Posts Tagged 'Olney'

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


Shhhh! A Library Memory

log12The Philadelphia Inquirer recently ran photos of several of the neighborhood public libraries slated for closing due to the City’s current budget crisis. One of those libraries is the Logan branch, and the sight of that old, classical facade sent sixty year-old memories washing over me. 

Until 1949, the Olney section of North Philadelphia where we lived had no library. As newly-minted ten-year-old in the early Fall of 1947, I learned, from several of my fifth-grade classmates at the Incarnation of Our Lord parochial school, that there was a branch of the Philadelphia Free Library system within walking distance of our neighborhood. If you went there, you could get a library card, and if you had a library card, you could borrow books on all kinds of neat stuff, real books, not comic books. There were even books about the recent war, a subject I was slightly batty about. 

I somehow scoped out directions from our street to the Logan Branch Library on Wagner Avenue, wherever that happened to be. After school, on a mild overcast September afternoon, without telling my mother where I was going, I set out to find this promised land of cerebral wonders, this library, whatever a library was. 

The context of my life until then was one of physical boundaries set by the fact that we didn’t have a car, not all that unusual in Olney in the late nineteen-forties. But it meant wherever I had been outside our immediate neighborhood had been dictated by the bus, trolley and subway-elevated routes of the local transit company. Heading off for this mysterious library place, I had only a vague intimation of just where it was I was going.


Walking west from Fifth Street on the Fishers Avenue sidewalk, I was still on reasonably familiar territory. When I went under the railroad overpass at Seventh Street, everything began to change. The row houses resembled those on most of the streets I knew, and yet they somehow they were different. In fact everything was different. I began feeling like I was sliding through the looking glass. I remember turning and looking back toward Fifth Street for reassurance, and then continuing forward into the unknown.

Five blocks out, at Tenth Street, I had been told to go to the right. The street here was partially paved with bricks something that added to my feelings of exotic exploration. To my amazement a large factory building proclaimed itself the home of Fleer’s Double Bubble Chewing Gum. That the prized Double Bubble I had been purchasing at Sam’s Variety Store on Fifth Street was manufactured less than a mile from my home came to me as a mind-altering revelation. 

Not knowing whether I was closing in on, or still miles from, from my destination, I continued warily along the tree-lined and heavily shaded residential streets hoping for a sighting of this book-laden White Whale of my imagination. I had already passed a large white-columned building hidden in a park like setting before I turned and read the sign announcing the Logan Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Clueless as to library protocols, I wandered past the front desk and began walking up and down the aisles gawking at the book-laden shelves trying to force some sort of order to emerge. Stopping at a row of low shelving, I began browsing a stack of yellow-bordered magazines with cover titles of “The National Geographic.” 

I was seated on the floor with seven or eight National Geographics strewn about me when a large lady hovered over me and said that I had to leave the adult section of the library for the children’s section. I could have stayed right there with those magazines until the place closed for the night. 

I found the children’s section of the library thin gruel indeed. The fairy tales, the large-format cuddly animal books and the so-called children’s storybooks left me stone cold. I was accustomed to stronger stuff. At ten years old, I was already a habitué of the Sunday afternoon B-movie double-features and addicted to the network evening radio drama shows. Within a year I would have a paper route that introduced me, at age eleven, to a lifelong habit of daily newspaper reading.

 I never returned to the Logan Branch of the Philadelphia Free Library, and other than a cursory visit to our own Olney Branch that opened in 1949, I never went back into a library at all until well into my high school years.  One afternoon, at the age of sixteen, almost as an afterthought, I wandered into the Olney library, got a card and casually began checking out books. Ironically, while I had little or no interest in my schoolwork, my reading quickly became almost obsessive, and remains to this day, a central fact of my life to this day. Go figure.

A Member Of The Club, 1951, Part One


The Incarnation Catholic Club lay behind metal grilled windows and took up most of the basement of the parish elementary school building. On warm afternoons, the sounds of clicking billiard balls, the smells of cigar and cigarette smoke, and occasionally, raucous voices would drift out into the schoolyard, hinting at a mysterious and exclusive adult male domain. We’d peer down through the grillwork trying to get a better look into the fabulous place we weren’t yet allowed to enter. The qualifications for admission to and membership in the club were rigorous. You had to be out of eighth grade and able to pay dues of twenty-five cents a month. 

A rite of passage followed each year’s eighth-grade boys graduation from the Incarnation school, a parade of thirteen-year-old boys into the club to apply for membership. From the entry door, a dark, narrow, high-ceilinged corridor led into the clubroom. An open refreshment concession, “the cage,” steel meshed so that it could be locked up at night, was presided over by the club’s manager, Lefty Huber. To initiates like us, Lefty was a remote, intimidating figure. A wiry, taciturn, unsmiling, no-nonsense man; his weathered face spoke of hard miles. Lefty was not married and his personal life was as remote as his personality. Among adults, the mention of Lefty Huber’s name usually brought the comment that the manager of the Incarnation Catholic Club was not himself a Catholic. You could smoke in the club. You could buy cigarettes, twenty-two cents a pack. You could buy candy, ice cream and sodas. Milk shakes, real milk shakes made with hand-dipped ice cream, were twenty-five cents. 

In front of the cage on a floor raised above the adjoining basketball court were four pool tables available at a dime an hour. Two derelict bowling alleys paralleled the basketball court. The club’s basketball program had spawned a neighborhood legend, Tommy Gola from Third and Lindley, who went on to the NBA. Gola had been coached by Lefty Huber and had developed a unique flat shot attributed to his years of playing under the low-ceilinged court at the Incarnation Catholic Club. Continue reading ‘A Member Of The Club, 1951, Part One’