Chester, in Delaware County, PA
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Dave Komarnicki's Recollections of Growing Up in Chester
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better than the mounting
By David Komarnicki
For a kid who made a career out of being late I was determined to break the habit on this picture perfect Friday, so I ignored all distractions enroute to Smedley, even the descending gates on the B&O Railroad that halted traffic on Edgemont and Providence Avenue. I ran across the tracks as the Engineer leaned heavy on the ear piercing warning whistle shaking a fist at me as the engine ran by the gate.
I scrapped my right arm on the STOP LOOK & LISTEN sign while glancing backward along the track, sizing up an endless string of boxcars pulled along by the coal burning engine spewing its calling card of gray black smoke, a true delight for mothers hanging sheets in the back-yard on wash day.
If I didn’t duck under that gate I’d be twenty minutes late, and catch the comments and rolling eyes of Miss Eachus my home room. Instead I sauntered to my seat two minutes early. As I sat looking out the window I felt at peace with the whole world.
I tried to figure out where this calm came from, and suddenly remembered two Saturdays ago when our YMCA basketball team played a league game in Philly. We were losing by two points with two seconds to go when I was fouled, so I got two foul shots, if I missed one we’re cooked, the games over, we lose. So this peaceful feeling cloaks me as I stand at the foul line. I took a deep breath, eyed the rim, shot and made them both. A good feeling yes, and for some reasoned, as I sit here staring out the window it cloaks me again. Is it an omen something’s going to happen today? Well friend or foe I’ll be ready.
The roll-call stopped when the Principal clicked the intercom, “Attention! all Smedley Scrappers, after home-room, report to the rear of the school. Today you will be collecting tin cans for the War effort. Please walk to the rear of the school, the truck will be waiting.
The flag salute meant more than ever as I snapped to attention, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands,” a side glance at Betty Schaeffer's profile standing at attention in the next aisle caused more than a patriotic surge … “indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” Al McGrann crouched into the room as the salute ended.
Mr. Joseph piped in again, adding a hook to move us pronto. “A group picture of all Scrappers will be taken by THE CHESTER TIMES photographer and the photograph will appear in tomorrow’s paper, so come immediately to the rear of the school.”
Sure enough the truck was waiting so we hopped aboard the rear, leaned on the removable gates, then lined up for a couple of casual shots.
The driver pulled away heading north on Providence avenue, then turned left onto 18th then cruised slowly, stopping wherever bundled cans were stacked. Reaching Edgmont Ave. we turned north to cruise slowly past Chester Rural Cemetery on our left, and the sacred ground of St. Michael's Cemetery on the right. As we past the entry gate of the Cemetery a wind–gust squinted my eyes and a vision of cans appeared. All the soup cans opened by moms and dads during their life-time. No more cans to open now, as they rest from daily labor under grave markers. My muse whispered , “will we use can -openers in Heaven?
Turning onto 20th we cruised slowly, cans were dutifully placed curbside, flattened, bundled and stacked, enough stacks to make all but two of us walk the street and hand them to the stackers in the truck.
Reaching Providence Avenue the driver turned north passing St. Roberts School. I dropped from the tailgate when I spotted a huge bundle at the curb of the Mc’Clure Mansion. In a show off mood I hoisted more than I could handle and tragedy struck. A razor-sharp lid slit my jacket sleeve, nicked my shoulder, and drew blood. No need to panic, just a ripped jacket and scratched arm, not enough to abort the trip, so we snaked along all streets this side of Parkside until we loaded the truck and we returned to school.
Stashing my jacket in my hall locker, then grabbing my lunch-bag I headed for the football bleachers to meet the gang.
Don Bramble bartered his tomato, lettuce, pickle, bologna sandwich, for my peanut butter and jelly. Not exactly an even trade, I thought, “maybe he’s sick of tomatoes?” We chewed away, talked sports, but my thoughts strayed to a ripped jacket hanging in my locker.
After lunch I visited the school nurse, showed her my cut, because I was a little worried about Lockjaw. She swabbed it with Iodine, covered it with a Band-Aid then scribbled a tardy note for Mr. Ridenaur my Wood-Shop teacher.
My current project, a wooden footstool, was all but finished but while rubbing on the needed a dose of mahogany stain, I swung at a horse fly that landed on the back of my hand, missed, and stained my cuff and knuckles instead. Showing Mr. Ridenaur my blunder he looked at me on an angle, as he was prone to do, because his glass eye peered straight-on while his left eye focused on my sleeve. “No charge for the stain Davey but your mom will have to give you a pass on the shirt.”
Mr. Ridenaur understood kids embarrassments, maybe because of his glass eye, so when I asked to clean up in the boy’s room, he nodded approval. But no matter how I scrubbed, the stain and shellac odor remained in my pores. I felt it was ingrained like a permanent smelly tattoo. So I decided to snag my jacket skip my last class and cut out for home
While walking the hallway to my locker, the bell rang and kids poured out of classrooms like buckshot. And among them, Ann Hughes, walking towards me like an angelic vision. She smiled in passing so I turned backwards to watch her till she turned the corner and as she turned, she glanced back to see if I was still looking, and she caught me.
It was only last Friday night that I walked Ann home from the school dance and it was on that same night that I wore my “fated” suede jacket. I still felt the tingle of our tangled fingers, disentangling before reaching her home where her Mom sat rocking on the front porch. Ann was my first walk-home date with a girl who lived Above the Tracks.
Opening the locker, I stared at my ripped sleeve dangling like an open wound. “If Mom sewed it, it would look like a sutured scar on Frankenstein's head.” With Inner remorse I snagged it and swung it over my shoulder, then cut out for home.
Before reaching Deshong Street, my plan was hatched. I slid into our side-alley then into the shed where Mom’s Maytag washer stood flanked by the daily pile of dirty clothes. I knew my shoe-shine box was buried somewhere amongst the un-filed pile of stuff so I began my frantic search, by weeding through two bikes, my red wagon, stacks of old newspapers, galoshes, a flexible flyer, roller skates, toilet plunger, a long lost yoyo, high-top shoes Pop bought George, a skate key, two missing war cards, four lead soldiers, an empty bottle of EVENING in PARIS, and finally I reached my shoeshine box lodged in the far corner. Yanking it out, I checked my inventory of polishes, brushes, and rags.
Opening the back door, spotting Mom I said, “I’m Gonna walk through town with my shoeshine box Mom, I’ll be home for supper okay” She nodded approval from a hunched position at the ironing board.
Closing the door I squirmed into my ripped jacket thinking it would tug at the hearts of payday free-spenders.
Knifing down the alley-way I headed into town. “Gotta make some money, gotta get a jacket before winter sets in”. Hurrying up Seventh I noticed a snake-line of kids herded by two nuns, lining up two abreast outside Saint Michael’s Grammar ready for their daily-walk to Madison Street before dispersing
Just as the nun blew her whistle, signaling the kids to move, two men started fighting it out on the crushed cinder parking-lot. I recognized Yondi Martin’s pop, stripped to his jersey, circling a guy whose face I recognized from local bar rooms, I never forgot a face, joined to a hand that tipped me for a newspaper or a shine. Well his face now trickled blood and both hands were busy warding off poppa Martin’s peppery jabs. This was a scene the Nuns sought to censure so they moved the kids quickly toward Madison.
A crowd formed quickly along the lot entrance, bringing Billy Lykens to my side. “This could be a bloody standoff Billy,” I can’t stick around, gotta go, and besides, look whose heading this way.” It was officer Kandravi, (my ticket to reform school).
I skirted the combat zone to cut through the alley emerging onto Welsh street, and start my mission to replace the cornerstone of my thread-bare wardrobe, my jacket. First stop, the 520 club, No luck, the long glossy bar reflected a chilling strobe light created by movement of ceiling fans that spread tobacco scent to the half opened swinging door in grip of my right hand . I waived to Sam Goldberg the owner before letting the door swing free. I was on a mission so I didn’t dally so I double strutted two blocks to the Chester Arms Hotel, where patrons lounged in overstuffed lobby chairs, faces buried in afternoon newspapers served up by the Philadelphia Bulletin and Chester Times Most of them never acknowledge my clear inquiry about their scuffed shoes. Most sat absorbed in the printed page frowning like the War was just lost. On the way out I picked up a discarded Chester Times and browsed through it while walking. The only bad news was the lousy Yankees beat the St. Louis Cards in the World Series, but American Troops liberated Rome from the Nazis, the Russians split the Nazi line along the Dnieper River, and the new government of Italy declares war on Germany.
I avoided stepping on cracks in the sidewalk but thanked God the War was grinding down.
As I walked along I wondered how grown-ups could wear so much facial misery, sitting around blowing smoke toward the vaulted ceiling, some not even looking me in the face, Not even a “no thanks kid”, more like “don’t bother me kid can’t you see I’m busy reading the paper.” I was determined not to let their negative mood follow me so I cut up Third to Market Square. My thoughts roamed to all the guys, not much older than me, fighting their way across Belgium and France dodging bullets, running behind tanks, tasting the hell of battle while these sedentary lounge potatoes ignore my plea for bartered dimes while they blow smoke rings in my face.
I finally made it back to the Railroad Station to set up shop near the Sixth Street under-pass. I no sooner settled when, half a block away, Kandravi caught sight of me and blew the whistle.
This cat and mouse game with “the law” I took in stride. It was Kandravi’s job to keep streets clear of stragglers, break up fights, chase Urchins trying to make a non- taxable buck, maestro midtown traffic, halt bicycles with kids on the crossbar, aid old ladies crossing intersections, ticket cars parked a foot away from the curb, whistle-blow jay-walkers, in a phrase, Kandravi’s job was to de-weed Chester of all devious violations of the LAW, while being a Good- Samaritan at the same time so I simply complied with the whistle by retreating up the Station steps in search of commuters who valued peer approval of shined shoes.
It’s Friday, the week-end is here, and this crop of frugal commuters are not in tune with the spirit of the times. I noticed scuffed shoes everywhere and some men wore pants so short, they cuffed out an inch above the ankle. Mostly men with pot bellies forced to wear their belt above their extension.
So, after working the crowd, convinced I was wasting my time, I decided to call it quits. Trudging down the railroad station steps I headed home, stoop shouldered, a little depressed about coin-less pockets, but I was snapped to attention when I reached Seventh and Welsh, because this was Kandravi’s domain.
I crouched out of sight behind a Dodge convertible parked in front of Briggs Sporting Goods, until the “all time whistle blower” turned his back to direct street traffic rolling down Edgemont Avenue.
I then darted into the Imperial Arms Café, whistling “When I Wish Upon a Star.” There wasn't an inch of belly room at the bar. A jukebox tune solidified the disconnects between independent dialogues dominating the room. Unfiltered air initiated a woozy imbalance with my first chesty intake. A survey of the crowd bellying up to the bar nixed my enthusiasm to mantra, “shine mister?” all down the line so I decided to try my luck along the booths lining the left wall.
While walking along, glancing at scuffed shoes, trying to convey public opinion hung in the balance, a man sitting in a booth hollered “Hey kid you got cordovan?” Approaching the questioner I slid my right hand into the shoebox, presented cordovan for his inspection, and straddled my box ready to process his request.
Placing his right foot on the template I launched into action. First the brushing, flicking away loose dirt, then applying a wash application with a toothbrush to soften the leather, then I applied cordovan polish swirling it into intricately fashioned symmetrically indented pores of winged tipped leather.
I continued shining till his shoe mirrored my face. My finale was a rag snapping routine learned from watching Sylvester Wilson. Not a word passed as I practiced my humble profession. My patron had the look of Polish Nobility and his pant leg crease staring me in the face could slice a block of Kraft’s Cheese. His drinking buddy had the rough edges of a ship yard foreman and ran all speech through his nose, a perfect example of a philly accent. They laughed and jabbered while swigging their beer, intent on a long afternoon. Four empties on the table signaled slow service or fast elbow action.
I felt woozy from intake circulated by ceiling fans; my nose sorted out the smell of pungent Panatelas, lung coating Camels, beer-hops as they mingled with the collective sweat of this pumped up Friday crowd. White and blue collars work weary men raising mugs in search of relief from the ever present thoughts on the War.
It was during this woozy awareness of laughter, odor, and belched-brotherhood that I caught the color of green, in the form of legal tender, resting atop strewn sawdust beneath the booth wherein sat my client.
Thoughts raced faster then my rag- snap, as I pondered my options…. “Do I tell Mister-White-Collar a $ Ten-spot resides under his table,” Or “Do I lean in, grab the money, then hand it over with a smile, hoping for a tip,”?...“Or, Do I simply accept this portent of Good-Fortune as an omen of Jacket replacement?”
I just kept flexing the rag on his right shoe until Bingo, the answer flashed faster than Tom Mix chasing a bandito outta town.
I tapped his left foot for pedestal position while my client and his buddy continued flexing elbows in pursuit of the Examined Life.
He positioned his foot without comment, while I prepared for a duplicate effort on his left shoe.
After preliminary brushing I switched the brush to my left hand, stroked a few passes on the toe, and then let the brush slip like a cannon shot aimed toward the far wall under the booth. “Dagonnit, my brush slipped under the table” I hollered. My patron then allowed me to ease under, opening a lane for me. I then crawled under, snatched the greenback, grabbed the brush, and then inched out, dropping the crumpled bill into the rear compartment of my box, I launched into final touches on the propped shoe, finishing in record time.
Inspecting my work with slurred gratitude he said “good shine kid” then flipped a quarter from spare change sitting in excess suds near his beer coaster. “Thanks mister, I countered, hoisting my box casually, as If I was Leo Gorcey, playing the lead roll in a Dead-End Kid movie. I then walked to the Lady's Entrance, seeking no further employ in this bar. I opened, then gently closed the door behind me and ran a record 100 yard dash to my side alley.
Entering our lean-to shed from which I emerged a few hours before, I parked my shoebox next the Mom’s Maytag washer, I then placed my ripped jacket on-top of the box, thinking I might use it again to test sentiments of charity.
I eased the kitchen door open, Mom was not in sight. My mind stratosphered with a sense of jackpot fever, AH, but doubt took a can-opener to my troubled conscience. “When doubt rips the lid from your troubled mind, be kind to yourself pause…reflect, and discreetly fix yourself a treat.”
This adage, gleaned from my fourth grade MCGUFFY READER, seemed to fit my current situation, so I opened the ice box, grabbed the milk bottle, poured a glass, added two heaping tablespoons of Ovaltine, stirred till the granules melted, then sipped it slowly leaning on the kitchen table.
While sipping I reasoned thus.
“How could I be sure the 10-spot belonged to the cordovan guy, I really couldn’t? If I saw him drop it and kept it I’d reap the whirl-wind blight on conscience. It happened once before when I returned money only to find out later he lied and if this was a repeat, he’d spend it soaking up more suds, thus taxing overworked kidneys forcing a visit to the smelly urinal, I know the smell because I’ve been in there, and besides, ten bucks of beer would quadruple his stupor. And what if he drove home, then what? If Kandravi nabbed him, its jail-time. Aha! but if he WALKED home, past my house maybe, just maybe, he’d pause to unload in my alley-way, as many a drunk did suffering acute bladder pressure as they ducked in to our alcove for relief right below my window.
I must admit these well thought-out reasonings tipped my mental-scale towards a moral sense of justification for my deed.
Brother Dan once told me “Remember this Davey, “possession is 11 tenths of the Law”. This quote puzzled me when he voiced it, but now it seemed to fit this situation.
So I sat at the kitchen table weighing the justice of my choice, locked in the eternal struggle between right and wrong while sipping my Ovaltine.
My struggle ended when a glance at the clock told me that I still had time to run to the Y for a shower, shoot a couple games of eight ball, scarf down a couple of chili dogs at “Jimmy’s, and still make it to the Pennsy-station before the Inquirer truck pulled in from Philly.
I hollered up the steps to Mom to tell her my plans then cut out.
I made the tap-room-circuit barking the War head lines before heading home with three dollars and twenty two cents
Heading home I stopped at Ches-Penn Donuts bought two glazed, and swallowed them in six bites walking down Welsh street. Then, with an added rush of indulgence, I ducked into Charley Peck’s and with all the clarity my changing voice commanded I barked, “Gimmi’ a Pepsi, a box of Cheese-Its, five bolsters, five orange slices, and a pint of hand packed peach for my Mom, please pack it tight with a little extra on top, ‘cause Jim and Paul will be up expecting a treat. Charley gave me that understanding smile, a smile I looked for when I needed it. He packed my goodies in a heavy brown bag to carry it home.
Crossing the street I paused on our sidewalk to salute the five stars sewn onto a patch of cloth hanging in our front window, a star for each brother fighting in the War. Silently I prayed ….dear Lord, watch-over my brothers where ever they are, end the War soon so they can come home and crowd the house with all the fun things we did before they left...come home to have kids of their own and play with them every day till they are grown up like me,... play hide-an-seek, stick-ball, make a scooter with them so they can teach their kids how to do it too. Bring them home Lord so they can teach us things a kid needs to know,…Lord I need my brothers, I still gotta’ a lot to learn ,and mom and pop needs them too…
I whispered Amen when I felt the ice-cream melting through the bottom of the bag then mounted the front steps, pushed the front door open feeling like SANTA CLAUSE.
Announcing my arrival I climbed the stairs slowly, and sure enough, Jim and Paul were sitting on Mom’s bed wide-eyed with expectation. So, I gave Mom the ice cream first, cause it was melting, Paul and Jim got divvies on the candy, I gave them each a swig of Pepsi, then commanded “brush you’re teeth when you’re finished, and leave the room I want to be alone with Mom.
I closed the bed room door, reached into my left pocket for the ten dollar bill, then into my right pocket to snag four quarters, placing it all into Mom’s upturned palm.
To see Mom’s expression as she brought both hands to her cheeks was worth all the gold in Fort Knox.
In muted surprise she whispered feelings only a mother and happy Son could know. And as I kissed her left temple, she whispered, “Davey, I want you to have this money to buy something you really want, something special that you pick out, something not passed from your older brothers.
I sat beside Mom for awhile thinking of her offer and as my eyes started to cloud, I noticed Mom's eyes cloud to when she said “Something Special, something YOU liked,” she then closed her eyes and seemed lost in reverie.
Sensing this, I said, “Mom did you ever get anything special, something you liked, something that was yours from the start?” She looked at me as if I “crystal-balled” her thoughts. Her left-hand then moved to her ear lobe, pinching it between her thumb and forefinger, she then said, “Yes Davey, yes I did once have something special. When I boarded the ship for America I couldn’t read, write, or speak a word of English, so they pinned my name and destination on my coat and placed me in what they called steerage. To me it seemed like the Jonah story my Mom told me often as she read to me from the Bible. It seemed like eternity sitting in the bowels of that ship every one around me sick and heaving. I almost gave up hope of ever getting out of that hole, but we made it. All I had in this world was what my Mom packed into my trunk. She knew, when I left for America, we would never see each other again until we met in Heaven, so one day, close to the time I was to go she pierced my ears and when they healed she placed golden earrings in my earlobes.
My Words fail me Davey, when I try to share how I felt while looking into the mirror with my Mom smiling over my shoulder. I've carried the memory of her smile, and her gift of my golden earrings in my heart ever since that day”. “What happened to your earrings Mom, I never saw you wear them?”
Mom heaved a long sigh then said, “When I arrived in Philadelphia to live with my brother John, I was given a job at a clinic. Well, one hot summer day while working, I removed my earrings to wash and freshen up .While drying my face in a towel I turned from where I placed them, and when I turned again, they were gone. Yes David, my golden earrings, my Most Special Gift from my mom vanished.
A throat lump formed as Mom shared her story in her soft- spoken way. While struggling to form an answer, Paul and Jim returned, checking to see if Mom saved them some ice-cream. So in a sad mood I kissed Mom then hugged her tight around the neck. This was my only honest answer to Mom’s shared memory.
I then walked the hallway to the bathroom, brushed my teeth, then climbed the stairs to my third floor room, where I sipped Pepsi and crunched Cheese-Its while reading Captain Marvel comic books back-dropped by the street symphony of trolley-wheels and rusted mufflers.
When the Eagle-Bar, across the street, ushered the locals out at two a.m., I slowly sank into raptured sleep, wondering, wondering, who now wore Mom’s golden earrings.
I awoke at nine as the alarm clock rattled my dreams. After morning ablutions, I fixed my Saturday special, a bowl of Wheaties, buried beneath a thinly sliced banana, milked to the brim, and a pack of Tasty-Cakes.
It was nine thirty, when I left for town loaded with ten bucks in search of something special and for me it was a jacket.
Random thoughts surfaced like street noise as I walked into town. I started to grapple with who and why questions that plagued me once in awhile …why wasn’t I born first so I could be in the war and brother Mickey could be walking in my shoes?...why weren’t we rich so we could live above the B& O tracks and have a front porch and grassy lawn. Why don’t somebody ram a bayonet in Hitler’s gut and end this rotten war?
Brother John told me “we were so poor we were not allowed to window shop,” I believed him but found out later he told me an old Henny Youngman joke. Well today brother John I’m gonna’ do more than window shop I’m gonna’ buy.
Reaching town I started at Spears. Entering, a clerk appeared out of nowhere, almost as if he was waiting for me, but I told him I just wanted to look around. He nodded and walked away but kept me in his peripherals while I fingered my way through the racks along the wall. “It’s tough shopping alone, If I were a clerk I’d keep an eye on any kid in my condition I’d probably feel the same if some shabby looking kid walked into my store all alone.” A backward glance caught relief on his face when I walked out of the door onto Edgmont Avenue. I spent about five minutes watching the window dresser rearrange the mannequins in Murray’s but didn’t go in, I kinda’ felt I’d get the same treatment I just got in Speares so I decided to walk down Market to Fourth where I’d try my luck at Cantor's Army and Navy Store.
I tried on a Navy Picoat, but after checking myself in the mirror I decided I'd wait for John to come home from the Navy, maybe he’d give me his.” I left Cantor’s in an upbeat mood feeling like I knew how to get around town ,how to maneuver , how to take short-cuts through all the alleys, how to sense trouble coming and somehow get away, how to size people up or down, what dogs to pet and which barkers to leave alone.
I loved this City with all of its meandering ways and, the quilted neighborhoods that mushroomed its dominant culture but learned to live at peace with minority settlers. Chester was a giant hoagie with hot and sweet peppers loaded with provolone, proscuito, ham, pickles, onions, salami, tomatoes, lettuce, oregano, oil, all stuffed in roll as fresh an long as a summer day, and my emotional taste buds salivated to taste it all.
I looked down Third Street to the bridge crossing Chester Creek and mentally traced my footsteps all the was to Saint Anthony’s Church, where families could worship and pray for sons and daughters fighting in a War to regain freedom for the very towns their parents left to come to America. Little Italy complete with its own bank, it own Columbus Center, where weddings were held weekly and young people met to spawn their dreams of doing the same,
Where the Abruzzi Club gave common forum for men who sat nightly and spawned childhood remembrances of Anzio, Naples, Salerno, Rome, Sicily, Florence, Milano, and as they sipped their Lambrusco wine they spoke with affection of the land they left behind, their heart-candles burning brightly like novena candles in Saint Anthonys Church.
And beyond, further down the street the Polish worshipped at Saint.Hedwigs and daily prayed for families left to suffer the dregs of War in a country overrun by Hitler and the hoards that followed his will.
Saint Hedwig’s where we crashed wedding receptions for love of food with names we couldn’t pronounce but tasted like a lingering kiss from the lips of one you love. Yes Chester was already a love affair with me and I just turned thirteen. I turned to watch the trolley roll onto the turnaround in the Market Square. The people stepped off: it was the end of the line: the conductor then pushed it around on its circular dish 180 degrees and it was ready to roll all the way back from whence it came, 69th street. I followed it as I walked up Market Street until it took its dog leg turn under the 6th Street underpass. My next target in quest of a jacket was Sears Roebucks but I got slightly distracted from making it a direct route because I saw Dudley Williams heading my way, and I knew if he saw me first he’d stop me, or worse, he’d want to come with me, and the last thing I needed was a total distraction from finding a jacket, so I crossed the street in a hurry, ducked into the display windowed alcove of Spencer’s Stationary store, and browsed till he walked beyond A.S. Beck Shoe Store.
Sears Roebuck was couched hard against the railroad station. I entered with low expectations, looked around, and found it to be a great place to buy tools and boat equipment but their jacket selection was out to lunch,- a reminder that my stomach was ready for something, anything, to digest-.
Next stop was Adam’s Clothes so continuing up Edgmont Avenue I stopped suddenly at the Quaker Graveyard where I couldn't believe my eyes, in fact I rubbed them in disbelief as I watched grave-diggers lift Chester’s earliest settlers out of grave sites. Wasn't a grave a hallowed place not to be tampered with? I watched in disbelief as a casket, maybe 300years old, was placed beside a heap of earth. I grabbed the wrought iron, cemented atop a three foot stone fence, hoisting my body to a better position to watch this sacrilege. Caskets lay everywhere, all sizes. These were bones of William Penn’s buddies; some were Quaker shipmates who came with him on the Welcome. They planned the layout of streets, built the Courthouse on Market Street, served as Judges on Pennsylvania’s first Supreme Court. Now their bones lay bleaching in the sun where stray dogs could lift a leg on their dishonored remains. Desecration! I shouted “a foul was committed today, a blight on the History of Chester!” Lifting my eyes toward heaven I whispered “someday this City will suffer for this decision.
As I dropped from my perch on the fence, I overheard a passerby tell a friend “the City decided to move the graveyard to make room for a new department store.” Walking toward 7th street, Pops oft’ repeated biblical quote raced through my thoughts “Teach us Lord, to number our days and apply our hearts unto wisdom.” This, I thought, was not a wise decision.
Entering Adams Clothing, I walked through the store convinced I’d know what I liked when I saw it. I found nothing on the racks to excite my interest.
My focus fizzled when I saw all those scattered bones.
My last planned stop was Montgomery Wards, a block away. It was a perfect day the sun slanted rays through low clouds, a crisp breeze swirled pockets of leaves on the fenced lawn of Saint Michael’s Church Rectory. I stopped to look at the jewelry and watches in Doubet’s display window, I said Hello to Mr. Gayley as he stood rearranging his curbside rake display in front of his store.
I finally entered “Monkey Wards” looked around, but again, to no avail, so I decided my search was fruitless, “maybe I’ll have to lean on George to go with me”? I stood outside the store uncertain what to do next. Maybe sit on the Y. steps and watch Saturday shoppers walk through town? Maybe walk over to Deshong Park and see whose playing ball? NUTS can’t make up my mind, couldn’t get the worm-eaten caskets out of my thoughts I decided to head home or maybe watch the pool hustlers perform their magic at Tucker’s.
I cut through St. Michael's Rectory, then belly-flopped the iron fence into the yard, next to Charlie Peck's store, where I stepped inside for a treat for my sagging spirit.
“A Royal Crown and a pack of Crumpets will do it for now Mister Peck,” I shouted,
What a great treat this is, I thought, as I sat in the booth near the pinball machine listening to the pings and racket created by a master of timing and meaningful finger and palm motion. It was none other than Buster Robinson racking up more free games than he could play in the next six hours.
I left Charlie’s with no expectation of finding a jacket today, so I headed towards Tucker’s Pool Room, (Pop declared Tucker’s off limits, but good old Tucker wore glasses so thick he couldn’t tell if I was thirteen or thirty, and beside, I was a steady customer who bought stuff and just stood around and watched the action. Well anyway, en route to Tuckers, while passing John's Small Profit Store I noticed a jacket sleeve partially buried under other clothing in the display window. I paused, looked, and then entered the store catching John leaning into his lunch, a can of beans sitting on a hot plate heated by a can of Sterno.
“Cheap John” was a man of few words, unshaven, he allowed browsers all the freedom needed to roam and rummage. He knew me by sight, how could he help it, I lived right across the street for six years and he never once sighted me soaping his store windows on Halloween. I couldn't prove it but I’d bet a wad of Wrigley’s-gum John’s Inventory was mysteriously transferred from the Chester Rescue Mission or he sent runners to tap the Salvation Army drop-boxes. The huge show room was laced with the odor of mothballs. Peeling paint flaked, rust stains announced pipe leaks somewhere beyond the tin corrugated ceiling, dirty display windows, they hadn’t been scrubbed since last Halloween, Yeh, Cheap John was well named, had little competition, and kept a low overhead.
John’s cash register was his left front pocket, I noticed the bulge. Anyway after trying on the jacket I lifted from the display window and checking my image in the cracked mirror near the back of the store, I realized it fit like a glove.
It was gray wool with slanted pockets. I bent my elbows to check the flex, ah, enough freedom of sleeve for extended jabs in an unprovoked fight. I ran my palms down the smooth front, slid my fingers into pockets deep enough to swallow my wrist, roomy enough to make a clenched fist,
I worked the zipper bottom to top a couple of times, checking for snags. The zipper handle was engraved with a single word TALON, a heavy-duty zipper with a zany musical sound.
I stood looking at my unpimpled face, building a case for closing a deal, A side -glance caught the contrast of Cheap John hunched towards a sterno-can heating his beans, engrossed in survival, currently assured by his lidless can of beans. He seemed intent to get to the bottom of his beans before turning attention to a sales effort. He had the appearance of a bark-less tree with withered branches…“How many more bean-cans will John scarf-down before his gravestone is positioned in Saint Michaels Cemetery, (this I surmised from a picture of the Virgin Mary hanging on the wall… “Will we open cans in Heaven? Campbell soup cans, bean cans, pea cans, spinach cans, asparagus cans, cans of peaches, spaghetti cans?”
Suddenly I conjured a vision of an endless line of cans on a conveyor belt stretching from Marcus Hook all the way to Philly following the contour of the Delaware River. And as I hovered in clear observation of the entire line, I saw people I didn’t recognize, chained by leg irons to a conveyor belt, each person wielded a can opener laboring to open cans. Others sat at long tables resting but forced to eat the contents of the cans they opened. Could this be a portent of the “Other Place” people went to when they left this Earth? I squinted to look closer at those scarfing away and there at table six was John.
Looking into the cracked mirror, feeling my pulse rise like sap in the trunk of a healthy tree, I stood inhaling mothball-odors amidst piles of secondhand clothing and I knew I had picked a prize. But what about John, he wasn’t long for this world, and I felt there was nothing I could do about it but barter my way into a prize from his odiferous inventory. So saluting life and my envisioned road ahead I closed my eyes and conjured a scene repeated every Sunday morning, PMC cadets marching in rank down Madison Street to the Episcopal Church on Ninth Street. They marched in perfect cadence sporting jackets like the one I was about to bargain for and for one epic moment I marched with them, not missing a parade dress movement. A curbside observer shouted, “Oh! Marge, who is that lad bringing up the rear?” he looks like one of the komarn………..
Cheap John garbled, with bean impacted jaws,” how’s it fit?”, snapping me from reverie to a bartering world. “Okay I guess, a little tight, maybe it'll fit my kid brother better.” He turned towards me retorting casually “looks okay from here, let you have it for nine bucks” I countered, “nine bucks! You kidding me, that's three days work in a sweatshop, no way! (boy did I want that jacket). He turned, swallowed his beans watching while I took it off and laid it on the table.
John was strictly a one-man show who didn’t show anybody anything; He just piled his stuff on tables and let browsers play hide-an-seek.
I dug into randomly-stacked piles on tables walking around looking disinterested. I knew the routine of The Barter, learned it from Brother Dan who took me to Crass Brothers on South Street in Philadelphia, where we walked out and were half way down the block before Crass himself whistled us back. “patience Davey patience, feign disinterest, walk out if that’s what it takes. I lingered along the side wall near the front door. When John sensed I was about to walk, he grunted, “okay, okay, since your a neighbor, it’s yours for seven bucks,” I walked toward him, stopped about three feet from his bean-pouched jaw. He was seated with head turned toward me still involved with the next bean scoop, looking him straight in the left eye (brother John told me the left eye is most vulnerable to suggestion) I said, “with all due respects Mr. John, (I didn't know his last name, and wasn’t about to add the word Cheap, “I’d like to buy in the Neighborhood, but seven bucks for a tight jacket is fleecing a lamb and I'm not a lamb, look I gotta’ go sell newspapers, so I can't bicker, so It’s four bucks, or I’m out the door.” I stared him down for three seconds while he swallowed the beans and the offer, I turned, and as my Joe Lapchick sneaker hit the threshold, Cheap John bellowed, “for you kid it’s a deal. I turned into the store, fingered four dollar bills from my left front pocket, the exact amount I put there because I never liked to palm a guy with excess, and wait for change, I aimed for exactness).
As I turned to leave, John said “where'd you learn to barter kid, you're good.” I knew he was pumping me up, trying to make me feel like I maneuvered a deal, So I countered, “you won’t regret THIS barter mister, I gotta’ lot a friends and when they see me sportin’ this jacket, they’ll be askin’ where I got it.
Well if John did snatch his Inventory from the Salvation Army, he just made a whoppin’ profit of four hundred percent. I wasn’t about to question the source from whence my good fortune came, I accepted it as a gift and brother George once told me …”Never look a gift horse in the mouth Dave it might bite”.
So I wore my gift home, leaped-straddled a parking meter while waiting for the trolley to pass, then ten giant steps across the street and I'm in the house.
I hurried to the kitchen where Mom turned from domestic preparations to give me all the audience a kid needs. She stood tall, left hand on her hip, right extended to her cheek, with a smile radiating her approval. “Turn around,” this I did, reveling in her approval, “perfect fit Davey, you look so handsome.” While turning I reached into my pocket and said, “Here mom, here’s the change, I paid four bucks for it”.
I thought she’d cry she was so pleased with the way I looked, not to mention the price I paid for it. Mom sat me down at the kitchen table where she sliced two potatoes, scooped them into the French-fryer, lowered the meshed container into the grease, then turned the gas jet full blast.
When the fries were ready, she lifted a huge bowl from the cupboard, poured the fries into the bowl and then we bowed our heads while Mom gave thanks in a symphonic Ukrainian accent of her adopted English language, pleading God’s protection of her sons and an end of the war.
We then lingered at the kitchen table sharing a bowl of French fries celebrating MY FIRST PURCHASED JACKET, a serendipitous gift, discovered on a bar-room floor.
POSTSCRIPT…… I wore my Jacket when circumstance allowed. Other jackets have since draped my frame. Brother George handed- down a multi-colored sports jacket, which added peer-group stature. After the war I paraded downtown Chester in Brother John’s U.S. Navy Picot, and felt the vicarious thrill of commanding a torpedo boat. When I donned Brother Joe’s Army Air force leather jacket I felt like Dana Andrews walking along Main Street in “ITS A WONDERFUL LIFE.”
But memory of the JACKET, bartered from Cheap-John, conjures feelings that rarely happen by, I’ve been waiting for another visit ever since.
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Real possession is in memory
nothing else are we rich
nothing else are we poor
© 2006 David Komarnicki, all rights reserved.
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This page last updated 02/24/07