Chester, in Delaware County, PA
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Dave Komarnicki's Recollections of Growing Up in Chester
Independence Day, 1944
More of Dave's stories:
Long before Bill Gates sat in a swivel chair
is a Lucky Number
Bobby Berman stooped to clip the
three wired bundles of Philadelphia Inquirers (Late-Night War
Edition) that he’d stacked by my feet.
“No returns, Davey,” he bellowed in his gravel voice, cigar stub
clenched in the left corner of his mouth.
“Hustle till you sell out, and this route is yours!”
He eyed me through thick rimless glasses, then turned, took three
steps to his Hudson, hopped in, and sped away down Lloyd Street toward
This is a choice nightly route,” I
thought to myself, as I sized up my high-visibility location right beside
the guard station at the huge Ford Assembly Plant.
“If I sell out tonight, I’ll be a captain in Bobby Berman's
army of hustlers, and it couldn't come along at a better time— my
With hands tucked into the pouch
of my hooded cotton jacket, I stood behind the pile of papers waiting for…
I wasn’t sure what I was waiting for.
I only knew I had to hawk that whole stack—250 papers—so I could
settle with Bobby Berman by the 10 o’clock curfew, or I’d lose the route
on my first night.
The guard, standing in the doorway
of his station, seemed to sense my edginess.
“Relax, kid,” he said, “but watch your papers, keep a hand on
the pile, then fork over a paper when you get the money.”
for the advice, sir,” I said. The
guard, a tall, slim, bespectacled man, wore his cap low on his forehead, and
he looked familiar to me. “Sir, do you live in Sun Village? Did I see you
in Johnson’s Hardware Store last Saturday morning?”
“Yeah, kid, I live on Remington
Street. Gotta son your age, goes to Smedley. His name’s Aloysius—Aloysius McGrann.”
“Hey, Al’s a buddy of mine,”
I told him. I was about to blurt out that Al and I had recently hookied
school to go swimming at the Leiper Quarry, but luckily the eight o'clock
whistle ended our dialogue.
Workers moved out of the Ford
plant like a swarm of locusts. Those hungry for the latest war news rushed
over, and in no time the pile had shrunk from belly high to below my knees.
I held out my left hand for the money and returned change if the men
lingered for it. They were
orderly, grabbing what they paid for and then moving away in silence to
focus on the headlines. I stood
at my post, watching the crowd of men.
Some were sitting on wooden benches, straining to read under dim
lights. Others were eating
sandwiches they pulled out of battered lunch pails, leaning against the
barbed-wire fence as they chewed like giant squirrels, shifting bites from
cheek to cheek. Others just
milled around—stretching, rubbing weary eyes, and jaw-boning with their
buddies. I drank it all in
while sifting the nickels, dimes, quarters, and half-dollars that were
filling my jacket pouch.
“Man, these coins feel good,” I
mused. “Pop told me once that the love of money is the root of evil,
but it isn’t money that I love. I
love the look in Mom’s eyes when I hand her a fistful of coins at night,
and I love caramels, Bolsters, Milky Way candy bars, Dixie cups, TastyKakes,
gumdrops, Butterfingers, and sodas sipped slowly so they last longer.
I love kites, model-airplanes, yoyos, cap guns, chocolate sundaes,
milkshakes, jawbreakers, popsicles, Juju fruits, Saturday double features at
the Washington Theater, and trips to Riverview Beach on the
I love all the stuff Mom has no extra money to give me.”
shrill whistle pierced the cloudy night sky, calling workers back to bury
the enemy with production.
Thanking Mr. McGrann for helping
on my first night on the job, I tucked the unsold papers behind the shoulder
strap Bobby Berman had given me to hold them to my rib cage, then started
heading up Lloyd Street towards Third to begin my fifteen-block search for
sales in every club, restaurant, and bar.
Mr. Berman’s words goaded me on: “Sell out, Davey!
The newspaper was thicker tonight,
but I didn't mind the load. My
back could take it, and my jacket could weather the rain if it came.
A few weeks ago I’d practiced pulling a paper out of my stack,
creasing it, then handing it over with upturned palm.
“Every paper I sell, I’ll look ’em in the eye, smile, and rip off
a ‘Thanks,’” I reminded
myself. “Quick action
with a smile gets many a nickel for a three-cent paper. Tonight’s no
sentimental journey; it’s survival, where survival is measured in nickels
and dimes. I gotta hustle, gotta use whatever flair I can muster.”
had a lot of time to think while trudging along, and thoughts moved through
my mind like dysentery. “What if I get waylaid in one of these alleys?
I'm alone in unknown territory, the street lamps are dim, and a
crouching dog could leap out when I’m not expecting it.
Will I sell out before it rains? I feel moisture on my forehead right
now. I’m okay, but what about
my papers? Wet papers don’t
sell. And what about the
curfew? What if I don't sell
out? Will Mr. Berman take this
route away from me?”
Larkin School, Miss Ginter once read to us about how George Washington had
walked this very road into Chester after losing the Battle of Brandywine and
how he’d later written the whole sad story in his journal while sitting in
a tavern on Market Street. I
paused after crossing Second Street, which had been called Post Road during
Colonial times. In my mind’s
eye, General Washington suddenly appeared, leading his ragged troops into
Chester. Some were carried on makeshift stretchers, while others limped
along with a leg wrapped with a burlap bandage, leaning on the shoulder of a
fellow soldier. The General himself was on foot, too, perhaps to rest his
weary horse or maybe to identify with the suffering of his retreating
troops. His posture was as erect as a ramrod, his demeanor resolute.
I stood by the curbstone until the ragged but undaunted Colonial Army
passed me by.
snapped from my trance, I glanced at the headline of the Philadelphia
Inquirer in my hand: “Nazis Retreating From Salerno Line.”
My meandering thoughts shifted to
my brother Mike, walking a muddy road in Burma in an endless line of
war-weary soldiers. Was Mickey limping? Was
he leaning on a friend? Was he
wounded? Was he ….?
Then, peering into the fog sweeping in from the Delaware River, I
whispered. “Thanks, General Washington.
Thanks for leaving us an example of keeping the faith.”
I then turned to face my own
journey, my battle to keep the faith and win the right to sell papers at the
Ford Assembly Plant every night, to earn money to keep the home fires
burning—coal for the furnace, clothes on our backs for the coming winter. “If
I don't win my battle tonight, I'll be history,” I reminded myself.
“I’ll be forced to return to the nightly hustle through the
streets of downtown Chester, where competition is fierce and tempers edgy,
running to reach the taprooms first. Tonight I gotta sell every written word strapped to my
Reaching Third Street, checking
traffic both ways, I cut diagonally across Lloyd Street to Tony Marino's
Tavern. I breathed deep,
unlatched the heavy double doors, crossed the threshold, and Bingo!
Immediate endorsement. The bartender waved me forward to the open
side of the bar, pinched a paper from the middle of my stack, and dropped a
dime into my palm. “Che si
dice?” he said. “Benie
grazie,” I responded, dipping into my limited stockpile of Italian
vocabulary. When the
belly-to-the-bar lineup of Sons of Italy heard me call out in their lingo,
hands shot into pockets faster than Roy Rogers could hoist his holstered
gun. Five papers were tweaked
from my stack, and five nickels joined the jingle in my pocket.
I gave them a flamboyant, Caruso-in-concert smile as I bowed my way
out the door.
Once outside I shouted
“Huzzah!,” a word of exclamation I’d heard my buddy Poe Parramore
shout out after he’d sunk a half-court set-shot to win a basketball game
at the YMCA. Next door to Tony
Marrino’s was a billiard room. I
had a budding interest in the game but resisted the magnetic urge to enter
and pick up pointers on its art and science. I decided instead to work the room at Iacono's Restaurant
next door. I dashed in, sold
two, pocketed the change, and then contentedly continued west, pausing to
check the window display of Puragino’s Cigar Store, where I inhaled my
full-lung capacity of cigar aroma. Nostril-phobia
caused an involuntary nose-twitch, but, man, what an inventory!
The window display featured every cigar this side of Cuba—White
Owls, Philly-Blunts, Panatelas, Garcia y Vegas, Webster’s, Cincos, Robert
a whisper with Pop’s Slavic accent rang in the cochlea of my conscience: “Chewing
tobacco rots the gum line, and cigar smoke chokes and causes Blue Lung.” How
Pop knew about Blue Lung, I’d never know. Brother George and I
occasionally smoked cattails, which we handpicked from the swamps in
Essington .We’d light them, wrap them in notebook paper, then take puffs.
Come to think about it, I did see George’s face turn blue, but his
gum-line still looked okay.
west, I paused again on the sidewalk outside DiCostanza’s Grocery
History books credit Columbus with the discovery of America, but DiCostanza
claims credit for the creation and discovery of the first Hoagie, a
sandwich, once tasted, you’re hooked for life. I walked in, but the crowd
wasn’t buying papers. They
were peering over the glass protector shielding the unsliced meat from
coughs and sneezes. I stood off to the side, watching as customers barked out
preferences: “Hey, Augusto,
more oregano, more provolone, hot peppers, onions, oil, prosciutto, and what
ever else you gotta.” The
back shelves featured items these immigrants had tasted since childhood.
I stepped outside, stomach
growling for a taste of what I’d left behind.
I poked along until distracted by a tailor working late in Peter
Coelho's shop. He was stitching a sleeve onto a navy blue, pinstriped suit
coat mounted on a torso-shaped manikin. His bald head gleamed under a
focused ceiling light, a tape measure hung around his shirt collar.
He was a surgeon suturing cloth—intense, focused, a true craftsman.
“Brother John has a pinstriped suit,” I thought to myself.
“It’s hanging in his closet, draped on a wooden hanger pinching the
pants tight across the wooden strip. It’ll
hang there until he returns from the war.
Maybe I'll inherit that suit someday, but, I’d rather see John
wearing it, turning heads as he walks up Market Street on a Friday night.”
This pleasant reverie engaged me
until I looked into Pompilli’s Barber Shop window, where a generously
endowed patron reclined with lathered face in the front chair.
Pompilli, straight razor in hand, was poised to orchestrate his
tonsorial skill while slicing gingerly around the patron’s prominent Roman
Reaching Broomall, I decided to
backtrack towards town. Before
crossing the street I paused for a truck to pass and watched as it pulled up
to a loading dock labeled “NIGHT OWL CURB
I crossed, then mounted the curb at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and
stood gaping at its blood-red arched-doors. The quarried-stone sanctuary
seemed ageless, ancient, strong. The
church exuded a feeling of permanence. I started to voice a prayer as a man
walked by, checking me out with peripheral vision.
I waited until he passed me, then whispered, “May those who
worship here find peace only God can bring." It was while walking
away that I remembered asking a friend, Danny Bartkow, "Why the red
doors on all Episcopal churches?" He’d told me that the red
symbolizes the blood shed by Jesus Christ when crucified on the cross and
that Christians believe it was the blood of Jesus Christ that paid the
penalty for the sins of the world. I
could still see the look on Danny's face and hear the sincerity in his voice
as he told me this. I didn't
completely understand his answer, but it did help me understand the lyrics
to a hymn Pop often sang while sitting in his armchair in our living room:
you be free from the burden of sin?
is power, power,
flickering neon light steered me, like a moth, to Colletta’s Tavern, just
east of Lomokin Street. I barged in, made a quick sale, then a quick
departure. Ah! Next door sat
DiMeglio’s Pool Hall, and this time a sudden uncontrollable urge vacuumed
me inside, where I frittered
away precious selling time watching a kid, a couple of years my senior,
clear the table of fourteen balls. His
silk-smooth stroke, his moves around the pool table in a semi-hypnotic
focus, mesmerized me. I made no
sales, but the observations that I tucked away I'd practice tomorrow at the
YMCA. “Imagine a kid
running a whole rack of balls,” I thought as I left.
“Maybe someday I’ll do that.”
As I shuffled towards Pennell
Street, a muffled growl stopped me in my tracks.
I turned instinctively, then stepped back as a muzzled German police
dog leaped from a narrow side-alley. Its jaw slammed against the protective
shield of newspapers strapped across my chest. Gulping hard, I swallowed my
wad of gum, but I stood my ground, staring it down as it turned to circle me. Its
owner called it from an elevated porch, where he sat in a rocking chair, and
the dog slinked away in whining obedience.
Cupping his hands, “Mr. No-Leash” hollered, “Rex won't bite.
He’s harmless!” Looking towards the porch, I mimicked his outcry
with my own cupped hands: “What's the muzzle for if Rex is harmless?”
Waving his hand, he sarcastically answered, “On your way, kid,
don't push it!!”
I did go on my way, but I walked
curbside, eyeing all alleys, as I palpitated toward Pennell Street.
“What’s with German dogs?” I brooded.
“Rinnie, my next-door nemesis, ripped my left arm open about six
months ago and John had to rush me to the hospital.
Maybe German dogs sniff out Ukrainian flesh.
What am I, a walking cheese-steak?”
I calmed my jangled nerves by
replacing my swallowed gum with two sticks from my back pocket. “This
is going to’ to be a long night and this Pilgrim got to make progress,”
I reminded myself. Crossing the street, I almost got creamed by a man peddling a
bike, no light on the handle bars, but, okay, it was my fault for slanting
across the street between two parked cars.
I threw up my hands to apologize as the crotchety cyclist looked back
in anger, but he raised a clenched fist and blitzed me with a few
unmentionables while he peddled away.
by the berating I’d received, I walked into the Lloyd Athletic Club as if
they expected me, sold three papers, and then lingered to look at the
gallery of framed pictures of sporting events that had been hosted at Lloyd
Field over the years. As
I gazed at the photos of great moments in football, baseball, rodeo, and
boxing history, I suddenly felt like a visiting reporter with a press pass.
“Aha! Pictures of Freddie Sammons and Johnny Fry,” I
noted. It brought back
memories. I’d stood ringside
the night Johnnie Fry K.O.’d a guy in the first round.
The second punch Johnny threw, the guy hit the deck and didn't twitch
a muscle. Johnny was a local
legend. Just watching him rivet
the punching bag as he worked out at the Y gym, shadowboxing, skipping rope,
dancing on his toes, was worth the price of a ticket.
“Maybe someday I’ll write about all my memories hanging on
this wall,” I thought. On the way out, while stopping for a drink at the water
cooler in the hallway, I leaned too close to the stream, and the water hit
my nose, splashed into my eyes, and landed on my papers. “What else, you boob?
Imagine climbing into the ring with Sammons or Fry when you can’t
even control your water!”
cut my inventory by one next door at Zachetti’s Restaurant.
My customer, a middle-aged man of girth, wore red suspenders and, as
added insurance, a wide brown belt. “Whew!
I’m glad Pop didn’t have one that wide,” I mused,
remembering the numerous, well-deserved belt-strappings I’d received in my
thirteen-year career as a boy. The
man stood up to dig deep into his left-front pocket, eventually scooping to
the bottom to pull out a nickel. He then waited patiently with upturned palm
for his two cents change. During this labor-intense transaction, I checked
out his meal: Liver and Onions. “Onions
are one thing,” I contemplated. “I
can linger over the smell of fried onions any day and even ask for more on
my cheese-steak at Stackey’s, but liver?
Liver tastes worse than a bite of Fels Naptha soap, which Pop
introduced me to, compliments of an expansive, uncensored vocabulary picked
up from Yondi Martin.”
left the restaurant with a gagging taste in my throat, but my gastronomic
fortune reversed at the American Grocery Store. While breezing by, I spotted
a slightly bruised pear on the curbside display counter and lifted it.
With the first succulent bite, a verse of Scripture, memorized at
Third Presbyterian Summer Bible School, flashed into my mind: “Thou
shall not muzzle the ox while it treadeth out the corn.”
Here I was, on my thirteenth birthday, twisting Scripture to justify
the pilfering of a wounded pear. Without visible remorse, I wolfed-it down
in massive, juice-trickling bites while continuing on towards Pennell
quickly, I ducked into the restaurant on the corner.
There were no sales to be made, but the counterman looked friendly
and I hit him with three questions I’d been storing up. “Could I please
have a glass of water?” was my first.
He nodded, and I took a slow gurgling swallow from the slightly
chipped glass of lukewarm water he handed over.
I then asked, “Do you think it will rain tonight?”
With hands tucked in his front pockets, he casually walked to the
window, peered out, then up, turned and said, “Looks like it.”
I then brought out the last, most important question: “Do you mind
if I use your bathroom?” “Do
you mean men’s room?” he corrected me.
“Yeah, men’s room,” I countered.
He pointed toward the rear. “Muchas
gracias,” I said, pulling out another language from my linguistic
inventory. I moved hurriedly in
the direction of his pointing finger, urged on by acute kidney pressure.
There were no Scott paper towels, so I wiped my hands on my Levi’s.
thanks on my way out, I advanced quickly towards Saint George’s Hall,
hoping to cut some slack on my muscle-strained back, taut from the
counterbalance needed to support my load. “How come Saint George’s Hall is here on Third Street,
in an Italian neighborhood?” I wondered as I crossed the street to
enter. I then walked
uncontested through several rooms, selling a half a dozen papers to men
scattered throughout, some at the bar, some seated in plush leather chairs
enjoying the castle-like seclusion only membership can bring.
It suddenly hit me that I was yet to set foot in the official
territory of Little Italy. “This
block is English territory,” I reasoned, “and Saint George is the
Patron Saint of England. So the
local Sons of Saint George gather here to honor the Saint.”
leaving I paused in the main room to study a painting of Saint George
spearing a dragon. While I was
lost in wonderment at the awesome mural, a customer, who had tipped me
earlier with a dime, sensed my interest and launched into an explanatory
thesis. As the monologue progressed, I discovered that Saint George was a
soldier in the ancient Roman army, and he’d been tortured and then killed
for refusing to recant his Christian faith. The cruel Emperor Diocletian had
given the edict for his execution about 325 AD., and about 1,000 years later
George had become England's patron saint.
And now men gathered in halls all over the English-speaking world to
keep his memory alive. While my mentor fulminated, I ruminated, “The
Sons of Saint George sure do a lot of eating and drinking while honoring the
mentor was middle-aged and carried a complexion rosier than seemed normal,
and, as he unfolded these historic tidbits with animated fervor, the hue
deepened even more. “How
neat it would be to have him as my history teacher at Smedley Junior
High,” I thought. I
left the hall richer in pocket change, stronger in spirit, and more
determined to look interested so people would explain things to me.
across the street, the Apollo Theater marquee declared its current offering,
a Cecil B. DeMille film called “Reap the Wild Wind.” “Man, wouldn’t it be neat if Mr. DeMille shot a movie
about Saint George?” I speculated.
“Maybe if I write him a letter he’ll do it. After all, Mr. DeMille is a graduate from P.M.C., right here
on 14th Street. I
wonder if Pop knew about Saint George when he laid hands on brother
George’s head and gave him that name?
Well, if peeling potatoes at the Boyd Diner all night for a buck
doesn’t kill George, it just might turn him into a Saint!”
conjectures carried me to Zarnaski’s Restaurant at the corner of Third and
Lloyd. Looking in the window, I didn’t envision any coins crossing my
palm. There was only one customer, and he was slouched at the table opposite
the window, leaning over a bowl of beet soup loaded with sour cream.
The checkered tablecloth was stained with a seeping purple spot and a
big white splat. I almost
entered the restaurant to give the poor guy a freebee, but the clock on the
wall said 9:06, and I had a curfew to meet.
decided to cross over Lloyd Street. A
quick scan of the block registered no sales. It was strictly residential,
and I was beginning to feel uneasy about the prospects of selling all my
papers. Crossing the street
diagonally in a downcast mood, I decided to check the window of Mulla’s
Flower Shop. I stood for a minute inhaling the aroma of the displayed roses:
pink, yellow, red, arranged to perfection in dark-green urns. People
strolling by seemed to wonder why I was inhaling like a kid with an asthma
attack. No matter, I was
enjoying the scent, seeping through the uncaulked cracks in the windowsill.
Closing my eyes, I imagined walking upstairs to Mom’s room, coins in one
hand and flowers in the other, catching the look of surprised joy on her
face. “One of these
nights, I’ll do just that!” I promised myself.
“I’ll splurge the whole night’s take on roses!”
away backwards with this resolution in mind, I stumbled on an uplifted crack
in the pavement and landed unceremoniously on my hands and knees. Tree roots
near the curbstone had done it. As
I sat by the offending tree, nursing a skin-scraped knuckle, a
strolling neighborhood resident walked over, hoisted me up, grabbed a
paper laying on the ground,
handed me a dime, then walked away whistling.
“Hey, I stumble like a klutz, and I’m rewarded,” I
marveled. So I started
whistling my own little improvised ditty: “Good things can happen to a
good kid, and humbly speaking I’m one of the best.” My
whistling was way out of tune, due to a sliver of pilfered pear skin
creviced between my front teeth. I finally finger-nailed it out while
standing in front of the Chester Pharmacy near the corner of Pusey Street.
like another bleak block for me. Nothing
on this block but a hospital.” I
was tempted to walk inside the pharmacy and ask for an emergency Band-Aid,
but the pharmacist might slap some iodine on my knuckle instead.
So I picked up my pace. A Mercy Hospital nurse walked briskly down
the cement pathway to the street, her white, starch-stiff uniform commanding
respect. Next to Mom and my
sisters, Mary and Vicky, I counted nurses among the most respected people on
earth. But, then again,
thoughts of my recent tonsillectomy at Chester Hospital flashed into my
mind, along with a vision of an Angel of Mercy who had denied me water when I’d felt a
post-surgery delirium that had been like crossing the Sahara Desert at noon.
“Is it the moist air of pending rain clouds or the sweat of remembrance
that’s forming on my brow?” I wondered.
Ulrich Street, I tried pronouncing the word “Ulrich” the way I’d heard
the natives pronounce it before, and it didn't sound right.
“Ul” as in “mull” and then “rich,” but everyone says “Ull-rick.”
“I’m in the seventh grade,” I remarked to myself,
“and I’m still confused about the English language.
It’s a good thing Pop and Mom got together and told us ‘We are in
America now; we will speak only English with you children.’
English is confusing enough; the sounds don't match the words.
And if I’d picked up Pop’s accent while he taught me how to speak
Ukrainian, phew, I’d have to fight all around town every night!”
mental pleasantries carried me across Ulrich Street to face the
glass-encased announcement of weekly services at the Second Presbyterian
Presbyterians are serious people. They
probably put a lot of money in the collection plate. When they lay the foundation of a building, they really do a
permanent job.” The
glass-displayed message read:
IN WEEKLY PRAYER
FOR OUR TROOPS.
a proudly worn badge, the invitation was there for all who happened to walk
by. Thoughts shifted to the
Russian Ukrainian Baptist Church I attended each Wednesday and twice on
Sunday. (If I “hookied”
church and Pop got wind of it, there were consequences.) Our church had once
been a home, with the interior walls removed to create a sanctuary. It was
small; ten strides would carry me from back to front. A carpeted
center-aisle separated two sections of fold-down wooden chairs that squeaked
when restless kids squirmed around. The
pulpit and the semi-grand piano swallowed up most of the carpet-covered
platform, upon which Reverend Bartkow and Connie Lemko would lead worship
services. The wall behind the pulpit was adorned with Cyrillic letters,
spelling out the Bible verse John 3:16.
It was from this platform that golden words and spirited music
sounded to challenge a growing awareness of who I was: a child of God
born to carry the name David Komarnicki. “Why I was here? I was placed on earth to learn to love God, family and my
neighbor as I love myself.” My
sister Mary, the eldest child and budding family historian, had told me that
our family lived on the second floor of the church before I was born.
Brother George was born there, and brother Dan almost died there. When I
came along, our family of ten crowded the three bedrooms, and so Pop and Mom
and their brood had moved on.
I stood there on the sidewalk fronting the Second Presbyterian Church,
feeling the moisture of the night air, suspended somewhere between reverie
and reality, I glanced down at the headlines of the newspapers I was
peddling, and thought, “Kids, American kids just a couple of years
older than me, are dying on the beaches of Italy, kids from this
neighborhood, maybe kids from churches on this street.
And Sunday, in this church, in St. Luke's down the street, and St.
Anthony's a few blocks away, neighbors will gather to kneel and pray,
‘Please God, bless America, bless the troops, all the troops, cramped in
foxholes, running scared on beaches, beaches meant for running in the sand
with kids, tossing them in the air, riding the surf , floating in patched
inner-tubes. Please, Lord, help
us all to heed what we hear from pulpits large or small, bring them home to
have kids, kids like me, kids happy to bring nickels and dimes home to catch
the reward of their Mom’s
smile before they trot off to bed.”
thoughts circulated behind misty eyes as I walked on to peek through the
curtained window of DiMeglio’s Restaurant.
Again, not a remote chance of a sale.
There was only one person inside—maybe the owner? He was a forlorn,
pear-shaped man, coffee cup leveraged toward his parted lips, left hand
scratching his bushy, jet-black hair. His
hair reminded me of the black shoe polish kept in the rear panel of my
I walked away from the window, I thought about a miscue I’d made the
previous Saturday afternoon, when a dapper customer had his foot propped
atop my box, ready for a shine. Judging
from his impeccable appearance, I’d felt a big tip was imminent.
Just as I’d straddled my box about to apply the polish to his
fashionable Florsheim, an ear-piercing blast had attacked my sensitive
cochlea. It was Officer
Kandravi blowing the whistle on me again! As his slow jog closed ground on me, I’d considered my
sparse options. Splotching my
customer’s elegant cardigan sock with black polish in my haste, I’d
scooped up my box and taken off, imploring him to wait until I looped around
the train station. He’d
looked at his sock, then at me, in disbelief.
“My arch-nemesis Kandravi has done it again!” I’d moaned as I
ran the two-and-a-half-block circuit around the Pennsy Railroad
When I returned, my pending Big-Tipper was already walking halfway
down Edgmont Avenue. I had spit
on the pavement, which I was prone to do when I was mad and didn’t want to
put feelings to words like Yondi Martin used when he was mad.
I recalled the shameful event, I realized that I really couldn’t blame
Officer Kandravi. He was only
enforcing the law recently passed by City Council, saying that shoe-shining
on public thoroughfares was henceforth deemed illegal, with exception to
“Licensed Parlors.” “Why
us independents” I wondered. “I
guess it’s because the City can’t keep tabs on the cash money
that kids make and can’t charge a tax on it.
Boy, I love the fancy words they use when ordinances are posted in
the Chester Times, words like HENCEFORTH and THOROUGHFARES.”
I’d read about that latest ordinance, I’d steamed—steamed at
cigar-chewing politicians strutting through town sporting
three-piece suits bought at John McGovern’s Men’s Shop or
Adams Clothiers. “I’ve set
pins at the Penn Bowling Alley for these men and carry knee scars from pins
bouncing off my shinbones,” I grumbled to myself, “while they
toss a dime tip down the alley and think it’s a big deal.
I’ve watched these so-called City Fathers play pool at the
Republicans Men’s Club on Welsh Street, watched them blow their smoke
rings across the room as they relax in their leather cushioned chairs.
Mark my words, someday I’ll make enough money to match their
Christmas Club accounts at the Delaware County National
How many times have I stood curbside, three deep in the crowd,
watching as they wave at voters while sitting in plush convertibles inching
up Edgmont Avenue in the Fourth of July Parade?
Did any of them ever shine shoes on a Saturday afternoon when they
really wanted to play baseball in Deshong Park?
Naw, I doubt it. These
are tough times. A war has
called brother Mickey away to fight for the life of our country, and here I
am, facing the rain, filling my lungs with smoke, trying to pick up the
slacking family income. A few
days ago I blotched the sock of a Big Tipper because I had to run away from
a cop who really couldn’t catch me in a phone booth—all because the
politicians stack the deck against kids trying to make a buck in exchange
for honest labor!!!”
was so fumed I spit on the sidewalk again.
In fact, I ran out of spit as I walked right by Quattro's Tavern.
Swallowing my political ill-will, I retraced my steps, grabbed the entry
door, and—Whammo!—I was slammed against the wall by a short, stocky,
bald-headed man barreling passed me. His wife, her head wrapped in a
babushka, was right behind him. Her
eyes carried an anxious look. She,
no doubt, had come to the bar to steer the breadwinner home with what
remained of his week’s wages. The man raged on in a Slavic monologue,
using words never heard in our house. The wife trod silently three steps
behind at curbside, a protective sheep-herding move just in case her
inebriated husband stumbled into the street traffic.
Reopening the door, I stepped into the barroom, sized up my next
maneuver, and made a bee-line for the backroom, lured there by a mood-meister
tickling the ivories with heavy hands for patrons arranged in a semicircle
around a cushioned rail. Easing into the room, I was suddenly caught up in
the lyrical mood of “My Funny Valentine.” The pianist eyed me standing
there as I lip-synched the lyrics. He
slid into a chord pattern and waved me forward to stand beside him. Offering
me the microphone, he whispered in a raspy Louis Armstrong voice, “Can you
take it from the top, kid?” Such
moments seldom happen in life, so, with a flair quite probably
inherited from brother John, whose impromptu spirit had lodged early in my
bosom, I placed my newspapers by my right foot, and accepted the mike.
Facing the intimate audience horseshoeing the piano, I took feathered
flight into the Rodgers and Hart lyrics:
My funny valentine;
You make me smile with
looks are laughable;
Yet, you're my
favorite work of art.
your figure less than Greek?
Is your mouth a little
When you open it to
speak, are you smart?
change a hair for me;
Not if you care for
Each day is
Clapping, cat-calls, and bravos
followed. Then, reaching for my inventory on the floor, as if bowing in
response to their applause, I straightened up in time to catch Satchmo lift
a dollar bill from his tip bowl on the piano, then place it in my hand as a
professional courtesy. The
receptive audience followed his lead with quarters—some for papers, others
strictly for my impromptu performance.
Intoxicated by my brief foray into show business, I worked the bar,
selling Inquirers as I shuffled my way to the exit.
outside, my spirit soared in spite of the cold rush of rain drizzle. The air
tingled in my lungs as my well-worn summer sneakers touched down like cat
paws on the shimmering cement sidewalk.
I could have levitated, but my bulging pocketful of coins grounded
me. Crossing Kerlin Street
diagonally, I paused to allow a Buick roadster with a Delaware license plate
to pass as it pulled out of the corner service station. The driver ignored
the stop sign, then tossed a crumpled cigarette wrapper out of his
rolled-down window. I stooped
to pick it up as he sped west toward Marcus Hook “Thanks, Mr. X,” I
said to myself. “I’ll
peel off the silver paper, add it to my collection for the war effort, and
I’ll label you a street trasher heading for trouble. It’s idiots like
you that trash neighborhoods while keeping your ashtray clean.”
Still venting, I spit again while
plodding toward downtown Chester. My inventory was still way too
heavy, and Mr. Berman's demand for zero returns still echoed in my ears.
“Would Mr. Berman really give this nightly route to another kid,
maybe even Tony DeSantis” I wondered—a troubling thought that
harassed me like a giant, green-eyed horsefly.
I doubled my pace as I crossed Parker Street, but I was immediately
stopped cold by the candy displayed in Deakyne’s Confectionery window. The
sight of all those boxes of chocolates, caramels, bonbons, almonds, and
peanut brittle started my mouth-juices jangling, but the imagined sweetness
made my tongue curled instinctively to a gaping crater on the right side of
my gum line. Sobering
memories of Dr. Mielcarek’s pliers, as he’d ripped a molar out of my
protesting mouth, put an end to my droolings, and I pacified my sweet tooth
with my last stick of Wrigley’s Spearmint.
I moved on to Petrillo's Tavern,
entered, scanned the room for indications of interest, and caught the
bartender’s lazy backhanded wave calling me to stand beside the open end
of the bar. He took a coin from the register, patted me on the head, then
dropped his hand, now a clenched fist with a nickel wedged between his
knuckles. I smiled, pinched the nickel from between his fingers, thanked
him, and then asked, “Will you teach me how to do that sometime?”
“Sure, kid, come back when it’s not busy,” he said with a friendly
grin. Across the bar a happy
drunk with a front tooth missing was inhaling enough hops and lager to
warrant his sleeping there tonight. I
said goodbye to the bartender, feeling I’d made a friend—which was a
good thing, because bartenders had a lot of clout in this newspaper-hustling
Dashing across the street, I
headed for the Abruzzi Club but paused before opening its heavy mahogany
door. I wanted to focus my thoughts before entering.
“Sometimes you’ve got to be ready, like walking on stage,” I
said to myself. “You’ve
got to bounce in with alacrity, fervency, and spirit.”
Taking a quick glance at the
newspaper headline, I cleared my throat, adjusted my voice to a
command-attention level, then entered shouting, “G. I.’s storm Salerno
Beach! G. I.’s storm Salerno
Beach!” Nearly a dozen papers
changed hands in less than a minute. A silver-haired, fatherly-man with sad
eyes invited me to help myself to the sandwich spread laid out on two tables
covered with white tablecloths along the far wall of the dining room. The
kingly feast featured every Italian delicacy this side of Rome.
I smiled, accepted his offer, and then proceeded to concoct a
sandwich big enough to challenge a horse’s jaw span.
My brother Dan had once told me, “Never refuse hospitality,
especially if they think you speak the language.”
With that timely remembrance, I responded with a loud “grazie.”
I found an out-of -the-way table, wary perhaps that a local member of
City Council might spot me, then cite an Abruzzi By-Law declaring the
feeding of urchin paperboys, not domiciled in this ward, to be hereby deemed
illegal. It took fifteen minutes to “mangia mangia” that Italian
delight. I thanked my sad-eyed
“gumba” and then departed with a muted burp of gratitude for
Continuing east on Third Street, I
paused while passing the Italian Presbyterian
“Wow, this is the second Presbyterian church I’ve passed on
Third Street, not to mention the Episcopal Church and St. Anthony’s down
the street, but where are the Baptists churches?”
As I walked on slowly, almost bumping into passers-by walking in the
opposite direction, I conjured up visions of Pop sitting in the back row of
our little Russian Ukrainian Baptist Church on Eighth Street, caught up in
the rapture of a hymn, choking back tears as he sang in full baritone:
I trust him,
I’ve proved him o’er and o’er
Jesus, precious Jesus,
for faith to trust him more.
delivered lyrics clear and strong, and they carried throughout that little
cramped congregation, but his fervor had yet to reach the inner chambers of
my thirteen-year-old heart.
in the gathering mist, looking up and down Third Street, I suddenly realized
that a family could live and die on this street and never have to leave the
neighborhood. “Mama can
give birth at Mercy Hospital, walk Third Street daily to squeeze
fresh fruits and vegetables for the evening meal.
Papa can catch the bus to the Sun Shipyard,
Baldwin Locomotives Works, Sun Oil, Scott
Paper, the Ford plant, Baldt-Anchor, Westinghouse
Electric, or Sinclair Oil, while Mama stays
home with the kids, packs school lunches, washes clothes, feeds the
done or fixed on these few blocks— kids walk to St. Anthony's Grammar
School, men walk to the Abruzzi Club to talk business or politics, shoot
pool or rehash memories of the old country with their “gumbas.”
Down the street are the post office and the bakery, the florist and
the shoemaker. The money is
safe in the Italian Bank, weddings are held at the Columbus Center, and
there are funeral parlors to pay respects, eulogize , comfort each other in
times of greatest need. Birth
to death and all needs in between. This
is community; this is Little Italy.”
A flat-faced bus stopped at the
corner of Fulton Street, and I watched a debonair gentleman step down.
He stood at attention as his well-appointed lady disembarked, then
took her elbow, and attentively supported her short walk to the curbstone.
With a backward hand motion, he waved to the bus driver, calling out “Arrivederci!”
“Yes, I’m walking’ the streets of Italy!” I
told myself. “The tailors,
grocers, barbers, restaurants, and clubs, the courtesies, friendliness, and
mannerisms, the posturing and the clean sidewalks.
This is Italy worn into the patchwork quilt of Chester.
Their language is opera to my ear, and even though I can’t say
anything in Italian except hello, goodbye, and thank you, I’m accepted as
a native son.”
The Italian Bank, I crossed the street and entered Joe’s Tavern, where my
ear was greeted with the voice of a true “paisano,” Frank
Sinatra, crooning “My Blue Heaven” while locals, standing two deep at
the bar, exhaled great clouds of smoke thicker than you’d find at an
all-night poker game. Burning
eyes and a queasy gut forced me to exit before I could unload any of my
papers. I stepped outside to
recuperate, inhaled rain drizzle along with the fresh air, and promptly
succumbed to chesty heaves that doubled me forward to a fetal position.
I straightened up in time to catch sight of Tony DiSantis, my chief
competitor, stepping into the Italian American Club, “NUTS!
Now what? That was my next stop.
Competition lurks everywhere,” I grumbled to myself.
I broke into a slow trot so I could put some space between us before
he finished working the room.
Tony had been coming from the
direction I was heading in, and I wondered if he’d already hit the places
I was planning to visit on my way toward town.
I added that distressing thought to my list of worries, which already
included Mr. Berman’s command to sell out, the pending 10 o’clock
curfew, the drizzle about to burst into full-fledged rain, the crouching
dogs, and the lurking thieves. Suddenly
the kid in the poolroom flashed into my mind, running a rack, one ball at a
time—focused, unconcerned about who watched him.
Speaking of focus, I had to focus on unloading the rest of my papers.
then the Chester Police paddy wagon rolled by. A policeman stood on the rear
runner, one hand holding the steel hand-grip, the other hand on his billy
disturber-of-the-peace sat inside, leaning over, elbows on knees, no doubt
trying to figure out how to explain his plight to his wife and kids.
A sudden shiver of remembrance surfaced through the drizzling rain. I
could see clearly the day that same paddy wagon hauled me and three of my
mentally delinquent buddies off to the police station. They’d nailed us
for playing tag football in the Quaker graveyard on Edgmont Avenue.
Without warning, the police had stormed the graveyard, confiscated
our football, and loaded us into the double-parked wagon. The police had then driven slowly up Market Street, as if on
parade for all gawkers to get a good look.
I had hunched over just like the guy in the wagon.
The fact that it was my first recorded offense … and the fact
that Billy Lykens’s father, a friend of the family, was a cop … and the
fact that Detective Ryan lived around the corner on Crosby Street … and
the fact that I had five older brothers and most cops in town knew them …
and the fact that none of my brothers had a police record that I knew of …
and the fact that none of the cops were Quakers might be a partial reason
why the incident had never reached the court docket.
They’d let us go scot-free but had made us squirm in the
police station for a couple of hours, stewing in our own mental
juices, reflecting on all that would happen when we got home. While sitting,
I’d overheard one of the cops talking to his partner in a horse whisper,
“That kid’s dad is the best cook in town, works at the Boyd
Diner. I get
the Blue Plate Special there for 35 cents.”
I’d left the police station feeling that the system has a soft spot
for kids and also that was good for a kid to have a family with a good name.
Franklin Street, I couldn’t see any action on this block either, only a
half-dozen people in DiLucido's restaurant, so I stood resting for a while,
leaning on a parking meter and looking up and down the street.
Across the street stood St. Anthony's Church, where an older couple
had just opened the door to enter the sanctuary.
“This is where neighbors should be tonight,” I reflected, “praying
on bended knee, praying for victory in the war.
The headlines in my paper should be enough to fill the pews, but so
many are in the bars drowning their misery instead of kneeling at the
cushioned railing in prayer.” Just
then a Pileggi & Sons truck eased away from the curb as I stepped onto
the drizzle-slick street. There
wasn’t really any reason to cross the street, so I headed toward
wondering if Tony DiSantis had
gotten to the Chelsea Hotel and Bar before me. Crossing my fingers, I
entered. Luck prevailed. I unloaded four at the bar and then stood alongside the
jukebox listening to Perry Como suture the wounds of the lonely with “Blue
Moon, you saw me standing alone,
a dream in my heart
I was “there for” was to sell papers.
Today was my thirteenth birthday, and I was born with an ear for
music. Even at my age, I felt the sentimental loneliness in the lyrics that
Perry Como crooned. The tavern was packed, no room for another belly at the
bar. The smoke hung thicker
than Mom’s pea soup. The jukebox was a little too loud, but who’d
complain? I walked the room,
feeling like a distraction. The
patrons had come here to forget the war, a reality they had no power to
change. Feeling a little tired,
a little blue, I worked my way out as another Como classic dropped into
from night to night you’ll find me,
lingered, watching the mustached bartender move like a maestro,
orchestrating bottle slides, shaking mixed drinks, while he crooned in tune
in my dreams awake or sleeping,
should be home in bed, kid,” said a fatherly looking man, breaking into my
lyric-induced trance. “Got to sell all my papers, sir, before I go
home,” I retorted. He bought
two, giving me a quarter for them, patted me on the head, and said, “Hope
this helps.” “Thanks, mister,” I said with a grateful grin.
Taking fresh heart, I shuffled my way across the floor toward the
back booths, secondhand cigar and cigarette smoke burning my eyes and
finding each open pore of my body. On
the hardwood dance floor, three couples were moving in tandem as Perry Como
continued to open the floodgates of pent-up feelings:
the good of my caring,
someone is sharing those arms with me?
she has another,
can't have another for I’m not free.
departed reluctantly, walking into the drizzle with a lighter load, some
added cash, and smoke-clouded eyes. I
felt privy to a timeless longing of the heart, my own uninitiated
heart as well as the heart of the world.
The sway of Perry Como’s lyric-poetry excited an itch in the heart
I had not yet learned how to scratch: holding and being held, pressed
tighter than a folded newspaper. The dancers were loosening the cares of the war with music,
while the bar crowd drank their mind-numbing brew, both trying to liquidate
the chaos of the world.
reverie almost got me bumped as I jaywalked backwards onto Third Street,
edging between two parked cars. I
paused at the corner of Penn Street to rest, balancing my load of newspapers
atop a fire hydrant. The
streetlight cast an eerie spider-web reflection on the misty street, created
by its shattered dome. “Could
this be evidence of an accurate slingshot or the tossed rock of an ingrate,
or could it be the work of a Red Rider BB gun?”
My thoughts turned suddenly to the streetlamp poled at the corner
of Seventh and Deshong, which had spread unwelcome light into the bay window
of the room where brother George and I slept, covering the wall with
sleep-destroying shadows of passing trolleys. Well did I remember the night
that George and I had climbed onto the roof of our narrow, three-story home,
and when I’d signaled him that all was clear, he’d shouldered his new BB
gun, sighted down the barrel
notch, and BINGO! He’d
cracked the lamp dome with a single well-placed shot, and that same
spider-web shadow later reflected on our bedroom wall for two seasons before
the city had fixed it. But
remorse had followed immediately, when Pop had walked us down to our dirt
cellar and tossed George’s gift-of-all-gifts into the hungry,
orange-and-blue flames of our cast-iron furnace.
Recovery time for George had taken months, with Pop’s
Ukrainian-accented words carved permanently into George’s frontal lobes:
“Don’t you know you can shoot your eye out?”
down Penn Street through the mist flooding in from the Delaware River, I
could hear the baleful warning sound of a tugboat claiming its space as it
moved through the fog. Suddenly
I felt I was losing all my marbles. Maybe
I was getting tired, but as I peered through the foggy mist I could swear I
saw a flat barge move through the marshes
fronting Penn Street, finally to settle on solid ground.
A young man, aided by two others, one on either side, stepped
ashore—dressed in black, head to toe, except for the white stockings that
were tightly stretched by his huge calf muscles.
His square-toed shoes were capped with copper-plated buckles.
He was flanked by a swarm of men dressed in the same fashion, and
they started walking towards me. Although
they were a block away, I could see alertness in the young man’s stride.
He stopped to look around, to talk to those who met him at the barge,
and he shook hands heartily when introduced, laughter in his clear
baritones. He was animated,
attentive, jovial as he walked with his greeters toward Second Street,
where, turning to the right, they headed towards an imposing lodging where
they would no doubt gather. “Maybe
this night was too much for me,” I said to myself, shaking my head to
clear it. “First I see
General Washington marching towards Chester with his battered troops—and
now the Proprietor himself! Who
is going to believe me? Certainly not brothers George or Dan; they think
I’m a little spaced out as it is.”
drizzle was getting serious as I picked up the pace towards Dock Street, and
I slowly became aware that a sense of neighborhood was becoming lost as I
moved along. I noticed a dead cat laying in the gutter directly in front
of Mazza’s Café, and I took it as a bad omen and kept moving.
I wasn’t much on superstitious stuff, but I had strong feelings
that things were not exactly right on this block, so I kept looking
around and walking fast until I entered the Anchor Café.
A quick glance around the room warned me that I was potentially in
harm’s way. I approached a
seedy-looking man with a stubbled face, who was parked in a booth along the
far wall, slouching over a headless mug of beer.
He shot me a sardonic look when I timidly ventured, “Paper,
mister?” It was a
“kidnapper look,” the cold, measured stare of a loser who’d just as
soon blackjack me in a dark alley, stuff me in his duffel bag,
shoulder-carry me aboard a freighter, foot-chain me in storage, and sell me
for a six-pack in Hong Kong. He
glared at me without comment, then eye-balled the Fort Knox of coins bulging
in my pockets. I moved away
quickly, taking note of a neon sign mounted atop the mirror behind the bar:
“Three Quarts for a Buck.”
“This bar must be a fountainhead for beer-bellied bargain
hunters,” I thought. “Man,
the Media crowd would ride the bus to Chester if they found out about these
prices. It may be a goldmine for the owner, but it’s a dry hole for
me!” Easing towards the
entrance, I checked to see if there was a side exit for Captain Hook to slip
out and jump me, but there wasn’t, so I cut through the smoke-filled room
without breathing until I was safely outside.
then flew on cushioned arches toward the Third Street Bridge.
As I ran along the inclined curb, I could see rivulets of rain
forming in the gutter and moving towards the sewer drain that emptied the
run-off into the river. I
hurried across the narrow bridge and walked curbside after crossing, wary of
spaces between darkened storefront windows where misfits could be lurking.
stood in the drizzling rain, facing the Pabst Blue Ribbon neon sign
scrolling across the window of Keenan’s Bar and Tavern, shielding my
inventory of unsold papers with my hunched shoulders.
Gaining entry to this bar wasn't easy.
If spotted by Mr. Keenan, I’d get the boot.
Normally, he shouted a one-word exclamation: “OUT!”
And, if one was handy, he’d wave me out with the flicker of a bar
towel—a signal hard to ignore. But
tonight I had to chance it, feeling a renewed urgency to “sell out"
with so few taverns remaining. I
edged the plate-glass door open just far enough to check Mr. Keenan’s
position. He normally tended
drink-disbursement behind the 30-foot bar running along the side wall.
I was not a kid easily discouraged, so while his back was turned
towards the entry door I slipped through in a crouch, advancing unseen to
the rear where the raucous booth crowd sat while imbibing.
The belly-to-the-bar-crowd, an unbroken line of men, shielded my
crouched advance toward the back room.
My knee-bending squat was noticed by all but Proprietor Keenan. As I inched along, patrons at the bar thought I was a
crippled kid doing my part for a poor family, so when I reached the room in
the rear in my halting crouch, the patrons unleashed a torrent of generosity
with tips beyond the usual nickel. They
handed me quarters and smiled me away with, “Keep it, kid.” I sold five
papers in five booths. “This
room is turning out to be a bonanza of tippage seldom enjoyed, and it’s
all happening because I’m walking in a crouch to try to hide from Mr.
then Mr. Keenan caught sight of me, waving me out with his trusty bar towel.
I stayed in a low crouch until the entry door closed behind me, but
before the door closed I heard a guy at the bar holler, “Why so tough on
the kid, Joe? Can't you see
he’s a cripple?”
Straightening up, I went out onto
the street and walked to the corner. Glancing
to the right, I looked through the misty rain into Commission Row, which in
the early morning hours would be teeming with the city’s grocers and
restaurant-owners buying their fruit, vegetables, and fresh fish.
A few more steps took me to the entrance of Minnetti’s Bar. As soon
as the door closed behind me, good fortune shone in the smile of the
brunette barmaid. “Look who
just came out of the rain,” she called out.
She nodded her head toward two regulars, and they both waved me
forward for quick sales. Along
with the coins, I picked up a couple of head rubs and then a hug from my
barmaid benefactor. While pausing to tighten the shoelace of my sneaker,
foot propped on the brass bar rail, I thought about how sweet it was to have
a friend with enough influence to cause a hand to reach into a pocket then
cough-up a quarter for a newspaper and a rub on the head.
“If I ever grow up…If I …Ah, who cares about my ifs?”
waved my thanks to the friendly barmaid on the way out, then paused in the
covered entry for street traffic to clear before crossing to the City Hotel.
A Goff's Seafood truck turned into Commission Row, perhaps to unload
fresh fish for the next morning’s wholesale crowd.
I watched rain splattered by the windshield wipers of a Night Owl
Fruit & Produce truck heading west on Third Street.
Before tiptoeing across, I took note of which puddles hid the gaping
potholes in the Belgium-block paved street.
I redignified my posture before
opening the oak-and-glass entry door to the City Hotel.
Scanning the well-appointed lobby, I walked quietly toward an
occupied Morris chair planted on the fringe of a massive Oriental rug by the
fireplace. What a happy surprise! It was my friend Luke Howard, sitting
erect with the air of a journalist about to deliver an eyewitness account of
his charge up San Juan Hill in tandem with Teddy Roosevelt. Luke Howard was
a permanent fixture in the YMCA lobby, and I’d often sat listening to his
detailed accounts of the “good old days,” days starting before the
“Glad you showed up,” he said.
“Two kids were here already, but I turned them down, thinking you
might be along at any minute.” As
he talked on, he pinched a coin from an oval-shaped coin purse, and I handed
back change—knowing that he lived on a tight pension. A glance at the wall clock showed that my curfew time was
only five minutes away, so I had to cut the conversation short before Luke
launched into a discourse to rival the one I’d heard about Saint George
and the Dragon. I said,
“Thanks, Luke, thanks for waiting for me.
I’ll see you in the Y lobby.”
He waved as I walked away, and I turned back to leave him with a
parting expression of gratitude: “Someday, Luke, when I write about
Loyalty, I’ll write an article about Luke Howard.” He smiled and then
unfolded the paper to read about a war he would have to sit out in a Morris
A man, heading for the bar,
spotted me, signaled me over, and bought a paper.
His Stetson hat was angled to the right, and he had the demeanor of a
bookie struggling to cover his bets. I
followed him, five paces behind, into the bar.
Upon entering, I spotted a quarter half-buried in the sawdust.
Without breaking stride, I scooped it up.
“You can keep it for a trick or a newspaper,” intoned a man
wearing steel-toed work shoes. I
looked him in the eye and said, “You’re talking Halloween, and this is
still September, mister.” He
had the no-nonsense look of a stevedore, so I backed away smiling.
Not quite sure how to handle this challenge, I stuffed the quarter
into my pocket—remembering, at that exact second, what a new kid at Larkin
School had hollered at me as he picked up my “Tom Troller” in a marble
game after school: “Possession is nine-tenths of the law!”
This kid was BIG and had great “bully” potential, but fewer
things in life meant more to me than my Tom Troller.
I’d called upon the reservoir of strength brother John had taught
me to tap into, if and when needed, and had rammed that big kid against a
giant acorn tree, then worked him over with the intensity I’d seen
Johnny Fry demonstrate at Lloyd Field.
With bloody nose cupped in one hand, he’d dug into his pocket with
the other, returning my prize marble without a word.
Before departing, I’d given him one more blow, this one verbal: “If
your Pop’s a lawyer, tell him you had to cough up nine marbles to get home
in time for supper. Your
nine-tenths of the law possession business may work in the court house, but
it won’t work on the playground!”
With memories of my nose-bloodying
revolt against the Law of Possession circulating in my head, it suddenly
occurred to me that the tables might be turned on me here in the back room
of the City Hotel. Since I wasn’t about to give up the quarter, I decided that
I’d better come up with a trick for the glowering stevedore.
I reached into my right rear pocket and palmed my diamond-studded,
trick-stringed Duncan yoyo, a companion I carried everywhere except the
bathtub. I slid the string onto
my right middle finger, then launched into a faultless performance of
“Walk the Doggy,” the yoyo splintering sawdust as it spun along the
hardwood floor. This eye-opener
was followed by an “Around the World” spin, which feathered into a
“Loop the Loop,” a “Rock the Cradle,” a “Sleeping Beauty,” and
an “Eat the Spaghetti.” I
suddenly noticed that the flow of Lager intake along the bar had stopped for
my antics, a fact the bartender wouldn’t appreciate, so I terminated my
performance. The stevedore
seemed pacified by the tricks I’d produced, so I moved briskly along the
bar, selling my wares and receiving backslaps, and head taps.
I took the side exit out onto
Edgemont Ave with a confidence I had never felt before and immediately
ducked under the roofed, glass-sided entryway into Mercadante’s Barber
Shop next-door to avoid the downpour. While waiting, I double-folded my last
newspaper and tucked it under my hooded jacket before darting across the
rain-slick street for my last stop of the evening. Lowering my head to avoid
the rain on my face, I plunged across the street and almost canceled my
ticket on earth-life. A Bell Cab, racing through the now-pelting rain,
almost fendered me to Kingdom Come. I
kept on going, not looking back until I reached the Stanley
adrenaline still pulsing from the close-shave with the cab.
I calmed down by walking back and forth under the protective marquee
that extended overhead to the street.
It was 9:45 when I ducked into the
Stanley Luncheonette next door. I
was urged in by brother George’s often repeated adage, “A Treat a Day
Keeps the Blues Away.” I
didn’t understand the “blues” part, but, after all, today was my
thirteenth birthday and I was determined to celebrate the occasion with a
treat. Lifting my last
newspaper from under my sweater, I tucked it under my arm and then opened
the door. As the door clicked closed behind me, the counterman bellowed,
“What paper you got there, kid?” “The Inquirer,” I replied, “but it’s slightly
wet. It’s yours for two
cents.” “I'll take it,” he said.
He fingered a liberty dime across the counter, and I smoothed out the
wrinkled paper before handing it over the worn Formica countertop.
I saddled the counter stool, then passed the dime back toward the
counterman’s chocolate-stained apron. “Cherry Coke, please, no ice, two
straws. And keep the dime, I'll want a refill.” As he fizzed the fountain
Coke, I surveyed the nearly empty room.
A soldier, sitting in a booth with his girlfriend, their heads almost
touching, dropped a coin in the wall-mounted jukebox selector. Then, gazing
into her eyes, he let Frank Sinatra express his sentiments:
be seeing you
all the old familiar places
this heart of mine embraces
counterman, leaning forward, whispered to me, “The soldier just got in
from boot camp, thirteen weeks at Indiantown Gap.” Looking again, I
noticed the soldier’s lips mimicking Frank's delivery.
He and his girl rubbed noses, lost in the ecstasy of the moment.
The counterman, returning with my
Coke, asked curiously, “Why two straws?”
“So I can taste on both sides of
my tongue,” I answered.
He shot me a quizzical look, then
began combing the newspaper for the horseracing results. He stopped,
focused, and then leaned over the paper with index finger pointed to the
race result that he, by the look on his face, had lost.
Suddenly, looking my way, he asked, “Are you a Komarnicki?
Your face looks familiar.”
“Yeah, I'm a Komarnicki,” I
acknowledged, “and I probably look familiar because I look into your
window almost every night. There are so few customer here when I come by that I move on.
I’ve noticed that your neon light buzzes like a bee, and you lost
the juice in the last four letters.” I wasn’t trying to be smart.
It was just a fact.
“Yeah, the theater crowd rushes
in after the show breaks, but otherwise…. But anyways, I know your brother
Mickey, went to Smedley Junior High with him.
I didn't see much of him at Chester
“Yeah, brother Mike had to quit
high school to help with the monthlies,” I explained between sips.
“He went to work with Pop at the Boyd Diner. He’s in the Army
now, though—joined before he got drafted.
Mickey never waited for things to happen. He’s always been on the move.”
on the counter, talking sideways to me while scanning the newspaper, he
said, “Your brother Mickey sure made some smooth moves on skates at the
Great Leopard Rink. In
fact, he was so smooth—gliding around, holding his girlfriend around the
waist, leg extended, leaning into the organ music—most skaters would clear
the floor just to watch them zap around.”
the counterman went back to reading his paper, I thought about Mickey.
“Right now, those legs aren’t gliding around an ice rink.
They’re walking muddy roads in Burma.”
Mike had mailed me a brand-new catcher’s mitt, an early
Christmas present, and his letter had hinted that his unit had to unload a
lot of stuff on the move. It
suddenly struck me—brother Mickey’s move into the shadow of death was a
move into the sunshine for his kid brother.
“He’s tromping down the roads of Burma, and I’m playing
baseball with a brand-new glove. Heavy
thoughts, but I’ll have to leave them for my bedside prayer tonight.”
I watched my cherry-flavored
liquid pleasure near the bottom of my glass.
How neat it was to hear a stranger tell me good stuff about my
brother. “Boy, my brothers sure paved a five-lane reputation road right
down the center of Chestertown for me,” I thought, “a road
smoother than a cement sidewalk. Wherever I touch down, I feel the fame and protection of my
The counterman moved to the front
door after ringing up the tab for the couple caught in the pangs of love. He
then double-bolted the door, posted the “Closed” sign, and returned to
scrutinize the newspaper. “I got a brother in the Army, too,” he told
me. “I think he landed with
the troops in Salerno.” He
then made a sign of the cross from head to chest and whispered a short
reflective prayer for the protection of his brother.
The sound of my empty
straws draining the remnants of my Cherry Coke broke the mood. The
counterman turned, walked over, then lifted my glass for a refill. I then propped both elbows on the counter, cleared my
throat, and thanked him for buying my last newspaper, for the refill, and
for sharing his memories of my brother Mickey.
“Hearing about him almost brings Mickey home,” I thought.
“I can almost hear his nimble feet touch down on every squeaky
step as he spans them two by two to his third-floor room.
But he’s NOT there, not really, and while I sleep
tonight—stretched out under a nylon quilt on Mickey’s bed—he’s
backpacking his way across an ox-rutted road somewhere in Burma.
I think I’ll sleep tonight with the catcher’s mitt he sent me,
and I’ll pretend Mickey’s on the mound, fingering a knuckleball into my
Looking at the friendly
counterman, I decided to let him in on the reason I was treating myself to a
Coke. “You know, tonight’s a special occasion for me, because today’s
my thirteenth birthday.”
He turned to look me full in the
face, almost as if he could catch a reflection in my eyes of what he’d
felt like when he was thirteen. He
stared intently while wiping his fingers on his stained white apron. He then
turned, as if in search of something. On the counter, in a glass display
case, sat a single slice of Boston cream pie. He walked over, slid the glass
door open, reached in, lifted out this culinary work of art, and placed it
in front of me with a fatherly grin.
“Happy birthday, kid,” he beamed at me.
“Enjoy it. This is a
salute to our brothers.” He
turned toward the back of the restaurant, looked over his shoulder, and
said, “Take your time, kid. I
gotta clean up the kitchen.”
And take my time I did—first
savoring the chocolate overlay, then the yellow cream filling, flattening
each delicious intake against the roof of my mouth.
I felt the trickling luxury of Cherry Coke wash flavor past my vacant
tonsil sockets. “This Odyssey, on my thirteenth birthday, will lodge in
every cell of my being,” I thought as I stared into my own face
reflected in the mirror behind the counter.
I finally walked to the door to leave, I paused to shake the counterman’s
hand. I thanked him profusely
for the pie and repeated my sentiments about the memory-gift of my brother
Mickey. The door clicked shut
behind me as I walked into the rain. I
looked skyward, inviting the rain to dance on my uncovered head. This spontaneous baptism on my thirteenth birthday added
confirmation to the good fortune of my life as I walked the two blocks to
Sixth and Welsh to turn over $5.00 for the 250 papers Bobby Berman had
entrusted me with.
I settled with Mr. Berman, and he
let me keep the route. I
was forty-five minutes over curfew time, but Kandravi must have been snoring
on his beat when I mounted the three granite steps to my front door. Lifting
the door gently to soften the sound of the squeaky hinge, I eased in, walked
the hallway to the foot of the stairs, and then gently called, “Mom, I'm
home!” As I climbed the
stairs, heading up to brother Mickey’s warm room, I caught sight of
Mom’s smile as she leaned over the banister with a large package
half-hidden behind her back: “Happy birthday, David.
So glad you’re home.”
S. Miss Eachus, my
homeroom teacher at Smedley Junior High, didn’t believe in corporal
punishment, so when I
broke the record for tardiness the first month of school she made me write
an essay on the “Perils of Procrastination.”
This required card-catalog research, which forced me into the
archives housed at the Carnegie Library on Ninth Street. While there, I
happened upon a volume labeled A Digest of the Acts of Assembly of
Delaware County and Ordinances of the Chester City Council.
“Fines for Infractions of the Ordinances” was “Spitting on
Thoroughfares, Sidewalks, or Public Conveyances,” which I was prone to do
when chased by Officer Kandravi for shining shoes.
Well, if and when a spitter was apprehended, then declared guilty by
judge or alderman within the jurisdiction of infraction, the fine levied
could be ONE DOLLAR for first offense then FIVE DOLLARS for each offense
thereafter. Half of the total
fine was to be remitted to any citizen-informer who would attest in court to
witnessing the infraction.
Well, I made amends with Miss Eachus by writing the essay, which, sad to say, I handed in late, but my habit of spitting, when justifiably angry, was so deeply ingrained that I continued to spit randomly when provoked—but not within spitting distance of a citizen itching to pick up a half of a buck for snitchin’.
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© 2002, 2003, 2004 John A. Bullock III.
This page last updated 04/20/10