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Dave Komarnicki

Komarnicki's Korner

Dave Komarnicki's Recollections of Growing Up in Chester

new2.gif (111 bytes) Ash Wednesday

More of Dave's stories:

13 is a Lucky Number

A holiday that provided lessons for life

For Everything a Time - If Not a Reason

Graduation Revery

The Gift of a Lifetime

A Night to Remember

The Jawbreaker

Big Sting Saturday

The Oxblood Incident

A Trip Down Chester's Memory Lane

Mother's Day evokes special remembrance

There's no running away from some memories

Positive News from Chester

Komarnicki Family Portrait

The Deed

Independence Day 1944

Ash Wednesday

By David Komarnicki

      I felt like a month of Saturdays as I hit the sidewalk running to catch the bus to Chester High.  Ordinarily I’d walk, but I’d overslept—and now that I was 15, I was trying to break the late habit.  My roster of tardies at my alma mater, Smedley Junior High, had been so long that my homeroom teacher, Miss Eachus, had declared me the school record-holder, based upon the hard evidence of her 20 years of roll-calling experience. 

Reaching the bus stop, I leaned against the YMCA wall and waited, hoping to spot a friend with wheels. Instead my eye framed Buster Robinson standing across the street, straight-arming a pole and waiting for the light to turn green.  This uncharacteristic adherence to traffic etiquette stemmed solely from the presence of Officer Kandravi, who was controlling the flow and who could shatter an eardrum with his lip-clenched whistle if moves were made to cross on the red.

Buster, who possessed a face and frame along the lines of Gary Cooper, was two years my senior and a major force in the enlarging circle of my life. It was he who had mentored me in the craft of shooting marbles, teaching me how to knuckle down and how to use a steelie to power-drive marbles out of the ring.  In time I’d gotten so good I’d welcome all comers anytime, anywhere.  One day Buster brought me a brown cotton work glove, cut off the fingers, and gave it to me so I could practice all winter on frozen ground.  Soon I was wiping out all the neighborhood kids.  I bested them all: Doodles, Ernie Gatta, Harvey , Sylvester Wilson, Sonny Lynch, Dudley , Paul Lukes.  In fact, I busted everybody but Buster.  After each game, I’d offer the marbles back for cash, 30 for a nickel.  This was my first professional barter job.                                                   

I was still leaning against the Y wall when the light changed and Buster crossed. 

“What’s up, Davey?” he asked.

“I’m waitin’ for the bus, don't want to be late for school,” I told him. 

“You’ll never make it,” he countered.  “Next bus gets you there 10 minutes past bell-time.  I should know, after three years.”  Buster paused, looked down, then said casually, “I'm thinking of catching Louis Armstrong at the Errol Theatre in Philly.  Forget school, Davey.  Join me.”

As I considered his proposition, my mind flashed back to a similar offer he’d made six years before. 

I was nine again, sitting on the granite step fronting my house.  Buster waved me across the street and in a throaty whisper laid out a temptation I couldn’t resist: “Davey, the State Theater has its grand opening today.  Wanna go with me?”  Then he added the final lure that got the best of my vulnerable conscience: “I’ll pay your way.” 

I got so excited I accepted the offer without asking Mom if I could go.  I’d never been to a movie theater, since Pop placed movies just below street fights in the hierarchy of time-wasters, and I wasn’t going to risk getting my first theater outing nixed before it started.     Buster and I walked together up Seventh to the State and took our place in a line snaking past the State House Restaurant, Henry’s Clothing Store, and into the alley past the entrance to Royal Billiards. 

Finally we entered the lobby, and I inhaled a coolness of air I’d never felt before. We stormed the carpeted stairs to the balcony, where we were greeted by an usher decked out in an outfit I wouldn’t wear on a dare.   He led us to seats smack up against the projection room wall, where I sat squirmless, expecting at any moment to be discovered and hauled out by my ear.  When the projector flashed the first spectrum of overhead light, a new world unfolded before my eyes. After the first feature, “Dillinger,” came to a satisfying crime-doesn’t-pay conclusion, Buster leaned over to me, whispering, “I gotta go, Davey.  See you later.”  I nodded and stayed on, mesmerized, until two shows later—clueless that five hours had passed.   The sky was dark when I finally walked out, and it wasn’t until I checked the clock at Smith’s newsstand that I realized it was 8:10 .  I flew home in a gulping panic, belatedly realizing my folly in not asking Mom’s permission.  

Sneaking into the house by way of the kitchen, I discovered Mom crying. Looking up, overjoyed to see me, she rose to her feet, hugged me with all the strength love could muster, then sat again drying her eyes on her flour-encrusted apron.  Only then did Mom unfold the seriousness of my plight, relating how, when Pop had come home and found that I’d failed to show for supper, deep and abiding worry had struck him.  He knew that eating supper was a deeply ingrained habit with me, and he’d thought maybe the gypsy wagon had kidnapped me and spirited me away to Bohemia .  So he’d hustled four blocks to the police station, reported my disappearance, and waited till they dispatched a squad car to search for me.  Then Pop had gotten restless and decided to speed the search by checking the streets and alleys himself.  

When Mom revealed all this to me, I realized that not only had I missed my supper but I’d also missed serving my Saturday evening paper route, a loss that would put a crimp in my lunch money for the week.  All that and the anticipated agony of Pop’s strap created dry-heaves, so I ran upstairs to hide, thinking maybe he’d grow tired looking and go to bed before he found me. When Pop finally came home from his fruitless searching, Mom immediately relieved his worry by telling him that I was safely in the house but he’d have to seek me out for himself.  He finally spotted me under Mom's bed, lodged in the far corner near the wall, covered by an old army blanket.  A sneaker that I’d failed to cover was my undoing, and he yanked me out by my leg.  Then in very measured tones he asked me to account for my whereabouts.  Knowing that movies were not fit for discussion in his hearing, I beat around the bush until the strap came out and it was Davey that got beaten around.

 It was this tender memory that I was focusing on when Buster raised the issue of hookying school for another illicit theater outing.  Six years hadn’t dimmed the recall of Pop’s well-placed strap and the serious welts it had raised on my hinder parts.

 “I couldn't go if I wanted to, Buster,” I stalled.  “I’ve only got a half-a-buck, and besides Mr. Wren is hittin’ us with a math test today.”

While Buster rifled his pockets for the necessary coin inventory to stake me, a guy standing within earshot piped up with a side-mouthed comment, “Hey, kid, do you really wanna hooky school?”

I turned and studied the stranger’s face, measuring his sincerity, and I caught something in his voice-tone and eye-focus that spelled serious.  He looked like a weathered sailor who had showered in cold salt water for four years.  His eyes challenged me, waiting for an answer. Meeting his gaze, I said, “Yeah, I wanna.  I really, really wanna.”

“Okay, follow me.”

I left my wall-leaning position immediately, and Buster and I followed two paces behind the stranger, crossing Edgmont Avenue to Smith's newsstand, where he barked, “A pack of Chesterfields , a Chester Times, and gimme the change in dollar bills.”

He handed Smitty a twenty, and the order was filled pronto. Then Daddy Warbucks clamped the Chester Times under his left arm, peeled the seal off his purchased pack, tapped out a cigarette, lit it with his stainless-steel Ronson, then inhaled with such lung-collapsing force that nicotine was vacuumed down to his toes.  With smoke peeling a double shoot  through his nostrils, he spread the bucks out at my eye level.  They looked like a George Washington fan.

“How many ya need, kid?”

I looked at Buster, then back to the bucks—contemplating my golden moment. Then my inner voice whispered four words from the archive of Pop’s Ponderables, words grooved in memory while the turkey platter reached me in passage around the Thanksgiving table.  Pop, in his throat-clearing, Ukrainian-vintage baritone, had cautioned, “Don't be hog, Davey.”  Now, as I stood gawking at the fan of bucks spread out by Daddy Warbucks, I took Pop’s recollected pronouncement as an omen and stifled  my greed impulse.  I slowly tweaked four crisp dollar bills from the handheld offering, taking them one by one and in the process letting him know, by smile and eye, that his gift would  be remembered. He patted me on the head with his folded paper and grinned. “Enjoy it, kid, you only live once.  And, after all, Life’s a Hooky.” 

As I watched my benefactor cross Welsh Street and stride past Saint Michael’s Church, I wondered if his generosity had anything to do with the fact that the war in Europe had just ended and he was grateful to have made it home.  I silently vowed that someday some other kid would feel the thrill I was feeling right then and that I’d do it to  honor Daddy Warbucks.

Buster checked his wristwatch, then said, “The Philly local leaves at 8:10 .  We can make it if we move it, so let's go.”  We hustled down Edgmont to the Pennsy Railroad station, turning at Sixth to cut through the underpass.  Buster bought tickets and sent me off to dump my telltale school books in a rentable locker.  It was like having an older brother who handled the details.

We sprang up the first flight of steps two by two, then paused at the first landing and took the others as casually as seasoned commuters. The morning crowd didn’t give us a second glance.  Some had their faces buried in newspapers, others paced the white marble floor as if late for an appointment, and some of the more laid-back types relaxed along a contoured mahogany bench that ran the length of the room. We walked out onto the wide, wood-planked northbound platform, anxious to be among the first to spring aboard.  This was my first Philly trip without one of my real-life big brothers, and those pre-war memories were sparse and shadowy.  In a peripheral eye scan I noticed the railroad detective leaning on the wall near the concession stand, turning pages of a Public Ledger  as a ploy while he nonchalantly read the crowd.  If I’d been alone I’d have had a tough time explaining my solo trip to the Big City , but somehow my association with Buster gave me credibility.

The train coasted in, the conductor swung down and bellowed, “All aboard!”, and commuters moved forward like tilted sand in an upturned hourglass.  Mounting the steel steps, I entered a half-filled car and plopped into an empty seat next to the window while Buster slid into one across the aisle.   The clips on my window were jammed and I didn’t have any luck unjamming them, so I had to listen to the repetitious rhythm of steel on steel  through the open window as we snaked along the track toward Philadelphia ’s Suburban Station.  I sat in awed silence, stashing away the sights like a kid who’s been told he’s about to go blind.  Glancing across the aisle, I caught Buster’s profile framed by the window and wished I could read his thoughts and know why he’d adopted ME—of all the kids in the neighborhood.  When I turned back to look through my own window, I saw that the train was crossing over the Ridley Creek trestle, and—WHAMMO— I was visited with as clear a  memory as ever paid me a visit. 

I was 11.  A gang of us were playing on the B&O railroad tracks high above Chester Creek when Paul Lukes dared me to cross the railroad trestle.  Crossing first, he egged me on to follow.  I edged my way halfway across, then looked down between the railroad ties to the churning water below.  My legs locked in a stilted freeze, and I stood motionless, struck with paralyzing vertigo, as far off in the distance I heard the shrill warning of an advancing train.  “If I make a move and my foot slips between the rails,” I thought, “it will be Doomsville for me.”  Fear rose like a tidal wave as terminal thoughts took over: “Is this all there is for you, Davey?  What’s this gonna do to the family? Are you really ready to meet your Maker?  If only brother Mickey or John or Joe or Dan were here to get me out of this mess I’ll never play on the railroad tracks again. … LORD, HELP ME!” 

 I turned to check how much time I had before my termination and, WHOA, instead I saw Buster stepping lively in the middle of the tracks.  When he finally reached me, he put his hands out, palms up, and said, “Easy, Davey.  Don’t panic.”   Hoisting me piggyback, he sprinted across the trestle, touching down on each spaced railroad tie, then dropped me on the slanted embankment seconds before the freight train screeched its ominous death wail in passing.  I lay on my belly, stunned and shivering, watching through narrow eye slits as the boxcars rolled on and on.

  NEXT STOP LANSDOWNE; LANSDOWNE NEXT STOP,” the conductor called out.  I settled back against the seat and for the next ten minutes enjoyed the sights rolling by the open window, conscious that today’s adventure was an extension of the gift Buster had given me when he’d plucked me out of certain death four years ago.  This ride was life to the fullest—rolling into Philly on my first high school hooky, with Louis Armstrong and his cornet waiting in the wings.  

As the train reached Philadelphia , it tunneled like a mole through dimly lit archways, finally surfacing onto elevated tracks that took us toward the heart of town.  From this vantage point I had a good view of what Mr. Jolley, my history teacher, called the “cradle of civilization.”  The train suddenly submerged again and eased silently into Suburban Station.

After detraining, I followed Buster as he hustled through the impressive 1920s-vintage station.  Most of the underground shops were still closed, dimly lit and fronted with meshed steel gates. We finally reached a door that opened to an outside stairwell.  Opening the door, we were greeted with a near knockout blow to the nose.  The steps were impregnated with urine, sprayed on them by a legion of bladder-loaded unfortunates, who apparently sought regular nocturnal relief on this particular stairway.  I was no stranger myself to nocturnal emergencies.  I remembered wetting the bed one subzero winter night in our home on Upland Street , when my only other option had been a trip to the outhouse in our back yard.  As I vaulted up the stairs as fast as I could, I felt sympathy for the homeless men who used this isolated spot of public domain for relief. 

The weather was brisk and breezy when Buster and I emerged into the sunlight, and a steady stream of traffic was circling the island of City Hall that straddled Broad and Market streets. I paused for a minute to gawk at the statue of William Penn perched atop this hive of city government.  A cloudless blue sky formed a backdrop for Mr. Penn, who was looking down with benediction upon all who passed below.  Buster stood with pocketed hands, indulging my sense of wonder.  No need to hurry.  We had two hours till curtain time.

Slanting across Market Street , we detoured through the walkway that cut through City Hall.  In an arched alcove in the center courtyard, I spotted a sailor pinning his girl flush against the granite wall in a passionate embrace.  “That‘s what won the war,” I mused to myself.  “Passion and lots of ammunition.  Anything for the boys in the service.” 

I wondered if brother Mickey would plant a kiss like that on his girl, Myra , when he returned from the service.  And what about brother John?  He’d do it without the flick of an eye.  John never sweated public opinion.

As we exited the courtyard onto Market East, I looked up to the second-floor windows across the street and noticed a window washer strapped in space, executing his strokes like a true pro, no wasted motion.  Above his extended squeegee, a major sign was draped.  It extended across two windows and announced, “ALLINGER’S BILLIARD ACADEMY – MOSCONI VS. PONZI – 1 P.M. TODAY.”  I paused, pointed, and Buster agreed.  We’d have time to catch it, since our train back to Chester wasn’t pulling out until 4:02 .  I couldn’t believe it.  Mosconi, the greatest pool player in the universe, and we were gonna see him play.  But first we had an appointment with the great Satchmo.

I felt alive to the street life.  Pop had met Mom here, and they’d gotten married in St. Mary’s Church just a couple of miles away.  My sister Mary had been born on Delancey Street .  Then they’d moved to American Street , and on boiling hot nights she and brother Mickey would sleep on the sidewalk in front of the house.  I wondered why Pop had decided to move to Chester .  I’d have to ask him sometime, but not on a hooky day.

 Walking east on Market, I cataloged everything that moved, almost as if I were a country boy making my first trip to the Big City .  A peanut vendor, temporarily ignoring his customer, was ogling a thin-ankled beauty as she crossed the street.  I couldn’t fault him, though, having myself focused on a shapely leg now and then as I eased a dainty foot into a patent-leather pump while working at A. S. Beck shoe store back in Chester .

My eyes shifted to a pretzel hawker.  His hands were buried in his mustard-stained apron, and he wore an ear-flapped hat buttoned beneath a receding chin.  He sported an ancient leather jacket, baggy pants, and unlaced combat boots, and a cigarette dangled from his narrow-lipped mouth.  Just then a marine in parade dress strode by, causing the pretzel hawker to stop in mid pitch.  He seemed suddenly frozen in thought, as if the sight of the marine conjured up battle scenes from World War I, perhaps memory snapshots of himself surviving a mustard gas battle with German troops while standing ankle deep in trench mud.  It seemed ironic that now he was standing on a Philadelphia street, huckstering mustard-spread pretzels to a bustling crowd.

A girl walking five paces ahead of us caught my eye, as she tried to restrain a bulldog on a leash.   Her jet-black hair reached to her waist, and it was dancing in the wind.  She wore Levi’s, cut above the knees, and moved with a ballerina’s grace.  I doubled my stride to catch a glimpse of her face, curious to see if it matched up to the rest of her.  Just then two ancient nuns, approaching life’s final curtain, looked my way.  They smiled knowingly at me, seeming to read my thoughts, and I tripped over a shoeshine box straddled by a kid snapping a rag on the propped shoe of a Stetson-crowned gentleman.  Ah, her face would remain a mystery for life! 

. light flicked green, a married couple crossed 13th St. with their children, the mother with a viselike grip on her daughter’s hand and Dad holding the toes of a younger version of himself sitting astride his shoulders.

We arrived at the theatre in time to watch a line form behind us and ultimately snake around the corner.  It was 9:45 when we reached the ticket window.  Minutes later we stepped onto the plush red carpet, then headed down the long, sloping aisle toward empty seats waiting for us in the second row.  Perfect, perfect, perfect—full view of the stage.  I looked around – this was obviously no popcorn crowd, and I wouldn’t be finding any gum planted under the seats. 

“That stage is wider than my house and Sonny Lynch’s next door put together,” I observed to Buster. 

The lights dimmed, the stage curtains parted, and the brass blasted the packed house.  I was reeled in like a hooked fish when Louie walked on and stood center stage, flashing his full-face grin.  With a loose handkerchief dangling from his cornet hand, he began tapping his foot to the syncopated rhythm, getting ready to swing his horn from hip to lip  and orchestrate the  roller coaster rhythm we’d all come to ride. The band opened on an upbeat rendition of “Mack the Knife,” and Louie leaned into the microphone, graveling the lyric with effortless ease.       

From my second-row vantage point, I could feel the heat of the overhead stage lights and see the sweat beads already rippling down Louie’s brow as he glided into his second number, his version of “One O’Clock Jump.”  His eyes bulged and sparkled with the flush of creative joy as he worked his horn.   I saw him scanning the crowd for eye-contact, and then suddenly I felt his eyes catch mine and I was pulled totally into Satchmo’s Sanctum.  Without pause he segued into “Ain’t Misbehavin’/I’m Savin’ My Love for You,” which relaxed the crowd from the forward-lean they’d assumed during the last number. 

I’d read about Louie in a fan magazine.  At 45 he was exactly three times as old as I was.  He’d had 30 more years of living, and he’d filled them with endless cycles of improvised jazz.  As Louis ran up the scale to a neck-bulging octave that would arouse dog howls if we were outside, he seemed to go off into a detached reverie.  I let my mind take off, too, thinking about some of the similarities in our lives. 

From what I’d read, he’d started out pretty much the same as me—dirt-poor but inventive.  At age 12 our similarities had converged but had different results.  He’d fired a gun at a New Year’s celebration and had been rewarded with two years of reform school.  I’d helped my brother George shoot out a streetlight with a Red Rider BB gun, and had gone to bed.  Louis’ two-year stint in reform school gave him the opportunity to learn the cornet, and then he was released at 14 to pursue FAME .  At the same age, I’d had free lessons on the cornet at the Salvation Army, but a self-inflicted wound had ended my romance with a mouthpiece when I’d split my lip wide-open with a homemade rubber-gun.  I guess there was a moral in there somewhere if I wanted to dig for it, but right now I was diggin’ the orchestra’s rendition of “Jeepers Creepers/Where’d You Get Those Peepers?”

The sentimental journey meandered on to “I’m Gonna Buy a Paper Doll That I Can Call My Own,” and when that was finished Louis paused to hit the spittle-release button, wiping his cornet clean with his dangling handkerchief.  He then hypnotized the crowd with “Up the Lazy River by the Old Millstream.”  Like a lot of true stars, Louis seemed to take delight in sharing the spotlight with his orchestra.  He turned after each number to acknowledge them, and as the numbers unfolded he featured each instrument in solo: clarinet, piano, guitar, drums, and even the trumpet. 

Then the orchestra floated the crowd away with a final exclamation mark – launching into “Grab your coat and get your hat/Leave your worries on the doorstep/Life can be so sweet/
On the sunny side of the street.”

On that high note the curtain descended.  The audience responded with ear-splitting whistles and raucous catcalls for an encore, but the curtain stayed down.  Louis was spent, and in truth I was pretty drained myself.  It was an awakening. for a 15-year-old kid old kid from Chester .  If LIFE was a HOOKY, as Daddy Warbucks had said, then this HOOKY was my introduction to LIFE .  Today I’d moved into awareness of a dimensional universe I’d yet to explore, and sound and rhythm were leading the way.

I sat for a while, reflecting on the carnival feeling of the day as the crowd inched up the aisle.  Buster, always a lead dog, tapped my arm and said, “Let’s go.   I got a surprise for you.”  Once outside, he picked up the pace as we walked back towards City Hall.  We wove an inside-outside  pattern across  cobblestone streets,  scanning  buildings , packed trolleys, trucks spewing  diesel fuel into the face of a mounted policeman, cabs moving at the speed of tips,  and all along the way people—people going places, yakking with friends, laughing out loud.  Two Italians arguing with hand motions.  Shoppers checking out window displays.  Street hucksters trying to steer people into their store.  Knicker-clad kids; old geezers walking their mile workout; baby carriages pushed along by nannies.   A man skinny as a flute walking beside a woman the size of a bass fiddle.  A dapper man wearing spats and holding onto old times; another, no doubt in the heave of hard times, wearing a sandwich board announcing the best beef and ale in town.  A midget walking along the curb, seeming wary that someone might fall on him.  A strutter practicing his moves for the New Year’s Mummer’s Parade.  A  crippled man dragging a leg.  A kid sporting brand-new Joe Lapchick sneakers.  A one-armed soldier with his sleeve pinned to his shoulder. Two sailors with a 360 view of things.    A marine just walking, eyes straight ahead as if on duty guarding the unknown soldier.  (Man, did I love his uniform!)  The whole tossed salad of humanity was there, walking up and down Market Street .

We worked our way up to Chestnut Street , and in the middle of the block Buster stopped suddenly. “This is it, Davey,” Buster said.  “The surprise -- Horn & Hardart’s, the most famous cafeteria in the world!”  He leaned on the gold-filigreed glass door until I passed through.  Inside, a chubby patron stood off to the right, snapping flash shots with his Argus C3 camera – I owned one, so I knew.  I was tempted to ask him to shoot a picture of me and Buster and send it to me, but his wife’s hurry-up motion moved him into line.  I queued up behind her massive girth, which eclipsed my view of everything before me as we inched along toward one of the glass-encased cashier booths.  (“She could miss a hundred meals before her body alarm would signal the need for intake,” I unkindly reflected to myself.) 

We finally got to the front of the line, where a lady-cashier stood waiting, rubber-tipped fingers poised for action.  Buster laid a dollar bill on the marble counter in front of her, and she expertly shot 20 five-cent pieces forward through channeled slots.  I dug into my pocket for one of Daddy Warbuck’s remaining bills, put it down on the counter, and scooped up the 20 nickels that came my way.  “They call those ladies ‘nickel-throwers,’” Buster whispered to me as we walked away with our coins.

I followed Buster to a wall of shoebox-sized windows, behind which rested choices of the day, ready for inserted nickels to spring them.  I opted for a chicken pot pie, a seven-nickel choice. I hit the button, the window tilted up, and my hand went in and snagged my aromatic selection.  Next an apple pie, three nickels.   The place was packed, but we finally found seats at a table occupied by a gent wearing a frayed Stetson.  He was a true isolationist, choosing to remain anonymous behind a vertically creased Inquirer, morning edition.  He periodically reached finger and thumb around the printed page and found the handle on his coffee cup.  After sipping it lightly, without comment or concern, he returned cup to saucer perfectly.  At the table to our left was a lady of more than middle age, pinning her broccoli to her plate with a fork, then cutting the stem three times before lifting it to her quivering lip.  I halted my observations long enough  to dispense with my victuals while Buster wolfed down his meatloaf, gravy-laden mashed potatoes, side order of noodles, and  buttered Kaiser roll. 

Despite the heavy foot traffic along the line of cash-hungry windows, the pink marble floor sparkled.  Buster grabbed my arm just as I took my last bite of cinnamon-scented apple pie.  “Just enough time to catch the Mosconi match,” he said with a grin.

At 15 I’d already felt the lure of the cue stick, and the name of Willie Mosconi flashed in my head with neon lights.  Buster and I got to Market Street and 14th in less than 10 minutes, measurable by the giant clock on City Hall, and ran up the double flight of stairs to Allinger’s Billiard Academy , a Philadelphia institution located across the street from John Wanamaker department store.  We paused at the door to check the layout of the room.  Patrons sat in elevated chairs along the wall, watching action on any of 20 tables.  Despite strategically placed spittoons, the worn linoleum floors were splotched with tobacco spittle.  We headed toward the featured table, set off from all the others behind a thigh-high, gold-ringed, green velvet curtain.  To one side, bleachers were set up for the public to watch the match.  We bought tickets, then found front-row seats in time to watch the warm-up session.  Andrew “Ponzi” D'Alessandro led off, demonstrating his world-class status as he practiced bank shots, rail shots, and all the angles. Ponzi’s framed photo hung on the wall of Royal Billiards back in Chester , and the written commentary under it stated that Ponzi’s highest run in straight pool was 309 balls.  Ponzi then relinquished the table to Willie, who loosened up with an assortment of shots, showing cue ball control so deft that I felt I was in the presence of the maestro of exactness.

The referee silenced the crowd with a commanding voice, signifying the gravity of this officially sanctioned match between two of Philadelphia ’s greatest.  This match was one in a series to determine who would reign as the pocket billiards champion of the world.  After a respectful round of applause, both men took positions at the far end of the table, leaned forward in tandem, and stroked cue balls to hit the far rail and return.  The closest return to the far rail decided who would break.  Ponzi stepped forward and called “safe.”  Willie then stepped to the table with the nonchalant expression of a short-order cook about to prepare his three-hundredth ham omelet, circled the table to check the angles, then called out “2-ball, corner pocket.” The referee echoed Willie’s called shot. Willie leaned forward, stroked the cue ball four times, shot, and the 2-ball disappeared into the corner pocket.  The cue ball spun off the rail, hit the rack, and set up Willie’s next shot.

I leaned forward in silent awe, elbows propped on my knees, chin supported by upturned palms, as Willie moved from shot to called shot without frown or concern until he’d sunk 150 balls without missing.  The game ended, 150-0.  Willie exchanged a gentlemanly handshake with his Italian counterpart, Mr. Ponzi, unscrewed his two-piece cue, slid it into a black case, and then moved over to greet his line-up of well-wishers.  I sat pondering whether I should walk up, stick out my hand, and feel the press of the most talented stroke in the world.  But I resisted the urge, sitting in dumbstruck admiration until he finished acknowledging his fans and left with the locals who no doubt knew him.  As Buster led the way toward the exit, I let the present historic moment slide into past imperfect, but vowed that someday—don’t know where, don’t know when—Willie and I would meet in a match in a race to 150.   Lost in this lofty thought, I tripped on the top step in descent.  Once again coming to my rescue, Buster broke my forward fall down two flights by grabbing the rail as I slammed into his leg.  

As we waited for the light to change, I glanced up at City Hall and noticed that the clock had clicked to 1:14 .  While Buster checked the train schedule he’d stuffed in his pocket, I transitioned from the glow of watching Mosconi execute total cue ball control to the reality of traffic and street cacophony.  

“We’ve got an hour and a half till train time, Dave,” Buster said.  “Let’s walk up the Parkway.”

I agreed readily, though I didn't know what he meant, that grand avenue not yet being a part of my limited sophomore experience.   As we crossed onto the wide concourse surrounding City Hall, we heard an eerie shrill coming from the east sidewalk.  Men decked out in plaid kilts and woolen knee high socks were standing tall and proud, squeezing kidney-shaped bags under their arms. The wailing Gaelic sounds lodged in my psych, a far cry from Louie’s rhythm and blues. The last squeeze of the pipes reached my ears as we moved through the arched inner court.

We then angled to the tree-lined parkway, walked to Logan Circle , and sat on a bench facing the center fountain.  The afternoon mix of locals mingled in common search for relaxed pleasure. Nannies pushed strollers on the wide cement walkway that surrounded the sculpted Greek god spouting water. Two seniors, in the glory of their twilight years, tossed crumbs from bagged inventory to a congregation of barrel-chested pigeons hustling for a free lunch. Something within me whispered, “Is this how it will be for me around the bend of years?”  My eyes moved to the next bench, where an old man sat alone, legs extended, head resting on the back of the bench, hat slanting out the sun, a cigarette burning up toward his knuckle-clenched fist.  “Is this another future option?” I mused.  I stood, stretched, then walked to the circular lip of the fountain and dipped my hands in the water. Skyward-sprayed bubbles danced in a rainbow spectrum before gravity’s urge settled them back to the liquid pool circling my fingers.  I looked over at City Hall crowned with Billy Penn’s statue and wondered how they’d hoisted him up there.  It made sense to have the founding father bless all who lived, moved, and enjoyed being in Philly.  I even wondered why I wondered about things like that.  Observations, sounds of music (jazz, bagpipe, and street noise), anonymous faces, total strangers offering me hooky bucks—all these were forging new linkages in my brain.  Perhaps I really wasn’t ready for the world I was growing into: wide-angled street traffic moving at the speed of a track meet; people walking around knowing where they were going; even bums in the street seeming in control of city life.   I turned slowly, counter-clockwise, to focus on the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul . I stood speechless admiring the ageless architecture, then the Courthouse, the Free Library, the Curtis Institute, the Museum of Natural History , the Ben Franklin Museum , and the crowning achievement of Greek-inspired architecture, the Art Museum.  

As I sat in silent respect for the legacy left for us, Buster broke from his own reveries and said, “Gotta go, Davey. The train leaves in 20 minutes.”

We loped across 18th, moving with purpose towards Market Street . Habit and instinct kept me from tripping on embedded manhole covers as my eyes scanned the passing crowd of urbanites.  A pear-shaped man whose hips would easily overlap two seats on a bus.  Two nuns arm-locked at the elbows, perhaps to thwart an undignified stumble over uneven bricks raised up by curbside trees. An uncollared dog lifting a leg and spraying a hydrant.  A cop whistling a tune and swinging a mahogany club.  We crossed Arch Street , paved with Belgian blocks the size and shape of a loaf of bread, and Buster's relentless pace landed us at Suburban Station with five minutes to spare to catch our train back to Chester . I bought a Hershey almond bar at the concession stand, unpeeled it, and pocketed the wrapper.  I broke it, handing halfers to Buster.  We boarded a sparsely peopled car, where I sat contently nibbling and indulging in daydreams until I was reanimated by Buster’s nudge and the conductor’s stentorian bellow, “ CHESTER , Chester next station stop.”

As my sneakered feet touched down on the splintered wooden platform, Buster said, “Thanks for joining me, Davey.  Let’s hooky again sometime.”

“Anytime, Buster,” I agreed eagerly.  “Maybe next Friday.  We’ll call it a field trip and check out everything on the Parkway.” 

Buster took off running down Sixth to his shoebox of a house on Crosby , while I headed for the YMCA, where today's fantasy trip had begun. Remnants of chicken pot pie and Hershey almonds intermingled in a burp as I turned onto Edgmont lost in thoughts of the day’s events.  As I crossed Seventh, I saw brother George mounting the Y steps with his gym bag.  Spotting me, he paused long enough to ruin my day by barking, “Where you been, Dave? Mom wants to know why you skipped school today.  The truant officer made a house call looking for you, almost forced entry.”

I gagged and crossed the street to join the bearer of bad news.  Following my brother up the steps and into the lobby, I watched him flash his membership card at Mr. Wilson, who touched a buzzer springing the locker room door.  As George disappeared, giving me a last unsympathetic glance, my thoughts shifted from remembered pleasure to anticipated pain.  How now to explain the unexplainable to Mom?  How now, Davey? 

I trudged two flights to the recreation room, where I sat rationalizing my explanation to Mom's unavoidable question.  Not finding one, I shot a couple of racks of 8-ball with Fred Parker.  Before pocketing the 8-ball, I realized I was behind it – and plumbed the depths of my 15 year-old brain for some kind of answer, any kind of answer.  Then it came to me!

I left for home, ready to face the music— although definitely not the kind I’d heard that morning at the Errol.  As I hit the street, I saw Officer Kandravi rumbling down Edgmont on a motorcycle.  It was approaching 5:00 when I opened the front door and eased down the hallway through two adjoining rooms to the kitchen, where Mom stood at the kitchen counter busying herself with pots and dishes.  I flashed my usual greeting, kissed her left temple (my favorite spot), and waited for the big question.  But first came a gentle query as to whether I was hungry and wanted something to eat.  “I'll make a meatloaf sandwich, Mom, if it’s still in the fridge.”  

She nodded, then looked at me with her penetrating soft brown eyes and asked, “Where did you go today, Davey?  The truant officer came by asking why you missed school.”

My answer was clear and I thought convincing:  “We took a field trip into Philly today, Mom.  Maybe the attendance records got loused up, and the principal's office didn't know.”

Mom gazed at me levelly and then turned to grind the lid off a can of Campbell ’s tomato soup.  Even with her back turned, I still felt those brown eyes on me.  She nodded thoughtfully at my explanation and then scooped the soup into a pan, diluted it with water, and started warming it up.  No cross-examination.   I ate the meatloaf sandwich, drank the soup, gave her a kiss on the forehead, and retreated to my room for socks, shorts, and clean shirt.  Then I ran off to the Y gym, where I took a long hot shower, changed into presentable duds, and sauntered off to the dance at St. Michael's Church. 

The evening events flowed as smoothly as Louie Armstrong's rendition of “Blueberry Hill.”  After coffee and a slab of Boston cream pie at the Boyd Diner with John Samara, Tony Minetti, and Jimmy Orobona, I headed home happier than Frank Sinatra singing “When I Fall in Love.”

In a flush of love, perhaps tinged with a little hint of bribery, I used some of Daddy Warbuck’s remaining largesse to buy Mom a pint of Breyer’s peach ice cream on the way.  After kissing her goodnight, I mounted the shoulder-wide stairwell to my third-floor room.  I slid between freshly washed sheets and clicked the light off, inviting dancing shadow patterns on the far wall, random patterns reflected by the mesh-screened streetlight.  I listened as trolleys hissed an electrical cackle from the overhead line. Listened as the off-key upright at the Eagle Bar eased the locals into a happy stupor, leading them in raucous, raised-mug songs in praise of the war’s end.  All was well again in the Western world.  Brother Mickey, brother John, brother Joe, brother Dan, and handsome Richard, courter and winner of the lovely hand of dear sister Victoria, all—Praise The LORD!—would be coming home again soon. 

I drowsed, but real sleep would not come.  Pasted behind my closed eyelids were Mom's eyes staring into the inner sanctum of my soul—pasted there because I’d looked into those eyes earlier today and fibbed.  I’d renamed a hooky a field trip.  Mom’s eyes remained long after the Eagle Bar closed and long after the last trolley passed my window into town.

Finally I drifted into a twilight zone and found myself in a sort of celestial night court.  There a black-robed judge appeared, high and lifted up.  I stood in the docket before the bench, raised my right hand, and touched the Bible with my left.  When asked how I pleaded, I loudly stated, “Guilty, Your Honor, guilty with extenuating circumstances.  And if I may, Your Honor, I'd like to explain those circumstances.”

“Say on,” said the judge. “Take your time, David. We have all night if need be.  This is a serious offense you’ve committed, an offense against God, motherhood, and all that will follow in your lifetime.”

And so I told my story of the day, told every detail as it came to me, told it with all the fervor and passion my narrow-gauged  mental track could muster.  Finished, I sat down—ready to take what was coming.  But then I had an afterthought and sprang back to my feet: “Your Honor, you were a kid once.  I saw the sparkle in your eye when I talked about Buster saving my life, and when I told about my walk down Market Street , and when I tried to describe the Pied Piper sounds of Louie Armstrong.  And, Your Honor, I did learn a lot today. I learned what a friend like Buster can do to open new doors to life.  I learned about a total stranger wanting to bankroll a kid because it’s what he just fought a war for.  I learned things today that can't be learned from math class, or from slicing a frog, or memorizing earth elements from a chart.”

I looked earnestly at the judge and saw that he was listening to me intently.  “I learned this, too, Your Honor.  I learned that, despite all I enjoyed today, it’s wrong to fib to my mom, especially when she looks into my soul with believing eyes. Yes, Your Honor, I plead guilty and I also plead for forgiveness for fibbin’ into the face of innocence and a mother’s trust.  I rest my case.”

I sat focused on the judge’s face.  He was staring up at the chalk-white embellishments on the courtroom ceiling, but I had the feeling he was looking into his childhood memory room.  In time, the gavel came down heavy. The judge, looking me straight in the eye, said “This court finds you guilty as charged.  Your punishment is as follows: You must move the ashes from cellar to curb every Wednesday from now till winter commences and, as earnings permit, buy your Mom a pint of hand-packed peach ice cream on Ash Night, directly after washing your hands.   This court is adjourned.” 

Yes, yes, yes.     I carried out the ashes every Wednesday until the first onslaught of winter, bought the hand-packed pint of peach from newspaper earnings every Wednesday at Charlie Peck’s across the street, and henceforth told Mom the truth in response to all questions tendered. I’ll admit I had a slight lapse in conduct the following Monday when I ice-picked the rear tire of the truant officer’s car  parked in front of the post office at Fifth and Edgmont, but I felt  this was just retribution for his attempt at forced entry when Mom had struggled to stave him off.  Luckily the flat tire inquiry never came to our door, but the truant officer continued to pay regular visits until Paul and Jim graduated.


P.S.  I did play Willie Mosconi in exhibition years later in California before a crowd of 300 partisans.  And Willie unceremoniously did to me what he he’d done to Ponzi that day.  Well, not quite—I got four balls.  I did eventually honor the memory of Daddy Warbucks by offering a fan of bucks to a kid, but that’s another story. And not until now, in writing, have I confessed to brother George that my Ash Wednesday routine (a duty previously shared with him on a biweekly basis) was not a noble deed on my part but rather was demanded by the judge and had nothing to do with helping him out because he had a job peeling potatoes at the Boyd Diner.  And, yes, Mom’s eyes vanished from behind my lids after judgment was rendered, but as I write this I find myself wishing her eyes would return to visit once in a while.                                                                            © 2005 David Komarnicki, all rights reserved.

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This page last updated 10/10/07