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"How does a kid explain away shame inflicted on a name my parents wore like a medal of honor, a name now splattered with oxblood polish?"
|The Oxblood Incident
By DAVE KOMARNICKI
A vice-like shoulder grip cancelled all options to exit as an apron-clad grim reaper hustled me past the frozen foods to the back room, then hoisted me atop stacked cartons of Campbell's Soup cans. A bass baritone command erupted: "Empty your pockets, kid!”
I complied slowly, one pocket at a time.
“What's the bulge behind the right knee, kid?”
“Come clean, kid, or I’II x-ray you!”
I slid my hand through the torn pocket in my knickers clear down to my leg-band, slowly retrieving an economy-sized can of oxblood shoe polish.
“Got a receipt, kid?”
Avoiding his eyes (and his question), I stared at the gum-pocked cement floor.
“ What’s your name, kid?”
“Where do you live?”
“How old are you?”
“Ever been to reform school?”
I responded with mumbled truth to each question he fired.
Mr. Baritone walked to the wall-phone, dialed, conversed in muffled tones, hung up, and tossed his white apron at a nearby chair. “Relax, kid, you'll be here awhile.”
“Watch him,” he admonished his assistant, who was parked by the room’s only exit. “He's wearing Joe Lapchick sneakers.”
As Mr. Baritone left the room, I sat, head bowed, pondering my fate. My mental boxcars were rumbling down dual faulty tracks:
• The shame of defaming the family name fanned into the imagined pain inflicted by Pop's strap in just retribution.
• The cost of a life of crime - stained at the age of thirteen by a can of oxblood!
They'd caught me, squeezed me through a Maytag wringer of fear, and flattened me. They'd confiscated my “borrowed” oxblood, limited my livelihood, and now they had a fix on all my traceable statistics. The burden of guilt vied with the burden of a blemished future as I sat atop the stack of cartons with the Campbell's Soup kid smiling up at me.
* * *
It had all started that morning when school dismissed early. Something about a War Bond drive. Some Hollywood superstars were honoring Chester with a visit—Kay Kaiser and the Clooney Sisters appearing at the Stanley Theater to sing and play their way into the hearts of the locals and hopefully stir up a fervor to invest in the war effort.
But I had other plans for the morning. We already had four stars hanging in our front window (one for brother Mickey, one for brother John, one for brother Joe, and one for sister Vicky's fiancé, Rich), and I figured that was all the investment I needed to make. With no coins in my pocket and very few in my Christmas Club account, I opted to use this unexpected school holiday to shine my way into some needed cash.
So, grabbing my shoeshine box, I traversed the back alley route to town and set up my business at 6th and Edgmont. As I squatted atop my seat-cushioned box scanning the passing parade of potential customers for scuffed shoes, I reflected on the portable wonder on which I sat. The carved pedestal of a foot was fashioned from one of brother John's Florsheims. The wood grain buried under seven layers of shellac I’d applied in Mr. Ridenauer's wood shop at Smedley Junior High was smooth to the touch. All corners were rounded with a file, all nails evenly spaced. The inset carrying handle, the width of a roll of quarters, was fashioned for quick grabs and speedy retreats necessitated by sudden appearances of local cops who frowned upon street urchin activities.
My revery was interrupted by the approach of a dandy decked out in a three-piece suit and a picture-perfect Stetson. crossing 6th Street with the confidence of a ward boss. He carried a folded Racing Form, no doubt acquired at Roder's Newsstand a block away. Leaning against the cut-stoned wall, he lit a Panatela cigar, placed his right foot on the pedestal of my box, and said, “Oxblood, kid, and watch the socks!” I rummaged through my dual-compartmented shoe box, lifting out the felt rags and some Liquid White in a brush-top bottle, then each can of polish one by one— tan, brown, black, cordovan, saddle soap, even a creamy blue I'd lifted from Vicky's closet. But no oxblood.
Anyway, a lesson was added to my growing tapeworm of street smarts on that crisp September Friday when the gent took his foot off my pedestaled shoeshine box, looked down into my brown eyes, and replied, "No oxblood, no shine." He walked briskly around the corner, disappearing up the granite steps of the Pennsy station to catch the Chester / Wilmington / Baltimore / Washington Express. I'd had my shine money and my tip spent already and I'd never felt the tingle of the coins. Mom had been right when she'd offered the pithy wisdom, “Never count your chickens before they're hatched.” I was so mad I spit out my entire five-stick wad of gum, still sweet with spearmint juice. I just sat on my box as the train pulled away, spewing soot with a vengeance as it gathered momentum toward Wilrnington.
“Now what, dummy?” I mused. “Without inventory to match the need, you're dead!” A shrill whistle halted my revery as Officer Kandravi advanced on me. I grabbed my box, ran down 6th, and cut through the angled alley behind Edgmont Avenue. I took a brief look at the Wilson footballs displayed in Briggs Sporting Goods Store and tried to ignore the nostril-quivering odor of Jimmy’s Texas Chili Dogs. The pungent aroma was pumped out of the eight-by twelve-foot eatery by a giant, greasy fan planted in its window to pull in the passing stream of pedestrians. But I didn't have enough money to indulge my inclination, so I walked east on 7th Street and entered through the back door of our three-storied, bay-windowed house. No one was home.
It was a rare feeling to be home alone. I poured a glass of milk, added a double shot of Ovaltine, then quaffed it without pause. As I downed my drink, a plan of action was hatched. I left the way I came, hiding my shoeshine box in the back shed, then sprinted the three blocks to the Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, which everybody had affectionately shorted to the A & P. I entered and strolled the aisles, trying to assume the appearance of a kid sent to the store by his mother. I checked out the lay of the store, paused at the shoe polish section, spotted the Kiwi oxblood can, applied a sleight of hand to drop the “borrowed” contribution into the right leg of my pocketless knickers, and nonchalantly sauntered toward the exit. I paused at the door, this time assuming the casual posture of a bored kid waiting for his sister. Suddenly I felt the gentle but firm vice-like grip on my shoulder. My turning head caught a glimpse of four eyes and two apron-clad men whom I'd previously seen at the vegetable table watering the lettuce.
* * *
So there I sat waiting for my execution. Mr. Baritone reentered the room, walked over, looked me square in the eyes, and with grim countenance and measured words said, “Yourparents will hear about this! Now get outta here!”
Swallowing hard I sprang from my perch, sauntered in controlled haste to the entrance, pushed Freedom's Door open, then backtracked the way I came. I passed 6th and Edgmont and Sun Ray's Drugstore. At Smith's Newsstand I cut down the oblique alley at 6th leading to Welsh, shot past the Colonial Hotel,
What to do, how to explain to Mom ...
How does a kid explain away shame inflicted on a name my parents wore like a medal of honor, a name now splattered with oxblood polish? Pop labored six days a week, 12 to14 hours a day at Roser's Restaurant on Welsh Street. Mom worked 19 hours a day at home, seven days a week. And me??? Their sixth son had slid like an electric eel through the corridors of informal and formalized learning until this frozen moment of shame. My mental pain peaked at migraine levels. I felt the pangs of self-pity rise to a flood level. Suddenly I realized what I must do. I MUST RUN AWAY FROM HOME, before the cops come to the door, handcuff me, and haul me away, before Pop comes home from work and lays a much needed strap on my “zadook.” This was a word I heard only when Pop swung into tough love, along with the words I knew only phonetically, "Ya te be dom per strachke." They were always spoken in a low, modulated, syncopated tone as the pupils in Pop's eyes enlarged and the leather strap was unbuckled.
“They'll miss me when I'm gone,” mused my puffed-up pride. “They'll beg me to come back home.” The shame on the family name, the fear of multiple welts from the well-aimed strap converged on me as I bit into my pillow. If I was going to go, I'd better do it now while Mom was shopping. She must have taken Jim and Paul with her. George no doubt was at the Boyd Diner peeling spuds. Dan was probably setting pins at the Ches/Penn Bowling Alley.
I scrounged around for as many coins as I could find in my Philadelphia Blunts cigar box that I kept in the closet. I fingered through the incomplete set of Sino-Japanese War cards, trying to assess what I should take with me. I tossed two rumpled T-shirts, four unmatched socks, and a diamond-knitted sweater (no sleeves) into a pillowcase and headed for the back stairs to the kitchen. I impulsively stopped to open the Cold Spot icebox, a giant hunger station backed against the middle section of the bay window in full view of the alley. I threw open the door, stepped back, and beheld the greatest array of assorted foods ever packed into so limited a space: half of a ham hock with a protruding bone (Mom will make great soup out of that baby); two giant-sized cans of melba peaches from Quality Market; assorted cheeses; two quarts of Supplee-Wills-Jones milk (one chocolate, one whole milk); a box of Tastykakes (three to a pack); a bottle of Frank's black cherry wishniak (no cap and just itching to be swigged down to four ounces, which I promptly did); two huge tomatoes; three heads of leafy lettuce; two family-sized jars of Smuckers' Jelly (grape and peach); and a half-eaten pear with withered brown skin.
I cut short the admiration and closed the door with a sense of overpowering loss. My stomach churned, but not from hunger. Turning to leave through the kitchen, I noticed the marble I'd stuffed in a little hole in the floor between the two rooms—a marble to plug the worn linoleum, a marble to thwart the outcrawling of black widow spiders from their webs below. Was it Joe who had told me not to descend into dungeon, that clay-dirt back cellar that reaked with cat droppings? Was it he who told me that if a black widow bit me I'd swell up like a balloon larger than Kandravi the Cop directing traffic at 7th and Edgmont? That I'd lose all my hair like Mr. Huber, who nightly occupied the end seat at the Boyd Diner counter wolfing down Blue Plate Specials. My thoughts ran amuck like dysentery as I walked through the kitchen, then the attached shed where the rollers on Mom's Maytag held a blue shirt in its grip like the blue tongue of the German police dog that ran George and me down in Deshong Park as we ransacked the sickle pear trees whenever they were in season.
No time for visuals, though, or associations or nostalgia or any form of backward-glancing sentiment. I was a fugitive. I was on the lam. In flight. I'd write Mom and Pop a postcard from some strange city. I'd seen the names of cities galore pasted on the sides of boxcars as freight trains clacked through Chester, heading north, heading south. They often slowed down while passing through town, some of them rolling through slower than I could walk, hobos peering out of the half-opened sliding doors— heavy-coated, even in summer, to cushion the effect of the hard splintery floors.
I unlocked the back gate, then walked to the mouth of the alley. I paused there, looking left, then right, and beheld a sight etched forever more on my mind. As I looked around the corner of the house, I saw the most treasured object of affection ever assembled into a human body. It was Mom, trudging home from Collins Grocery Store. She squinted into the direct sunlight, walking slowly past Carmen's Hoagie Shop and pausing slightly as she passed Tucker's Pool Hall. As she crossed the street to home, I framed her face with John's Small Profit Store in the background. I was still in the alleyway, flat up against our house with my pillowcase duffel bag between my legs, as I watched her step slowly off the granite curbstone, looking carefully both ways. She was wearing a babushka knotted under her chin, and her dress was below mid-calf and patterned in soft pastels. I remembered going with her when she bought her soft black-leather Enna-Jettick shoes, perforated with tiny fashionable holes on the toes. Her hair, her beautiful brown hair, was pulled tightly into a giant bun. I often watched as she stroked it with a fine-tooth comb then suddenly swirled it mysteriously into a twist tuck and impaled it with a long stickpin. She was carrying her puffy shopping bag with its oilcloth texture. It was her favorite for serious shopping, and there were lumps the size of grapefruits on both sides. Celery stalks were peering over the top. It was a movable feast for all at table tonight, and I was running away.
I chanced a peak as Mom labored up the three worn granite steps to the front door. She paused carefully, placing the bag by her knee as she forced the door open. I always had to lift the door slightly by the knob to unjam it and keep it from squeaking when I came in after curfew. I timed Mom's walk down the 10-foot hallway, her right turn into the living room, then another 10 feet into the linoleum-decked refrigerator room. Then, like a paratrooper in free-fall, I leapt out of the alley to follow my instinct to run away.
I waved to the doughnut-store owner as I breezed by and to Nick Morretti leaning on the recently installed Duncan parking meter in front of his pop's tailor shop. My dream of one day parading through downtown Chester in a Morretti tailor-made suit dropped out of sight. In fact, my nightmare now was that I would be fitted for a gray suit with a number on the back and forever roam the grounds of Glen Mills Detention Home with visitors restricted to Saturday afternoons, two to five. My mental marquee was as active as the blinking neon sign above the entrance to the 520 Club on Edgmont Avenue:
The list was longer than the line outside the State Theater the day The Gold Rush with Charlie Chaplin came to town. I stood mute, transfixed, wrapped in an itchy potato bag of guilt. As I stood on the corner of 6th and Welsh, in front of Gus Kaffas' father's restaurant, a quick glance up the railroad embankment caught the Philadelphia local just leaving the station. My eye lingered on the visage of a man leaning on the railing of the Pennsylvania Railroad platform above. It was the railroad detective, his identity announced by his herringbone overcoat and Dick Tracy Stetson. Last winter I'd thrown an icy snowball at the crowd awaiting the Wilmington local, and my Bob (“Rapid Robert”) Feller accuracy had caught the railroad dick square in the head, dethroning his hat and arousing his ire. I'd taken shelter behind the outdoor billboard while he'd collected his Stetson and descended the sixteen wooden steps to Welsh Street in furious search of the “detention school candidate.” He hadn't caught me then, but the sight of him now was enough to temporarily derail my game plan to ascend the platform steps and hop aboard a slow-moving freight train out of town.
Just then, as fate would have it, I instinctively looked to my left before de-curbing to cross the street and walk Market Street to the river. Despite the fear-inflamed state of my fugitive mind, I caught sight of the Philadelphia Inquirer truck turning onto 6th at Upland, the Weatherill Factory building looming as a backdrop. The driver raced his trackless train down 6th, hardly pausing at Madison Street, ignoring Crosby, and pulling to a ritual stop 20 feet from me. The tailgate dropped, and bailed bundles of Saturday Early Edition Inquirers were tossed onto the street. Bobby Berman cut the cross-wires on the bundles, then thrust the papers into the hands of shouting local urchins, who fled in pursuit of sales.
Instinct throttled me on. I ran across the street, tossing my pillow-cased runaway duds behind the outdoor billboard rising against the wall of the Pennsy Station. I took a paper count of all I could carry and lit out for Third Street (my Broadway). I ducked into the
Chester Arms Hotel and sold three. I sold two in Joe Keenan's Bar before he spotted me and ordered me out, then ran across the entrance street to Bethel Court and to Minnetti's Bar, where “magic” descended in the form of a body and face of a barmaid who ever after thawed chilly memories like a hot water bottle on January cold feet. I'd scanned her jet black hair and her face many times before as she stood before the bar, a magnet to all patrons sober enough to observe—sleek, inviting, an intoxicating welder's flash relief to any ship-fitter stopping by. This moment was a baptismal for me. As the barmaid fixed me in the laser beam of her beautiful black eyes, she waved me toward her, leaned forward, and gave me a maternal hug reserved for war heroes, one that introduced me to manly feelings not yet understood as a kid. She then ordered an Errol Flynn type to buy all my newspapers. He promptly unpocketed a horse choker of a bankroll, peeling off and palming me with a Jackson note—more cash than I'd pocket in a month of shines.
Fear of consequences vanished.
Shame of family lingered only until I'd squelched all negative thought with two Texas wieners topped with sauerkraut and mustard.
Burping my way home, I paused to pick up a pint of hand-packed peach and banana ice cream at Charlie Peck's store —a love offering for Mom from her number-eight child in case, just in case....
I was ready for the worst. But the worst never came. The police never knocked. The A &P duo who caught me in the act never went public.
I returned to the scene of the crime the next day, bought two cans of oxblood, a head of lettuce, and a diamond-studded Duncan yo-yo. The backroom twosome watched as I sauntered to the cashier and counted out the cost in quarters. I paused at the entrance, shot a backward glance over my shoulder, and caught a wink and a smile from Mr. Baritone. I returned the gesture as I pushed open the swinging door.
Once outside, it occurred to me that he and his buddy had been kids once. Maybe they carried a reprieve for their own oxblood incident and decided to pass it on.
I walked to the curb, leaned against the parking meter, sucked in the crisp September air reminiscent of a Vicks menthol inhaler, and peppered it out in staccato ripples like a trumpeter triple-tonguing a high note. Just then a red truck lumbered by, door open on the driver's side, and the mustached, bespectacled man at the wheel turned his head to look me full in the face. I quickly identified him as Chester's part-time truant officer, whose frequent visits to our home gave his face top billing on the list of the Most Feared Faces in Town. His knowing look whispered, "One of these days you're off to Glen Mills, kid, for your repeated dancing on the edge ...." I stuck my tongue out as he belched his exhaust toward the post office.
I turned to walk Edgmont toward the 6th Street railroad underpass, and in the process slipped my newly acquired yo-yo onto the second phalange of my right hand.
I yo-yo'd my crooked path up Market, even stepping into the street to gain the space needed to execute “Sleeping Beauty,” and almost lost my composure and my life as I stepped off the curb approaching Woolworth's Five & Dime. I was in the midst of inventing a new trick when June Rowe stepped out of the store, spotted me, smiled, and kept walking toward 7th. She was Ingrid Bergman, Hedy Lamarr, and Jeanne Crain combined. To garner her smile and watch her move down the street was like swallowing a bottle of niacin tablets. I followed her like a hound dog past Birney's Cigar Emporium and Weinberg's Department Store, then lost her in the milling crowd as she crossed 7th, passed Adam's Clothing Store, and headed toward the Boyd Theater.
Just then my reverie and dream-walking were blown away by the trumpet-lipped orchestrator of traffic, none other than Officer Kandravi, who kept the flow in motion in the main aorta of town. With mixed emotions I leaned against the steel pole at Speares Brothers to watch this 5' 4" King of the Road handle the ebb and flow through the three-street convergence of 7th , Welsh, and Edgmont. To me, Kandravi was a nail in my bicycle tires, an aborter of shoeshines. I needed the eyes of a horsefly to watch for his evasive approach. He was the preeminent actor in his domain, always on the watch for anyone horsing around on his stage.
Suddenly a jolt of power and acumen surged through me. It seemed to rise from my tingling toes rocking in the sublime comfort of Joe Lapchick Converse sneakers. It warmed my massive calf muscles, tightly pressed by the stretch band of my pocketless knickers. It spread through my loins, caught fire in my chest, and came to life as I re-indexed my Duncan and launched into my routine. First, a Walk the Doggie that stayed down the entire 30 feet of Speares' glitter-sprinkled, satin-smooth pavement, then a flat-out flawless Sleeping Beauty. Window-shoppers craned their necks to watch me, as the crowd shifted up the sidewalk. Next came an Around the World,
There are moments in life that define us, that live ever after as existential moments, frozen in slow motion frames, tucked into the silent connective linkages of the brain—moments that, if mastered, lead on to a true greatness. I sensed this to be such a moment as the count began. When it reached 10, self-consciousness faded. When the growing chant reached 25, my concentration on timing melted into awareness of individual faces in the growing mass of onlookers.
Mr. Moskowitz asked Emil Huber if the kid with the yo-yo was a Komarnicki.
Shorty Dignazio’s face was glued to the seamless, silent strokes of my trick string.
Matt Zabitka started scribbling notes when I hit one hundred.
Like a giant amoeba, the crowd reconfigured but kept the count alive.
At 206, Mr. Briggs of sports store notoriety appeared.
Then came Jospeh M. Joseph, vice principal of Smedley and my Optimist Club sponsor— bespectacled, bald as an eagle, grinning with the pride of an adoptive father.
Sweeney, Hopkins, and Clyde turned in tandem toward me as they paused to cross 7th and Edgmont, no doubt breaking for lunch at the State House.
At about 327, George Boyd of diner fame sauntered down 7th and had to walk in the street. He looked as though he were heading toward our house a block away to commandeer Brother George to peel potatoes.
Testing the limits of even the most ardent admirers is rarely possible, but the shifting, multi-faced core remained to the end, and the end came abruptly. My sizzling string, tensiled to the last twist, suddenly snapped and my diamond-studded Duncan took flight over the head of Miss Ward, my beloved first grade teacher, and met its resistance at the base of Kandravi's officially capped skull as he maestroed traffic at 7th and Welsh. Kandravi turned, blew his whistle with a window-shattering shrill, and with yo-yo in hand lurched toward me.
If it weren't for the admiring crowd, I'd be history. Kandravi eyeballed me, did a 360 degree take on the mass of admirers now clapping with the fanned force of a team of Clydesdales. He placed my yo-yo into the palm of my hand and with a razor strap voice said, “Move out, kid, you're blocking traffic.”
As I crossed 7th and Welsh in route home, the venerable hand of none other than John McClure patted my shoulder. My head felt lighter than a feather as he proposed, “See me when you're 18, kid. I've got a job waiting for your talent.” I levitated to a hover as I floated by Caruso's Music Store, a saxophone's sweet sounds playing “I'll never smile again until I smile at you.” I floated past Charlie Peck's Ice Cream Emporium and came to rest on the smooth, penny-pitching sidewalk of home: 151 E. 7th. Pop's words of Biblical wisdom whispered in my soul, “It is more blessed to give than receive.” I was tempted to query him on my puzzlement as to how a kid could have it both ways. The guys at the A & P had given me a break by not squealing and to boot I'd received an $18 tip and the Wall of Fame applause of an admiring town. With the gratitude of one snatched from the jaws of perdition, I paused a moment before pushing the front door open. I'd figure out the answer to Pop's proverb later. For now it was soup and sandwich time and then basketball at the Y.
* * *
Postscript: If you're wondering how a thirteen year-old street urchin collected the verbiage to tell a tale like this, keep it in mind that I was tutored in word and confidence by five older brothers and two whippy sisters. I read H. L. Mencken on the side and listened to the dialogue offered in every taproom in town while hustling newspapers. I read the
Chester Times, the Philadelphia Daily News, the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Philadelphia Ledger, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Record, and the Racing Form. I heard Yondi Martin hurl expletives. I hung out at the YMCA. I circulated through town listening, always listening, to the big and small talk of the day. I was mentored by the mush from Hollywood. I could swagger like Buck Jones, fight like Tom Mix, posture like Ken Maynard. I owned the soft touch of Roy Rogers and could fix a penetrating stare like Hopalong Cassidy. I was encouraged by Miss Ward, Miss Callahan, and Miss Brown. I browsed in Mrs. Webb 's library at
Larkin. I sat upon occasion on the oak chairs at the
Carnegie Library on 9th Street, searching the archives for answers to life’s questions. And of course there was an entire neighborhood of peers too enormous to dishonorably mention. So put away all skepticism. The depths of the story line have yet to be plumbed, but for now it's sandwich time....
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This page last updated 04/20/10