It’s mid-May, and Kate and I live in deep trepidation over the possibility that the Philadelphia Flyers will win the ugly looking, but highly coveted, Stanley Cup. Not that the town couldn’t use even such a minor honor. Two years ago, the city was lambasted worldwide for fielding its own air force and killing II people in a bombing run over a residential neighborhood. We can use some positive press for a change.
Some weeks back, for example, the legendary basketball star Julius Erving was honored with a parade to show the town’s appreciation for Dr. J.’s class and talent. But some of the city’s young people skipped the chance to say hello to this role model, instead seizing the moment to riot and loot only seven blocks from the parade.
Except on TV, where it couldn’t be helped, the press were forbidden to note that the looters were black. Discussion of the riot was reduced to liberal obfuscations on the poor preparation of the police, or the tendency of young people to get excited and carried away sometimes (never mind that one journalist witnessed a subway conversation which indicated that at least some of the youths were about to engage in premeditated acts of violence). We’ll never know why they did it because mere discussion of such a topic these days would be considered a form of racism, while meek acceptance of abnormal and uncivilized behavior is progressivism at its finest.
In fairness, if the Flyers do win the Stanley Cup, there will be many out-of-control people in the streets, and it will be essentially an all-white affair, something the media also ignore. Some of the worst excesses of the festivities will occur in South Philadelphia, where they will likely spill over from Broad Street—a major traffic artery, and the route of the inexplicable Mummers Parade held each New Year’s Day—to our doorstep half a block away.
This won’t be the official parade, mind you. It will be a spontaneous operation starting at the moment of victory, probably in the middle of the night. Kate and I are not thrilled at the prospect of drunken hockey fans hurtling through our front window. The Stanley Cup is a pale and fleeting glory compared to that sort of startling inconvenience and, in any case, we think hockey is a silly game.
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Those who contend that the modern metropolis is ungovernable should visit South Philadelphia for confirmation, and not just on evenings when a sports team wins a lot of money for its members, owners, and TV sponsors. The rules here are different.
Illegal parking, for example, is a permanent condition on many of the streets, but a parking ticket is so rare that it is considered a major political development. It can attract a crowd of incredulous spectators, which may then turn into a block party.
A 24-hour steak and hoagie shop which attracts obnoxious characters at odd hours delivers free rolls once a week to neighboring residents to prevent any complaints to the police.
Residents who don’t like the name of their street simply put up a sign with a name they do like. The block of Rosewood Street where former mayor Frank Rizzo grew up is recognized, by a sign and by tradition, as Rizzo Street by everyone except city bureaucrats and map makers.
Philadelphia is a city noted for clannish neighborhoods. When asked where they are from, Philadelphians name their neighborhood, not the city. Only suburbanites, for some unknown reason, say they’re from Philadelphia. But South Philadelphia is clannish to an extreme—ask a South Philadelphian where he’s from and he’ll mention a particular street intersection.
Kate is originally from South Philadelphia (no, make that Broad and Oregon) and is used to all this. But my suburban sensibilities are being challenged by what looks to me like a more-than-mild case of anarchy in practice. The “teeming masses” are no literary allusion here. Up the corner, they’re teeming all over the place, and at all hours of the day and night.
We live on an extremely narrow street in a rented house whose structural integrity is questionable. There is not a right angle anywhere in it or near it. A nail placed to hang a picture will either go completely through a wall and disappear into the foundation or else ricochet back out, striking an innocent cat on the ear. Operating the electric can opener and washing machine simultaneously courts the danger of a neighborhood blackout.
From our backyard, an eight-foot square swath of concrete, we can look in (or lean on) the window of the typesetting firm next door and watch South Philadelphia’s own newspaper of record being put together by an army of paste-up artists, many of whom claim to be real artists waiting for the big break. At night, the high-intensity lights of the stat camera light up the backyard and alarm our dogs and cats.
From our front window, we can see the back side of the Woolworths and other stores on Broad Street, and here is a good example of how the rules work here. Eight families live on this one-way alley of a street, but dozens, perhaps millions, of truck drivers consider it a shipping and receiving dock, forever blocking it with smelly trucks (often at both ends and pointed the wrong way) while they unload whatever it is that Kate and I will find an irresistible buy later on at Woolworths. Most mornings, I have to depart for work traveling backward in the wrong direction.
Nonetheless, we like the house because, next New Year’s Day, we will be a few steps away from the Mummers Parade and can retreat inside to warm up whenever we like, which is the only way to watch grown-ups with banjos and peacock feathers parading in the dead of winter.
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Dodging cars stopped in places where cars aren’t supposed to be stopped is one of the basic skills one must learn in order to live in South Philadelphia. You can spot visitors easily. They are the ones sitting in a long line of cars in the right lane, waiting for a light to turn green somewhere, unaware that they are sitting in an impromptu parking lot.
On-street parking spots in South Philadelphia are considered to be a form of private property. (Years ago, a campaigning pol was pelted with tomatoes in South Philadelphia because he had suggested a fee for residential on-street parking.) Nearby is a wide street so heavily populated that cars are parked three deep, each car always in the exact same place. If your Dodge is blocked in and it’s time to go to work, Tony down the street knows that, and he’ll move his car just in time for you to depart.
The logistics required to unravel the parked cars on a South Philadelphia street would baffle a Harvard-trained MBA who’s done research on queuing theory. But it’s no problem here, where generations of the same family live a few doors or blocks apart, suggesting that a genetic memory of the complex system of on-street parking is stamped on local chromosomes.
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The culturati of South Philadelphia can be found, usually at 3:00 A.M. on a Saturday, at the Melrose Diner, a 24-hour operation that captures the essence of South Philadelphia night life, for this is where they all come after the bars are closed, the wedding receptions have run out of steam, or the police have shut down the block party.
It is difficult to describe the Melrose, except to say it would be no surprise to learn that George Lukas got the inspiration for the bar scene in Star Wars after eating there. Here high-life, low-life, and everything in between meet on common ground, and the great sport is pointing out outlandish apparitions attempting to order bacon and eggs.
The Melrose (where 78 percent of the waitresses are named Pat and where waitressing jobs are handed down through generations of Pats) is one of South Philadelphia’s great institutions, along with what suburbanites call the Italian Market (locals call it Ninth Street).
Ninth Street is full of stores and sidewalk stalls where you can buy some of the best, freshest and cheapest food in the city, as well as clothing that has been rejected by the thrift shops. You can get taken too, especially on Saturdays, when the tourists come in for a day of mingling with real people, and the locals stay home. You may have seen it in Rocky, which was set in South Philadelphia (though filmed mostly in another neighborhood, Kensington, probably because parking was easier there).
It’s said that when Philadelphians (i.e., suburbanites) want to be tourists for a day, they skip the Liberty Bell and other historic attractions in Independence National Park and visit South Philadelphia instead. The big treat is to eat a cheesesteak, a legendary Philadelphia culinary invention made best in South Philadelphia, but only in private kitchens. The awful secret of the Philadelphia cheesesteak is that you can’t buy a really good one anywhere. You’ve got to make your own, or you’ve got to know somebody who can do it for you.
A tour of South Philadelphia is incomplete without a weekend evening visit to the Triangle Tavern, a bar and restaurant where the band and singer are criminally inept, know it, and revel in it as much as the crowd. The elderly singer takes every opportunity to sit one out with a drink while a patron fills in with a song or two (if at least two band members can be persuaded not to have a drink with the singer).
The best part of the act is when the drummer, a man with a seven-inch-high artificial pompadour and old enough to know better, does an awful and funny impersonation of Bruce Springsteen. It’s better than the real thing, especially at these prices.
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Next week, we’ll be treated to a primary election. There are two major Democratic contenders, W. Wilson Goode and Edward Rendell.
Goode, the current mayor, has a number of firsts to his credit—first black mayor, first mayor (so far as I know) with an MBA from The Wharton School, and first mayor to launch a tactical air strike to evict a group called MOVE—an unruly house full of people who disapproved of the existence of civilization as we know it.
Eleven members of MOVE, including five children, died in the resulting fire that consumed two blocks of homes in a black, working-class neighborhood, but very little of the smart money says Goode will be held responsible by the voters, especially many black voters who feel frustrated that the first of their own people to reach the mayor’s office may have poisoned the well for those who might follow. Sandy Grady, a local columnist who writes from Inside the Beltway, reports that out-of-towners are amazed that Goode hasn’t been impeached, let alone that he has a good chance for reelection. It could be that Philadelphians don’t have a chance to forgive or not forgive because they forgot so quickly.
Rendell, the former district attorney, recently lost his shot at the governor’s job, and one of the hot issues is whether or not Rendell promised Goode he would not run against him in the mayoralty. If Goode is boring because of his style, he is at least fascinating because he is the object of so much heated debate over his performance as mayor. Rendell is just plain boring, and is perceived by many as an untrustworthy opportunist.
In South Philadelphia, the focus for the first time in memory is on the Republican primary. Registration in Philadelphia has been overwhelmingly Democratic (by four to one) since the dawn of time, and more so in South Philadelphia, where the major blocs are the blacks and the Italians. The focus has shifted because Frank Rizzo, one-time mayor, one-time police commissioner and loser to Goode in a comeback try in the last Democratic primary bout, is now the endorsed Republican candidate. At last count, some 35,000 people had become Republicans just for the fun of being in this fray.
Rizzo is the pride of South Philadelphia, or at least of white South Philadelphia. He has been branded a racist and right-winger in the past, and is noted for his zingers (or gaffes, depending on the observer). When told of Gary Hart’s challenge that the press would be bored if they followed him around, Rizzo remarked that anyone who followed him around would never be bored. Indeed, both those who love him and those who hate him would probably agree that he’s the only local politician in memory who truly excites people. Philadelphia pols, as a group, are generally dull (often dull-witted), even the corrupt ones.
Rizzo goes up against John Egan, who is one of a generic brand that’s become dangerously popular in recent years—the “businessman” who can make government work more efficiently. Candidates like Mr. Egan ought to recall two things. To begin with, most businesses, large and small, are badly run—a leading cause, the experts say, of bankruptcy. Second, the rare person who is truly competent in managing a business ought to stay put and contribute what he can to the GNP, not figure out more businesslike ways to drain it off into the swampland of government spending programs.
I’d sooner handicap a field of threelegged horses with blind jockeys than guess the outcome of the primaries, especially since the phrase “race is not an issue” has been repeated so often by so many people that it surely must be an issue by now, and one with unpredictable consequences.
I’d very much like to see a rematch between Rizzo and Goode in the general election because the styles offer such a great contrast. Goode speaks in a plodding manner, full of MBAisms and endless interruptive phrases like “in fact” or “at this point in time.” It’s like hearing someone read the pamphlet from an aspirin box.
Rizzo is bombastic, with a real talent for inventing state-of-the-art grammatical constructions that would confound Yogi Berra. Local pundits have dug out their old copies of “The Sayings of Chairman Frank,” a collection of Rizzoisms published by liberal interests to embarrass Rizzo when he was the most powerful politician in the city through most of the 70’s.
Goode has the technocrat’s blind faith in “programs” to “address issues.” Rizzo has faith in himself and, I would guess, believes that the anarchic energy of a city doesn’t make it ungovernable, it just makes it difficult to govern without a strong leader to act as a lightning rod to redirect some of that energy.
While I’d like to see that rematch, it’s only because I consider such political contests to be a form of entertainment, much like local television news programs. If someone put to me the serious question of the future of Philadelphia government, I’d suggest that we abolish the office of mayor and let the Philadelphia City Council run things on its own. Whenever one of its members goes crooked, it’s done so stupidly that they get caught, and if they engage in actual policymaking, they do it cleanly and efficiently—by means of fistfights in council meetings. Now that’s entertainment, South Philadelphia style.
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On the drive back from a pleasant visit with the horsemen of Pocono Downs the Sunday before the primary election, we learn that the Philadelphia Flyers lost the first game of the Stanley Cup finals to the Edmonton Oilers. South Philadelphia goes about its business on the verge of tears, but Kate and I are feeling optimistic about the future, no matter who the next mayor turns out to be.
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