Hanging out in the '50s

Rites of passage, 1958: What our parents didn't know

'58 T-bird: What could better that?
'58 T-bird: What could better that?

The hamburger came with grilled onions and cost 35 cents. French fries cost 15 cents, and a coke a dime. Or you could pile into a booth with your friends for nothing. The jukebox played "Poinciana" and "To the Aisle" and "Mr. Lee." You could do that 'til curfew chased you home.

In the mid-1950s, West Philadelphia, from 63rd to 30th, from Market Street to Baltimore Avenue, became a "changing neighborhood." Negroes moved in and whites (mostly Jews) moved out. Since the changes first manifested on the perimeter, about 1957 Barson's on 60th Street, ceased to be the area's main hangout, replaced by Dewey's on Spruce, below 48th. I lived three blocks away and, at 15, was just entering my hanging-out years.

Cherry bombs at the zoo

Dewey's had a counter, a double row of booths down its center, another row along its west wall. The core of the Dewey's crowd came from West Philadelphia High School, a block north "“ mostly white Jewish kids, like Buzzy Scolnick, the varsity quarterback, still best known for having enlivened a grade school trip to the zoo by lobbing cherry bombs at the crocodiles; and Steven Pomerantz, who already smoked individually wrapped Garcia Vegas and wore a full-length vicuna coat and homburg, like his father the bookie; and stylish Sam Goodman, who had made black turtlenecks under blue button-down shirts de rigueur in certain circles.

These luminaries layered upon a contingent of older, even more worldly semi-criminals, like the Egan brothers, Biff and Bow Wow, who consorted with whores; and Cowboy Dineen, who had been thrown out of three schools I knew of despite his ability to hit a baseball over the Passon's field fence; and Troy Something-or-Other, a swarthy, oily-haired, rock-muscled guy, whose girlfriend was Carol Blitz, the prettiest girl in the senior class (why, I wondered, would she be interested in him, when boys who were going to Penn to become orthopedic surgeons would have given 25 points off their College Boards to date her?); and Donny Rumble, who drove a silver T-bird. That was all I knew about Donny Rumble. Silver T-bird. What else was there? What could better that?

A private school kid

I was not exactly at Dewey's red-hot epicenter. I didn't drive. I'd never spoken to a whore. I was happy to line a ball past shortstop. I was tall and skinny and shy and wore glasses and, even worse, when I was ten, my parents had transferred me from the public elementary school, where I was about to be taught by Jacqueline Susann's mother— a ferocious woman with a bun of severely dyed black hair, known for disciplining pupils by having them copy pages from the dictionary— into Friends' Central, a Quaker school across City Line Avenue. So I was a "private school kid" on top of everything else.

I came to Dewey's because some of my neighborhood friends, like Max Garden and Mickey Kipper, did. Max and Mickey's own defects left them only a little closer to the center than I was, but they had friends who were closer still, and this provided enough rideable coat tails to make me feel comfortable.

Escape from the family

The thrill of hanging out at Dewey's lay primarily in the echoes of that "out." "Out" meant away from the family. It meant away from the confining, conformist, predominant 1950s cultural attitude that scorned all non-grade-bettering, non-money-earning, devil-courting idleness. We might not actually be doing anything objectionable at Dewey's, other than idling; but at least we were giving ourselves the chance that we might. That counted for something, we believed. All we knew for certain was that nothing of interest was going to happen if we stayed home.

The devil might roll up in a silver T-bird. He might have a dishwater Nash. We just wanted to hear the purr of his exhaust when his motor revved.

The most exciting times at Dewey's occurred when news arrived of a party. Someone would have heard from someone in Wynnefield or Oxford Circle or Lower Merion, and we'd pile four or five into a car, chip in $2 for gas, and off we would go.

The exotic terrain of Newtown Square

One Saturday evening in the spring of 1958, word came of a party in Newtown Square. Newtown, ten miles to the southwest, was a long way to go for a party. It was also foreign and exotic terrain. All I knew of it or its inhabitants had come from the arrival at Friends' Central the preceding fall of a graduate of Newtown's high school, Joe "Hondo" Wayne, a crew cut, six-foot-four, 220-pound, All-Delco tackle, whose need of additional education could nicely fill holes in Friends' Central's offensive and defensive lines. Joe was someone we sophomores regarded with awe"“ especially those among us who were 150-pound JV defensive ends.

Who was hosting this party, or how word of it had reached Dewey's, I did not know. But Mickey Kipper had his father's Plymouth, and off we went. (Mickey and I were sufficiently off-center that no one else rushed to join our crew.)

It was a ranch house on a dead-end street. Biff Egan and Buzzy Scolnick were drinking Ortlieb's in the kitchen. Troy Something-or-Other, in a fishnet T-shirt, was on the living room couch, his arm slung over a Barbara Steele look-alike in a pink V-neck and slit skirt. The record player was running "I Got a Woman" over and over, and Bow Wow Egan, an upended wastebasket between his knees, was pounding the beat on its bottom.

A sudden realization

The entire scene was bathed in red light. The cigarette smoke was as thick as mucous. Bedroom doors were clicking shut. I suddenly thought: No parents are home. I had never been at a party when no parents were home.

I settled with that revelation into a conversation with Artie Gottlieb, a junior counselor at my summer camp just back from Parris Island, until it became clear he had more important things on his mind than describing the Marine obstacle course to me.

I was staring at the refrigerator, wondering if you just took an Ortlieb's from it, or if you had to ask someone's permission, and, if you did, whom you asked, and, if they granted it, how you opened the Ortlieb's without it spurting all over your Banlon shirt, when it fell upon me that the several cars that had pulled to squealing stops out front had dislodged several sets of running feet that were massing at the front door, and that several of those already in the house, like Biff and Bow Wow and Buzzy, were running toward this mass and that others, like Mickey Kipper, were retreating toward me. It occurred to me that a number of girls at the party were from Newtown and that a number of Newtown guys had arrived to register their objection.

"Vamanos," Mickey said.

Gladiators back from the war

Those who had remained behind returned to Dewey's later— loud, laughing, slapping backs, a legion rotated to Rome after destroying the Goths. I hung on the edges of their conversations, hungry for details. I couldn't wait for Monday when I could report to my classmates at Friends' Central. I felt like I had hopped a time machine and glimpsed a dangerous future.

It was Wednesday that Hondo Wayne raised an arm to stop me on the stairs. "Heard you were at the Omega Drive party."

"Yes," I said, hoping he would not smite me to avenge a fallen comrade.

"You West Philly boys are tough." His smile offered a suit"“ black leather, gold lame, or three-button worsted— into which I might yet grow. â—†

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