A blow-up pool might seem annoying to other parents, but my father was a saxophone player and he had the lung capacity to expand this pool in a matter of seconds. He probably saw the pool at the corner store when he was buying a pack of cigarettes and thought, “The girls would like that pool—I’ll put it on the step and they can cool off.” It was certainly safer than playing in the plug on the street and more relaxing than getting sprayed with the hose.
I’m not sure what Alycia and I were thinking inviting our two best friends from the block in the pool with us—Marco Polo wasn’t really an option, neither was diving for pool rings, and I’m not sure how those goggles came into play, but it looks like we were happy regardless.
The next summer, we upgraded the blow-up pool for a hard plastic pool and put it in the backyard. My father didn’t have to blow it up and it was larger with a modest sliding board–a win-win for everyone. It was blue, of course, with decals of sea life all around it. Alycia and I would submerge our faces wearing our goggles and gaze mystically at the whales, turtles and fish pictured on the plastic ocean floor. After a few seconds, when our goggles filled with water we’d lift our heads to dump them out.
We took turns squeaking our boney butts down the sliding board and landing with a lame slosh in the water. We swam for hours in this fancier pool—from the time the yard was sweltering with the full city sun, to when the sun shifted and the cement walls of the yard hovered shady around us. Goose bumps appeared on our skin and we shivered, but we refused to relent.
“You’re freezing,” our mother insisted, “time to get out.”
“We’re not even chilly,” we lied in spite of our pruned fingers and blue lips. Minutes later, our grandmother emerged from the house holding a large pot reserved for Sunday gravy. With mismatched pot holders she carefully held the pot full of hot water and descended the steps into the yard.
“Look out,” she called to us. “Move outta the way.” Alycia and I shifted to one section and watched our grandmother pour the hot water into our small oasis.
“Ahhhh….” We swam (more like slid) over to the newly heated part of the pool and relished its cozy warmth.
Of course, that would only last a few minutes, and soon the water would be freezing again, but our grandmother humored us with one more pot of hot water until all the adults demanded we get out. We stepped out of the pool and into large bath towels that our mother wrapped around us. With a cigarette hanging from his lips, our father creased one side of the pool and the water emptied.
We dried off knowing that there was always tomorrow. The pool would be filled again and we could swim to our hearts content.
Summer felt like that when we were young in South Philly—our time in the pool, at the playground, or just playing with friends felt endless, timeless, magical.
On a bitterly cold morning on March 22nd, my son Simon and I set out for a scavenger hunt around the East Passyunk section of South Philly.
“You woke me up early on a Sunday morning for this?” Simon said as I parked the car on 13th and Reed St. He is twelve years old and he values his weekend rest.
It’s true that I had encouraged (forced) him to go, and the weather was colder than expected, but the event was a fundraiser for Theatre Exile and I thought it would be fun for both of us to scavenger hunt around my old South Philly stomping grounds.
I pictured us racing in and out of stores on Passyunk Ave. asking the shop owners pre-determined questions, purchasing crazy items to turn in at the finish line, and performing silly tasks at certain stop points, all while taking in the flavor of the ever-changing East Passyunk community.
We registered inside Exile’s intimate theater space and joined the other twenty participants waiting to hear the logistics. Ed Wagner explained the details.
“Welcome to Full Moon Rallye 60,” he said, distributing a pack of papers to each team.
“What the heck is a rallye?” Simon grumbled.
“I have no idea, but I’m sure it’ll be fun,” I said, wondering if “rallye” was a new hipster term for “scavenger hunt.”
Ed explained that a rallye is not a scavenger hunt; there would be no questions to ask and there would be no items to procure. I learned that he organizes these programs regularly at Club Edventures.
I shuffled through our pack of papers and saw that on each sheet were photos from around the area: quirky doorways, street signs, window decorations, etc.
The top of each sheet included Route Instructions–a step by step guide to intersections and specific city blocks. When the team found the item in the photograph, they were supposed to write down the Route Instruction that it matched.
I didn’t quite get the gist of it completely, but I did understand one important thing:
This was a completely visual task.
And for Simon, who is blind, this means utter and complete boredom.
“It’s okay,” I told him as we processed the information. “You’ll get some exercise and the rallye won’t last too long.”
“I’ve allotted four hours for the teams to complete the rallye,” Ed said.
“FOUR HOURS?” Simon whisper-yelled at me.
I scrambled. “Well, at the end we get pizza at Marra’s!” That appeased him for the moment, but I knew it was going to be a long day.
We joined forces with my friend Reuben Wade (board president of Theatre Exile) and his mother, Bert.
As we set forth on our challenge I was forced to look closely at my surroundings, not only for the rallye, but also to verbally describe to Simon the items we sought.
“Okay, now we’re looking for a stone gargoyle statue on someone’s porch,” I told Simon.
“What’s a gargoyle?” he said, tapping his cane on the sidewalk, his hands turning icy cold as he held mine.
Luckily, I had two very talented wordsmiths on our team as Reuben is a playwright and Bert is a former newspaper reporter. They helped me explain and describe the odd items on our rallye list. We found the gargoyle and I had Simon explore the stone figure with his hands.
After a quick snack at Black & Brew, and a cookie-eating challenge at the Passyunk Fountain, we finally completed the Rallye, and arrived at the iconic Marra’s Pizza to claim our well-deserved slices.
Reuben eating an Oreo without his hands
While we thawed out and ate our pizza I was lucky enough to chat with Theatre Exile’s Producing Artistic Director, Deborah Block, who told me that Theatre Exile has been a thriving theater in South Philly for 18 years.
Deborah is a pioneer in the Philly theater scene. She brought the Fringe Festival to Philadelphia in 1996, she has taught classes at University of the Arts and Walnut Street Theater, and this season at Exile she’s directing “Smoke” by Kim Davies. She appreciates the Philly theater community because she values the changing cultural landscape. “The philanthropy is great in Philly, and [she enjoys] getting to know people and speaking the truth of Theater Exile.”
Deborah has roots in South Philadelphia. Her mother lived at 4th and Emily before moving to the Strawberry Mansion area where she raised her family, and Deborah’s husband, Doug Smullens, graduated from South Philadelphia High School. Deborah has lived in her South Philly community for 14 years now and appreciates the changes she’s seen. She truly felt like a part of her neighborhood once she was pregnant. “South Philly is very accepting. If you bother to say hello to your neighbors, they will welcome you–it may take three times, but it will work. There is a live and let live attitude with the older neighbors in the area.” She likes the directness of the South Philly vibe. “I value that people tell you how they feel.”
Deborah is invested in her South Philly neighborhood. She lives just a few blocks away from where she works at Exile and her son attends public school at nearby Andrew Jackson Elementary School. Her mother taught in public school for many years so she’s decided to take a leap of faith with the Philadelphia School District.
Deborah gives back to her neighborhood by sharing her theater expertise: she leads activities at Christopher Columbus Charter School and she has offered a playwriting elective twice a week with monologues. She finds that people from the neighborhood are slowly coming to attend the plays at Theatre Exile.
Deborah describes the mission of Theatre Exile as “diving into the human condition that doesn’t often get illuminated. The area of grey morality.” Plays are unusual, funny and sometimes even bloody. “Five gallons of blood were used in one of our plays,” Deborah laughs. Their work focuses on the direct, intimate, visceral and cinematic.
The studio at Theatre Exile holds 50 seats and when larger plays are performed, as in their recent version of “Who’s Afraid of Viriginia Woolf?” they often use the Plays and Players Theater on Delancey Street.
Deborah and I have something in common other than a love for South Philly and Theatre Exile. Deborah has a family member who is visually impaired. Her brother, David Block, is a writer and documentarien. His work can be found here: Blind Film Maker.
Pizza at Marra’s!
Back to the Rallye, our team didn’t win, but Simon happily scarfed down a few slices of pizza and warmed up on the second floor of Marra’s. We drove back to our neighborhood in the suburbs and I felt grateful. Grateful that I had the opportunity to really look around at the quirky and wonderful streets of South Philly and grateful that there are people like Deborah Block who are willing to stick around and nurture the neighborhood with culture, compassion and creativity.
Congratulations to Theatre Exile on being nominated for several 2015 Barrymore Awards! Check out their 2015-16 season, especially their world premiere of “Rizzo”.
Michael Antinore loves to talk about his family, his travels, his businesses and his balls.
Meatballs that is.
It’s impossible to talk to him without using “ball” wordplay. After all, his business is called “Mama’s MeatBalls,” the only food truck specializing in meatballs in the Philadelphia area and with one season under its belt (so to speak) Michael is looking forward to another successful season dishing out his famous balls. (See what I mean?)
Born in South Philadelphia in 1973, Michael had modest beginnings. He was born Michael Ciraolo and his parents divorced in 1976. His father was not an active parent and Michael’s mother finally said to his father, “Either you’re going to be involved with your son or not.” His father signed away parental rights to Michael’s mother which was legal at that time. In grade school at Epiphany of Our Lord, (now Our Lady of Hope), he was part of a class that was notorious for bullying and picking on each other for the slightest differences.
“If you didn’t have a tough exterior, you were going to die.” Almost everyone in the class had a nickname and Michael’s was “Ears.” “One time someone said it to you, it stuck with you the whole time.”
A few years later, Michael heard from a friend that parental custody laws had changed and Michael could sue his father for child support. He did so, “not to get rich from him,” he said, but just to prove a point. “Now, the only time I would call this man up is if I saw him on the news and he hit the power ball.” Luckily, Michael had two good male role models in his life—his grandfather and his uncle. He was surrounded with people who loved him. “I’d rather have that than any father.”
In seventh grade, Michael decided to formally change his last name to his mother’s maiden name, Antinore. He didn’t want to go through life as a Ciraolo, he wanted to begin high school with a new name. Little did he know that a decade or so later, when traveling to Italy, he made a choice that would not only change his name, but his place in the world.
He graduated from St. John Newman High School and at nineteen he and his best friend, Michael Doyle, moved to 22nd and Walnut. It was like a different world. “Looking out the window at Rittenhouse Square—this is not where we came from. This is a whole other world out here. We made it.”
He started working at The Saloon restaurant and began meeting new people. “When you’re in South Philly, you live in a microcosm and you don’t realize it. You live in a microcosm of ideas and people and how they think of things and the negativity. I always say you could find anyone in South Philly and they’ll find the negative thing in something.”
“I could say to my mother, ‘You just hit the power ball’ and she would say, ‘Now I have to pay taxes, all these people are going to call me, I’m going to have to move, everyone’s going to want something from me.’ Mom, you just won two hundred million dollars! ‘I don’t even want the money,’ she’d say.”
Michael is a ‘glass is half-full’ kind of a guy. Even his wife, Katie, wonders how he got that way. He’d heard a quote from someone about being raised Italian American on the East Coast. “If you come from an Italian family on the Northeast quadrant of our country, then you could do anything, you can make it.”
For Michael, his motivation came from people around him telling him he wasn’t going to make it. “[You could say to someone] ‘I got his idea for a meatball place,’ and they would say, ‘Whataya going to do with a meatball place? You know how many meatballs you gotta sell? Whataya crazy? Yeah, good luck with that!’ There’s no, ‘That’s a great idea, let’s see what we can do with that.’ It’s how much they can put you down to where you build yourself up to do it.”
Working at The Saloon with so many different people from different backgrounds, Michael became the token South Philly guy. He was the one with the sense of humor and grit that he’d learned from his rough and tumble classmates in elementary school.
In spite of getting out of his neighborhood, he knew he wanted to expand his horizons even more. He went to hair school to learn a trade and when he was twenty-three he was encouraged by a coworker at The Saloon to backpack through Europe. He and his friend ventured to Milan, the Almafi Coast and Florence. “I think that should be a law for everybody,” Michael said. “…you go out and you see how the other world lives.” When he landed in Italy, he felt right at home. “There’s something about the place—you feel like you’re home.”
Michael’s Roots in the Renaissance
In Florence, Michael recognized his family’s name and coat of arms around different buildings throughout the city. He went to Palazzo Antinori to find out the connection. He gave the receptionist his passport. “‘I’m an Antinore,’ I told her. ‘I’d just like to know anything you can tell me about the family and if I’m related.’” She looked at his passport, then at him and said, “Wait here.” She took his passport and went into another room in the palace. Michael waited, gazing at a fresco of the Antinori Family Tree that was painted on the wall. She returned and said, ‘Come with me.’ He was introduced to Piero Antinori who had just completed the Antinori Family Tree, and Piero offered to tell him about it.
There were three Antinori brothers from Cinqueterra; one stayed in Cinqueterra, one moved to Rome and one moved to Florence. The Antinori’s in Florence were one of the most influential families of the Renaissance, as important as the Medicis. Michael’s blood line is tied to the brother who moved to Rome. They were the only Antinori’s who immigrated to the United States.
“When I show my passport in Italy they say, ‘Oh, you’re an Antinore! Much money!’ No, no, no, I tell them. That’s not me, I’m broke!”
His goal in life is to die in Florence. “…on the outskirts, on a farm, instead of having a vacation home at the beach. I can go there for a couple of months and have goats and trees and I can be that old guy like in the Godfather, walking around the village, with the orange in my mouth breaking people’s balls.”
Even though Michael loves to travel he loves coming home to the United States. “People always talk about how bad this country is, but you know you’re country is failing when people are no longer dying to try to get in.”
Baptism by Fire
Michael may not have inherited the Antinori fortune, but he definitely inherited their ambitious business sense. After returning from his first trip to Europe he was offered a job at a salon called East End Salon, which is located in a seventeenth century building in what may have been one of Betsy Ross’s residences.
The owner at the time, Joanne Grossman, took him under her wing and trained him. He and Joanne opened a second salon in 2003 in Sewell, NJ, the same year Michael’s daughter, Alessia, was born. Michael was going maintain the Philly location with Joanne’s partner and one day a week he would see clients in New Jersey to build his clientele there. A year later, Joanne was diagnosed with leukemia and passed away within a month.
It was a terrible loss for Michael and for all of the people who knew Joanne and her remarkable legacy. Michael sold the salon in Jersey, waited a year and bought out Joanne’s partner in Philly. He has been working at East End Salon for seventeen years now and his partner is Donna Sadic, also a South Philly native from 10th and Wolf. The salon has been in business for twenty years, which is remarkable in any business, but especially in hair design. Michael describes his staff as professional and dedicated.
Now the East End Salon is undergoing a transformation with the conversion of the top floor into artists’ lofts. Every First Friday, artwork will be displayed in the salon for the general public. Up and coming artists who normally wouldn’t get their artwork shown in Old City will gain exposure and experience. “We’re not looking to do this for a living. We’re doing this as a ‘mitzvah’ as the Jews would call it, it’s like good karma. What you give is what you get. We’re going to give back and give these kids a chance to show their stuff on First Fridays in Old City.”
East End Salon’s next art show will be held on First Friday in April. Michael has carried on his mentor’s philosophy. “When you come to the salon, you feel like you’re home. We’re not pretentious. You come, you hang out, you laugh, you leave.”
This Guy’s Got Balls
While he was building the East End Salon business, Michael and Katie had a second child, Aiden, and Michael set his sights on a new venture. “Food trucks were getting hot,” he said. “I started telling people and they thought I was crazy. I knew what I was getting into, but I didn’t know what I was getting into. The potential is what keeps you going.”
As a child, Michael used to cook meatballs with his grandmother and he wanted to merge the traditional meatballs of his youth with contemporary, gourmet meatballs. The “Mama’s Balls” are his grandmother’s recipe. The difference from his grandmother’s are that Michael’s meatballs are baked, not fried.
“We roll about a hundred and fifty to two hundred pounds of meat at a time.” He rents a kitchen at Greensgrow Kitchen and has a staff of seven or eight people. The night before a festival they can be found rolling meatballs all night long. The balls are sold at food festivals and on street corners.
Selections include the original “Mama’s Ball”: pork, beef, veal, topped with arugula, and parmigiano cheese; the Thanksgiving inspired “Ga-Ball-Ga-Ball”: turkey, stuffing, rosemary, thyme, stuffed with cranberry sauce topped with bacon, gravy, arugula, and parmigiano; “Blue Balls”: Bacon, beef, veal, pork, stuffed with blue cheese topped with blue cheese sauce, bacon, arugula, and parmigiano; and one that’s up my alley, the “Veg-Da-Ball”: 3 bean mix, red peppers, onions, Italian seasonings, rolled and fried in panko breadcrumbs and topped with peppers and onions, parmigiano, arugula and red pepper hummus.
Michael uses his own tastes for inspiration. “I look at other sandwiches that I like and put it into a meatball. Take a bite of Datz-a-Spicy Ball, you think you’re eating sausage and peppers sandwich with mozzarella cheese. Ga-Ball-Ga-Ball has turkey with cranberry in the middle. It’s like having Thanksgiving Dinner in every bite. The Apple Bomb has turkey with Granny Smith apples, and spicy asiago cheese. People can order single sliders or a three meatball sub.”
Michael has the only meatball truck in the city and he wants to keep it that way. “People would get bored if there is always the same truck on the corner, but if one comes once a week, people get excited and order.”
Michael has two business partners, Whitney and Billy Proudman who now realize how much work it is to sustain a popular food truck in Philly. “We didn’t know how big and how fast it was going to get,” Michael said. “The first time we sold out and we had to go back and make them all over again because we had to do it again two days later.”
Planning for next year, he wants to keep the Greensgrow kitchen and maybe expand to catering and eventually open a store. “People can come get sandwiches and buy balls by the sack,” he smiled. “People in the food industry get too serious, get over yourself….you have a food truck…have fun! Even if I have a restaurant, I want people to have fun.” Michael is a visionary, but he is also is also a realist. “You have to take baby steps in this industry if you want to make it.”
The South Philly Renaissance
Michael is excited about the growth and prosperity of his old neighborhood near 13th and Iseminger, but he also mourns the fact that South Philly isn’t the same as when he grew up there.
“Everybody policed everybody’s kids; I didn’t realize that your neighbors weren’t supposed to hit you in other parts of the country or the world. It used to be that you were guilty until proven innocent, and then it got to you’re innocent until proven guilty and now the kids are never guilty. We’ve lost the ‘it takes a village idea.’ I blame our generation for letting that die. The ‘not my kid’ is not a good thing. I think the old school way, not the beatings, but the mentality of it, is going to have to come back.” When he grew up in South Philly Michael considered all of his neighbors his ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’. “Even if you weren’t related, you were a family.”
Michael has high hopes for the future of South Philly. He is looking forward to the renovation of the Brush Factory on 12th and Jackson Street. He attended the community meetings regarding the plans for the abandoned factory and didn’t sympathize with some of the neighbors’ concerns about the lack of parking and the transient renters.
“The people coming in are not like you who have four kids and three cars,” he told them. “These are hipsters, they don’t have kids, they don’t have cars. They’re going to want to stay and they’re going to buy property in the neighborhood.”
He focused on the fact that the Brush Factory location is central to the city. “It’s one block away from Broad Street, people can take the subway to the Navy Yard or to Center City.” He also envisions development for the Bell Telephone building on Broad Street as well as the stores that line Broad and Jackson. He welcomes the new clientele to his old stomping grounds. He wants to keep the neighborhood desirable, including people with jobs who are productive. “Twenty years from now we’ll look at our old neighborhood and say, wow, thank God.”
Now Michael and his family call Cherry Hill their home. As much as he loved growing up in South Philly, he wouldn’t want to raise his kids there now. “It was the best place to be at the time that we were there. We want to be nostalgic, but it’s not the way it was. You don’t see kids hanging out. We walked in packs, like friggin gangs,” Michael remembered. “I don’t think any place is like that anymore. I wanted my kids to have a yard, a pool around the corner, trees and grass and be able to ride their bike. I’m only eight miles from the city.”
Michael remembers that growing up in South Philly in the eighties and nineties was cool. Kids walked around wearing jackets with their corner logo embroidered on it. “When we went to Wildwood other kids wanted to be us, we were the mecca of cool back then. They wanted the high hair, they wanted to date us and to come to our neighborhood.” He wants to move back to the city once his children are grown. “I love walking around to the restaurants. That’s why I kept my house there.”
Michael Antinore may have moved away from South Philly, but his heart, (and his balls) are still there. Check out East End Salon and Mama’s Meatballs this spring and summer!
When I woke up on the floor at 4:00 in the morning on New Year’s Day in 1987, I wasn’t sure how many hours I had actually slept. I was fifteen years old and spent the night at Dawn’s grandmother’s house. Dawn was my best friend and her grandmother’s house was the family hub on 9th and Porter. Dawn’s uncles, Joe and Anthony D’Urso, and Dawn’s father, Billy Boyle, were club leaders in the The South Side Shooters, one of the Good Timers Comic Club.
I was nestled in my sleeping bag on the floor, when I heard the rowdy chatter and heavy footfalls of the guys stepping around the sleeping kids on the floor.
“Wake up everybody,” someone said. “Time to get dressed and win this thing!”
I’m pretty sure the adults in the club had stayed up all night. I was bleary-eyed as I got dressed with what felt like 30 layers of clothes: long johns, jeans, a sweat shirt and sweat pants, and a sweater. My mother, who had come to the house around 5:00 AM, had tried to give me a pair of snow pants to wear, but I pushed them away not wanting to walk like the Michelin Man for everyone on Broad Street to see. It was the Mummers Parade, after all, and everyone I knew would be watching.
“You don’t realize how cold you’re going to be,” she said.
“I’ll be fine,” I insisted, like every child not wanting to wear snow boots in a blizzard.
“You’ll be marching for three or four hours,” she warned me. “You have to bundle up.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’ll be walking and dancing, Ma. How cold can I get?”
Little did I know.
I had attended the parade all my life; as a child I watched from my father’s shoulders and as a pre-teen I watched the mummers with my gang of friends on the corner, but because I lived in walking distance from Broad and Jackson Street, I could always walk back home to warm up if it got too cold. Now, I was marching in the parade. There was no place to retreat from the cold, the wind, the spots on Broad Street that didn’t see the warmth of the sun.
This day had been a work in progress for months. Beginning in September, the whole South Side Shooters Club practiced each week at a dancing school in South Philly. Our theme was “Planet Rock Rocks Around the Clock.” The concept involved aliens dancing robotically, then bursting into full blown 50’s style rock ‘n roll choreography, complete with The Twist and a bit of jitterbugging.
Dawn and I were enthusiastic, trained dancers, but as I watched the dozen or so guys in the club try to wrangle their two left feet and count in time I thought we’d never get it right. Dawn and I were the only girls in the club since it was relatively new to have women marching. We learned dance moves like the “peek-a-boo”, and the “slide-away.” We were ducked under our partners’ arms, slid between their legs, spun in and out by guys who were as gentle and graceful as hard working, blue collar guys could be. I had to give them credit for their courage and persistence. It probably wasn’t easy to master the moves, but they were nothing if not determined.
Week after week we practiced, we memorized, we repeated. Soon the choreographer didn’t have to shout out the steps as we danced, soon the guys were counting to themselves instead of out loud, soon we were smiling, we were on point and ready.
My mother slabbed the sliver make-up on my face and spray painted my hair to match. She changed my appearance from an adolescent girl to an alien creature. Silver gloves were part of our costumes, and I was glad for the extra warmth covering my hands.
We gathered at Broad and Oregon, checked in with the officials and hooted and hollered our way up Broad Street. This was Broad Street before it was the Avenue of the Arts, before the Kimmel Center, before the parade route was altered to include Market Street, and before the 2015 parade, which sadly only includes a portion of Broad Street. This was Broad Street when the streets were dirty and grimy, when people waved and cheered to us from their windows above the store fronts, when the air smelled of stale beer and sweet liquor and the sulfur scent of fireworks from a few hours before. We shouted to wake ourselves up, to defy the freezing weather, to ring in 1987 with an attitude and a strut that could only come from South Philly.
The crowds loved us when we performed at Broad and Snyder, Broad and Ellsworth, Broad and Washington, and Broad and Pine. My silver gloves proved to be useless. A few hours into our march I thought of my mother’s prediction and I hated the fact that she was right as usual: my extremities were frozen. When we finally arrived at City Hall I couldn’t feel my toes and my fingers were icicles.
In the judge’s area, the tape machine blasted the opening words to our song, “Rock, Rock, the Planet Rock, Don’t Stop…” We popped and locked our way past our modest backdrop of the solar system, and then the iconic sound of Bill Haley’s voice, “One Two Three O’Clock, Four O’Clock, ROCK!” jolted us out of our computerized choreography and threw us into our rock ‘n roll moves. I was tossed, twirled, flipped and dipped. We were not Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers, nor were we Elvis Presley and Ann Margret, but we put our heart and soul into the performance. We smiled despite the cold, we danced despite our numb feet and we shook our jazz hands with our icicle fingers like true professionals. It was hard to believe that months of work was finished in just three or four minutes.
Dawn and I were allowed to ride back down Broad Street in the club’s car and I was thawing out in the backseat exhausted and exhilarated like never before. That evening, back at Dawn’s grandmother’s house we got a phone call from the Mummer’s officials. The South Side Shooters won first place! I’ll never forget the sound of the eruption that came from that row house at that moment. All the months of hard work, the hours of planning and the frost bite were all worth it. There’s nothing like the thrill of being involved in such a huge event, an event where your city, your neighborhood embraces you and shares the beginning of the new year in a spirit of solidarity, warmth and elation.
Now that I’ve moved out of South Philly, I’ve often brought my son to the parade. He loves the noise, the smells and the hustle and bustle of the crazy celebration. I’ve told him about my time on Broad Street and I’ve taught him how to strut. It’s a dance that never leaves you, no matter where you are on New Year’s Day.
Although I no longer eat cheese steaks, I still appreciate the smell of fried onions and cheese whiz as I pass by the iconic intersection of 9th and Passyunk with Pat’s and Geno’s glaring at one another from their respective corners.
Once just a friendly place to chomp on a steak with your neighbors and a few tourists, in 2005 Geno’s set itself apart by becoming a firestorm of controversy. The owner of Geno’s Steaks, Joey Vento, displayed a sign at his establishment stating: “This is America. When Ordering, Please Speak English.”
I attended the play last April, and was taken by the accuracy of the South Philly “feel”that the actors portrayed, as well as the emotional intensity of the material.
Mr. Williams was nice enough to answer some of my questions about the play:
MC: Can you talk about what drew you to this topic and why you chose to fictionalize the material?
AZW: I thought what was happening in South Philly was a micro-version of the dialogue and reaction to immigration and changing racial stats in the rest of the country. It represented issues that were bigger than just one man. So I didn’t want to tell the “Joey Vento” story, but the story of people who shared his sentiments.
MC: The initial controversy in “Down Past Passyunk” centers around an interaction between Nicky Grillo and a customer who ordered in Spanish. The play begins, however, after the incident happened. Why did you chose to begin the play after the heated confrontation?
AZW: It’s a bit of a writer’s tool called a late point-of-attack. Starting after an incident that the characters on stage know about forces the audience to catch-up with them. This gets the crowd to invest a bit more in the story and connect to the situation on a deeper level.
MC: Why did you chose to develop the story into a morality play instead of just focusing on the racial conflict?
AZW: The two are intertwined. I don’t know if you can have a character who questions someone else’s validity based on race without a question of morality.
MC: At the end of the play, you touch on the gentrification that has evolved within the neighborhood. Did you see this firsthand while you were living in South Philly?
AZW: I see it happening in all large American cities. We’re becoming a country more staunchly divided by class lines then racial lines. This is leading to those with means taking over places that used to belong to working class citizens. I’m glad we’re living at a time when people are opening discussing income gaps, but I worried we aren’t doing enough to deal with the problem.
MC: Lastly, did you have some cheese steaks while you lived in South Philly? And if so, which was your establishment of choice?
AZW: Of course! I probably frequented Jim’s on South Street more than any other place.
South Philly resident, Meera, can be described as a modern-day Renaissance woman of sorts: she has a degree in French and speaks German, Spanish and even some Croatian; she designs and makes her own clothing; and she’s a culinary daredevil unafraid to try exotic ingredients.
As we sat sipping our beverages of choice at Grindcore House (a vegan coffee shop) in the Pennsport section of South Philly, Meera shared her thoughts on relocating to Philly, on her eclectic neighborhood, and why her new favorite cooking ingredient is salmon belly.
Meera moved to Philadelphia four years ago from Iowa City. When I asked her why she chose Philadelphia she said, “I was looking for diversity. I wanted to move somewhere on the East Coast, and Philly had lots of libraries, art, and music.” She has been living in the City of Brotherly Love for four years now.
A Serendipitous Relocation
Her first apartment in Philly was on 10th and Porter. When she gave her mother her new address on Porter Street, her mother recognized the location. “I think your great-grandparents used to live in that area,” she said. Meera’s mother is the genealogy guru of the family, as well as a master knitter, author and blogger. She referenced her family-tree research, and found an old postcard with the Porter Street address on it.
“I think they lived around 5th or 6th and Porter. There was a synagogue nearby,” Meera said. She recalled an old family story about one of her relatives who was in the Russian mafia and died in a shoot out with the police near Girard Avenue. I was amazed at the twist of fate that would have Meera living in the same neighborhood as her great-grandparents decades ago.
Meera has also lived on 10th and Tasker as well as 9th and Oregon. Now she is settled in the Pennsport section and enjoying her new neighborhood, which she described as cute. “We have trees. You can feel the nearby river in the air, and we have a park, a grocery store, a pool, and a bunch of libraries that are super close to me. I like my neighbors, I like my house. It’s kind of perfect.”
I wondered how growing up in Iowa (and Minnesota) compared to her experience in Philadelphia and she reflected on the natural setting of her past. “I had a big backyard, I could go wherever I wanted on my bike. I lived by the Mississippi River in Minnesota, so I’d ride along the river to a bridge, cross over into Minneapolis and try to get lost.” She’d often hike by the river, visit the sandstone caves and even get a view of a waterfall.
I assumed she missed that part of her life. “I do,” she said, “but I guess there are ways to fulfill that. You can take your bike on a train outside of town, go to a different park outside the neighborhood, I love Girard Park.”
When she returns to her old stomping grounds in the Midwest she has complicated feelings. “It makes me sad to see the changes, it makes me sad to see what hasn’t changed.” She sighed. “I’m such a sucker for nostalgia.”
The Winter of Our Discontent
We began talking about the change of seasons and I asked what Meera thought about winters here in Philly. She’d been here for three winters so far. “The first one was nothing,” she shrugged. (The second one she spent in New Orleans with friends,) “…and last winter sucked,” she said. “We didn’t have a shovel for a couple of weeks and we had to jump over the hump of snow on our stoop because it was horrendous.”
Luckily, she didn’t have to park a car in that horrendous snow. Meera bikes everywhere and is comfortable traveling on two wheels throughout the city. “At least the city is fairly well lit at night,” she said. “Philly is pretty bike-able.”
When I told her that I don’t think I have the guts or the skill to bike around the city, she said, “Driving would be so frustrating with the parking…”
She had a point there.
Summer in the City
I asked Meera if she planned on attending some of the many festivals that take place in the city. She nodded but said she prefers what she calls “impromptu festivals” (crashing people’s block parties.) “I love that there’s a pick up baseball game in every field that you ride past. The other night on 4th and Washington, there was a nighttime kids soccer game, all these parents and kids in their uniforms. I love to see that happen.”
Meera has traveled to the shore, but she calls it the beach. “I know that’s a give away to call it the beach. Anytime someone wants to drive to the beach, I say ‘yes, please! I’ll bring cherries!’”
Utopia in South Philly
I asked Meera if she had a sense of the ethnic make up of her neighborhood. She said, “A good mix of all kinds of ethnicities. Old townies, new townies, old immigrants, new immigrants.” I mentioned that it kind of sounds ideal. “Who would have thought?” She smiled. “Utopia in South Philly!”
Meera mentioned that she loves to cook and to try new ingredients. “I try to get something new when I go to the Asian store so I’ve had some really weird things, but some of them are delicious. I love salmon belly. It’s really cheap. It’s the bacon of salmon, full of salmon oil, rich and ridiculous. I like dried seasoned anchovies, and weird stuff like that.” I asked if the locals had encouraged her to try any Philadelphia staples, scrapple, perhaps? She nodded. “People made a big deal out of making me eat that,” she said, unfazed. “It’s fine.”
I asked if she was surprised by any of the Philly vernacular. She’s heard the typical Yous, Yous guys, and yuz, wudder (for water), and hoagie. When she mentioned the word, jawn even I had never heard of that one. Meera clarified it for me. “It’s like, ‘Hand me that jawn, that thingamajig.’”
She added, “People say the word anymore for things they still do, not things they don’t do anymore.” This is so true!
She was perplexed by the term water ice when she first heard it. “What is that?” she asked, rhetorically. “A glass of water with ice?” She’d grown up calling it Italian Ice. I asked if she’d tried a gelato yet. “No,” she said. “I like ice cream, and I like water ice, and I don’t really care to mix them up.”
Besides the difference in vernacular, Meera noticed that people from Philly and the East Coast in general are more straightforward than in the Midwest. “There, you have to read between the lines to hear the thing behind what they’re saying.” Her parents are originally from the East Coast, so in the past, when her family was at a restaurant, she’d think her father was being rude to the waitress, “but he was actually just being straightforward, he’s actually not being Midwestern.”
I was curious about Meera’s thoughts regarding the physical changes in her neighborhood. “There are some row houses being remodeled, they put in a community garden on the corner and a cement patio space next to it,” she said. “They also did a huge clean up by a small pier by the river. I feel like they’re starting to pay attention to this area and really gentrify it. I’m not necessarily thrilled by it…they’re taking care of it from afar, but not looking at what’s actually going on. From over here it looks like, ‘That’s a mess, we have to do this to it,’ but they’re not like ‘how is this effecting the dynamics of the neighborhood? How do the people use the space presently?'”
It seemed like Meera was growing attached to Philly. “I had a great time [for one winter] in New Orleans,” she said, “but I was very happy that I was coming back to Philly in the spring. As much as I think I have to get closer to nature, I want to live in Africa, Mexico, Israel, I’m also, like, I’m going to miss Philly.”
I asked if Philadelphia was what she had expected it to be. “I don’t think I had any real expectations except for that it’s going to be different and I’m going to love it.” She smiled. “And it was, and I did.” Then, more pensively, “…On the other hand, people are just people.”
I was glad that Meera took the time to speak with me about South Philly and I hope she remains one of its residents for years to come!
When my mother sold our home on Ninth and Jackson in 1994, it was the house she had lived in for fifty years.
It was difficult for her to leave South Philly, but she knew she had to make a change. Two blocks away from where we lived she saw a man wielding a machete, and on the corner of our block we started to find beer bottles and used needles. It was time to go.
Gentrification had not yet begun in our part of South Philly at that point, and after our house was on the market for over a year, my mother practically gave it away. Nowadays that three-bedroom, finished-basement row house (I hear they’re called “townhouses” now) is probably worth three times the price she sold it for. She had wonderful memories of that house, and of raising a family in South Philly.
She passed away nine years ago, but she left my family with cherished life lessons and words of wisdom that we still use. I’m remembering her today and in honor of Mother’s Day I’ve listed her top fifteen quotes.
1. “Trust Your Gut”: No matter how many pieces of advice you get, including advice from my mother herself, her ultimate “go to” was to trust your own instinct, your own inner voice.
2. “Don’t Settle”: Don’t ever settle for less than what you want or what your vision is, whether it’s your profession, your prom dress or your life partner. (This advice can also be paired with her famous, “Choose Your Mate Wisely.”)
3. “The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease:” My mother began her journey in life as a shy, insecure girl who found her voice later in life and developed into a vocal powerhouse. She even had the guts to tell a prominent New York cancer doctor (when he tried to fluff her off) that her time was just as important and valuable as his time! Go Franny!
4.“God Don’t Make Junk”: She knew the grammar wasn’t right on this one, but it gave it more punch. We are all equally loved in God’s eyes and that’s all that really counts. No one is better or lesser than another. Hold yourself with the same respect and love that God has for you. She would remind herself of this whenever she got down on herself.
5.“Most People are Idiots”: (Sometimes she’d say ‘assholes’ instead of ‘idiots’): This one seems to contradict number four, but in fact, if people operated on a lower level of consciousness and didn’t get in touch with their inner voice, they usually did, in fact, do idiotic things. I’m pretty sure that’s what she meant.
6. “When You Point a Finger, You Have Three Pointing Back at You”: This was her version of ‘People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,’ or the biblical version: ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged’. Basically, choose compassion over judgement.
7.“Giggle”: Ok, my mother never actually said this, but I saw her live it so it was even more profound than her saying it. She used to love to relax on the couch and watch TV in the evenings. Often she’d watch a British comedy (or a mystery on PBS…she loved mysteries.) If something on TV tickled her she would giggle—I mean really belly laugh, and I always got a kick out of that. I rarely laughed out loud, especially from things on TV, so I envied the way she’d giggle with delight when she saw something silly.
(Her sneezes, however, were another sound all together—they were physically disturbing to me. They were so loud, so sharp and piercing that I swear they could cause a shift in the tectonic plates.)
8.“Learn to do Something with Your Hands and Your Head”: She got this advice from her grandfather. My mother had trouble learning because of her dyslexia, but it didn’t stop her from trying. As an adult, she partnered with her sister and started a small ad agency. She read textbooks about the business and taught herself the skills she needed. To cultivate her artistic side, she took ceramics classes with my sister Alycia and spent hours and hours painting the delicate features onto figurines while surrounding herself with fun women who encouraged each other and probably giggled a lot (see #7.)
9.“My Bags are Always Packed”: My mother loved to travel and she was always up for a trip. Whether is was vacationing in Sea Isle City with the whole family, following Alycia on a bus to 4H Camp, flying overseas for a crazy wedding in Italy, or cruising to Alaska to explore other cultures. She was always game for a journey, and somehow she always had some money stashed away to make it happen.
10. “Work smarter, not harder”: I wonder if this came from her having to cope with dyslexia. Maybe she figured out ways to do things so that her learning disability didn’t get in the way.
11.“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink”: My mother had a keen instinct about situations and people. She tried to guide her friends and family to make good choices. Sometimes they followed her advice, and they thanked her for it later. Other times, they went a different direction and they kicked themselves for it later. No matter what happened, my mother would be at peace with the fact that she tried to steer them in the right direction.
12. “Don’t fight the waters”: This came from her practice of the path of least resistance. She understood that the more we tried to resist something, the more it would persist. We needed to look at things objectively and not become ‘enmeshed’ in negativity or stress.
13. “Penny wise, dollar dumb”: This sort of speaks for itself.
14.“Better out than in”: This usually had to do with vomiting, or boogers or incontinence, but she also used it for encouraging us to speak up if we needed to. And to expressing our feelings rather than stifling them as she used to.
15. “Jesus”: The focus, the example and the inspiration for all that she did.
I am probably forgetting some of her words of wisdom, but that’s okay. I’m enjoying the memories she left me, and just thinking of her on this special day fills me with her presence.
On a rainy Sunday afternoon I walked into Diana Capotrio Stankiewicz’shome in the Pennsport section of South Philadelphia and was greeted by her warm, inviting smile and an aroma that brought back delicious memories of my childhood— the delectable scent of gravy and meatballs. I met Diana two weeks earlier at Sacred Heart Church where she was preparing refreshments for the Archdiocesan Boy Choir in which my son sings. As we separated soft pretzels for the reception we talked about the neighborhood and the change it’s undergoing. I learned that she works at Our Lady of Hope School, which was formerly Epiphany of Our Lord School, where I had attended from Kindergarten through Eighth Grade. She graciously agreed to be interviewed to talk about her life in South Philly.
Diana, Matthew and Joseph
Diana and her family have lived in the Pennsport area for thirteen years. Before getting married, Diana lived in several neighborhoods: 8th and Wharton, Lambert Street and 9th Street, and in true South Philly fashion, after she and her husband Joe were married they moved two blocks away from Diana’s mother on 22nd and Jackson in Saint Edmonds’ Parish, where they lived for fifteen years. Joe was originally from the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, but knew that he would be spending the rest of his life in South Philly once he married Diana. Many different houses, but always home in South Philly.
Diana and her twin sister Denise
Diana raised three children and she speaks of each of them with pride. Matthew will be graduating from the Police Academy in August and will be married in November, just five days after Diana’s and Joe’s 30th wedding anniversary; Joey was married on April 12th and works as an electrician; and Gina, who is an assistant manager at a car dealership, was married last October with a Halloween-themed reception. Diana dressed as a witch for the reception, and other attendees came outfitted as an Amish couple, Captain America, The Flintstones, and a priest (he was even asked to do the blessing before the meal!) She talks to her children almost everyday, by phone or in person. She even stays connected with cousins and distant family through Facebook.
before the Halloween transformation
As I spoke with her, I realized that Diana is often surrounded by her adoring family. While we were in the kitchen, her twin sister Denise, who stays frequently with Diana, lowered the heat and stirred the gravy on the stove, making sure that it bubbled without burning; her grandson, Joseph (her husband calls him, “Joseph the third”) watched a cartoon on his ipad; and her son and daughter-in-law, were talking about how they are fixing up their aunt’s house a few doors away so they can move in there and begin their married life. Diana’s sister, Doreen, lives just a few blocks away, and their mother and her sister live around the corner.
...the reception in full costume!
It’s obvious that children are an important part of Diana’s life. She was always very involved with the parents associations at her kids’ schools. When reflecting on raising three children, especially during the drama of their teenage years, she acknowledged that it was sometimes a challenge. Diana said that her youngest son wasoften “grounded for life.” Freshman and Sophomore years of Joey’s school career were spent as her “personal valet.” She notes that “by Junior and Senior year, he came around.” She attributed his turn around to her tough-love parenting skills. “Whatever I said to them, I always did.”
Joey and Jenn's wedding
When Joey reflected on her discipline techniques, he remembered that she could throw a shoe from the kitchen into the parlor and hit her target perfectly. “She could curve it into the wind, she was that good,” he said. In spite of some challenging times, she was and is always available for her family. Diana has a traditional belief in respecting one’s elders. She runs the Youth Ministry group in her church, prepared the family masses, and she is saddened by the fact that there will be no religious faculty at Our Lady of Hope after this year. “I’m so disappointed that the nuns are being pulled out. This is their last year.” Diana learned to cook from her mother, Louisa, who lives just around the corner with Diana’s Aunt Rita. “Can’t you tell she’s a good cook?” Joey says, rubbing his belly and smiling. When I asked Joey and Jen why they planned on living in South Philly, Jen explained, “I can’t picture myself not living in South Philly.”
A Broad Street embrace
I asked Diana what she liked about growing up and living in South Philly. “Because of the neighborhood you were able to keep friendships,” she said. “I have a friend of mine, I’ve known her since second grade. She is my daughter’s Godmother and I am her son’s Godmother. For fifty-one years we’ve been friends. Even though she tried to get me to go to Jersey,” Diana smiled, “and I tried to get her to stay in Philly. She wanted the grass and the backyard and the pool, whereas I liked the being in the city. I liked the closeness.” Diana mentions that one of her neighbors surprised her daughter Gina with a handmade Halloween-themed guest book for her wedding. “At special times, people come through for you that you don’t expect.”
When I asked Diana about her favorite memories from her neighborhood she said the Mummer’s Parade. “You always saw someone you knew,” she said. “They’d hug you and ask how you were doing.” She’s disappointed about how things have changed, recently. “Now, Second Street [after the parade] is nothing but chaos. It’s not like it used to be. The kids are bold and brazen.” Diana shared some of the secrets of her wonderful meals. For her lasagna, she puts anise seed oil in the ricotta cheese, and for her cutlets, she marinates the chicken in egg, salt, pepper, lemon juice and garlic before breading and frying them. We compared meatball recipes (Ok, full disclosure: I don’t have an original recipe of my own. My Aunt Lucy is the meatball master in my family!) Diana shared that in the old days her mother would soak day-old bread in water and then add it to the meat for the meatballs. My grandmother did the same thing.
Joseph, the First
Diana carries on the family traditions that are a part of the holidays: She hosts an Easter morning brunch, and she prepares the Seven Fishes for Christmas Eve. This holiday used to be her mother’s, but now it’s hers. “I call it the ‘Seven Modern Fishes’ because we have shrimp cocktail, my mother makes a wonderful tuna dish, I get smelts for my Aunt ‘cause she’s the only one who eats them, flounder, clams and spaghetti, crab dip. Then on Christmas morning I always wear a new set of pajamas that my husband gives me. I make a turkey, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce and whoever comes, comes.”
When she thinks of her neighborhood, she has goals for the future. “My big thing now is trying to get the children to come back to mass.” All of Diana’s children were altar servers, and she has organized the Christmas pageant for several years and continues to do so at Sacred Heart.
Joseph I with Joseph III
As I was leaving her home, I had the pleasure of meeting Diana’s husband, Joe. He is a soft spoken man who has endured some difficult health issues over the past couple of years. In spite of that, he told me stories of his family from the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, and how he had to quickly adjust to life in South Philly. It is clear that Diana and Joe have nurtured a wonderful family. Surrounded by many generations of loved ones, their family continues to grow and support one another, in true South Philly style. As I pulled out of my parking space, (I found one almost in front of her house) I felt a yearning for my old neighborhood, and I was glad to know that the old values of family and food and love are still alive in the streets of South Philly.
Even though I lived in South Philadelphia for the first twenty three years of my life, I have to admit that I had never seen the entire original Rocky movie.
Before you point fingers, please know that I did see my fair share of Rocky movies in the theater; I saw Rocky III and IV at the Colonial Theater on Moyamensing Avenue.
(At the end of the those movies, I remember my sneakers sticking to the floor as I walked over to the pay phone, inserted a dime and called my mother to pick up my friends and me.)
Here are my excuses for not seeing the original Rocky:
The movie was released in 1976 and I was five years old.
Even though I was a tomboy (only 1 of 2 girls on my PAL baseball team), I wasn’t into boxing movies. Instead of seeing Rocky II, I opted for Benji and Xanadu.
I could have watched Rocky on cable, but my parents wouldn’t let us get cable. They *claimed* that we couldn’t get cable on our side of Broad Street. I think they were just lying. They didn’t want my sister or me to watch MTV.
On March 10, 2014, however, I was lucky enough to attend an event at the Philadelphia Museum of Art to celebrate the release of a newly remastered Blu-Ray of Rocky. The event included the film’s director, John G. Avildsen, as well as the host of the evening, local 94 W.I.P. sportscaster, Anthony Gargano (Cuz). The attendees were treated to a screening of the remastered film and I was transported.
Rocky is arguably the quintessential South Philly Story. Moviegoers in 1976 watched the heartsick heavyweight woo a shy shop girl, celebrated when the tenacious trainer agreed to take Balboa under his wing, and cheered when Rocky achieved his goal of going the distance in the ring.
Rather than the bulked-up, hyper stylized Rockys that proceeded, this first foray into South Philly (and Kensington) is a sincere, funny chronicle of life in the city for a fighter with lots of heart.
To me, this is the movie’s turning point. Mickey, the acerbic manager agrees to train the “bum from the neighborhood.” Mr. Avildsen revealed that Rocky’s monologue was completely improvised by Stallone, only to realize that the cameraman had run out of film during his speech.
They did the take again, and Stallone recited the monologue ad lib. At the end of the scene, the piano hints at Bill Conti’s iconic theme with the El framing the city’s gritty rhythm.
If I saw “Rocky” as a kid I would’ve been distracted by the bloody fight scenes and grossed out when Rocky swallowed down all those raw eggs.
I’m glad I saw the movie as an adult. I loved the humor, the gentle romance and how it speaks to the underdog in all of us. It took me back to my old neighborhood in its glory days, and for that, I’m grateful.
What are your thoughts on the original Rocky? How many times have you seen it and what are your favorite parts?