Posts Tagged '1940s'

Tell Them I’m Not Home – out now!

Tell Them I'm Not Home

‘Tell Them I’m Not Home’ is a lightly fictionalized memoir of growing up in the Olney section of North Philadelphia in the decade following World War II, a place not unlike Jean Shepherd’s Hammond, Indiana of a decade earlier. The close-quarters life in a blue-collar neighborhood of row-house streets provided the author with a cast of characters, many funny, some scary, as well as a near-endless litany of stories. ‘Tell Them I’m Not Home’ is a ticket back to the Olney & Philadelphia of the late 1940s and early 1950s, a place as singular, colorful and as lost to today as Hapsburg Vienna or tenement New York.


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Sample Chapters:

“The Glory That Was Rome
In neighborhoods like Olney, people sorted themselves out along a variety of fault lines. Phillies fans versus those who allied themselves with Connie Mack’s pitiful Athletics, those with Lionel Electric trains against those with American Flyers, the cheaper Father and Son shoes against the pricier Flagg Brothers, Luckies or Camels, and on and on and on. But the defining separation among the people who populated the neighborhood of my childhood was the religious split between Catholics and the Protestants. Among Catholics like us, the prevailing interpretation of Protestantism encompassed anyone who wasn’t a Catholic.  (Click here to continue…)


 “Happy Birthday Patsy Mullins”
I was coming down 5th Street when I met Eddie Matthews who was coming the other way. In the course of the kind of conversations that twelve-year-olds, newly minted twelve-year-olds, carry on, Eddie asked if I were going to Patsy Mullins’ birthday party. The question kind of bounced off me. Like what birthday party, and why would Patsy Mullins invite me to her birthday party? In the sexually segregated Irish, Latin, Roman Catholic world of late 1940’s Philadelphia where this conversation was taking place, I was very much aware of young Ms. Mullins. But although we were in the same grade in the same parish school, we had never exchanged more than a “Hi” when passing on the street. Seventh grade boys were on one floor of the school building and girls on the other. In all the years I had spent in the Incarnation of Our Lord parish school, I couldn’t remember any interaction between them and us. The seventh-grade girls could have been Albanians or Martians. (Click here to continue…)

“Kenny Bergman”
On Christmas Day, 1950, Kenny Bergman and I sat on his living room sofa smoking cigarettes. I was thirteen. Kenny’s mother was visible, working away in the kitchen. The house smelled of roasting turkey and the radio was on, Bing Crosby singing carols. On the other side of the room under the Christmas tree a set of American Flyer electric trains moved slowly around a platform filled with little houses, cars and mountain-paper tunnels. Each time the train emerged from the nearest tunnel, Kenny or I would raise his Daisy Targeteer BB pistol and aim for one of the glass Christmas tree ornaments he’d placed in a gondola or on a flat car. Several times, a smiling Mrs. Bergman walked through the living room. She never said a word. I thought I was in heaven. (Click here to continue…)

“Tell Them I’m Not Home”
I got in from school around three-thirty. At a quarter to four, the phone in the living room rings. “Oh shit,” I thought. As my mother moved to pick up the receiver, I shouted down from the landing, “tell them I’m not home, Mom. Tell them I’m not home.” I knew who was on the phone. It was Rudy Bederman, the assistant manager at the A & P on 5th Street, and I knew what he wanted. It was Thursday. I wasn’t scheduled to work until the next day, Friday. Somebody hadn’t shown up and they wanted me to fill in. I had nothing on my afternoon agenda other than walking over to Fairhill Street to hang out with the crowd at Geever’s candy store. My mother was not to be trusted in these matters. To impart a sense of urgency, I kept up my chant. “Mom! Mom! Tell them I’m not home.”  Unfortunately, in the seconds that my mother hesitated with the receiver in her hand, Rudy Bederman heard me shouting that I wasn’t home. (Click here to continue…)


“Do You Believe In Magic?”
In September 1954, my senior year of high school had just begun, just barely. I had flunked summer school, my third summer school in as many years. According to the rules that meant I wouldn’t be going back to my high school. I would have to go to a public school and repeat junior year. (Click here to continue…)

all content copyright Pete Byrne 2011


The Golden Age Of The Moniker

Other than hearing them on HBO’s “The Sopranos,” nicknames that overrode a person’s given name seem to have disappeared from mainstream American life. Growing up in a blue-collar, city neighborhood of the 1940s and1950s, I remember nicknames as commonplace.

The essence of most nicknames was that they were almost always off-handedly bestowed, never chosen by the carrier. Nicknames that could stick to a person for a lifetime usually originated in throw-away lines, offered as casual asides. Most recipients of an adhering nickname, after some futile resistance, would reluctantly acquiesce to their new identities. There are men today in their seventies who, were I to meet then on the street or were their names to come up in conversation, would be greeted or referred to reflexively in the often inexplicable nominatives of their schoolyard or corner lounging days. These were not the benign names of contemporary suburbia. There were no cutesy, parentally endowed “Chips” or “Skips.” These were names like “Jiggs,” “Ozzie” and “Nuggie,” likewise “Fat Sam” and “Fat Ralph,” who incidentally was not fat.

We had a “Buzz,” more than one “Ace,” a “Duke” and a “Babe.” There was a “Lips,” a “Joe Guinea” and even a “B. O.,” who smelled no worse that the rest of us. “Roughhouse Ray” was a guy congenitally incapable of putting up his dukes, and “Bones” approached the obese. I knew a “Mouse,” a “Chickie,” a “Pidgie,” a “Jug” and a “Gobbler.” Where that last one came from, I have no idea. “Bull Moose” was an imposingly muscular retarded guy who wandered the neighborhood in silence, and the name “Dippy John” was the price that a kid with minor birth defects paid to belong on the corners. “Dippy John” was in no way “dippy.”

I was present when a co-worker told a low-grade joke about a gay attack dog barking “Bowsie-Wowsie.” From that day on he was “The Bowser,” and none of his resentful objections were to any avail.

A cousin of mine got stuck at the age of seven with the name of his radio adventure hero “Brick Bradford.” The full name morphed to “Bricky” and is still answered to by a man now in his sixties. Fifty years ago, another cousin married a plus six-foot sailor who continues to get “Stretch.” An eighth-grade classmate, whose given name I no longer recall, was tagged with “Uncle Miltie,” and another has carried “Fuzzy” into seniorhood. While nicknames were a guy thing, I can recall a “Bubbles,” a “Cookie” and even a “Jukey.”

A kid named Joe lived across the street and it was my own father who, referencing a newspaper ad for a Yiddish theater production of the play “Yostle the Bum,” hung that name on Joe. The name took instantly and permanently, contracting quickly to just “Yostle” and from there to “Yos.” I doubt that hardly anyone from the neighborhood remembers him as anything other than Joe “Yos.”

For the record, I managed to elude getting a nickname.

Arrivedeci Roma!

imagesWhat ever has happened to the Roman Catholic Church, my church, the one I knew in the nineteen-forties and fifties, the church that seemed to utterly dominate my childhood? What happened?

The end of the church as I knew it, and it is over, might have begun more than a century ago in Rome’s choice of battles. Throughout its history, Catholicism has found itself involved in what it always proclaimed were the clear-cut struggles against the universal forces of darkness. In recent times, the battle for Christ was joined against the rise of atheistic communism. At the end of the Sunday masses of my childhood, there was an addendum directing us to pray for “the conversion of Russia.”

When the settling of scores in Central Europe after the Second World War resulted in the jailing of a couple of cardinals, the party line pushed on us by the nuns suddenly cast a name we’d never heard, the Yugoslav communist dictator, Tito, as the personification of all evil in the world. Tito’s demonization, not at all unwarranted, involved his arrest of a Croatian Cardinal named Stepinac, implicated rightly or wrongly in the wartime mass murders of Orthodox Serbs, Jews and Muslim Bosnians and Albanians at the hands of his Croatian Catholic brethren.

I suppose that the church’s vehement anti-communism reflected a valid understanding of a threat posed to the status quo by the godless scientific socialism of Karl Marx and Joseph Stalin. In seeing the survival of Catholic Christianity in terms of stopping communism, the church had always to choose among what it believed would be the lesser of evils. I learned later that during World War II, political expediency dictated that there would be no call from Rome on behalf of Europe’s doomed Jews in the face of Nazi Germany’s Final Solution of the Jewish Question.

Like the Soviets themselves, the church seemed never to appreciate that history follows no dialectic, but more often than not chooses the ironic. Catholicism never saw it coming. While Cardinal Spellman schmoozed with J. Edgar Hoover about the enemy within, a less visible but lethally profound threat was devouring the foundations of every traditional way of looking at life. In less than fifty years following the end of the Second World War, a tsunami of change, an exponential acceleration in the rate of social, economic and cultural change, would engulf, transform and in many cases destroy the traditions of centuries and millennia. The successful counterattack of the Roman Curia against the reformist trends of Vatican II, the long reactionary reign of John Paul II, continuing now with Benedict XV, and finally, the tone-deaf and foot-dragging institutional response to the horrendous clerical sex-abuse scandals, would seem to deny Roman Catholicism much of a vital role in the future of this world. But then again, who knows?

Many in my own generation were the last of their kind to have lived their daily lives in accordance with the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church. A continuity spanning a thousand years has been snapped in a half century. I have no idea of what it all means, but for many of us who remember what was, it somehow seems to embody the sense of anomie that marks so many of our lives in this first decade of a new century.

This latest Fall of Rome, certainly hastened by the church’s distracted irrelevance in the ordinary lives of its people, particularly by its blind obstinacy in matters of human sexuality, has probably already occurred. While I mourn the accelerating passage of the church of my childhood into Trotsky’s historical dustbin, I also mourn the passage of many other things that were a part of my childhood. The ultimate historical significance of the demise of the Roman Catholic Church may not even outweigh the end of knickers, the A & P, or the Studebaker. Because, within the context of the validity of the Word, none of it is any big deal. In fact, it actually could be a prerequisite condition if a vital new Catholicism is to ever arise from the messy ruins of the one we thought we knew. One of the many interesting things included in the primitive theology I was taught so long ago by the Sisters of Saint Joseph was the idea that for the true Church, the Mystical Body of Christ to continue on, all it really takes is one or more of true believers gathered together in His name. No danger of that not happening

John Prine On Sabu’s Visit To The Twin Cities

images2The movie wasn’t really doing so hot
said the new producer to the old big shot
it’s dying on the edge of the great Midwest
Sabu must tour or forever rest.

Hey look ma
here comes the elephant boy
bundled all up in his corduroy
headed down south toward Illinois
from the jungles of East St. Paul.

Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone… John Prine

You get a lyric like that spinning the hamster wheel in your head, and you’ll find yourself grinning at the most inappropriate times.

images-11Prine’s sly take on American popular culture in the nineteen-forties, maybe early fifties, nails the boundaries of Hollywood exotica in those times. But at least “Sabu the Elephant Boy” was relatively close to the real thing.

Worse was the oblivious casting of blatantly Caucasian actors when a leading Asian, or for that matter, any minority adult role had to be filled. Think of Ira Gershwin suggesting Al Jolson for the original Porgy. Charlton Heston wore a shoe polish facial gloss to play the Mexican detective in Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil.” Charlie Chan was split between Warner Oland and Sidney Toller, both of whom probably did on occasion eat in Chinese restaurants. Sam Jaffe was Gunga Din, and when a bloodthirsty redskin was required, more often than not, the call went out to a guy named Mike Mazurki.

But the thought of a song, moreover a song that works, about Sabu touring the Upper Midwest in winter to promote some awful “B” movie, seems a measure of the gentle genius of John Prine. In the final verse, he sings:

His manager sat in the office alone
staring at the numbers on the telephone
wondering how a man could send a child actor
to visit the land of the wind chill factor.

Sabu was sad, the whole tour stunk
the airlines lost the elephant’s trunk
the roadie got the rabies and the scabies and the flu…

Hey look ma
here comes the elephant boy
bundled all up in his corduroy
headed down south towards Illinois
from the jungles of East St. Paul.

A Horn and Hardart Moment

To eat in a restaurant was an extraordinary and memorable event when I was growing up in the nineteen-forties. With my parents trying to get on their feet financially after my father’s illness, every penny of every spending decision was thoroughly weighed and gravely pondered. Eating out didn’t enter the equation. However, every July during my father’s vacation when the mill shut down for two weeks, the rules might be relaxed, just a little. On our way home from one of our day trips, a cruise down the Delaware River on the Wilson Line to Riverview Beach Park, we stopped on the sidewalk between Second and Third on Market Street.

In the orange light of a summer sunset, my younger brother and I watched as our parents became engaged in earnest discussion, sorting out the serious issues regarding the expenditure of the price of a restaurant meal for the four of us. My father’s argument for the celebratory moment finally prevailed over my mother’s worried doubts about any spending that wasn’t absolutely necessary. My brother and I were directed through a set of big metal and glass revolving doors into the chilly air-conditioned splendor of a Horn and Hardart Automat/Cafeteria restaurant.

Even now, after years of sophisticated and not-so-sophisticated eating out, I always get some a rush of excitement upon entering a restaurant. The idea of sitting down and ordering anything you want from a menu remains one my life’s joyous little luxuries, one I associate with those and happy occasions like our post Riverview Beach dinner at Horn and Hardart’s.

 “You can have whatever you want,” my mother told my brother and me. I stood with my brown bakelite tray resting on the chrome rails of the serving line, paralyzed by the range of choices. I froze and stammered “uh, uh, uh…”  My brother had begun ordering right at the start of the offerings. The server had already put two knockwursts, an order of fried bacon, baked beans, and cole slaw on my brother’s tray before my mother could intervene. “Mother of God! That’s it. You’ll never eat all that.” My brother looked stunned. He hadn’t understood the rules of fine dining. You could have anything you wanted. You couldn’t have everything. Continue reading ‘A Horn and Hardart Moment’