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.