by Charles Gillies
Growing up in the late ’50s and early ’60s, in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia, the baddest mother in my neighborhood was a U.S. mailbox. Granted, bad is a matter of opinion, but the number of my friends who were battered by that mailbox — well, you be the judge! We never named it as some neighborhoods will label a bully, but for the sake of this story, we will call it “Little Mo.”
I can still remember straddling the olive green drop box, surveying all the known world of Durham Street and Boyer, while off to the right, mounted on a four-foot concrete post, stood a deceptively small but rugged U. S. mail box. Most of us tended to ignore it because it was so difficult to climb. So we denied its very existence as one might a tag-along kid sister, but, as a 10-year-old boy, you are forever running or rough-housing with your pals. It would always be a surprise when it happened.
As the traffic clears, the touch football game continues. Shawn goes long. The game is riding on this play. “My God, he is going to catch it.” Crash! Knocked out at the foot of “Little Mo.”
Jerry gives him a shove.
“Are you all right?”
Shawn rolls over and blinks his eyes. Our concern apparently comforts him. I can tell that by the way he forces a grin. Unfortunately, this passes the instant he assesses our true motive. I can’t speak for the others, but I for one have never witnessed a death, a fact that compels the lot of us to circle in close with the scrutiny of interns. Shawn will have none of it. He brushes aside any attempt to help him stand, but once on his feet he begins to totter. Still woozy, Shawn allows us to help him into the corner drug store for Doc Savitz to give his professional opinion. An ice cream soda later, and Shawn is golden.
On other occasions, we would play the infamous Hot Pork and Beans, a notorious Philly street game where everyone closes their eyes at a designated base while someone hides a belt. Today, Steve gives the signal, and the hunt begins. In short order, Tim finds it stuffed in the tail pipe of an old Rambler. He slyly unfurls it at his side, then Zippity Do Da’s over to a spot that cuts off our retreat. Grinning, he yells “Hot Pork and Beans,” then begins strapping everyone’s legs until we all make it back to the base.
Now and again, when we played Hot Pork and Beans at the corner, some startled kid would leap to one side to avoid being strapped, only to collapse at the foot of that mailbox. Mercifully, as good Catholic boys, we had enough ethical restraint not to strap Lil’ Mo’s latest victim as he lay motionless on the sidewalk.
Looking back, we rarely play Hot Pork and Beans more than five rounds before it ignites into a fistfight. In our three-block world of Durham, Sydney and Boyer Streets, the baby boomers are king. I’m sure there are 100 kids within shouting distance of Doc’s corner. Philly street games rule: half-ball, quarter-ball, stoop-ball, and buck-buck, to name a few, and if played within the vicinity of Doc’s corner, it is only a matter of time before you dance with the Little Mother.
It’s Saturday morning, and Brian M. is holding down the corner. He spots Johnny W. much like a con will spot a mark. John is younger than Brian, but not too young to get his ass whipped in a game of wire ball. By the time a couple of us have straggled up to the corner, John is down, 12 to one, top of the second inning. No one plays Brian M. in wire ball. The guy can toss a pimple ball 600 feet in the air, and that’s after he clips the top wire for a grand slam.
John is over his head in this one, and to make things worse, in one of his turn-around attempts at catching the ball, he collides into the mail box. The sound of flesh and bone giving way to concrete and steel is one I won’t forget. As we hustle him down the street, we hold his shirt up to his forehead to stem the bleeding. At his home, John’s little brother Joey takes the whole episode personal. As a consequence, he marches up the corner and kicks the mailbox a couple of times with predictably poor results. With his anger spent, Joey limps home to assure his brother that justice has been done.
In truth, I can only recall one instance when Little Mo served a purpose other than mayhem. It is a hot summer afternoon, and several of us sit propped against the drugstore wall. There is Mike, Kevin, Steve, young Billy and myself. As we watch the “Old Heads” [17 and over] play stick ball, Franny B. takes a swing and sends a foul tip down the storm drain. At once, our survival instinct kicks into gear. Each in his own way puffs up to appear heavier and more cumbersome than our 90 pounds of body weight might normally indicate. Fortunately for the rest of us, young Billy is caught daydreaming…
“Billy, get over here,” Big Fran commands with a smile.
Billy’s shoulders sag as he steps forward to fulfill his duty. In a flash, the lid to the sewer is removed, and Big Fran lowers our young friend head first down into an abyss of rats, trash and array of balls bobbing on fetid water.
“Which one?” Billy’s frightened voice echoes.
Big Fran hesitates, like a general who in the heat of battle, must quickly determine the cost of saving the wounded. As befitting his great stature, he deliberates.
“Get them all.” he commands.
Well, big Fran retrieves and lowers our young friend into the bowels of the earth several times before the job is done.
In the aftermath of his ordeal, Billy backs away from the storm drain, buries his face into his hands, then slumps against the mail box. As he braces himself against the great strength that is Little Mo’s, one can only fathom what he is thinking. But if I hazard a guess, it had something to do with how to bulk up fast.
My favorite recollection of Little Mo’s handiwork would take place in the early evening when the “Old Heads” saunter up to the corner. Straight-backed Tommy G. arrives first. He leans against the olive green drop box and waits, as if waiting is a dignified art form. Today, he blows us a nod as if to say, “You too will be cool one day and conduct yourself as I do.” I watch his god-like poise with particular longing and regret. My mother says I have worms and am doomed to fidget well into adulthood.
Eventually others will arrive. There was Slim Joe, and Jim. Then Denny M. cruises by in his baby blue convertible. He drives around the block twice before he stops long enough to exchange greetings with the boys.
I mouth their words as if preparing for a scene from West Side Story. I’ve got it down, but my look is all wrong. My head is too big for my scrawny frame. When I walk, I lean forward as if balancing a bowling ball on my shoulders. It will be another 10 years before my body fills in beneath it, but by that time I have moved deep into Germantown.
At such times, most of us are content to sit at the curb and watch our 19-year-old role models imitate the “I’ve seen it all” 35-year-old men. But bye and bye, one of our beloved peacocks will get lost in his own reflection as he swaggers past the drug store window only to collapse into that god damn mailbox. If Little Mo’s latest victim is rash enough, he might actually pop the little brute with a right jab.
An hour later, at Emergency, our young hero gets the bad news.
How many times we walked or ran into Little Mo is a part of the history etched into the lore of Doc’s corner. Still, the specter of that mailbox lingers today as a yardstick of how several generations of boys to men have dealt with the concept of the immovable object.
Charles Gillies, 62, has lived in Portland, Oregon, for the last 23 years. He attended Holy Cross Elementary School in Mt. Airy and Cardinal Dougherty High School. His family owned Gillies Fish Store in Chestnut Hill for about 100 years. He was also the ghost writer for “Running with the Hounds,” a book about Vietnam veteran David Wingfield’s struggle with PTSD. For more information about the book, email firstname.lastname@example.org.