done. The car was reported stolen and we searched the neighborhood for almost a half-hour before realizing it was in the station. We laughed for a few hours more.

...Promotions: You could do everything from furnish your dinner table to plan a vacation with promotions offered at gas stations in the past. They still have their offers, just not as worthwhile as they used to be. I remember Sunoco had this NFL stamp album promotion that all of us boys bugged the attendants for. Whether we were football fans or not, we got our albums and stamps, the guy who got the stamps for all players on all teams was the one who was envied by all. Keep in mind we were about nine or ten years old, so yeah it was goofy, but then again, so are young boys.

Remembering Gas Lines Old and New

You readers who have been around the block a few times in life can remember the gas lines that came with the Arab Oil Embargo in the early 1970s. Thankfully I was much too young to drive at the time, so I didn't have the dubious pleasure of lining up on the designated day, depending on my license plate. But many did, much to the chagrin of drivers and our government. I can only imagine that some crazy sheik was laughing hard that he caused our folks all that grief. Someday, maybe we'll no longer have to depend on the Saudis and others to meet our energy needs and we can laugh at those jerks when they realize that they depended on us as much as we did them.

Anyhow...what reminded me of those lines of long-ago was the circus side-show that we witnessed in South Philly this past Friday when Marino's Sunoco station at 19th & Oregon Avenue made their last stand, selling regular unleaded at $1.50 per gallon as a way of telling Sun Oil Co. what they can do with their gasoline. It seems Sun has charged service stations here in South Philly too much for their product. The local owners are paying more than those upstate, yet they're a stones throw from the Passyunk Avenue refinery and transportation costs are practically nothing for them by comparison to those in NE Pennsylvania. don't want to know all the details about what gas costs and why the owners pay more. What you want to know about is the human condition, and what causes folks to do the dumb things they do. Living just off of Oregon Ave, I was able to take a 30 second stroll to the corner and watch human behavior at it's best - okay, I'm being sarcastic. What I got to see was not folks lining up because of shortages caused by governments, but instead, lining up because they wanted a good buy. But then again, staying in line for hours on end to save a few dollars isn't a good buy to me. For the sane person, time is money. For the insane, or for someone who hasn't found out what a work ethic or the value of time is, I guess time is just something to waste. For their efforts, at least they could get a burger or hot dog with their purchase. Hopefully the guy flipping the burger wasn't the same one pumping your gas.

There were some humorous moments on that day. Some of the most humorous was watching frustrated motorists griping about a condition they exposed themselves to. Even more funny was watching their faces while they listened to local residents poke fun at the nonsense and the participants, and having to sit there and take it. But the best part of it all was finding out that a few folks ran out of gas. No, that shouldn't be funny, but it is when you realize that they ran out because they intentionally got in line with just vapors in the tank, trying to save a few dollars. I watched one cop on a bike come up yelling at a motorist, asking why she was bucking the line. She had to manuever around one of those who didn't realize that "E" on the gas gage means "empty".

Thankfully it lasted no more than a half-day at worst. And thankfully, there was no natural disaster or one caused by mankind, accidentally or intentionally. Had fire department and police had to make their way to a real emergency, the gridlock caused by that mayhem could have caused a catastrophe. We survived it, the motorists survived it, Marino's sold it 's gas, and life goes on. Until the next vendor convinces the economically-challenged (those who don't realize that time is money and sitting idling burns as much as you'll save) that it's a good idea to sit in lines for a few hours to save almost nothing. If you line up, please understand the guy standing on the corner laughing has a valid reason. That reason will be found once you gaze in your mirror.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Five Years Gone: Remembering September 11, 2001

This post departs from the usual memories of life here in South Philly. Five years ago today, our world changed. Some would say it changed for the worst, but if we look at what happened on that day and those that followed, we can surely see that it may have changed for the better.

You will no doubt remember where you were when you heard the news on September 11, 2006. Like a generation or so before us who remembered where they were and what they were doing when they heard the tragic news of President Kennedy being assasinated, we too remember. For me, it was a hard, rude awakening. I had slept late that morning, still recovering from cervical fusion surgery exactly one week previously. My wife Patty woke me up to tell me, saying something like "It just came on the news, a plane hit the World Trade Center." Just as I started to reply "What? That's not right, that's bad", she said "both towers" and it was immediately clear. This was an attack, not an accident. We were suddenly at war, and we remain so to this day in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There are many memories that have never left our minds of that fateful day five years ago. To this day, I can still remember how it felt weatherwise on that September Tuesday, and for some reason, it seems I remember the feel of the night air even more. The memory of the sight of hundreds or thousands of faces pasted on storefronts, utility poles and other places remains, a sad memory to the fact that each of them denotes a face and a member of someone's family who probably never came home. Being home recuperating, I remember watching Dan Rather and the others of CBS News telling us that a plane had hit the Pentagon in Washington, and then not long afterward that an unconfirmed report had come in that yet another plane had crashed in western Pennsylvania. So we wondered, how many more? How many more planes were targeting buildings, how many more American lives were in jeopardy? And I remember just shortly before the collapse of the twin towers, asking how the men of FDNY could possibly fight a fire that high up. The collapse of each tower gave the answer. There would be no need to fight the fires, and the valiant rescues and attempted rescues ended for the most part then and there.

And we remembered having hope. I still remember one firefighter being shown on the screen, walking the streets near Ground Zero, proclaiming that a number of firefighters were found alive. Sadly, it was not to be so. But we hoped and prayed.

And we saw on that day that the people of America showed their best. They gave of themselves, whether it with money from pocket change or checking accounts, or of blood from their veins. They gave food and drink to those working what seemed to be an impossible task, searching for survivors and clearing the rubble of Ground Zero. And they came from all over the country, firefighters and civilians, seeking to aid the firefighters of NYC in that daunting task. America showed her best, and that memory too remains in us all. We remember that Americans showed our enemies that they would not be defeated, that evil would not prevail.

Well, that was true for most Americans. I remember too a cab ride home from the doctors after a surgical follow-up, just a few weeks after 9/11. I was talking to the cab driver, an American about the attacks. He noted that there was a climate of fear for many of the drivers because there were some Americans who threatened any cab driver that was not "one of us". Especially nervous were the Sikh drivers, the men you see wearing turbans. No matter that they weren't Muslim, some morons considered them the enemy. Thankfully, the number of those morons was in the vast minority.

We're now five years past that day. Five years, and the grief still remains for those who lost family, friends, fellow Americans on that dreadful day. Five years, and our men and women are still serving our country, facing danger in far-away places. No matter what your politics, pray for them and support them. Most did not ask to be sent there, but went to serve out of duty for their country, for you and me.
And pray for the safety of this nation. Somewhere there are evil men seeking the destruction of this nation, their aim to destroy all that we stand for, whether it be independence, religious freedoms, or mere individuality. Pray that our Justice Department, intelligence agencies, Department of Homeland Security, are successful at revealing the threats and destroying the plots before those who aim to do those things are themselves successful. May God help these United States, that we never again experience the terror, destruction, and grief that we experienced on that day, five years ago.

...To the firefighters and police officers who ran into two burning towers in hopes of rescuing those yet to make it to safety. Some gave their lives, some survived, bearing the memories and wounds.

...To the air traffic controllers who performed the monumental task of bringing to the ground safely thousands of flights that were airborne on that day, ensuring the safety of tens or hundreds of thousands of people, citizens of this nation and others.

...To those who volunteered to do everything from search for survivors to offering bottled water to those who did. So many gave and showed us that Americans weren't selfish people, but cared for each other.

...To the men and women of the United States Armed Forces - Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corp.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Back to School Time

For many of us as kids, Labor Day would make us cringe. It was a holiday for adults, they got the long weekend and three days away from the desk or construction site or wherever they toiled. For us, it only meant one thing - back to school.

Yes, the most dreaded day on the calendar was the Wednesday after Labor Day. With that day came the start of nine months of homework, books, teachers, and all the things that an introverted, disinterested kid would hate. There were only a few bright spots during the school year, that coming when we got Christmas and Easter vacations. That's right, Christmas and Easter, not Winter Holiday or Spring Celebration or whatever the politically correct want to call them today.

To the kids heading back to school tomorrow, you have my sympathies. Especially if you have teachers who either don't care too much or those who rule with an iron hand. I know this post doesn't provide you with much of a memory or humor, but let me give you a bit of wisdom. My advice to you would be to learn as much as you can, and do your best rather than just trying to make it through. You'll come out much better in the end, finding your potential in the career market much greater than if you just seek a high school diploma and nothing more. Things worked out well for me even though I lacked a degree, I'm no longer an introvert and careerwise, I did pretty well. But why risk it? Aim high and try to enjoy the ride. And if you really hate school anyhow, hey, June will be around soon enough.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Labor Day Weekend 2006 - The Times They Are A'Changin'

Labor Day weekend 2006 comes to an end, and exits with some notoriety. Three things that play on the memories of long-time South Philly residents are noted on this unofficial end of summer weekend. Two of them are goodbyes, the other remembering an ongoing annual charity...

No, it's not South Philly, and no, I've never set foot on Steel Pier although I've been to AC a number of times. But I've known and spoke with enough folks about their experiences at Steel Pier to have lived there somewhat vicariously. And our late neighbor across the alley on Bancroft Street, Alice, is said to have been one of the ladies who rode the diving horses on the pier.

I saw an article in the Inquirer this morning about the coming demise, with the pier closing in October. In that article, one of the amusement owners, Anthony Catonoso, is noted as saying:
"We're not going to be here because they don't want families in Atlantic City anymore". That's a terrible testimony for a city that relies on tourism and vacationers, even if it does play more to adults with it's casinos. This weekend alone will provide the Steel Pier with enough families for them to understand that providing attractions for the family unit still matters. But maybe the dollar matters more, and the money made selling the high-end properties and services that will replace Steel Pier will be enough to satisfy those investing in them (remember, it's a Trump venture). The families coming from other places can go elsewhere. But for those families of Atlantic City who don't have the extra money to travel, the loss of Steel Pier will leave them residents in a town without much to offer in spending a day or weekend together having some quality time. A 108-year history will become just that next month, history.

Sally Starr, hostess of a kiddie show that many of us will remember from the 1960's, retired this weekend from her Sunday afternoon radio show at WVLT-FM (92.1). If you didn't know she was still doing something on-air, well, neither did I until I read about it recently. I guess at 83 years old, retirement isn't such a bad thing. Best wishes Sally, and I hope Mr. Senske called to say the same.

Jerry Lewis has been hosting the telethon since 1966, raising over a billion dollars to fight Muscular Dystrophy. He's still doing it at 80 years old, despite health issues.

I remember as a kid two things about the telethon. On our own, my brother, Chris Arizzi, and I would go door-to-door asking for contributions from neighbors. We'd get a buck here, fifty cents there, but not too many folks said no. And we turned it all in, keeping nothing for ourselves. Why did we do it? Well, we just heard that other kids did and jumped on the bandwagon.

The other memory? We'd stay up late and call into the telethon, making a few pledges in the names of folks we didn't like so much. So if you got a letter in the mail with a self-addressed stamped envelope, thanking you for your $500.00 pledge to help fight MD, please accept my apologies and laugh a little. If you sent a gift out of guilt, feel good about it and laugh even more. Your gift may help find a cure to that insidious disease.

...Jerry Lewis crying at the end of the telethon. I remember sitting by the TV one year and my cousin saying something like, "Oooh, here's the best part of the telethon, he's gonna cry like a baby."

...Giving Mr. Senske a hard time about Sally Starr if you were a student in his gym class at Bishop Neumann HS. Legend has it that Mr. Senske had dated the old cowgirl and she jilted him. True or not, I don't know. But I remember a few times seeing him in the hall near the gym and hearing someone shout "Sally Starr" while hidden safely in a crowd of other students, trying to get under his skin. They often did.

...The Steel Pier Show. A locally-produced show that you could view on WPVI Channel 6 on Saturday afternoons in the summertime. Ed Hurst and some guy with the last name of Grady (Joe perhaps?) hosted the show.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Bocce At Guerin Playground

I've been thinking back on pasttimes lately, and started thinking about my grandfather and how he would take my brother, sister, and I to Guerin playground every Sunday and once or twice a week during the summer months. The weekends were ours, he'd sit and watch us play or push us on the swings as high as he could. My grandfather really enjoyed taking us out, and probably had at least as much of a good time as we did.

Grandpop was very protective of us too. I remember a boy had pulled my sister's hair as she came off the sliding board one Sunday afternoon. My grandfather chased him, fired up with rage that a boy would do that to a girl, especially his granddaughter. Fortunately, the kid was naturally faster than the older man, and he made his escape. Well, those things didn't happen too often, the times there for us were typically enjoyed.

During the weekdays, Grandpop had his fun too. Not like us kids on the playground equipment. He and the older Italian men would gather at the bocce courts at Guerin and spend the better part of the day playing bocce, talking, and at times drinking wine from bottles they brought in. It was a great way for them to spend the last years of their lives after retirement, and it helped keep their community alive. I only knew the names of a couple of the men who gathered to play and talk, but the faces were very familiar. I don't think there was a man among them who was timid, all were involved in something by the courts.

As time takes it's toll, things dissapear. It saddended my grandfather as his friends started to die off. The community of the bocce courts started to dwindle in the mid-70s, and by the end of the decade, most of the men had passed away or were unable to make the walk to 16th & Wolf to play or talk, my grandfather included. By the dawn of the 80s, he was confined to the house or to the bench on the front porch, sitting and watching the world go by with faces he didn't know. Around the same time, the outdoor bocce courts disappeared from Guerin.

My grandfather died in February 1983 at the age of 90. Because of him, I had the pleasure and privilege to experience the Italian culture, if only by sitting and watching him and the other men. What may have seemed like a waste of our playtime back in our childhood is now a fond memory.

UPDATE - 9/4/2006:
It seems I've posted in haste regarding the demise of bocce at Guerin Playground. With the outdoor courts gone, I figured bocce went with it. But a number of folks noted at that bocce is alive and well at Guerin, only now it's inside rather than out, and many who play in the leagues there speak Italian. I'm always glad when someone tells me I'm wrong when it comes to things like this. It's good to see the game surviving.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Go Carts, South Philly Style

Kevin Karns reminded me in response to my post on bottle traps about the "go-carts" we used to build as kids. I haven't seen one in ages. Now kids either have motorized plastic vehicles, good quality bicycles, or real motor bikes. They don't have to build something themselves. Would they? I don't know, but it'd be a fun thing for them to do.

If you're in your forties or older, you probably built one or more yourself. We used to scour the trash outside of peoples homes on Wednesday, looking for material to build our go-carts and scooters. Or, we would go down the basement to see what we could find to put one together. Sometimes one guy would provide the wheels, another the 2x4s, and so on and so forth. But we all worked together and got one built, then ran it into the ground until it fell apart. The wheels were usually an old pair of our own roller skates. You remember the kind that went on top your sneakers? Yep, those types of skates. The ones you needed a skate key to tighten. We were fortunate to find bigger wheels sometimes from discarded shopping carts and such, but usually, it was the skates that got us rolling.

I did a Google search on "go carts", hoping to find some photos of the types of wrecks we built. I didn't find one I know that it wasn't a South Philly only thing, but no one gives mention to these things on the web. Pretty sad, huh?

The bodies were again sometimes found in the trash, but sometimes they were pilfered from a nearby grocery store. The bodies of our go-carts were sometimes produce crates or metal milk crates, the later good for scratching the paint on a car here or there. Much better than the produce crates that would fall apart after one or two collisions.

Fire Alarm Call Boxes

Remember the old call boxes that you found on every other corner of the larger streets to call the Fire Department back in the day? In today's high-tech world, they don't make sense. But even before the cell phone became popular they started to disappear from the streets of Philadelphia.

The call boxes made perfect sense back in the days when most homes didn't have telephones. But in the early 1980s, the Philadelphia Fire Department figured they became obsolete. And they were right, those call boxes got way more activity with false alarms than for actual working fires. Wanted to shake things up on the street a bit? All you had to do was go over to the corner, break the glass on the box face, and pull down on the handle. Firefighters would be there in just a few minutes, hoping to find a citizen to direct them to the site of the actual fire. But in the later years, the citizens beat feet and didn't stick around after pulling the box. So the PFD pulled them from the corners before the 80s could zip halfway through the decade. A bit of nostalgia, but not useful at all today.


...that some boxes were painted black. I never could find out why. Legend was that the box was painted black when a firefighter died when responding to a fire there. But there were many boxes painted black that had no fatalities attached to them. Being they started to go black near the end of their effective lives, I would think it was done to show that they were no longer active.

... Police call boxes. I never saw an active one, but remember numerous abandoned boxes around South Philly through the end of the 70s. Useful for cops on patrol before radios became widespread. Now the average citizen can't even listen to the police on their obsolete scanners since they went digital a few years back. So a few of us have somewhat expensive paperweights with speakers and digital displays.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Mike Douglas Passes Away

Most people 40 and over will remember Mike Douglas and his afternoon TV show on KYW-TV 3 back in the 70s. Mr. Douglas' show featured musical and entertainment celebrities of all types and was pretty popular at the time, before cable had widened the variety of programming and before people like Oprah and Springer ruined the format in various ways.

I read that Mike Douglas died today on his birthday at 81. Gone, but not to be forgotten. He was a staple of Philly television as much as Larry Kane was and Jim Gardner is to anchoring the news, or as Sally Starr and Gene London were to kids TV, even if we did watch him back then in blue and white pixels instead of color.


... Mike Douglas' contemporaries of the era. Steve Allen, Merv (Ooooh!) Griffin, and Dinah Shore all had similar programs in the afternoon.

... The set of The Mike Douglas Show being maybe somewhat spartan by today's comparison. Just a few high stools, the name of the show on the wall, and a few characters with it such as an asterisk and exclamation point. Simple stuff, but the emphasis was on those on stage and not on the set or the lighting.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Bottle Traps

They were almost invisible. They may have startled you a bit if you tripped one. They'd be just about impossible to make today because plastic has replaced glass in so many things. What were they? We called them "Bottle Traps".

Bottle Traps were the result of bored imagination of your average everyday kid who had a lot of nights with nothing to do but to get a laugh whenever possible. We took a length of fishing line - (you remember our last use of it from Dave and the door knocker), tied one end to a glass soda bottle, the other end to a car door handle or whatever was available, and then placed the bottle on the top step in front of someone's home. And we always did it on Oregon Avenue because we knew there would be foot traffic.

It didn't take too long to wait, even later at night. Someone would soon ramble on down the street and trip the Bottle Trap. Most would soon realize what happened and shrug it off. Some would curse and look around to see if they could see who set the trap. We always concealed ourselves and never got caught.

Every so often, someone had to dispose of the Coke or whatever soda they drank earlier that night. The suggestion would then be to urinate in the bottle before setting the trap. Not a great suggestion if you're not the one doing the urinating and/or a cap isn't available for the bottle. We didn't do it too often, but it was one of those alternatives to change things up a bit.

The other alternative was bottle size. We mostly drank 16 oz. sodas in those days. We didn't have 20 ouncers then, and we didn't have as many bloated waist lines either in the neighborhood. But sometimes we found quart bottles lying around on a corner or in an alley and used them for a bigger shatter effect. More of a startle effect too.

Someone's going to read this and say, "hey, that's the jerk (or harsher expletive) who got me way back when!" Yeah, it probably was me and some of the other guys I hung around with here around 17th & Oregon. Get over it. It was the mid-70s, we've all changed since then. If you haven't, may I give you a little advice? Get on with life already!


...When soda bottle labels were painted on glass bottles.

... Foam labels that replaced the painted types. They lasted until the plastic bottles came in and thin plastic labels surrounded the bottles.

... When sizes were small compared to today's soda bottles. Before the late 70s, the biggest size was the quart soda. Then came the two litre bottles and bigger, heavier kids and more kids nationwide with diabetes because of obesity. Not diabetic because of the soda, but because of the amount consumed along with super-sized meals and big bags of chips and king sized chocolate bars. We lost moderation somewhere in the last couple decades.

... Brands of soda long gone, or at least not found around here in South Philly anymore. There was Orange Crush (not the REM song), Hires Root Beer (I think made by the same guys as Crush, Ma's Root Beer and other flavors, Frank's Sodas - the local favorites (Black Cherry Wishniak anyone? It's okay, Hank's makes it now.) TAB, the nasty diet soda disappeared, but it's now back as an energy drink. I won't try it, if it tastes as nasty now as it did then, I can do without that nostalgia. And we won't forget Booth's brand of soda, made famous by Doctor Shock and his Saturday night horror films on channel 17, advertising it at commercial time with his daughter "Bubbles".

... Collecting bottle caps. The only purposes they had were for playing dead box in the street, or taking up space in a cigar box in your room. Our boredom kicked in again around age 12 and we made bottle cap rifles out of a stud, nail, and rubber band, having wars with them. That was before someone told us we'd be damaged by playing with guns of the toy variety and before manufacturers had to put orange caps on the toy guns so that the police wouldn't mistake a kid pointing a toy from a real one. Oh yeah, the bottle caps. They were solid metal with a cork or plastic liner. They were called "crown corks" by some in earlier days, probably coming from the name of the company that produced them, Crown Cork & Seal (a Philly company, now called Crown Holdings).

... When soda bottles were shipped in wooden crates, not cardboard boxes with plastic over them.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Where's Dr. Francis Davis? My TV News Gripe

Who? I know you don't remember him, and it's just as well. You probably don't remember Francis Davis because the job he did back in the early 70s was the weather on Channel 6 (WFIL, before the call letter change to WPVI) News (and I believe it was before the Action News format). But the thing is, when he and the guys on channels 3 and 10 did the weather, you saw them only twice - once at the start of the program saying hello, and again when the time for the forecast came up - and that was it!

I'm weighing in my two cents today on the subject of TV weather. Much has been written about it locally such as Tom Ferrick's recent column in the Inquirer, but now I get my turn. Why you ask, is it such a big deal? Because when you turn on the noon news and the first twelve minutes are dedicated to weather and the "big" storm, you've had enough. Cut the crap, it's sad that folks are without power and that some had been injured or suffered loss. But 12 minutes out of 30 geared toward weather? Let's be real folks, you're wasting our time. You're driving folks to the web to get their news, and maybe we're better off for it.

And do we really need weatherchics like Cecily Tynan and Cathy Orr? Francis Davis gave the weather in a plain old suit, no flash at all. Alright, maybe we do need Cecily or Cathy, only because I'd rather watch them than Glenn "Hurricane" Schwartz over on NBC 10. Who names themself "Hurricane" anyhow, especially in a geographical area that doesn't see that many of those types of storm? Maybe Glenn "Thundershowers" Schwartz would fit better. Still, he's a step up. If you remember John Bolaris, he of the "Storm of the Century" forecast that wasn't, you know what I mean. Flashy John could forecast that Acme would sell out of milk and bread because of him setting the viewers in panic, but accuracy? We could expect dry days when those storms were forecast.

My challenge to the big three (NBC10, CBS3, and ABC6)...when your anchor weighs in for the start of the program, have him or her introduce the weather babe or dude, let the weather person say something as generic as "storms on the way in our five day forecast", and then get to the hard news. Let the meteorologist wait until midway, or even at the last ten minutes like Dr. Davis did to tell us that we're going to get dumped on, maybe. Hey, I have to wait for the last five minutes to find out if the Phils won or lost because your sports guy comes on before the commercial break and gets generic with me, telling me, "Phillies in New York playing the Mets tonight, will they break this latest losing streak? Stay tuned!" Yeah, keep me in suspense while I bypass and go to to check the scores and standings. Oh, hey, and yeah, to, I can get my weather and not have you tell me three times tonight the same thing you told me at the start of the broadcast. This Internet thing is useful more than you may have thought!
Come back to the airwaves, Dr. Francis Davis!

...The original Action News format with Larry Kane, Joe Pelligrino, and, oh yeah, Francis Davis. on channel 6. The late, great Jim O'Brien came along later to do the weather with more color, but at least not three times at 11.

...The authoritative voice of John Facenda on Channel 10, back when they were a CBS station. Mr. Facenda also was the voice of NFL Films and the light show at John Wanamakers in it's earlier years.

...Vince Leonard on KYW3 when they started Eyewitness News. That same program gave us the first view of talk show host Tom "fire up the colortini" Snyder, remembered for his interview on his late night talk show with Charles Manson. David Letterman later got Snyder's talk show spot.

...When news programs came on at 6 and 11 PM. No noon, no 4, 5, 5:30 shows. The older shows got right to the point, no crap like I saw tonight on 3 where they gave us a warning on how to open bubble packaging in the first ten minutes of the program. Hey, that used to be hard news time, now they use it to tell me to get my scissors out instead of using a knife to open my packages from Best Buys. Thanks, I'll consider myself well-informed now!

...When you knew the news was bad, because of what was once called a "Special Report". The newscasters would break into "regularly scheduled programming" to tell us about an assasination, plane crash, or other terrible event. Now, it's called "Breaking News", and the events are as serious as someone reporting a gas leak in their neighborhood. Break in when you hear the boom when the gas ignites, not when the neighbor smells it.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Doctors Office Before HMOs

Some things never change. Then there are those things that change so drastically you really long for the good old days. The doctors office is one of those things.

Back in the pre-HMO days, a visit to see the doctor seemed just like that, a visit. Nothing at all like today. When comparing the two eras, you notice the difference from the second you walked in the door. Before things changed, when you walked in, you did one thing, and only one thing. You waited to see the doctor with a magazine in your hand. It may have been a few minutes or a couple of hours, but that's how plain an office visit was.

I remember three doctors my mom used to take us to when we were kids: Dr. Samuel Foreman, Dr. Mario Salamone, and Dr. Peter Cocco, with Dr. Foreman being our regular family doctor. All three have departed and are no longer with us. My mom told me on numerous visits while we sat waiting, "you should have seen it here in the old days. People would be lined up outside the door to see Dr. Foreman". It seems he was a generous soul, if you couldn't afford to pay him, it was okay, he'd see you anyhow, no questions, IOUs, bills, or anything else. He was just a benevolent neighborhood doctor who cared. It wasn't possible for him to keep track of billing anyhow. As I said, when you walked in, you sat and waited. There were no receptionists, and no one to keep record of your visit. It was only after Dr. Foreman had a heart attack did his wife come to work in the office as his receptionist. You paid the doctor or receptionist ten dollars ($10.00) cash back then, no receipt, no insurance, nothing to complicate the visit. Your health mattered, the other things were handled later.

Speaking of complicating things, you didn't find pharmaceutical reps in the office in those days, only patients. I don't even know if such reps existed at that time, I never saw them. Today, they line up to see some doctors. There they sit with their big smiles, promotional materials, and dinners or vacations to offer the doctors if they'll write prescriptuions for their brand of medications for everything from hemmoroid treatments to pills that will grow new hair on your bald head. I give my neurologist credit, he seems to have no time for them. I was in his office a couple months ago when a rep came in all beaming, asking the receptionist to see the doc. The receptionist told her she had little chance, and sure enough, the Dr. sternly told the rep he was seeing patients and their care came first, he had no time for her. Finally, the patient gets first priority! That's exactly what you want to see.

And remember what I said about waiting? Part of that was because the doctor took more time to listen to you explain your problems, or maybe just your bellyaching to him. When you got in to the examination room, you had the physician's ear. No rushing because two dozen others were lined up behind you - a dozen more than should have been booked for the day. You were there because you had problems, and the doctor was the solution.

Those days are gone. Now if you don't have insurance or the - what is it, $80 or more to see your family doctor - you'll be heading to see a doctor somewhere else instead, maybe a clinic or some other low-cost facility. You won't be handing the doctor a ten for the visit, you'll be giving the receptionist $20 or more for your co-pay. And even though you'll get to see the doctor, you probably won't get to spend too much time with him or her. I don't fully fault the doctor for that. With HMOs and other insurance, you'll find many more people lining the seats in the waiting room than ever before. Ah, the good old days!


...Hands-on relief. Dr. Cocco used to get you on the table and align you at the beginning of each visit. You felt every joint in your upper body snap and you felt immediate relief. I haven't had a Dr. do that to me since he died in the 1980s.

...Syringe squirt guns - We used to ask Dr. Foreman and Salamone for hypodermic syringes to use to squirt each other and they'd give them to us with no question or hesitation. They'd simply remove the needle first and rinse it out. You'd not dare ask for such things today, who knows what the person had who's arm/leg/butt that needle was inserted into.

...Drip pills - It used to be said that Dr. Cocco would give you drip pills for just about anything whether it be a hang nail or high fever. I remember on a few visits myself he gave me a small envelope filled with a dozen or so small white pills that he called "drip pills" for whatever reason. Did they work? Who knows.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Cable TV Comes to South Philly

Blogger's Note: Circumstances haven't allowed me to write as much as I'd like to lately. Physical trials - my own and those of others in my family, have taken priority. For the few who read this blog, my thanks for your patience in waiting for the articles. I'll continue to write, just not as often as I had been lately.

Young people today will never remember a time when they didn’t have a multitude of channels with nothing to watch. Bruce Springsteen sung in the early 90s about having fifty-seven channels with nothing on. Today it’s over a hundred and still it seems that there's not much to watch. Murder has become entertainment (Jon Benet Ramsey, Natalee Holloway, etc. via hour long shows from Greta Van Sustern, Rita Cosby, et al). Half-hour informercials abound for things like colon cleansing (witness the guy on CN8 bragging ab0ut his child's massive bowel movement. I've never seen such a beaming smile, dad's very proud.) So we have a multitude of channels with programs about crap or that are just crappy.

Back in the mid-70’s, the area west of Broad Street and I believe above Oregon was the test area for cable TV. No one else had it, not Southwest, Northeast, not even parts of South Philly. We were the lucky ones. Woo-hoo!

What we had back then would probably be laughed off by today’s standards. There was no TNT, USA, MTV or CNN at the time. We basically had a few New York channels (WOR channel 9 and WPIX channel 11) and a few odd things in between. There was 24 hour news, but it was just text on screen provided by Reuters. If you were one of the homes having it at the time, you’ll remember your “remote” was a box as big as a cigar box, with 15 buttons for channels and a rocker switch to go from the top tier to the bottom. Plus it had a tuning wheel to fine tune your picture. It was really primitive, but it worked for us. Telesystems was the company running the show at the time. It gave way to Greater Media, which was swallowed up later by Comcast, but I think there was another company that was somewhere between the last two. So much for the four franchises the city was supposed to have. Comcast has just about everything wrapped up.

We got cable TV installed on the same day we got a color TV back in the mid-70’s. We were always outside doing something, but not that day. We stayed inside and stayed glued to the tube. It was a big event for us, although like everything else, we got bored of it and life returned to normal shortly afterward.

Not long after we got cable, HBO became available. It was there where we first heard obscenities coming off the tube, much to my mom’s chagrin. It was a movie called Law & Disorder with Carrol O’Connor and Ernest Borgnine on a Sunday evening. Mom was livid, threatening to get rid of HBO if that was what they were going to show. Dad didn’t care much about it, so he wanted to keep it. Dad won, or so some would say. My thoughts today is that there’s not a need for profanity in movies. That’s a political argument, this is a blog about memories so we’ll not go there.

Kids, if you ever find yourself bored with TV, think of this…my earliest memories of TV was an old black & white Admiral TV with a tuning knob (a what?) – no remote controls (well my dad had one. He told us to change the channel, and we did). And we had only three channels (KYW 3; WFIL 6 – now WPVI, and public television, channel 12). Our set didn’t even get CBS 10. It wasn’t until 1969 or 1970 that we got a Sears Silvertone console set that had – wonder of wonders – UHF channels! We finally had a selection of shows that we only heard of before.

That wouldn’t cut it for folks today, but it worked for us. Ah, simpler times!

... Doctor Shock’s horror movies on Saturday nights on channel 17. Who can forget his kid, Bubbles?
... Mr. Gagliardi, the English teacher from Neumann hosting Cable Bingo.
... The Flyers channel after they won their first Stanley Cup. Neighborhood guys found you could get it free instead of paying for it by simply pressing two buttons on the remote.
... When stations signed off for the night with the national anthem.
... Test patterns that occupied the screen from signoff until around 6 AM when the channels signed on again.
... When each station had an announcer that was as well known as the anchors on their news programs. Gene Crane was on 10, Paul Norton on 6 and Gary Geers on 3.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Philomena the Hair Dresser

I've not posted for a few weeks, haven't felt all that well. So let me make up for it with a second post for today for your amusement.

I've already mentioned one local hair maven who kept us amused in our youth, the Mad Barber, John Toresse. Today we move to the female side of the hair spectrum and remember one Philomena (last name unknown), a hair dresser from South Broad Street.

Growing up here in South Philly, you remember those establishments that never seemed to do any business, yet survived for years. What were those places thought to be? Uh-huh, everyone said they were "mob fronts", although we never really knew. It could have been a funeral home, steak shop, whatever, there were a number of places like that around here. Philomena's hair shop was like that, never did any business. But I don't think any of us would have hung the "mob front" moniker on her shop. Hey, it would have been good for neighborhood folklore, but the reason she never had business is because she scared it away. She was just off the wall and everyone knew it.

What would make us think that? Oh, I don't know. Maybe it was her sitting on the step of the shop or in the window, glaring at those walking by. Maybe it was her method of transporting bags of groceries from the old Penn Fruit supermarket at 20th & Oregon. That was an all-day affair. I remember she would have four bags. She would carry two of them a block down the street, then go back for the other two and walk them two blocks. She'd then go back for the bags she walked the first block and walk them get the picture. Anyhow, imagine how long it would take to walk those bags the six or so blocks to her shop. If she weren't so scary, one of us would have given her a hand.

I remember my sister would call her once in a while to make an appointment. Not really, just to get her reaction to the call. She would ask just a few words, such as "I'd like to make an appointment to get my hair..." and wham, Philomena would be screeching and shouting at her in no time. So she never got her hair done there. You've gotta wonder though. Did Phil ever really style hair in her life, or did she buy someone else's shop and not know what to do with it? Who knows? But she's gone, and I've yet to find someone whose had a magic coif from that lady.

Petey Igor - Local Legend

I've already mentioned a few folks from the neighborhood that most here would consider to be local legends. Today I look at another, Mr. Petey Igor. Pete was a perpetual fixture in the area, living somewhere around 15th & Shunk Streets. We would see him just about every day in the summer time.

Pete was a legend more because he overcame than anything else. He was one of those souls who had physical and mental challenges, but it didn't keep him from doing his thing. Although he couldn't speak with much more than a grunt, he got his point across. In the days of the old Veterans Stadium, we saw him one day getting a hot dog and he found he was short-changed when completing his purchase. If it was done purposefully, that person giving the change soon found out that he was not to be taken advantage of. He started jabbing at the change in his hand and then pointing up to the prices on the menu board. The bewildered cashier soon put the proper change in his hands and saw that he was sharper than some would give him credit for.

People not understanding handicaps can sometimes get a man in trouble. There was one incident where a young girl saw him come up the street behind her, and had the wits scared out of her. She ran down the block screaming. It's enough to get you put on the sexual predators list today, but no harm was done. At least not to her, whether it upset Pete or not was never determined.

We never knew what happened to Pete to cause his troubles. One legend says he was hit by a bus in his youth. There have been others who said differently. Let speculation run long enough, and eventually someone would have probably speculated that he was born near a chemical plant or that his mom gave birth while hearing of the JFK assasination and the trauma caused his problems. Whatever.

Anyhow, Pete's long gone. I haven't seen him in decades. I don't know whether he's alive or dead. But I do remember him vividly. So hats off to Petey Igor, local legend!

Wednesday, May 31, 2006


Whatever happened to toys? All you hear about today is electronics and video games. What happened to those things that inspired imagination? Today's post isn't about anything specific to South Philly, just a memory of those things we played with. Click on the "Toys" title link above to see the video of commercials for the toys we played with in the 70s. If you're old enough, you'll remember them. Bing Bang Boing is shown. No, it wasn't some perverse sexual game. Just a thing with steel balls that you bounced on these drum-tight things. It probably kept you interested for maybe a few hours. Then you went and hung out on the street with the guys.

While today's toys seem to be video everything, having toys made of cheap plastic were fun for us. Who can forget the Rock'em, Sock'em Robots? You got to knock your opponents block off, and you could do it without getting your mom mad at you for slapping your brother around. Then again, once you played, you probably wanted to smack him around. Most of the guys I grew up with would wrestle in the living room. We never broke anything, whether it was our bones or mom's knick-knacks. Was it the Rock'em Sock'ems that inspired us, or the cartoons we watched? It doesn't matter. We had fun, and we survived it.

I remember my sister had the Hasbro Easy-Bake Oven, an electric toy oven that came with cake mixes and other fun stuff. So she got to bake a half-dozen cakes the width of a coffee can lid, and we got to eat them. What to do with that oven once the mixes are all gone? Not to worry. Your brothers will get a bunch of crayons and other nasty stuff and put it inside and turn it on. The molten mess ruined the oven, so no need to worry about going to the toy store to buy more mixes. Hey, it was made by the same folks who made the GI Joe line of dolls. Luckily for my sister, our GI Joes never made it to the inside of her oven.

And speaking of GI Joe, remember when they were big enough to keep your attention? Bigger than a Barbie doll that the girls played with. The last ones I remember seeing were smaller, much smaller, than that. Downsizing should never hit the toys you were fond of. GI Joe had so many different weapons, vehicles, and commando gear that your imagination kept going for hours and hours on end each day. If left to American boys instead of the guys in Washington, we may have won the Vietnam War with our strategy. No one asked us, so the war was a debacle and our first military loss. It's a shame, me and the boys had it all worked out. Ho Chi Minh City would still be known as Saigon today. But no, they wouldn't listen...never mind.

Remember the View-Master from GAF? Not much to hold your attention. This "educational toy" had a disk that gave you stereo views of images such as US landmarks, some of the models had sound too, so you got a few seconds of someone telling you about the Washington Monument before you pitched it off to the side in favor of the fun Christmas gifts.

I think most kids in the neighborhood had a crack at Twister. Just a vinyl mat with big colored dots and a spinner that had you twisting up like a pretzel around your friends. Maybe this is the reason for all my spinal problems today. Young kids just twisted around on that mat. Later in your teen years, you may have said, "I'd like to play Twister with her" when thinking about some girl you had the liking for. Aw heck, she wouldn't play with you and you know it. Stop dreaming boy. And even so, if she did, you both could reminisce in your adult years about the day you both screwed up your spine. Owwww!

What about Erector sets? Who erected anything with those sets? They were boring. Strips of metal you joined together to make structures of...whatever it was you made. I never had one. Good, because it would be a wasted toy under the tree. We had Lincoln Logs, and although it wasn't anything fantastic, it gave us the chance to build log homes that we could crash our SSPs into (yes, we had them, the cars you'll see in the video - we had the Demoliton Derby set and had lots of fun with it).

Later in our teen years, we took to building model cars and planes. They never saw the new year, we would always blow them up with M80s when New Year came around. They still sell those model kits today. I haven't seen someone buy one in eons, but someone still must have an interest in these things.

Then there were Soccer-Boppers. Remember them? Just two big oversized inflatable mitts that you could bop someone in the face with and not give him a bloody nose. Cool, but it seems my brother and I forgot to put on the boppers sometimes. Ah, maybe we didn't forget.

I know you had a favorite toy, one that you fondly remember. Tell me about it. Post your memory in the comments. I want to see what your favorite was.

...The big toy stores like Kiddie City or Play Town (aka Baby Town) at 23rd & Passyunk Ave. Today's mall stores like Kay-Bee aren't anything near it in size.

...HotWheels cars and their track sets. We had fun with them, but even better were slot cars, those electric powered cars that couldn't seem to stay on the tracks. We didn't care, we probably spent more time playing with them than most other toys.

... Electric Football games - Why in the world did we want those things? A bunch of plastic players on a vibrating metal field. We never could get it to work the way we thought it should. Okay, video wins out here. I think Madden Football would win the hearts of anyone over that pathetic game we had. It made it to the trash no more than a month after Christmas.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Going to the Movies: The Neighborhood Theaters

"Everybody knows when you go to the show you can't take the kids along
You've gotta read the paper and know the code of GP, G and R and X

And you gotta know what the movie's about before you even go

Tex Ritter's gone and Disney's dead and the screen is filled with sex."

...From the song, "Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott" by the Statler Bros.

I don't know what happened to Randolph Scott, I never saw one of his movies. I think he was an old Western hero, the kind of movies boys piled into for a Saturday matinee back in the day - the day before I was born.

But I do know what happened to the neighborhood movie theater. Something called video - VHS - came along and killed the movie houses all around South Philly, as well as in other cities and towns. Suddently, you could rent a movie at a mom & pop store on the corner (before Blockbuster) as long as it wasn't already rented out. But before that, the movie houses ruled. It used to be a movie had it's first run in the Center City theaters, moved down here to the small houses, and then finally to the TV screen. Now, it goes from the big screen to DVD in a matter of weeks, then maybe HBO or whoever is showing them on cable or the dish.

If you're in your 40s or later, you remember the neighborhood joints. The last to go was the Colonial at 10th & Moyamensing. The owners kept it alive a lot longer than they should have. In the end, the place should have been condemned. Townhouses (ok, glorified rowhomes) stand in it's place now. The last show I saw there was Wildcats with Goldie Hawn, and I never went back again. But I had spent many weekend and summer nights there, so I have good memories, more of time with friends there than the Colonial itself.

Besides the Colonial, there were many others here in South Philly, theaters you could go to see a movie at a decent price and have a good time. I can remember the Broadway (Broad & Snyder), The Stadium (later Cinema South at Broad & Hartranft), the President at 23rd & Snyder. I remember seeing Animal House at the Stadium one Sunday afternoon. Given the type of movie it was, we call came out of there acting as juvenile as we were. Walking up Broad, I can remember Anthony C. yelling "Run!" and seeing him and a few others scramble, with three older guys in pursuit. Seems that Anthony threw something at one of our other friends and missed, and hit one of the older guys. Not knowing what was up, a few of us didn't run. The ones who did got smacked around a bit. Nothing serious, but enough to learn something.

The last flick we saw at the Broadway was Poseidon Adventure, now remade as many movies are, maybe better, maybe worse. I guess there aren't many original ideas left. If it was filmed in the 70's, it may be around again, but don't count on it being too good, or at least what you remember. Now the Broadway's gone, it went on to become a Gino's, then Roy Rogers, and now a Walgreen's drug store. Progress? I don't think so. Everything changes and we have to accept that. But still, it was nice to be able to go to a place nearby and watch a movie on a big screen.

Anyhow, you can't go to a neighborhood theater anymore. They're nowhere to be found. If you live here in South Philly, your closest option is on Columbus Blvd, and you'll pay more than you would have here in the neighborhood places. And when you add popcorn and a soda, you'll break the bank. I thought prices were high at Citizen's Bank Park when I went to a ballgame there, but the theaters seem worse. It's just not the same, watching a DVD. It's just gathering around the TV set, I don't care if you have a hi-def screen with surround sound system or whatever. Kids today won't know the good times of hanging with friends and putting down a buck to watch a movie close to home. So maybe you did have a rat run across your feet during the declining days of one of the local houses. But you still had a good time.

...Drive-in theaters. There was one on 61st & Passyunk that survived through the early 80s. A concrete processing plant now sits there. I never got to go to a drive-in. One of those pleasures of life I was cheated out of.

..."no one will be seated during the last two minutes." There were a few horror movies back in the 70s or 80s that used that line to draw crowds. But if you got there in the last five minutes and saw the dramatic (or so they say) ending, you blew the movie when you stayed to watch it again.

..."Bambi vs. Godzilla". I hadn't seen that one. We got ripped at the Colonial one night (no, not drunk, but ripped off). They advertized that you could pay to watch Phantasm, and stay for the midnight flick which started with Bambi v. Godzilla. We saw Phantasm, but were ushered out the door when it ended. I don't know if there was no midnight movie, or if you had to pay a separate admission. Anyhow, someone told me the Bambi movie was just a gimmick, a shorty where Bambi is grazing in the field and Godzilla's massive foot comes down to crush him. I didn't miss so much after all.

...Being the jerk who made the wrong choice of movies. A few of us wanted to go to the show, but the choice was "Towering Inferno" at the Stadium or "Tidal Wave" at the Colonial. Someone won out and we saw the latter, a low-budget Japanese movie whose only American actor was Lorne Greene of Bonanza fame. Although I remember a wasted two hours watching a bonehead film, I can't remember who made the suggestion. So because we have short memories, whoever got us to go see that fiasco won't have the stigma of being remembered as the person who suggested it.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Batman: The Door-to-Door Huckster

It seems that many here in South Philly like to relive the memories of their youth, remembering especially the characters who frequented the neighborhood around here.

My cousin and I were talking about these characters this past Monday, and he reminded me of one guy who I had just about forgotten about. That guy is Batman. No, not the Caped Crusader, the Dark Knight of comic book/movie/TV fame. Nope. Our Batman was a huckster, and if he were to consider that old truck a Batmobile, he would have had to have had one vivid imagination.

I have no idea where the name came from for this guy. I don't remember anything that would really make us want to call him Batman. Yet mention the name when recalling those around here, and someone will say, "Yeah, the tomato guy!"

Most folks will remember the hucksters in the trucks with the loudspeaker who yelled out all kinds of weird stuff. I remember one of them yelling out stuff like "gowsie, and freshkie", whatever the heck that was supposed to mean. Batman was different. He didn't use a loudspeaker. He didn't need it. He'd just grab a basket off the truck and strut down the street yelling out what he was carrying for the day. "Squash!" "Peppers!" "Tomatoes!" He covered a lot of ground, and had a lot of regular customers. So many, in fact, that he would regularly run up and down the steps of the rowhomes, knowing which housewives were going to buy from him. The guys with the loudspeakers probably had to work harder, Batman had a lot of steadies.

As likeable as the guy was, he sometimes rubbed some of the ladies the wrong way. Sometimes people just don't like to hear guys yelling. It can be a minor crime with some when you have the windows open in the summertime, the soap operas on the TV, and some nut outside screaming about his romaine lettuce while you're trying to keep up with your "stories". Or when you're shouting in someone's face, they don't take too kindly to it. One of the fond stories of Batman was when he bounced up the steps to a lady's house, pounding on the door with his basket of Jersey Tomatoes. Just as the lady answered, Batman let out his customary roar of "Tomatoes!", probably loud enough and close enough to rupture her eardrum. Batman himself got an earful that day, of the lady letting him have it for yelling in her face. Well, I did say he was a likeable guy. Enough so that he kept his customers, even with all that yelling.

The day of the roaming huckster seems to be gone now. You can buy your produce on the street still, but you'll need to go down to places like 10th & Oregon or other corners where guys set up to sell. They don't hit the streets pounding the doorsteps anymore. Maybe it's because more women work today and they're not found at home as much. Maybe it's the noise statutes - I'd rather hear Batman than the crappy music we hear booming from cars of young white guy, wannabe gangsta types. Or maybe it's just that Bose's noise-cancelling technology allows the ladies to watch and listen to their "stories" and tune out the world at the same time. Who knows. Probably the only yelling from these guys we'll hear now is what we remember in our minds.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

More on the Ragman...

My cousin Dell remembered a Rag Man, but a different one than we did growing up. He grew up in the area of the rag shop that I mentioned, living on 17th just down the street from Jackson Street where the shop was.

The guy he remembered worked right out of the shop, no horse or buggy, and no whip. He tells me that the guys in the neighborhood would collect newspapers (forerunner to today's recycling?) and the guy at the shop would pay them by the pound as they brought them in. Rags too. But the neighborhood kids must have been learning from the butchers who put their finger on the scales as they took care of your meat order. The kids would sometiimes find things in the trash like lead window sash weights and place them between the newspapers before tying up the bundles. So the guys would get a few cents extra, maybe enough to go to the movies at one of the neighborhood theatres or whatever.

Monday, May 08, 2006

The Rag Man

When you think of people who do their business on wheels, you probably picture a Ford Econoline or Chevy Van, maybe a Dodge Ram pickup truck. You see them all over the streets of South Philly owned by plumbers, electricians, painters, maybe an occasional FBI surveillance team.

If you were born after the late 1960s, you probably don't remember when some guys did their business using a horse-drawn wagon or a push cart. But through at least the earliest of the 70s, they were out there, some later.

Today's post remembers the Rag Man, aka "Gitter-rags". If you grew up in the same day I did, and spent your summers in the city rather than down the shore, you remember him. Just about every week, there was a middle-aged black man who used to collect used rags and other junk from South Philadelphia residents. He'd ride up and down the blocks sitting at the front of his cart, pulled by a horse that looked to be well-cared for. You knew he was coming, as with a loud voice he would call out "Gitta-raaaaaaggggggssss" to get the attention of the housewives on the block. This was at a time when there were more stay-at-home moms and less women in the working world. And get their attention he did. Sure enough, when the Rag Man made his familiar call, some of the ladies would come out of their rowhomes, handing him things that were no longer wanted, but were probably a treasure to him. I think he may have worked part for himself, part for some shop owner. If my memory serves correctly, he would take his collection to an old garage next to the Royal Villa Cafe at 17th & Jackson Street and unload there. Why would anyone collect rags you wonder? Rags can be recycled, just like many other things. They even can be used in the manufacture of paper. The dollar bill in your wallet is mostly rag content, although I don't think that in this case it came from the Rag Man's collection.

The Rag Man was not to be messed with. Riding a horse-drawn cart, what tool of the trade did he employ besides a strong back and legs? Yeah, you guessed it, a whip. Common sense says you don't give a guy with a whip a hard time. Yet kids don't have too much common sense, they haven't lived enough to accumulate it. Knuckleheads that we were growing up, we would often parrot the same "Gitter-raaaaaagggggsssss" refrain that he did. He never said a word to us when we did. But one day, either the Rag Man couldn't take it anymore, or someone said something stupid to him. He bolted off the cart and came after us with the whip. The Mad Barber may not have been to quick running after us with the razor, but the Rag Man at least caught one of us. He cornered his prey at the front step across from our home and stood over him. And what did he do? He scared the human waste #2 out of us, but besides admonishing the foolish words that were spoken, he walked away. Not a hair harmed, and not a word spoken in foolishness ever again to that guy.

I'm trying to remember who it was that was cornered, I remember the Rag Man and the event better than I do who said what. Almost certainly, it was me, my brother, and Chris A that were there that day. Maybe some of the others we hung with from the neighborhood, but I remember the three of us. Who knows, maybe it was me that was cornered, one of those repressed memory things. I dunno. No matter, we learned a valuable lesson, don't mess with adults, especially those bearing whips.


...That you didn't get away with anything as a kid when it came to being disrespectful an older person. Either that person dealt with you, or your dad did. The wise decision was left to the father. I remember my dad said to a person who said he would "kick our a--" if we messed with him again..."That's my son. He does you wrong, you bring him to me, and I'll kick his a--. You don't touch him, but I promise you, I will. If you do touch him, I'll kick your a-- and his." Point noted, for that man and us. Maybe more dads need to line up their boot bottoms with their sons' bottoms today, or at least apply the paddle or belt (my dad's favorite). Not in an abusing way, but a correcting one. Some dads need to understand the difference. The more you see the disrespect of kids towards adults today, you wonder if their dads are administering any discipline to those punks.

My dad may have looked like a too light to fight, too thin to win office worker, but he wouldn't take any grief from anyone.

...Finding a hand bell in your basement window if you lived on Chadwick St., 2600 block. Another of our vendors who propelled his cart with flesh & bone - his own - got angry with a guy we sometimes hung around with, Tommy B over the quality of his pretzels. That pretzel man realized that hand bells made good missiles. What he didn't figure into it was the guidance system - him! He missed. Tommy ran away laughing, and a neighbor would return home from work finding his window smashed, bell on the basement floor. I wonder how he got people to come out to buy from him after that. Maybe he should have taken lessons on how to call the neighbors out from the Rag Man.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Bob Burns: He Was Here, There, and Everywhere

Mr. Bob Burns was one of the more visible characters here in South Philly, and he was everywhere. No, not at one time, but he got around. Bob was a local fixture who was a homeless man. He had a penchant for quart bottles of beer before 40s became the size of choice for those who may find beer to be the sole reason to exist in life. You could find Bob and his quart sitting in the doorway of just about any business around, whether it be on Oregon Ave, Shunk St., West Passyunk Ave., Broad Street, Snyder Ave., wherever. His constant travelling companion was a guy we called Drunken Joe who lived on the 2600 block of Bancroft before his passing. Bob and Joe would just sit for hours drinking their beer and discussing the critical issues of the day. Well, the issues were were critical to them anyhow. Who knows, they may have actually discussed world hunger or how to bring an end to the Vietnam War. Or maybe which beer was better, Bud or Miller.

When I started this blog, I had mentioned to my cousin that I was writing about the characters we knew and loved from our youth. The first name out of his mouth was Bob Burns, and he told me a hilarious story I had not heard before.

It turns out there was one local West Passyunk Avenue auto parts merchant who liked to "help" Bob whenever possible. That "help" meant Bob was always going to be on the wrong end of a practical joke. One night, the business owner offered Mr. Burns the use of his store to get a good, safe, night's sleep and get cleaned up. When he returned in the morning, the businessman gave Bob a shave to tidy him up. Much to Bob's dismay, he dropped the razor (yes, purposefully) down the heating duct halfway through the shave. Of course, he didn't have a replacement. So Bob walked around South Philly for a few days with one side of his face having thicker stubble than the other, one side totally smooth for a day or so. Sadly, no photo is known to exist of Bob after that semi-shave. This wasn't the first or last joke played at Bob's expense, but whether because he was desperate or because he lacked common sense, he kept coming back, for a while anyhow. During one of Bob's sleep-overs, he decided to defecate in the store, rather than use the toilet. Some may say that he ruined a good thing, losing shelter. I'd say he got his revenge. I wouldn't want to be working the counter that day, or be the lowly employee who had to clean up the mess.

Bob Burns and Drunken Joe are long gone. They both exited somewhere mid-way through the 70s. The most reasonable facsimile in recent years here was a guy who would panhandle cars at Broad & Wolf while they waited for the light, asking for money to buy a hot dog. If he bought dogs with what he took in, his cholesterol level would probably be alarming. His nourishment usually came in the form of that gold liquid found in 40s. I saw that guy in the Philadelphia Daily News, they caught him on film scouraging beer from half-empty bottles in the old Veterans Stadium parking lot after an Eagles game.