A Night to
A Trip Down Chester's Memory Lane
Day evokes special remembrance
no running away from some memories
Positive News from Chester
Komarnicki Family Portrait
By DAVE KOMARNICKI
Editor’s Note: Dave wrote this story in 1976, ten years before moving from Southern California back to his Delaware County roots.
Northwest Orient Flight 22. Departing L.A. 6:10 p.m. enroute to Minneapolis:
Clouds and smog intermingle, cutting off clear vision of the rolling mountains encircling my chosen dwelling place, Los Angeles. As the plane climbs, I feel the weight of my day drift away. My weariness parachutes into the steel-blue ocean below, sinking unnoticed into the playground of whale and porpoise. My ears uncork as we rise above 25,000 feet. Crossing my Ukrainian-vintage legs, reclining my seat, and adjusting my Ben Franklin specs, I call upon my conjure-power to parade happy thoughts across my mind.
Suddenly the vision of a giant jawbreaker appears: the exact replica of a Charlie Peck jawbreaker that claimed two molars over my years of innocence, a jawbreaker the size of a snooker cue ball. Secretions flow from all corners of my cavernous mouth as I slide this massive source of sweetness into place, wondering how many layers of thickness, of color, of pleasure will follow as it melts to its inner core. The jawbreaker begins to dissolve into my being, the colors change, and before my inner eye appears the image of my little brother Jimmy.
I watch him walk out of the house in his hand-me-down knickers stretched beyond the outer reaches of his leg muscle. "Take me with you guys!" he hollers after me and big-brother George. He flashes his dimpled smile and adjusts his belt a notch to keep the knickers up. "I wanna go! I won't get in your way!"
George (fleet of foot and not without reason called “Rabbit” in those days) and I (brother to the gazelle) are out of sight behind the chestnut tree at
Larkin School before Jimmy plows halfway up Deshong Alley. Feeling that he's lost us and fearing to go further, Jimmy turns and trudges homeward, head down, despondent, yet unaware still of what despondent meant. The Jimmy-layer of my jawbreaker melts away, its sweetness flowing inward to form veins of laughter that will be called from memory at many a gloomy time.
"Come back, Jimmy. Come back now. I'll give you my suit with the two pairs of pants. I'll take you on the
Bridgeport Ferry. I'll walk you—no, carry you—across the trestle spanning Chester Creek and give you a whole bag of jelly beans if you'll walk with me again." "No," whispers my psyche, "The Jimmy-layer is gone . . . ."
Suddenly I feel the craggy bark of the chestnut tree upon my face as Jimmy vanishes from sight. My eagle eye zooms in on Pauly kneeling
knucks-down in a marble game with two unknown kids destined to be stripped of their
puries, their Tom Trollers, and whatever else they might lose before suppertime to the deft maneuvers of the left-handed Music Man of
Marbledom. I watch in quiet awe as Pauly "hits and spans" his opponents all over the playground, as they gawk and groan away their pockets' treasures.
"Pauly, I'll give you my pearl-handled penknife lifted from the Larkin cloakroom if I can play you a marble game right now. I'll give you a new pair of Joe Lapchick sneakers if you'll show me how to roll your favorite shooter between your thumb and index finger and radar in on a half-buried marble 6 feet away. I'll carry you piggyback to Lieperville Quarry and jump the 15-foot ledge with all my clothes on if I can recapture your fluid motion as you stride homeward with pockets bulging to await the awe of Jimmy and the praise of Mom as she rewards your hunger with Campbell's vegetable soup, a bologna sandwich, and a glass of
The whisper, "Time's up," encroaches on my memory and the color of my multi-layered jawbreaker changes again. My zoom lens returns to close-up as the corner of my eye catches the profile of a face too strong for Mount Rushmore, a jaw that, once clenched, can keep a full-grown elephant from walking away, an ear able to capture signals in the other huddle in a pick-up tackle game in
Chester Park, a haircut the envy of any career Marine sergeant. Brother George waves me on as he walks up Eighth Street, hopping over newly installed Duncan parking meters as we advance on the metropolis of Chester.
Limping from the last semi-successful leap of the meter, I lag behind a little and notice brother George's swagger as if for the first time. He has his very own style, as though Buck Jones, Ken Maynard, Roy Rogers, Tom Mix, Bob Steele, and Randolph Scott all came to town on the very same day to give free swagger lessons. He could move toward you, giving you the groaning, weak-kneed feeling that you'd never get away, never get around him, never evade nor thwart his effort to catch you, so you might as well just give up. He was Sir Galahad in torn Levi's (before they were fashionable), stalking invisible enemies, feeling the temper of the cement with every well-placed step.
We enter Roy's Candy Store and buy two rolls of caps, a silver cap-gun that's a little bigger than the right-hand that fires it. Slamming the screen door behind us, we unload six caps on old bald-headed Roy. The perfume of the mingled aromas pipe tobacco lining his shelves clings in the crevices of my olfactory regions and mingles with the flavors of my receding jawbreaker.
"Slam the door once more, brother George; slam it, and laugh your way down the Eighth Street of my mind; swagger as you touch down on the quarried pebbles lining the alley behind
Galey's Hardware Store. Let's get the priest at
Saint Michael's Rectory into a chase he can't win. Let's use a whole roll of caps on
Moskowitz as he guards the ‘Sale’ sign in his furniture-filled window. Let's get
Kandravi the Traffic Cop to blow his whistle at us for riding two-on-a-bike through town. I'll even race you to the
Wilson Line dock, down Edgmont to Market. We'll stop at
Stotter's Department Store and watch the clerks put receipts in the vacuum tubes and send them all over the building. I'll even spend my last nickel to buy you a lead soldier at
McCrory's Five and Ten if you'll let me wear your Philadelphia Athletics hat. Wait up, George! My thigh muscles hurt from running so fast." "Can't wait," whispers the fading color of my jawbreaker as young swaggering George fades from view behind
Carl Doubet's Jewelry Store.
Limping forward, leaning into a sudden gust of September wind, perhaps brought on by George's sirocco-like departure, I stumble across Seventh and Welsh, almost getting hit by the massive steel trolley car grooving its spark-infested line through the heart of town. Miffed by brother George's sudden disappearance, I pause to check the window offerings at
Briggs Sporting Goods Store. My reflection superimposes upon Wilson baseballs couched in a Ted Williams fielder's mitt. I'm suddenly transported to Connie Mack Stadium. Byrum
Saam, the announcer, informs the packed house in deep staccato tones that batting clean-up, replacing the injured Sam Chapman, will be boy-wonder David Komarnicki brought up from the farm club just today.
I take my position in centerfield. Hank Majeski hollers through tobacco-stained teeth, "You can do it, kid! Relax!" Pete Suder winks acceptance. Elmer Valo flashes a smile as he heads toward right field. Dick Siebert catches my eye and extends his gloved hand toward my shoulder. Shifting my jawbreaker to the left cheek, I turn toward the sea of faces behind the dugout near third base and focus in on … I can't believe my eyes. I blink, squint, refocus, and leap with pride! It's brother Dan, standing there as if superimposed over the head of Connie Mack in the dugout! As the crowd roars, I roar back, "Danny! Danny! You came to see me play!" Before my words are fully out, I'm back to Briggs' window. Danny stares back from inside the store, wearing his new black-and-orange Glen Burney jacket. He opens the door and exits, bouncing a brand-new, genuine-leather Nat Holman basketball.
Dan and I walk toward the YMCA together. He lets me bounce and dribble my way past
Speare Brothers Department
Store. The jewel-speckled sidewalk flashes in the sun as the basketball obeys Newton's law of the bounce (action, reaction) across Edgmont Avenue, across Seventh. The rhythm builds as I bounce crouching toward the "Y," past
Adams Clothes. Dan takes possession of the ball, and John Dolan hollers after Dan. They walk together, taking the eight marble steps of the "Y" two by two. I follow, still feeling the thigh-bruise of the aborted meter leap. Danny flashes his yellow membership card, and the door lock releases. Faster than the Green Hornet, I duck behind Dan and illegally enter the hallowed halls of the "Y."
As we descend into the subbasement locker room, the odor of 200 pairs of unwashed woolen sweat socks greets my quivering sinus cavities. I wait, watching Danny dress for the scheduled game. The gym floor creaks overhead. The friction of a billion movements of happy feet has sounded on that red-lined court through the years. I follow the rhythm of the bouncing ball up the stairs, onto the court. Dan goes to his warm-up, I to my vaulted nest atop the parallel bars. Eddie Morrell sounds the buzzer: Glen Burney verus Parkside in the semi-finals. The toss goes up beyond the reach of leaping centers. I swallow saliva mingled with the sweetness of evenly melting jawbreaker. My attention shifts from the court as I lift the morsel of delight from my now multi-colored mouth. Eying its color and size to see how thin the orange veneer is before the next layer, I redeposit my treasure and lick my fingers.
I refocus to find Danny with the ball: a fake to the left; he stoops; he shoots; the slow-motioned arch curves downward, swishing through the net 20 feet away. A roar follows, cheers swell, but before the ball hits the floor the crowd and players recede, vanishing slowly toward a diminishing doorway. Eying the relentless clock, I vault from my seat atop the mat-covered parallel bars. Easing toward the exit, afraid to attract attention from Dan's game in progress, I reach the door, open it, then close it behind me, allowing only the slice of my eye to stare back at the gym floor.
A sense of timelessness nestles down upon my mind. Sights and sounds, odors, touch, and taste mingle with a sense of atomic implosion: adroit hands bouncing the basketball; muscle-rippled calves flexing to microsecond messages from the brain; the piercing shrill of a referee's whistle; raucous reactions from the crowd of spectators in the balcony as they praise or blame the decision of the mediator of the game. The slightly opened door causes aromas to rise— sweat-sock sourness mingled with
cholorined steam from the swimming pool below. I quaff its rare blend and file its message among the many other mysteries of my evolving sense of life. Focusing as if to capture my last multi-colored frame, I see Danny stealing the ball, streaking for a lay-up in mid-air, right arm extended, the ball released.
The door slips shut. The lock clicks. No handle on the outside. I rattle it in vain. Aw, nuts! Did the shot go in? Did Danny get fouled? Could have been a three-pointer! Sorry, Danny, I missed that frame in the moment of your glory. I'll serve your mail route through Garden City for two days if I can relive it. I'll stuff your Sunday papers chest-high at the
Great Leopard skating rink if I can watch the smile rise on your face after that deceptive steal. But the door has slammed shut in my face, and I stand outside with half-truths about the outcome of the game. Gotta go home anyway.
I cross the lobby to the street stairs. Hunger pangs ply on a washboard stomach, pacified only by the slow, even trickle of juice from a receding jawbreaker. I stand on the "Y" steps, musing on which direction to move: up Seventh to the Boyd Diner and a piece of Boston cream pie; down to the Sixth Street Arcade to run up some free games on the pinball machine; maybe the
Ches-Penn Bowling Alley to "set" a few games.
All thoughts are rejected as I focus on brother Joe walking my way. How can a guy always look so neat, so poised and in control? I've heard he's been chosen president of his graduating class. What an honor. Don't know what it all means, but I do know one thing— that gorgeous blonde on his arm should be in an Andy Hardy movie. I think I heard Joe call her “Doris.” They look happy together, not mushy-happy, just excited-happy, happy to be alive, the way I feel most of the time. Joe's Doris walks the way that Doris Day sings—with a bounce, a smile, and a whispered sigh, all in tune. Her saddle shoes are neatly polished, her bright hair is parted in the middle, her eyes are fixed in anticipation of the next moment—as if a breakaway touchdown is about to take place and she’s the captain of the cheerleaders. Joe quietly acknowledges that all within sight are his friends—you can see it by his easy smile and stride. As they approach my observation platform (the YMCA steps), I take my leave by ducking behind the door, wishing to see without being seen. Joe and Doris pass, turning the corner at Seventh and
Edgmont, heading off to window-shop their hand-holding way to
Boyd Drugs for a cherry coke or chocolate malt or to the
Deshong Art Gallery for a walk through the paintings.
A lump suddenly forms in my throat, a lump unlike any I've ever housed in my mind or mouth. It's a feeling-lump, its beginnings traced to lyrics heard one day on the nickelodeon at Charlie Peck's Ice Cream Parlor, lyrics that struck me with a quiet pang of longing even then:
This love of mine goes on and on,
Tho' life is empty since you have gone.
You're always on my mind, tho' out of sight
It's lonesome thru the day,
But oh! the night.
I cry my heart out, it's bound to break,
Since nothing matters, let it break.
I ask the sun and the moon,
The stars that shine,
What's to become of it, this love of mine.
Brother Joe, girlfriend Doris—holding hands, smiling, walking through town on a September Saturday, clicked by the focused brown eye of my memory. I feel in tune with their stride as they turn the corner. Will life ever merge for me that way, the way they are right now, hand holding hand, two hearts with a single beat? The lump rises again, and my mind rehearses another tune:
The girl that I marry will have to be
as sweet and as soft as a nursery
The girl I call my own
will wear saddle shoes,
and smell of Evening in Paris . . .
The lump in my throat recedes, and I become aware of the jawbreaker in my mouth. It seems smaller. I inspect it surreptitiously and see that another layer has vanished, almost with the disappearance of Joe and Doris around the corner.
The shrill whistle of Kandravi, the cop who maestros traffic at Seventh and
Edgmont, whiplashes me back from the sentimental journey of Joe and Doris. A sudden gust of wind blows gutter discards past my feet—a Breyer's dixie cup lid (could be the Ken Maynard or Buck Jones I've been searching for), and then a Lucky Strike wrapper followed by a Pall Mall, a Chesterfield, and two Phillip Morris.
A surge of strength lifts my Joe Lapchick sneakers off the YMCA steps and carries me across Seventh Street, defying the red traffic light and Kandravi’s dictatorship of who does what when. A horse-drawn ice truck almost hoofs me into the Kingdom, but I deftly sidestep the mass of braying flesh, skirt between a Buick and a Ford, and land safely curbed in front of
Store. The class-conscious of Chester and environs look to Sol Weinberg's store as the mecca of fashion. The window displays of slinky, silk-clad mannequins often cause syncopated bleatings in my uninitiated heart. Thoughts of future times and a future woman race through me, and I choke with the thought that I'll never be able to afford to shop here.
Suddenly I catch the left ankle of a familiar leg, as sister Vicky strolls through Weinberg’s hallowed doors for a tour of wishful thinking. I follow at a safe distance. Maybe I'll discover a special thing she longs over, garner my Christmas Club money, and lavish her with a present she'll never forget. With the heart of Sir Galahad, I slink along behind and watch my beloved sister pull a pleated skirt from the rack. She holds it in front of her and gazes at her reflection in a three-way mirror: her hair neatly parted at the side; a ribbon tucked around a strand; her eyes matching her smile as she looks to the left, to the right, to the center. She's a Cinderella who may never make it to the fancy dress ball, but Weinberg's fantasyland is just as real. Daintily squeezing the atomizer of a sample bottle of perfume, Vicky lightly sprays her left wrist. She raises its aroma to the judgment of nostrils able to enjoy the scents the purse cannot buy. The powder puffs, the bubble baths, the carved soaps: nothing escapes her pensive eye, her touch, her longing.
Vicky leaves Weinberg's the way she came, filled with mental pictures of what might be in some future tomorrow. Happiness is frozen on her unlined face; her eyes dance; her step is light as her poised, purposeful walk takes her out of the store. I head toward the back door, through the shoe department. Mr. Parker—bald, squeaky-voiced, glasses worn low on his Dick Tracy nose, and smelling of 10,000 ingested Havana cigars—looks up from his perch, shoehorn in hand. As he forces a female foot into an open-toed pump two sizes too small, he glances inquiringly at me, obviously wondering why I'm here. I ask him if I can come back later and pick up the flattened shoeboxes. He squeaks in the affirmative, and I thank him. As my foot touches the alley behind the store, I feel the choke of a stifled tear mingle with the juices of my almost forgotten jawbreaker. Together they flow into the widening crevice of a decaying tooth. I kick stones, cans, paper, whatever will move, down the alley to Sixth Street. Each kick is an expulsion of my determination to earn money, to translate Vicky's fantasies to realities, to earn, and someday own, the very best in my ever-widening world.
Black-and-white soot chokes the air surrounding the Pennsy railroad station as the Philly-bound locomotive chugs its heavy load of people through and away from Chester. Echoes of memory appear, recent memories of brother John singing:
Once I built a railroad, made it run
Made it race against time
Once I built a railroad, now it’s done
Brother, can you spare a dime?
Turning to the left, I pass Smitty's News Stand bordering the alley. Racks of pulp magazines and paperback books fan out like a deck of cards. The titles are half-visible: Tarzan and the Apes is hidden by the overlay of The Maltese Falcon, which is hidden by Detective Mysteries. The line-up seems endless and meaningless to a 12-year-old kid in knickers who is nursing a sweet toothache and dreaming about being a Marco Polo to a sister who has just left Weinberg's with nothing but touches and smells.
A few hours from now I'll be back on this same street, waiting at the tailgate of the Philadelphia Inquirer truck, pushing and shoving toward
Bobbie Berman as he fingers his way five at a time through an armload of evening papers, waiting for us kids to scream out the number of papers we want. Bobbie has a voice of leather, thick bifocals, the compact body of a wrestler, the broad-fingered hands of a boxer, and the heart of a father raising 20 orphans.
A yellow cab honks me aside as I stand mid-alley thinking about my evening to come. I turn to the right, walking toward Edgmont Avenue, one foot in the gutter and one on the curb. I search for anything valuable: a Fleischmann's Yeast wrapper, a seven of hearts, a cigar butt. The
Sun Ray Drugs sign greets my first upward glance, along with its window display of newly offered inventory. Ballpoint pens are prominent: "New Miracle in Writing." This brings an audible "so what?" from me. I don't like to write. I don't like to read. Tarzan can ape it with Jane forever, and ballpoint pens can roll a blue line to the moon. What I need are coins.
Deep in thought and uncertain what to do with the next two hours, I start my migration homeward down
Edgmont. As I reach McCrory's Five & Dime, I see in the distance, half-hidden by a road-hogging trolley car, the unmistakable grill of a 1936 Ford. It's sleek as a cat and as desirable as your own room in a dormitory world. I drink it in as it approaches: gangster whitewalls, mirror-bright black paint reflecting whatever it passes on its own image. My heart beats to the rhythm of a Gene Kruppa drum each time I see a car like this. Could it be? No. Yes. It is! It's brother John behind the wheel! The clang of the trolley grinding on its steel track, the steam thrusts of a train with endless box cars, the flagrant horn of a cab in pursuit of a destination labeled "Hurry!"—all converge to drown out my raucous shout after brother John. Window rolled up, steel-blue eyes riveted on the trolley ahead, John misses the look of pride on my face and passes without noticing me.
How many are the times I've watched him tap dance his way down the three front steps of our house, doing his Bojangles soft-shoe shuffle? How often have I rehearsed the way he stands before a mirror, combing my hair and searching my face for blemishes, putting on his massive suit-coats, hoping someday I'll inherit one or two of them? But more than clothes or looks, I pray to inherit his style, his smile, his gift and zest for life, his Errol Flynn flair, his fearless stare. Ah, to be John! I'd leap the ten years between his view and mine without caring for the life lost between. Ah, but if I were John, who would John be? There'd be no room in this wide world for two such as he. So I'll just have to be content to be me, and grow toward the John in me.
Impulse sets me to running after him, but the Ford disappears at the dogleg turn onto Market Street, passing under the railroad station. Pounding my fist into an imaginary catcher's mitt, I remember it was John who taught me how to make a fist for fighting. While sitting on the Catholic Teachers Association steps next to Charlie Peck's store, I remember John bringing my thumb from under my clasped fingers, curving it down across the line on my lower knuckles, and squeezing my fist tight, so tight it almost stopped the circulation in my hand. I remember him saying, "Now, when you hit,
Davey, follow through and end it fast, or don't ever fight at all.” For several dreams, I envisioned hitting through and leaving a hole in the chest of a wise guy on the Larkin School playground. Once I saw a head roll off when I followed through with a punch to the jaws. After many fitful nights, I decided to look as ugly as I could but avoid fistfights.
Saturday shoppers pass by. I jump down from my perch and walk toward Seventh Street and home. Kicking cigar butts along the gutter, flipping the lever of each parking meter as I scuff along, I pause to look into the interior of
Birney's Birch Beer & Pool
Parlor. The windows display White Owl, Dutch Master, and Philly cigars, Red Man Chewing Tobacco, Copenhagen Snuff, and enough pipes to appease the jaws of every Cro-Magnon mouth in the Western world—a smoker's nirvana. The heavy beveled glass doors are opened to the outside and latched, allowing the flow of male traffic to move freely in and out.
Should I enter and look around? I'd always wanted to. A "do it now" impulse carries my sneakers across the threshold. As I enter, I notice the similarity of the floor tile to the shower room of the YMCA. Once inside, I quaff deeply the odor of a den of men inhaling and exhaling to the limits of their disrespected lungs. I watch the ritual of the birch beer crowd, hear the roll and slap of quarters, nickels, dimes, and half-dollars on the marble countertop as they're exchanged for a walnut-colored brew with an inch-thick head in a dripping glass.
“Hey, kid, you look thirsty!" (True observation, I say to myself). My anonymous benefactor throws coins on the counter, then hands me my first offering of a taste that will linger to the end of my days. Its surge of liquid strength mingles with my almost-forgotten jawbreaker and produces an elixir that would be a surefire cure for the common cold. It equals the thrill of being "King of the Hill" for five consecutive minutes. I nurse the flavor as I walk toward the front pool table. There were five other tables, but kids were not allowed to enter the back den where money changed hands.
I watch wide-eyed as the Saturday crowd (businessmen in three-piece suits, stevedores, shipyard boilermakers, and bookies) mingled and shared the common bond of a poolroom—brass spittoons, high-backed wooden chairs, seas of green felt, low hanging lights, the screech of chalked cues, the click of cue ball on object ball, the intense focus of eye and grimaced face as a felt-tipped cue spears toward its called shot ("Seven ball, corner pocket"). Squinting through rising clusters of smoke, my eyes burning, my birch beer imbibed, I turn slowly, sorry to leave the pulsing action of the room, and inch toward the door. I place my thick-bottomed glass on the marble counter, thank Wally Magnanimous, and grab an empty cigar box off an unoccupied stool as I lightfoot it out into the afternoon sunlight.
All of life should be an endless stream of Saturdays—sneakers and Levis, sweat socks and T-shirts, coins to jingle in deep pockets, and endless cigar boxes to house my treasures. I walk along, emptying my pockets into my Dutch Master box and taking inventory of my wares: one Duncan yo
yo, shaved back to let the trick string ride easier; 26 marbles; two Tom Trollers and one
steelie; four rubber bands; a Dick Tracy cap gun; three nickels; two pennies; a pearl-handled penknife; a hanky bearing three dozen head-sneezes. As my nail-bitten fingers claw away the last of the gathered lint in each pocket, I reach Seventh and Edgmont—the eye of the needle, the hub of the restless wheel of Chester. Kandravi the Traffic Cop stands there where he's always stood, controlling the flow of all life. His white-gloved hand can hold movement on a green light, can make people freeze while crossing the street. I avoid him as a kid avoids the inward stare of a bad conscience. To my left, the marquee of the
State Theater spells out, "Casablanca, BOGART; Three Stooges Comedy." A bleating horn catches my ear. I look up and see that same sleek ’36 Ford waiting for the light to change. It’s brother John again, and he spots me this time. He’s waving at me, waving me to join him for a ride. I broad-jump Edgmont in three giant leaps, and the door of the Ford swings open. I slide into the back seat, my hand fusing with the glorious feel of felt seats. I laugh in giddy excitement at my good
Standing (left to right): David, George, Joe, Mickey,
John, Danny, Paul
Seated (left to right): Vickie, Anna, Jim, Joseph, Mary
I view receding scenes from the narrow back window as we bounce along the uneven stones of Seventh Street:
Stacey's Shoe Repair; Texas Wieners (home of the greatest-tasting hot dogs ever experienced); the red-bricked face of the building housing Billy Lyken's second-floor apartment; Saint Michael's Catholic School; Charlie Peck's store; the Eagles Club with its wrought-iron fence bordering Deshong Street alley; Cheap John's Second Hand Store, where I'd gotten the first jacket ever bought with my own money; Tucker's Pool Hall; Carmin's Hoagie Shop; Collins' Grocery Store. It was all there, safe from foreign invasion, ready to serve as the stage for my future meanderings.
John turns sharply onto Madison Street. The smile on his face adds pleasure upon pleasure to my own. We turn left onto Eighth Street and race past Larkin School. With, its gray, quarried stone walls, it's a fortress without a moat. It was the first introduction to my life of the mind, and this is the summer of my release from it, a summer of endless Saturdays. I'd served my time there and was free of its walls
forever. We make a sharp right turn onto Edgmont. The green trees of Deshong Park bristle, branches waving like friends. I'd climbed most of them, felt their limbs flex as I searched their strength and surged to reach their top and shake the pears or apples from them. The Art Museum bathes in the late afternoon sun, its whiteness and proud posture like a bride awaiting her groom at the altar.
John reads my mind and turns left into the park, taking the road between two baseball diamonds. We stop the car to watch the game in progress. "The guy at the bat looks familiar," I tell John. "He should," John laughs. "That's Jimmy, Jimmy Turk. He's married to our sister." I roll down the window to catch the action. Jim's crouched, rear end extended, the way I was asked to stand while being paddled by Miss Beacham at Larkin School. The whack of Jim’s bat snaps me back to the game. As I watch, the ball splatters lime chalk, down the left field line. Jim rounds first, and his hat flies off.
"'Gotta go," says John, lurching the car forward suddenly. "Here comes the park guard, and we're not allowed to park here."
A tree, the backstop behind the catcher, and the wooden bleachers along first base team up to block my view of Jim as he speeds toward second. "Nuts!" I never get to watch the action— always being chased or hurried by outside forces.
John shifts gears. I hear the screech of steel on steel.
"Gotta get the clutch fixed," John mutters. "What's a clutch?" I ask him. "Never mind," says John. Just then my eye catches the Sealtest Milk sign atop the warehouse fast approaching. The taste of strawberry milk secretes from fluids sleeping in the gum-line of my jaws. Not wanting to pause on my magic ride, I clamp down on my jawbreaker instead of asking John to linger for a pint. We turn left, and my vital juices pump faster as I anticipate my first descent of Deshong Park Hill in a car. Deshong Hill: a dare on ball-bearing skates; a crack on a chapped lip on a flexible flyer; an about-to-happen all-time memory in John's Ford. Window down, breeze whipping hair into my dancing eyes, I feel the surge as we approach the lip of the hill. Airborne! For a split second, all within sight freezes— the German shepherd, blue tongue hanging off to the left side, guarding the sickle pear trees; kids playing King of the Hill, rolling over and over; a man and woman strolling the cement rim of a pond whose center fountain sprays watery praise heavenward; a solitary man hunched over and walking slowly toward the woods, pants legs bulging with wrapped newspaper to protect his body from the chill of the approaching night’s slumber on the open ground. We screech the right wheels of the Ford to make the turn at the bottom of the hill, then surge across Ninth Street as the yellow light flips to red. I feel like the Green Hornet with Kato at the wheel.
We move into the heart of the city again via Welsh Street. Traffic's knotted at Eighth and Welsh, and a crowd's standing and waiting to move into Boyd Drugs. The
Boyd Theater sports a huge three-sided marquee announcing "The Fleet’s In” with Dorothy
Lamour, William Holden, and Eddie Bracken. The September crispness rushes into my face as I lean out the window. The Quality Market,
Messmer Florist, Adams Clothing Store—all sentinels of Welsh Street, friendly sights as meaningful to me as Braille to a blind man's fingers. I want to freeze time, if not to freeze it then to slow it down to a walking pace. I want to drink this day slowly the way I drink a bottle of Frank's Orange Nectar smuggled in at bedtime on a warm summer's night
We take Welsh to Edgmont then veer left down Market Street, going past Walgreen's Drugs and waiting for the light to change in front of the
Delaware County National Bank, whose vault holds my soon-to-be-extracted Christmas Club money. We pass the
Washington Theater, where Saturday serials and double-feature cowboy movies etch their impressions on my action-prone mind. Stotter’s Department Store and the
Scott Paper Company's toilet-tissue-type water tower loom into view as we near the Wilson Line dock. We pause a moment to view the approach of the giant floating pleasure palace that carries us, when money allows, across the water to the playland of Riverview Beach on the Jersey Shore.
We pass through the narrow streets of Commission
Row, where merchants display their produce amidst the decayed surroundings of buildings worn out by one hundred years of use. We pass a display of boxed peaches, and I can almost taste their rosy fuzziness. We turn left on Third, passing Ginnetti's Bar, Keenan's Bar and Albie Ingerman's tailor-made clothing shop, then bump our way across the Chester Creek Bridge heading west. I notice the rust bleeding through the letter "P" in "Penn" as we turn onto the street named in honor of the founder of our state. The red brick sidewalks, narrow wooden porches, and tired trees feel the rumble and wind of our passing as we speed toward the Great Leopard Skating Rink and Super Market. We slow down to school-zone speed to check out the crowd that's gathered to enter this magic world of music and motion. A pony-tailed girl in pleated skirt, pink sweater, and brown-and-white saddle shoes is leaning adoringly on her boyfriend's arm. His black woolen jacket is crested with a large letter "C" imprinted with a football—a witness to all that he's varsity. Suddenly I see a familiar figure toward the front of the line—a reed-slim, well-muscled body on nimble legs. "There's brother Mickey!” I shout, rolling down the window to yell out a greeting to him. Just then the line surges forward, carrying Mickey with it through the entrance. I'm sure that his agile legs are taking the steps two by two so that he can whip through the business of renting his skates and get out onto the floor to match his graceful inner tune with the ever-changing melodies of the organist.
I want to pause on my John-conducted tour of Chester so that I can exchange my last dime for a ticket and climb those same stairs, then stand unobserved in a corner to watch Mickey skate his Saturday into the record book. I remember one time that I watched him circle the outer edge of the rink, his hands in those of girlfriend, Myra Grey. I think she parted her hair in the middle. I remember that they were in perfect tune with the music, forward, now backward, legs crossing legs, as happy as a hand in a warm glove with each other. Maybe someday they'd teach me something about skating, but today was not to be the day. I had a supper to eat and a paper route to serve.
As John drove on, I sat in silence thinking about my brother Mickey. It suddenly struck me how few were the times we actually saw each other. When I'd arise for school, Mickey would be gone, and when I 'd return home from school to change into play clothes, he’d be at work at the Boyd Diner. If I needed my report card signed, he'd be there to help, and if I needed a nickel for candy Mickey could be counted on for sympathy. Like the Northern Star, he was steady. I could orbit around his image knowing I was safe. I could set my compass by his compassion. I could point with straight-armed pride at him and say out loud in a crowd, "He's my brother, and I want to be just like him when I grow up."
I breathe deeply, exhaling slowly and feeling a tingle in my lungs as I relax into the back seat of the car. A sense of laughter, a sense of belonging, a sense of joy surprises me as I spell my name mentally in bold, asterisked letters: *D*A*V*I*D* *K*0*M*A*R*N*I*C*K*I*. As my jawbreaker continues to melt away, I feel the flow of another sugary coat mesh into the stream of my jangling juices. The rumble of a train roars overhead as we pass beneath Penn Station at Sixth Street. We turn the corner onto Seventh., heading home.
The traffic light catches us at the corner of Seventh and
Sproul, and I see a dapper man of upper-middle class crossing the street, sporting a Stetson hat, a walking stick, and a three-piece blue serge suit. He's whistling an unknown tune, perhaps a memory-remnant of a cavalry charge up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt. We glide by the YWCA and pause again as traffic stops us beside the Boyd Diner. George Boyd, the owner, is punching a hole in the meal ticket of Emil Huber, vice principal of
Chester High School. (Emil is highly visible due to his cueball baldness and hunched shoulders. Brother Dan had pointed him out to me one day as a man I should avoid getting to know if ever I made it to high school). At the exact spot I'd entered John's Ford—Seventh and Edgmont—I depart it. I thank him with a wave and with laughter in my eyes as he turns the corner.
Careful-footed, I walk the curb homeward to 151 E. Seventh, where I know Mom will be waiting patiently for my late appearance. Enroute I find 12 Chesterfield wrappers, 18 Coca Cola tops, six unused caps in a discarded roll, a wrapped Walnetto Caramel, a slightly chipped marble, and a huge rubber band large enough to wrap around my cigar box, which I did. I wave to Mr. Massi as he sits outside his stall in the middle of his parking lot and whistle at Yondie Martin's sister as she enters Charlie Peck's store. I say, "Tack she
miashy" to George Petrusha as I pass his barber shop—a Ukrainian phrase I knew would bring a smile to his face. Joe Miller, owner of a taproom two doors from my house, stands outside his establishment, chewing on his fat, smelly cigar and watching me in silence as I eyeball him across the cement sidewalk. Mr. Bowen, our next-door neighbor, wheezes and coughs a bronchial greeting as he emerges from the narrow alleyway between our adjoining row houses. He’s followed by three of his 25 cats.
I duck into the same alley, deciding to enter by the back door. Thinking it wise to sneak a view of who awaits within, I hug the red brick wall until I reach the low-set bay window at the side of our house, then stoop forward out of sight, waiting in crouched silence to pick up any audibles within. Waiting, waiting, silence, more silence … then voices approaching and entering the room, then the opening of the Coldspot refrigerator. No mistaking it, Mom and Mary are cooking up something special. I peer cautiously on an oblique angle, afraid to be seen but anxious to see what is brewing inside. The heat of the oven, once opened, carries its secret through the partially opened window to my quivering nostrils. Sister Mary, apron-clad, stands beside the oven door, shifting the mound of halupcha (cabbage-wrapped meat and rice), recycling the juice, testing the taste of this labor of love. Mary and Mom together in the kitchen, preparing in hours what we will devour in minutes.
Mary had recently married Jimmy Turk and settled into an apartment several blocks away. It was always a treat to see her. Mary was a walking reward, and chocolate cakes rolled endlessly from her un-lumped batter. She had stood on the other side of Mom and supported my first shaky baby steps. Her thumb bore the pen pricks of more diaper changes than a nurse running an orphanage. She had washed me behind the ears, prayed over my swollen mumps, wrapped me in scarves, and buckled my galoshes through many a storm-filled winter. She had forgiven me when I cracked the mirror in her rouge kit, and accepted my yearly gift of Evening in Paris perfume with a moist eye and a hug of gratitude. She added the secure warmth of a feather bed to my being. Seeing her there in the kitchen, contentedly stirring my favorite food, gives me a quiet pleasure that is hard to hold down in silence.
Mary, turning suddenly toward the window, catches the intensity of my stare through the glass. Her smile, her unique sounding of my name, "David!” lay bare the inner core of my jawbreaker. I open the gate from the alleyway into the backyard, the gate's rusty hinges in tune with the hungry chorus of a quartet of Mr. Bowen's cats. Mrs. Whaley’s dog,
Rinnie, eternally guarding the sickle-pear tree in their yard next door, growls through clenched teeth, longing to take his third bite out of me in as many years. I bounce a clothespin off his nose and duck laughing into the house.
Mary hugs me and makes funny sounds on my neck as we embrace. Mom is peeling moist leaves off a plump cabbage, and I kiss her on the back of the neck where it tickles. She shivers. "Don't do that!" she says and asks me where I’ve been. "Around town," I tell her, fingering some warm rice into my mouth. I bolt for the back stairs, taking them two by two, dart to the bathroom, and run water for a warm bath. I stare into the mirror, focusing on my left eye until it seems to detach and float forward. I open my mouth wide, then wider, and observe the blue veins on the bottom of my tongue, then my throat with the uvula dangling, then at my tonsils, so enlarged they almost touch. I hum Jack Armstrong's radio theme song as I step into the warm Ivory-soaped water. I lay a borrowed YMCA towel on the back of the tub, lean back, and muse on the fortunes of my day. Was ever a kid so lucky as I? Family everywhere—to see, to hear, to touch, to hug, to laugh with. The tub gurgles its overflow out the safety pipe in tune with my hummed rendition of “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
I think of Mom in the kitchen below, breathing her special breath of life into stuffed cabbage. Suddenly I think about where I’d have been if she’d never left her own mom and dad as a young girl to voyage to this country. I close my eyes and see her standing on the deck of a ship, leaving everyone she’d ever known and loved, waving goodbye, knowing in her heart that there would be no reunion until heaven. What inner vision drew her here? Did she know she’d meet Pop at the wedding of a mutual friend in Philadelphia? What made her rise at dawn to pack our lunches, wash our clothes, prepare the endless stream of meals, to patch and mend our lives with love and acceptance? I would often lie in bed, listening to the conversations Mom and Pop would share in Ukrainian, hearing the high-octave laughter, the quiet whispers. At my bedside every night I’d hear her pray for me, and I’d feel the strength and beauty of her clear, childlike faith as she laid her hand on my brow. I’d see a softness in her eyes as I handed her the nickels and dimes gleaned from my nightly sale of newspapers.
Lying in my rapidly cooling bath, I hear the front door open, then close. I hear measured footsteps in the hallway below, then the laughing sound of “Hanushka, where are you?” Pop was home. He’d left the house 12 hours ago to work his shift at
Roser’s Restaurant, then walked the two blocks in between and returned with laughter in his voice. I hop from the bathtub, run down the hall to my room, and quickly dress—fresh sweat socks, same Levi’s, a plaid shirt borrowed from George’s side of the closet.
I wait at the top of the stairs, listening to the conversation below. Mom is telling Pop to quit kissing her on the back of the neck and quit tickling her, to leave the kitchen and let her finish cooking. I quietly descend the winding staircase down to the living room. The door at the bottom is slightly ajar and I stand there for a moment, watching Pop finish peeling a Winesap apple, leaving the single strand of skin near Mom's meat and rice filling on the kitchen counter. Mom tells Pop to go sit in the other room, and I catch his movement as he leaves the kitchen, kissing her one more time on the neck and breathing an affectionate, "Hanushka, bebka." He places a neatly cut section of apple in his mouth and chews as he walks across the room and out of my line of vision toward the sitting room.
I make my entry back into the kitchen. Mom has anticipated my arrival, proving it by laying out a giant bowl of Campbell's alphabet soup, a glass of milk with Bosco, a thick slab of seeded Russian rye laden with a thick spread of sweet butter, and a bologna sandwich. As I chomp and slurp, Moms blankets the meat and rice with cabbage leaves. I hear Pop in the other room, singing without accompaniment from a hymnal: "So I'll cherish the old rugged cross till my burdens at last I lay down, I will cling to the old rugged cross and exchange it someday for a crown."
Watching Mom smile at me as I eat, listening to Pop triumph up the scale beyond middle C, I feel the focused warmth of God's love enter me, a full-spectrum rainbow arching the synapse between my brain: Mom's eyes and Pop's song.
Gulping the last of the Bosco malt, kissing Mom on her neck, I start for the back door and my nightly newsboy routine. I suddenly realize that I've left the core of my jawbreaker on the bathroom dresser, and I dart up the stairs down the long hallway to the bathroom. There it is, sitting on the edge where I'd left it while inspecting my uvula and tonsils. I retrieve it and creep down the front stairs as silently as a shadow. As Pop begins singing another favorite, I lift the front door a special way to keep it from squeaking and close it quietly behind me.
The sun is half-visible beyond the slanted slate roof of the
Madison Street Methodist Church, challenging me to make it to Sixth and Welsh before it disappears. I vault the three front steps of our house, spurt to Massi’s parking lot and hurdle the 3-foot fence surrounding the premises. Short-cutting down St. Charles, I move with record speed and feel that victory is mine, just as the last-felt speck of my jawbreaker fades into my
© 1976, 2002 David Komarnicki, all rights reserved.