Roots. We all like to know about them. Mostly, we want to celebrate them or glorify them and sometimes we indulge them. These are all good things in my view and far better than denying your roots, as some seem to do.
Recently, I ran across a cool little emblem that shows a handful of Shamrocks that were pulled from the ground, roots and all. On the bottom, it read, “I’ve Irish Roots”. I like that. It got me to thinking about roots and somehow or other it took me backward to some old memories and it reminded me, with a bit of pain, that I owe a debt to my grandfather.
My grandfather was Irish; I know that because he told me he was. Also, there was a tattoo that backed it up. Like many Irishmen, he was a tall strapping fellow of about 5’6 and 135 pounds. His graying hair was always in a neat crew cut. I once overheard my Dad describe him by saying that he walked sideways like a crab when he got drunk. I recall him walking like Jimmy Cagney, with long, energetic strides as though he were heading to something important. I can assure you that he was not.
I never actually saw the crab walking, myself. I suppose that I was in bed by then.
When my Dad mentioned the crab-walking, it was fun and funny and sometimes he would act it out, to everyone’s amusement, including my grandfathers. It was good-natured fun and I recall how everyone around the table roared. Later they all groaned, in fun, when he started a story that began “When I was building the Ben Franklin Bridge…” I think that they had heard that particular story before, and I suspect that it immediately preceded the aforementioned crab walking.
Now if I say to you that he was “all Kensington” you probably know what I mean. I am not trying to be too particular or condescending about this. I’m just trying to make my point. You know what I mean if you have roots in Kensington, but it extends to Fishtown and Frankford as well. Maybe even some of the outlying areas. If you don’t what it means if someone says, “He ain’t nothing but Kensington”, I shall try to illuminate.
People in Kensington are not rich, but they are proud and they bind themselves together by having fun. I have vivid recollections of ringing in the New Year, just off Lehigh Avenue, by rattling pots and pans, while others used actual pistols as noisemakers. New Years Day was always pork and sauerkraut although no one seemed to know why. My mother, a Kensington girl, would use phrases like “Christmas in Kensington” when someone came into a few bucks and didn’t mind spending it, and she would always be surprised if a wedding didn’t become a fistfight.
Most of my memories are of summer. Men in strap tee shirts, with a beer in their back pocket, arguing about baseball and complaining about having to go to work. The whole street would be outside, gathered around the stoops. I recall the sound of the radio in the background and laughter in the foreground. Stick ball and hose ball and half ball and pimple ball. The men playing with we boys. I don’t recall a lot of career talk. It seems as though a job was to provide enough income to get you through, and no more. I recall hearing the word “disability” quite often. My grandfather knew that word.
My Grandfather can be best explained in these three vignettes.
1. Every Friday, he played the number. It was always the same one. If you don’t know what this means, then I suppose that your family left Kensington for Delaware County (Or the Great Northeast) before mine did. Playing the number was a bookie thing, not a Pennsylvania Lottery thing. One day, the number actually hit. Now a term that you will never hear from the proper Kensington Irish Gentleman is “Savings Account”. Money was meant for spending and living without it for four or five days of the week was ordinary financial planning. By the time my grandfather got home, he was out of cash, yet laden with riches. True Riches. The most notable thing was that he drove home. The day that he learned to drive was the day that he hit the number and bought a car. He took that car everywhere that he went before he lost it a few weeks later. (This is not poetic license; he lost the car and he took it like a man.) He bought, for my grandmother, a TV, which already had the rabbit ears wired to it, so I suspect that it wasn’t new. He also bought her a Tony Bennet record. She was ecstatic. The balance was spent on cases of Ortleibs Beer and he proudly stacked them floor to ceiling in that little shed room that is often behind the kitchen of a row home. These were the considered and careful choices of a man who saw himself, at least for that moment, as a winner.
2. He was wonderful to me. Every summer I would go to stay with him and my grandmother for a week or two. Sometimes he would have a job, so the visit wasn’t as much fun, but he would always manage to keep his work week down to three days maximum. I recall swimming in the Delaware River, near Penn Treaty Park, under his “supervision”. I am not certain if it was already illegal to swim there or not. He took me there because he knew that I hated swimming in the public pools around the neighborhood because they were so crowded. (Note to foreigners. “Swimming” in an inner city public pool means trying to find a place to stand. Any real swimming was out of the question). He always took me on the El and the streetcars and my visit was always planned so that I could see Willie Mays play against the Phillies. We would get the cheapest possible seats and went for the “Kensington Upgrade” which meant grabbing two sensational and unused seats, with the admonition to “look like you belong here”. After the game, he took me to his tappy. I would sit at the bar, and have unlimited cokes to his unlimited beers. He would introduce me to everyone by name and title and he was clearly proud of me. He would say “This is my grandson, Danny” and then whisper that I shouldn’t tell my grandmother that he brought me to the tappy. I, of course, knew that it was wrong to be there, because my grandmother would always say, on our way out the door “Don’t you take that boy to no tappy, Jack”. I understood the Coca-Cola bribe without his explaining. I really didn’t understand why he would say, “Don’t tell ‘em I’m not really your grandfather”.
3. He wasn’t really my grandfather. My grandmother had two husbands that had left her. I can see why. One took the time to divorce her, but the other went into hiding. For this reason my grandmother and he were “living together” which was pretty brazen living, even by Kensington standards. I didn’t know all of this when I was a boy. I only learned the story when my grandmother left him when I was in my 20’s. She decided to move in with my parents, apparently so that she could complete the job of being a completely useless mother to her own daughter, who was my mother. Jack was, by the reports that I got from my aunt, heartbroken. His cure was predictable. He took even harder to the bottle.
I never saw my grandfather after that. I am a worse man for it. I intended to find him, but waited too long to do so.
After a few years, I was able to track down a place where he had been working. I called there and asked to speak to the owner. I explained to him who I was and why I was calling. He was a nice man and I could tell that he believed that I was a grandson looking for his grandfather and not a bill collector. I felt his discomfort when he let me know that he had to “let him go” a year or so previously. He politely alluded to a drinking lifestyle as the cause. I thanked him for his honesty and recalled telling him in a lighthearted way that I wasn’t surprised. I then I asked if he had any idea of his current whereabouts. “Son, I liked Jack, I did. But he had a problem. He died a while ago…on the street”.
He lived and he died in Kensington.
When I think of my roots, I think of Kensington. I think of my grandfather and that he loved me.
I feel bad, more than I can explain, that I did not stay in touch with him.
I would have told him that I remember him fondly and with respect and gratitude.
Is there a greater legacy?