Posts Tagged 'memoir'

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


A Five-Dollar History Lesson

In 1957, I came home from the army with a meaningless and rather unattractive five-dollar tattoo on my upper left arm. 

Until recently, the presence of visibly tattooed body parts indicated at least a less than privileged social origin. It’s difficult to imagine any greater measure of changing norms than the present craze for tattoos among young people, male and female, across the entire population. When I arrived home, “inked,” as it’s said today, some, but not many of my peers had tattoos. Currently, the number of tattoos per capita on any American college or university campus probably exceeds that of any state prison or merchant freighter in the nineteen-fifties. 

 Twenty years later, after fifteen years on shift work, and finally a college degree, I found myself elevated, some might say, to a corporate middle-management position. At my first management retreat, I casually accepted an invitation to go for a swim. As I moved among at least a hundred of my shirtless peers in and around the hotel swimming pool, it began to dawn on me that I was the only guy present with visible ink on his body. Today that would not the case, neither the tattoos nor the all-male business gathering. 

When my father first saw my tattoo, I got a gently negative reaction, one I mistakenly took to be rooted in his disdain for my embrace such a permanent low status signifier. That wasn’t it at all. Despite being second-generation Irish-American on my father’s side, a little further back on my mother’s, I had only the most superficial awareness of the realities of Irish history. 

My father, one of five brothers, had been warned by his mother against ever allowing himself to be tattooed. My Irish-born and raised grandmother had instructed her sons against the practice, not because it might impede social mobility or because she found it aesthetically unattractive. A tattoo was unadvisable, she told my father and his brothers, “because, if you’re on the run, they can identify you.” 

That single sentence, related to me over fifty years ago, told me more about the reality of Irish history and the relationship of the “mere Irish” to authority than any courses taken, books read or any amount of delving into the myths of so-called Celtic culture. The lingering, second-class citizenship of my relatively recent ancestors placed them always at a grave disadvantage vis-à-vis the forces of law and order in their own country. In the place where my grandmother grew up, still under foreign occupation, the likelihood of almost any young Irish Catholic male being “on the run” was neither unthinkable nor improbable.

Other than in the residual police state in the northeast corner of Ireland, such cautions would no longer seem to apply, and would certainly not be relevant to the upwardly mobile American descendants of the immigrant Irish.  And yet, my grandmother’s cautionary advice about tattoos might begin to explain the roots of my own enduring and  visceral skepticism toward all forms of authority.