On Having A Grandfather From Kensington

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?


A little too Catholic…

In a mortuary chapel at street level in Norristown, the doors were opened in darkness to reveal a million candles and a four foot, veiled statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The veil was removed, the statue was sensed and blessed by Bishop Gutierrez.

The platform holding the statue was lifted up by four men.

As we began to process around town, the singing of an (unfamiliar to me) Mexican song stopped, and just before the little band began to play I heard these words.

“This might be a little to Catholic for me.”

I get it. After all, I am a pasty white Irish guy that has spent 95% of his church time in an Episcopal church. I cannot recall processing around town in freezing cold with the sound of tubas and accordions and songs in Spanish while four guys, who were clearly proud of their appointed duty, followed an energetic incense bearer with a statue.

In fact, I didn’t know much of anything about Our Lady of Guadalupe.

In case you don’t, here is a snippet.

According to tradition, Mary appeared to Juan Diego, who was an Aztec convert to Christianity, on December 9 and again on December 12, 1531. She requested that a shrine to her be built on the spot where she appeared, Tepeyac Hill (now in a suburb of Mexico City). The bishop demanded a sign before he would approve construction of a church, however. Mary appeared a second time to Juan Diego and ordered him to collect roses. In a second audience with the bishop, Juan Diego opened his cloak, letting dozens of roses fall to the floor and revealing the image of Mary imprinted on the inside of the cloak—the image that is now venerated in the Basilica of Guadalupe.

Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, also called the Virgin of Guadalupe, is a very big deal to Mexicans. Guadalupe

The procession ended at the church altar, as the statue of the virgin was removed from it’s base and enshrined in a huge display of roses. Bishop Gutierrez celebrated the mass in Spanish (it sounded right to me) and Fr. Andy Kline told the story, alternating between Spanish and English.

There was more singing and tuba, as we all processed to a meal, lovingly prepared by many of our Norristown neighbors of Mexican heritage. We ate, talked, and laughed. A five-year-old Mexican boy ran up to me saying “Padre!” when I stooped down, he smiled and kissed me, big and wet. I loved it, although it was decidedly un-Episcopalian.

I was enriched by the experience, I’ll bet many were.

Now for the rest of  the story…

Norristown is an interesting place, many think of Norristown for it’s significant number of people that live on the margins. More interesting is that it is one third African-American, one third Latino (primarily Mexican), and one third white. That can make for interesting and unnecessary divisions.

Bishop Gutierrez properly insists that St. John’s Church must reach out to the Latino community, we have a responsibility to do so. This is a difficult task, what with language and cultural differences along with the fact that they are primarily Roman Catholics.

When the Bishop said months ago that we were going to have a celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe, we began to educate him on why it wouldn’t work. We attempted to explain how, among other things, the Roman Catholic Church down the street had a long history of really doing it up for the occasion and what could we add to that? Plus, we’re not Roman Catholic, and we don’t know what to do and why would people come? He never heard a word.

Fr. Andy Kline lived for a year in Mexico as a student. He knows something of the culture and is fluent in Spanish. He understood why this would be very difficult to pull off. None of this mattered to Bishop Gutierrez.

So now we get to the beautiful part of the story. Good Fr. Andy pushed further into the Latino community, making friends and enlisting help for the celebration. His charm and persistence paid off. Although, as pastor, he hosted the event and invited the Mexicans into Episcopal St. John’s, it is fair to say that they took over. They decorated the church with gorgeous flowers, all donated, they provided musicians, they taught and sang the songs with great spirit. They read the Bible readings. They provided the meal.

In leaving, many Episcopalians and Roman Catholics remarked that they were looking forward to next year.

Thank you Fr. Andy for all of your hard work. I hope that you were pleased to have the church filled with new and old friends and different and joyful sounds.

Thank you Bishop Gutierrez, for not letting us talk you out of your vision.


With the help of  The Spirit, you have created a new “Us”.

Guadalupe3 Guadalupe2



The Miracle Of The Blessed Hoody

I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or not, in fact, it might be several coincidences. But that’s up to you to figure out. My job is to tell the story.

It happened just this way.

I met him at the shelter next door to the church. His name is Joe and I liked him right away.  I liked him right away, even though he kept interrupting me when I was trying to lead 9:00 devotions. They were good interruptions, the engaged, inquiring type. We talked about the radical nature of Jesus and how we don’t seem to be able to accept real love and lovers in this world.
Afterwards we talked a little, he’s a bright guy.
By 10:00 I was on to the next thing.
At 11:30, I was at the church, which is just next door to the shelter. There is a meal there most days.
We gather in, I pray a little, then it’s lunch for 150 or so. Joe was there, we talked a little, mostly silly stuff.
I hung around with the lunch crowd until about noon, and then went up two flights of steps to the clothes closet that we run at the church.
We take donated clothes, give them some love and organization and then folks can come in and get some nice clothes for free in a hopefully dignified way.
Around 12:30, Joe lumbered up the steps. He was winded and needed to sit down for a minute. I asked Derrick, who works with the men’s clothes, to see if he could help Joe out. Derrick found him a coat that he liked. Joe stayed in the chair.
I asked Joe if he needed anything else.
“ I need an XL hoody, it’s really cold out” Joe said. I wasn’t sure if he was saying that he was sleeping outside or not. I generally don’t ask, as it’s none of my business. It’s also undignified.
Derrick came back and reported that we didn’t have any Xl hoodies, to which Joe replied that he needed one because it’s really cold out.
I told him we don’t have one.
Joe thought a minute and then told me that I should really pray that he gets an XL hoody, because of the cold and all.
When someone asks me to pray for something, I do, right there and right then. I asked Joe to stand up, we held hands in the midst of the chaos of people looking for clothes, and I prayed.
“ Lord, Joe here needs an Xl hoody, and you know why.”
“It’s really cold out,” Joe added.
“ So Lord, as we have none here at the moment I pray that very soon someone will donate just what Joe needs, and we can get it to him.
Also Lord, I ask for some patience for Joe, so that he can wait and trust until we find something for him. Amen.”
Joe added, “ I can be patient, but I’d sure like one today. Amen.”
I was smiling when I walked away.
Looking at my phone I saw that I had a voicemail. It was from about an hour earlier. A pleasant sounding lady said that she was going to bring some clothes right over, no need to call back if it was Ok.
I went to the back door to see if anything had been dropped off.
I was met by an older woman that had already brought a few bags and boxes and set them on a table. She said her husband was getting the last one.
I grabbed a box to take it into the sorting area. On the top of the pile was a gray hoody. I set the box down to check the size. It was XL.
Of course it was.
I put the hoody across my arm and went out to get some more of the clothes. The husband was there with the last of it. We chatted a little, I thanked him.
Then I said to him, “ You have to hear this.”
I told him about Joe, and the need for an XL hoody, and the prayers, and Joe’s impatience. I told him about finding the gray hoody right on top of the pile. We both laughed, and then a serious look came over him.
He paused before saying, “That was my gray hoody. I’ve had it for two years and only worn it once. I was going through my clothes an hour or so ago and I just thought to myself that I ought to give that hoody away, someone probably needs it more than I do.”
No other words were needed between us.
I’ve told this story a few times in the last few days. People either say,”What a blessing,” or “ What a coincidence.”
I tell them that is for them to decide, I’m just telling the story.
Oh, by the way, at about 1:30 I walked back to the shelter, hoping to find Joe. He was there.
I walked up to him and handed him the hoody and said. “ One hoody, XL.”
Joe looked at me, smiled broadly, and said. “It’s about time.”
We both laughed.