Thursday, March 30, 2006

Remembering Uncle Virgie's and Other Old Neighborhood Luncheonettes

One of the staples of local South Philadelphia culture is the neighborhood luncheonettes. Those places as we know them are mostly gone, but some still survive. My wife has worked for 20-plus years now at Nick's T&N Luncheonette on Moyamensing Avenue, and it's a place like Cheers on TV where "everybody knows your name". Nick and the gang make great steaks and other sandwiches, and although I may seem biased because of my wife, I suggest you pay them a visit. You'll like the food and the people.

Back in the 60's and 70's though, a different type of luncheonette ruled the land. All of them had the metal signs above their storefronts from either Coca-Cola or Pepsi (the only one I know of surviving with this type of front is Carmen's at 11th & Wharton). They all had at least three booths to compliment the stools at the counter, and all of them had jukeboxes with the latest in rock music, with lots of kids or young adults hanging around.

Uncle Vergie's at 17th & Oregon was one of those luncheonettes. For the entire decade or so that I remember them being there, Uncle Vergie and Aunt Millie ran the shop from opening to closing time. Both were great people who didn't mind kids making noise or hanging around longer than it took to eat their fries and have a Coke. This is the place where many of us had our first cheese steak or our first burger. We didn't know McDonald's or Burger King back then, and this was even before Geno's (20th & Moyamensing, long gone) became popular here and then faded away. My brother, sister, and I along with a few friends were the younger of the grade school kids hanging around there, most of the others were in their late high school years or older.

Maybe Uncle Vergie was a little too tolerant, this was back in the 60's when drugs were becoming a recreational thing and the older guys were experimenting. Still, he didn't make a fuss and toss them even though it was general knowledge that there were many there who were high. It was never an issue until one night near the end of his career. After closing, the older guys would hang out on the corner, or in the apartment upstairs. And then one of them ran afoul with a local gang, marring the peaceful atmosphere that we knew. Arrests were made, some were injured, and it wasn't the same place anymore.

Maybe we didn't do a whole heck of a lot there other than eat junk food and listen to music such as Steppenwolf, The Guess Who, the Stones, and other now-classic rock bands played on 45 rpm records in the old jukebox (kids, ask your parents to explain how music was played with a needle). But it was our place to go. The place and the people either had characters or were characters. It wasn't the mass produced plastic interiors of today's fast food joints, it was homey. You don't find that too often anymore. Still, if you want a feel for it, go sit at the counter at T&N and strike up a conversation with Nick or the others. You won't find the booths or the jukebox and the soda makers have long since stopped cladding such shops in their logos. But it's close enough.

...Ralph & Josie's - Bancroft & Shunk Streets
...Frank & Tessie's - 18th & Shunk Streets. Tessie wore a house dress and was alleged to have placed more than a few hoagie rolls under her arm pit while cooking up a steak, sending the customers elsewhere.
...Millie's - Still going after all these years at 15th & Shunk
...Does anyone remember the name of the luncheonette at 16th & Oregon where Spectrum Realty now sits?

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Remembering Neighborhood Characters - Guy Sommobeech

In the movie "The Boys in Company C", there was a character named Alvin Foster who was writing a journal about his Marine Corps experience while in Vietnam. Narrating the movie, Foster's character says something to the tune of "...but who would believe it" when pondering the content of that diary.

And so it is in South Philly. There are so many characters doing so many odd things, it makes you wonder "who would believe it" should you tell someone about it. Yet everything I write here is true. Maybe a few fuzzy details, but all true.

One of those unusual characters we grew up experiencing was a person who came to be known as "Guy Sommobeech". Guy was an elderly man, maybe late 70s or early 80s when I first saw him on the street. He was always dressed in a long black rain coat, whether you saw him on a December winter's day or a warm day in June. You probably wouldn't even thought twice about him if you saw him on the street. Just an old guy who walked his dog every night down the same few blocks. I didn't think twice until...

My first encounter with Guy was while we were hanging on the corner at 17th & Oregon, back when Uncle Virgie had retired and the abandoned luncheonette still stood. One evening, sitting there with my brother, sister, a friend Kevin, and maybe a few others, Kevin says, "Hey, here comes Guy Sommobeech". Now anyone with common sense just knows that this isn't a man's real name, so I had to ask why they called him that. As Guy and his aging mutt approached, Kevin tells me to reach out and pet the dog and I'd see why. Alright, that seemed harmless enough. So sure enough, I reached for the dog.

"Sommobeech! Sommobeech!" yelled ol' Guy. You would have thought someone had attempted to reach out and steal his life savings from the man. With rage in his eyes, he screamed those immortal words, swinging at me in a swaying motion, twisting his upper body from left to right and back again in comic fashion. Probably the only person in danger of getting hurt that night was Guy himself. He would have probably bruised his own ribs or did something else to himself. I've never seen a man swing in that way at another before or since them.

If someone did that today, he'd get a different title, something other than "Guy Sommobeech". Serial killer comes to mind, and you'd start wondering where the bodies were hidden. For a few years afterward, Guy would continue to walk the dog, same routine every day in the same black rain coat. And then as all aging folks do, he disappeared, no longer to be seen.

I was never compelled to bother with him again. After all, who wants to be responsible for an elderly man hurting himself because you tried to pet his pooch? I didn't feel the need to mess with him, but then there was Kevin's nephew David.

Apparently, Guy also did the same thing to David, swinging at him and screaming at him. Me? I see an old man who's at the least upset and at the most disturbed. David I guess saw a man who had payback coming to him. One evening, he approached my brother and I with an extenion cord in his hand, with the head cut of of it. Just a plug at one end, and two bare wires at the other. David asks, "You guys want to come with me? I'm gonna electrify a fence and have Guy Sommobeech chase me into it. I'll duck, he's gonna get jolted."

If I didn't believe it would fail, I would have steered clear of this mayhem. David insisted it would work. Amused and curious, we had to see what he had in mind. So we took a walk to 18th & Oregon where the pipe company had a chain link fence on the Oregon Ave side before that land gave way first to the Telesystems Cable TV building, and now the medical offices. David took the cord, twisted the wires to the fence, and then ran the cord to the outdoor outlet at the William Penn gas station on the corner. He figured Guy would be coming by soon, so now was the time to plug it in and get ready. We watched, David got ready, to do...nothing. Having both positive and negative wires on the chain link, all he did was cause a short-circuit, and the lights in the gas station went out. Guy Sommobeech would live to see another day.

...The Sinclair gas station with it's green and white Dino the Dinosaur logo at 18th & Oregon (later BP, later William Penn, now a Dunkiin Donuts).
...Various characters from the streets of South Philly including:
Duck Lady, Camoflage Man, 40's Woman, Foschi, and a whole host of others.
We'll look at some of those other characters in future posts, so stay t

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Remembering Neighbors - Dave W and the Fishing Line

Roll of 15 pound test fishing line - $4.00
Chrome-plated door knocker - $12.00
Interacting with crazed neighbors - PRICELESS
So would read the narrator of a certain credit card commercial should they do an ad based on this story...

Part of growing up in South Philly was having a penchant for mischief. It was a good way to pass the time, and fun - well, maybe for some of us, but definitely not for some of the neighbors.

Back when we grew up in the 70's, we used a certain creative flair to kill boredom that's not found with kids today. Today, everything's electronic this or mechanical that. With us, give us something as simple as fishing line and we were happy campers.

Tonight we remember a neighbor named Dave W. who was a good guy, but he had a major problem. That problem was that he lived almost directly across the street from our house - a home with two young, bored boys. Oh, and he had one of those heavy metal door knockers that made a loud bang when you knocked at the door. Logistics being what they were, it made him the perfect victim.

One evening, my brother and his friend Louie had told me they had this plan to have some fun with Dave. The plan was to take a roll of fishing line, tie it to his door knocker, run it behind the parked cars and knock on his door. So with a certain stealth, my brother and I hid behind the car while Louie ran up to the top of the step, tied the line to the door knocker, and ran to join us. "Knock, knock, knock", and in a few seconds, Dave was out the door looking for the phantom that he heard, but couldn't see. Shrugged, shoulders, door closed, oh well, no one's there. A few seconds later, "knock, knock, knock". Dave springs out the door, again, no one there. I can describe the situation on and on, but you get the picture. After a few times, Dave didn't go back to the sofa. He waited at the door, you could see the top of his head, eyes peering at the top of the door out the small glass window blocks. "Knock, knock, knock"...this time he's gotta have us. Dave springs like a tiger onto the top step, and no one's there.

This may be a somewhat boring story if it ended there. Since we were kids with nothing better to do, this went on for over 20-some evenings. Sometimes I participated, sometimes my brother and Louie had their own fun. Sometimes we hid behind the cars, other times we ran the line across the street and into the basement window. One can only imagine that Dave's sanity suffered tremendously. Alas, all good things must come to an end. And so after more than three weeks, another of our neighbors came walking down the street at the same time Dave came springing out the door after another round of knocking. She caught her neck in the fishing line, and caught Mark and Louie. I wasn't around that night. You could say that I caught a lucky break and didn't get grounded along with my brother. Then again, you could say I missed out. I didn't get to see Dave's reaction when he came storming across Chadwick street and screaming about his sanity.

When I got home that evening from whereever I was, my mom by then furious, said, "You'll never guess what your brother and that other no good did." I could have said, "I bet they took a roll of fishing line..." but I'm not that dumb. She went on to tell me the story, not amused at my laughter.

Dave's long gone, passing away in the early 1980s. Hopefully he forgave us that mental torture, but I know he couldn't have forgotten it. Hey, I didn't, and we're two decades removed from it. Kids today don't do these things. Parents, if your kids read this and do it, don't be too angry with them. Or with me for that matter, I'm only telling a true story. They're responsible for their actions. But if they do it and don't get shot by neighbors who are more likely to be armed with large-caliber weaponry (get the HINT kids?) , be glad they did something besides sit at the computer all day or play with their new Play Station XBox whatever electronic time waster. They interacted with a buddy and learned how to have fun. The folks from Hall Mercer Medical Center will be there shortly to help your neighbor with the admissions process.

Byberry State Hospital - The state run home for those who had psychological problems. The courts said that they couldn't keep the patients, and they're now on the streets of Center City. Or for those who have more well-rounded lives, you get to come home after your weeks visit to Hall Mercer.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Remembering Mrs. Lenore's - Old Neighborhood Candy Stores

I think everyone who's been around for a while remembers the old candy stores or variety stores we used to have here, and there were many. Before the days of 7-11s hitting South Philly, there were numerous little stores that sold candy, ice cream, cigarettes, newspapers, and a few other items. Not a tremendous selection, but good enough for the proprietors to make a living and to keep us satisfied.

The one I remember most is the store owned by Mrs. Lenore on Oregon Avenue, between Chadwick and Bancroft Streets. Doughterty Financial and Insurance now sits where her
store and Martin Real Estate used to be. Mrs. Lenore was a nice old lady. She ran the store Monday through Saturday until she got too old to do it anymore. She always smiled, and was always nice to her customers. One of the memories I have of her is when our ducks got loose from our yard (a gift from my brother's godmother at Easter) and made it to her store. She ran out hysterically, heading for our house because she knew they were ours. Fortunately, she and the ducks survived. Although she retired in the early 70's, I still remember her. Nothing lasts forever. I remember she bowed out in the early part of that decade, and Ed Kane, our neighbor up the street bought her out. He never got the respect that Mrs. L got from everyone, and most of the kids harrassed him.

Thinking back to her store, this was back when you got a choice of maybe eight flavors of Dolly Madison ice cream, no Baskin Robbins job where you got a selection of 48 flavors you'll probably never want. Eight was enough, and we were happy. The Evening Bulletin was still published, and was probably still a nickel at that time. You could still get candy for a penny each - remember "Grade A's", strips of candy buttons, and loose shoe-string licorice? Soda was sold in glass bottles with painted-on labels (10 oz, 16 oz, and quarts - no 2 liter bottles then). I still remember the red Coca-Cola cooler chest she had too with the built-in bottle opener. Back in the day when there was style and character, before the days of the True refrigerator cases where the logo of the soda manufaturer appears over the doors and a label on the glass said that only their products could be displayed in that case. Back before Mello Yellow, energy drinks, Cherry Coke, or Vanilla Coke. Tab was the main diet soda of the day, and it tasted like...well, it was nasty. Frank's was the local favorite for Cream, Black Cherry Wishniak, etc. Coke and 7-Up (remember their slogan "You like it, it likes you!"?) were the biggest sellers. There were no Altoids then, you'd most likely grab a pack of Sen-Sen if you had smoker's breath.

If you're from this neighborhood, you'll remember other stores that were similar, but not quite the same as Mrs. Lenore's....

...Rudy's - Bancroft & Shunk Streets (until late 70's)
...Richie's Variety - 16th & Oregon Ave. (Mid to late 70's)
...Harry's - (16th & Shunk Sts.) What did he sell anyhow?
...Fay's - (until late 70's, later Angel's) - Mole & Shunk Streets. In
contention with Richie's as maybe the most complete variety store around at the time.
...Ray's - aka "Elephant Joe's" - Bouvier & Wolf Sts. (until early 80's). Bare-bones, actually made Mrs. Lenore's look like a super store.
...Mike's - (until mid 70's) - 17th & Wolf Streets.
...The "monkey" store (until early 70's) - 16th & Wolf Sts. The owner actually had a pet monkey that would jump on your shoulders while you were in the store.

And that's by no means a complete list. These stores were all over the place, and all of them thrived. For you neighborhood folks, you'll probably remember others as you review.

If you'll notice, all the stores carried the owner's first name (except Mrs. Lenore's, I don't know if we ever knew her first name). And when you went in, Rudy would be Rudy, not some guy who bought the name Rudy, came from outside the neighborhood, and knew no one.

South Philly merchants have changed. The old ways are gone, but the memories remain.

Photo from

Coming soon: Luncheonettes, Drug Stores, and much more.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Strawbridges - Another Landmark Department Store Gone

We made a trip to the Strawbridges in the Deptford Mall this past weekend to take advantage of the huge savings they're advertizing. What you'd save on is anyone's guess. The first floor was just about empty except for some Oriental rugs, and what was to be had on the second floor wasn't great selection-wise.

Deptford Mall? "That isn't Philly" you may be saying. True. Like many here, I go across the river because you don't have to pay to park at the mall, and it's nicer than at the Gallery in Center City. But looking through the carcass that has become the Deptford store, I remembered the various department stores that once made Philly a great place go shop. Gimbels, John Wanamaker, Strawridge & Clothier and Lit Brothers were the ones I remember, and quite vividly. Each year on December 8, my mom would bring us to the CC stores as a pre-Christmas event. We'd see the light show at Wanamakers and ride the monorail in the toy department. Then we'd have lunch in the restaurant in the store. Afterward, we'd march down Market Street to Lit's to tour the Enchanted Village. Where has it all gone?

Walking down Chestnut Street yesterday, I walked into Lord and Taylor (formerly Wanamaker's) just to get a look at what it had become. I saw the eagle was still in the Grand Court, and that a quote from John Wanamaker was still etched into one of the columns. Hopefully when Macy's takes over, they'll stay. A lot has been lost with the closing of those stores that I've mentioned. Chains take over, stores are closed or renamed, and much of what we remember from the younger years is gone. I have fine memories of those places. I'm sure many Philadelphians over 40 still do.

"Walk right in, feel at home, Gimbels is the place to shop" - TV commercial jingle for Gimbles, circa late 1970s.

"Hats trimmed free" - Sign on the facade of the Lit Bros. building at 9th & Market. It's still found there, along with the original store name.
"Third floor, furniture!" - A time when each elevator in each store had someone taking you up or down, calling each floor and the type of merchandise found on it.