Saturday, July 21, 2007

Nomad: The Path Continues

Back in April, I posted the first chapter to a book I’ve been writing, which is basically auto-biographical. I’ve been working on the book steadily, and I think that it’s been as therapeutic a process as it has been a labor of love. To be frank, I think it’s coming along pretty well, and a couple hundred pages in, I think that the story line really moves, and that it will keep people interested.

Anyway, yesterday I met a friend of my best friend, named Faith, and she indicated that she really wanted to read more of the book. I promised that, while I wouldn’t publish the whole book on line, at least I would print a couple chapters here, to satisfy the curiosity.

Now I didn’t want to provide too much at once, so I am just posting chapter 2 of the book. More will follow in a couple days or a week or whenever I feel like it. In the mean time, I hope you enjoy this portion of my book, titled, like my blog, “Perspectives of a Nomad”.

Chapter 2: Nomadic Beginnings

It all began for me in Philadelphia in the early 1970s. Philadelphia was a rough city at that point, to be sure, but it was also a great city, and an amazing place to grow up. One word defined the city, and pervaded all the events that took place there: passion!

Philadelphia had a beat all its own. This beat pervaded the whole city. It seemed like everyone walked to that beat when I was a kid, bouncing along to a rhythm no one could hear. It was the rhythm of passion, and it was contagious. It was the beat of the heart, and we all moved to it. It made Philly this electric place, a place where people thrived or died, but never just survived. Philly was my home: it created me, hook, line, sinker, and I became addicted to the energy that made Philly great.

Outsiders who came into the city just heard noise, the deafening noise of millions of voices and screams in the night. The bullets of mafia drive-byes, the pounding of hundreds of kids pushing over cop vans on South Street on a Friday night, the beating of the kid who walked into the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time, even the clickety clack of the typewriters that fueled one of the largest commercial districts in the country.

The noise was also the fiercest sports fans in the country, cheering on the Eagles, Flyers, Phillies, and 76ers, throwing snowballs at Santa and cheering injured opponents. It was the hundred people lined up around the block at Pat’s cheese steak, waiting for the best sandwich in the world. It was the clanking of the nightsticks of the mob thugs hired as cops to keep order in the crazy city, and the boom of the thermonuclear “entrance device” that burnt a city block to the ground when residents took on the law.

And it was the music! Great music was coming out of Philly in the 70s and 80s. Philadelphia International Studios was producing some of the best R&B in the country, with acts like The O’Jays, Teddy Pendergrass, The Whitehead Brothers, and a ton of other bands that made up the traditional Philly sound. Plus, there were the rockers: Bruce Springsteen was right across the bridge, George Thoroughgood was playing clubs every weekend night, even Hall and Oats were producing awesome music before they sold out.

Yeah, visitors thought it all made up a deafening noise, but anyone from the city heard the rhythm, bounced to it, grooved to it, felt it in their bones. The city was electric with that beat, ready to explode from it at any moment. It charged the whole city, amped it up like crazy, and supercharged anyone who spent any time in the City of Brotherly Love.

It was passion, no doubt about it. To a Philadelphian, winning was important, but not as important as showing heart in whatever you were doing. I still believe that Mike Schmidt was the best 3rd baseman ever to play the game of baseball, but if he wasn’t giving an all-out effort, the city would boo him mercilessly. The first time I saw The Who in concert, Santana and the Clash played before them; Santana was amazing, but The Clash played a fairly lackluster show, with no enthusiasm whatsoever for the 110,000 fans. They were booed off the stage, and their tour bus was pelted by bottles after the show.

The city created a type of passion that pervaded every person I knew and everything they did. The passion is contagious! It was all about heart; the city would embrace anyone who showed that heart, and would never forgive anyone who lacked it. From the lowliest janitor to the athletes that played for our teams and the musicians who graced our stages, a little bit of heart went a long way in Philly, and I was brought up valuing heart more than anything else.

Ever wonder why Rocky has always been considered Philly’s favorite son? It’s because of the passion he showed against such amazing odds. People forget that, in the first Rocky film, he lost, just as he did in the last one. But Philly embraced this fictional character because he never gave up, despite being beaten, bloody, and overmatched. He lasted, not on talent, but all on heart, and that is exactly what being from Philadelphia is all about. Passion and heart, Philly style, is simply a way of life.

I certainly felt the passion, and lived it. As a kid, before Rocky ever graced the screen, I was a fighter myself. Now don’t have any illusions, I wasn’t that great. I simply lived in an area that was in the process of changing, of transitioning from a traditionally Jewish neighborhood to a racially mixed neighborhood. A low cost housing project called Lynnewood Gardens was developed down the street from me, and the kids were bussed to my school. Suddenly my group went from being a majority to a minority, and what’s more, the kids in the majority were bigger, stronger, and tougher than my group, by a long ways. As a result, I was often targeted by the new kids to fight.

Most of the time, I got my butt kicked. In fight after fight, I would get my nose bloodied, my eye blackened, and my clothes torn. But no matter what, I never went down. It was totally a thing of pride for me; I could take a bigger beating that just about anyone in the school, and no matter what I would always get up and take some more. Plus, I always dished out a beating of my own. No kid, no matter how big, got through with a fight with me without some bruises and cuts; I would keep fighting when there was no strength left in me, just to prove I wasn’t a wimp, and that was my victory, my passion.

As time went on, I gained respect for this. In my school, kids would sort of work their way up the fighting ladder, fighting progressively tougher kids in an effort to show that they belonged amongst the toughest kids. I was surprised to find that I was in this ladder, and that tougher and tougher kids wanted to fight me. I never instigated a fight, but never backed down from one either.

In 5th grade, the toughest kid in the school, Shawn Dailey, decided he had to face me. He was captain of the football team, playing both offensive and defensive line, and he was well over 6 feet tall even at that early age. He punched me in the face repeatedly, and I was getting mauled. But I kept coming back, punching him in the ribs to get him to bend down, and then nailing him in the face. In the end, my face was pretty bloody, but he was banged up too. As the principal was walking us to the office, Shawn turned to me, and shook my hand, as if saying I had won his respect. From that point on, no one picked fights with me.

Meanwhile, a few of the tougher and more popular kids, though very few, started hanging out with me. Among this small group of early friends were two brothers, Matt and Ronnie Garland. They were from the Gardens, both adopted, and always getting into trouble. Matt was in my grade, Ronnie was a year younger, and we would get into trouble together. It was the entire basis of our friendship.

The three of us shared a passion for the Phillies, who were amazing at that point. It was 1976, the year of the bicentennial, and our Phils were on the verge of greatness. With Steve Carlton and Tug McGraw on the mound, a stellar infield that included Schmidty, Larry Bowa and Manny Trillo, and an outfield with Greg “the bull” Luszinsky and Garry Maddux, this was a tough team. We added Pete Rose as our first baseman in 1977, and this put us over the top, but he really fit in with everyone else on the team; he was known for his hustle and his heart, and that’s what made him special. Philly loved him!

Matt and I were 9 years old, Ronnie was 8, and we realized we needed to be seeing Phillies games in person. At the time, you could go down to Veterans Stadium and purchase a seat in the nosebleed section (called the 700 level) for $.50 if you were younger than 16. So we started going to games, often cutting school to watch our team. We would leave during lunch, when we could escape pretty easily, take the C bus to the subway, and head down to the Vet. Then, we would check out the game, share a cheese steak, and take the subway and a bus home.

Inside the stadium, it was mayhem. The 700 level was the cheapest of seats, and since most games were day games at this point, the people at the stadium were normally out of work. There was a ton of drinking and a ton of fighting up there. Fans of our opponents were scared to venture up to the 700 level, and one time a Mets fan got thrown over a balcony. Looking back, it was crazy for three young kids to have been there alone and unsupervised, but we had to go see our heroes on the diamond making Philly proud.

The trip home was no less scary. As it got later in the day, the subway became a very dangerous place. We tried to act tough, like we weren’t nervous about our surroundings, but some things you just can’t hide. And as the old men would make sure to stand right next to us so we would fall into them when the subway would lurch to a stop, or as we had to hold on tight to our wallets to avoid the pickpockets moving through the subway car, we would just look at each other, making sure none of us showed outward signs of the fear we all felt.

The three of us were supposed to stop hanging out together after we had all gotten busted in the Cedarbrook mall stealing school supplies and baseball cards. I had these big pockets, and we were going in, filling my pockets, and walking out, emptying, and going back for more again, all afternoon long. We were so dumb; they had been watching us all afternoon, and when we were saying it was time to call it a day, the security guard grabbed us and called our parents.

But we decided we still were going to hang out together, and went down to the Vet a week later to catch the Phillies-Dodgers game. This would wind up being the last time we hung out. It was an amazing game, and Schmidty hit 3 home runs. We hit Pat’s cheese steaks after the game, and then went to wait for the bus.

Now South Philly is almost all row houses, and each row house has a stoop. They are stairs that go down, and have a brick wall in front of them. People will hang out on the stoop all day long, talking with neighbors and being part of the community. We were sitting on one of these stoops, our heads unable to see over the brick wall, waiting for the bus with about 20 other people.

We heard the car’s tires screech as he took the corner at high speed, and raced down 9th street towards the bus stop, but we paid no attention. Then we heard it, the cracking of gun shots in rapid succession. We ducked down, making sure we were behind the wall, but we could hear the pandemonium not more than 5 feet away from us. A few bullets hit the wall, and one knocked off part of a brick, which landed on Ronnie’s head and left a nasty gash. And then it was all over.

As we heard the car streaking away, we looked up, and saw the dead body. It had been a drive-by shooting, mob related. The victim I learned later was part of Nicky Scarfo’s gang, and had been taken down as part of an ongoing turf war. Philly has always been mobbed up, and turf wars have always been more the norm than the exception. But this was my first view of one of the casualties up close.

On that day, the posturing stopped, and we all admitted we were scared. That was the last time we headed down to the Vet unattended, and the end of our friendship as well. Maybe it had been too embarrassing to be that honest with the brothers, or maybe we didn’t want to see our shame at having been so afraid that day. But our friendship was just never the same, and I have no idea what happened to either of them.

And perhaps some of my innocence washed down the drain with the river of blood coming from the dead mobster. For the first time, I was seeing life in a new way, through eyes a bit more knowledgeable, and a bit wiser. Perhaps that incident changed the way I looked at life, and thus made me better able to deal with my tumultuous 12th year. But regardless I know that, from that moment on, I was never the same.

Posted by Scottage at 10:40 AM / | |