Prostitution, gambling, fencing, contract murder, loan-sharking, political corruption and crimes of every sort were the daily trade in Philadelphia’s Tenderloin, the oldest part of town. The Kevitch family ruled this stew for half a century, from Prohibition to the rise of Atlantic City. My mother was a Kevitch.
So begins poet Dan Burt’s moving, emotional memoir of life on the dangerous streets of downtown Philadelphia. The son of a butcher and an heiress to an organized crime empire, Burt rejected the harsh world of his upbringing, eventually renouncing his home country as well and forging a new life in the United Kingdom. But in this riveting reappraisal of his childhood, Burt wrestles with the idea that home leaves an indelible mark that can never truly be left behind.
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– Certain Windows –
We trail no clouds of glory when we come. We trail blood, a cord that must be cut and a post-partum mess that mix with places, people, and stories to frame the house of childhood. We dwell in that house forever.
In time there will be others, bigger, smaller, better, worse; but how we see the world, how much shelter, warmth, food we think we need, whether the outer dark appears benign or deadly, depend on what we saw from certain windows in that house. We may burn, rebuild, repaint or raze it, but its memories fade least; as dementia settles in, first things are the last to go.
Childhood ended when I turned twelve and began working in a butcher shop on Fridays after school till midnight, and all day Saturdays from seven a.m. to six p.m., or, as we said in winter, "from can't see to can't see". By sixteen, I was working thirty hours a week or more during the school year, fifty to sixty hours in the summers. Certain Windows recalls my pre-travail world: places, people and tales from childhood.
Fourth and Daly
Joe Burt, my father, was born in Boston in 1916, almost nine months to the day after his mother landed there from a shtetl near Kiev. She brought with her Eva, her first born, and Bernie, her second. Presumably my grandfather, Louis (Zaida ["ai" as in "pay"] or Pop), was pleased to see my grandmother Rose, or Mom, even though she was generally regarded as a chaleria.
Zaida had been dragooned into the Russian army a little before the outbreak of World War One. Russia levied a quota of Jewish men for the army from each shtetl and these men invariably came from the poorest shtetlachim.Zaida deserted at the earliest opportunity, which was certainly not unusual, made his way to Boston and sent for Mom.
Mom and Pop moved the family in 1917 to a small row house at Fourth and Daly in South Philadelphia, the city where my father grew up, worked, married and in 1995 died. Pop was a carpenter, Mom a seamstress, both socialists at least, if not Communists. Mom was an organiser for the ILGWU, which seems in character. Yiddish was the household tongue, my father's first, though Pop spoke and read Russian and English fluently. Mom managed Russian well, but English took more effort.
The family's daily newspaper was Forverts, printed in Yiddish. Forverts published lists of those killed in pogroms when they occurred. Ukranian Cossacks allied themselves with the Bolsheviks and used the Russian civil war as an excuse to continue the pogroms that had been a fact of Jewish life in the Pale from the 1880s. Pop was hanging from a trolley car-strap on his way home from work in 1920 when he read the names of his family among the dead, all eighteen of them: father, mother, sisters, brothers, their children. He had become an orphan. He never went to schul again.
A few years later he learned how they were killed, when some of Mom's family, who had hidden during the raid, emigrated to America. I heard the story from him when I was ten, at Christmas 1952. I came home singing "Silent Night", newly learned in my local public elementary school. I couldn't stop singing it and went carolling up the back steps from the alley into our kitchen where Pop, putty-coloured, in his mid-sixties and dying of cancer, was making what turned out to be his last visit. Zaida had cause to dislike Gentile sacred songs, though I didn't know it. He croaked, "Danila, shah stil", and I answered, "No, why should I?" His face flushed with all the life left in him and he grabbed me by the neck and started choking. My father pulled him off, pinioned his arms, and, when his rage had passed, led me to the kitchen table where Zaida sat at the head and told me this story:
The Jews had warning of a raid. Pop's father, my great-grandfather, was pious and reputed to be a melamed, a learned though poor orthodox Jew. As such he was prized and protected by the community. Pop's in-laws urged him to take his family and hide with them in their shelter below the street. Great-grandfather refused. He said, so I was told, "God will protect us".
The Cossacks rousted them from their house and forced everyone to strip. They raped the women while the men watched. Done, they shot the women, then the children and, last, the men. They murdered all eighteen of them, my every paternal forebear excepting Pop, who died an atheist, as did my father.
My grandparents' house at Fourth and Daly was a three-up, three-down row (terraced) home on a very narrow street. Cars parked on the side of the street opposite their house, leaving just enough room for a small car to pass. Big-finned 1950s Caddies, had anyone owned one, would have had to straddle the pavement to get through. The front door stood two feet from the sidewalk at the top of three marble steps, with dips worn in their middle from eighty years of footsteps and repeated scrubbings. It opened onto a minuscule vestibule off a living room, after which came dining room and kitchen, all three no more than twelve feet by fourteen. There was a four-foot wide wooden stoop past the back door, two steps above a small concrete yard where clothes hung out to dry and children could play. A six-foot-high wooden fence enclosed the yard.
Nothing hung on the walls: there were no bookcases, no books. There was no Victrola. But there was a large console three-band radio which could receive short-wave broadcasts from Europe. The house was always spotless, sparsely furnished, lifeless. Two low rectangles projected from either party wall to separate the living from dining room; on each end of these little walls stood two decorative white wooden Doric columns pretending to hold the ceiling up and give a touch of class to what was in fact a clean brick shotgun shack.
We did not visit Fourth and Daly frequently. My mother was never keen to go, perhaps because she learned too little Yiddish after she married my father to make conversation easily, or perhaps because Mom had refused to speak to her until after I was born. (My maternal grandmother had been Italian; hence my mother was a Gentile according to Jewish law.) But while Zaida was alive we always went for Seder dinner on the first night of Pesach, the Jewish holiday commemorating the Exodus from Egypt. That tale had some heft when I was old enough to grasp it, a few years after the fall of Nazi Germany.
A year or two before Zaida died my brother and I, six and eight, were dropped off at their house early on Passover, to watch him and Mom prepare the Passover meal. Boredom soon set in, and Zaida led us out to the back stoop where he produced two blocks of grainy pine and proceeded to carve two dreydles, the four-sided spinning top which Jewish children have played with for centuries. He inscribed letters in Hebrew – the traditional aleph, beth, gimmel, nun – one on each dreydle side, with a hard pencil, and explained how each letter had a value, from zero to three, and that the side facing up when it came to rest represented how many nuts, pennies, etc. the spinner had to give the other player. Then he counted twenty hazelnuts apiece into our hands and set us gambling on the stoop while he went inside to help Mom.
Three things always happened at the Passover dinner. Someone spilled the wine on Mom's white lace tablecloth, producing a scramble for cold water and lemon juice; there was a fight during which Zaida had to restrain my father; and Zaida lingered over the wicked son's role in answering The Four Questions. They are the raison d'être for the Seder, a religious service-cum-dinner to celebrate and teach the story of the Jews' deliverance from Egypt. Shortly after the service begins, the youngest boy must ask, "Why is this night different from all others?", and the leader of the Seder will retell the story of the Exodus, the repeated experience of our wandering tribe's history.
Though Zaida wasn't a believer, he was an ethnic realist who wanted his grandchildren to understand that Jewish blood is a perfume that attracts murderers, a pheromone no soap can wash away. So he dwelt on the role of the second son, the wicked one, who asks, "What does this service mean to you?", implying he is different, he can be what he wants, that the Seder and his blood's history mean nothing to him. The answer ordained for this son is "It is because of what the Lord did for me, not for you" – meaning, had you been there you'd have been left to be killed.
Today the dreydle Zaida made for me lies on my desk in Cambridge, as it has lain on other desks in other cities, other countries down the years. I don't know what happened to the one he made for my brother, who was cremated, a Christian, in San Francisco in 2005.
At Fourth and Daly my father, Joe everywhere else, was always Yossela, Joey. He was a thin, short man, five feet five, with intense blue eyes, dark skin and thick black hair. He could have passed for an Argentinian tangoist or a Mafia hitman; perhaps the latter image had attracted my mother to him. Broad thick shoulders, large hands and well-muscled legs perfectly suited the featherweight semi-pro boxer he became.
Lust and rage beset his every age. His fists rose at the slightest provocation against all comers and sometimes against me. Bullies and every form of authority were his favoured targets. A local teenager who had been tormenting him when he was ten was struck from behind with a lead pipe one winter night. When he came to in hospital several hours and sixteen stitches later, he could recall only that he was passing the Borts' house when something hit him. He gave little Joey no more trouble.
He hated bullies all his life. One Sunday driving home from the store Joe saw two bigger boys beating a smaller boy beside the SKF ball bearing factory. He hit the brakes, leapt out and knocked down both older boys, then waited till the victim took off.
The Depression scarred him. He was twelve when it began. There was little work for carpenters, and for a time Yossela stood on a street corner hawking apples with Zaida. But the family needed more money, so at thirteen he left school without completing eighth grade and found work in a butcher shop on Fourth Street, a mile north of Fourth and Daly. His older sister and both brothers, older and younger, all finished high school. My father regretted his lack of formal education, because he thought that deficiency denied him the chance to make more money.
Yossela spent part of his first pay check on a new pair of shoes. Zaida beat him when he turned over that first week's earnings minus the cost of the shoes. The legend was his father's belt struck him so hard there were bloodstains from his ass on the ceiling.
Jewish boys undergo two rituals: circumcision at birth, about which they remember nothing, and, at thirteen, bar mitzvah, when they are called on a Saturday morning to read a passage from the Torah before the congregation as part of a rite admitting them to Jewish manhood. A celebration follows, however small, for family and friends. My father left schul immediately after his bar mitzvah, changed his clothes and went straight to work, Saturday being the busiest business day of the retail week.
Ninth and Race
Prostitution, gambling, fencing, contract murder, loan-sharking, political corruption and crime of every sort were the daily trade in Philadelphia's Tenderloin, the oldest part of town. The Kevitch family ruled this stew for half a century, from Prohibition to the rise of Atlantic City. My mother was a Kevitch.
Not all Jewish boys become doctors, lawyers, violinists and Nobelists: some sons of immigrants from the Pale became criminals, often as part of or in cahoots with Italian crime families. A recent history calls them "tough Jews": men like Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, who organized and ran Murder Incorporated for Lucky Luciano in the 'Twenties and 'Thirties, and Arnold Rothstein, better known as Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby, who fixed the 1919 baseball World Series. The Kevitch family were tough Jews.
Their headquarters during the day was Milt's Bar and Grill at Ninth and Race, the heart of the Tenderloin, two miles north of Fourth and Daly. At night one or more male clan members supervised the family's "after-hours club" a few blocks away. We called Milt's Bar The Taproom and the after hours club The Club.
The Taproom stood alone between two vacant lots carpeted with broken bricks and brown beer bottle shards. Bums, beggars, prostitutes, stray cats and dogs peopled the surrounding streets; the smell of cat and human piss was always detectable, mixed with smoke from cigarette and cigar butts smouldering on the pavement. Milt's was a rectangular two-story building sixty feet long and eighteen feet wide. It fronted on the cobbles of Ninth Street and, through the back door, onto a cobbled alley. Both front and back doors were steel; the back door was never locked. The front window was glass block, set in The Taproom's brown brick facade like a glass eye in an old soldier's face. It could stop a fairly large calibre bullet and the wan light filtering through it brightened only the first few feet of the bar, the rest of which was too dark to make out faces.
More warehouse than pub, The Taproom served no food and little liquor. It was dank and smelled of stale beer, with too few customers to dispel either. I never saw more than a rummy or two drinking, or in the evenings perhaps a few sailors and a whore. The bar, with maybe a dozen stools, ran from the front door for a school bus's length towards the rear. Three plain iron tables stood near the back door with two iron chairs each. One of these tables stood beside a large colourful Wurlitzer jukebox that played only when a Kevitch – Abe, Big Milt, Meyer or Albert – sat there to talk with someone. On those occasions one had to wonder how the two men heard each other and why their table was placed so close to the Wurlitzer it drowned them out.
I never visited The Club, which began life as a "speakeasy" during Prohibition. My mother's father, Milton or Big Milt (to distinguish him from his nephew, Little Milt) and his brother Abe owned The Club and a nearby illegal still. "G-men", i.e. federal Treasury agents, raided the still one day, razed it and dumped its barrels of illegal alcohol in the gutters of the Tenderloin. Abe and Big Milt stood in the crowd as their hooch went down the drain and cheered the G-men on, as upright citizens should. The Kevitch family owned The Club for years after Big Milt and Abe died.
Big Milt was a Republican state legislator elected consistently for decades to represent the Tenderloin ward, which continued to vote ninety percent Republican for many years after the rest of the city went Democratic. It moved into the Democratic camp by a similar ninety per cent margin after the Kevitch family struck a deal with the Democratic leadership in the early 1950s. I had little contact with Big Milt, a distant figure who drove a black Lincoln Continental his state salary could not have paid for. He did not like my name and preferred to call me Donald. One birthday present from him of a child's camp chair had Donald stencilled across its canvas back. He handled what might politely be called governmental relations for the family and died in The Club one night, aged sixty-seven, of a massive lung haemorrhage brought on by tuberculosis.
His brother Abe headed the Kevitch family and ran the "corporation", the family loan-sharking business, along with the numbers bank, gambling, fencing, prostitution and protection. When I got into trouble with the police as a teenager, Uncle Abe told me what to say to the judge at my hearing and what the judge would do, then sat in the back of the courtroom as the judge gave me a second chance and I walked without a record. Abe sat on a folding canvas chair in front of The Taproom in good weather with a cigar in his mouth. Men came up to him from time to time to talk, and sometimes they would go inside to the table beside the jukebox and talk while the music played. Inclement days and winters found him behind the bar. All serious family matters were referred to Abe until he retired and Meyer, the elder of his two sons, took over.
Meyer always greeted me with "Hello shit ass" when my mother took us to The Taproom for a visit. In good weather he sat on the same chair outside the bar his father had, and had the same conversations beside the jukebox. But unlike Abe, he did not live in the Tenderloin, his Italian wife wore minks and diamonds, and his son attended college before becoming a meat jobber with lucrative routes that dwindled after his father died. Also unlike Abe, Meyer travelled, to Cuba before Castro, to Las Vegas and, in the 1970s, Atlantic City.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "You Think It Strange"
Copyright © 2013 Dan Burt.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
– Family Trees –,
– I Certain Windows –,
ANCESTRAL HOUSES: Fourth and Daly,
Ninth and Race,
CHILDHOOD'S HOUSES: 716 South Fourth,
5141 Whitaker Ave,
– II No Expectations –,
BUTCHER SHOPS: The Store,
– III The Blue Guitars –,
THE SEA: Captain J. Burt,
FOOL ME ONCE,
– IV Envoi –,
About the Author,
– Family Trees –,