Ever wonder what life would have been like if you made different choices years earlier?
I was 19 when I felt “separated” from most of the people I hung out with and called friends. I wanted to be so much like them; not to care about such things as “love,” “compassion,” other people’s “feelings.” That was “sissy” stuff; stuff that only a “wuss” would think about. I saw these aspects of myself as a “weakness.“
Looking back, I now see they gave me a strength, a real “life-preserver,” and in some cases, a bullet-proof vest. You see, the neighborhood in which I grew up — Brewerytown (small section of North Philly) — was tough. Some friends never made it beyond the age of 30. Others who feared the living of day-to-day, took their own lives before reaching 40. And of course, drugs — which most of us experimented with — sucked the marrow right out of some of the best of us, leaving nothing but the legacy of a lost life behind.
Bobby Mendel was one of those first killed while in his early 20s. A year younger than me, he was a “late bloomer,” not dating until well toward the end of high school, and possibly marrying the first girl he ever “knew.” He was shot by next-door neighbor while defending her honor during an argument outside their Philadelphia home. The shooters went to jail. I lost track of their whereabouts.
“Big Dave,” a fellow from the bordering neighborhood, Fairmount, was not as lucky. Someone killed him in what we later have named a “drive-by” shooting . Never did hear of any arrests. Another young man (maybe 19), whom I only knew as “Rebel,” died from a broken neck when he dove into shallow water while trespassing at a rock quarry with others. Could not see the bottom, eyewitnesses said, because the water was so dirty.
Two guys who sang first tenor in singing groups in which I had harmonized may have ended up taking their own lives. Mikey Dugan, a fellow who helped get me my first job as a messenger boy at 15, was said to have overdosed following what friends say was a deep depression. He came from a rough family. Brother, Dusty Dugan, did “state” time for some assault or another. Moose” Moran, who also sang with a clear falsetto voice, was rumored to have shot himself near the 29th Street Bridge that separated Brewerytown and Fairmount.
Others died way too early. Tommy Humphreys, who fathered a child with one of the 15-year-old girls who “hung “out with us, is said to have succumbed to drugs. He chose a hard life, one which contributed greatly to his early demise. I still think of Connie Magee birthing their child and having to enter adulthood earlier than the rest of us.
One of the saddest deaths I had to accept involved Pat Lawn, clearly the most beautiful girl who hung at 29th and Poplar Streets. She was the ideal teenager: pretty, soft-spoken, always appearing as a real lady. She also could dance and sing! She would often harmonize with us guys, filling in with the high parts. You knew she came from a good family and that if any one would make it out of the neighborhood in one piece, it was going to be her. She was loved by many of the guys from my “crowd.” Johnny Keller, whose kidney failed him before turning 21 and who lived beyond the 20 years doctors gave him to last following a transplant from his brother, Edward, was smitten by her. He carried that with him ’til the day he died. My best friend. Never marrying. Dying before I had a chance to tell him how much he meant to me. To all of us.
Jimmy “Soss” loved Pat, too. He ended up marrying her. But split as problems developed. Some may have involved drugs. Lots of drugs that Pat got drawn to years after breaking up with Jim.
Pat Lawn died from an overdose, taking a little part of all of us who knew her.
Well, I have a lot to be thankful for this November, 2009. Hope I can carry that feeling over to the holidays, Thanksgiving and all. I could have chosen a different path than the one I walk today. I am thankful for lasting this far on the Journey.