Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Toys

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.

AND YOU MAY REMEMBER...
...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.

AND YOU MAY REMEMBER...
...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.

AND YOU MAY REMEMBER...

...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.

Camoflage Man

That's what some of the guys called him because of what he wore. Actually, it was a set of green work clothes, same shirt and pants every day. Well, same type. If it really was the same exact threads, it was good that we stayed away from him.

This guy was like 40s lady in that he too was often seen on the move down Oregon Avenue. But where she walked down the street gracefully, "Camoflage Man" walked more with the strut of a person looking to do someone harm. Mean look on his face, eyes somewhat staring, but not bulging out of the sockets, arms tense like they were going to connect with someone's face if he didn't keep walking. Quite a character, although one you probably didn't want to get up close and personal with.

I remember the only time I ever saw him doing something more than walking. I was behind him in line at the old Shop & Bag supermarket at 20th & Oregon. This is the place that's now a CVS, and was a Penn Fruit market before Shop & Bag. I think Camoflage Man almost made the cashier jump out of her skin. He had maybe six boxes of cereal in his shopping cart, and when he got up to the fron of the line, pulled each box out of the cart and slammed each on the belt. He didn't say a word, just slammed them down hard, enough to really smash them. The cashier sheepishly asked for the amount of his purchase. Camoflage Man paid, got his change, and walked away with his cereal. Not one word. I didn't look on the floor to see if the cashier left a wet spot, but I'd almost bet she did.

Why was this guy so angry that he would slam things down and not say anything? Maybe it was his diet. If I ate cereal and nothing but all day, I'd be a grumpy guy too. Perhaps it was because he lacked a variety of clothing. Wearing green work clothes day in and out may leave a man feeling blue. In his case, more red with rage. Hey, maybe it would have been cool to have his phone number, adding him to the legion of folks called in the early morning hours to a less than happy greeting. I suppose he would have had to say something to vent at the crank calls, slamming cereal boxes into the receiver doesn't translate well during a phone call. If he did that, he probably wouldn't have had us bother him on many nights. It just wouldn't have entertained us. Hey, I don't even know if this guy lived in an inhabitable place, let alone having a phone.

AND YOU MAY REMEMBER...

John Gacy, Wayne Williams, Ted Bundy, etc. - Serial killers from the 70s. What do they have to do with this post? Probably nothing more than the fact that Camoflage Man seemed to be the kind of guy who you'd expect to someday find on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer - above the fold - with the blazing headline of Serial Killer Captured, Terrorized City. Or would he have been a Cereal Killer? Snap, Crackle, and Pop can come out of hiding, he hasn't been seen for a couple of decades.

Shorty - Ol' Shorty was a homeless guy who lived in the abandoned Evening Bulletin newspaper stand outside the old "Miller Bar" at 15th & Oregon Avenue (where Mio Sogno now sits). It was only called "Miller Bar" because we didn't know it's real name. It had a Miller Beer sign above the street, so the name stuck. I really don't remember seeing anyone go in there to drink. (Hey, idea for another post - places where nothing seems to happen - Ricci Funeral Home, Frank's Cabana Steaks, Philomena's Hair Salon, etc).

Shorty had a big scruffy beard and walked up and down the streets, talking with no one but himself. Not someone who drew a lot of interest, but a neighborhood fixture who I remembered. Sorry Shorty, you get only a short mention here.

Monday, May 01, 2006

40s Lady

Alright, it's not the most entertaining or provacative moniker you could give a person. But she sure was interesting enough to grab our attention. Who was that lady anyhow?

Back during our youth, there was a lady who we would see weekly walking down Oregon Avenue, dressed up like a 1940's socialite or movie star. Every Saturday without fail, she'd stroll down the street in her fur stole, hat, rhinestone sunglasses, stockings with the seam down the back, and period dress. Not the same dress every week mind you, but definitely they all fell within the 40s era. And her hairstyle matched. I remember we used to say "hairdo" then, but now that word seems to have fallen out of favor.

People who get a post here in this blog get it for a reason. That reason being that they were interesting folks. Not your everyday neighborhood types, but those who captured your interest. This lady was one of them. I have to wonder, being we saw her only on Saturday, did she only come this way once a week? Maybe she took the subway to Oregon station and walked down from there. Or maybe she was actually among us every day, yet dressed in current styles for the other six days. Who knows? She was interesting that lady, but not to the point of where she'd get some catcalls or where someone would mock her. We just watched her walk by and took notice. I wonder what some of the kids would say if they saw her dress that way today in 2006? I think she'd get more than a notice. I think she'd dress that way once and not again once she heard the kids give her a hard time. Just my opinion. Some would say that South Street is the place to go today if you want to be different. I say let people be people.

Kids, take notice to what's going on around you. Maybe someday you too will remember and write about the unusual neighbors and strangers you've encountered. Or maybe not. Time will tell.