I remember when “The Greatest Show on Earth” came to Hunting Park. It really happened. I Googled it. In 1950, the Barnum & Bailey Circus really did come to Philadelphia. It’s in the books.
Better yet, it’s all in my head. I remember the day Dad and Mom took us across from where we lived in that tiny second-floor apartment above the Italian grocery at Hunting Park Avenue and Broad Street. They did it twice: in the afternoon to walk along the gangway and see the lions and tigers in their cages, and that night to the center ring to see all those clowns come climbing out of that little car.
What’s truly wondrous is that Hunting Park is where we and everyone else in the neighborhood hung out. We’d go there on a summer evening to stroll among the old gazebo, the merry-go-round, and the stand where they sold those cartons of orange drink that afterward you could turn into actual cardboard megaphones.
All this was in those years our parents forever called “after the war,” as opposed to “before the war.” Or as Dad’s mom, Grandmom-in-Chestnut Hill, would always say when speaking of the distant past, “Oh, that was years and years ago.”
It was a great neighborhood back then. Grandmom and Grandpop Shields, Mom’s parents, lived around the corner from us on 15th Street. Everyone walked everywhere, including to the grand St. Stephen’s Church a few blocks down on Broad Street. To let you know how different things were, you couldn’t miss the big trough at the corner of Hunting Park and Broad where the horses that delivered our milk and collected the trash drank and splashed away.
Yes, that was “years and years ago.” It seems, looking back from 2015, as though that time was a lot closer to the 1800s than it was to today. In fact, it was. Do the math.
Though I doubt the words would have meant much to me at the time, we lived in a totally Catholic world — Irish Catholic. Mass at St. Stephen’s was definite old-church. You dressed up. Everybody did, especially the adults. Grandpop always put on his three-piece gray suit. It was all in Latin, and the priest stood with his back to us just like it showed in those stages of the Mass in the missal. The altar boys rang the bells more often than they do now. And people came on time. I remember once when Grandpop took us and we were maybe five minutes late. When Mass was over, he sent me and my older brother Herb — we called him Bert back then — home, while he stayed for the entire next Mass. He was like that. It was like that back then.
Ours was a religious family, round-the-clock religious. There were crucifixes in Grandmom and Grandpop’s house, and framed devotions to the Sacred Heart on the dining room wall. Grandmom was always talking about a “novena” that was about to be celebrated. When she got upset at something, she had a standard response: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” was both her prayer and her sigh at having kids forever around. One of her daughters, Eleanor, had joined the Sisters of St. Joseph at a young age and was already teaching what we call “special education.” Today, at 92, Eleanor is at St. Joseph Villa in Flourtown. I pray she gets to read this.
Auntie Agnes would also become a nun, but in the years when we were just becoming aware of things, she was going to school up at Mount St. Joseph’s. Her bedroom was in the front of the house on 15th Street. It was the nicest room, catching the sun and filled with her girl stuff, her field hockey stick, her perfectly kept marble-backed copybooks. The room smelled of talcum powder or something else wonderfully girly. I once dreamt of being in that room with the Devil talking to me. I can’t remember what he was saying, only the slow, commanding, menacing voice. It didn’t seem like a dream, not then, not in memory. It seemed real.
Aunt Agnes was still a teenager back then and therefore the coolest possible person to hang out with. She would take us to movies down on Broad Street and to a malt shop afterward. Her decision to give up a scholarship to Chestnut Hill College so another girl could have it — one who wasn’t becoming a nun — is part of our family story.
As religious as she was, Grandmom was stricken when she learned that a second daughter was heading to the convent: “Wait till your father hears it!” But the funny thing was Grandpop’s acceptance: “Whatever makes you happy,” he told his youngest. Agnes would for many years chair the Chestnut Hill College English department.
As I said, at the rowhouse on 15th Street and in our world near Hunting Park, it was all about the Church. I remember the morning Cardinal Dougherty had his funeral. It was on television the whole morning. The year was 1951. I was five years old. What’s amazing is that the great man had been archbishop of Philadelphia since 1918. It was as if he’d always been the Church’s leader. The treatment by local TV was appropriately reverential. The Mass at Sts. Peter and Paul was like an event at the Vatican. Or it certainly seemed that way at Grandmom’s.
Did I mention we were Irish? Grandmom’s maiden name was Conroy; her mother’s was Quinlan. Call it vanity, but I took great pride when my cousins agreed several years ago that I was “a Quinlan.”
Anyway, there were aspects of our lives that I now definitely connect with the country we all came from. One was what we ate and how we did so. My brother Bert and I would spend many a morning on Grandmom’s porch, watching the horses pull the milk wagon up 15th Street. Bert was the one who noticed how the horses always knew which rowhouses to stop at. The afternoons were just as memorable. We’d sit on the davenport, helping Grandmom make dinner. We’d get started about three, just when the Hunting Park outbound traffic began. Before us were the vegetables Grandmom had gotten for “Daddy’s supper.” Everything was from scratch: no cans, and frozen food hadn’t come along yet. We’d shell the peas, husk the corn, clip the string beans. Grandmom would then take it into the kitchen in the back and boil it all for two to three hours. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but the Irish know what I’m talking about.
Grandpop! Charles Patrick Shields was a character straight from Eugene O’Neill. (For a particular reference, see A Touch of the Poet.) He worked as a supervisor at a plant several subway stops away. He’d head off to work in his peacoat and cap, carrying his lunch bucket and Thermos. He could have been a guy making his way to his job in County Cork.
His true position, the one he kept in his head, was that of a greater man altogether. There’d been money in the family. A couple generations earlier, the Shieldses had owned the local dairy. Even when we were growing up, Grandpop would wear his three-piece suit all day on Sunday as a sign of his better station.
The Depression had been hard across the board. Family legend told how Grandmom pinched pennies and Grandpop walked the nine miles to and from City Hall every day of the week, looking for work. Only years later did I realize he’d been hoping to pick up a patronage job from the old Republican political machine, which dominated Philadelphia for 87 years.