Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Religion of Softball

I think it began for me in high school gym class.

Like most guys of that age, I looked at the oversized, mushy ball and the slow, gentle parabola arc of the pitch and determined that softball was for girls and old men. As further evidence that I was correct, the Daily Times was filled with softball scores from … you guessed it, women's leagues and old men's leagues.

But then Mr. Hoopes, our 25-year-old, former University of Delaware all-star football player and present day gym teacher, had us play the game. Well, his version of the game anyway. My first surprise was that we used no gloves. The softball he brought out to gym class was so old and soft that no self-respecting 17-year-old guy would risk looking like the baby who started complaining about the no-glove policy.

And Mr. Hoopes decided he would be the steady pitcher. So there was no gentle arc, and barely any time to see the pitch since he seemed to be standing 15 feet away. I'm pretty sure I missed the first two pitches entirely before slapping a ball right back to the mound. As any gym teacher would do, he held the ball until I'd run almost all the way to first before throwing me out.

(I should mention here that I was actually on the men's baseball team at the time, which made this all the more embarrassing.)

Out on the field I took third base. And just as the pitcher stands closer to the batter, so are all of the bases closer together. This has two main effects on a third baseman: First, it feels like there will never be enough time to react to a smoking line drive headed for the privates; and second, if you don't field a ball perfectly there's no time to get the runner at first base.

Despite how all of this may sound, though, I actually did have fun playing softball. And that put me front and center with just about ever other Delaware County resident. I don't know if Delco has more softball leagues than anywhere else in America, but I wouldn't mind wagering that it does.

I've played in work leagues, beer leagues and completely unorganized let's-grab-a-bat-and-ball-and-head-to-the-park non-leagues. And I'm a piker as far as that goes.

I know guys and girls who have played softball every spring, summer (and sometimes autumn) for more than 30 years. They sometimes play in two or three leagues at once. They often play more games than the Phillies, with fewer off days (and full time jobs, to boot). They frequent the businesses that sponsor their teams, where they get to show off the championship trophies those sponsors are always happy to display.

So now that I'm completely sold on the challenge of softball, I guess it's golf that is the old guy sport in my mind. Then again, Mr. Hoopes' version of golf might have involved football-style pass rushers or baseball bats instead of clubs.

Hmmmm … that might be interesting.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

America Comes to Its Census

Governments have always been obsessed with knowing exactly how many people they govern.

I have no doubt that around 50,000 years ago there was a Cro-Magnon king (let's call him King Grog) who set about to discover just how many people (not including those stinking Neanderthals) were living in the Kingdom of Grogtopolis. Of course, in those days there was only a small fraction of today's population on Earth, so a total of 50 or 60 might have made for a decent-sized country. (Unfortunately, since numbers weren't invented yet, Grog would have to have all of his citizens standing in front of him to get the idea.)

And then 48,000 years later, in probably the world's most famous census, Joseph and Mary schlepped to Bethlehem to be counted and all heaven broke loose.

But modern times call for modern tactics.

As a veteran of five censuses (censi?) that I actually can recall I think the U.S. Government is going about this 2010 census all wrong. They're stressing the importance of filling out the form for proper representation in congress or for the allocation of funds to each municipality. In other words, they're emphasizing the “responsibility as a citizen” angle. I'm afraid that's a non-starter today. If citizens were really responsible, non-presidential elections would get more than a 20 percent turnout, and dead or jailed politicians would never get elected.

But I have a solution for record-setting census compliance.

The 2010 census needs to be marketed like a sporting event in which you the citizen are playing! True, it's a sporting event that takes a year to play and then another year or so to compile the results, but we would downplay that aspect in the promotional materials.

If we can tap into the competitive instincts of Delaware County residents I'm betting they'll be sending in their forms immediately and cheerleading their neighbors to do the same.

How, you say? Here are just a few off-the-top-of-the-head ideas:

In the 2000 census Delaware County had 550,864 residents. Bucks County was about 45,000 ahead … a deficit we could easily have made up in ten years. (Naturally, we would not encourage residents to fill out multiple forms but I suggest we don't blatantly discourage it either.)

Upper Darby Township was too far ahead for anyone to catch with 81,821 people (Haverford Township was next at 49,608), but there are some fantastic races to keep an eye on when the 2010 results dribble and ooze in. Rutledge and Rose Valley are neck-and-neck for smallest borough (860 and 944, respectively).

Folcroft (6978) was ever-so-slightly ahead of Prospect Park (6594) in 2000, but I know three people personally who moved from Folcroft to Prospect Park, so that one is heating up like … well, like a wire from your TV to the wall outlet that feels kind of warm and certainly might be trouble down the road.

Household incomes are a real strength area in the 2010 census marketing plan. Here, that aforementioned tiny jewel known as Rose Valley is Michael Jordan, Tom Brady and pre-scandal Tiger all in one. The median household income there in 2000 was $114,373. Next closest is Edgmont at $88,303. Still, not bad for Edgmont I'm sure you'll agree.

It's the middle boroughs that are so competitive. Millbourne ($30,185), Chester Township ($32,576), Colwyn ($33,150), Eddystone ($37,543), Lower Chichester ($38,846) … I could go on and on. Again, I think we should be ambivalent regarding the over-estimation of income, as this would enhance the spirit of competition.

And so I offer these suggestions as a loyal American citizen, asking for no compensation or special privilege. (Alright, I wouldn't mind a little special privilege every now and then.)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

More Likely Than Soccer in Chester?

This week marks the dawn of a major sports team (true, soccer isn't really one of the major sports in the U.S., but still …) coming to the city of Chester (true, the team is called the Philadelphia Union, but we know where they'll play the games … once the stadium is completed a few months into the season).

But I don't mean to minimize the impact of this event. It borders on shocking. In fact, I've compiled a list of 27 things I expected to see before I saw a major sports team in Chester. I invite you to add your own:

  • Drug stores all around the county close down and reopen as bars, palm readers and casinos.

  • The borough of Trainer gets a corporate sponsor and becomes “Bally Fitness Trainer.”

  • Charlie Brown kicks the football before Lucy can snatch it away.

  • Prospect Park, Ridley Park and Parkside institute 24/7 free parking.

  • SEPTA adds bus routes and reduces fares.

  • Kentucky Fried Turkey (KFT).

  • Millbourne breaks 1,000 total population.

  • Clifton Heights gets off its high horse and drops the “Heights.”

  • A functional Congress.

  • FDA reveals that Chiclets are made from actual chicks.

  • Since it's just ONE city, Media goes grammatically correct and changes its name to “Medium.”

  • Chadds Ford buys an apostrophe.

  • Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz form new band, The Beatkees.

  • Donovan McNabb voted most popular Eagle ever.

  • Morton to salt roads year-round.

  • Donald Trump fired.

  • Haverford College, Swarthmore College re-institute football, will play only each other.

  • Chocolate, Tastykakes, beer, cheesesteaks, Big Macs and all Italian food found to cure cancer.

  • Archdiocese of Philadelphia to close all schools, will open corner bible study/lemonade stands.

  • Science teachers no longer required to mention the planet Uranus.

  • Swine flu downgraded to hamster flu.

  • Merion Cricket Club to break tradition, admit grasshoppers.

  • The pike is declared an endangered species. Chester Pike and Baltimore Pike to get stimulus funds.

  • Bad student found to have no disability, declared “just not very smart.”

  • YouTube features scantily clad woman falling from trampoline. No one watches.

  • Nancy Pelosi, Dick Cheney switch parties.

  • Famous athlete retires without crying.

But I was obviously very wrong. Professional soccer IS coming to Chester and I'm feeling like anything is possible. Aren't you?

Friday, March 19, 2010

That 70s Quiz

I realize that I didn't announce there would be a quiz today, but there's no need to panic. Many of these questions will be very simple for long-time Delaware County residents. Also, rest assured that this quiz will have no effect on your final grade. Good luck!

1) It was a movie theater on Chester Pike. Some say it was in Norwood, some say Prospect Park. It was converted to a roller skating rink and dance hall before a fire destroyed it. It was called ...

a. The Pike

b. The Benson

c. The Manor

d. The Palace

2) Today it's Tom-n-Jerry's on MacDade Blvd. in Milmont Park. But to the chic and happening Delco residents of the 70s it was known as ...

a. The Red Velvet Room

b. Fantasia

c. Carpe Deim

d. Mattero's T-Bar

3) Very few people had color TVs in the early 70s. But one business establishment in the Delcroft Shopping Center in Folcroft had one as a draw for customers to watch while they waited. It was ...

a. Painless Dentistry Center

b. Country Maid Deli

c. Pride Cleaners

d. Impriano Pizza

4) The well-dressed gentleman of the 1970s knew exactly where to go for high-quality suits, from classic cuts to … well, we're not sure they did leisure suits or those Nehru jackets. On Chester Pike in Norwood, it was called ...

a. Torrelli's

b. Bongiovanni's

c. Naimoli's

d. DeAngelo's

5) Which of these high schools was NOT combined to form the present day Academy Park High?

a. Darby Township High

b. Sharon Hill High

c. Yeadon High

d. Collingdale High

6) Which of these celebrities is NOT from Upper Darby?

a. Cheri Oteri

b. Tina Fey

c. Todd Rundgren

d. Judge Reinhold

7) On Chester Pike and South Ave. in Norwood there is the Iron Gym today. Back in the day it was a fast food place that came and went faster than the 15-cent hamburger. It was called ...

a. The Hungry Heffer

b. The Steer Inn

c. The Beef-n-Birch

d. Mom's Burger Bar

8) Which high school's sports teams were known as “The Tomahawks”?

a. Nether Providence High

b. Swarthmore High

c. Darby-Colwyn High

d. Lansdowne-Aldan High

9) Which of these gentlemen did NOT attend St. James High School in Chester?

a. Jamie Kennedy

b. Joe Klecko

c. Dr. Jack Ramsey

d. Jack McKinney

10) Barack Obama visited Chester during his campaign. Before that, who was the last presidential candidate to visit that city?

a. George W. Bush

b. John Kerry

c. Al Gore

d. Ronald Reagan


  1. c. The Manor

  2. d. Mattero's T-Bar

  3. c. Pride Cleaners

  4. a. Torrelli's

  5. c. Yeadon High

  6. d. Judge Reinhold (He's from Wilmington, DE)

  7. b. The Steer Inn

  8. b. Swarthmore High

  9. a. Jamie Kennedy (He went to Monsignor Bonner)

  10. d. Ronald Reagan

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Taking Over Facebook

In September of 2006 the online world was introduced to Facebook. It was a social network, at first open only to students at Harvard. They “friended” and “poked” and updated their status and all were as happy as young people under incredible pressure to achieve great things could be.

Later other colleges in Boston were allowed in. Then the entire Ivy League and Stanford University.

Soon all college students could gain entrance. But those super-smart inventor kids made their fatal error (to use that overly dramatic computer term) when they admitted high school students. That's because high schools are filled with teens, and teens are filled with parental control. And parents of teens are overwhelmingly of a particular generation.

That's right.

We're the Baby Boomers, and we believe (and can show you power point presentations to prove) that everything on this Earth was made for us. The air, the water, Disney World, baseball, wonder underwear, Brangelina, designer donuts, Jeep Wranglers, art, music, poker, light beer, sex, golf, and most definitely the Internet.

And so it was inevitable that we would make Facebook our own.

Sharon Hill High School shut down nearly 30 years ago, but the class of 1972 is all over Facebook with the same enthusiasm we brought to Don McLean's American Pie, bell bottoms and Thanksgiving football against Collingdale.

A girl I had a crush on has retired after 20 years in the Navy. Another girl I had a crush on makes beach glass art in North Carolina. And another girl I had a crush on lives in New Jersey and has a genius doctor son.

My best friend is about to retire after more than 37 years with the same company. A very cool guy who I hung out with every day at lunch is retired and living the life of a very cool beachcomber in California. And the right tackle on our football team spends two months a year as the best Santa you have ever seen.

I know all of these things (and much, much more) because of Facebook.

So even though it was originally designed for the tawdry purpose of comparing notes on Ivy League professors or gossiping about the hot women of Wellesley, we Boomers have found a much higher calling:

Comparing notes on one another's children and grandchildren and gossiping about the hot cougars of the class of 1972.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Meet Me at the Tower!

If you were looking for cutting edge entertainment in the 1920s you could see Milton Berle disguised as a woman in his vaudeville act there. (People got dressed up for that event.)

If you were looking for cutting edge entertainment in the 1970s you could see David Bowie disguised as a woman in his Diamond Dogs incarnation there. (People got a whole different kind of dressed up for that event.)

And Dave Matthews Band, Bob Dylan, Aerosmith, Mariah Carey, Neil Young, Smashing Pumpkins, The Foo Fighters, U2, Lou Reed, The Grateful Dead, and on and on and on … they all took the stage at the Tower Theater at 69th Street in Upper Darby.

But that's not how I was introduced to the Tower.

When we were around 11 and 13, respectively, my brother Dan and I would go on Saturday adventures. Sometimes we'd walk to the Bazaar, a trip we estimated at around 20 miles but was actually closer to three. Other times we'd “go fishing” for minnows in nearby Muckinipates Creek. Since we were city boys recently moved from Southwest Philadelphia the minnows were in very little danger.

But our most adventurous adventure started with the walk to the Sharon Hill trolley on Chester Pike. There were always some shady characters on that run (we defined shady characters as older kids we didn't know), so we put on the meanest “public transportation don't mess with me” faces we could muster. Either because we looked amazingly tough or because we looked incredibly dumb, no one ever gave us any trouble.

And so we were on our way, past Springfield Road to Drexel Park to Beverly Hills (not that one) and on to the retail wonders of 69th Street.

Once there we would figure out our finances (usually around $7 between us) and our priorities (something fun to eat and a movie). Our possibilities seemed endless, but to be honest we always ended up making exactly two stops: a cheesesteak or hoagie at one of your finer eating establishments and a movie at the Tower.

For a short while, after a minor incident which wasn't really our fault, we chose to start seeing our movies at the Terminal Theater just down the street, but eventually we were allowed … I mean, we decided … to come back.

We laughed at Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau there, and were stunned when the gang members started prancing and singing in West Side Story there. (A musical? Oh man, you must be kidding!)

And so when I saw Bob Dylan at the Tower a few years ago, it was a double landmark event for me. One, the first time I saw one of my all-time favorites perform live (and miraculously, singing lyrics you could understand); and two, I think I was sitting in the same seat where Dan and I had met the dancing delinquents known as the Sharks and the Jets way back in the day.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Fun at the Drive-In

So there I am watching the Academy Awards, when I'm suddenly inspired with this great idea for a new business. (Bear with me here because I know it seems crazy at first listen.)

You take a giant movie screen, let's say approximately a thousand times bigger than at your neighborhood 18-screen Chainoplex Theater. You get a plot of land about the size of six football fields. You build these long lines of bumps across the plot, about 30 feet apart. On the bumps you plant posts with tinny sounding metal speakers, and …

Wait. You're right. It could never work.

But it did work in Delaware County (and the rest of America) for 30 years or more. That's two generations of station-wagoned families with kids ready for bed, parked next to hormone-raging teens performing acts generally reserved for bed.

The quality of the movies ranged from Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and Plan 9 From Outer Space (generally considered the worst motion picture ever unleashed on the public) to The Godfather, Funny Girl and most high level features. The top movies usually showed outdoors many months after their initial release, but if you were patient you could see last year's best movies for the drive-ins' signature bargain price … “$4-a-carload.” (Actually the price per carload ranged from $2 to $8 over the years as we learned the perils of inflation.)

In Eddystone there was the Chester Pike Drive-In, known for its great snack bar (order the french fries if you ever go back in time) and occasional live music shows. If you're too young to remember drive-ins ask your parents to explain Mr. Dee-Lish to you.

At MacDade Blvd. and Oak Lane you could find the appropriately named MacDade Drive-In. I think that was the biggest one in the county with a capacity of around 1,000 cars. And I'm pretty sure I saw M*A*S*H there a year before I was technically old enough to.

The Airport Drive-In in Essington ran triple features that took you well into the wee hours, and was also known for its gigantic playground.

Then there was the Family Drive-In on Baltimore Pike in Clifton Heights. During its heyday it showed the films you'd expect … Pinocchio, Love Story, Billy Jack. But as the years became leaner the management made the decision to go to adults-only movies. Now, this gave rise to a few problems since the screen could be seen from parts of Baltimore Pike not within the bounds of the drive-in. No sound was available, of course, but that didn't seem to be a drawback in the adult genre as it might be in, say, the mystery genre.

Given the name of that establishment, I'm pretty sure this is what they call irony.

One last memory I have of the drive-in experience. If anyone remembers a green, spiral mosquito repellant that you lit with a match and burned like very bad-smelling incense, please let me know. I can't find any reference to that sort of thing on the Net and I'm starting to think I dreamed it.

Say … maybe that's my great idea for a new business!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Past Food: Gino's Hamburgers

I got my first job at 16 as the most important man at Gino's Hamburgers in Collingdale.

That title isn't simply a matter of opinion. Just a week before I started, Gino's had begun an ad campaign stressing their cleanliness, proclaiming (something like):

“Meet David, the most important man at Gino's. He sweeps and clears the tables to make Gino's spotless for you!” There was a shot of a goofy teenage boy sweeping up, as the other employees shouted “Yay, David!!”

I can't tell you how many “Yay, David”s I heard in just my first week as the local goofy teenage boy. I do remember that it felt like great praise from the 6- and 7-year-olds eating with their families, and it felt like I was never going to get a date again from my 16-year-old peer group.

Gino's was a place filled with secrets. First there was the “secret sauce,” to be applied liberally to the Gino's Giant which, if you're not too fussy about copyrights was a lot like a Big Mac. And, since we also sold Kentucky Fried Chicken at Gino's, there was the secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices that the Colonel had turned into a poultry (but certainly not paltry) fortune. There was also a secret about our assistant manager and the night shift fry girl, but that's a story for another time.

I was in on none of these secrets.

It was no secret that the Gino in Gino's was retired Baltimore Colts defensive end Gino Marchetti. What was probably less known that it was his old teammate Alan Ameche who actually ran the business. Having my paycheck signed (I thought personally at the time) by the man who scored the most famous touchdown in NFL history was an honor I tried to work into every conversation I could.

“Baseball practice starts right after school and then I have to go to work for Alan Ameche.”

“Yes, Mr. Sigda, I think I know the cosine of that triangle. Did you know that Alan Ameche co-signs my paychecks?”

Today the $1.25/hour I made at Gino's doesn't seem like any money at all. It's true that even then it wasn't very much. But I learned a lot about the value of work and about being a part of an organization that interacts with a not-always-very-polite public.

Also, at closing time we got to take home all the food that wasn't sold. My mother would make the leftover KFC into chicken salad that lasted for days.

She still thinks it's the best job I ever had.

The Great Drug Store Conspiracy

It began about 15 years ago. You probably didn't notice it at all. There were scattered reports of office workers leaving for lunch and returning to find that their office building had disappeared. In its place they found … a drug store! Of course we laughed. No doubt they had enjoyed a long, leisurely, liquid lunch.

But we started to notice some unusual events. Remember that used car lot on MacDade Boulevard? Suddenly it was a drug store. And the restaurant on Chester Pike where your family celebrated your high school graduation? There was a drug store in its place there, too. That intersection in Ridley with the two drug stores? One day we noticed there were three. When our supermarkets suddenly broke out with severe cases of drug store we could no longer deny it: Drug stores were almost imperceptibly taking over Delaware County. It was enough to put some people (okay, probably just me) in mind of that very cool but scary-even-though-you-knew it-wasn't-real movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

But why?

There was a rumor that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was about to get out of the booze business, and (for some reason never fully explained) drug stores would become privately owned liquor stores.

Some people said that it was a prelude to universal health care.

My stoner friend Zeke saw it as a sign that marijuana was about to be legalized. (To be fair, Zeke sees global warming, the downgrading of Pluto, the Phillies' World Series title and just about everything else as a sign that marijuana is about to be legalized.)

Today drug stores continue to overtake gas stations, banks, real estate offices … even private homes. And we are no closer to solving the mystery than we were all those years ago. Are these simply harmless businesses serving the acid reflux, beauty aid and sunglasses needs of a thankful community? Or will we one day be forced to live under the thumb of white-coated masters doling out the daily necessities of life on a prescription-only basis?

You're right. It's probably that first thing.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Bazaar of All Nations

My first experience with reported alien sightings took place during the late 1960s in Clifton Heights. It was there that my friend Wayne swore that there were people walking the oval laps at The Bazaar of All Nations who were surely not of this Earth.

Of course I had experienced the wonder of “The Bazaar” before (Wayne always called it “The Bizarre.” Unfortunately, since that sounds exactly like the real name people never got the joke unless he explained it to them.)

There were at least four entrances, but you just had to go through the front door to get the full treatment. The smell of fresh soft pretzels mixed with cinnamon buns and Italian water ice was a roller coaster ride for the nose. The effect was an overall sense of well being that I don't believe has ever been duplicated by any drug, legal or otherwise.

Although I'm not sure that “all” nations were fairly represented, you could buy the widest variety of necessities there, as well as items that no one could ever possibly need. If you had a craving for a Road Runner cartoon T-shirt, an Edd “Kooky” Burns comb or the latest Rolling Stones single … you went to the Bazaar. Gym shorts, Pong, bright yellow yarn, a half-pound of boiled ham? There's a booth for that. In fact, the Bazaar of All Nations was your one-stop shop for anything from pickles to pianos. And you could buy a monkey there, too. Really.

But Wayne was right.

There was something unusual about the people you'd see at The Bazaar. There was the day that it seemed like everyone walking the oval was on crutches. Another day, everywhere you looked you saw redheads with perms. One day it was an unusual number of men (and women) wearing overalls, the next it was funny hats.

Wayne and I never left without having figured out the theme for that day. And I'm embarrassed to admit that it took us years, and dozens of visits, to realize that we were walking that oval, too. That we were part of “The Bizarre” for all the others. And the theme on our visits was fairly obvious: “Dumb Kids Day.”


I'm very happy to report that Delaware County sticks with a person long after he or she has moved away. (I mean that in a good way ... not like, say, bubblegum that sticks to your shoe.) There are truly extraordinary things about the county that residents might tend to overlook, and I've discovered that we take Delco values and memories with us wherever we go.

I grew up in Folcroft, attended St. George School in Glenolden (a school which no longer exists) and Sharon Hill High (a school which no longer exists). For the past 14 years I've lived in the Washington, DC area, but I return regularly to visit my family and to make sure that Folcroft continues to exist. To my great relief, it does.

So ... what's so great about Delaware County?

Delco is home to the longest-running amateur baseball league in America, The John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge and the nation's highest concentration of quality cheeseteak establishments per square mile. (That last one is admittedly merely my opinion, but just try to get a decent roll south of Newark, DE … and don't even talk to me about the abomination that calls itself a “steak and cheese sub.”)

But it's the people and places you became accustomed to seeing every day that you miss most once you've moved away.

I hope to share some observations of a Delco expatriot in this blog. To point out the changes (sometimes subtle and sometimes dramatic) that I see on my monthly visits home. It was more than a little unsettling a few years ago, for example, to find that one of my favorite bar/restaurants had transformed into a chain drug store. (All together now … “Do we REALLY need another drug store?”)

And Wawa sells gas now?

Chester has a major league soccer team?

You don't have to register Republican to get your trash collected any more?

I hope you'll check back regularly (or even if you're “irregular,” although I make no claims to help that condition), and feel free to share your observations and memories here, too!