Last night I went to my uncle's 80'th birthday party held at a hall in South Philadelphia ... Just a few blocks from where I grew up, just a few blocks from the row house that sat dead center amidst a cluster of other brick faced monoliths; yes, I went home to my streets, to my past, to my tribe...
Most of The Tribe Romano still dwells in this section of Philadelphia; the part of the city that is lousy with pizza parlors, gaudy furniture shops (where French Provincial still reins supreme as the nadir of decorative chic), corner delis and stores (where kids still hang till all hours), and where double parking is an art form (basically, double parking is putting your car anywhere else when there is no more room in any section of the small streets ... this could be on a center island, next to another parked car, or, sometimes, on the sidewalk).
I drove in to the city with my parents and sister and brother in law. We parked (legally!) about three blocks from the hall where my uncle's surprise party was to be held. Now here's the cool part. We parked on 21st and 16th streets -- three blocks from the very house I grew up in.
A few blocks of foot travel and we arrive at our destination; Dove Catering Hall, a white washed brick corner building with a black awning and black doors. One of the doors has the word, "Entrance" stenciled on it. One expects that a 'special' knock followed by a guy named Louie asking for the password to gain admittance might be needed; it is not. Walk on in and the first thing the casual observer notes is the display case that is loaded with clown figurines...clowns, clowns and more clowns ... I hate clowns. Luckily I spot some of my cousins so I don't have to shiver over the painted faces of the creepy creatures behind that glass case for very long.
Hugs and kisses all around as family that has not seen each other, in some cases, for years begin the familiar words with each other, "You look great!" and "Oh god, it's great to see you!" as well as "What have you been up to" ... all said with that familiar South Philly accent - "Knowhati'mtalkinbout?". To be sure, even I find myself dropping the last letter from words and saying things like, "Das right, fugedaboutit" -- The Soprano's have nothing on the real thing!
The hall itself is a tasteful venue replete with statues of various Roman gods and goddesses and a mural of Venice on one wall and row after row of plastic grape vines that line the walls and archways. Red wallpaper with gold flocking covers the entire back end of the room and two huge faux chandeliers complete the look. Anywhere else in the world this place would seem campy, here, in South Philadelphia, it's understated.
I spend a lot of time catching up with cousins, I wonder if I look as old to them as they do to me. Nonetheless, it is is wonderful seeing them all again and as is the case in these type of get-together's; trips down memory lane start leaving every hour on the hour ... there was so much in the way of good memories that I have shared with these people - in that respect, i am truly a very lucky man.
Oh, I forgot about the DJ! Ladies and Gentleman put your hands together for DJ Tony Delvecchio as he spins the songs you love! Sinatra, Jerry Vale, Perry Como, Peggy Lee -- and for you youngsters, an occasional song by those guys from London, The Beatles! Yes, the DJ had us in a freaking time-warp.
When my uncle finally showed up, most of the guests were already sauced so there was much kissing and slobbering and blubbering ... now I have to say one thing here and I am being serious: My Uncle L, just turning 80, must be doing something right. The guy looked fantastic! Both my sister and I commented on how he even looks younger than our dad (his brother) who is five years younger than him. Whats more, my uncled danced up a storm with his daughters and paused only once so he could have a beer, and then was back on the dance floor tripping the light fantastic with whomever ... what an inspiration; we should all look that good and have that much energy at 80 !
There is always a lot of food as these kinds of affairs - mostly pasta dishes as well as pork and veal and roast beef and fifty different kinds of breads and cakes and cookies; and it's all served up a bevy of South Philly Gals who all talk like Harvey Fierstein , "Ya want some meatballs with that, hon?" , they croak serving up your plate.
The way to whip up a crowd of over fed, semi-drunk, Italian Americans in South Philly one need only get a rallying cry going for The Eagles (the football team), The Flyers (the Hockey team) or mention The Mummers -- better yet, pass out a bunch of little umbrellas and play 'Golden Slippers', and, well, the next thing you know, everyone is prancing about like crazed warriors preparing for the hunt .
Later on I stepped outside and joined the smokers. While there I glanced out on the rows of not so anonymous row homes, lights glowing from the windows - flash-backed to my own childhood in a similar place not far from here - Sunday night, finishing up homework at the last minute while watching the Ed Sullivan show - for a brief second I felt like that little kid from the city again: it was a very pleasant sensation... my reverie was broken by one of those classic South Philly moments; a woman in curlers and a housedress stood on her front step and called for her children at the top of her lungs, "JOEY, MARYANNE, GET HOME RIGHT NOW!!!!"--ah the sweet sounds of home...
The party broke up around nine and more hugs and kisses went around. Yells and screams were shouted out by the Tribe Romano to each other; familair voices, still, even though age has changed the tone and sound of some of those voices... Then my parents and my sister and her husband began our stroll back to the car. When we got back on 16th street my mom said to my sister and I, "Do you guys realize how close to our old house we are?" We replied in the affirmative and then climbed into the car and once more, for a fleeting second, I felt like that little kid who'd grown up here on these streets amongst the brick homes in this Italian-centric unvierse; Me, little Pax, of The Tribe Romano...