Kids I grew up with in the tough section of North Philadelphia said that I had “a lot of heart.” I cherish that statement more than any I later heard as a teenager, a young adult or even someone in his middle ages looking back on what made him the most proud in his short lifetime. You’d have a “lot of heart” if you didn’t care for the consequences when sticking up for a black kid when a white “friend” called him the “N” word and then classified you as a “N-gger lover” for coming to his defense.
It didn’t happen often. I’d feel hurt that someone would say that to me, but felt even worse for the kid the ignorant white son-of-a-bitch tried to belittle. I learned that the ignorance was passed down from father to son in a way to make them feel better than another group of persons — like Nativist Americans felt about Catholics in our country’s history. I didn’t like them and preferred the company of guys who cared more for who you were than the color of your skin or the country your immigrant father came born.
Blacks taught me how to box, how to swear and how to enjoy life by not taking it too seriously. They said I had “a lot of balls” and that I was “cock-strong” because I could take a punch and dish out as much as I could take. I loved the music they’d listen to on the radio station, WDAS in Philadelphia, as Georgie Woods, “the guy with the goods” would play what was labelled as “race” music and later called “Doo Wop” music. I envied how they sang and danced, and eventually learned to harmonize with a white group that later appeared on television, and really mixed it up at dances doing such old-time favorites as the “Slop,” the “Mashed Potatoes” and the “Stomp.”
But having heart usually meant you’d fight for the right cause. That you would “do the right thing” as Spike Lee would later say. Even if it meant “duking it out” with someone three years older than you at the tender age of twelve. I refused to back down when Billy Van Horn tried to boss me and a bunch of black kids playing on Harper Street in a section of Philly called Brewerytown. Blacks primarily lived north of that area divided by Girard Avenue, and whites on the south toward Ogden Street where the Van Horns lived in the predominantly white section called Fairmount.
I don’t remember the details, but I didn’t run or cower when Billy came at me. He had confidence that most kids would let him have his way. But I didn’t. And that’s when we fought.
We fought from one side of the small street to the other. Harper Street is a single lane road with parking on one side. There was a War War II Memorial at the far end of the street, just beyond the iron fences that prevented anyone from crossing onto the property of the railroad that passed beneath the Girard Avenue bridge not far from the Philadelphia Zoo three blocks away.
I remember nearly tripping when he backed me up from the pavement on the south side to the one on th north. I don’t know where I found the strength, but I swung harder than I ever swung when I felt I was literally up against the brick wall of one of the single-family homes. Soon I forced him back across the street and onto the other pavement where he stopped fighting and called it quits. He made light of the fight and said he was only playing. But I surely was not and I don’t think any of the kids witnessing the fight — both white and black — agreed with him.
I didn’t realize that I had earned somewhat of a reputation after that episode. A few days later I had gone to the top of Lemon Hill in Fairmount Park when a white fellow who was a friend of the Van Horns tried to push me away. One of Billy’s brother told the kid — Tommy Humphrey — that I had fought Billy, and Humphrey not only backed off, but befriended me with a hearty smile and some corny jokes.
Looking back, I see that I dove into new challenges in my later years, becoming an infantry platoon leader in Vietnam, writing as a newspaper reporter and trying to help the downtrodden as both a union organizer and later a Philadelphia public defender. I couldn’t have done it if I didn’t believe they were the right causes in which to fight for at the time. Having a lot of heart has helped me become someone I think my old neighborhood friends would be proud of today.
(For another look the old neighborhood see: