FISHED ALL DAY/WE FISHED ALL NIGHT . . . But,
those slippery fish refused to bite!
of a song of years ago surfaced the other day when a reader called to comment on
a piece I had written about Norristown, Pa. The story carried him back to his
early days growing up in the action town, which is still a good
neighbor to Manayunk, Wissahickon and East Falls. They were a trio of suburbs in
northwest Philadelphia, a stone’s throw from Norristown.
was a “Yunker.” Most of my youth was spent climbing steep hills. Manayunk
was carved out of hills. At the foot of the slopes was the Manayunk Canal, which
ran parallel to the Schuylkill River to its west. “Yunkers,” especially the
young ones, loved the hills in the winter. Sled rides were long and exciting. In
the spring and summer we fished the Schuylkill, No one would ever drop a line in
the Manayunk Canal. Two large paper mills were known to dump in it. Dirty,
caller rambled on. Mostly about Norristown, his hometown. But, occasionally he
wove in stories about Manayunk.
you know that Manayunk is now a fancy schmancy neighborhood? It has attracted
the artsy crowd and,” he added, “some of the finer restaurants in
Philadelphia now are set up there.”
went on: “The row houses, which dominated, have all been restored. It’s a
pricey place to live.”
knew of what he spoke and told him so. I reminded him that when I lived in
Manayunk it was a friendly, blue-collar town with hills, mills and even a few
stills. They used to say . . . You might as well get drunk if you live in
of us followed the advice. Nearly every Saturday night there was a wedding
reception to crash in the many halls on the hills.
best weddings to crash were the Irish ones. Beer flowed from tapped barrels
while chug-a-lug and sing-alongs were big attractions. However, by the end of
the night the truth wasn’t in us. The only receptions that offered hard booze
were the Polish ones. Pop a few brownies (shot of whiskey) and the
dance floor became more appealing. The Poles played polka music all night long.
A few fast polkas and there was room for a few more belts of booze. The Polish
people drank boilermakers ”” a shot of whiskey followed quickly with a glass of
wasn’t for me. No way was I going to guzzle beer when there were brownies
available. Beer was the bill of fare for not only the Irish, but the Italians,
too, although a little homemade dago red always appeared.
caller was surprised to learn that I did not grow up in Norristown. I worked for
the Norristown Times Herald, and commuted back and forth from nearby
Manayunk. He seemed to be a little disappointed that I wasn’t a Norristowner.
I quickly put him at ease by telling him of all the time I spent at Arena’s,
a bar and sandwich joint down the block from the newspaper. To mend his feelings
I even told him about all the card games, especially the ones at the Norristown
thought I would save some of the Arena’s stories for another time. If he ever
calls back I have a couple of good ones to lay on him.
your information Arena’s was my all-time favorite watering hole. Newspaper
guys, characters and bookmakers frequented Arena’s. In the lobby there was a
payphone. If you were in search of the winner of the race you had wagered upon a
few minutes earlier, you would place a call to the Daily Armstrong. It
was a stepbrother of the Morning Telegraph, which was replaced by the Daily
Racing Form. All of the bookies were armed with an “Army.” Each day a
new code was printed. Horses carried their own numbers. Callers had to know what
the code was. No code, no results. Whisper the code and they gave you win, place
and show prices. Exotic wagering had not yet arrived.
boss, Red McCarthy, would occasionally visit Arena’s at lunchtime. He
was the sports editor. He wasn’t much of a bettor. Golf was his mainstay. But,
like everyone else, he was wowed by all the color found daily at the watering
back, I’m glad the fish didn’t bite. I might never have learned about the
finer things in life.