by Lou Mancinelli
In January of 1970 a young hippie who was against the Vietnam War enlisted in the Army because he was about to be drafted. There were three different jobs he could choose from, and with any luck Joe Black would not end up in combat in Vietnam.
Now 44 years later, after serving overseas and after running a successful Center City restaurant (Natural Foods Eatery) for 11 years, and after working as a nanny for 14 years, Black is helping to guide the vessel that is Weavers Way as a shift manager and produce staffer at the Mt. Airy store.
“It’s kind of strange when you’re living it,” said Black about the Army and the Vietnam era. “Until you’re actually there, it doesn’t seem real.”
Raised in Logan, Black, 63, graduated from Olney High in 1968. He and his friends were among the many participating in protests at colleges and cities across the country in the name of civil and women’s rights and against the war.
He’d been to Be-In’s at Belmont Plateau and numerous protests in Washington, D.C. When his number was called for the draft, he had been attending a post-high school technical school.
“It was blind luck,” said Black about the fact that he wound up in a post in Bad Kreuznach, Germany, a beautiful resort town about 50 miles west of Frankfurt, as a personnel specialist, a low-ranking records clerk. Of the 162 clerks he went through Basic Training with, 150 went to Vietnam.
Black, however, spent 19 months abroad, and through a GI program that troops could apply for that allowed them to come home early, he spent his third year at an Officers Reserves Corps office on Broad Street.
After his three years in the Army were over, his local mailman helped Black get a job as an electrician. He lived in Logan then, and was married for the first time in 1973.
He continued to work as an electrician, but in 1977 a friend had an idea. With very little money, about $6,000, the two opened Natural Foods Eatery, a macrobiotic restaurant on the 1300 block of Chestnut Street in Center City, one of the city’s first.
It was a primarily vegetarian menu, with no meat. It sold food that was locally produced, an early nod to the current green craze. The idea was to create a menu based on foods that were available in our region and climate, following the balance of nature.
After two years Natural Foods Eatery expanded to a second storefront. In its third year it expanded into the second-floor in a space that ran the length of the block. There were 112 seats. Black used to roller blade through the kitchen.
The restaurant lasted for 11 years. When it opened in 1977, Black’s marriage ended. Before the restaurant closed, Philadelphia Magazine named it “One of the Best Meals in the City for under $2.”
“We didn’t make much money because our prices were cheap, but we had a blast,” Black said. “It was a wonderful time … We started slow. We started small and cheap.”
But one day in 1988 the IRS showed up and padlocked the place over a tax dispute. “At that point, I knew we were in some trouble,” he said, laughing. “I blame myself as much as I blame my former partner. I sort of didn’t want to be involved [with handling the finances].”
At the time, Black had a young son, Zachary, from a relationship after his marriage. He wanted to find a way to spend more time with him, so he took a job as a nanny for a 16-month-old child. He brought his son with him when he worked.
“I actually outlasted their marriage, being a nanny for 14 years,” he joked. “I was again a groundbreaker. You can imagine people would ask me … ‘You’re a nanny. What? … Why don’t you call yourself a manny?’ I never thought of nanny as a female term, so I never thought of changing it.”
By late 1999, Black had moved to Mt. Airy and began working part-time at Weavers Way Mt. Airy. By early 2002 he was working full-time as shift manager.
In 2001, a former waitress at Natural Foods Eatery waltzed into Weavers Way. Black remembered her. She was an artist, studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He’d even bought a few of her paintings.
“I looked up and there she was … it was like love at second sight,” he said, about his chance reconnection with Eleanor Day, whom he married the next year. He is now stepfather to her two daughters.
The thing that first drew him to Weavers Way was that it was “kind of a hippie place.” He knew he wanted to work with his hands, not in an office.
“Needless to say, retirement’s out of the question … Kind of like the rest of my life, I try not to worry about it too much. I know I’ll be working in my 80s, and I think Weavers Way is the kind of place where I can do that. Happiness is the most important part, hands down.”