Thank goodness the fish didn’t bite in Manayunk

Jul 17, 2001 5:42 AM

WE FISHED ALL DAY/WE FISHED ALL NIGHT . . .  But, those slippery fish refused to bite!

Words 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.

I 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, dirty, dirty.

The caller rambled on. Mostly about Norristown, his hometown. But, occasionally he wove in stories about Manayunk.

”˜Did 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.”

He went on: “The row houses, which dominated, have all been restored. It’s a pricey place to live.”

I 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 Manayunk.

Plenty of us followed the advice. Nearly every Saturday night there was a wedding reception to crash in the many halls on the hills.

The 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 beer.

It 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.

My 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 Club.

I 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.

For 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.

My 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 hole.

Looking back, I’m glad the fish didn’t bite. I might never have learned about the finer things in life.