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.
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.
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. 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,
I located the grave of comedian and author David Brenner, a high school classmate of my father, born just 46 days after my father.
That leaves three primary questions, the latter two described in detail here):
- Further details on Samuel Kohn’s time with the PPD
- Date and details of the fire at the John Rhoads Company between April 1972 and September 1974
- 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.
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.
“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.
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…
…which, for obvious reasons, is often called The Roundhouse…
…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.
“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:
- Samuel Joseph Kohn served on the PPD from August 11, 1931 (a few years earlier than I had thought) to October 9, 1953.
- He was still a patrolman as of January 20, 1947, though he had transferred to an adjacent police district.
- 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.
- 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).
- Patrolman Kohn badly cut his thumb responding to a burglary in an upscale section of the city in July 1953.
- 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.
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.
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:
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.”
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…
 “GUNMEN FLEE POLICE SHOTS IN TWO DUELS,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), February 28, 1937, pp. 1,4.