Our Imperfectly Perfect Corner of America
Bomb-Bomb Italian Restaurant, 1026 Wolf Street (photo from vrconsierge.com) Our restaurant’s on East Passyunk Avenue, the old business corridor of Italian South Philly. The street’s changed a lot since we opened in 2007. If you knew it in the late 90’s or early aughts, you might wonder where its endearing menagerie of characters have vanished to. While the street retains much of its original charm and grit, some of its more fabulous creatures seem to have moved elsewhere. There was a time when staring out the restaurant’s front window during the day, before service, was like gazing into one of the world’s most eclectic and bizarre fish tanks. There were two Danny DeVito lookalikes who’d pass by daily. My favorite carried his own chair. Not a portable, folding number, mind you, but a wooden chair. He’d plod forward a bit then sit down and collect himself. After a brief spell, he’d move on another 20 or 30 yards and sit down again. Where’d he go? Where’s the older woman who, hand to god, looked and dressed like an aged and savagely debauched Vince Neil, the front man of Motley Crue (themselves avatars for a shameful time in this country’s history)? Where’s the guy - who seemed to have sprung from a poorly maintained exhibit at a heavy metal museum - who’d occasionally flag me down and try to sell me one of several liquor licenses he had “laying around his house”? The bawdy, scooter-bound lady with the cotton-candy hair who’d make passes at one of our line cooks, and habitually tear down the street, sometimes against traffic? The innumerable grifters, wannabe wise guys, small-time operators, and honest folks just off their meds? I think I might have an answer.
In January we sold our house on the much celebrated “Christmas block” of South 13th Street (where, from Thanksgiving until just after New Year’s, the decorative lights are bright enough to read “Crime and Punishment” in 8-point type after dark). We sold that house, our home for twenty-five years, to buy another in Penne, Abruzzo. The house had done yeoman’s service. Refinancing it paid for much of Le Virtú’s buildout, and selling it landed us a home in Italia. We moved to the interstitial zone south of Snyder Ave., between fast-gentrifying East Passyunk and the pristine, little-visited (or understood), uber-Italian rioni of Madonnas on the half shell and elaborate brick work near the stadiums on both sides of South Broad. We rent a loft in a repurposed paint brush factory. The neighborhood is a kind of transitional, often neglected enclave. Rough around the edges, hardscrabble and filthy in places, sharp and well-maintained in others. And I’ve cottoned to it. It reminds me about what might be best about not only this city but the country. It’s worth a visit. On a recent Friday night (yeah, okay, while Cathy worked her shift at the restaurant), I took a long walk through the neighborhood with Magda, a Beagle-mix and the youngest in our pack. She’s a conspicuously happy dog who wants to greet everyone she meets with kisses and high fives (I’m counting her dew claws). A tail-wagging icebreaker. We covered about four miles and walked for over an hour. And a lot of what I saw made me wistful, maybe even hopeful about a country I thought I’d mentally checked out of.
I made some notes. Here’s a brief recollection: As we pass the stately Epiphany of Our Lord church on 11th St., I catch sight of a woman, probably in her 70’s, headed south across Jackson. She’s whippet-thin, heavily made up, tricked out in a decadent brunette wig, hoop earrings, revealing halter-style top, and a mid-thigh mini. She’s schlepping groceries in a wire cart, shuffling along in what look like wool socks and fuzzy bedroom slippers. Waves of pathos and respect. Around the corner from Jackson on 10th St., a man - he looks cirrhotic, probably in his 50’s or 60’s, though it’s hard to tell with the damage, he’s all gristle and sinew - sits in a doorway in a skin-tight kelly-green tee, a beer in hand and half a six-pack at his feet, listening to Rush on a mini-cassette player. A few of the faces that pass me are booze or drug-scarred. Gaits are sluggish, spastic, or manic. The meth and opioid epidemics that have ravaged much of rural and suburban America haven’t spared parts of Philly. You can’t ignore America’s problems in neighborhoods like this, can’t put your head in the sand. Humans we’ve let fall through the cracks, desperate souls living hour to hour, hide in plain sight. Part of you hardens. Turns away. But the best part of you, the annoying part that compromises your sleep, twinges. It’s shameful. On Winton St., the old-guy-who-looks-like-Connie Mack-and-never-seems-to-leave-his-doorway (he’s there every time we pass by, regardless of the hour) greets Magda with his usual enthusiasm. She slobbers and jumps all over him. It’s an affectionate mugging. I get the impression that this is one of the highlights of his day. There are a lot of guys sitting on their stoops, shooting the merda, drinking beers. One listens to the Phillies on his radio, which fills me with nostalgia. For a-not too-distant past. Harry and Richie. My dad. When you pass by, people ask “How you doin’?” When your eyes meet, you say “Hey.” Or smile and nod if you don’t share a language. The denizens don’t hide in their own bubbles, don’t pretend to be living their “best lives.” They’re generally friendly, welcoming. In my experience, anyway. Some of the more recent transplants, younger folks, avoid eye contact, seem startled or even offended when addressed by a stranger. I’m sure that I share 95% of their political affinities. But I don’t get this part.
There are rows of perfectly maintained homes, often with flower displays. Most of the houses are late Victorian or from the first half of the 20th-century. Many have elaborate corbelling or some other embellishment that speaks to a brick mason’s pride. The Italians who settled here were experts in that field. Our walk takes us down Wolf, past Warnock and Bomb-Bomb Bar & Grill, twice bombed in ’36 by local gangsters, whence the name. Bomb-Bomb is a great time, but we’ve not been since the beginning of COVID. Probably time to change that. We pass Frangelli’s bakery on 9th, maybe the best donuts in the city, filled to order, and Candeloro’s “New York” (okay, this moniker annoys me; who the f#@k needs NYC?) Italian Bakery on 11th and Daly, where the aroma of tomato pie perfumes the air for half a block in four directions (and it's crazy good tomato pie). On Hutchison, between Ritner and Porter, perfectly strung multi-colored lights canopy the street. Frida Cantina, a full-service Mexican joint on 9th and Wolf, occupies the spot that used to be Gavone’s. Catty-corner across Wolf is the brightly lit Los Gallos Taqueria. Walking south down 7th from Jackson to Ritner, we pass Honduran, Cambodian, and Vietnamese restaurants, and Cambodian and Burmese grocery stores. Actually, there are more Cambodian places than I can remember, with Mexican and Vietnamese joints in between. I’d started a count but was interrupted when Magda found some discarded chicken bones on the sidewalk. All over this neighborhood, the streets provide her an impromptu feast. I’d had to pull a pizza crust out of her mouth a few blocks over. No small feat, by the way. Anyway, the entrepreneurial impulse is alive and well. And is there anything more American than that?
Not far from Los Gallos, an older Black man sits in his red 70’s Impala, the windows down and listening to the O’Jays “For The Love of Money” (please let it be from a tape deck). More nostalgia. On Tree, a group of Mexican men, their work clothes covered in spackle, sit outside their house listening to (Corrido?) music and drinking cervezas. They seem exhausted but content. Mexican children of all ages play in the streets, their mothers watching attentively. The almost lethal humidity that afflicts the city for most of the summer has yet to arrive. The sun’s setting and the sky’s turning from a faded denim to a darker pink. A group of Italian-American boys stand on a corner near 10th and Moyamensing, shrouded in pot smoke. Two of them wear cornicelli napoletani around their necks. They’re laughing, oblivious to anyone around them. There’s laughter and music everywhere. I pass a house (on Jackson?) and hear the sound of Vietnamese kids singing karaoke. It’s a bad pop song, but the boy singer is giving it his all. It’s simpatico. But he’s not very good. An older Vietnamese man sits on the stoop next door, his head turned toward the party house, his face a map of suffering and exhaustion. Our eyes meet. We laugh. The kid really does stink. Turning toward home on 13th, we pass an older Italian couple sitting on their stoop, deep in conversation. They speak in Italian. I slow down a little just to catch the music of it. I want to ask them where they’re from, what region and town, and when they came here. But it would be weird, maybe rude. Older Italian folks sometimes use their language like a privacy screen. And questions in Italian coming from me, an aging, long-haired dude in old sweats and a Let It Be t-shirt would startle them. I’m one of the odd creatures roaming the vicinato, and probably wouldn’t strike them as wholesome. I might seem a shady character, a malandrino. Though I’d hope the cheerful, goofy beagle-mix at my side would mitigate that interpretation.
It strikes me, and not for the first time, that this is the kind of neighborhood that frightens so many of my fellow countrymen, the ones who want their country back. But what country are they talking about? What’s happening here is nothing new. Folks in this neighborhood have long attracted the ire and political persecution of more established, so-called “respectable” elements of American society. People whose definition of American excluded many of the people who lived here. In the place of the Mexicans, Vietnamese, and Cambodians, there used to be Irish and Jews in the crosshairs, Italians and Blacks. The Italians and blacks are still here. These prejudices had long shelf lives. Bobby Rydell, raised on 11th St., was born Robert Ridarelli. Eddie Fisher’s parents, who settled near here on 5th, changed their name from Tisch. Fabian Forte, from Lower Moyamensing, was named “Fabiano.” (FYI, Frankie Avalon, ne’ Avallone, was from across Broad, around West Passyunk Ave). These names were changed to make these guys more palatable, more “American.” By the way, the Irish have hung on east of here. Ever been to “Two Street”? What kind of scrubbed, bloodless, alabaster bullshit dystopia are these 21st-Century Know Nothings pining for? Germany in the ‘30’s? And some of that stupid fear has penetrated the neighborhood. Two houses I passed bore its marks: one with a handwritten “Awake, not Woke” sign (it included a list of grievances, including the “Green New Deal”: can you imagine being offended or frightened of jobs created by sustainable energy?); another flew the Gadsden flag, "Don't Tread On Me." Were their inhabitants of Italian or Irish origins? Talk about irony. “The last one in closes the door.” In front of both homes, Mexican and Asians kids played in the street, apparently unaware of or indifferent to the venom directed their way. Italian American kids tossed a football nearby. What the hell are some of us so frightened of?
I doubt if many of my neighbors watched the House hearings on the January 6th insurrection. But I sure as hell did. Those thugs - in the thrall of a grifting, deadbeat, murdering authoritarian - who attacked the Capitol and tried to overturn our democracy, killing and injuring cops in the process, are coming for this place and places like it. Places where they’ve probably never been, that they don’t understand, and whose differences frighten them. From a distance. While so many around me fret about gas prices and inflation (and, believe me, I get it; those global crises - because this stuff is happening all over the world, folks - have hit our restaurant right where it counts), I can’t stop worrying that, maybe soon, the republic and democracy that (for all their contradictions, failures, and betrayals) have long been a source of pride, a beacon of hope to parts of the world, and from which many of us construct a large part of our identities will die at the hands of these would-be authoritarians and their cheese-doodle Mussolini. The insurrection continues in plain sight. The guardrails are weaker than ever. Stooges and lunatics are running political campaigns based on the Big Lie. It’s surreal. It feels like a nightmare. And many of us don’t seem to care. We’re distracted, unaware, too tired to engage. It’s a lethal indifference.
Whatever. We’ve got Abruzzo, the house in Penne. Which feels like a copout, but also keeps us sane. But until our hands are forced, we’re happy here. This isn’t the most physically beautiful, clean, or orderly neighborhood in America. But it’s got soul. There’s love and community here. And it’s a hell of a lot more like an America I can be proud of or would want to live in than any flavorless, lily-white cul-de-sac imagined by the Neo-Nazi dipshits in cahoots on the coup.