A ‘Lot of Heart’ can go a long way in life!

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.

There’s still a “lot of heart” in Philadelphia kids!

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:


10 comments on “A ‘Lot of Heart’ can go a long way in life!

  1. Different neighborhood, same cool friend. Cant tell you how great it was to read this. I have my white friend who came to my defense when I was called a nigger and a spic. If I remember correctly a huge fight ensued and it was eventually broken up by neighborhood elders. The irony: We’re all still friends today — so many years later. It takes a lot of heart to defend the defenseless. Thank you for a wonderful post. And for being you!!


    • contoveros says:

      We all can be each other’s champion once we put our heart into it.

      It takes time and patience in order to get it right. Sometimes you have to fight for that right. I am sure that you have faced some battles and have fought for the right. I can see it in your writing and in your loving smile!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Joseph Lachawiec says:

    Mike, I know you feel the fight was long and hard, however, what you may not recall is your bunch came down 30th St to use the ball field in the park instead of crossing Over Girard Ave bridge, then Poplar Drive. Since your guys had baseball equipment, the bats struck fear in our hearts as your guys were brazen enough to come through our territory.

    Yes the fight was tough but necessary in order to sort out the pecking order. No one was supposed to get seriously hurt. Billy was a tough kid but he was very skinny and weighed about 90 pounds.

    If Big Ed fought you, the signal to your guys would have made us seen as enemies forever; but we all liked your bunch and got along well.

    I dated a B’town girl one summer. I walked her home as she lived around 29th & Thompson streets. I got jumped by 5 black kids all of whom had halfball bats. I was able to hold my own for awhile as I took a bat from one of the kids but I got whacked over the left eye by another. This set me off and I started chasing them up 29th Street, but as I did so, an older black man grabbed me and warned me not to go further as more were waiting to ambush me.

    I turned for home and an ice pack.
    I still have a knot on my head from that altercation.

    All in all, our neighborhoods were great places to grow up and learn about the way of the world.


    • contoveros says:


      I’m sorry to hear about the altercation you had with some kids who chased and hit you. It’s never right for someone to attack another with no provocation and I’m glad that you were able to hold your own and get in a whack at one of the little bastards.

      I felt comforted when hearing that the elderly black fellow had come to your aid and warned you against further trouble. I believe he represented the great majority of folks, both white and black, who don’t want to see people hurt because they’re different than others.

      Corresponding with you here has been enlightening! I never knew anyone who had witnessed my fight with Billy and it just goes to show that the Universe conspires in many ways to keep us guessing about our true purpose in life.

      Growing up in the old neighborhoods of Philadelphia was indeed a great lesson, one I hope others can realize when they reflect on their early “misadventures.”

      Michael J,
      now a Conshohocken lad


  3. Joseph Lachawiec says:

    Mike, sometimes our memories go fuzzy as time goes by, mine included. I recall the fight actually happened at the back of 3000 block of Harper St near the war memorial and railroad where Girard Ave crossed the rr, not too far from where Farm lived. We from 30 & Ogden played halfball on the side of Andy Jackson’s house at 30th & Harper.

    Andy Jackson was one of 4 black kids who played baseball on my team, the Brewerytown Braves. Although the technical dividing line between Fairmount and Brewerytown was Poplar St (15th Ward below Poplar, 29th Ward above Poplar), we at 30th & Ogden were isolated from Fairmount by the pickle factory and Bergdoll’s properties. It was natural for 30th & Ogden and your St Al bunch to get together.

    The fight you described was a “let’s get to know each other fight” LOL! So my memory tells me we all mostly got along with you and your guys and girls from then on. I started being allowed to set pins at St Al’s (?) and dated a B’town girl one summer.

    Thanks for taking us down memory lane. BTW, I know of 2 girls from your bunch who married Fairmount guys!


    • contoveros says:

      You’re right. It was Harper Street near the Memorial.
      (I’ll make a change in the original story too!)

      But I got to disagree with the description of the episode. It was not a “get to know you” fight. Billy got up close and personal with his fists and I would have taken a helluva lickin had I not found something inside of me to hit back.

      I’m glad he ended the fight when he did. I am also glad we became friends. He was a cool dude once you got to know him. Just like the rest of you guys at 30th and Ogden streets,

      I don’t remember the Jackson kid, but I do remember Leslie Williams, who was one of the fellows who taught me how to body box. I heard that he got killed in Vietnam, but could not confirm it. He and Patty Ward were among the ones we lost in Brewerytown and Fairmount.

      Well, I’m glad you liked the version of my history. I’ll make corrections where I see fit, but I ain’t going to call a simple “getting to know you” sort of dance routine.

      See you later Joe. Give my best to Janet G if you see her sometime soon!

      Michael J,
      feeling a lot more heart right about now!


  4. Cassandra Alleyne says:


    This was wonderful!!  A trip down memory lane for me.  It was like being in the South Bronx all over again.  A lot a memories triggered (both good and bad) but, with enough distance and time to allow me to reflect objectively.  Thank you!!!  Best Regards, Cassandra Dougherty

    “A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault.”
     – John Henry Cardinal Newman

    Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle. – Unknown


    • contoveros says:

      You’re alright, Cassandra Dougherty, no matter what those kids from North Bronx had to say about you.

      (Only kidding. I don’t even know if there is a North Bronx!)

      I was meditating last night when I had a special insight into this business of having a “lot of heart.” You gotta share it with others, I said to myself, and thankfully, I was able to do it less than 12 hours later.

      Meditation can often bring out the best in us. Our true self still resides there whether it be in New York, Pennsylvania or up in Canada!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.