South Philly

Posted by Ellen

Last spring, when we first came across this scene on a block of Hicks Street in deep South Philly, we just naturally assumed that the white car was a Cadillac. Took us till now to realize that no, maybe it should be a Cadillac, but in real life it's a Lincoln Continental. Some of us are just not as observant as we need to be.

What we can say, however, based on observations of our own lyin eyes as well as gossip, is that this Lincoln is regularly washed but never driven. 

Posted by Ellen

We noticed the other day that on 9th Street in the Italian Market, they sell pet turtles just like Rocky's turtles in the movies.

What we don't know is which came first, Rocky or the turtles. Did Sylvester Stallone put turtles in the movies because they were a South Philly thing? Or do they sell turtles in the market now because people want to buy Rocky things?

Or, as the cool kidz say nowadays, what people want to buy is Rocky jawn.

Posted by Ellen

Down at the far edge of South Philly, in the land of the Big Box Stores, floats the biggest box of them all, the old SS United States.

She was the biggest and most luxurious ocean liner ever built, more than 100 feet longer than the Titanic. There is more aluminum in her hull than in anything else on the planet. When she traversed the locks in the Panama Canal, there was just two feet of clearance on either side.

On her maiden voyage in 1952, she shattered the trans-Atlantic speed records in both directions. But 1952 was near the wrong end of the era of gilded passenger liners, and the SS United States has now spent more than half her life quietly rusting away at pierside in Philadelphia, across the street from an Ikea store that could probably fit comfortably in her ballroom.

That's an exaggeration. Most likely, her ballroom could only hold Best Buy.

Posted by Ellen

For their very first date, Linda and Wayne went out to dinner at Victor Cafe in South Philly, where the waiters are all trained opera singers who serve up Puccini along with the pasta. Now that Wayne and Linda have been together for a while, they decided to come back to Victor's for an evening out with Linda's two daughters, Gina and Erin.

The way this restaurant works is that every few minutes, somebody rings a bell and stands up to sing. When Linda rang the bell and Wayne stood up, we were all pretty sure of how the scenario would play out: Wayne had probably had a few drinks, and now he was about to start singing, and those two young girls were going to sit there wishing they could fall through the floorboards.

Instead, Wayne lifted a glass and spoke a toast, telling the world how wonderful Linda was and how important to his life she and her daughters had become. And then he was down on one knee, asking Linda to be his wife.

"Of course," she said.

And the bartender was the one who broke out in song: "Some Enchanted Evening."

Posted by Ellen

Odd thing about Broad Street in South Philadelphia: people park in the middle of the street.

Between the northbound and southbound lanes, there is pavement marked with diagonal yellow stripes, the kind of striping that, in all other parts of the world, says to drivers: "Keep your car out of this area." But on Broad Street, at least on the part of Broad Street that runs through South Philly, the empty space between lanes calls out, "Hey, right over here–park your car! Right here in the middle of the street."

Facing north, facing south, doesn't matter. Free parking is free parking.

Posted by Ellen

Philadelphia rode out the storm without much incident; lots of rain and small tree branches fell, and then that was that. We were the lucky ones this time.

Although I haven't checked up on it with my own eyes, I'd lay money that this mural on East Passyunk is still standing. The performers celebrated on this wall–in autographed portraits designed by mural artist Peter Pagast to resemble the framed celebrity photos on a restaurant wall–were all born and raised in South Philadelphia: Frankie Avalon, Chubby Checker, Fabian, Bobby Rydell, Al Martino, Eddie Fisher, and in the upper right corner someone not so well known among us ignorant non-Philadelphia natives: disc jockey Jerry Blavat.

In 2005, when the mural was dedicated, all of them except Eddie Fisher showed up for a celebratory sock hop.

Posted by Ellen

It was a way to spend a summer afternoon in South Philly in 2001, doing flips off a pile of discarded old mattresses. The photographer who happened by, Zoe Strauss, originally stopped to caution the boys: Don't do that. You're gonna kill yourselves. They told her not to worry and offered to do even more daredevilish stunts for her camera. She snapped a few pictures and then took off, anxious, perhaps, that her picture-taking might be upping the danger level.

The boy in the back in this photo, Lawrence Edward Rose, Jr., has his hand in front of his face, as if in astonishment at what the other boy, his cousin Botie, was up to. Actually, his fist was at his mouth because he was sucking his thumb; he was thirteen years old that summer, but he was a shy, quiet boy who continued to suck his thumb till he was seventeen.

The summer he turned nineteen, six years almost to the day after the mattress flipping, he died from complications of gunshot wounds suffered in a gang fight at a corner store a few blocks from where those mattresses had been piled. His mother had feared for her timid boy who smiled at everybody and still sucked his thumb as a teenager; to keep him off the streets, she had enrolled him in every program she could find, even sending him to two different boarding schools. But it seemed he was a homebody who wasn't comfortable away from his family and his neighborhood, and in July 2007, the street claimed him.

The photo had a life of its own. Zoe Strauss made several prints, which she exhibited at a show she mounted every year underneath an I-95 interchange in South Philly. Under the highway, the prints sold for $5. Later, she printed larger versions on fancy paper for a New York gallery that sold them for $3,000. More recently, a billboard-sized print of the mattress flip has hung over the main entrance to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, announcing a mid-career retrospective show of Strauss's work.

It's also part of the cover design of an ABC picture book published by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which is how librarian Sa'ddiya Suku came across it last year at a branch library in West Philly. She didn't know the children in the scene, but she had grown up at the corner where the picture was shot, and she recognized the red-painted brick wall behind the mattresses. And then she recognized the thumb-sucking child standing near the wall, from pictures she'd seen and stories she'd heard after his death.

Suku showed the picture to Rose's family; they were thrilled, she said, to learn that the boy was part of history. He's gone, but he lives on; the photo is about nothing so much as the joy of being young and alive.

Posted by Ellen

A Mummer approaches the crowd along Broad Street during Philadelphia's 112th annual New Year's Day parade.

The Mummers Parade, unique to Philadelphia though with overtones of New Orleans Mardi Gras festivities, typically lasts about eight hours and involves more than 10,000 strutters, dancers, musicians, and stagehands. The 2012 parade was said to be reduced a bit in size and extravagance, reflecting economic hard times and perhaps also the city's changing culture.

Nonetheless, crowds carrying open beverages mobbed the sidewalks and cross-streets, as brigade after brigade of Mummers in full feathery regalia marched down Broad Street, pausing every few blocks to show off the results of their yearlong labors on costumes, choreography, horn-blowing and banjo-picking and precision dance.

At the convention hall near the end of the parade route, the various bands and brigades perform lengthier, more elaborate versions of their dance routines for judges, who award substantial sums of prize money to the top groups. The prizes don't begin to cover the costs of mummery, however; even though all the dancers work for free, the costumes and special effects can cost a brigade $100,000 or even more.

With less money to spend this year on costumes and staging, more attention was devoted to choreography and dance skills. According to one Mummer choreographer, Dennis Quaile, the mostly male Mummers base their dancing on boxing moves: "punches, lunges, and dodges."

"Anything effeminate they will not do," said Quaile. "Some brigades have girls and they can get away with it. But if the guys don't feel manly, while dancing in their feathers, they won't do it. So I have to keep it as butch as I possibly can."

Posted by Ellen

Every few minutes at Victor Cafe in South Philly, one or another of the servers rings the little bell seen here on a tabletop and bursts into song.

They all have operatic training, so usually they sing opera, which is what the crowd came for–and they do draw a crowd. But as the evening progresses, the repertoire loosens up a little; they belt out showtunes as well as arias, and they even take requests. Here, at the end of the night, a tenor working as a waiter closes down the place with that old pop standard, Ave Maria.