Frequent Broad Street Rreview contributor Bob Levin has collected 19 stories into a 100-page volume he’s calling, appropriately enough, Cheesesteak, subtitled The West Philadelphia Years, A Rememboir.
Levin, in his early 70s and long an attorney in Berkeley, California, looks back mostly fondly at what it was like to be a middle class Jewish kid growing up in West Philly in the ‘50s, seminal ‘60s and beyond. It’s his portrait of the artist as a young man, and despite the chatty, bouncy, self-deprecating style of the early stories of Cheesesteak, there is an artistic sensibility at play on every page, the same sensibility that went into Levin’s novel The Best Ride to New York, a so-called “basketball novel” that was much more than that.
Cheesesteak’s 19 tales do indeed comprise a memoir, taking Levin from his early days through his university years. There is an inherent honesty to this book, forged by the wisdom of the times and events as young Bob Levin set out on his path into the adult world.
Humble, cheeseless origins
West Philadelphia was a different community when Bob Levin was coming up and he captures it spot on, starting with the title story, centered around Jim’s Steaks at 62nd and Noble streets, which he describes as “narrow as a cigar box,” and “Very important, no place to sit.” This brief appreciation of a true Philadelphia contribution to American cuisine ends with the surprising admission about the steaks of Levin’s youth: “Cheese — not even in the conversation.”
For anyone of a certain age, Cheesesteak dusts off buried memories of a time and place that was simpler and, for the most, kinder and gentler. For those who didn’t live through those times, it is a valuable documenting of what it was like to move from a childhood when knowing the batting averages of every Phillies player and working at the hallowed Palestra when basketball legends like Oscar Robertson and Jerry West came into town, to times that were fraught with change. This sensitive young writer-to-be struggles to understand both himself and the shifting new world about him.
A good, long roll
As Cheesesteak progresses, and Levin ages from a wide-eyed camper at the Jewish Camp Tacoma in the Poconos (his Friends Central classmates summered at Stone Harbor or Ocean City, New Jersey) in “Notes on Camp” to the young “Bar Mitzvah Boy,” to Brandeis student, where Levin met Adele, the love of his life. They are still married, and he chased her with the urgent, yet quick-witted fumbling of a guy not too good with girls who had met the girl he wanted to be good with. He won the day and a young woman who, to these straining eyes, reads like a hip Audrey Hepburn. I am fondly jealous, so well is her mystery captured.
Bob at Brandeis is the subject of two “How I Became A Writer” stories, dense with reference and the feeling of a found self pointed toward a lifelong vocation, lawyering be damned. Writers write.
The later years of Cheesesteak take on a hurried gravitas, poet-touched. As others fall by the waysides of insanity and drug death, not making the cut on the most unforgiving team of all, life, Bob Levin endured.
He endures still. And that is a mitzvah for anyone reading Cheesesteak.