Tales of the city

Growing up in South Philadelphia cloaks a person with a certain mystique. Going back over some personal memories, it is easy for this columnist to understand why …

She was cooking a fresh chicken for the first time. How was she to know that she had to clean the chicken first? She had also been afraid to overcook the chicken. When I stuck my fork into this bird, the result was messier than a gangland shootout.

Many years later she had set an anniversary Mass for her dearly deceased husband. She invited friends and family to a breakfast at their home after the Mass. It was a very nice idea, but unfortunately her alarm clock didn’t cooperate and she overslept. She missed a very nice Mass. Her friends and family wondered about her absence, but showed up for breakfast anyway. They had to wake her up to get it. Her husband would have understood. Some might say he even would have expected as much …

Two erudite young men were having an argument in the candy store where they had hung out for the better part of their formative years. Each of these Rhodes scholars claimed to be smarter than the other. "Let’s have a spelling bee," the short, plump youth suggested. (He knew he was the odds-on favorite to win, which is all the commentary you need to understand the brainpower involved in this monumental match-up.)

It was decided, appropriately enough, that the funny papers would be used for the words to be spelled. The contest ended abruptly when the decided underdog in the contest could not spell "T-H-E." He claimed a foul because it was a trick word.

As you can guess, the loser in this contest had trouble finding employment in his late 20s. He decided it could be that he needed some wheels. It wasn’t that he didn’t have a car, it was just that it needed significant repairs. You see, he could only drive in reverse, which made for an interesting ride. One night he grabbed an older man with a car and we all jumped in the back for a ride to a dealership in Langhorne to look at some wheels. None of us questioned the fact that our unemployed friend had no visible means to pay for a car.

Our friend was serious about getting a car. He test-drove some of the most expensive cars on the lot, while we waited and wondered at how this story would end. Perhaps he had hit a football pool, we thought, but then, the guy always bet on Notre Dame even if they were giving a zillion points, just because he liked the fact that their quarterback was Italian — Ralph Gugliemi.

Finally, he agreed on a car and the salesman took him into his office. We stood nearby and eavesdropped. What’s your occupation, the salesman wanted to know as he filled out the application. "Musician," our friend answered. Well, that was his last job anyway. The night ended sadly when the salesman asked for a deposit and our friend offered him 10 bucks. Last I heard, he was still driving in reverse …

One of my uncles was a born storyteller. He was a kind of Walter Mitty who imagined himself in heroic situations. He had us convinced when he was already in his mid-60s that he secretly was a wrestler called Mister X. He went on in great detail about the matches he had all over the South. Of course, the pictures he showed us all depicted Mister X wearing a hood.

When he was much younger, he used to dress impeccably, even when he was going to work at blue-collar jobs. He looked like an English gentleman in his gray homburg, navy-blue topcoat and gray suede gloves. Of course he told all the guys around the corner that he was actually an executive who worked in the Sunoco building when he was really the elevator man.

One day, one of the guys had some business that took him to the Sunoco building and there was my uncle standing outside the elevator. He talked to the guy for about five minutes, telling how tough it was being an important executive. A crowd that gathered to use the elevator abruptly ended the conversation by stepping in and shouting, "Going up!"

It used to be a big deal to watch TV outside on a hot summer night. We’d gather around the small television and watch anything. We thought this was really exciting stuff. One night we were watching a Western when one of the guys yelled, "Change the channel, who wants to see another soap opera?"

This confused one of our crowd because, as he said, he didn’t hear anybody singing.