Best of Cardella: South Philly 1956

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Why 1956, you ask? Because it was a year of transition for me and a lot of people I know. It was a year we learned from Elvis what it was like to visit a place right at the end of Lonely Street called Heartbreak Hotel. It was a year when Norma Jeane legally became Marilyn Monroe and married Arthur Miller. How could a guy with glasses replace the Yankee Clipper?, the guys on the corner wanted to know.

In ’56 no one I loved had died. They were all alive and loving, even Grandpop. We were all invincible in ’56. On a Sunday morning, you could smell the meatballs frying in my grandmother’s kitchen (can I have mine without gravy?). We still went to church and believed in things like happy endings. Wasn’t the pizza just grand from the bakery just a block or so from Epiphany?

Grace Kelly officially became a princess and the guys on the corner at Ninth and Wolf had an opinion about that. We had an opinion about everything. We recognized a girl who would put out just by the way she walked, or so we bragged while steeped in our loneliness.

Loneliness was not a seasonal thing. It came to you on a soft summer night, even when you were surrounded by guys in front of Johnny Williams’ luncheonette (Johnny’s secret was he saved the wax paper from the wafer-thin steaks he used for his cheesesteaks and used them over and over again). Loneliness came to you in the dead of winter when you couldn’t stand outside on the corner too long before going inside, where you had to spend money playing pinball. Loneliness was even with you when you rode with a bunch of guys in Andrew’s red-and-white stick-shift Chevy. You rode until you ran out of money for gas — there was no particular destination, just riding until the loneliness subsided a little bit.

Martin and Lewis performed together one last time at the Copa, but we never got there. New York might have been a million miles away. We were learning the wisdom of the world from the older guys on the corner, like if you touched a girl in the right spot they couldn’t turn you down.

We were not bothered much by the news Soviet troops had crushed the brave rebellion in Hungary while America averted its eyes in shame. We were busy in the schoolyard where, in summer, we lived from morning until night. We were schoolyard athletes who never owned a glove, basketball or football — we borrowed them from the younger kids and sometimes even let them play. On quiet Sundays in summer, the wise guys took over the schoolyard. Hair slicked back, puffing on cigarettes and wearing taps on their shoes, they shot craps while posting a lookout.

In winter, we shoveled ice and snow off the basketball court while Ike beat Adlai to remain our president for four more years. No matter how cold, we played with our coats off and never got sick. Like I told you, we were invincible. Basketball was played half-court style where the first three-man team to reach 12 won the right to keep playing. Sculli’s left-handing hook shots went in off the backboard and Sonny, who didn’t drive, swooped toward the basket. The only way we stopped him was to elbow him in the face as he went by.

Our soundtrack was Buddy Holly and Elvis and please don’t step on our blue suede shoes and if you met long tall Sally you knew she was built for speed and had everything that Uncle John needs, oh baby!

We listened to Wibbage, where Hyski and the Rockin’ Bird reigned. But with all the music, most of us still couldn’t dance if you pointed a gun to our heads. Our social life consisted of crashing weddings on a Saturday night in the eternal hope of meeting chicks. And, while we were at it, another sign of the changing times hit us when Floyd Patterson replaced the retired Rocky Marciano as champ. Our only consolation was Rocky retired undefeated.

It all changed that fall. Some of us started college and guys started drifting away from the corner. They pass before my eyes now. The guys with the crazy nicknames whose real names I never knew — Fatty Lou, Ginger Beer, Danny Ryan and Cabbie Ryan (they weren’t related), Blondie and Shmay. Guys with whom I became lifelong friends, like Salvi, and guys like Mikey Deets, Voci, Trombetta, Madden and Ricky the Queer (the word “gay” meant happy then) who have disappeared into the ozone of my life. The seminarians and mobsters, the nuclear science professor and the guy who knew how to scam unemployment — all of us together in 1956, when our world was amazingly young. 

Contact the South Philly Review at editor@southphillyreview.com.

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Jane Kiefer
Jane Kiefer, a seasoned journalist with a rich background in digital media strategies, leads South Philly Review as its Editor-in-Chief. Originally hailing from Seattle, Jane combines her outsider perspective with a profound respect for South Philly's vibrant community, bringing fresh insights and innovative storytelling to the newspaper.