Saturday, November 28, 2009

WEEKENDS ON WESTFIELD: A WADDLE DOWN MEMORY LANE. As a child, my weekends were usually spent at my grandparents humongous Victorian house on Westfield Avenue in Pennsauken. I really don't know how many storeys to say it was huge. The basement at one time contained a public bar which had been known to serve a well-known gangster or two who crossed the river from Philadelphia in the 1940's; yes, you would recognize their names if you heard them. Even in my youth during the 1970's the bar was still there in the basement. Above was the ground floor (where my grandparents lived) which also featured a huge enclosed front porch. One storey up was another floor which functioned as a separate apartment for my great grandfather (the owner of the house). Then above that was ANOTHER floor reached by a winding stairs quite like the secret staircase found in the House of Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts; this led to a floor where my mother had had her room as a teenager. From the top windows you could see the river and Philadelphia.
My grandparents' house was literally two doors away from the borderline between Pennsauken and Camden; and only several blocks away from the site of Howard Unruh's "murder walk" in the 1940's when he became America's first serial killer to take a gun and start shooting random people. My great aunt and uncle once owned the store beneath Howard Unruh's apartment and allowed him to use a shortcut through their garden gate to reach his abode. When they sold the building, the new owners refused to let Unruh use this shortcut; the new owners were among Unruh's first shooting victims. As a child in the early 70's, Camden had not yet become the worst city in New Jersey. I was still able to walk the several blocks from Pennsauken with my grandmother and frequent an old-fashioned candy store that still existed in Camden; the kind with loose candy weighed and given to you in little white paper bags.
The aforementioned basement/bar of the house was naturally almost entirely below ground; only one small window waaaaaaay at the top of the wall (at ground level outside) let in a little light (and a glimpse of the grass above). It was generally too cold to be down there in winter but in warm weather (and especially in the summer) it was delightfully cool and dark. One of those old-fashioned art deco metal electric fans would rotate to and fro as my grandfather (Buster . . .his nickname) and I watched old horror movies like DRACULA on the black and white television positioned in front of an old green couch. The smoke from his occasional cigar would be scattered by the wind from the rotating fan. In a separate room behind the bar area was a laundry room and behind that was the hot water heater etc. In this narrow space between the wall and the water heater could be found a secret art gallery -- a sort of Lascaux cave from my mother's girlhood and teenage years when she would draw in coloured pencil figures of ladies wearing the 50's fashions of the day.
Some mornings my grandmother and I would walk the long length of Westfield Avenue (many many city blocks) towards the destination of Thor's Drug Store. At Thor's I would find my favourite Black Jack gum, new Justice League of America comic books on the rack, possibly a couple packs of Wacky Packs or You'll Die Laughing bubble gum cards which featured stills from classic B&W monster movies with a silly caption and a joke on the back. Along the way we'd pass the grand old-style movie palace the Walt Whitman Theatre; built by my great grandfather the architect. It was here that I remember The Exorcist was playing first run when it came out in 1973 (I was too young) and here also that I met Moe Howard of the Three Stooges on a theatrical tour he made shortly before his death.
Early afternoons on the weekend would generally involve my grandfather taking me to the holy grail of the Pennsauken Mart. This poor people's paradise was a wonderland to a little kid; sadly it was closed and torn down only a few years ago. In my grandfather's old clunker we parked in the parking lot and entered that long, dark hallway leading to the interior of the mart; passing the tattoo parlour where over a decade later I would sit watching my best friend get a Bat-Signal tattoo! Once inside the mart proper, I would make for the Mecca of the trip: the shop that sold all those comic books with the covers torn off. They would also have tables of paperback books (some with the covers torn off and some not) and, behind the cash register, a few actual comic books WITH covers on 'em and in plastic mylar bags. As far as I can remember, the first actual bagged and boarded comic book back issue I ever bought was right here at the Pennsauken Mart: FANTASTIC FOUR #91 . Among those paperbacks would be many of those Mad Magazine reprints in paperback form as well as The Partridge Family series of mystery thrillers (I kid you not) like TERROR BY NIGHT, THE HAUNTED HALL and MARKED FOR DANGER; all written by the bard of pre-pubescents Vic Crume. I still have 'em! Of course, I would always be thrilled if they had one of those RIPLEY'S BELIEVE IT OR NOT paperback books to snatch up immediately. Oh yeah, and CRACKED MAZAGINE (no, that's NOT a typo) was another favourite; MAD MAGAZINE too! If I was lucky they would also have an issue or two of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND to buy as well as many of those classic Marvel black & white horror comics (magazine size with the covers still on 'em) like VAMPIRE TALES (with my favourite Morbius the Living Vampire), DRACULA LIVES or MONSTERS OF THE MOVIES.
Next to the "comic book" store was a little place that sold Italian water ice, popcorn and funnel cakes. However, we could come back to that later because, after the comix, it was imperative to head about halfway down the mart concourse to the Listening Booth record store where I picked up some records (no cds in those days, sorry know-nothing tots). I would buy both 33 1/3rds and 45's. It was there that I bought such LPs as CHRISTMAS WITH THE CHIPMUNKS, THE ELECTRIC COMPANY, BATMAN, 4 MORE ADVENTURES OF BUGS BUNNY, CASPER'S HAUNTED HOUSE TALES and who knows what else. At the same time, I would buy the latest 45's representing the big hits of the day: Ringo Starr's "No No No/Skokiaan", Thelma Houston's "Don't Leave Me This Way", The Bee Gee's "Jive Talkin'", "The Penalty Box" by Dave Schultz of the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team (yes that was a BIG hit song!), Sailcat's "Motorcycle Mama" and many more. I still remember 'em because I've still got those same 45's!
After this, my grandfather would usually stop in the Beef & Ale taproom to get his beer. Yes, he was a drinker. During this time, I would sit next to him at the bar and thumb through my loot: comic books from DC and Marvel as well as my beloved "THE OCCULT FILES OF DR. SPEKTOR", RICHIE RICH & JACKIE JOKERS, MAD HOUSE GLADS, PLOP!, GHOSTLY HAUNTS, and BORIS KARLOFF'S TALES OF MYSTERY. After going up one side of the mart and down the other (possibly grabbing a slice of pizza on the way), it would be time to go back to Westfield Avenue where I would lovingly linger over all my loot! On Sunday, it would also be time to root through the Philadelphia Bulletin for the kid's activity pages and Sunday funnies. That night, after bathtime, the TV would feature MARY TYLER MOORE and THE BOB NEWHART SHOW before it would be time for bed. In summer, I would sleep on the enclosed front porch's pullout bed. All the windows would be up and the screens provided cool breezes and street sounds (sorry again, know-nothing tots, but there wasn't air conditioning either). As I'd flip through an AQUAMAN comic using only the outside street lights for illumination, I would drift off to sleep.
I often find myself back in that house on Westfield Avenue in a dream and, upon awakening, find myself filled with equal parts joy and pain since those days are gone and so is my grandfather and so is that house. Upon the death of my great grandfather, his will stated that the house must be sold and my grandparents moved out into Camelot apartments only a block away from my house in Marlton. That was 1978 and by January 1981 my grandfather was also gone; done in by the booze he consumed his entire adult life. The legend goes that that huge house on Westfield Avenue was split up into separate dwellings and eventually became a house of ill repute. Sometime in the 1990's, it was demolished entirely and now only exists in my dreams. The beautiful Walt Whitman theatre was demolished sometime in the early 1980's and the Pennsauken Mart, as mentioned before, was torn day a couple years ago. If you wait long enough, everything is torn down eventually. But I am so grateful that I can still get to visit that house as it used to be when the simple days of childhood cast that rosy glow over everything and made you believe that they were the good old days even when you were living through them. I can truly say that at that time I was almost always completely happy. That's a valuable thing to carry with you throughout your life.

12 comments:

Star said...

Cerpts, I say without question that this is your most beautiful post ever. I love how it captured me and took me along with you through your memories. Your writing is vivid and engulfing. Absolute perfection, sir.

Cheekies said...

uh... all I can add is ditto as I wipe at the tears that are trying to well up in my eyes.

Weaverman said...

I have to agree with the previous comments...that was beautiful! You always tell me to put my stories in a book but I say let's hear it for a Cerpts magnus opus. As an avid collector of my own families stories and lives I think such preservation of memory is vitally important.

Star said...

that weaverman fella is so right on; a book is simply a fabulous idea. cerpts, baby, give it some serious thought.

Cerpts said...

You all are TOO kind, really. Such a group of lovely, shiny, fluffy, sparkly people there never wuz. Your checks are in the mail.

I'm very glad the feeling I was trying to express seems to have come across to all of you. That old house of my grandparents probably meant more to me than my OWN house in which I grew up.

In.

Cerpts said...

By the way, I just LOOOOOOOVE that magazine cover with Dave Schultz on it! Ahhhhh, the days of the Broad Street Bullies....

Faere said...

Memories of youth are so powerful... thanks for taking me there!!!

Cerpts said...

Spoken like a true local goil!!! Glad you liked it.

Pax Romano said...

Incredible! Fantastic! Absolutely loved this - ah The Pennsuaken mart,one of the few places I ever cared to shop...and the Walt Whitman theater (gone but never forgotten). Now I see what has shaped you into the demented, err, creative gentleman you are.

As for Dave Schultz, "Baby how long, will you keep me in the penalty box? Baby, how long, you know it's lonely in the Penalty box..." They don't write 'em like that at all.

Cerpts said...

I always knew you must've studied at Juilliard -- knowing the lyrics to "THE PENALTY BOX"! I'm really glad you enjoyed the post. Thank you for the kind words. Of course, this is the kinda thing one needs a blog to do and cannot do when slumming around facebook, you know. ;)

Paul J. Marasa said...

Wandered over to this post while looking for an image of the old Whitman. Holy smoke, Cerpts. You seemed to have had my childhood. I too saw Moe at the Whitman. And the images! I'm going back to your post to savor. Great site, and thanks for bringing a transplanted Garden Stater home.

Cerpts said...

Paul, I have only just this moment stumbled across your comment (I really should have this blog set up to email me when a new comment is left!). I have no idea when you left this comment but thank you very much. It's nice to know a fellow blogger was also there at the Walt Whitman to see Moe Howard when I did.