Visiting Philadelphia: …very few answers

The first indication of the nature of my recent trip to Philadelphia was the absence of SD’s and my favorite server at the Westgate Pub my first night there (the night before a Thor-like thunderbolt short-circuited the air conditioning in my hotel room for four nights). As I detailed here, I shoehorned seeking answers to a series of questions arising from my “interrogating memory” project into this trip—and I hit investigative walls as early as Connecticut.

The day before I left Brookline, I sought help from a friend (let’s call him “ST”) who serves as an Assistant District Attorney (DA) in Philadelphia regarding sources of information on my maternal grandfather’s service with the Philadelphia Police Department and the fire that destroyed the original John Rhoads Company site in West Philadelphia; in the case of the fire, I could find nothing online. That same month, David Baugh, an archivist at the Philadelphia City Archives, told me he could not locate my grandfather’s “roster card,” meaning he could access no information about him.

As I settled at the counter of the Sherwood Diner to eat lunch on Thursday, August 9, 2018, I read an e-mail from ST which confirmed the Department’s inability to locate any information on Patrolman (later Detective) Samuel Joseph Kohn. Prior to 1960, such information was kept on cards, many of which have been misplaced (or outright lost) since then. This is consistent, unfortunately, with the experience of an investigative journalist friend who has decried Philadelphia’s lack of quality record-keeping more than once.

ST directed me to visit the Archives in person, but…they are in the process of moving locations and will not reopen until September 4, 2018. At least ST and I had a terrific time catching up over lunch here Tuesday afternoon.

**********

I began my investigation at Roosevelt Memorial Park, where my father is buried adjacent to his parents, sister, paternal aunt and uncle, and paternal aunt-by-marriage. Roosevelt is less than a five-minute drive from my sister’s residence, so I went there before I picked up Mindy Friday afternoon.

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Beyond paying respects to these family members, I sought information about a relative named “Nathan Berger,” who died on August 14, 1944; what I particularly wanted was the Hebrew name of his father, which traditionally appears on the headstones of Jews (my father’s father’s Hebrew name, like mine, was Moshe—or Moses). “Nathan Berger” appears on a list of “Bergers / death dates” I compiled as a boy. Invaluable information on Ancestry.com allowed me to determine my relation to each of them (two great-grandparents, a great-great-uncle and aunt, three of the latter’s sons)—except Nathan. I had found a Nathan Berger who served in the Navy (Yeoman, 3rd class) during World War I with the same death date; his death was reported by a woman named Miriam, but it was not clear what her relationship to him was. While these precise relationships are not necessary for my book, they do reveal the Berger presence in West Philadelphia over the last century-plus was far larger than I realized. Plus, I dislike investigative loose ends.

In the main office at Roosevelt, a very helpful woman named Dawn told me the location of Nathan Berger’s (“He was 46 when he died”) gravestone. In that section, I immediately found this (NOV. 17 1900 – AUG. 3, 1999):

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Next to it was a light-brown indentation in the ground. I dug around for a few moments but could find nothing else. Nor could I find a gravestone for “Nathan Berger” anywhere else in that section. Back at the office, Dawn confirmed that “Miriam Berger” was “Nathan Berger’s” wife and their graves should be adjacent.

“Perhaps it sunk into the ground,” she offered, before promising to investigate for me (I need to follow up with her).

This new information enabled me to pin down the elusive Nathan Berger a bit more; I now suspect he and my grandfather were second cousins.

Progress is more often measured in inches than miles.

I then located this gravestone:

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It is a curious fact that this seminal noir writer, a Philadelphia native, is buried (along with his brother and parents) a few hundred feet from my father—and both had the Hebrew names David Laib.

**********

The thunderstorms began that night and continued into early Saturday afternoon, threatening “cemetery day.” However, the skies cleared enough that I chanced a drive to Mt. Sharon Cemetery where Herman Modell, the attorney who arranged my adoption, is buried.

In no rush, I first drove by the office building where I saw my first psychologist (at 11, I ineffectually attempted suicide). I also visited nearby Paxon Hollow Country Club; once the White Marsh Country Club, Modell had served as club president multiple times between 1949 and 1962. Other than an impending wedding (the bride looked radiant), there was little of interest to see there (perhaps because, as I now read in my Chapter 5 draft, the White Marsh CC moved to Malvern in the mid-1960s).

Twenty or so minutes later, I turned onto Bishop Avenue from Baltimore Pike (after making a U-turn in a still-active Denny’s), passing a WAWA I frequented when I lived in the area in 2002-03.

Just bear with me while I share a memory of that WAWA.

At around 11:30 pm on the night of February 13, 2002, I was turning right onto Bishop Road from the WAWA parking lot when my 1995 Buick Century was struck from behind (right rear quarter panel) by a Pontiac. The Pontiac contained three young women, though the car’s owner was a passenger, not the driver. As we exchanged information, there appeared some urgency on the part of the car’s driver and owner that our insurance companies not be informed. During this exchange, the third young woman interjected this question to me:

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“No,” I replied.

I should have asked “Why do you want to know?” but I was more focused on the matter at hand.

Five days later, the four of us met at a nearby McDonald’s to sign an agreement that they would reimburse the cost of my repairs, which they ultimately did. In fact, the entire affair was remarkably civil.

I still have a copy of the signed agreement. As for the Buick—my then-stepfather acquired it for me (79,000 miles already on it) when I returned to Philadelphia in February 2001, and it gave up the ghost two days after I moved back to the Boston area in September 2005. Talk about perfect timing.

I remembered these incidents as I turned left off Bishop to East Springfield Road then drove the short distance to Mt. Sharon. This being Shabbat, the office was closed, so I faced the daunting prospect of finding a single grave among 20,000+. It was a muggy day with a steady drizzle falling.

And so I began systematically to walk up and down the rows of gravestones scanning the names as rapidly as I could. Up and down, up and down, up and down…at one point a curious deer stared briefly at me before wandering off. The ground was often uneven, meaning I had to watch my feet and the gravestones at the same time.

Some two-and-a-half-hours later, after having searched maybe one-third of the vast space, I was ready to call it a day when I turned around…and saw this:

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I was transfixed…and, despite never having met him, a little weepy. Exploring the nearby gravestones, I found those of his parents and sister, as well as 10 other persons with the surname Modell.

As I noted in my previous post, I spent nearly three hours searching for the gravestone of the man who arranged my adoption out of my genetic family while “forgetting” to seek out actual genetic relatives living in the area. While my therapist had a field day with this (after I brought it up myself), I ascribe no deeper meaning other than I have been investigating Modell for more than a year but I am still processing finally identifying my genetic mother. Plus, standing in a cemetery for a few moments (OK, 150 or so minutes) requires far less mental and emotional preparation than meeting a genetic relative for the first time.

Pulling out of Mt. Sharon, I attempted to drive the “back route” to my old Drexel Hill apartment, but I made a wrong turn (or three) somewhere. As I drove by the “car repair agreement” McDonalds, though, I realized that I was close to a direct route to here:

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Driving east on State Street, I crossed West Chester Pike in Upper Darby, intending to turn north to City Avenue (dividing line between Philadelphia and suburban Lower Merion Township). However, curiosity overtook my gnawing hunger as I realized that I was not that far from 4157-59 Lancaster Avenue—longtime home of the John Rhoads Company.

Parking on Lancaster Avenue, just northwest of 41st Street, I pulled out my iPhone and started taking photographs:

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Finding a gap in the chain-link fencing, I explored the lot (empty since sometime between December 1976 and 1988—I will check city property records next):

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As I walked back onto Lancaster Avenue, a reasonably-well-dressed African-American man (West Philadelphia is predominantly African-American) walked over to the western edge of the fencing and began to urinate.

That was my cue to drive to Dallesandro’s. There, as I awaited an excellent cheesesteak with provolone, mushrooms and pizza sauce (a combination I first invented at the long-defunct Boardwalk Pizza in Ardmore, PA in the spring of 1984), I chatted amiably with a young man from Philly and a young man from Somerville, MA (where I lived for 11+ years) about the need to “respect the line” that continually snakes out of Dallesandro’s.

**********

Sunday afternoon, after brunching in Collingswood, NJ here with my former work colleague JJ, I drove back over the Benjamin Franklin Bridge into Philadelphia. And, despite the blazing sun and heat, I decided to try my luck finding gravestones at historic Har Nebo Cemetery (opened 1890).

Other than my great-grandfather David Louis Berger and his wife Ida (Rugowitz), I did not know who else was buried there…making the search that much more daunting. It did not help that the first thing I noticed when I turned into Har Nebo shortly after 2 pm was a sign informing me the gates close at 4:30 pm.

And, of course, after about an hour of walking up and down the even-more-treacherous rows between gravestones (many of which had toppled over), I could no longer ignore the fact that I REALLY HAD TO PEE.

Answering nature’s call required driving back to the Roosevelt Boulevard, the main artery of Northeast Philadelphia. The first gas station I tried did not have a public restroom, and I was directed around the Oxford Road traffic circle to a combination gas station/Dunkin Donuts—which also had no public restroom. However, the two bored young ladies behind the Dunkin counter (one with admirably-blue hair) took pity and provided me the “secret” rest room key.

That was as successful as the afternoon was, as two fruitless sweaty hours exploring Har Nebo revealed a number of “Berger” and “Rugowitz” and “Caesar” (paternal grandmother’s maiden name) gravestones, but no great-grandparents. Looking through the photos I took just now, however, I discovered two of the names on the “Bergers  / death dates” list, so that is something.

After a delicious supper of spinach salad (my body was craving greens) and salmon here, I made arrangements to meet a high school friend for drinks (let’s call him “OW”). As we caught up over Chianti (me) and bourbon (him) here, I mentioned my discovery my father had allegedly hired Eddie “Psycho” Klayman to set fire to the John Rhoads Company.

OW wryly repeated “Eddie Klayman” before telling me that he used to babysit his children on Long Beach Island, NJ, less than an hour’s drive north of Atlantic City. I thought he was pulling my leg until he added he knew that Klayman was a front man for the Philadelphia mob, buying properties in his name for them. He added that his late wife Bernice (Kligman) was the “fattest woman I ever saw” and unhappy to boot.

Once again, the world really is that small.

**********

Monday was when I began to investigate in earnest—which is how I found myself sitting in the main Philadelphia branch of Santander Bank (1500 Market Street, directly southwest of City Hall), just past noon.

The young man I queried about my mother’s old safety deposit box keys tried to be helpful, but he was at a total loss. He called someone else about them, but she was equally flummoxed. About all they could tell me was that after 10 years of non-payment, boxes are drilled open and the contents sent…somewhere. I thanked him, gave him my card and asked him to contact me if he learned anything. I have not heard back from him.

After that, I walked around City Hall to the Masonic Temple.

Which, I learned, is closed on Mondays.

Had there been an appropriate wall, I may well have banged my head against it.

Realizing, however, that I was only two blocks west of the must-visit Reading Terminal Market, I walked there to have lunch at the Down Home Diner.

Thus fortified, I decided to walk here (I took this photograph as part of a text message to our avid-reader eldest daughter):

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My friend ST, the Assistant DA, had suggested that I explore their newspaper archives for information about the John Rhoads fire: while Newspapers.com appears to have every issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News for the relevant time period (March 29, 1972 to October 31, 1974) they do not have, say, the Philadelphia Bulletin (defunct since January 1982, its slogan used to be “Nearly everybody reads the Bulletin”).

In the newspaper archives room on the second floor, I was greeted by a row of modern-looking (if anachronistic) microfilm readers. It quickly became apparent I would have to skim each individual issue of the Bulletin over a 30-month span; two hours after I began, I had not even reviewed every issue from September 1974, so I called it a day.

Well, not entirely, because as I walked the 11 blocks to the parking garage at 15th and Sansom, I decided to drive to the Philadelphia Fire Department (PFD) Administration Building at 240 Spring Garden Street. Happily, I made the drive to arrive there well before 5 pm.

Just inside the grim gray building, I was greeted by three imposing, albeit friendly, men in navy firefighter’s uniforms. One of them was seated behind a small desk, and he asked me what I wanted. I explained that I sought information on a fire that had taken place in West Philadelphia in the early 1970s. After a brief conversation between the three men (implying I may as well have been asking about the 1770s), I was told that as of such-and-such a date, PFD records were stored in Room 168 of City Hall.

Yes, the same City Hall I had circled some three hours earlier.

I thanked them, walked up Spring Garden Street to my parked car, and drove out of the city towards my hotel. Hungry, I stopped here for a veggie stromboli; it was delicious, but not nearly as delicious as I remembered it being in the early 2000s.

Had it been open, I would also have walked a few blocks east on Lancaster Avenue to Gold Million Records—especially had I known its husband-and-wife owners, Harold Gold and Max I. Million, would announce the closing of this Main Line institution a few days later. When I was in high school, the store was called Plastic Fantastic, and its Bryn Mawr location was a haven for music buffs like me (I still have records I purchased there). It was also the playground of two of the most beautiful and gentle Afghan hounds you will ever see. One afternoon, I stood at the counter seeking to make my purchase with a personal check, which the cashier was hesitant to accept; standing just behind the cashier, with his back to us, was Mr. Gold. Overhearing the cashier’s and my conversation, Mr. Gold turned slowly around, pointed to me, and said, “He’s OK.”

Thank you, Mr. Gold (and Ms. Million) for slaking the musical thirst of generations of Philadelphia-area music fans.

**********

At around 2:20 pm the next day (Tuesday, April 14, 2018), after lunch with ST, I entered the interior court of Philadelphia’s imposing City Hall.

Philadelphia City Hall

After traversing one incorrect hallway, I located Room 168: Police/Fire Records Unit…

…which closes at 2 pm daily.

Unwilling to concede defeat, I entered the room across the hall (most likely Room 156: Records). There, a helpful young man behind a clear partition told me he did not believe the PFD kept records that far back then wrote down a phone number to call BEFORE returning to City Hall. This was terrific advice, actually, given how much I was paying to park in Center City.

Leaving City Hall, I walked across East Penn Street then turned north to N. Broad Street where—huzzah!—the Masonic Temple was open to the public.

Masonic Ticket

Walking into the Library, I saw an older woman sitting at a desk just outside what looked like the Librarian’s office; the sign on her desk read “Cathy Giaimo, Assistant Librarian.” The inner office was empty. I asked Ms. Giaimo where I could find Glenys Waldman (the Librarian with whom I had been corresponding by e-mail through November 2017—with an unanswered follow-up e-mail in March 2018).

“Oh, she retired a few months ago.”

At this point, I was ready to scream at the universe, “ENOUGH ALREADY!!” but I instead thanked her and decided to investigate the inner office.

And here I caught a break.

While I wanted to thank Ms. Waldman in person for her amiable and carefully-researched responses to my questions, I also wanted to know just how many Masonic Lodges Philadelphia housed—and what their relative memberships were—in 1925, 1938 and 1957 (when my great-uncle Jules, Modell and my father, respectively, were initiated). Scanning the bookshelves, I noticed a series of annual “Abstract of the Proceedings” volumes. Pulling out the one for 1938, I was thrilled to discover a table listing every Masonic Lodge in Pennsylvania, along with its city and membership for that year and the preceding one.

By 5 pm, I had taken relevant iPhone photographs of all relevant pages in the 1925, 1938 and 1957 annuals. I also photographed a few dozen pages in this historic publication:

1946 Lafayette Lodge

Here is a photograph I found of the 1943 Worshipful Master of LaFayette Lodge No. 71:

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Soon after, my friend SD met me outside, where I took these photographs for our history-loving daughters.

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The Bond

After dining at Reading Terminal Market (of COURSE I had another mushroom-provolone-pizza steak), we drove here.

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The listless Philadelphia Phillies may have lost 2-1 to the otherworldly Boston Red Sox, but it was still a blast being in my “home” ballpark for the first time since 2014 (also with SD, plus one other friend).

**********

SD had a good suggestion for where I might obtain information about the fire that destroyed the downstairs playroom of my childhood house in Havertown, PA in, I surmise, March or April 1973: the Haverford Township Administration Building. That is where I drove after checking out of my hotel the following morning.

At the window of what I took to be the police and fire records department, I told a man about my age what I was seeking. Just behind me, two uniformed male officers were questioning a middle-aged woman seated on a vinyl-topped bench about what sounded like ongoing physical abuse by a man she knew (“Do you have somewhere you can go, ma’am?”).

“A fire in Havertown in 1973?”

“Yes.”

He turned to confer quietly with some women in the office behind him, then turned back to ask:

“Did anybody die?”

“No.”

“Yeah, sorry, we would not have a record of that here.”

“Oh, OK. Thank you.”

I walked by the woman and the officers, up the stairs and out to my car. Driving over to City Avenue I made the decision NOT to go back to City Hall, Room 168. Instead, I pulled into the parking lot of what used to be a terrific bowling alley (Center Lanes, if memory serves), a short walk from where I saw Manhattan with my father in 1979.

There, I called the number I had been given the day before. In response to my query, I was directed to call the Fire Marshal’s office (which, I just learned, is located in the PFD Administration Building I had visited two days earlier. Oy.). A harassed-sounding woman named Michelle listened to my request, clarified my return phone number and promised to get back to me. Much to my (delighted) surprise, she left me a voice mail the next day—she could find no record of a fire at 4157 Lancaster Avenue during that time period.

Thus do the emotions of a researcher rise and fall.

I then made one last stop—back to Har Nebo Cemetery (making sure to find a restroom first). I was somehow not surprised the office sign said “Closed.” On a whim, however, I rang the doorbell—and was immediately buzzed in.

Behind a low wooden counter, a balding man sat at a computer amidst a blizzard of paper. When I explained that I was searching for my great-grandparents, he said:

“Must be something in the air, because you are the second person today looking for relatives” then described that previous conversation in detail.

At first he could not find a “David Berger” who died in 1919, but he did find him under “Louis Berger.”

He scanned his screen a moment then exclaimed, “He was shot!”

While this was not news to me, I was fascinated it was part of the official burial record. I then told him the story—which I refrain from sharing here (I have to leave at least one untold tale for my book).

A few moments later (and with gratitude to Richard Levy), I was standing here:

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I had forgotten my widowed great-grandmother had married Benjamin Leopold in 1933, at the age of 63, making it all the more touching she was buried next to her first husband.

After photographing a few nearby gravestones containing familiar surnames, I returned to the office to ask Mr. Levy if he could locate other “Berger” gravestones of a similar generation. I withdrew the question after learning there were, I believe, 67 of them. At least I learned my great-grandfather’s father’s Hebrew name was Shmuel Mayer.

Baby steps—and I will be better prepared next time.

I also learned that the Vernon Diner makes an excellent spanakopita, though their cherry pie is meh.

Oh, and if you merge onto the Massachusetts Turnpike heading eastbound at night, you should take advantage of the Charlton rest area, because you never know when two lanes will be closed between Worcester and I-495 when OHMYGODIHAVETOPEERIGHTNOW.

At 11:35 pm that night (having answered nature’s call just in the nick of time), after driving 1,246.4 miles in just over six-and-a-half days, I pulled into our new driveway.

Until next time…

Visiting Philadelphia: Many questions, but…

My “interrogating memory” project began as a July 2017 conversation with my wife Nell about writing a book in lieu of finding a new position in my two-decade-long career as a health-related data analyst. In my head, I translated her intended meaning (write a mystery—something that would sell many copies) to “I could easily expand this into an entertaining full-length book.”

That simple idea (trace the childhood and early-adult roots of my passion for film noir), however, quickly entwined with two simultaneous personal investigations: 1) the results of my genetic testing—which disproved everything I thought I knew about my paternal heritage and 2) my decision to learn the truth about my adoption, arranged prior to my birth and enacted five days after I was born, and genetic forebears.

But this “simple idea” proved more complicated, once I set my over-educated brain to the task of collating the details of those film-noir-formative events: my profound respect for investigative journalism and my doctoral work in epidemiology (to me, a branch of epistemology) led me to question EVERYTHING.

The investigations fall into two broad categories:

  1. Family history (I cannot understand my childhood without understanding the emigration of Bergers, Caesars, Gurmankins and Koslenkows from the Pale of Settlement to the Jewish “city-within-a-city” of West Philadelphia between 1890 and 1920)
  2. Childhood memories (including some I begin to investigate here).

Linking those two investigations, again, is the overriding fact of my adoption, arranged by a powerful Philadelphia attorney named Herman Modell. And the link between Modell and my (legal) father, D. Louis “Lou” Berger, is their overlapping membership in LaFayette Lodge No. 71, Free and Accepted Masons.

These entwined strands found me performing these tasks, often at the same time, over much of the ensuing 13 months:

  • Using Ancestry.com, supplemented by carefully-archived personal documents, Newspapers.com and other online research tools, to construct increasingly-elaborate trees for my legal family.
    • Contacting “newly discovered” relatives on the Berger/Ceasar side of my family (Lou Berger self-alienated from his family later in his life, meaning I knew very little about his branch of my family). These contacts were mostly successful.
  • Supplementing requests to the Orphans Court of Delaware County for information about my genetic parents with names appearing in the 23andMe “DNA Relatives” tool to construct increasingly-elaborate, if necessarily speculative, trees for my genetic family.
  • Picking the brains of friends and relatives to confirm/clarify/deny stories I “recalled” from my childhood. In the process, I learned new things; for example, I first learned about Modell from my maternal aunt.
  • Using public records (primarily newspaper accounts and advertisements) to confim/clarify deny these same stories.
  • Corresponding with a wide range of sources—my childhood synagogue (where, in my final year of Hebrew School, I wore one of my mother’s white blouses to portray a hyperkinetic Cossack in an all-Hebrew production of Fiddler on the Roof), the Masonic Temple in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Police Department, the Philadelphia Fire Department—to ask them a wide range of questions about my legal family.

Just bear with me while I acknowledge two exceptionally helpful people affiliated with the Masonic Temple: Librarian Glenys Waldman, who patiently and carefully answered all of my e-mailed queries, and LaFayette Lodge Past Master Perry Ecksel, who sold me (for an outrageously low price) one of his two copies of a history of LaFayette Lodge published in 1971. When I mentioned to a college friend that I would be incorporating the Freemasons into my book, he quipped that that would mean an additional 10,000 copies sold. I honestly believe that if that is true, it will be less because of any Dan-Brown-style conspiracy and more because these gracious individuals made the chapter on Modell and the Freemasons that much more interesting.

Because the world really is that small, when I mentioned to one of my newly-discovered paternal cousins that I had spoken with Perry Ecksel, she noted that he was the uncle of a man her close friend had dated (or something).

*********

Almost from the start, one thought animated my investigations:

“I will need to spend significant time in Philadelphia visiting cemeteries, tracking down records and questioning folks in person.”

However, every time I thought about making this trip, life intervened. Most recently, we discovered that we needed to move from our home of nearly 11 years, meaning that I did not have sufficient time to incorporate the research aspect into my regular summer trip to Philadelphia.

The best I could do was rapidly compile an annotated one-page (front and back) list of research questions, throw some papers into a folder and, essentially, wing it. My questions fell into these broad categories:

Cemeteries. When I was a boy, I created a list of “Berger death dates” that I archived along with other genealogical materials I collected. In the process of building my Ancestry family trees, I was able to place every name on the list into the tree except for a “Nathan Berger” who died on August 14, 1944. I was able to locate the veteran death record of a Nathan Berger (Navy, Yeoman third class in World War I) who was buried in Roosevelt Memorial Park, as is my father; his birthdate was listed as November 23, 1887. His death was reported by “Miriam,” though I could not discern whether she was a wife, sister, daughter or other female relative. Presumably, I thought, the information on his gravestone (his father’s name especially) would link him to the rest of my father’s father’s family.

I also wanted to view the gravestones of family members from older generations of the male Berger line, especially my great-grandfather David Louis and his wife Ida, many of whom were buried in historic Har Nebo Cemetery. Unfortunately, without time to generate a list of every relative buried there, I was relying upon my memory.

Finally, I wanted to view the graves of two non-relatives (and their families): Modell (Mt. Sharon Cemetery) and the seminal noir writer David Goodis—also buried in Roosevelt Cemetery.

Masonic Temple. While I desired to know the number (and membership totals) of Philadelphia’s Masonic Lodges in 1925 (when Jules Berger, younger brother of my paternal grandfather Morris, was initiated), 1938 (Modell) and 1957 (my father), I primarily wanted to thank Ms. Waldman in person for her gracious assistance.

Samuel Joseph Kohn. My mother’s father was a member of the Philadelphia Police Department, rising for a few years to the rank of Detective before (as his surviving daughter put it in an e-mail) his “combative personality” interfered, from around 1935 to around 1952. That is, he was a big city police officer at the height of the classic American film noir era; in my mind, Broderick Crawford plays him in the movie.

Unfortunately, my attempts to locate his police records (outside of two brief mentions of him in Philadelphia newspapers) have proven fruitless: David Baugh of the Philadelphia Police Archives was unable to locate his roster card. Still, I thought that if I went to “The Roundhouse” (the unusually-curved Philadelphia Police Headquarters) in person, I could dislodge “misplaced” information about my grandfather.

John Rhoads Company. Founded in 1886 by a sugar merchant from Harrisburg, PA, this warehouse/storage facility specializing in used carpeting, furniture and valuable bric-a-brac was a West Philadelphia fixture (if the tenor of newspaper advertisements is to be believed) until the early 1970s. Brothers Morris and Jules Berger assumed control of John Rhoads around 1926, operating it jointly until Morris’ death in 1954, after which Jules ran it until his own death in 1958. By 1960, my father had assumed the presidency of John Rhoads, co-running it with his mother Rae.

Rae Caesar Berger died on January 3, 1972. At some point between March 29, 1972 (last newspaper advertisement I can locate) and October 29, 1974 (first newspaper advertisement for its new Upper Darby, PA location I can locate), John Rhoads burned; family stories suggested my father was responsible for the fire (perhaps to pay off rapidly-growing gambling debts). Still, it was rather a shock when my maternal aunt not only confirmed my father committed arson, but that she knew he had “hired” to set the fire: Edward “Psycho” Klayman, who died (I believe) in 1984. A quick search of Newspapers.com revealed numerous accounts of Klayman in the 1950s and 1960s, when he was arrested for selling heroin and, yes, his participation in an arson ring.

It speaks volumes about my gregarious and lovable father that he knew both Modell (state representative, Assistant City Solicitor, chair of numerous Boards) and Klayman (convicted heroin dealer and arsonist).

Curiously, for what presumably was a major fire, I cannot find a single online record of it. A December 2017 call to the records division of the Philadelphia Fire Department was never returned, though neither did I follow up as a I should.

As with my maternal grandfather’s police department files, I hoped that inquiring about the John Rhoads fire in person would make a difference.

Miscellaneous. I also sought answers to three less-key questions:

Safety Deposit Box keys

  1. After my mother died in March 2004, my then-stepfather and I engaged in a legal battle over her estate for more than a year (in her infinite wisdom, she had named us co-executor in her will), finally settling in August 2005. It is inconceivable that any of her property was left unaccounted after all of the legal maneuvering. But when I was cleaning out files and papers to prepare for our move, I came across two safe deposit box keys from Sovereign Bank (now Santander).

Question(s): Do the safety box(es) still exist, and, if so, what was in them?

  1. One night, most likely in March or April 1973, a fire broke out in the playroom of my childhood house in Havertown, PA; a few years later, a friend would nudge me during a fire safety film in our elementary school then say, “That’s your house!” It is surprising that my sister Mindy woke me up, and not my mother (I do not know where my father was)…though I am obviously grateful that she did. As for the cause of the fire, my mother’s claim she left a sit-down hair dryer on for my father to turn off is…odd.

Question(s): On what day and time did this fire take place, and what does the official fire report say about it?

Morris Berger late 1940s early 1950s

  1. According to his obituary, Morris Berger was Vice President of Beth El Synagogue, 58th and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia. Allen Meyers has called Beth El “the largest edifice” in the area, presenting in first in his chapter on West Philadelphia synagogues. Beth El merged with Beth Hillel in 1967 to form Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in suburban Wynnewood, PA. It was here that a charmingly awkward almost-13-year Moshe ben David Layb Berger was called to Bar Mitzvah on September 17, 1979.

Matthew Berger Bar Mitzvah Sept 1979

Seriously, check out the brown velvet three-piece suit, with the Eton-collared eggshell-colored shirt, as I stand proudly with my father.

Lou and Matthew Berger Bar Mitzvah Sept 1979

When I queried a helpful gentleman at Temple Beth Hillel about my paternal grandfather, I was told that his name should appear on a “brick” outside the chapel. So my last “question” was to see if I could locate this brick.

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It is notable that the one family research area I was NOT planning to pursue was tracking down the surviving members of my genetic mother’s family in Philadelphia.

Let me back up a second.

As I implied earlier, by May 2018 I had identified the man (dead) and woman (living) who were most likely my genetic father and mother. And having exhausted everything I could learn from the Orphans Court of Delaware County, late that month I sent my check for $20 to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Division of Vital Records along with an application for a non-certified copy of my original pre-adoption birth record. I had deduced the existence of this record from my interactions with the always-helpful Latifah Jones of the Office of Children and Youth Services of Delaware County.

On June 19, 2018, the non-certified copy of my original pre-adoption birth record arrived in the mail. And, for the first time in my life, I officially knew the name of my genetic mother.

My reaction when I read the name, sitting at my desk in the downstairs walk-in closet I had converted into an office, was to shout, “Ha, I was right!”

If I accepted the Jungian notion of synchronicity, I would have been far less surprised that on the very same day, I was contacted by a genetic relative, a woman (call her “AC”) whose daughter was the first link to my genetic maternal family on 23andMe. As I had learned a few months earlier, AC herself had been given up for adoption (along with her older sister—to the same family—a few years earlier), and she was about to meet her genetic sister and brother for the first time.

The woman listed as my mother on the pre-adoption birth record is—officially—AC’s older sister. I write “officially,” because there is compelling, if circumstantial, evidence that my genetic mother was actually raised by her half-sister and her husband, after she was illegitimately conceived by her “official” maternal grandmother via the latter’s fourth husband—while still married to her third husband. I cannot PROVE any of this, mind you, but the genetic evidence is strongly suggestive.

As you can imagine, when AC quietly revealed to her sister not only my existence, but everything I had already learned (and surmised), the sister’s eyes nearly popped out of her head. My existence has been a closely-held secret (three or four people) for nearly 52 years, and the sister was not certain how my genetic mother would react to my discoveries.

Incidentally, I assume this is the sister accompanying my genetic mother and maternal grandmother when I was handed by a nurse to Modell (who then handed me to Lou and Elaine Berger) outside Metropolitan Hospital on October 5, 1966.

AC shared a lot of information with me from that meeting, which I have largely delayed processing because of the move, including that the sister (who still lives just north of Philadelphia) would “very much like to meet” me.

I did not deliberately avoid her on this last trip to Philadelphia so much as I sort of forgot to think about it. Still, it is telling that I neglected to look up my actual genetic aunt/cousin but I spent hours tracking down the gravestone of the man who arranged my adoption OUT of her family.

To be continued…

Visiting Philadelphia: Restaurants and Rituals

My preferred driving route to Philadelphia from Boston has evolved over the last 30+ years.

My first route was simply an extension of departing from New Haven, CT in the mid-1980s, so I became used to taking I-95 south directly through New York City via the Cross Bronx Expressway; after crossing the George Washington (GW) Bridge, I would take the New Jersey Turnpike to Exit 6—Pennsylvania Turnpike then from there to Route 1 south. After moving to Boston (OK, Somerville) in August 1989, I simply took I-95 all the way south from Boston, through Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York to the New Jersey Turnpike.

A few years later, a roommate convinced me it was faster to take the Massachusetts Turnpike (known locally as “The Pike”) west to I-84, take I-84 south/west to Hartford, CT, take I-91 south to New Haven…and so forth.

In the late 1990s, I got into the habit of leaving Somerville in the evening, allowing me to miss most of the insane New York City traffic that can clog the Cross Bronx Expressway for hours. In fact, I often drove from the Connecticut border to the GW Bridge in around 30 minutes (my record was 22 minutes).

When I returned to Boston (OK, Waltham) in September 2005, I continued to use this route, though now I was departing earlier in the day, meaning I could no longer avoid New York City traffic. But, even after my wife Nell tried to convince me to use the Tappan Zee Bridge route, I stubbornly clung to the Cross Bronx Expressway—until 3:47 pm on May 28, 2013:

IMG_0267

Sitting powerless on the Cross Bronx Expressway, I read this sign as “you really do not want to know how long it will take to drive the handful of miles to the GW Bridge.” If memory serves, it took well over two hours (closer to three?) to crawl from the Connecticut border to the GW Bridge.

Enough was enough, and I learned the Tappan Zee Bridge route. For me that still meant taking I-95 west from New Haven, but now I would take Exit 17, very nearly the halfway point of the roughly 340 mile journey, and have a late lunch at the Sherwood Diner.

From there, I would take Route 1 a mile or so east to Route 136 north, then another mile or so north to Route 15, also known as the Merritt Parkway. Follow that west into New York to I-287, over the Tappan Zee Bridge to the Garden State Parkway, then to the New Jersey Turnpike.

The fastest I ever drove from the Boston area to the Philadelphia area was in August 2005—leaving Cambridge, MA at around 9 pm, I drove non-stop for five hours and 15 minutes, arriving in King of Prussia, PA at around 2:15 am.

It pays to be a night owl at times.

At the other extreme, it has taken me more than 10 hours to make this drive; inevitably, traffic congestion and/or construction delays will occur at least once along this densely-populated urban corridor.

So, when I departed from our new apartment in Brookline, MA at 10:35 am on the morning of August 9, 2018, bound for the superb Hyatt House hotel in King of Prussia, I assumed I would not arrive until 6 pm, at the earliest. I was thus perfectly content to arrive at 6:30 pm, eight hours after I departed (including stopping at the Sherwood for nearly an hour).

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My reasons for going to Philadelphia have also evolved over time. For years, I was literally returning home to visit family. My mother may have changed addresses, but she was still there, along with her own mother, two first cousins and my severely-retarded older sister Mindy.

I also had a number of very close friends there, including the first and second people I ever cited here (a Yale friend I will call “SD” and a former work colleague I will call “JJ”).

The “family” reasons began to disappear, however, when my mother died in March 2004. Three years later, my grandmother died. Within the next 10 years, my first cousins moved to California and Florida, and my uncle finally sold the house in Bala Cynwyd where I lived for parts of 7th and 8th grades.

Excluding a newly-discovered second cousin, that leaves only my sister Mindy, whose legal guardian I am, and who remains at the Woodhaven campus of Merakey Education and Autism (formerly Northeastern Health Servivces [NHS]) more than four decades after she entered there in December 1974. Thus, a primary purpose for traveling to Philadelphia at least once a year is to visit my sister. What this actually entails is the following:

I arrive in King of Prussia Thursday evening. Upon awaking on Friday, I call the staff in Mindy’s unit to let her know I will arrive around 4 pm that day, and to please have her showered and dressed. As a rule, I then drive the 15 or so minutes to the excellent Minella’s Diner for breakfast; this trip, however, I chose to save money by stopping at the 24-hour Wegmans in King of Prussia late Thursday night to buy cereal, their superlative fresh-squeezed orange juice, non-fat milk and blueberries to eat for breakfast each morning (the Hyatt House actually supplies four sets of bowls, flatware, glasses and mugs in each room).

On the way to Woodhaven, I stop at the WAWA on Route 1, just north of the Philadelphia/Bucks County line, for four tuna salad sandwiches (JUST tuna salad), two bottles of water, a bag of hard pretzels, and a package of Tastykake chocolate cup cakes (because, you know, nobody bakes a cake as tasty as a Tastykake). I also fill up my gas tank.

WAWA is a Philadelphia-area institution, so much so that Tina Fey references it in this brilliant pre-2018-Super-Bowl Saturday Night Live sketch. Almost as a rite of passage, I worked at this WAWA in the summer of 1985 (just after my freshman year at Yale); my only complaints about the gig were the revolting “deli wipes” (removing all of the meats from the deli counter in order to wash it), missing the Philadelphia half of Live Aid because I had to work that night, and cutting my hand on the deli slicer (it was my own fault, as I was not paying attention as I rushed to finish my 10-hour shift).

Visiting Mindy is pure ritual. I sign her out at the main office, she gets her evening medications (a process helped by being mixed into a chocolate Ensure), and we get into my car. This particular trip, she spit out about half of her Ensure, so she needed another clean shirt. In the process, she used the bathroom and required a new pair of pants. Watching this unfold, I really cannot thank the staff in her unit enough for all the work they do. In fact, with the switch to Merakey from NHS, every staff member seemed happier and friendlier; though I was briefly flummoxed by the new security regimen (this, despite the Woodhaven campus being only a few hundred feet from the Pennsylvania National Guard Armory).

Once we are buckled into my car, I turn on a carefully-selected playlist that always begins with the original 1964 cast recording of Fiddler on the Roof; this year, I followed that with a long selection of songs by Stevie Wonder, Chicago and Elton John. Throughout her life, the way to calm Mindy (especially prior to her current psychotropic regimen—talk about “Miracle of Miracles”) has been to drive her in the car while listening to the radio; my love of meandering drives with their own soundtrack likely stems from this.

Pulling out of the Woodhaven parking lot, I follow a pre-set course, one my mother and I worked out before she died; at some point in the drive, Mindy will ask for “sandwich” or “tuna fish,” which is my cue to extract a sandwich (and plenty of napkins) for Mindy to eat—and then another and perhaps another.

We begin by turning right onto Southampton Road, following that to Academy Road and turning left, following that to Knights Road and turning left, and following that to Street Road and turning right. This dead ends on State Road, which we follow north through Bristol—detouring briefly through this townhouse complex on the Delaware River my mother especially liked—to the end of Bordertown Road. Turn left onto New Ford Mill Road then meander over to Tyburn Road, where we turn right and cross Business Route 1 to Woolston Drive. Turn right, then left onto Makefield Road. This we follow until it dead ends at the Yardley-Morrisville Road. Turn left, drive through scenic Yardley; a number of road name changes later, the road dead ends on Route 32. Turn left and drive the few miles along the beautiful road into the charming borough of New Hope (where, I just learned from SD, one of my favorite singers lives).

Once in New Hope, we sometimes traverse this wicked cool bridge to Lambertville, NJ just because it is there. Either way, we then take the very short Route 179 to Route 202. More scenic driving south on Route 202 takes us to our one stop—Buckingham Pizza.

It is not that the food there is exceptional (though their pizza slices are certainly tasty), it is that they are incredibly patient with Mindy. We enter, use the bathroom (washing her hands afterward is…fun), then sit at a table. Bear in mind, Mindy is NOT patient. I order two cheese slices (cut down the middle for easier consumption) and a diet Coke with no ice for her; I usually get two slices, one pepperoni and one mushroom, while treating myself to a caffeinated soda—or maybe cream.

The slices arrive quickly, we eat, wash up and leave—the entire process takes maybe 20 minutes. And I avoid what happened one of the first times I took Mindy out myself, back in the summer of 2006. We stopped at a Chinese restaurant and ordered food. She had a few spoonfuls of Won-Ton soup, but they were too hot for her. Finally growing impatient at waiting for the rest of our meal, she tipped the table over, spilling soup everywhere…and I mean everywhere.

Ouch.

Lesson learned.

When we leave Buckingham Pizza, it is around 6:30, and I generally keep her out until 7:45, so we meander south on Route 202 to Route 263 south, and from there to Route 63 East. The latter brings us back to the Roosevelt Boulevard, less than a mile south of the Woodhaven campus. By 8 pm, Mindy is signed back in, she has gone to her room, and I have cleaned the detritus of our drive out of the car into a giant dumpster literally marked “VILE.”

And I climb back behind the wheel to have my “goodnight” call with our daughters, who, if it is summertime, are safely ensconced on Martha’s Vineyard.

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As I noted, I habitually drive to Philadelphia on Thursday; I usually stay four nights—I am very much a creature of (evolving) habit. However, because SD suggested we attend the Red Sox-Phillies game at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday, August 14, I stayed two additional nights.

I always drive to Philadelphia on Thursday because of another ritual. My friend SD (who grew up in New England, where I now live, and now lives with his family in Havertown, where I was raised—criss-cross, though minus the morbidity) and I visit The Westgate Pub, where we are very friendly with an excellent female bartender there. Indeed, even though she is just a few years younger than us, she always calls us “her boys.” The food is not bad either.

Alas, when SD and I entered the Westgate on the evening of Thursday, August 9, our friend was not working; I still do not know if she was on vacation or no longer works there. We quickly ate something then drove to the far livelier McShea’s Pub in nearby Narberth. If, in fact, our friend no longer works at the Westgate, this will almost certainly be our new my-first-evening-in-town hangout.

Once I drop SD safely home, I meander back to King of Prussia, usually driving by pre-college landmarks—my childhood home, other friends’ houses, and so forth—and stopping at a WAWA for bottles of water (pronounced “wootder,” yo) and other travel staples. On this last trip, I also stopped for dessert at Minella’s, where I sat at the spacious counter and ate barely half of the largest chocolate éclair I had ever seen, along with multiple cups of decaffeinated coffee (black). The same older gentleman who worked the cash register when I was a regular patron in the early 2000s was still there; he remembered me, though a bit vaguely,

And, yes, that was the fourth restaurant I visited that day.

There is one more ritual to describe before turning to what made this trip interesting—and ultimately frustrating.

Once I drop off Mindy and finish saying good night to my wife and daughters, I drive the 25 or so miles west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the hotel. I shower and change before getting back in the car again (there is a reason that I drove a total of 1,246.4 miles in six-and-a-half days this last trip).

I stay in King of Prussia in part because it is familiar, having lived there from February 2003 to September 2005, but also because it is located at the confluence of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Schuylkill Expressway (occasionally known locally as the “sure kill”) and Routes 23, 202 and 422. In sum, King of Prussia is a short drive from everywhere.

Following Route 23 west from King of Prussia takes you through magnificent Valley Forge National Historical Park, where the deer (if not the antelope) play. Driving though at night, a short distance before the intersection with Route 252, the line of trees to your right clears and across Route 422 you see the stunning St. Gabriel’s Hall lit up in the distance (this is the best I can do for a photograph—you will have to use your imagination). Honestly, that view is one of my favorite reasons for staying near Valley Forge—though it was not until I searched for a link on Google that I realized what powerful work they do there.

Driving along Route 23, I pass through Phoenixville until I reach the intersection with Route 113 North—where the terrific Vale-Rio Diner used to be. Turning north, I loop around some crazy curves into hip downtown Phoenixville. There, you have to turn left and drive over the Schuylkill River to stay on Route 113—and then you have to carefully track the turns through the densely-populated blue-collar residential streets to remain on Route 113. Eventually, the road becomes more rural—and I ultimately choose to take 2nd Avenue west into Royersford rather than follow Route 113 north into Collegeville. When 2nd Avenue dead ends onto Main Street, I turn right, following Main Street through Royersford over Route 422, where it becomes Township Line Road.

It is here that I first begin to look to my left to find the cooling towers of the Limerick (nuclear) Generating Station—because seeing those lit-up massive towers billowing steam at night from miles away is almost intolerably creepy.

Limerick cooling towers

About a mile after crossing Route 422—all the while straining to see the cooling towers without veering off the road—I turn left onto W. Ridge Pike. A pleasant mile or so later, past Waltz Golf Farm, I turn left into the spacious parking lot of the terrific Limerick Diner (owned by the same people as Minella’s, as well as the Llanerch Diner, made famous in the 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook).

If you ever eat there, keep an eye out for Rob—and tip him well if he is your waiter. He is a good man with a fascinating life story. And if the sticky buns are fresh, treat yourself to one (lightly grilled with butter)—you will not regret it.

Having a quiet meal at the Limerick Diner (despite the epically-awful karaoke singing that usually emanates from the pub section on Friday nights—though this time there was none, because the owner had neglected to renew their liquor license some months earlier), chatting with Rob, represents the end of the ritual leg of the journey (Sherwood, Westgate, Minella’s, Mindy)—and the start of the “come what may” leg.

Leaving the Limerick Diner, I take a slightly different route back to the Hyatt—following W. Ridge Pike past bucolic Ursinus College to Route 29. Turning right takes me to Route 422, which I follow to Route 23 and the Hyatt.

There I get into bed to prepare for the next leg.

To be continued…