”No Other Life” continued

My earliest memory of a home in Philadelphia was an apartment building where my family lived at 914 East Passyunk Avenue. That block of Passyunk was entirely Italian except for the apartment building where only blacks lived, right in the middle of the block. In the earliest years of my memory, the apartment was filled with people. That is, the apartments on all three floors were occupied. Each floor had a common bathroom in the hallway. They were cold-water flats, and my mother always complained about the lack of heat in the winter, about the general lack of upkeep. By the time I was five, there were only three families left in our apartment. One was the Mays, a single mother with six or seven children. They were very noisy and dirty, although I did like playing with them. That is, I liked playing with them until they broke my toys. My mother hated them, thought they were wrecking the apartment building and shaming the race in front of the whites in the neighborhood.
    The other family I remember from 914 East Passyunk Avenue was the Evanses. They moved to open a dry cleaning store on the corner of Fifth and Christian streets. I really liked their oldest son, Ernest Evans, who once risked severe injury by crossing over one second-story window ledge to another to get us into our apartment after our mother had accidentally locked us out. He was my hero after that. He graduated from South Philadelphia High School, where most of my family went except for me and my sisters. He worked in a poultry store in the Italian Market on Ninth Street, near either Carpenter or Washington Avenue. Ernest Evans was a chicken plucker, a very nasty job that involved not only cleaning the chicken of its feathers in boiling water but killing the chicken in the first place. Many black boys had that job in the Italian Market. Places like Giordano’s at the corner of Ninth Street and Washington Avenue was a popular place to work, if one wanted that kind of job. It paid well, about $20 or $25 a week. Those were good wages to a teenage boy from the working class. My mother began to buy her chickens from the place where Ernest worked, Addio’s Poultry Shop. Ernest also liked to sing. He very much wanted to be a professional singer and hung around the offices of a local recording studio called Cameo-Parkway. Henry Caltabiano, another poultry shop owner, introduced Evans to Cameo-Parkway Records. Once in a while, in the summer time, on the front steps, he would sing one of the latest rock-and-roll songs for us kids grouped around. Only one house on the block had an air conditioner, so during the summer, everyone was on the street all night. We thought he was a very good singer; seeming so much older with his processed hair and knit shirts. In truth, he was a passable singer with the strong appeal of youth. In 1959, he had a decent hit record called “The Class.” He imitated other singers very well. Indeed, he was doing an imitation of Fats Domino one evening at the Cameo-Parkway studio when he got his stage name. Dick Clark, then the host of American Bandstand, the most popular teen-age dance show in the United States, taped in Philadelphia at that time, and his wife were there. Clark’s wife, impressed or amused by Evans’s imitation, suddenly gave him a new name, and it stuck. Ernest Evans became a rock-and-roll star under the name of Chubby Checker.
    The first record I heard by Chubby Checker was in the summer of 1959, not too long before Mario Lanza died, when he cut “The Class” for Cameo-Parkway Records. It was a modest hit, but all of us who knew him on the block were very proud. We used to sit on the front steps at night—my two sisters, Jimmy and Albert Barbera, who lived next door, Harriet Curci, and several other kids; my sisters and I being the only black ones in the group— and we would listen to a white pop station called WIBG or “Wibbage,” Radio 99. We would wait to hear Chubby Checker’s record. Sometimes, one of the older kids would call the station to make a request. “And this side goes out for the cool kids who hang out on Passyunk Avenue in South Philly,” the disc jockey would say, naming several of us, “A request for one of their own—Chubby Checker.”
    I had heard a song called “The Twist” a year earlier in 1958. My mother loved a singer named Hank Ballard and bought all of his records: “Work With Me, Annie,” “Annie Had a Baby,” “Sexy Ways.” She bought a Hank Ballard record in 1958 called “Teardrops on My Letter.” On the B-side was a tune called “The Twist.” It got some airplay on the black radio station we listened to in the house, WDAS. It was not a big hit, but it became a popular dance among black kids in 1959. White kids picked it up from black kids. Dick Clark felt he could cash in on the Twist as a teen-age dance craze but, so one version of the story goes, not with Hank Ballard as the singer, as he was an R-and-B artist associated with lewd material and a lewd stage act. Chubby Checker was, essentially, not an R-and-B act; he was not associated with black popular music, so, in a sense, he was a kind of raceless black man. In any case, Checker made a hasty cover of the tune at Cameo-Parkway for Dick Clark’s American Bandstand show. In the late summer of 1960, the song, heavily promoted by Clark, hit number one on the charts. However the story goes, it turned out to be one of the most politically significant covers in the history of rock-and-roll music. For the first time one black artist covered another and turned a song into a huge crossover hit. And Checker became the first bona-fide black teen-age idol, a clean-cut image for white kids. White girls loved him, and the powers and princes of popular culture did not see this as a threat. For a few years, Chubby Checker was one of the most powerful integrative forces in American popular music. He was only 19 years old when “The Twist” went number one.
    My mother was, at first, shocked when she heard Checker singing “The Twist.” “He sounds just like Hank Ballard,” she said. He did, indeed, every vocal inflection, every Ballard mannerism, every nuance. It was uncanny. How can he have a hit when he sounds just like Ballard? My mother never quite forgave Checker that bit of plagiarism and, on principle, always preferred the Ballard version of the song. We kids were proud of Chubby Checker anyway. We were amazed that someone we knew had a hit record, was a recording star. Another thing that amazed me when I grew older was that not a single white kid I knew I had heard Hank Ballard’s version or heard of it. Ballard’s “The Twist” was played on the local soul station, but Checker’s “The Twist” was played on both the local soul station and the white pop station. The Twist as a dance lasted about six months among the kids I knew, among my uncles and aunts, who were very young at the time. Soon after, kids were doing the Stomp, the Gully, the Crossfire and the Watusi.
    Chubby Checker’s career might have ended right there as a one-hit wonder except that the Twist caught on as a dance for hip and not-so-hip adults. By the fall of 1961, the Cafe Society began slumming at places like the Peppermint Lounge at 47th Street and East Seventh Avenue. From 10:30 p.m to 3:00 a.m., one could find people such as Greta Garbo, Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams and Elsa Maxwell dancing the Twist, or simply listening to a five-piece band called Joey Dee and the Starlighters. Checker’s “The Twist” emerged again and became a number-one hit in early 1962. The dance was so big that a new wave of whites began slumming at places like Small’s Paradise in Harlem, owned at this time by basketball star Wilt Chamberlain, to Twist and watch Negroes Twist. More whites began going to Harlem nightspots than at any time since the Harlem Renaissance.
    Meanwhile, stores were flooded with Chubby Checker ties, Chubby Checker belts, Chubby Checker towels, and even instructional records by Checker teaching the listener how to Twist. He was not only the first black teen idol. He was the first black to have merchandise marketed to the American public. In this civil-rights era, Checker was truly, though very inadvertently, a remarkable figure, something seminal in a political and sociological way. He made it seem very natural to me for blacks and whites to be together. He was the personification of integration, of the inclusive community. His estimated income for 1962 was a cool million. He released other successful records on Cameo-Parkway, like “Let’s Twist Again,” “It’s Pony Time” (my favorite Checker record even today), “The Fly,” “The Hucklebuck” (a Charlie Parker tune with vocals; Parker sold the rights to the tune in a recording studio lavatory for a drug fix), and “Slow Twisting” with another South Philadelphia singer, Dee Dee Sharp. What did all this Twist madness mean? “I don’t know,” Checker said, “People do it and they forget things.”
    At this time, I was in the same fifth-grade class as Chubby Checker’s youngest brother, Spencer. And his middle brother, Tracy, was dating my oldest sister. He would drive up in these fancy Cadillacs and Stingrays and the Italian-Catholics—kids and adults—would be very impressed. By the end of the 1962 school term, Checker’s family moved from the neighborhood to a big, $30,000 house in a very upper-middle-class, integrated area of Germantown. Tracy continued to date my sister for a while but that eventually petered out. One year later, my family moved from 914 East Passyunk Avenue to a small house around the corner at 918 South Sheridan Street, where I lived until 1975. Once Chubby Checker’s family and the Mays family moved, we were the only people left in the building. At this time, there was a great deal of talk about an Interstate being built that would run through this part of South Philadelphia. There was a great deal of worry among the residents and a good deal of resistance on the part of the Italians. The Crosstown Expressway, as it was called, never happened, but the threat of it changed the demographics of South Philadelphia and made it possible for a certain type of intense re-gentrification to take place that largely resulted in loading more black folk into projects or forcing them to other parts of the city.
    The threat of the Expressway made selling the apartment more difficult but not impossible. My mother knew that very soon we would have to move. She had become very friendly with the Italian family down the street, the Curcis. Their home on Passyunk had a smaller attached home that fronted on a small side street right behind Passyunk called Sheridan. One of their sons had been the lodger, but he married and moved to New Jersey, so they were now looking for a tenant. My mother came back home one day, ecstatic with the news that the Curcis had decided to rent the home to us. I am not quite sure why they did, as this was, without question, going against the conventions of the moment. But we developed a very close relationship with this family over the years, at least as close as a relationship between blacks and Italians can reasonably get. All of the Curcis were especially fond of me, which was sometimes a cause of embarrassment when I was with my black friends. “How come them dagoes like you so much?” they would ask when we were out of earshot. We moved into the house in the late spring of 1963. We were the only black people in the immediate vicinity of Little Italy.
    On the Thursday before Labor Day, 1963, a black couple, Horace Baker, a lab technician, and his wife, Sara, tried to move into 2002 Heather Road in a community called Delmar Village in Folcroft, Pennsylvania, a short drive outside Philadelphia. They were driven from the home twice that day by whites throwing bricks and bottles. That night, the whites pulled out all the plumbing fixtures in the home and wrecked the furnace and hot-water heater. The family finally moved in on Friday, but a mob of 1,500 whites stoned the house after they moved inside. Every window in the house was broken. The doors were virtually torn off the hinges. One hundred state troopers were required to prevent the mob from murdering or maiming the family.
    On that same Tuesday, the school year started and my mother was back on the job crossing the Italian-Catholic kids. Many of the parents, the nuns, and priests, mentioned the Folcroft incident to my mother, out of a kind of nervousness, perhaps, as it was the age that put racial nerves on edge, or out of a sort of kindness or an attempt to reach some understanding with the only Negro most of them knew. Most were ashamed of what had happened. But many told my mother that this business of integration cannot be forced. “People can’t change overnight,” they would say. “Besides, not all families are like yours, Florence. Not all families can fit in. Some make trouble. I think this integration is going too fast.” My mother would simply nod. What, as a black person, could you say to a statement like that? After all, as my mother told me and my sisters privately, it was the white folks in Folcroft who were making all the trouble. The black family hadn’t done anything any of us could detect as causing trouble except move into a house or try to.
    “As a black, I have been getting kicked in the ass by this country for centuries, but what’s a few more decades of getting kicked in the ass if it makes you white folk feel more comfortable with the fact that I might be a human being, too! Well, excuse me for living!” This was the common sentiment I heard expressed at the black barbershop I went to. “Don’t stop suffering,” I remember hearing Malcolm X say sarcastically in a recording of one of his speeches at the time. “Just suffer peacefully.” Or as another barbershop patron put it: “The Bakers got what they deserved. They ain’t had no business moving out there in the first place with them white folks. I say this: why should anybody think that my highest aspiration is to live next to these dog-like white folks. Let ’em keep their goddam neighborhoods and the sanctity of their white asses, too.” There was, at this moment, and for the rest of the time I lived among the Italian-Catholics, a certain, unstated, but very compelling and dramatic kind of stress, as if one represented one’s whole race all the time, was the sole testament to its claim of humanity. And yet there was a certain perverse, oddly ironic pride in being considered the exception. I could scarcely understand it, then.

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