Hang Out

Okay, back to 1957, ’58, originally published as “Hanging Out in the ’50s” by the Broad Street Review on May 9, 2009. Got some good reactions, establishing my West Philaelphia street cred, as I recall.

The hamburger came with grilled onions and cost 35 cents. French fries cost 15 cents and a coke a dime. Or you could pile into a booth with your friends for nothing. The juke box played “Poinciana” and “To the Aisle” and “Mr. Lee.” You could do that till curfew chased you home.
In the mid-1950s, West Philadelphia, from 63rd to 30th, from Market Street to Baltimore Avenue, became a “changing neighborhood.” Negroes moved in, and whites (mostly Jews) moved out. Since the changes first manifested on the perimeter, in 1957 Barson’s, on 60th Street, ceased to be the area’s main hang-out, and Dewey’s, on Spruce, below 48th, replaced it. I lived three blocks away and, at 15, was entering my hanging-out years.
Dewey’s had a counter, a double row of booths down its center, another row along its west wall. The core of the Dewey’s crowd was from West Philadelphia High School, a block to its north – mostly white kids – and mostly Jewish – like Buzzy Scolnick, the varsity quarterback, still best known for having enlivened a grade school trip to the zoo by lobbing cherry bombs at the crocodiles, and Steven Pomerantz, who already smoked individually wrapped Garcia Vegas and wore a full length vicuna coat and homburg, like his father the bookie, and stylish Sam Goodman, who had made black turtlenecks under blue buttondown shirts de rigeur in certain circles. These luminaries layered upon a contingent of older, even more worldly semi-criminals, like the Egan brothers, Biff and Bow Wow, who consorted with whores; and Cowboy Dineen, who had been thrown out of three schools I knew of despite the ability to hit a baseball over the Passon’s field fence; and Troy Something-or-Other, a swarthy, oily haired, rock-muscled guy, whose girlfriend was Carol Blitz, the prettiest girl in the senior class (Why, I wondered, would she be interested in him, when boys who were going to Penn to become orthopedic surgeons would have given 25 points off their College Boards to date her), and Donny Rumble, who drove a silver T-bird. That was all I knew about him Donny Rumble. Silver T-bird. What else was there? What could better that?
I did not drive. I had never spoken to a whore. I was happy to line a ball past shortstop. I was not exactly at Dewey’s red hot center. I was tall and skinny and wore glasses and shy and, even worse, when I was ten, my parents had transferred me from the public elementary school, where I was about to be taught by Jacqueline Susann’s mother, a ferocious woman with a bun of severely dyed black hair, known for disciplining pupils by having them copy pages from the dictionary, into Friends’ Central, a Quaker school across City Line Avenue. So I was a “private school kid” on top of everything else. I came to Dewey’s because some of my neighborhood friends, like Max Garden and Mickey Kipper, did. Max and Mickey’s own defects left them only a little closer to the center than me, but they had friends who were closer still, and this provided enough rideable coat tails that I could feel comfortable.
The thrill of hanging out at Dewey’s was primarily in the echoes of that “out.” “Out” meant away from the family. It meant away from the confining, conformist, predominant 1950s cultural attitude that scorned all non-grade-bettering, non-money-earning, devil-courting idleness. We might not actually be doing anything at Dewey’s, besides idling, of which the family or the culture disapproved; but at least we were giving ourselves the chance that we might. That counted for something, we believed. We knew nothing of interest was going to happen if we stayed in.
The devil might roll up in a silver T-bird. He might have a dishwater Nash. We just wanted to hear the purr of his exhaust when his motor revved.

The most exciting times at Dewey’s were when news arrived of a party. Someone would have heard from someone in Wynnefield or Oxford Circle or Lower Merion, and we would pile four or five into a car, chip in $2 for gas, and off we would go.
One Saturday evening, in the spring of 1958, word came of a party in Newtown Square. Newtown, ten miles to the southwest, was a long way to go for a party. It was also foreign and exotic terrain. All I knew of it or its inhabitants had come from the arrival at Friends’ Central the preceding fall of a graduate of its high school, Joe “Hondo” Wayne, a crew cut, six-foot-four, 220 pound, All-Delco tackle, whose need of additional education could nicely fill holes in our offensive and defensive lines. He was someone we sophomores regarded with awe – especially those amongst us who were 150 pound JV defensive ends. Who was hosting this party or how word of it had reached Dewey’s I did not know, but Mickey Kipper had his father’s Plymouth, and off we went. (Mickey and I were sufficiently off-center that no one else rushed to join our crew.)
It was a ranch house on a dead end street. Biff Egan and Buzzy Scolnick were drinking Ortlieb’s in the kitchen. Troy Something-or-Other, in a fish net t-shirt, was on the living room couch, his arm slung over a Barbara Steele lookalike in a pink V-neck and slit skirt. The record player was running “I Got a Woman” over and over, and Bow Wow Egan, an upended wastebasket between his knees, was pounding the beat on its bottom. The entire scene was bathed in red light. The cigarette smoke was as thick as mucous. Bedroom doors were clicking shut. I suddenly thought: No parents are home. I had never been at a party when no parents were home. I settled with that revelation into a conversation with Artie Gottlieb, a junior councilor at my summer camp just back from Paris Island, until it became clear he had more important things on his mind than describing the obstacle course to me.
I was staring at the refrigerator, wondering if you just took an Ortlieb’s from it, or if you had to ask someone’s permission, and, if you did, whom you asked, and, if they granted it, how you opened the Ortlieb’s without it spurting all over your Banlon shirt, when it fell upon me that the several cars that had pulled to squealing stops out front had dislodged several sets of running feet that were massing at the front door, and that several of those already in the house, like Biff and Bow Wow and Buzzy, were running toward this mass and that others, like Mickey Kipper, were retreating toward me. It occurred to me that a number of girls at the party were from Newtown and that a number of Newtown guys had arrived to register their objection.
“Vamanos,’ Mickey said.

Those who had remained behind returned to Dewey’s later, loud, laughing, slapping backs, a legion rotated to Rome after destroying the Goths. I hung on the edges of their conversations, hungry for details. I could not wait for Monday when I could report to classmates at Friends’ Central. I felt like I had hopped a time machine and glimpsed a dangerous future.
It was Wednesday that Hondo raised an arm to stop me on the stairs. “Heard you were at the Omega Drive party.”
“Yes,” I said, hoping he would not smite me to avenge a fallen comrades.
“You West Philly boys are tough.” His smile offered a suit – black leather, gold lame’, or three button worsted – into which I might yet grow.

Bitter Orange

<To return to those thrilling days of yesteryear (my adolescence), here is one that appeared online at “The Broad Street Review,” under the title “The Square Jungle.” Its intro was lopped off, and I forget what else happened to it, but it did receive a nice reception.

Bitter Orange
“Did you know Blinky Palermo, the artist, took his name from Blinky Palermo, the gangster?” Bob Liss, the Herodotus of Hoops, asked me.
“Yes,” I said, “though I wouldn’t know a Blinky Palermo if it spat at me from the wall of MOMA. We must have read the same article in the Times.”
“Nope. This woman I’m seeing told me.”
“Did I ever tell you Blinky Palermo once gave my father a ride to my fathers-and-sons athletic awards dinner?”
“Not yet,” he said.

It was November 1955, and I was lettering in 105-pound football. That May, the Manayunk-born light heavyweight, Harold Johnson, who was so skilled and so dangerous he often had to go above his weight class to find opponents, had collapsed, seemingly without being struck hard enough to dent a lemon water ice, in the second round of a fight at the Arena with the Cuban heavyweight, Julio Mederos, a 4:1 underdog. Since Johnson had already collected the scalps of many of Mederos’s betters, including Ezzard Charles, Bob Satterfield, Nino Valdez, and Archie Moore (who, in fairness, it must be said, had four times skinned Johnson), this obliteration raised eyebrows, the most significant of which belonged to Pennsylvania’s first- term Democratic governor George Leader. Though Johnson explained he had been undone by a “bitter” pre-fight orange, handed him by a stranger, (its doping seemingly confirmed by the detection of barbiturates in Johnson’s urine), his license was lifted, and boxing was suspended in the commonwealth for 90 days until its purity could be restored. For this restoration, Leader ordered the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission to investigate the fight, the fruit, and related matters.
The commission’s chairman was Jim Crowley, one of the fabled Four Horsemen of Notre Dame. The Special Deputy Attorney General appointed to assist the investigation was the long-time Democratic leader of South Philadelphia’s 4th ward, my father. In his 20-plus years as an attorney, he had received several other plums from the party he served, but to my 13-year-old eyes, this was the coolest.
These hearings led to the questioning of Frank “Blinky” Palermo. In association with the Murder, Inc. alumnus, Frankie “Mr. Grey” Carbo, Palermo owned, controlled and/or managed a number of prominent pugilists, amassing great influence over who would fight whom, where, in exchange for what consideration, and, occasionally, with what result. He also ran Philadelphia’s largest numbers game, once maintaining its reputation for uncorruptibilty conducting a running gun battle with a welsher who owed him 75-cents. (I am unsure of his connection to either Johnson or Mederos; perhaps his general familiarity with the customs and practices of the industry made him appear someone likely to provide educative information.)
The Friday of my dinner, most likely due to Palermo’s reluctance to provide anything beyond references to the Fifth Amendment, the hearing ran late. My father, who had taken the train to Harrisburg, had no way to make it back in time for the bestowing of my letter. Hearing of his plight, Palermo, who’d arrived by Cadillac, offered my father door-to-door delivery, a courtesy from one sportsman to another. (One may question the ethics of an attorney accepting a favor from a gangster he is investigating, but if one is 13 and the attorney is one’s father, such questions infrequently occur.)
I don’t know what resulted from the hearing. Johnson won the light heavyweight title in 1962, at age 34, only to lose it to Willie Pastrano, another prohibitive underdog, a year later. Mederos returned to Cuba and obscurity. Palermo served 7 1/2 years for his part in some contractual negotiations which included two of his associates kicking the other negotiator nearly to death.. (He died in Philadelphia, at 91, in 1996.) And my father remained a Democratic Party loyalist, who was rewarded with a Common Pleas Court judgeship in 1965.
But before and after that, in commemoration of his service to the commission, he was able to command free tickets to the fights.

I was already a fan. At a time when neither the NBA nor NFL had much TV presence, boxing commanded prime time twice a week: the Wednesday Night Fights (sponsored by Pabst ) and the Friday Night Fights (Gillette). I saw many great brawls (Carter-Arujo, Carter-Collins, and Moore-Durelle are three I am sure of). I subscribed to Sport and S.I. and read Ring and Boxing and Wrestling. Bill Stern’s Favorite Boxing Stories was one of the first paperbacks I purchased. I could name every heavyweight champion in order. I could identify the Toy Bulldog and Wild Bull of the Pampas, the Manassa Mauler, Durable Dane, Fargo Express, Michigan Assassin, Boston Strong Boy, and Boston Tar Baby, Ruby Bob and Gentleman Jim, Jersey Joe, Li’l Artha, Hammering Henry, Slapsie Maxie, Two Ton Tony, the Black Uhlan and the Brown Bomber. I knew Stanley Ketchel was shot to death at 24 and Bummy Davis at 25; that Beau Jack ended up a shoeshine boy, Sam Langford blind and penniless, Joe Louis half-a-million in debt to the IRS, and Jack Johnson an attraction at Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus.
None of these ends disturbed my dreams. I was a kid and “ends” were far away. They seemed part of the color and the drama of the sport. They were the way of men, and while I was on my way to becoming one, the full consequences of this development had not sunk in. You came out nobly with your shield or borne upon it. The bright lights poetically illuminated the center of the ring, while you returned to the darkness from which you’d come. In boxing, the best man won, no bad bounce to undo him, no teammates to weigh him down.
What could be fairer?

The first live fight I saw was from ringside, courtesy of my father’s connections, at Connie Mack Stadium, June 12, 1958. It was an all-Philadelphia gala. In the main event, the fading, formerly first-ranked welterweight Gil Turner was gifted a draw with the division’s rising star, Garnet “Sugar” Hart. On the undercard, the undefeated lightweight Len Mathews (10-0, with nine K.O.s) knocked the once formidable Henry “Toothpick” Brown into retirement in four. And in a battle of middleweights of whom few others wanted part, George “The Professor” Benton, a future Hall of Fame trainer, blasted Slim Jim Robinson through the ropes, unconscious, at my feet.
Over the next nine years, I saw fights at the Arena, the Blue Horizon, Convention Hall, and Atlantic City Convention Center. I saw Joey Giardello and Kitten Hayward, Bennie Briscoe and Gypsy Joe Harris, Von Clay and Don Warner, Leotis Martin and, after he emigrated from South Carolina, Joe Frazier. (I also once saw Palermo schmoozing in the Samsone Deli with his current tutee, Charles “Sonny” Liston. I did not interrupt the seminar to thank him for my father’s ride.) I read Hemingway and Liebling and, religiously, Jack McKinney in the Daily News. (I learned that Philadelphia fighters were known for (a) their left hooks and (b) shortening their productive years by beating each other up in gyms.) I was, I felt, earning my way into a brotherhood. I liked the chest-pounding suspense of awaiting decisions and the abrupt ends that could fall like guillotine blades before. I liked the smoke and the smell and the sweat flying when the heads snapped back. I liked the wised-up, sharp-suited men and flashy, bored women and imagining how their evenings would conclude. I liked that none of my friends shared my outre passion. I had taken these gifts from my father and layered myself with a distinctive depth.

One fighter whose path interested me, for its intersections of talent and fortune, was the North Philadelphia welterweight Charley Scott. His early results – losing four of his first eight bouts – suggested he pursue other employment. But Scott persevered – at one point winning 14 of 16 – climaxing with a ninth round knockout of Sugar Hart at Convention Hall, in October 1959, in what boxing historian/archivist John DiSanto calls “one of the greatest Philly battles ever.” That win vaulted Scott to the top of the rankings, making him next in line for a shot at Don Jordan’s shaky grip on the championship belt. But two months later, in need of Christmas money, Scott went up to Madison Square Garden on short notice and lost 5-4-1 to Benny “Kid” Paret. Paret got the shot and the title – and was later killed in the ring, defending it against Emile Griffith, whom he had called a “maricon.”
Scott never recovered from his war with Hart. He lost four of his next five. (Hart lost three of four and quit the ring.) Scott embarked on an ill-fated Odyssey that took him through Australia, the Philippines, Boston, Vegas, Paris, Fresno, Honolulu, New Orleans, Oakland. He lost 20 of his last 30, nine of his last 10. He retired in October 1966.

I was then one month into my final year at Penn Law School. It seemed a critical time. It seemed two Baskervillian hounds were clawing for my throat. I feared becoming a lawyer would imprison me within a conformity I dreaded. I hoped to write but feared the effort would expose I had nothing to say. Finally, I applied to VISTA for time to think it out.
I also sought experiences and places outside the classroom and corporate world that fit me. I volunteered in the offices of legal aid and the public defender and, some weekend nights, rode in a patrol car to observe the law at street level. I never caught a violent crime or observed a kicked-in door. Mainly I saw DUIs and domestic beefs.
One April night, two young officers shoved a broad shouldered 30-year-old – he looked 40 – against the booking desk. He smelled of alcohol. He wore a houndstooth cap. The fly on his stained slacks was down. He had a four-inch scar over one eye. The charges were Loitering and Prowling.
He had 62-cents and a billfold stuffed with papers. On a job application, he had penciled, “Have attain some excellence as a boxer.” “Hey, Pete, watch out,” one officer said. “This guy was a fighter.”
Pete laughed. “What’s your name?”
“Charley Scott.”
“Charley Scott?” I said.
He nodded.
I had seen him at Convention Hall the best night of his life. Now I saw him again. Grief and reason pin-wheeled in my head. He left for Detective Division, light on his feet, a fighter’s bounce headed toward the ring.

VISTA sent me to Chicago. A year later, I came to Berkeley and moved in with the girl to whom I am still married. I have seen one live fight since, two ham-and-eggers mauling each other for ten rounds in Oakland. I never read another Ring. I can still name the heavyweight champions but only through Ali/Frazier. My passion for the sport had vanished. I had never recovered from standing this close to its too-frequent consequences and seen them bouncing shabby, thick-tongued, unzipped out the shutting door.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I relied heavily on http:// phillyboxinghistory. com. for career records, dates, places, and results of fights to check my memory against and to fill in its holes. Any errors are my own.

Notes on Camp

To return to adolescence, here’s a piece I wroten apparently in July 2013. It doesn’t seem to have been published anywhere. Maybe I didn’t send it to “Broad Street” because “Stanley Kessler” wasn’t really named “Stanley Kessler,” and I knew it’s editor would disapprove, and I couldn’t think of anywhere else it would fit. It’s pretty good though, and here it is.

“Many things in the world have not been named…,” Susan Sontag began the famous essay whose title I have clipped; and, until I was fourteen, I was one. Or, rather, before my parents sent me to over-night camp in the Poconos, I was “Robert”; and ever since I have been “Bob.”
Camps, at least those in the Poconos, were a Jewish thing. (None of my Friends’ Central classmates attended one. They summered in Ocean City or Stone Harbor or Maine.) These camps were for the children of doctors and lawyers, car dealership owners and Food Fair executives. Campers came from Lower Merion and Cheltenham and Mt. Airy, with an occasional rare bird blown off course from Wilmington or South Philly. The camps taught how to paddle a canoe and survive a night in the woods, skills which seemed as useful at the time as mastering cuneiform. (If the camps were coed and had private corners to their canteens, they allowed practice of other activities in which we saw more of a future.)
The camps offered children the chance to test themselves outside the shade of their families’ umbrellas. And they freed parents from responding to cranky complaints of “I don’t have anything to do.” Fourteen was late to start camp, and I think my parents’ fear of releasing me from their oversight was finally overcome by concluding that my development required healthier influences than I might incline to behind my bedroom door or roaming West Philadelphia’s streets.
Camp Tacoma, their instrument of choice, was in its inaugural year – and would not survive its second. It enrolled thirty or forty boys, aged ten to fourteen, in a tiny town whose name my memory can not reclaim from any map. It had a softball diamond and basketball and volleyball courts but no archery or riflery or arts and crafts. Our cabins were of Architectural Digest (Stroudsburg Edition) quality, but our tub-shaped “lake” was a hollowed-out hill into which water had been pumped or piped or otherwise diverted and always seemed in danger of having its plug pulled.
I suspect Tacoma’s primary appeal was its owner, Menchy Goldblatt, a basketball All-American, at Penn, in the mid-1920s, when my father had matriculated there. Menchy had coached Bartram to two city titles and owned camps for years, but an acrimonious split with his last partner had led him to launch this ill-fated solo flight. (Many Philadelphia-area Jewish basketball players of similar vintage owned Pocono camps, and games between them were fierce. Red Sherr, who played several seasons in the American Basketball League, had one, Sam Cozen, Drexel’s coach, a second, and Harry Litwak, Temple’s, a third.) Menchy seemed a nice man of seasoned learning, but the only bit of his acumen to affect me directly was his telling my father to buy weights so I might build up my chest.

I learned much that summer.
How to clean a toilet. How to make a bed with hospital corners – and how to short-sheet one. I had never before felt sufficiently grown up to shave with a safety razor or shake hands with someone when we met. But most of my learning had to do with athletics.
At Friends’ Central, the prestige sports were football and baseball, with basketball barely nosing out wrestling for third. I was a decent defensive end, and good-hit, no-field first baseman; but as a tallest-guy-in-the-class center… It seemed every school had a skinny, four-eyed geek, whose lay-ups clanged off rims and dribbles trickled off his feet, and I was mine.
But the camps did not play football, and Tacoma could not field a competitive nine against opponents two or three times our size. (The volleyball team was fine, as long as we could hoodwink others into not rotating players’ positions, so our spike-capable six-footers could plant at the net and not be replaced by our more numerous five-sixers.) The major sport among the Pocono camps, as befitting their founders’ roots, was basketball. And there, if you had one star, you could play anyone.
Stanley Kessler was Tacoma’s NML Cygni. He was Menchy’s nephew and four months of age, one grade of school, and light years of worldliness ahead of me. A freshman forward on Central High School’s JV, he was the only camper to be picked into the counselors’s games. I was in awe of his feathery touch – and almost as wowed by his accounts of his not-quite-consumated goings-on with his neighboring Wynnefield girls. From Stanley I learned the un-Quakerly skills of shifting my hips when I set picks, using my rear to clear rebounding position, and leveraging elbows to gain general respect. He also taught me to pass him the ball if I grabbed it.
I suspect Menchy had asked Stanley to befriend me, so I would not pull out mid-summer and cost him half my fee. But we became honest friends. My batting average helped, plus we both had been knocked out by the cinematic adaptation of Kiss Me Deadly and admired the recorded artistry of “Flying Saucers.” My major appeal though was attendance at a school which enrolled debutantes, who glittered to Stanley like the green light on Daisy’s dock had to Gatsby.
Then there was our shared study of our elders.

Camps were traditionally staffed by a series of egg-to-butterfly like progressions. Campers matured to waiters, then C.I.T.s, and counselors, with a winnowing-out ensuring only the fittest survived. Believing that ascent held value, one sought to identify keys to the climb. Tacoma, emerging wholly-formed, had filled positions unnaturally, but still attention could be paid and conclusions drawn.
Our waiters, for instance, who seemingly had been swept up in one scoop from the playing fields of Overbrook High School were a colorful, outside-my-accustomed-range-of-experience bunch. Atlas-muscled Marty P. was destined for the Marines, and five o’clock-shadowed Ronny S.’s aspirations stopped at minor league baseball, and devilish Dicky W. cemented his notoriety by inducing a girl he had just met at the town roller rink to allow his hand into her panties.
One counselor had coached Wilt Chamberlain before joining the family baking business because it paid better. A second played ball for Haverford and a third Trinity. Another had been Senior Class President somewhere, and a fourth, who lacked any such resume-building credentials, held our bunk rapt one evening recounting his pick-up successes. “Jewish girls are the hardest to get to go down,” Uncle Burt instructed, “but once they go down, they stay down.” Sturdy, focused, these men marched unswervingly, without complaint toward dentistry or stock brokerhood.
Stanley and I collected and pondered our data like curiosities within cabinets of wonder. We could not always know what would gleam significant beyond that summer’s light, but we sensed what we were struck by measured who we were and hoped to become. The future seemed to require no more than a set shot or a line to coax a girl into the back seat of a car.
Then rang one discordant note. We sat on a courtside bench while counselors went three-on-three. Dusk closed; air chilled; bats hunted, helter-skelter, insects of the night. “You know how ‘good’ you have to be to be ‘good’?” Stanley said. He had given it much thought and did not need my answer. “Al Schwait was All-Public. And he can’t start for Penn.”
I returned from Tacoma insistent upon my new name. I stuck with razor blades until this day. I boxed out for forty years. I never forgot Stanley’s wisdom either.

Top Ten

Here’s the natural follow-up to my prior post. It appeared on-line originally in the November 2010 “First of the Month” and was reprinted in “Perspectives by Incongruity,” DeMott, ed., 2012.

At the conclusion of a dream that included my descending in an elevator with a hooker and leaping a barrier to catch a subway train, I found myself on a park bench taking out a notebook to describe my collection of .45 rpm records to which I have not listened in thirty-five years. When I awoke, it still seemed a good idea. I quote lyrics from memory. I record history from memory too. What are we, if not what we remember?
I acquired most of these records at Treegoob’s, 41st & Lancaster, situated, as its ads proclaimed, “in the heart of West Philadelphia.” Treegoob’s sold used .45s, culled from juke boxes when their plays diminished, for nineteen cents, which was seventy cents below the cost of new ones. The discount was an inducement, but the mile and one-half journey to the store from the safer, whiter shores of our homes, enriched the value of the discs exponentially for my friends and self. Its perceived risks turned our quest heroic and the black circles we retrieved golden rings to win a princess’s hand.
My prime shopping years were between 7th grade (1954-55) and 10th (1957-58). I am uncertain why I stopped, but I suspect the proliferation of Fabian and his ilk, coupled with the rise of Top 40 programming (or even Top 99, which Philly had for awhile), stripped rock of the outlaw edge which had hooked me. Plus, in 1958, my friends and I began turning sixteen, which meant we could drive. And borrowing a father’s car opened excitements to us beyond those available in our rooms with a stack of vinyl.
The records I list below are not necessarily my favorites – and certainly not the era’s Best or Most Significant. But they are those that elbowed to the front of the line once I had awakened.
1. “Annie Had a Baby.” The Midnighters. Federal. Annie couldn’t work “no more. Every time we start to working, she’s got to stop and walk the baby ‘cross the floor.” Uncharacteristically, I paid full price at a South Street shop that Max Garden led me to one day after Hebrew school. But I had to have it. It was not the bad grammar that led to its being banned from air play. The Dictionary of American Slang may not confirm it, but we knew the “working” going on. And the idea that you could sing about it electrified. “Annie” blew the collected works of Patti Page and Eddie Fisher from our minds forever.
2. “By the River.” Wilt Chamberlain. End. “…neath the shady tree.” Just the Dipper, his baby and he. They “kiss, hug, cuddle close…” Absolute pablum, I grant you, but here was Philadelphia’s greatest athlete sticking his toe onto our side of the revolution. Basketball and rock’n’roll – just what little inner city boys were made of.
3. “How Come My Dog Don’t Bark (When You Come ‘Round)?” Prince Patridge. Crest. “He bites the mailman, and he sees him every day, but when you come ‘round, he rolls over to play.” We liked the humor, the implications – and dogs. Plus what kind of name was “Prince” or, for that mater, “Patridge”? Where did he come from and where did he go? If he’d had a past or future, it was unknown to us. Greatness was forever existentially stamped transitory.
4. “Nite Owl.” Tony Allen. Specialty. Here he came, “walking through the front door,” and “Hoo, hoo, hoo” backed up The Champs, adding ornithological depth to the orchestration – or Dada-esq juxtaposition, depending on your point of view. But we all aspired to be what Allen claimed for himself. Out on the dark streets, boldly alone, unfettered by municipal curfew laws imposed to control our disappointingly tame delinquencies.
5. “Pledging My Love.” Johnny Ace. Duke. “Forever, my darling, my love will be true.” That silky, seductive voice. The promise of that eternally heated heart – set beside the chilling reality of Ace’s fate at the hands of Russian roulette. The hammer and the spinning chamber. The fickle, random universe at play. “What I want to know,” Georgie Woods, our favorite disc jockey inquired, “is did he win or lose?”
6. “Sixty Minute Man.” The Dominoes. Federal. “…fifteen minutes of teasing and fifteen minutes of squeezing and fifteen minutes of blowing my top.” Released before my time, but on a cross-country trip in 1963, Davey Peters and I stopped in a town in South Dakota because he wanted a pair of black jeans which, as I recall, he had seen James Dean wear, but which no place in Philly stocked; and in a five-and-ten I found a stash that contained this ribald classic. Maybe the last .45 I ever purchased. In the preceding few months I had acquired “My Favorite Things” and “Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” and was on my way to other things.
7. “Smokey Joe’s Café.” The Robins. Atco. “From behind the counter, I saw a man. Chef’s hat on his head and knife in his hand.” Early Leiber & Stoller (and wasn’t that really The Coasters, pseudonym-ed up for obscure contractual reasons?) An entire saga in under three minutes: a hint of sex; a threat of danger (we knew they had to be related); a bit of humor – served up over a plate of beans. Masterful.
8. “Speedo.” The Cadillacs. Josie. “Bum-bum-bum-bum-bop-bop- doodly…” His real name not “Joe” or “Moe” but “MISTER (emp. supp.) Earl,” and how cool was that? We knew no one named “Mister Bob” or “Mister Max.” Even our fathers weren’t “Mister Herb” or “Mister Sam.” When Stanley Kessler and I compared lists of Best Songs Ever at Camp Tacoma in 1957, I went heavy for super-charged do-wop like this and “Come Go With Me” and “Strange Love.” He out-sophisticated me with ballads: “Earth Angel,” “To the Aisle,” “Soldier Boy.” But it was to be expected. Stanley, the veteran of many more make-out parties, even claimed to have scored bare tit from Cookie Yosowitz (not her real name).
9. “W-P-L-J.” The 4 Deuces. Music City. “You shake it up fine. Get a good-good wine.” A tribute to the power of drink. More that the future promised but the present denied. And on the flip side (I kid you not), “Here Lies My Love” by Mr. Undertaker. Huh? What was that about? Was the universe trying to warn us about where such dissolution led? As if we didn’t have enough inhibitions snarling our progression.
10. “Zindy Lou.” The Chimes. Specialty. “…a girl that come from the hills and, oh hot dog (something about “thrills” or “chills” or even “I think that she will”). One of those girls we knew were out there and hoped to meet but wondered if we ever would. It didn’t help that her name, like Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” or The Valentines’ “Lily Maybelle,” was one that had never been called in any of our home rooms. Nor that the number became a dance contest song in the early days of “ Bandstand,” co-mingling with another land of exotically named, beyond-our-reach damsels: Justine and Arlene and Big and Little Ro.
Honorable Mention. “Jam Up.” Tommy Ridgely. Atlantic. Georgie Woods opened each show on WHAT with it. When he switched to WDAS (or was it vice-versa), he didn’t, and when Max Garden called to ask why, he learned the station’s library lacked a copy. So Max borrowed my copy and brought it to Woods in order that tradition be preserved.
At least, I think that happened. Max is dead, so I can’t ask him. And Davey’s dead, so I can’t confirm that part about James Dean – or if it was South, not North Dakota. And Stanley’s dead, so I don’t know if he is sticking to his story about Cookie Yosowitz. My dream had summoned me to reflect upon my friends, cup our history in my hands, and craft it for my purposes. All pasts lie forgotten in closets and on shelves, crumbling to pieces, some of which may be salvaged and refashioned to construct a present and, hopefully, influence a future.

As Mildred

Regrettably retitled “Ready for My 15 Minutes of Fame, Me. DeMille,” this appeared on-line in the Nov. 7, 2009,”Broad Street Review.” It was one of my most satisfactory pieces to write, though, in that I literally knew nothing about my subject when I began it and had no idea in advance where this writing would take me. It also became the BSR piece of mine that received the most comments (three or four) from strangers, including a nephew of Ms. Manley’s and a woman in Georgia who remains an e-mail correspondent to this day. I assume whenever someone Googled “Peggy Manley,” mine was one of the only entries that bobbed up in response to their query.

As Mildred
Peggy Maley delivered one of the most famous set-up lines in film history: “Hey, Johnny, what’re you rebelling against?” “What’ve you got?” everyone remembers Marlon Brando answered. She’d tossed the perfect insouciant lob and he, slouching, slam-dunked it. But all the times I’d seen “The Wild One,” until I set out to write about it, I thought Mary Murphy asked the question.
But I’d always remembered Maley’s Mildred, the beautician. Buxom, pouty, her platinum blonde D.A. lodged between my synapses like an ember. She appeared an older sister – or, at nearly thirty, an underage mother – to the girls on corners or at soda fountains who had come to fascinate me. In tight skirts and tight sweaters and zipper jackets flashing with zebra stripes, they hung upon guys in pegged pants and box-toed shoes and pink shirts, the black undersides to their collars hiked up and showing. “Rocks,” we called them and, twenty years before Sylvester Stallone, “rocky” their style. Wary at first, Maley is quickly heated to party with the Black Rebels. But when they ravage her shop, there is pleading in her voice and terror in her eyes. “Please don’t do this, please” she begs before vanishing off-screen, lost, forever.

She was born June 8, 1924, in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. At eighteen, she was named “Miss Atlantic City.” She never wore a larger crown, but, one year later, was in New York, a “chorine” noted for her resemblance to Lana Turner. That was enough – or a large part of “enough” – for Hollywood. In four years, she appeared in eleven films, usually uncredited, as a “show girl” or “dance hall girl,” “marine’s second girl friend,” “girl in officer’s club,” “pretty blonde neighbor.” One assumes she rarely spoke. One contemplates the acts she performed to secure these meager bookings. One wonders, from her position on her back or knees, how far up the heights that were Lana Turner she imagined she might climb.
From 1947 until 1951, her cinematic credit line is empty. One assumes she returned to New York, for she is noted, in 1948, as “the only girl” in “Mr. Roberts.” She seems to have frittered away few other hours on employment. She “is seen” with a department store heir. She “gives insomnia” to a George DeWitt. (Even Google is no help here.) She throws a party in which a wastebasket catches fire. She “dates” Artie Shaw and “tells off” Buddy Rich for paying her insufficient attention. She has “a big romance” with Al Capone’s cousin. A Greek shipping tycoon leases her an apartment. A British lord hosts her in London. On the continent she “is kept” by King Farouk, who “showers her with… haute couture.”
By 1951, she is back in Hollywood. She is a “very close friend” of Frances Faye. She is a “good friend” of Ava Gardner, Betty Grable, Shelly Winters. She is spotted at the Cresenada, Mocambo, Bantam Cock. She is linked with Farley Granger, the bon vivant and professional golfer Al Besselink, Corey Allen, ten years her junior, who will lose (or “win”?) the chicken race with James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause.” She is “one of Harry Cohn’s ‘girlfriends,’” a friendship which, since Cohn headed Columbia and Columbia produced “The Wild One,” may have profited her as much as Farouk’s. (It may explain, for instance, her billing over Yvonne Doughty, who, as Britches, Johnny’s ex-squeeze, had more scenes with Brando – and more lines.) In a single month (February 1953), she is noted to (a) “date” John Hodiak but (b) have “her mind on” Mike Ireland, while being (c) “the love of” Brad Dexter, Peggy Lee’s most recently divorced husband. She is said to have a “nasty mouth,” “terrible drinking problem,” not even “a dime to her own.” She is married for two months.
By 1960, she has appeared in eighteen more films and thirty-nine TV shows. She is a “showgirl,” “tavern maid,” “blonde stripper,” “blonde barfly,” “blond woman.” She is “Gladys,” “Midge,” “Marge,” “Gwen.” She appears in “Tarawa Beachhead,” “The Brothers Rico,” “Live Fast, Die Young.” She is on “The Untouchables,” “Peter Gunn,” “Dragnet” three times. One wonders if anyone who saw her in one role recalled her when they saw her in the next or if, in each appearance, she had registered no more than a firefly’s blink. Within one year of helping launch Brando into immortality, she is uncredited in “Saga at Red River” and “Drive a Crooked Road.” Within a few years of that, she has aged into “The Rookie”s “Aunt Mabel.”
Envisioning a career ripening into someone’s aunt or mother or worse seems not to have sustained Maley. She returned to New Jersey to manage her father’s bars. She never again appeared on stage or screen. Of her next five decades, “Glamour Girls” finds only three items worth reporting: (1) a visit to Las Vegas, during which a “male model” escorts her to a coffee shop, where, upon meeting Troy Donahue, she embarrasses her date with “non-stop” talking and “inappropriate” dress; (2) her marriage (1961-75) to a Long Island policeman, fifteen years her junior, whose name (Schoenborn? Schoenberg?) can not be precisely attained; and, following a twenty-five year gap, (3) her living “in California.”

It is a life I associate with those I glimpsed in “Confidential” or “Whisper” or “Stag” on my boyhood barber shop’s low table. These are lives – Linda Christian’s and Lila Leeds’s and Barbara Payton’s – conjured up for me by the scent of Wildroot Cream Oil or Bay Rum like Combray was by Proust’s madeleine and tea. Lives of beauty pageants and car wrecks, champagne and Percodan, weekends in Acapulco and marriages annulled. They are lives played out in the shadows of more sumptuous and more sustained tales – in alleys that could have led into boulevards but for one or two wrong turns. Maley’s is a skeleton on which I weave a flesh of thoughts and associations. The words that come to mind are “glamour” and “tawdriness” and “exploitation” and “her own bootstraps.” America sets prizes, like plush bears on a carnival’s shelves, that some citizens must have to plug the holes that riddle their walls. They contort and gyrate and strive – and soon only the motions are left, all doors slammed, all hopes locked in the trunks with the pageants’ scepters and tiaras. Was, one wonders, being kept by King Farouk – being lain upon by his heaving, fat – a pinnacle? a pit? a piece of business? an improvement over Pottsville? By how much? For how long? Who among us is sufficiently without cravings to judge?
I think again of her in Bleeker’s Café, happy, dancing, flirting with Brando over Gil Stratton’s shoulder. I am twelve or thirteen, when I first see Maley, and hoping to understand sex. I have danced the box step and, maybe, spun-the-bottle and have little beyond that in actual girl-against-boy experience to go on. She is telling me it is fun; it is exciting; it is to be held at arm’s length; it is to be feared.


This one appeared at The Broad Street Review on October 29, 2009. I had called it, unimaginitely, “Movies.” It called it “’50s Films that Stoked the ’60s.” It’s your call.

In the mid nineteen-fifties, when I was growing up in West Philadelphia, there were six movie theaters withing walking distance of my house. The Byrd, on Baltimore Avenue. The Commodore, on Walnut. And the Locust, Nixon, Rivoli, and State on 52nd Street.
The Rivoli seemed to show nothing but black-and-white films no ten-to-twelve year old would consider: “Niagara,” “The Picture of Dorian Grey.” The Byrd was good for catching up on Francis the Talking Mule or Ma and Pa Kettle. The Locust played sophisticated fare – also of no interest – like “Mr Hulot’s Holiday” or the odd British import. The Commodore was where, during the opening of “It Came From Outer Space,” when the meteor shower rockets in 3-D toward earth, a new boy in the neighborhood, who had seen it before, earned his spurs by flinging a handful of pebbles into the air and setting everyone screaming. The Nixon featured cinematic excellence in the form of “Four Guns to the Border’ and “Riot in Cell Block 11,” and the State had the best Saturday matinee. Admission was fifteen cents. Candy bars were a nickle and a bag of popcorn a dime. You got, maybe, a Joe Penner short, three cartoons, a chapter in a Don Winslow or Dick Tracy serial, and a double feature (“The Crimson Pirate,” “Go For Broke”). Sometimes there were filmed races between funny men in cars or on bikes; and if your ticket stub had the winner’s number, you won a box of jujubes. During yo-yo season, you could come on stage to perform tricks and, even if you lost first round, receive a coupon for an ice cream sandwich.
Once you had attained a certain degree of maturity and wisdom – in my house this occurred between the ages of ten and eleven – you were permitted to take the 42 trolley (later bus) downtown, where another near dozen, mostly first run movies played. The Mastbaurm, Fox, Trans-Lux, Goldman (or was it Goldwyn?)… I forget the rest. Unable to wait for their general release, it was here that my friends and I pinned “House of Wax” and “Rear Window” and “Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Admission cost more and bought fewer extras than in the ‘hood, but Center City offered other treats. Penny arcades filled with pinball machines. Army/navy stores loaded with the surplus of recent wars. Mustard pretzel carts and Horn & Hardarts automats. Book stores, where we peaked at nudist magazines, until the owners threw us out. Downtown took us a lot further from our parents than 52nd Street.
We did not go to movies for cathartic soul cleansing or philosophical challenge or the appreciation of montage and mise en scene. If we saw a comedy, we wanted to laugh. If we saw a western or war movie, we wanted excitement. But we could not help being schooled. We learned patriotism and foreign policy from John Wayne. We were instructed that the FBI would protect us from everything from Communists (“Walk East on Beacon”) to giant ants (“Them”). We understood that while it might be fun to ogle Marilyn Monroe, we really ought to settle down with someone perky and wholesome and steadfast like June Allyson. (I can’t tell you how shocked I was to learn, even fifty years later, that she had been two-timing Dick Powell with, of all people, Dean Martin.) And we knew to a certainty that evil-doers would be punished.
It went down as easily as vanilla.

Then, on December 30, 1953, a year in which I had rushed to see “Peter Pan,” a movie opened in New York City that would shake the world. I do not recall when or in what theater, I first saw “The Wild One,” but within the, oh, twelve months that I did – a year that also saw me imbibe “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Blackboard Jungle” – the experience, interacting with the hormonal additives by which age had seasoned me, so altered my viewing tastes that I was now plunking down my allowance for admission to “I am a Camera” (at, of all places, the Locust), “Man With the Golden Arm,” “Baby Doll,” “And God Created Woman.”
I doubt market researchers had fingered pre- (or even post-) bar mitzvah Jewish boys as “Wild One” material. Though commentators would link the film to “disaffected youth” and “juvenile delinquency,” Marlon Brando was nearly thirty when he made it; so was Lee Marvin; and Mary Murphy was twenty-three. (“Rebel,” with James Dean at twenty-three, Sal Mineo at fifteen, and Natalie Wood sixteen – though looking older than Murphy – was a closer demographic fit.) It did not bind to us with matching cultural adhesives either. The music on Bleeker’s juke box, to which the gang parties, was an assortment of anonymous instrumentals styled to rouse the temperatures of earlier generations. (“Jungle,” however, blazed with the embedment of “Rock Around the Clock” over its opening credits, a clarion hit of relevancy overshadowing the fact that when the students smash Richard Kiley’s records, they call for Frank Sinatra and Joni James, not Chuck Berry or Laverne Baker.) And motorcycles – motorcycles were about as forbidden to us as swastika tattoos or Gentile girl friends. But for the next decade and a half, when I would strike up a lasting friendship with a boy from Philadelphia or Boston or New York, one point of commonality on our resumes – not always, but often – was repeated viewing of this film, three times, six, a dozen.
It came down to Brando’s Johnny Strabler. He was revelatory: tough; sensitive; tender; cruel; leader of the Black Rebels but always apart; cat nip to the ladies but utterly contemptuous of squares. We were already receiving instructions about the evils of the establishment, the costs of conformity and the dangers of repression from “MAD” and Bob and Ray and Jean Shephard and other resisters of the Eisenhower ‘50s, which, a decade later, would help us establish the parameters of an actual counter-culture; and here was Brando, three years before Jack Kerouac, laying down the ecstasy of the road and the end-all and be-all of “Go.” His lines “I don’t like cops,” “Nobody tells me what to do,” and, most famously, in answer to Peggy Maley’s “Hey, Johnny, what’re you rebelling against?” “What’ve you got?” were catechistic and as valuable to us as Machiavelli’s instructions to the prince. We were assessing, building, equipping ourselves for our own futures with the salvageable and useful, whether we were to eventually to lodge as doctors or lawyers or something even further off the expected grid than tribal chief.
None – well damned few – of us would follow Johnny into the nihilistic pit where Stanley Kramer left him, no family, no job, no girl, not even the stolen runner’s up trophy from a race he had not run. Fortunately, we also had Dean’s searching, struggling, wrenching Jim Stark to draw from. In “Rebel,” it is Corey Allen’s – born, by the way, Alan Cohen – Buzz Gunderson who flaunts the “Wild One” ethic. “Why do we do this?” Jim asks before they race their stolen cars toward a fiery doom. “You’ve got to do something,” Buzz answers. That proves insufficient. “I want to do something right,” Jim tells his parents later. A boy has been killed, and they must not pretend it didn’t happen. “We are,” he says, “all involved.”
That sense of involvement, that wish for proper action would also surface. But first, I needed to get my hands on a motorcycle jacket, hoping its black leather and silver zippered pockets would offset my acne and horned rims.

Bar Mitzvah, Boy!

This blog appeared, re-punctuated to its detriment, as “Bar Mitzvah Boy,” on line, in the January 29, 2010, Broadstreet Review. I have edited it to better fit the stream I have underway here.

In 1953, when I was in fourth grade at Friends’ Central, my father, partly because the contacts might help his law practice, and partly because three doses of Hebrew School a week might immunize me against the identity eroding effects of the Gentiles, who, for the first time, would form a majority of my associates, had our family join Beth Zion.
I thought this a terrible idea. I do not know when I learned the word “hypocrisy,” but once I did, I knew it applied. If religion was important, my pre-adolescent mind reasoned, why hadn’t we always belonged to a synagogue? If we were going to belong, why didn’t we attend services every weekend? Then there was the fact that, at nine or ten, I wanted to fit in with my new friends. I wanted to stay after school and play baseball. (My development seemed to cry louder for an ability to hit the curve than the mastery of any Four Questions.) I did not want to trek by Red Arrow and D bus, from the suburbs into Center City.
I also did not feature, once I arrived, facing the glistening novelty of finding myself stupid. I was placed with children who had already studied Hebrew for a year. I did fine learning about Abraham and Isaac and Judah Maccabee in our history text, which, sensibly, like all good things, was in English; but when it came to reading or writing or speaking those cryptic squiggles, I would have stood more chance wrestling, one-armed, Mr. Moto. (From four years attendance, I retain that “baruch” means “blessed” and “yelda” “girl” – unless it means “boy.”) The highlights of my matriculation were (a) Carol E., a classmate of great sophistication, explaining menstruation; (b) a take-no-crap teacher, recently emigrated from eastern Europe, hypnotizing Max Garden and setting him clucking like a chicken; and (c) cutting class one rainy afternoon, spotting Stan Musial and Red Schoendist in the lobby of a downtown movie theater, and having them autograph my lesson book. I was, otherwise, lost.

The Minotaur lurking at the end of this labyrinth was my bar mitzvah, an experience destined to limn Goya-esq depth into the term “travesty.” Once lessons began, my voice proved as incapable of carrying a tune as Richard Nixon an ADA-friendly precinct. Cantor Mandleblatt, a friendly and decent man, offered the dispensation that I might read my haftorah portion. But my reading was so strained and imbecilic, he was forced to reduce it by three quarters. I mean, I could sound out the letters, but I had no clue whether I was producing noun or verb or preposition. Emphasis? intonation? rhythm? I was at sea on a raft of squawks. The only portion of the experience that provided pleasure was reading “Battle Cry” in the back seat of my father’s Lincoln as we cruised toward the synagogue on my performance day – distracting myself with the adventures of “Andy,” “Danny” and “Ski” as the blue-and-white chromed tumbil headed toward the guillotine. I suppose I understood that the pass:fail ratio I faced was more propitious than, say, that of those aspirants-for-manhood sent by their tribes into the wilderness, armed only with a dagger, and told to retrieve the heart of a grizzly. But if, as we crossed the South Street Bridge, I had been offered a penknife, Center City, and Weimaraner as an option, I am not sure how I would have jumped.
Of the event, I recall mercifully little. No cabbages were thrown by the assembled Levins and Levines. No guffaws issued from the Rothmans and Rosenbaums. Neither Kelner nor Kelmer nor Kessler nor Katz demanded the re-attachment of my foreskin. This was a time before circus tests were required for post-ceremony festivities or acrobatic troupes deemed necessary to entertain the assembled, so everyone marched upstairs for a modest luncheon. I was released to a table with neighborhood friends, who, their own days of reckoning looming, regarded me as if I was departing Guadalcanal as they were wading ashore, and a few from FCS, who had come to experience another sect’s rituals like Margaret Meade to Pago Pago. I worked the room, and Buick dealers and GE distributors, car wash owners and cold cuts magnates thrust envelopes into my hand or pocket.

Even from the perspective five decades has provided, my passage seems to have had little to do with who I was – or was slated to become. Some things I found painful, like inoculations, or demeaning, like having to wait an extra year for my driver’s license, I am now fully – or in the latter case, mostly – able to credit to my parents acting in my best interests. But my bar mitzvah still seems mandated solely by my father’s need to shape me in his image. A part of him scorned his friends who’d discharged their sons from this obligation. It seemed to taint them with a weakness he would not allow others to perceive in him.
My father had come out of 10th & Baimbridge at a time when ethnicity drafted one into bloodier wars than it would me after we’d reached 46th & Pine. It had denied him jobs and barred him from clubs and taught him that, when our family stopped for the night on automobile trips, to send my mother into the motel to ask for a room because her eyes were blue. He took pride in how he had established himself in the face of these blows and constrictions, and he would not have his son drawn further from whom he perceived himself to be than seemed absolutely necessary. “Jewish boys don’t hunt,” he told me, when I came back from FCS one evening, asking for a .22 rifle like certain privileged classmates. “Jewish boys don’t play football,” he told me in fifth grade, when that option became available as a fall sport. By eighth grade, he’d changed his mind there; but my bar mitzvah had been non-negotiable, occasioned no second thoughts, stood a banner planted in the sand.
It does not surprise me now to think, given the cloak of infallibility within which my father presented himself in all matters, from the worth of Adlai Stevenson to the uselessness of Del Ennis in clutch situations, that despite my protestations, I may have adopted a portion of his belief as to the significance of the ceremony in question. For I also recall that when, following its conclusion, my family having flown to Coral Gables, on my first day in the Atlantic, a Portugese Man o’ War lanced me squarely on the tuchis, the pain nearly convinced me that there was a God, that a recording of my performance had just reached him, and this had been his fitting, critical judgment.

7 – 9

The Upper School required boys wear ties and jackets (or sweaters, my preference). It held Quaker meeting once a week, boys on one side of the auditorium, girls the other. (The Quakers were liberal on political issues but cultural, not so much. Each fall, we would lose classmates, boy or girl, rumors about whose personal lives had led them not to have not been “asked back.”)
My grades stayed the same. “AU” in Math, Latin, English, Social Studies. “U” in Manual Training, Music, Art, Gym. So did my assessments. “Robert” needed to “become more attentive,” “less careless,” and “settle down.” “If (he) applies himself,” one teacher wrote, summarizing the thoughts of many, “he should do excellent work.” Though Robert seems not to have behaved as recommended., one English teacher found him “a pleasure to teach.”

I played first base on the class baseball team and defensive end in football; but basketball, given my height and lack of coordination, proved an embarrassment. Even more shaming was my social life. In eighth grade, make-out parties had become the order of the day. But to be invited, you needed a girl friend, and I had none. A girl or two might have been willing to make-out with me, but none gave any overt sign of this, and I was too shy and self-conscious to take any steps required to find out. (Between my glasses and my newly developed acne, I had much to feel self-conscious about.) Besides, one’s stature was influenced by whom one made out with, and the most stature-enhancing girls seemed well beyond me.
In my neighborhood, things were worse. At FCS at least, my athletic capabilities – and the positives attendant upon not settling down – gained me credibility with “A” list guys; but in West Philly, my externals and internals, combined with my “private school kid” taint – that tie being as shaming as a scarlet letter – made me a near untouchable for both sexes.
Which was not all bad.

I had enough belief in my self-worth that these exclusions, while painful, were not crippling. Having one world where I was somewhat comfortable and another where I was somewhat not provided a valuable perspective from which to view both. I mean, the fact that one could feel comfortable in one surround and uncomfortable in another meant that these feelings did not depend on who one “was,” since one was always the same and only the surrounds different. Thus, the “one” became more important than his “worlds.” And the development of this one became the area where my interests and instincts called forth the efforts my elders would have preferred I channel elsewhere. I undertook, with diligence and purpose, investigations of somewhat out-of-the-way corners of orthodox West Philadelphia and orthodox Friends’ Central and took from them what seemed of most significance for the person I hoped to become.
The next several blogs will be accounts of that process. I wrote most not knowing what the next would be and, certainly, in the beginning, unaware of their commonality. For the most part, they stemmed from anecdotes I enjoyed telling over the years to others or inside my own head. Only when I began writing them down, decades later, did I begin looking for the lessons they might contain.

Matinees and Memories

While we’re on cultural influences on the pre-adolescent — not to mention SEX — here’s one that first appeared in “Perspectives in Incongruity” (2012) and then, if my CV is correct, “That Floating Bridge” (2013), both edited by Benj DeMott and both published by TransAction Press.

When I was a boy, my father took me to westerns (“Whispering Smith,” “Red River”) and my mother to musicals and Disneys ( “Easter Parade,” “So Dear to My Heart”).
But once I entered fourth grade (1951), my parents decided I was old enough to attend Saturday matinees alone. In my neighborhood, the Nixon and State, both on 52nd Street, between Chestnut and Market, had them, but I usually went to City Line Center. My Uncle Bernie and Aunt Esther’s cookie-cutter row house in the new neighborhood of Overbrook Park backed up on Cobb’s Creek Golf Course. My father would play 18 holes with cronies. My mother and aunt would prepare spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. And I would spend the afternoon transfixed by the bright screen in the dark.
Admission was ten cents. That bought you a short, a serial chapter, three cartoons, a double feature, and, if you were so inclined, the opportunity to stay through the early show of what was playing evenings. Popcorn was a dime and candy bars a nickle. That was how I spent four uninterrupted hours a week for three years.
During those years, that was the most time I spent on any waking activity unsupervised by parents or teachers. It was a time to laugh (“Knock on Wood’” “Son of Paleface”), to duck behind the seat ahead, covering one’s ears in fear (the flying monkeys in “Wizard of Oz,” “the minefield in “Steel Helmet”), to be indoctrinated (good guys always win, the F.B.I. was our friend), to hoot and holler and toss paper cups from the balcony, to cheer one’s preferences and, unconsciously, add definition to one’s still embryonic self.
The movie star to whom I most cathected during this period was the Burt Lancaster of “The Flame and the Arrow,” “Ten Tall Men,” and “The Crimson Pirate.”
Lancaster had been born, blonde and blue-eyed Irish, in East Harlem, the son of a postal clerk, in December 1913. A six-foot-one basketball star at the academically select DeWitt Clinton High School, he had developed an interest in painting, singing and theater at the Union Settlement House. It offered him a partial scholarship to NYU in return for his continuing to coach and work there. One afternoon, Lancaster spotted a man exercising on the stationary bars and convinced a neighborhood pal, Nick (“Little Dempsey”) Cuccia, a five-foot-two, heavily muscled eighth grade drop out, to take lessons with him. By 1932, “Lang and Cravat” had developed a gymnastic act that carried them through the Depression, working one-ring circuses, fairs, carnivals, and burlesque houses. During World War II, Lancaster served in Army Special Forces, entertaining troops in North Africa and Italy.
In 1945, following his transfer stateside, someone in an elevator spotted Lancaster, and, on the basis of his looks alone, offered him a reading for a Broadway play. During a preview of that play at Philadelphia’s Locust Theater, an agent for Hal Wallis, an independent producer at Paramount, signed him to a movie contract. “A Sound of Hunting” closed after two weeks, and Lancaster left for Hollywood.
The Lancaster I met had already been in about a dozen, mostly black-and-white noir films. The most notable were “The Killers” (his debut), “Sorry, Wrong Number,” and “Criss-Cross,” all of which were deemed too murky, shadowy, gloom-ridden for kiddies on Saturday afternoons. We got him resplendent, in full color, shirt often off (displaying his 41″ chest), muscles gleaming, eyes twinkling, a smile wider and whiter that Lambert Glacier, a vision of heroic male perfection, one of the brightest of Hollywood’s post-World War II stars, dazzling us in the slim mirror of time before Brando and Dean re-calibrated our vision.

In “Flame,” Lancaster plays Dardo, a free-spirited brigand in 12th century Lombardy, who after refusing to join a band of rebels against Frederick Barbarossa (“I depend on no one. Why should anyone depend on me?”), changes his mind once he realizes, “A man can’t live by himself alone.” In “Tall Men,” he plays Sgt. Mike Kincaid, a French Foreign Legionnaire in the Sahara, who assaults his commanding officer and then leads a squad of fellow outlaws to honor by besting an army of blood-thirsty Riffs. And in “Pirate,” he is Captain Vallo, scourge of the late 18th century Carribean, who initially spurns the entreaties of an island’s populace to aid their struggle for freedom (“You’ve got your world, and I’ve got mine”), only to change his mind when he recognizes, “All my life, I’ve witnessed injustice and dishonesty fly the flag of decency.” In “Burt Lancaster: An American Life,” his biographer Kate Buford views these tales of of common men struggling against their oppressors as blows against HUAC’s efforts to stifle leftist dissent in motion pictures. But while Lancaster was an early, fervent foe of the committee, she goes on to strongly suggest that, despite his later assertions to the contrary, he sought – and received – its clearance to continue his career, after authoring a confidential letter affirming his patriotism and anti-Communism.
In any event, though I was a junior-Stevensonian Democrat to whom that whole Family-of-Man thing appealed, I can’t say I came out of Lancaster’s movies whistling “L’internationale.” I was more impressed by his action sequences and way with women. In “Flame,” he wins Virginia Mayo, who plays the niece of the villainous Count Ulrich, by kidnaping her. In “Tall Men,” he wins Jody Lawrence, betrothed of the duplicitous Kayeed Hussein, through a similar wooing. And in “Pirate,” Eva Bartok, daughter of the insurrection’s leader, falls his way after he dupes her aboard his ship, planning to sell her to the authorities. All these ladies, given the opportunity, recognized Lancaster’s inner goodness; and while I lacked his chest and hair and grin, I was certain I just needed the chance to flash my soul to win such swoonings for myself.
Of course, I also lacked Lancaster’s swashbuckling chops. His films allowed ample opportunities for him to climb ropes and poles and walls and to perform vaults and throws, catches and back flips and somersaults, and for chandelier swinging, tightrope walking, and high bar mastery. He did almost all his own stunts; and in two of his films, “Flame” and “Pirate,” Cravat played his sidekick (Piccolo and Ojo, respectively), mute in both instances, since he could not unlearn his New Yawk accent, allowing them to reprise many of their act’s greatest hits. Such feats imbued the pictures with a buoyant humor and comic edge. The body count was leavened by prat falls and belly flops and water dousings. More foes were laid out by cartoonish head bonks than ghoulish eviscerations. No one but the most black-hearted ever screamed.
Explorations of my past, like this one, have taken a similar form. I select something in-the-now which had seemed important to me way-back-then, this importance established by my having clutched it in my memory over the intervening decades, rather than any of the countless other incidents that competed with it for attention. I amplify this memory through research in books or movies or Wikipedia or through conversations with friends. Then I theorize about what it was to these bars or basketball games, cheese steaks or comic books that kept them alive within me.
At this point, in this piece, I had expected to focus on a scene in “Ten Tall Men” which still resonates more vividly to me than any other scene in the movies I’ve mentioned. I saw this film at least three times, though not since 1954 or ‘55, and I had carried this scene with me through high school and college and law school, across a continent, and through a career, into retirement. I was as certain of its particulars as I was of the names of these schools or who had succeeded Eisenhower as president or how the city basketball championship had come out my senior year.
Then I gave the “Play” command to what my DVR had recorded.

In my memory, the sadistic Lt. Kreuger (Stephen Bekassy), having learned that his lady friend Mme. De la Tour (Mari Blanchard) has been dallying with Lancaster, goes to her apartment. When she opens the door, he slashes her across the face with his riding crop, disfiguring her for life with a bright red scar. But in the movie, Lancaster goes to Blanchard’s apartment, after an exchange of meaningful glances on the street. She opens the door. They passionately kiss. “My name’s Mike,” he says. The door closes. Now Bekassy rushes to the apartment. He finds Blanchard and Lancaster, not the least dishabille, having drinks. Bekassy strikes Blanchard bluntly with his crop (no slash, no cut, no scar). Lancaster decks him with one punch.
So where did my adaptation come from? Had the undeveloped, partially formed boy that I was considered Lancaster’s doorway kiss as much an assault as Bekassy’s doorway slash to which I seemingly converted it? At the film’s climax, Lancaster turns a flaming red poker against Sheikh Khalid. We never see flesh sizzle, but had I transplanted its presumed damage onto Blanchard to mark her as the scarlet woman her shameless behavior indicated her to be? As I was indulging myself in Saturday matinees, I was also immersing myself – against parental approval – in comics book of the era. In “Fired,”(Crime SuspenStories #17. June-July 1953), Patricia, a ranch owner, learns that Roy, a cowboy in her employ with whom she is romantically entangled, is two-timing her with a saloon singer. In the last panel, the story delivers a full frontal of Roy’s “blistered and charred” face after Patricia has stamped her Circle-Diamond brand upon it. Before the Comic Book Code of 1954, comics were freer than films to delve into sex and violence and consistently mix the two. Had I thought that “Fired”’s message perfectly suited “Tall Men” and grafted it thereto, where it bloomed unimpeded?.
Saturday matinees licensed one to sit in the dark and eat and think and imagine what one desired, free of outside monitoring. But when the lights went, the doors opened, and defenses returned, adjustments had to be made. What I knew about actual sexual behavior between actual men and women was scanty and ill-informed. But I had apparently ingested lessons that contemporary society was promoting. Sex was dangerous and, if uncontrolled, demanded punishment. Once I had left City Line, I had merely meted out what I deemed necessary to confine the urges I had loosed inside it. And I had learned my lesson well enough to be able to replay it upon command for years.
There are those today calling for a return to the values and order of the 1950s. I am not one.


The most interesting comment Miss Griffiths made on my report cards (See: blog of, I think, August 25) was “Some guidance is needed by home and school towards better reading matter… (to wit) more uplifting and challenging literature.”
I had always been a reader. (In family lore, I had “taught” myself, developing the ability to recognize words and, hence, “read” before I entered kindergarten.) My magazine subscriptions had run from Jack and Jill through the newly launched Sports Illustrated. I’d progressed from Frank Merriwell, through Penrod, to Jeeves. When our class joined a club enabling us to buy paperbacks through the mail, my favorite acquisition was Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday. When we were allowed admittance to the Upper School library, I checked out Guadalcanal Diary.
I read well above grade level. So I had the “challenging” part covered. But as for “uplifting,” Miss Griffiths may have had a point. Especially if she had comic books in mind.
The following is a portion of a piece that appeared in March 1988 in The Comics Journal. It has been reprinted in its entirety in my book “Outlaws, Rebels, Freethinkers & Pirates.”

The first EC comic I ever owned was MAD #3. On a motor trip with my parents in 1952, I plucked it from a revolving metal rack in Bowling Green or St. Augustine or Cody, Wyoming. I was 10 years old: tall, skinny, wore glasses, was uncoordinated, shy. For the rest of the trip I sat in the back seat of our ‘50 Hudson and, between bouts of hysterics, read “Dragged Net” and “Lone Stranger” aloud to my parents, who smiled.
Either Fletcher Sparrow or Davey Peters placed MAD #3 for me in the context of the world of ECs. I met them both within the next year. Fletcher was the one friend I made when my parents thought it would benefit me socially to become a Boy Scout. I went to a few meetings of the local troop, the Jaguars, whose mascot was a stuffed red fox because, I suppose, there were few jaguars in the vicinity of West Philadelphia for a troop member’s uncle to pop. Most of the Jaguars were orthodox Boy Scouts, enamored of helping old ladies cross streets and rubbing together sticks. Such activities lit few sparks for me; but one night, walking home, discussing literary matters with him, Leif Israel, and Bernard Weinstein, I mentioned “Dragged Net” and Fletcher riposted with “Superduperman.”
I discovered Davey in his natural habitat, scouring the back rows of the comic book stand in the drugstore at 48th and Spruce. I had gone to the drug store with Max Garden to play pinball machines. I had met Max when we had been allies in the pretzel fight at Herbie Bender’s birthday party, and he had met Davey in the lobby of the Academy of Music, where both had been strong-armed by their mothers into attendance at a Philadelphia Orchestra Youth Concert. At the time Fletcher and Davey entered my life, I was still unformed, a dabbler, an unprincipled generalist, equally content to drop a dime on Little Lulu, Tarzan, or Uncle Scrooge. But Fletcher and Davey burned with the single-mindeds’ zeal. They possessed the truth – a truth that scorned all cute, sassy talkinganimals and ridiculed all superheroes, noble and pure. This truth held that ECs were the only comics of value and brooked no derivation from its creed. Once Fletcher and Davey had admitted me into their bedrooms – and showed me the contents of the cartons on their closets’ floors – I, too, quivered, enraptured by the source of their vision’s heat.
The ages 10, 11, 12, I see now, are significant developmentally. The child, while still totally dependent on the parent, is, for the first time, gaining freedom from it. The parent can urge the child to pursue rewarding activities and associate with worthwhile company: Boy Scouts; Youth Concerts; Herbie Bender, who was a principal’s son. But the child can ride its bike out of the parents’ view. It can take the 42-trolley downtown. It can spend hours behind its friends’ bedroom doors. For the first time, the child can separate sufficiently from the family to carve its identity with its own hands.
Fletcher Sparrow and Davey Peters were not the sort of company parents would want at the table when such carving was going on. Fletcher was a thin, pale, only child, a year older than me, who spent hours trying to comb his hair like Tony Curtis. He lived in a tiny apartment with his mother, a dental hygienist, and her occasional boyfriend. He swore and smoked and showed his mother’s falsies to his friends. Davey was short, prematurely cynical, and prankishly inclined. He had already established a C.V. that would have made most child analysts drool: chasing Mrs. Kephart with her homeroom flag; ambushing a patrol car on Sansome Street with Roman candles; dousing toy cars with lighter fluid, torching them atop a steep backyard obstacle course, and taking home movies while they dropped and burned.
And, of course, EC comics were on few adults’ list of recommended reading. At the time, EC published 10 titles: Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Haunt of Fear, Crime SuspenStories. Shock SuspenStories, Frontline Combat, Two-Fisted Tales, and MAD. They were, quite simply, the finest comics of their age. EC’s stable of writers and artists – Harvey Kurtzman, Bill Elder, Jack Davis, Wally Wood, Al Feldstein, Johnny Craig, Joe Orlando, Jack Kamen, Bernie Krigstein, George Evans, Reed Crandall, Al Williamson, Graham “Ghastly” Ingels, John Severin – was unequaled; and its publisher, William M. Gaines, gave their talents full rein. Under his aegis EC scaled the heights of genre art, using a popular form to – through the mastery of style and technique, the expansion of boundary and content, the infusion of magic and surprise – expose its audience to the new and different and make it rethink the world. EC was also sound politically. Its stories took courageous and commendable positions for the 1950s – opposing racial and religious discrimination, battling censorship, and scorning McCarthyism – which would not have dented the consciousness of Superman or The Lone Ranger, let alone Donald Duck. Finally, through lively letters pages, various promotional activities, and a generally self-mocking, conspiratorial editorial tone, EC fostered a community of spirit between company and reader that made us all feel intimately involved with its good work.
But what truly made EC great was the horror and the sex. The man who was chained in the old hag’s attic. The husband who incinerated his wife with flood lights and the one who froze his. The wife who put her husband’s hacked-up remains in Mason jars and the one who used the shop display windows for hers. The man who was eaten by piranha in his bubble bath and the one who slid down the pole honed razor-sharp and the one who fed himself to dogs. The woman who was steamed by the smoke ring and the one rotted by perfume and the one whose face was torn from her cranial bones. The space colonist who had 50 beautiful women in suspended animation and unthawed them one at a time like Sara Lees. Thirty years later, the images still sear the brain.
Horror and sex. At 10, 11, 12, the child remains weak and vulnerable. It is aware of the possibilities of destruction and its inability to protect itself against them. EC, arguably, assisted adjustment here. Several sterling issues a month, four heart-poundingly plotted, excruciatingly well-drawn, stories an issue, by ax and acid, fang and talon, club and disintegrator ray, EC allowed us to confront destruction in every imaginable form. We could read it and discuss it. We could contemplate it and brood about it and replay it in our dreams. We might shiver. We might shudder. But we overcame destruction. Several issues a month, we woke or walked from it, unbruised and not visibly scarred.
And sex. The child is also about to turn adolescent. It will be consciously pursuing its libidinal drives. EC, whose basic male-female relationship was: Boy meets Girl; Boy kills Girl; Girl – “rotting, pulsating, oozing slime” – returns from the grave for Boy, was less therapeutically valuable here. Of course, for a child in the early ‘50s there was little healthy sex depicted anywhere. Superman and Lois did not kiss. Tubby and Lulu did not play doctor. Tarzan and Jane never behaved like they had a clue from where they got Boy. Even in adult American popular culture, sexuality was repressed or violent far more often than it was fun. Ricky and Lucy had separate beds. Allison McKenzie was raped. The older guys on the corner talked only about girls they “got” or “scored” or “banged.” At least EC took the sadomasochistic to extremes; and extremity in art, I believe, can be valuable. The extreme can pry apart an audience’s defenses and force it to confront what exists within itself but has been concealed. Such confrontations can lead to self-education and growth; in some circles, they are prized.