Friday, March 6, 2009

The Good Old Days

Do you know that weird sensation of connection to your roots that you often feel when you see an old family member, friend, lover, teammate, or co-worker for the first time in years, maybe even decades?

Depending on the circumstances of your meet, it sometimes doesn't hit you until later. But almost always we go through that exercise in mental nostalgia which carries us back to those younger days and the experiences that we shared with this individual.

The innocent memories of childhood. The fun times of high school or college. The struggles and amusement involved in our early work years. The thrills of victory and the agonies of defeat on sporting fields.

The life, death, and love of family. Sometimes that person is linked to another person, or a group of others, and our memories will branch off towards those folks.

Well these types of memories and feelings have been happening to me more and more lately thanks to the social networking website called Facebook. I have stumbled across more family members and old friends on the internet thanks to this popular behemoth than I could ever have imagined.

People who I worked with years ago. Those who I hung out with on the corners of South Philly as a youth. Some who I played ball with as an adult. And being a police officer for the past 19 years there are cops, both old and new acquaintances. Lots of cops. The site allows you to mentally catch-up with these people.

We share small biographies of what we've been up to, photos of our family members and friends, videos of some of our life experiences, music and other media that we enjoy, and conversations with one another and each other.

These meetings of late have also driven home another point to me as well. My own memories of what is classically referred to as 'the good old days' are truly long gone.


For me those days would take me back to my childhood and teenage years growing up in the 2nd Street neighborhood of South Philly during the 1960's and particularly the 1970's.

'Two Street', as some know it, is a stretch of south 2nd Street beginning around Washington Avenue and continuing south to Oregon Avenue. This is approximately a twenty block stretch bordered on the east by the homes on and around Front Street and on the west arguably by somewhere around 4th or 5th Street, depending on how far south you are.

The area is a Mummers kingdom, the home to these merry men and women who star in Philly's iconic New Year's Day parade. Many of the clubs have their headquarters on 2nd Street or just off it, and you can't walk a half block without tripping over any number of residents who participate in the parade in some way.

The times when I grew up there were the days of Vietnam, Woodstock, Watergate, Apollo, SNL, Nixon, Ford, Carter, disco, gasoline rationing, and the ever-looming threat of a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Russia that was known as 'The Cold War'.

But when your age is still in the single digits, and even into your pre-teen and early teen years, most of these big stories are simply not affecting your life as you know it. Your life at those ages is filled with things like family and school, sports teams and friends, movies and music. Eventually as we emerge into puberty we become preoccupied with the opposite sex.

In my life, family was big, and there was a simple reason for it: geography. My grandparents were all raised in South Philly, and in those days you pretty much settled and raised your families in the same neighborhood where you started. Thus my parents and their siblings, my aunts and uncles, were all raised there as well.

Most of that living and raising took place in a small stretch of no more than a half mile. Within those five blocks or so lived my own little family of myself, my younger brother Mike, my mom Marie, and my dad Matthew.

We lived on the tiny 2300 block of south American Street, which would serve decades later as the backdrop for a scene in the film 'Invincible' about former Philadelphia Eagle Vince Papale.

Those scenes where Papale plays a rough version of schoolyard lot football? They were real. I can't tell you how many dozens if not hundreds of such football games that I participated in over the years on the school yards, playgrounds and rec centers around Two Street. From 'touch' football to 'rough touch' and even tackle football on grass or when it snowed heavily.

My dad had two sisters, and my mom had one brother, and they and their families also lived in South Philly. The LoBiondo family of my Aunt Bobbie lived just two blocks away. The Piernock family of my Aunt Pat lived about five blocks away.

The Gilmore family of my Uncle Ray lived a bit further away but still in South Philly. My Uncle Ray Gilmore, my mom's brother, was a DJ with the old AM radio king WIBG which was known in those days as simply 'Wibbage'.

His career opportunities in radio eventually saw him become one of the first to leave the old neighborhood, first for the New York area, and then eventually on to Boston. But my mom stilled had many other family members, aunts, uncles and cousins, living all along 2nd Street.

One of the regular joys in those days was on New Years Day, when most of the parade groups returned to their clubhouses along Two Street and would parade down the length, serenading their fans and family members.

The tradition remains today as a mini version of the full-scale parade that took place along Broad Street, and has a 'Mardi Gras' feel with costumed revelers jamming the streets.

In my own good old days we had two family spots along the parade route that gave us a front row seat to these festivities. My mom's Uncle Bill and Aunt Helen lived right on 3rd Street at Cantrell, where the parade came right past their front door, and my dad's sister Bobbie lived just off 3rd & Jackson.

Both families always had open house parties on those days, and we got to enjoy the parade, family reunions, and good food and drink. These gatherings were like familial glue in my youth, allowing my dad's family at Jackson Street and my mom's family at Cantrell Street to be together in a fun setting year after year.

My brother Mike and I would jockey back and forth between the two houses, saying the requisite hello's to our aunts and uncles and then hanging out with our cousins. This was the essence of Two Street: sitting on the front porches and stoops, hanging on the corners, family, friends, Mummers, and all of it made possible, or at least far easier, by the simple geography of proximity.

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