Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing IX

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least April 7, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

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Over the past four days, our mostly-tranquil coexistence has shown signs of fraying around the edges. Call it “stir-craziness,” call it “cabin fever,” call it whatever you like—as we entered our fourth week of sheltering in place, our younger daughter was especially sensitive, and I was particularly moody. There is a reason that for two consecutive years of high school Halloween parties I dressed as Hermes—or Mercury, if you prefer the Roman version—the impish, speedy messenger of the gods. Not satisfied merely with portraying an ancient deity, I made wings for my “sandals” out of aluminum foil (I also made a caduceus, but I not recall how). The goal was to imitate silver—as in quicksilver, another word for the element mercury. I was thus a “walking pun,” literally “quick silver;” adding to the word play was my mercurial nature.

Yes, I was that much of a geek in high school. What do you expect from a boy who dressed as Nicolaus Copernicusfor Halloween when he was 10 years old? The portrait from which my mother attempted to fashion a costume showed him wearing what looked a short fur coat, so most of the people handing out candy thought I was a king of some sort. When I explained I was actually a 16th-century Polish astronomer, few, if any, shared my excitement this was the man who revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos by determining the sun was the fixed point (relatively) around which the planets—including, brace yourself medieval minds, the Earth—revolved.

Meanwhile, back in 21st-century Brookline, I must take the bulk of the responsibility for the tension between Nell and me, which did not fully resolve itself until Monday evening. Something Nell told me as I was saying good night to her Friday—which I do before I commence my night routine, along with taking one of my blood pressure medications—threw me for a loop. I reacted poorly, and I can only attribute some of that to barely leaving the apartment for three weeks. It was less what she told me, which did not especially disturb me, than the way she dropped it into the conversation out of the blue as she was preparing to go to sleep. We eventually resolved that issue…for the moment.

Nonetheless, the following afternoon and evening were perfectly innocuous. Earlier that day, Nell had finally successfully colored our younger daughter’s hair—in this case, one side a vibrant red and one side a vivid blue. I once joked our younger daughter was punk, while her older sister was new wave; I may have had the two reversed.

Blue and red all over

When I finally wandered downstairs, I was mildly disappointed Nell had not made pancakes and bacon as she had suggested she would when we were having our back-and-forth the previous night.

Correction—at first, I thought she had made them, but had not saved any for me. I soon realized I was wrong, however, when the small flat pan awaiting my washing skills in the kitchen sink told me she had made crepes instead.

My bad.

A short time later, Nell suggested we order take out for dinner. When I told our younger daughter (hamburger, lettuce, mayonnaise) we were getting food delivered from our favorite local joint, she responded with “Yes!” and a right fist pump. Our older daughter (small super veggie pizza) was more blasé, unlike her sister, father (Greek salad, chicken parmigiana sub) and mother (steak and American cheese with mayonnaise and caramelized onions). Given how many “chips” I have watched characters eat recently on Broadchurch, I added one side order each of French fries and onion rings. Once the food arrived—left on our doorstep by an already-tipped delivery person—Nell promptly put my salad into a bowl, the side orders onto a large white dish, and the hamburger onto a smaller dish out of a not-unreasonable excess of caution.

Deciding it was time for a family movie night—and with Nell rejecting my tentative suggestion of American Graffiti, which I had been thinking about since the girls and I had learned about the early history of rock and roll the day before—we opted instead for a 1980s John Cusack movie, settling quickly on a mutual favorite, One Crazy Summer; the cast alone was worth the free Amazon Prime rental.

Speaking of American Graffiti, I had done some memory interrogating earlier that day. As we watched this 1984 documentary, I paused it to tell the girls Bill Haley and the Comets would get renewed attention in the mid-1970s when an enormously popular sitcom called Happy Days used “Rock Around the Clock” as its opening theme. But when I awoke on Saturday, I suddenly remembered a different theme song. Fearing I had misled our daughters, I did a quick Google search. Apparently, the first season—which I never really watched—did open with the Haley song. And it did increase its popularity, sending it back into the Billboard Top 40.

The rest of the evening passed quietly enough. Our daughters were generally entertained by the film—which takes place on Nantucket, so they recognized shots of Woods Hole, with Nell pointing out actual places on the sister island to Martha’s Vineyard. Even more exciting, however, was the discovery by our younger daughter of a forgotten stash of Christmas-themed Trader Joe’s JoJo’s in one of our kitchen cabinets. If nothing else, we are eating through our food stash, even if I refrained from eating any JoJo’s.

After the film, Nell and I watched episode four of season two of Broadchurch as well as the latest video from the boys, who wanted to know who put Bella in the wych elm. We reasoned we could then watch episodes five and six the next night—which we did—and two the following Friday evening, in lieu of our regular MSNBC weeknight lineup. There is only so much news about COVID-19 we can watch.

In large part, because only our older daughter had ordered pizza the previous evening, Nell again made homemade pizza. We were out of pineapple, so I had pear with my pepperoni. This time the crust was a bit thicker and chewier. Intending it to be a compliment, I said it reminded me of Domino’s; she eventually decided it was not an insult.

And that night, for personal reasons, I became moody and distant when Nell and I had our end-of-night conversation. I later apologized, after my mood brightened working on the next phase of “rock history” slides I plan to show the girls for our Wednesday afternoon class, but the foul mood returned the following day.

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When I went downstairs on the afternoon of April 6, 2020, this is what greeted me in the “classroom”:

April 6

I was once again absolutely exhausted, even though I had slept reasonably well. Perhaps it was carryover from our routine temperature-taking; the day before I had registered in the 99’s, even though I rarely go much above 97.5. In this time, it is easy to spin the most innocuous of “symptoms” into something more serious. Throw in my year-round seasonal allergies, and…well, it is a good thing I am not a hypochondriac. Perhaps as a result, I took what was simply Nell forgetting to write out the rest of the day’s classroom schedule as a personal snub.

Meanwhile, our younger daughter was on the verge of tears after some miscommunication with a group of friends. We had to talk it through—our younger daughter inherited my “just bear with me” communication style—for 10 or 15 minutes before we could watch the 106-minute-long Episode 2 of Jazz: A Film By Ken Burns. And that was soon interrupted by Nell insisting they put away their Nintendo switches while we watched.

I did not really care that much, knowing they had watched and enjoyed Phantom Lady under the same circumstances the previous Thursday, and that I am happy to have them draw while I teach in the classroom. Also, I just did not really care that much at that point; I just wanted to watch and enjoy the program with a minimum of fuss.

Nell, however, was having none of it. “Fine, if you do not want to teach them, I can just teach them from 10-12.” That stung, so I rejoined with, “Don’t tell me how to teach!”

To which Nell had the trump card, which she threw over he shoulder at me as she walked up the stairs to record a video for her children’s librarian job:

“Right, what do I know? I only have a Master’s Degree in Elementary Education.”

Damn, she is good.

Feeling chagrined, I then expressed my displeasure to the girls, playing the “Do you know how hard your mother and I are working to blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda?” card. It was manipulative—and slightly hypocritical, given my own temporary indifference—but it kinda worked. Both girls payed closer attention to the episode…and the mood lightened considerably. They even enjoyed my brief pause to explain the Volstead Act.

It took until 5:30 or so to watch the full episode. And I learned that even if we primarily watch a video for our class time, I need to do at least a modicum of actual teaching.

Nell and I started sniping again as she prepared Annie’s shells and cheddar with broccoli for dinner, this time even more intensely; at one point, much against all better judgment, I announced I was going to the grocery store, even though Nell was planning to do a spate of such chores the next day. I eventually relented, and we called a truce to watch MSNBC.

Matters finally came to a head when it was time for Nell to go to sleep that night. I wanted to have it out, so I started to do just that. Nell was hesitant at first—this tension had been building for some time, and she was nervous about what might happen should we pursue the matter—but then she opened up as well. She did take the precaution of locking the bedroom door, so that we could not be interrupted by our still-awake older daughter; indeed, the latter brought her Nintendo switch upstairs during this time. And it was surprisingly easy. We explored all of the ins and outs of the situation, ultimately reaching a mutually-satisfying conclusion. Afterwards, we both felt better than we had in weeks. “Why didn’t we do this much sooner?” we asked, realizing that sometimes you just have to push through those mental and emotional barriers.

And for the first time since we began sheltering in place, neither of us had extremely intense dreams.

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When I awoke on Tuesday, April 7, 2020—in a far better frame of mind—a proud Nell told me of her adventures in the outside world. She had gone to our local CVS to collect prescriptions—scrupulously avoiding a trio of teenagers not respecting social distance guidelines—and to a small nearby grocery store for some necessary supplies; it has been getting harder to find an open food delivery window online. Upon arriving home, Nell promptly took a long shower.

Some ninety minutes later, when I went downstairs, this is what greeted me in the “classroom”:

April 7

Dr. Dobby, meanwhile, has moved on to other pursuits, though it is not clear which Stranger Things world he is trying to enter. Like the rest of us, his world has been turned upside down.

Stranger Dobby

And the artwork continues unabated, as this emphatic statement from our older daughter reveals:

ME April 7

To prepare for our return to the adventures of the Berger family in early-20th-century Philadelphia, I sketched this on the white board.

OK, fine. I erased the original drawing before photographing it. This is merely an artist’s rendition of what had so disturbed our daughters with its lack of skill; admittedly, they are much better artists than I will ever be.

Philadelphia sort of

I deliberately did not start the class until just after 3 pm, because I wanted this to be a shorter, more focused session. The second half of Friday’s class had lasted longer than I had planned, while Monday’s class had been rough. Thus, I wanted to give all of us a bit of a break.

We began with a rapid-fire, wholly-improvised review of the history of my beloved Philadelphia. I followed this with a review of how David Louis Berger, born October 15, 1869 in Pryznasz in what is now Poland, had arrived in Philadelphia in May 1899 with his wife Ida and four young children, settling first less than two blocks west of the Delaware River—and one block from his brother-in-law Charles Rugowitz—before moving closer to the Schuylkill River. The two spots are marked with red X’s above.

While this was happening, our younger daughter was drawing a remarkably-good “burger” with lettuce. However, when she then proceeded to highlight it with a penlight for her sister, I lost my cool. “How is this relevant to what we are discussing?” I demanded. She teared up at this—without her Ritalin, it is difficult for her to resist such impulses—which broke my paternal heart. However, we both moved quickly past this interruption with a heartfelt hug, returning to listening to her older sister read about the Berger family in the years between 1913 and 1923, including the tragic and somewhat mysterious death of their great-great-grandfather on October 23, 1919.

Shortly thereafter, we adjourned for the day, with little of note happening after that. Nell simply heated up turkey hot dogs wrapped in crescent rolls for their dinner, while I was content to nibble on various leftovers.

Well, all right, I will need to do something about my hair soon.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Upon further interrogation…

In the middle of August 2019, I spent nearly a week in Philadelphia—where I was born 53 years ago Monday—conducting further research into my family and personal history for the book I am writing (new tentative title: Interrogating Memory: A Love of Film Noir Spurs an Investigation into My Family History).

Unlike last year, however, I chose not to chronicle this journey in a multi-part post. To some extent, that was simply to avoid repetition, as once again I explored multiple Jewish cemeteries and wandered through a variety of municipal buildings—including City Hall, where I nearly had my Swiss Army Knife (a long-ago birthday present from my mother-in-law) confiscated by a distinctly-not-amused security officer.

But to an even greater extent, it was because some of the people with whom I interacted, including two relatives (one genetic, one legal) I met in person for the first time, wish to remain quietly in the background.

Finally, I thought I simply had not learned very much on this trip…until I arrived home, looked through my notes and photographs, followed up on a few leads, and realized I had learned a great deal.

For example, here I explore three memories that had, until then, defied attempts to interrogate them. One memory I updated successfully here. The first-listed memory, meanwhile, is as follows:

Memory 1: My father and I are in a dark, narrow, high-ceilinged store somewhere in Philadelphia; I THINK it was in a line of stores on a commercial street somewhere to the east of Ridge Avenue just east of the northeastern edge of Fairmount Park. Everything in the store feels dusty and old. Half-empty shelves line the wall, on the right-hand side as you enter from the sidewalk, all the way to the ceiling (I cannot picture the opposite side of the store). There are some counters as well. I am unclear what the store sells—or even why we are there—but I get the impression of adding machines and typewriters. My sense is these were used machines, or possibly repaired, or maybe neither. In the darkened back of the store is an open doorway leading to a back room through which I see light. I do not know why we are there, but I BELIEVE my father and the proprietor of the store—a shorter older man?—went into the back room alone for a brief time; I read and/or fiddled with the machines while I waited. This visit almost certainly occurred between my parents’ separation in March 1977 and my father’s death in June 1982.

On my recent trip to Philadelphia, I interrogated this memory by examining the 1979 Philadelphia Yellow Pages, stored on microfilm in the Free Library of Philadelphia. Unfortunately, I was not as adept at recording images of the relevant pages onto my flash drive as I thought I had been, and I did not capture every page. Still, I had skimmed every listing under TYPEWRITERS on site. The pages I had successfully copied reinforced my tentative conclusion the store had been at 1507 N. 33rd Street, across the street from the eastern section of Fairmount Park. That is, until I looked at the address on GoogleMaps…and saw that it was more of a warehouse/storage unit than a retail store.

Nonetheless, I plan to visit the site the next time I go to Philadelphia, partly because I have not completely ruled it out as the typewriter repair shop/office supply store of my memory, but mostly because it is literally next to the John Coltrane House.

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Locating this store was the first of eight research “questions” I prepared for my trip to Philadelphia. The second one related to what in the 1930s and 1940s was the 40th Philadelphia police district, headquartered at 28th and Oxford Streets in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood (just five blocks east of the John Coltrane House, actually). As frustrating as obtaining concrete information on my maternal grandfather Samuel Joseph Kohn’s career with the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) has been, I knew he had been based here in February 1937, early in his time on the force[1]. However, this was a low-priority question.

Other questions related to the precise location of the tragic death of my paternal great-grandfather David Louis Berger in October 1919 (Business Route 1 off-ramp over Neshaminy Creek just northeast of Bristol Road in suburban Middletown Township), obtaining a copy of my father’s high school yearbook (no dice, yet), meeting my genetic relative and visiting cemeteries.

At Har Nebo Cemetery, where my maternal grandmother’s father is buried,

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I located the grave of comedian and author David Brenner, a high school classmate of my father, born just 46 days after my father.

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That leaves three primary questions, the latter two described in detail here):

  1. Further details on Samuel Kohn’s time with the PPD
  2. Date and details of the fire at the John Rhoads Company between April 1972 and September 1974
  3. Date and details of the fire in my childhood house, almost certainly on a weekend night in March 1973.

The first two questions led me to the pristine and well-managed Philadelphia City Archives, where the laudable David Baugh patiently responded to my ever-evolving queries. First, he handed me a short stack of PPD “roster cards” alphabetically-adjacent to “Kohn, Samuel” to demonstrate they had lost or misplaced my maternal grandfather’s roster card.

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Second, Mr. Baugh brought out a series of boxes containing records of property transfers for the lot at 4157-59 Lancaster Avenue, home of the John Rhoads Company from its inception in 1886 until 1972 or so. My hope was to find clear evidence of when my father sold the building at that location, thus narrowing the time frame in which the fire could have occurred.

That proved a dead end, as the only records after 1931 for that lot were for the sale of the property—still credited to “John Rhoads Company”—in April 1983 (less than a year after my father died) by Sheriff Joseph A. Sullivan to the City of Philadelphia for $500. Sheriff Sullivan acquired the property sometime before March 1981, perhaps explaining a childhood memory of “the sheriff” coming to my childhood home to talk to my father one evening in the fall of 1976. I had always thought that visit was for non-payment of the mortgage on our house, but now—upon further interrogation—I suspect it stemmed from financial issues related to the Lancaster Avenue property.

But what I did learn from those documents more than compensated for that hopefully-temporary dead end. First, the John Rhoads Company lot was far larger than I had realized, forming a sort of lower-case-r shape with a triangular hat, with one entrance on Lancaster Avenue and another on N. Holly Street, which intersects Lancaster Avenue about half-a-block east. A few days after my visit to the City Archives, when I took some photographs of the empty lot from N. Holly Street, a woman came from across the narrow street to question what I was doing. It turned out she and her genial family themselves wanted to know who currently owned the lot so they could encourage her/him to develop it. I explained my father, who died in June 1982, had owned it, as had his father and uncle before him.

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“So who was John Rhoads?” the woman’s mother (aunt?) asked me.

“He was the original owner, a confectioner from Harrisburg,” clarifying my grandfather had kept the original name when he acquired it.

Meanwhile, not only did they remember the fire (but not the exact date beyond “oh, it must have been in the 1970s”), but the large warehouse doors through which trucks would drive, as well as the giant rolls of carpet cleaned within those doors. These are memories I do not even have, given I was at most seven years old when that fire took place. In exchange for graciously allowing me to interrogate their memories, I mailed them all the information they asked of me as soon as I returned home, with a request they send me any additional information they remembered; I have yet to hear anything new.

Returning to those boxes of property records, meanwhile, I found myself carefully holding papers documenting the original acquisition of three parcels of land by John Rhoads himself in the mid-1880s, as well as various within-family transfers over the next four decades. But what made me almost start to cry were finding the deeds transferring ownership of the John Rhoads Company to my paternal grandfather Morris Berger on July 15, 1926, as well as a subsequent ownership restructuring in April 1931—making “John Rhoads Company” legal owner of the property.

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I had been so fixated on uncovering details of the fire, I had not even considered finding such documents. And while I have no more clarity on the exact date and circumstances of the fire itself, simply holding in my hands those pieces of my personal family history—specifically relating to a grandfather and great-uncle I never knew—more than compensated for that.

After leaving the City Archives—followed by my ignominious (and ultimately fruitless) trip to City Hall—I visited here…

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…which, for obvious reasons, is often called The Roundhouse…

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…to obtain any information they could give me about my maternal grandfather’s time on the force. Due to extremely tight security, I could only speak to the Personnel Department by calling it on my iPhone from the darkened entrance hallway, where a vintage pay telephone was still bolted to the wall. The woman to whom I spoke was very patient and engaging, checking every alternate spelling of “Kohn” we could think of, but she was unable to locate any records of a Patrolman/Detective Samuel Joseph Kohn. She did inform me badges get recycled (explaining why my aunt no longer has it) before making an absolutely brilliant suggestion: that I check with a different city department.

In order to maintain privacy, all I will say about this department is that upon hearing it, I had a smack-my-forehead, “I could’ve had a V8!” moment, realizing I had neglected a key investigative dictum: follow the money.

The Monday morning after I returned to Brookline, I dialed the number I had been given. Nobody answered, so I left a detailed voicemail. Five or ten minutes later, a Philadelphia-area number called my iPhone.

“Hello?”

“Is this Matthew Berger?” a voice asked.

“Yes, it is.”

Explaining (s)he was returning my call, (s)he asked why I wanted the information.

Uh-oh, I thought, answering, “Well, I am simply curious, and I am writing a book.”

“Oh, cool,” came the response. “So I have 67 pages of information here…”

I nearly fell out of my desk chair.

Much of that information could not be released to me, but after we chatted about what I could learn, including:

  1. Samuel Joseph Kohn served on the PPD from August 11, 1931 (a few years earlier than I had thought) to October 9, 1953.
  2. He was still a patrolman as of January 20, 1947, though he had transferred to an adjacent police district.
  3. Following a brief stint as a Detective on the Crime Prevention Squad, he was once again a Patrolman—in the very district where his future son-in-law lived.
  4. He was briefly suspended for “conduct unbecoming an officer” in June 1953, spanning at least two additional police districts (I suspect one other as well).
  5. Patrolman Kohn badly cut his thumb responding to a burglary in an upscale section of the city in July 1953.
  6. He left the force on good terms, as he received his monthly pension until his death in November 1978.

…I received a packet of photocopied documents in the mail a few days later, which I have been poring over ever since.

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But what really made the trip were two photographs.

The first came when I visited a cousin on my father’s mother’s side of the family. After eating at the beautifully-renovated Silk City Diner then chatting in her apartment, she suddenly remembered what she most wanted to show me.

It was this enormous framed photograph, probably taken in 1903, perhaps in October when my grandmother Rae—the fierce-looking baby front and center between Morris and Hinda Zinman Caesar—turned one year old.

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As little as I knew my father’s father’s family, I really knew nothing about his mother’s family; it did not help that both Morris and Hinda died before my father was born, and my paternal grandmother died when I was five. Which made seeing my great-grandparents, my infant grandmother and her seven siblings even more exhilarating.

A few days later, on my last day in the Philadelphia area, I visited a handful of buildings in Havertown, the suburban town in which I lived until I was 12 years old, seeking details of the March 1973 fire in my childhood house. After striking out at both the Haverford Township Free Library and the Township Building, a short—if hot and sunny—walk down Darby Road, I drove on a whim to the Manoa Fire Company; this is the unit most likely to have responded to that fire.

It took some time to alert someone I was standing at the locked side door, but finally a man named Rick opened the door for me. When I explained the information I sought, he invited me into the dimly-lit building. There was sufficient light, however, for me to see the many framed photographs of fires strung along the hallway down which Rick led me.

A few minutes later, I was talking to Assistant Chief (he demurred politely when I called him “Chief Emeritus”) Mike Norman. He was a burly, slightly stooped white-haired man in perhaps his late sixties. Standing in a small kitchen area, I explained I was seeking information about a house fire almost certainly on a weekend night in March 1973.

He paused a moment before asking, “Was it snowing that afternoon”

“No,” I answered, reiterating it was a warmish spring night, perhaps midnight or 1am.

Reaching past me, he pulled a framed photograph from the wall just to the right of the sink and countertop.

“Is this your house?”

Stunned, I looked carefully at this photograph:

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The sharp lights made it hard for me to get oriented in the picture, but I could easily have been looking at the side of my house from our driveway—or maybe from the front lawn? We looked at the back of the framed picture, where the words “Sue Ellen Drive” were written.

Paraphrasing Chief Norman, “Those uniforms are definitely from 1973, and the only other fire I remember on Sue Ellen Drive was on a snowy afternoon.” Later, when I told my wife Nell about the photograph, texting her a copy (she and our daughters were still on Martha’s Vineyard), she said it was a “no-brainer” this was a photograph of the aftermath of my childhood house fire.

We talked a little about my suspicion the fire was not an accident, but once I told him my mother’s version of the cause of the fire—she had left on a hair-drying unit, the sort you sat under, intending my father to turn it off when he returned home—he cut me short.

Again paraphrasing: “Would you believe how many high school girls put their hair curlers away still hot, only to lose a bathroom or two?”

As for why the fire was contained solely to the playroom directly beneath my sister Mindy’s room, he (still paraphrasing) recalled, “We must have been on our way back from another fire. I remember we got there and knocked that [fire] out in a few minutes.”

Wait, “we?”

A week or so later, after I had donated $50 to the Manoa Fire Company, I received an e-mail questioning my Havertown, PA donation from a Brookline, MA address. I wrote back, explaining who I was, concluding:

When I realized that Chief Norman himself was in the photograph, I was humbled. He and his colleagues helped to save my life, and that of my mother, sister and dog.

I wanted to do something to show my gratitude, so I made the donation.

The handsome young man staring directly into the camera, wearing a white firefighter’s hat with the red number “5” on it…

…is Mike Norman himself.

Until next time…

[1] “GUNMEN FLEE POLICE SHOTS IN TWO DUELS,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), February 28, 1937, pp. 1,4.

My great-grandfather, his brother-in-law…and The Three Stooges?

This coming October 15 would have been my great-grandfather David Louis Berger’s 150th birthday.

David Louis Berger (1869-1919)

Eight days later, I will mourn the 100th anniversary of his passing, under bizarre circumstances, but that is a tale I reserve for my book.

“Louis,” as he preferred to be called (like my own father David Louis Berger liked to be called “Lou”) was almost certainly born in the town of Przasnysz (pronounced “pruhzh-nitz”). His father was named Shmuel Meyer (Berger); I have yet to learn his mother’s name.

Around 1891, Louis Berger married Ida Rugowitz, with whom he would have five children, including my father’s father Morris (born in Przasnysz on August 5, 1893), for whom I was named[1]. Well, we share identical Hebrew names: Moshe ben Dahvid Laib. My mother Anglicized “Moshe” to “Matthew,” which she preferred to “Michael” for some reason.

Morris and Rae Berger

I have no clue where my middle name—Darin—came from.

And the above photograph of my grandparents Morris and Rae (Caesar) Berger was probably taken in Atlantic City, NJ around 1949.

My great-grandfather Louis set sail for Quebec from Liverpool, England on the S.S. Tongariro with his wife and children on May 6, 1899[2]. The ship arrived in Quebec City on May 16 and in Montreal—its final stop—on May 17. I do not know in which city they disembarked—though his United States of America Petition for Naturalization states that he arrived in the port of “Philadelphia via Quebec,” suggesting it was Quebec City.

While I cannot definitively place Louis, Ida or any of their children in the United States until December 2, 1902[3], I do not think they tarried long in Canada. Rather, my working hypothesis is that they immediately boarded a train (or series of trains) for the 500+-mile trek south to Philadelphia[4].

Which begs the question: why Philadelphia?

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My great-grandmother Ida Rugowitz (born June 12, 1870, most likely also in Przasnysz) had at least two siblings. One was a brother named Charles (Anglicized from Tzadik) who was born in July 1862, and the other was a brother Daniel born in April 1882; the latter was unequivocally born in Przasnysz, meaning the former almost certainly was.

My great-great-uncle Charles married Rebecca Pearl Berman in 1880, then they moved to Philadelphia in 1886 (or, at least, they arrived in the United States that year—the earliest I can definitively place them in Philadelphia is March 14, 1889, when their son Emmanuel was born). His brother Daniel would not arrive until May 1903.

As I continue to research my book, tentatively titled Interrogating Memory: Film Noir and My Search for Identity, I have spent many mostly-happy hours diving down the rabbit hole of Philadelphia City Directories from 1880 forward, as well as more generally on Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com. United States Census records can tell me which relatives were living where on a decennial basis, but the city directories (to the extent they are complete—inclusion does not appear to have been as automatic as it would become in the age of telephone-number-based directories) can do so on an annual basis.

This is how I discovered that my great-grandfather Louis (along with his wife and four, soon-to-be-five children) were very likely living at 105 Kenilworth Street, approximately the length of a football field west from the Delaware River, as of 1902; no “Louis Berger” is listed in the 1899, 1900 or 1901 directories. This South Philadelphia address was barely a block east of 712 S. 2nd Street.

From 1899 to 1908, that was the residence and bakery of Louis Berger’s brother-in-law Charles Rugowitz—and I presume my great-grandfather was simply moving to the same American city as his successful brother-in-law—which is to say, his wife’s brother.[5]

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Just bear with me while I briefly outline some of the street topography of Philadelphia.

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The section of the city known as “Center City” is bounded to the east by the Delaware River and to the west by the Schuylkill (pronounced skool-kill) River; West Philadelphia extends some 33 blocks west of the Schuylkill (and is primarily where my parents were raised, especially my father, who was born at the end of 1935).

The primary east-west thoroughfare in Center City Philadelphia is Market Street (originally High Street), and the primary north-south thoroughfare is Broad Street, exactly as William Penn planned in 1682, when he designed the grid of streets in his new city of Philadelphia. In 1871, construction began on Philadelphia’s City Hall at the intersection of Broad and Market, the rough geographic center of Penn’s original city.

The north-south streets are numbered, moving west from Front Street roughly to 27th Street (the curvature of the Schuylkill makes this somewhat imprecise), with the numbering resuming on the west side of the Schuylkill; “Broad Street” is what would otherwise be called “14th Street.” I-95 actually runs parallel to the Delaware River through Center City—meaning Front Street is no longer the easternmost street in Center City (Christopher Columbus Boulevard is).

The main east-west streets are usually named for trees or other vegetation. Thus, beginning from Market and moving south are Chestnut, Walnut, Locust, Spruce, Pine, Lombard and South; an alphabet soup of smaller streets and alleys exist within this primary grid. North from Market, meanwhile you find Arch, Race, Vine, Callowhill and Spring Garden.

South Street marks the boundary with South Philadelphia, while Spring Garden marks the boundary with North Philadelphia. There are other neighborhoods (like the “Greater Northeast,” where I spent a lot of time in high school because a close cousin lived there), but they do not concern us here.

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When I was growing up in the suburbs just west of Philadelphia, South Street between Front and about 8th Streets was the center of Philadelphia’s punk and new wave culture, making it the flame to which all us suburban moths were drawn; it has since become more gentrified.

At the turn of the previous century, however, the easternmost-blocks of South Street were the mercantile center of a thriving Jewish community, a roughly 50-block area (bounded by the Delaware River to the east, 6th Street to the west, Spruce Street to the north and Christian Street to the south) where Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement were settling after arriving on the steamships from Liverpool (or, apparently, by train from Canada).

If you walk south on 2nd Street from South Street, the first major street you cross is Bainbridge. One-half block down on the western side of the street is #712, which sits directly across the western end of a one-block stretch of Kenilworth Street[6]. Just one block to the west is 105 Kenilworth Street.

As I noted above, a Louis Berger—variously described as “grocery” and “varieties”—lived at 105 Kenilworth from 1902 to 1905. My great-grandfather was, in fact, a purveyor of “meats” from 1906 (when he is first listed in city directories residing at 2241 Callowhill, as close to the Schuylkill as I hypothesize he had been to the Delaware[7]) until about 1915. Around 1914, he operated his meat business (what I suspect we would now call a delicatessen) out of a store at 2313 Fairmount Street, less than two blocks west of Eastern State Penitentiary.

IMG_0292.JPG

I took this photograph inside the penitentiary walls in July 2013. It is every bit as creepy as it appears.

Starting in 1915 (as seen in this section of page 2023 of that year’s Philadelphia city directory), however, the family shifted away from “meats” to the moving/storage/used furniture business that would occupy my grandfather Morris (then just 21, but the emerging English-speaking face of the family) and, later, his brother Jules until they died in the 1950s (when my father took over…but that is also a story for another day).

Berger Storage Company 1915.jpg

And this is where we leave my great-grandfather (who, as I noted, would die just four years later) and his wife and children.

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The first appearance of Louis’ Berger’s brother-in-law Charles Rugowitz as a baker was in 1895, fully nine years after he arrived in the United States, when he is recorded living at 752 S.  7th Street (one block west of the western edge of the Jewish Quarter described above). This address is literally just around the corner from where his brother-in-law’s first cousin’s widow Lena Berger would be living as of 1899, and possibly as early as 1895 (see footnote 5). In fact, the buildings shared exterior walls.

By the following year, Charles  Rugowitz had moved to 929 South Street, where “Rugowitz and Berman”—variously described as “bakers,” “cakes” and “crackers” would be situated until 1898. Clearly, my great-great-uncle was pushing the boundaries of Philadelphia’s “Jewish Quarter.”

“Berman,” by the way, was Harry Berman, the younger brother of Rebecca Pearl Berman[8], who had married Charles Rugowitz back in 1880. The two men lived together—presumably above their bakery—from 1896 to 1909. I do not know when Harry Berman first arrived in Philadelphia.

Harry Berman was also one of two witnesses to Louis Berger’s naturalization petition in October 1906. The other witness was Max Rugowitz, the first cousin of Charles, Daniel and Ida Rugowitz (and thus my first cousin, three times removed). Max Rugowitz had been born in 1872; let’s posit he was born in Przasnysz as well. United States Census records say he arrived in the United States in 1896 or 1897. The first official record of Max Rugowitz is as a grocer (misspelled “Rugwitz”) living in 1903 at 109 Naudain St—a very narrow brick-paved road running between Front and 2nd Streets, just one short block north of South Street. By 1905, he is selling cigars and living at 533 S. Front Street—the northeast corner of the intersection of Front and South Streets (now a parking lot)[9]. In 1910, he moved to 345 South Street (just off the northeast corner of the intersection of 4th and South Streets—diagonally across from where the legendary Jim’s Steaks would open in 1976). Here, Max Rugowitz would live until his death on April 9, 1929, at the age of 57.

As for Charles Rugowitz, the bakery he co-owned with Harry Berman had moved to 712 S. 2nd Street as of 1899 (this is where Louis Berger came into the story originally), where it would remain until 1910. The bakery was apparently successful, because as early as June 1901, Charles Rugowitz is already serving on the house committee of the Home for Hebrew Orphans[10]. He was still on the house committee in December 1907, when he helped to arrange a fundraising dance at the Musical Fund Hall at 8th and Locust Streets. And, yes, I appreciate the irony of a Jewish fundraising dance being held on the evening of Christmas Day.

That same year, Charles briefly co-owned a shoe store in West Philadelphia (5145 Haverford Avenue) with a man named Lewis (or Louis) Maltz; the former would serve an executor of the latter’s will in May 1924[11]. Emanuel Rugowitz, now 18, lived that year at 5136 Haverford Avenue (across the street) and managed his father’s shoe store.

By 1909, however, the Berman-Rugowitz partnership was coming to an end, as Charles Rugowitz had moved to 245 South Street—one block east from his cousin Max, just off the northeast corner of 3rd and South Streets. Here he would live through 1919; by 1921, he had moved to 114 South Street, where he and Pearl would remain until his death on March 25, 1931 at the age of 68. He left an estate of $15,500 in trust for his wife (and, with her passing, their six children and the Home for Hebrew Orphans, among other recipients)[12]; that would be worth about $235,000 today.

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But let us return to 1910, when the Rugowitz cousins—Charles and Max—first started living just one block apart on South Street.

Ten years earlier, a 21-year-old jeweler named Joseph Feinberg was living with his brother Nathan and his family at 122 Kenilworth Street—just a few houses west from where Louis Berger and his family would be living in 1902.

But by that year, Joseph had married Fanny Lieberman and opened a jewelry shop with her at 606 S. 3rd Street. This was just three doors down on the west side of 3rd street from the southwest corner of 3rd and South Streets, diagonally across from where Charles Rugowitz would move in 1909 (one year after the Feinbergs moved to 246 N. 2nd Street, unfortunately).

It was at 606 S. 3rd Street, however, that Louis Feinberg was born on October 5, 1902. And perhaps it was here that young Louis accidentally spilled the acid his father used to detect gold content on his left arm, burning him so badly skin grafts were required. After taking up the violin to strengthen his arm, Louis became so proficient that he began to perform locally. He also briefly took up boxing while attending Central High School, winning one bout, until his father put a stop to it.

He did not graduate from high school, choosing to perform instead—play the violin, perform Russian dances and tell jokes. In 1921, he appeared on the same bill as Mabel Haney, who later became his wife. Perhaps it was around this time that Louis Feinberg adopted the stage name “Larry Fine,” because he soon joined his wife and he sister in act called “The Haney Sisters and Fine.” While performing in Chicago, IL one night in 1925, a vaudevillian comedian named Ted Healy caught a performance along with two members of his act: brothers Moe and Shemp Howard (born Moses and Samuel Horwitz).

When “Larry Fine” then agreed to replace Shemp, that started the process resulting in the formation of The Three Stooges (with the addition of Jerome Horwitz, better known as “Curly” Howard), who would make 190 short films for Columbia from 1934 to 1958, becoming one of the top comic acts of the 20th century.

IMG_0274.JPG

The idea to honor the birthplace of Larry Fine/Louis Feinberg began with a suggestion in the Philadelphia Weekly. David McShane was commissioned to create a mural on the wall of Jon’s Bar and Grill (which moved into 606 S. 3rd Street in 1981); it was dedicated on October 26, 1999, with Larry Fine’s sister Lyla (then 78 years old) in attendance. The mural was repainted in October 2005—and I took this photograph of it in July 2013.

Sadly, in November 2018, Jon’s Bar and Grill announced that it was closing after 37 years in business.

I would like to think that a young Louis Feinberg, with or without his family, would have found his way at least once a few blocks south and east to the bakery of Rugowitz & Berman at 712 S. 2nd Street.

Or, conversely, it is easy to imagine the successful baker Charles Rugowitz spending time shopping for watches or other jewelry in Joseph Feinberg’s shop at 3rd and South Streets.

Even if neither of those things ever happened, though, I would still be fascinated by the fact that my great-great-uncle lived for nine years just a stone’s throw from where the great Larry Fine was born…and that perhaps, just perhaps, my grandfather lived across the street—however briefly—from Larry’s then-single jeweler father.

Until next time…

[1] He died on November 14, 1954, nearly 12 years before I was born. This is important because it is Jewish custom not to name a newborn after a living person.

[2] His United States of America Petition for Naturalization, dated October 26, 1906, lists the day as “May 5, 1898.” However, the Tongariro did not make its maiden Liverpool-Quebec voyage until August 1898, three months later. Louis Berger was most likely simply off by one year in his recollection—the last Liverpool-Quebec voyage began on May 6, 1899. If he, Ida and their four children (their last child Julius would be born in Philadelphia in 1904) boarded the vessel the night before their departure, that would be May 5, 1899—exactly one year after the date written on his naturalization petition.

[3] I scoured the 1900 United States Census, to no avail.

[4] It is about 500 miles from Montreal and about 600 miles from Quebec City.

[5] When I was a boy my father and I prepared a list of “Bergers —  death dates” which included a Joseph Berger and his wife Lena. Joseph Berger’s death date is listed as “March 6, 1900,” when in fact (according to his headstone) it was March 6, 1898. That same headstone tells me he was born on April 18, 1860. My guess is that he too was born in Przasnysz—but I may never know for sure. He married the London-born Lena Cohen around 1879 or 1880…and by April 1881, when their eldest son Philip (who appears on my “death dates” list) was born, they were living in Philadelphia. While there are a handful of listings for “Joseph Berger” in the Philadelphia city directories starting in 1888, none seem to fit the broad criteria (or were still alive—going by their listed occupations—after 1898). Only in 1899, does “Lena wid Joseph” first appears, with the address 702 Clymer Street. Given that Joseph, Lena and three of their sons (Harry, Philip, William) appear on the “death dates” list (implying a close familial relation), and given that Joseph was born just nine years before Louis, I assumed Joseph and Louis were brothers. However, examination of each of their headstones (it is often the case that the Hebrew names of the deceased—“first name, son/daughter of father’s first name”—are also written on the headstone) reveals Joseph was the son of Yitzchak (usually Anglicized Isaac) while Louis was the son of Shmuel Meyer (Samuel Meyer). My new working hypothesis is that Joseph Berger and Louis Berger were first cousins…making Joseph Berger my first cousin three times removed. All of which is to suggest that another reason to for Louis Berger to choose Philadelphia as the new home for himself and his family was the presence of his first cousin’s widow Lena and their eight children (as of May 1899).

[6] I suspect Kenilworth once ran from river to river, but has since been chopped up into a handful of one-block lengths to accommodate larger structures.

[7] The westernmost stretch of Callowhill has long since been demolished to clear the way for the admittedly majestic Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which ends at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

[8] Rebecca was born on August 15, 1863, in modern-day Lithuania, while Harry was born on December 12, 1874, presumably in the same place.

[9] It seems cousin Charles bought the property for him from a Patrick Sexton for $1,450 on July 9, 1903; this would be about $42,000 today. “REAL ESTATE TRANSFERS,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), July 11, 1903, pg. 5.

[10] “Hebrew Orphans in New Home,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), June 24, 1901, pg. 8.

[11] “WILLS,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), May 2, 1924, pg. 32.

[12] “W. M’L.FREEMAN LEAVES $214,048,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), April 1, 1931, pg. 12.

Organizing by themes III: Interrogating memory and identity

This site benefits/suffers/both from consisting of posts about a wide range of topics, all linked under the amorphous heading “data-driven storytelling.”

In an attempt to impose some coherent structure, I am organizing related posts both chronologically and thematically.

The sequence of events that resulted in the unifying concept of “interrogating memory” went like this:

  • September 2014: Facebook post for my 48th birthday rank-ordering 24 favorites films noir
  • December 2014: Defend epidemiology doctorate at Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH); within two months, doctoral committee and I begin to haggle over publication
  • March 2015: Start building comprehensive film noir database (4,825 titles as of January 2019) as result of September 2014 Facebook post
  • May 2015: Skip official BUSPH Commencement in lieu of informal private ceremony; haggling had become personal and nasty
  • June 2015: End four-year senior data analytic position at Joslin Diabetes Center (19 years in health-related data analysis career) when federal grant funding expires
  • July 2015-July 2017: Look for new position in field, more half-heartedly than I care to admit
  • Early 2016: Realize 50th birthday coming in September, begin to think about discovering truth of genetic family as present to self. This goes nowhere fast.
  • August 2016: Commence long-overdue psychotherapy and begin to take low-dose anti-depressant. Early sessions zero on in establishing my “identity.”
  • September 2016: Turn 50. World does not end.
  • December 2016: Debut Just Bear With Me blog, inspired to large degree by the accessible data journalism of FiveThirtyEight.
  • Early 2017: Realize am spending far more time writing about American politics and culture than anything related to epidemiology (which, along with biostatistics, was focus of 10 years of graduate study at BUSPH).
  • May 2017: Publish Film Noir: A Personal Journey
  • June 2017: Begin to express doubts about my career path 
  • Summer 2017:

By August 2017, I was fully engaged in three interlocking processes:

  1. Writing a book with the working title Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family’ s History…and My Own.
  2. Using online tools (and documents I had carefully archived over the years) to build comprehensive, ever-expanding family trees, first for my legal family (the only family I ever knew until the last 18 months) and later for my genetic family
  3. Using 23andMe’s DNA Relatives tool to supplement slow-moving legal process to learn about genetic family.

This is easily the single most entertaining and rewarding process I have ever undertaken—especially when you learn the death of your father’s father’s father—the handsome and dapper David Louis Berger—made the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer in October 1919!

David Louis Berger (1869-1919)

And it is far from complete.

On July 4, 2019, I wrote a series of tweets that tied two sets of genealogical strands into a single, all-American narrative.

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The funny thing is that I had never intended to write that much about these genealogical research process, given that I had originally conceived this site to be a place to disseminate “data-driven” odds and ends.

The innate storyteller in me could not resist, however, and on July 22, 2017, I wrote 23and…Who? This proved to be a relatively popular post, so whatever residual disinclination I felt to continue writing about my familial research evaporated almost immediately.

In fact, in a span of four days in mid-August 2017 I wrote three consecutive posts about what I was learning.

Making personal connection, 60 years later

Querying the impossible, just for fun

Interrogating memories of childhood fires

(I took an even deeper dive into one of those fires here.)

One month later I returned to the research with a cri de coeur about the perils of genealogical research.

I had little new to report until December 2017, when I wrote the following three consecutive posts; in the second one I finally dropped the tattered pretense that this site is solely devoted to “objective data-driven” analyses:

Querying the impossible once again…

In which the objective is to get more…personal

Interrogating memories of the LAST Eagles-Patriots Super Bowl

After a two-month hiatus during which I described in glorious detail my recent adventures in San Francisco, I returned to my genealogical investigations with two posts:

Questions of identity

Two worlds collided…

These were followed by a May 2018 post focusing less upon genealogy and more on my ongoing search for identity.

That August, I traveled to my birth city of Philadelphia, PA to conduct on-site research (and to visit friends and family). I shared what I learned from that trip in a three-part series:

Visiting Philadelphia 1

Visiting Philadelphia 2

Visiting Philadelphia 3

With a follow-up visit in August 2019.

From September until mid-December 2018, I was preoccupied with the 2018 midterm elections. It was not until what would have been my maternal grandfather Samuel Kohn’s 104th birthday (or so I had always understood) that I returned to both the book and the research. I followed that up with a cri de coeur reprise less than one month later, followed in February 2019 by the tale of my paternal great-great-uncle.

The assimilation of Samuel Joseph Kohn

The many Samuel Schmucklers

Louis Berger, Charles Rugowitz and the Three Stooges

But what happens when memories defy interrogation? Well, persistence is often the answer (plus the real reason I once hated The Beatles, with a postscript).

Finally, here are the posts that are about my life (separate from my taste in music and love for baseball) but do not necessarily fall under the heading of “interrogating memory.”

Welcome…and just bear with me.

July 2017 Odds and Ends

Questions asked…and answered

Moving memories

Moving serendipity

And for my 100th post…

Remembrance of restaurants past (and present)

Road trips and the fine art of tipping (Part 1)

Road trips and the fine art of tipping (Part 2)

Road trips and the fine art of tipping (Epilogue)

Four stories and 12 years ago…

Two posts related to the Netflix series Stranger Things touched on such deeply personal issues as mental health, my relationship with my parents and my obsessive nature”

Stranger Things…about me?

Ritual and obsessions: a brief personal history

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Wait…did I mention that in June 2018, I formally learned the name of my genetic mother?

Until next time…

 

Two (at least) Samuel Schmucklers: a cautionary tale

In a recent post, I described the metaphoric journey my maternal grandfather took from being Yisrael HaCohen, born in the small town of Shpola (in what is now Ukraine) in November 1905, to being Samuel Joseph Kohn, born in Cleveland, OH in December 1904. His literal journey included crossing the Atlantic with his parents, Joseph and Bessie (Koslenko) Cohen, and six (seven?) siblings from Liverpool to Philadelphia on the Haverford (in steerage, buffeted by a violent storm) in December 1912.

One sibling was named Sofia, later Sophie; what little information I have about my great-aunt Sophie (other than a passing reference in a single-page report I wrote about the Cohen family in 8th grade[1]) comes from official records available on the invaluable Ancestry.com.

As I lamented here, it can be very difficult to pin down dates of birth for immigrants who arrived around the turn of the last century. Sophie Cohen was no exception. Her father gave February 2, 1903 as the date on his naturalization petition, while her death certificate lists it as February 15, 1902. Meanwhile, the 1920 United States Federal Census (“Census”) records her age as of January 14 as 18, putting her date of birth somewhere between January 15, 1901 and January 14, 1902.

In other words, three different official documents put her date of birth anywhere from January 15, 1901 to February 2, 1903—a window of more than two years. This is actually one of the more benign “occupational hazards” of meticulous genealogical research.

Far more troublesome is the presence of two or more persons with the same name living in the same community at the same time, as I have come to learn.

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This meticulous genealogical research is part of what I anticipate will be Chapter 3 of the book I am writing (working title: Interrogating Memory: Film Noir and My Search for Identity). For this chapter, one of a series which trace the movement of my Jewish ancestors from the Pale of Settlement to West Philadelphia, so that David Louis Berger could marry Elaine Kohn in January 1960, I have spent hundreds of hours painstakingly collating information from such Ancestry records as Censuses, death certificates, marriage records, city directories, naturalization petitions and other online family trees. Where possible, I supplement these data with information published in contemporary newspapers.

It is from the 1920 Census, for example, that I know that Joseph and Bessie Cohen were living with their five youngest children at 729 Morris Street in South Philadelphia as of January 14, 1920. Examining Google Maps Street View and a typical real estate website tells me their home, a three-story red brick row house built around 1915, still stands on narrow Morris Street.

That record also informs me that the unmarried, teenaged Sophie was making cigars in a factory, having either quit or graduated from high school, depending on her actual age.

Official marriage records[2] reveal that later that year (I cannot pinpoint the exact date, despite the Philadelphia Inquirer publishing daily lists of marriage licenses issued), Sophie Cohen married a man with the euphonious name of Samuel Schmuckler (sometimes written “Shmukler”). Jumping ahead a bit, the 1930 Census lists an 8-year-old “Evelyn Schmuckler” living with her grandparents (Joseph and Bessie Cohen), two uncles (including my grandfather) and an aunt in their new home at 1842 N. 32nd Street, in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood of Philadelphia, just east of Fairmount Park.

In fact, Sophie Cohen Schumckler had given birth to a daughter named Evelyn in her Morris Street home on January 13, 1922[3]. However, something went horribly awry during the birth, because within a few days she almost certainly started to suffer from flu-like symptoms (fever, pain, chills, loss of appetite) accompanied by a swollen abdomen and a foul-smelling vaginal discharge; she may also have had pale skin and an increased heart rate. These are the typical signs and symptoms of puerperal sepsis, a post-partum infection caused by bacteria in the uterus[4]. The risk for puerperal sepsis is highest (as of 2016, at any rate) with a Caesarean section, especially if the operation occurs after labor has begun. Today the infection could be easily treated with antibiotics—or even prevented by using antiseptics—but these were not available in 1922.

As a result, at 10:30 in the morning of January 20, 1922—just seven days after giving birth to her only child—Sophie Cohen Schmuckler died in her bed, just a few weeks shy of her 18th, 19th or 20th birthday[5].

The Informant on her death certificate was “Samuel Cohen” of “729 Morris Street.” This was most likely her younger brother (my grandfather), himself only 16 or 17 years old, though it could have been her husband Samuel, with a confusion of surnames.

And this is where the story takes an unusual turn.

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In an earlier draft of “Chapter 3,” I wrote something to the effect of “After living with her grandparents, uncles and aunt for a number of years, Sophie Cohen Schmuckler went to live with her father, his new wife Tessye (Dounne) and her half-brother Stanford. She was living with them when she graduated from Gratz High School in 1938.”

I wrote this passage because I had uncovered (through Ancestry’s “hints” and other search methods) an Evelyn Love Schmuckler, born in Philadelphia in 1922, whose father was Samuel Schmuckler (who married Tessye Dounne…at some point).

But here is the thing.

When I was growing up, the enormous extended Cohen family would celebrate the first night of Passover with the ritual Seder meal at a vast kosher banquet hall in northeast Philadelphia called the Doral; those nights rank among the happiest memoires of my childhood. One of the many adults (whose precise relationship to me was often a bit murky) I would look forward to seeing every year “Cousin Evelyn Gable,” along with her husband “Dicky” Gable.

However, I have absolutely no memory of a “Cousin Stanford”—nor does he appear in a handwritten, three-page Cohen family tree written out by a first cousin of my mother in 1979:

sophie cohen

I decided to investigate further—to interrogate my own interrogation, essentially. It did not take long to ascertain the following:

  1. Samuel Schmuckler married Tessye Dounne in Philadelphia…in December 1921.
  2. Their daughter Evelyn Love Schmuckler was born in Philadelphia…on October 9, 1922 (not January 13, 1922).[6]
  3. Evelyn Love Schmuckler later married a man with the surname Goodhart (not Gable).

As a baseball announcer might say after a three-pitch strikeout: good morning, good afternoon, good night.

Unless my great-uncle (by marriage) had rapidly divorced and remarried while his teenaged bride was pregnant with their first child—then quickly impregnated his second wife, who gave birth to a child ALSO named Evelyn…it would appear there were TWO Samuel Schmucklers who fathered a daughter named Evelyn born in Philadelphia in 1922.

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I have had little success tracking down what became of “my” Samuel Schmuckler (and why his daughter was living with her grandparents, uncles and aunt eight years after her birth). This is due in part to the number of men with that name inhabiting Philadelphia in the early 1920s. The Philadelphia City Directory for 1921, for example, lists both a “Schmuckler, Saml,” a dealer in fruit living at 1720 N. Wilton Street, and a “Shmukler, Saml,” of “Shoes Sales Co” living at 2935 Norris Street.

The former address is West Philadelphia, just a few blocks from the western edge of the western edge of Fairmount Park. Because Sophie Cohen Schmuckler’s death certificate clearly states she was still living at 729 Morris Street in January 1922, the fruit merchant living in West Philadelphia is almost certainly a third Samuel Schmuckler, albeit of indeterminate age.

As for the latter (in Strawberry Mansion, only a few blocks north and east of where the Cohen family would move in a few years)—on December 7, 1921, 2935 W. Norris Street was the home of a “Tessye Doum” who had received a marriage license to marry “Samuel Shmukler” of 623 N. Marshall Street (in the southernmost part of North Philadelphia)[7]

Wait, but it gets better.

I have uncovered two World War I registration cards from 1918 for a Samuel Schmuckler (or Shmukler) of Philadelphia.

One, dated September 12, 1918, is for a man of medium height and slender build with blue eyes and brown hair who was born in the United States on January 18, 1898. He was a brakeman for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and he gave 247 Poplar Street as his permanent address, care of a Morris Shmukler. Well, the 1920 Census lists Morris and Jennie Shmukler living with their 22-year-old son Samuel at…you guessed it, 623 N. Marshall Street (just four block west on Poplar Street).  This is the Samuel Schmuckler who married Tessye Dounne, and in 1920 he was an accountant working in an office[8].

The second World War I registration card, also dated September 12, 1918, is for a man of medium height and medium build with hazel eyes and light hair who was born in “Russia” (i.e., somewhere in the Pale of Settlement) on January 5, 1898. He was a “bolter” for the Sun Ship Company of Chester, PA (about 12 miles south of Philadelphia along the Delaware River), and he gave 202 N. 2nd Street as his permanent address, in care of his cousin A.S. Cohen.

Or, at least, that is what it looks like…but on closer inspection the handwritten script upper-case “S” could easily be an upper-case “L.” Which aligns, perhaps, with the fact that as of December 19, 1918, an Aaron L. Kokin was living at that address—and had just gotten a license to wed Anna Cooper of 823 N. 10th Street.[9] Could A.L. Cohen actually be A.L. Kokin?

Just to confuse things further, the 1918 Philadelphia City Directory shows an Aaron L. Koken (“stoves”) living at 220 N. 2nd Street; this could be a simple typographic error in either source. Except that taunting us from the past, the 1916 and 1917 Directories put Aaron L Koken at 213 N. 2nd Street, while the 1919 Directory put him at 237 N. 2nd Street; he is not listed in the 1921 Directory (the 1920 Directory is unavailable). Quite the peripatetic stove-maker was Mr. A. L. Koken, who seems to have had competition from John McConville at 215 N. 2nd Street.[10]

At the same time, on October 30, 1918, 202 N. 2nd Street was the address listed to apply to be a cashier at a retail grocery store in West Philadelphia[11]. Actually, a quick review of the available 1918 Philadelphia newspapers suggests the 200 block of N. 2nd Street (between Race and Vine) was heavily commercial. The occupant of 209 N. 2nd Street even had a two-ton Autocar truck for hire.[12] As of the 1960s, according to photographs on PhillyHistory.org, there was both residential and commercial use; it could easily have been that way four and five decades earlier.

But none of these records place A.S./L. Cohen/Koken/Kokin’s cousin Samuel Schmuckler at 202 N. 2nd Street. Meanwhile, the only Samuel Schmuckler in the 1919 Directory is an “actor” living at 958 North Franklin Street—just three blocks north and east of 623 N. Marshall Street (where the Samuel Schmuckler who married Tessye Dounne lived in December 1921). Were they the same man, with acting what he did after being a railroad brakeman, but before he took up accounting? Curiously, Morris Shmukler of 247 Poplar is nowhere to be found in the 1919 City Directory, though he appears (as a tailor) in 1917 and 1918.

At any rate, his son Samuel Schmuckler died from an acute myocardial infarction (resulting from diabetes mellitus and chronic nephrosclerosis) on February 1, 1963. His death certificate[13] lists his job as “chief clerk-tax department,” meaning he had remained an accountant for more than 40 years; the 1940 Census lists his occupation as “investigator” for “city hall,” suggesting he was worked as a kind of forensic accountant for the city of Philadelphia. His date of birth is listed as February 5, 1898 (in the Pale of Settlement, of course). Which makes him the same Samuel Schmuckler described on a World War II Draft Registration card (1942) as 5’9” tall and weighing 238 pounds (for a body mass index of 35.1, which is “obese”) with a ruddy complexion, hazel eyes and brown hair.

So…three Samuel Schmucklers based in Philadelphia around 1920 were born within a month of each other in early 1898, two of whom had a daughter named Evelyn in 1922.

But that does not count the Samuel “Shumkler” in the 1940 Census listed as 44 (born between April 1895 and April 1896) who worked as a housing contractor specializing in paperhanging and printing. He, his wife Ida and two teenaged children (Shirley and Bernard) lived at 5860 Washington Avenue in southwest Philadelphia. And what about the “salesman” named Samuel L. Schmuckler of Philadelphia who married Mollie Laveson in 1923 and moved across the Delaware River to Camden, NJ (and later Chicago, IL)? Or the Samuel “Smuckler” who married a woman with the surname Cooper in Philadelphia in 1922? Were any of them “my” Samuel Schmuckler?

The truth is, I may never learn what happened to my great-uncle-by marriage following the birth of his daughter Evelyn—and the death of his wife Sophie—in January 1922. The fact that 8-year-old Evelyn Schmuckler was living with her grandparents, aunt and two uncles in 1930 suggests he either died or otherwise split the scene, though I have as yet found no evidence of either. And if he remarried either Ms. Laveson or Mr. Cooper, why not raise his daughter with his new wife?

The search continues.

**********

Happily, I know much of what happened to my first cousin, once removed.

In 1942, the 20-year-old Evelyn married a 21-year-old college senior named Richard Edward “Dicky” Gable (born Philadelphia, December 16, 1921), with whom she would have two daughters. On May 4, 1943, less than one year after marrying, “Dicky” Gable enlisted in the army to fight in World War II; he would leave active service—honorably discharged from nearby Fort Dix, NJ—on April 14, 1946. Four years later, while living at 5407 Chestnut Street (only about nine blocks north and west of where my 14-year-old father was living) in the Jewish enclave of West Philadelphia, “Dicky” Gable received $410 (a little over $4,200 today) as compensation for both domestic and foreign service, the latter totaling 14 months.  As of 1959, the Gables lived at 122 Waldo Street in Holyoke, MA, while Richard taught art some five miles south in Springfield, MA. At some point in the following decade, they returned to Philadelphia, becoming Doral Seder stalwarts—and by 1978 they had settled into Apartment 18D of a luxury apartment building at 3900 Ford Road (photograph from here) in the Wynnefield neighborhood of Philadelphia, just off the eastern edge of the Main Line suburbs. This was where they would spend the rest of their lives. “Dicky” Gable died on July 26, 2004, aged 82, followed by his wife of 60+ years on January 22, 2008, aged 86.

3900 ford road

Just bear with me for a brief postscript.

In 1984, a woman named Irene Kohn moved back to Philadelphia from Lancaster, PA—where she had settled in the mid-1960’s after divorcing her husband of more than 30 years, Samuel Joseph Kohn. She settled into apartment 10M of the apartment complex at 3900 Ford Road. That is, the former wife of the man who, as a teenager, had been the Informant on his sister’s death certificate would live eight floors below that sister’s daughter and her  husband for the next 20+ years. I only wished that on those occasions I visited my grandmother—and then stopped in to see the Gables (usually with another cousin)—I had known more about “Cousin Evelyn’s” life story.

Until next time…

[1] Dated January 20, 1980—I was 13 years old at the time.

[2] Pennsylvania, Marriages, 1852-1968 and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Marriage Index, 1885-1951.

[3] Confirmed by U.S. Public Records Index, 1950-1993, Volume 1 and U.S., Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014.

[4] This is the cause of death listed on her official death certificate.

[5] Curiously, I wrote in my report that “Sima Bella died in childbirth.” My sources clearly did not remember which one had died.

[6] Stanford was born nine years later.

[7] MARRIAGE LICENSES ISSUED. Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), December 8, 1921, pg. 13.

[8] Despite the discrepancies in occupation, I do not want even to begin to imagine two Morris Schmucklers with a son Samuel of the same age living a few blocks apart.

[9] MARRIAGE LICENSES ISSUED. Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), December 19, 1918, pg. 14.

[10] Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), December 8, 1918, 2nd Section, pg.4.

[11] Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), October 30 , 1918, 2nd Section, pg.4.

[12] Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), March 7, 1918, pg. 19.

[13] His son Stanford was the Informant.

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: 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:

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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).

**********

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.

**********

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…

Interrogating memories of the LAST Eagles-Patriots Super Bowl

Sometimes, when my psychotherapist and I are interrogating (my) memories, she brings up the Freudian concept of “screen memories,” in which we essentially replace a traumatic childhood memory with a more innocuous memory.  In her telling, a screen memory could be any set of memories which have become jumbled together, with the affect from an unpleasant event displaced onto a more pleasant event.

I will be making my way to San Francisco wicked early Thursday morning to attend my fifth consecutive NOIR CITY. As a result, I will not be updating this blog for up to three weeks, though I plan to write a comprehensive account of my time there when I return.

In the meantime, I thought I would present a possible “screen” memory for interrogation.

Let me preface by stating that while I vaguely root for all four major Philadelphia sports teams—the 76ers (basketball), Eagles (football), Flyers (hockey) and my beloved Philadelphia Phillies (baseball)—the only time I really follow any team other than the Phillies is when that team is in the playoffs, or on the verge of making the playoffs.

So it was with the 2017-18 Philadelphia Eagles, who on February 4, 2018 (the last day of NOIR CITY 16) at 6:30 PM EST (3:30 PM in San Francisco) will face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII.

super-bowl-lii-4k-new-england-patriots-vs-philadelphia-eagles-madden-nfl-18-2018

Source

I knew that the Eagles were playing well last fall, and I learned that they were being led by a phenomenal young quarterback named Carson Wentz. And, like the rest of Philadelphia, I thought their Super Bowl hopes were dashed when Wentz suffered a season-ending leg injury against the Los Angeles Rams on December 10, 2017; the Eagles had already won the National Football Conference (NFC) East.

But then Nick Foles stepped in as quarterback and played well enough to garner the Eagles a first-round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. That did not stop the Eagles from being slight underdogs to the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons. Foles and the Eagles looked shaky early before pulling out a nail-biting 15-10 win.

This past Sunday, January 20, 2018, the Eagles were again slight underdogs to the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game, although FiveThirtyEight.com gave the Eagles a 57% chance to win the game.

On their very first possession, Minnesota scored a touchdown (and extra point) to give them a quick 7-0 lead.

But then Foles and the Eagles’ defense took complete command of the game, leading them to a 38-7 victory and putting them in their first Super Bowl since 2005 (also against the Patriots) and third overall (1981 vs. the Oakland Raiders).

The Eagles lost to the Patriots 24-21 in 2005[1], having lost 27-10 to the Raiders in 1981.

So, the Eagles are still looking for their first Super Bowl victory, against possibly the greatest quarterback of all time, Tom Brady (as dangerous at 40 as he was at 27).

**********

Readers of this blog will know that, while I grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs (NOT the city proper, as a cousin rarely fails to point out to me) I have lived in the Boston area for the last 12+ years (and for all but four years since September 1989). You would think that would lead to some deeply divided loyalties.

Umm…no, even considering the fact that my wife, a former elementary school teacher, has a personal connection to the team (I am respecting privacy here).

You can take the boy out of the Philly suburbs, but you can’t take the Philly suburbs out of the boy.

FLY, EAGLES, FLY!

**********

Shortly after the Eagles beat the Falcons, one of my closest friends wrote a touching blog post linking the success of the Eagles to his late father, who had passed in March 2016.

For the record, David’s extended family has been an alma familia to me for decades—at his wedding, his mother introduced me “as her third son” (which meant the world to me), perhaps channeling the middle school teacher who one day saw David and me sitting together in the cafeteria and asked if we were brothers.

But when David wrote that the Eagles had last been in the Super Bowl in 2005, I thought that was a typo or a simple mistake of memory.

I have a very clear memory of watching the Eagles lose to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX with my mother and stepfather in the living room of the house in which they lived until January 2004, collectively ruing the Eagles’ missed chances to win that game.

The thing is, though, my mother died in March 2004, and by January 2005, my stepfather and I were locked in a fierce legal battle over my mother’s estate; not anticipating how recalcitrant my stepfather would become, she had made us co-executors of her modest estate in her will.

So that Super Bowl had to have been in 2002 or 2003, right?

Wrong, as I have already noted.

**********

Confirming that the Super Bowl I had been picturing enjoying with my mother and stepfather (for three-plus quarters, at any rate) was in 2005, not in 2002 or 2003, was surprisingly rattling, akin to straining to determine whether a newly-hazy memory was of an actual event or of an exceptionally vivid dream[2]. It was as though a bank of thick fog had poured into my head, unnerving me and causing me literally to shake my head in frustration.

Just bear with me while I try to clear up this confusion to myself (I am literally researching this question as I write).

The simplest explanation is that I am remembering watching some other Eagles playoff loss with my mother and stepfather in that living room in Haverford. A little digging on line reminds me that the Eagles had also won the NFC East in 2002, 2003 and 2004, only to lose the NFC championship game all three years (29-24 to St. Louis, 27-10 to Tampa Bay and 14-3 to Carolina, respectively).

It could not have been the 2004 game, because by that point, my mother’s ovarian cancer had come back with a fatal vengeance, even as she and my stepfather were moving into a new house in Penn Valley.

So that leaves the 2002 and 2003 NFC championship games.

Looking at the scores of those games, something about the loss to Tampa Bay in 2003 rings a bell.

And a whole set of tumblers fall into place.

My mother’s ovarian cancer was first diagnosed in late 2002/early 2003. The Phillies were two years into a rebuilding phase that had begun in earnest when Jimmy Rollins became the Phillies regular shortstop in 2001 (becoming an All-Star as a rookie), leading them to a 16 win improvement (86-76) from 2000, though they missed winning the National League East or Wild Card by 2 games each.

Following the 2002 season, the Phillies opened their wallets and signed free agent third baseman David Bell (December 2, 2002) to a four-year, $17.0 million deal and first baseman Jim Thome (December 6, 2002) to a six-year, $81.2 million deal.

Those moves were exciting enough—especially acquiring Thome, a near-lock to be voted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot on January 24—but then on December 20, the Phillies traded an unproven minor-league catcher named Johnny Estrada to the Atlanta Braves for right-handed starting pitcher Kevin Millwood (a former All-Star who had won 18 games in both 1999 and 2002[3]).

This felt like the final piece to the playoff puzzle for my long-suffering Phillies (one winning season between 1987 and 2000: 1993, when they lost the World Series in six games to the Toronto Blue Jays).

I was ecstatic.

So much so that the very next day, I was prattling on about it to my mother, somewhere in the Poconos, a resort mountain area about a two-hour drive north of Philadelphia, where she and my stepfather would rent a place for a weeks every winter.

I had also just been promoted in September, with a substantial increase in salary (on top of some data analytic consulting). This increase in income enabled me (in late January 2003) to move into a much nicer apartment, complete with schmancy new furniture I bought with my consulting earnings, than the one in which I had been living the past year.

Making that day-trip to the Poconos even more joyous was that it was one full year since my mother’s ovarian cancer diagnosis, and it seemed to be fully in remission. Her illness had prevented her from helping me find a new apartment the previous year[4], and she was throwing herself into this round with gusto.

In the middle of all of this excitement, on Sunday, January 19, 2003, the Eagles lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 27-10.

**********

There is no doubt in my mind (for now, anyway) that THAT was the galling playoff loss I watched with my mother and stepfather in that Haverford living room. For some reason, over time I superimposed the positive affect, derived from the upbeat circumstances of my life, attached to the memory of a “tough Eagles playoff loss” in January 2003 onto the memory of a different “tough Eagles playoff loss” in a far-less-happy February 2005.

On February 6, 2005, my mother had been dead for almost one year (and I was still wrapping my head around the loss), my stepfather and I were bitterly speaking only through lawyers, my interest in my current position was waning, and mentally I already had one foot out the door to Boston (where I would move in September to pursue graduate degrees in biostatistics and epidemiology). Another very close friend, who lived in the area, was a few weeks away from becoming a father for the first time, which I knew would radically curtail his “let’s go do something” availability.

I do not think this is a “screen memory,” as Herr Freud envisioned it—no traumatic childhood memory I sought to repress—but it does show once again the need to interrogate memories carefully. Memories are remarkably fluid, with details often sacrificed to emotion to create the most positive possible affect.

And, yes, that was a very pretentious sentence, to which the only valid response is…

GO EAGLES!

Until next time…

[1] Coincidentally, the Eagles also beat the Vikings and Falcons to advance to the Super Bowl in 2005, though in reverse order.

[2] Or perhaps it is like waking up with snatches of memory together with long gaps and asking, “Just how much DID I drink last night?!?”

[3] And, ironically, is also on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year. In the first 234 (out of a projected 424) ballots publicly-released, Millwood has received 0 votes.

[4] Basically, the third time was the charm in terms of finding the right apartment after I moved back to Philadelphia.

 

Two distinct restaurants. Two different conversations. One unanswered question.

I spent many nights in the liberated summer between high school graduation and enrolling at Yale taking long solo drives, exploring outer suburban Philadelphia. One night, meandering along Route 23, I saw this at the intersection with Route 113N in Phoenixville:

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My idea of heaven was, and remains, a 24-hour diner, though less so when the sun is shining.

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Nineteen years later, I moved to King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, a 30-45 minute drive northwest of Center City Philadelphia and home to one of the world’s largest shopping malls. Given the proximity of King of Prussia to Phoenixville, the Vale Rio Diner soon became a favorite late-night haunt[1].

The 20-or-so minute drive to the Vale Rio took me through beautiful Valley Forge National Historic Park. Before entering Valley Forge, I would drive by the King of Prussia Mall and the Valley Forge Casino Tower. Upon leaving Valley Forge, I would drive by the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, what was then called the National Christian Conference Center and the local chapter of the Boy Scouts of America.

Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, I understood that I was living in between the Democratic, majority-minority city of Philadelphia and some of the most white rural/small town conservative parts of the state. Delaware and Montgomery Counties were Republican-dominated, to be sure, but it was a very moderate, northeastern brand of Republican.

Driving to the Vale Rio was thus literally crossing from one political and cultural milieu to its near-polar opposite.

**********

Just bear with me while I present polling data regarding American attitudes toward guns.

In April 2017, a CBS News Poll asked 1,214 adults, “In general, do you think laws covering the sale of guns should be made more strict, less strict, or kept as they are now?” Overall, a majority—54%—answered “more strict,” 33% answered “kept as they are” and 11% answered “less strict.”

Look more closely, however, and you see an unsettling partisan divide. While 73% of Democrats—and 51% of Independents—wanted more strict gun sale laws, only 38% of Republicans did. In fact, a plurality of Republicans (44%) wanted gun sale laws kept as they are now. And while few respondents wanted less strict gun sale laws, Republicans (16%) were three times more likely than Democrats (5%) to hold that position.

CBS News has asked a version of this question, and provided partisan breakdowns, since February 2013, a few months after the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  While specific percentages have ebbed and flowed, the pattern is constant: a large majority of Democrats, and a bare majority of Independents, favor more strict gun sale laws, while Republicans generally prefer to keep the laws as they are. Squint a bit, and you might see Republicans shifting toward more strict gun sale laws, a trend worth watching.

This partisan divide appears, often by wider margins, on similar questions:

  • Safer with more guns or fewer guns?
    • Most Republicans say “More guns”
    • Most Democrats say “Fewer guns”
    • Independents evenly split
  • Banning assault weapons?
    • Most Republicans say “No”
    • Most Democrats say “Yes”
    • Independents evenly split
  • Stricter gun laws (without specifying “sales”)
    • More Republicans say “Oppose”
    • Even more Democrats say “Support”
    • Independents lean towards “Support”
  • Opinion of the National Rifle Association (NRA), of those with opinion
    • Most Republicans say “Favorable”
    • Most Democrats say “Unfavorable” (with higher % not sure)
    • Independents evenly split
  • Own a gun (self or in household)?
    • Most Republicans say “Yes”
    • Most Democrats say “No”
    • Independents lean slightly “Yes”
  • More worried you/someone you know will be victim of gun violence or terrorist attack?
    • Republicans lean slightly “Terrorist attack”
    • Most Democrats say “Gun violence”
    • More Independents say “Gun violence”
  • Allowing more teachers/school officials to carry guns in schools
    • More Republicans say “Yes”
    • Even more Democrats say “No”
    • More Independents say “Yes”
  • Which do you agree with more as way to prevent mass shootings, better gun regulation or more people carrying guns
    • More Republicans say “More people carrying guns”
    • Most Democrats say “Better gun regulation”
    • More Independents say “Better gun regulation”
  • What more important: to protect the right of Americans to own guns, or to control gun ownership?
    • More Republicans say “Protect gun ownership rights”
    • Most Democrats say “Control gun ownership”
    • Independents evenly split

Still, just when you are about to throw up your hands and say gun policy divisions are unbridgeable, you find two gun-related policies supported by AT LEAST 73% of each partisan group:

  1. Requiring background checks for all gun buyers
  2. Opposing gun sales to persons on terrorist watch (“no-fly”) lists

Plus, at least 79% of surveyed Americans want to prevent convicted felons and persons with mental health problems from purchasing guns. And while partisan breakdowns were not provided for these polls, mathematically, majorities of each partisan group would have to support this policy[2].

**********

I would generally drive to the Vale Rio late on a weekend night, park myself at the counter with my book or magazine and enjoy a meal or a snack (I am a sucker for a heated slice of cherry pie with chocolate ice cream). The decaffeinated coffee occasionally left something to be desired, but there was always plenty of it.

One quiet night, probably in late 2003 or early 2004, the young man working the counter and I got to talking. That is the great thing about diner (or any restaurant, really) counters: they are highly conducive to starting conversations with total strangers. At least, that has generally been my experience.

This waiter was in his mid-to-late-20s. His slender frame, dirty blonde hair and scraggly beard made him resemble a Da Vinci painting of Jesus. He was soft-spoken and instinctually polite. He had recently lived in Florida, although he was local, having grown up a little further west, near French Creek State Park, where he still loved to hunt. I do not recall discussing his post-high-school education.

In other words, he was a product of the white conservative rural/small town culture I described earlier. I don’t recall discussing our respective partisan affiliations, but I would not be surprised if he had voted for Republican Donald Trump in 2016. I was, and remain, a liberal Democrat, as much a product of my urban-raised Jewish parents (and Ivy League schools) as of my moderate-Republican suburban neighborhoods.

During one idle chat, the conversation somehow turned to guns.

And a funny thing happened in that diner, on the border between the urban and rural areas of the state.

We simply talked to each other.

We must have been discussing the notion of banning handguns from crossing large city lines, because he said something to the (paraphrased) effect of:

I collect guns, legally. But what if one night I drive through Philadelphia[3] on my way home from a gun show with my newly-purchased guns in my trunk? Simply by crossing that city line, even with no intention of doing anything with those guns in the city, I would be in violation of the law.

That stopped me in my tracks.

I had never really thought about the legitimate transport of guns by individual, responsible collectors and owners before, probably because I never saw any guns in my suburban milieu.

But then I observed that gun control activists don’t want to take everyone’s guns away from them. They…we…are simply trying to reduce urban gun violence (mass shootings and domestic terrorism were not as prevalent then). You may not be contributing to this violence, but other bad actors do bring guns into the city, perpetuating gun violence. And they need to be stopped.

That stopped him in his tracks.

My sense was that he had never really looked past his stereotype of Philadelphia-as-Gotham long enough to consider the people who live (and die) there.

There was probably more, but here is the point: the suburban liberal public health advocate for gun control got to see gun rights through the eyes of a responsible gun collector and hunter, while the rural conservative gun collector and hunter got to see gun control through the eyes of a suburban liberal public health advocate.

Fancy that.

**********

My wife and I will celebrate our ten-year wedding anniversary this October. Marriage, I have discovered, involves a series of lessons in communication and understanding.

One such lesson is that my wife cannot hear anything I say in a voice raised in anger or frustration or sheer excitement. The volume drowns out the substance.

This lesson applies also to my daughters, especially my younger daughter. When Daddy yells, the message is lost.

I should have known better, but I grew up with a loud and boisterous extended family (although, I cannot now remember my father raising his voice very often, if at all). Shouting was simply the easiest way to be heard in the passionate, talking-over-each-other mode of communication we utilized.

Whether any of us actually HEARD each other remains an open question.

**********

About a year after I met and befriended this waiter, he left the Vale Rio; I have no idea where he is now. In the fall of 2005, I returned to Boston, though I still visited Philadelphia a few times a year.

It became my habit to drive out to the Vale Rio during my stay, if I could.

One night in August 2008, I did just that. I drove through Valley Forge National Historic Park, past Route 252, past the Freedoms Foundation and the National Christian Conference Center and the Boy Scouts headquarters, past the waterfall, past Route 29, past the Phoenixville Hospital and the Phoenixville Morris Cemetery, around and down the bend in the road as it approaches the intersection with Route 113 north, and I saw…

…a brand new Walgreens where the Vale Rio had been.

“Heartbroken” does not begin to cover my reaction.

**********

The town of Brookline, Massachusetts, just east of Boston, gave 84.9% of its vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

Suffice to say that Brookline sees itself as a progressive enclave.

Situated on Harvard Street, in Brookline’s Coolidge Corner, the “Hub of Brookline,” is a terrific, family-friendly (albeit with a delectable house pinot noir) restaurant called Zaftigs. Zaftigs is a short walk from Beals Street, where you will find the house where President John F. Kennedy was born.  More recently, I have seen President Kennedy’s grandnephew, current Democratic Congressman Joe Kennedy III (MA-4), holding meetings in a quiet back booth at Zaftigs. I introduced myself once and found him to be approachable, earnest and utterly likeable.

I have spent countless hours sitting at the counter at Zaftigs, eating and chatting amiably with the remarkably friendly wait staff.

One morning in the fall of 2016 I listened (there are only seven or eight chairs at the counter) as another regular discussed the impending presidential election with a waiter. While both loathed Trump, they reserved a particularly bitter opprobrium for Ms. Clinton.

This being Brookline, however, their contempt was coming from the LEFT. As I understood it, they felt that her husband, former president Bill Clinton, had betrayed progressive principles by governing too much from the center, and Ms. Clinton was no better. They were particularly incensed at the paid speeches she had given to Goldman Sachs, believing this made her a pawn of Wall Street.

Despite my own complicated feelings about Ms. Clinton (I voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Massachusetts Democratic presidential primary, then voted for Ms. Clinton in the general election), I gently came to her defense, arguing that she was clearly the better choice if you wanted to advance any sort of progressive agenda: the classic “half a loaf is better than no loaf” argument.

I also pointed out that Trump posed such a clear and present threat to the nation’s existence that he needed to be stopped, full stop.

No, came the forceful response (again, I paraphrase), what good are principles if you don’t stick to them, if you simply abandon them for political expedience. I don’t like Trump, and I don’t like Clinton, and I refuse to vote for either of them.

Sure, I argued back, annoyed by his arrogant self-righteousness, you have to start with principles, but there also has to be some give and take. It only occurred to me later to argue that if we all followed his “position-absolutist” argument, nothing would ever get accomplished.

Eventually, the conversation fizzled out, and we each returned to my food and whatever we had brought to read.

The exasperating irony is that we probably agreed with each other—and with Ms. Clinton—on the vast majority of “principles.”

**********

The polling data cited above reveals that with, few exceptions (background checks; keeping guns from suspected terrorists, convicted felons and those with mental illness), Democrats, Republicans and Independents see the same world through different lenses, preventing collective action that protects responsible gun owners AND dramatically reduces gun violence.

At the same time, my own views on gun ownership are subtly shifting. One result of my strong interest in the gangsterism resulting from Prohibition is a deep fascination with the Thompson submachine gun, also known as the tommy gun, the Chicago typewriter and the chopper. Periodically, I half-jokingly ask my wife if she will get me one for my birthday or some other worthy occasion. Her response is always a firm “no.”

Also, my maternal grandfather served as a Philadelphia police officer[4], eventually rising to Detective, for 20+ years. My aunt still has his service revolver (his badge sadly went missing after his death in 1978). It is sweet irony that I, a staunch gun control advocate, would love to inherit that service revolver someday.

**********

The Vale Rio Diner no longer sits at the intersection of Route 23 and Route 113N, while Zaftigs just celebrated its 40th anniversary.

Two very different encounters in those two very different eateries leave me with this question: When do you stick to deeply-held principles, and when do you set them aside to advance the common good?

The answer may something to do with lowering your voice, listening to other points of view and questioning your own certainty.

Until I find the answer, I have this treasure to sustain me.

IMG_3114 (2)

IMG_3115 (2)

Until next time…

Photographs of Valerio Diner taken from

https://www.bing.com/images/search?view=detailV2&ccid=SPCXSWsn&id=74A575D1FD4989A6EB2FA9E141DDE40D0418237D&thid=OIP.SPCXSWsnhQp9Ehwp_rwNFAEsB4&q=vale+rio+diner&simid=607985951386700322&selectedIndex=13&ajaxhist=0
Source: https://www.bing.com/images/search?view=detailV2&ccid=NP76TyhP&id=2DCBC7BB3CA5955AAEF7E257CC35C0E8FE03C54F&thid=OIP.NP76TyhPX8nTviWbuP2V5gEsDh&q=vale+rio+diner&simid=608014091991057299&selectedIndex=7&ajaxhist=0

[1] I would be remiss if I did not give a shout out to the superb Minella’s Diner (Wayne, Pennsylvania) and the charmingly-anachronistic (Friday night karaoke!) Limerick Diner (Limerick, Pennsylvania).

[2] Nonetheless, one of the few major pieces of legislation passed by this Congress (February 28, 2017) overturned an Obama Administration regulation preventing certain mentally ill people from purchasing guns. Public opinion is not always the force we presume it to be.

[3] The disdain in his voice when he drawled “Philadelphia” spoke volumes.

[4] Late in his career, my grandfather was partnered with a rookie police officer named Frank Rizzo, whom he despised. Rizzo would go on to serve as a highly controversial and racially-divisive Philadelphia Police Commissioner (1967-1972) and Mayor (1972-1980).