Sunday, March 16, 2014


When I was ten years old I formed a harmonica club with two other neighborhood kids, Manny "the Deli" Feinstein and Willie “no-fangs” Fong.  Growing up in a predominantly Irish-Italian neighborhood there was a Pizzeria and Hoagie/Steak shop on just about every corner, run (of course) by Italians.  If you wanted great food you frequented them and would never want to rely on good old Irish cuisine (ever try a corned beef and cabbage on soda bread?).

Manny, on the other hand, introduced another touch of world delight, the Kosher Hoagie.

On Saturday mornings, when the club would meet, he brought along a Kosher delight for himself and took pre-orders for others that he sold for a quarter each.
Thus the handle "the Deli". 

He convinced his mother that he really needed all this food as he was famished by the time practice ended.  His mother, not suspecting a ruse, was more than happy to make a few extra but eventually she took Manny to the doctor worried that he had a digestive tape worm because he claimed starvation, had been overindulging on Kosher Hoagies, but never gained any weight.

Eventually he had to fess up, and the supply ended much to the joy of the Italians.

Manny and I were on the same level as harp players, we conquered “Hot Cross Buns” and were now ready to tackle something a little more challenging.

Willie “no-fangs” Fong was a really fun kid to have hanging around.  He lost his two front teeth in normal fashion, but they never seemed to grow back.  He loved the harmonica, and played with all the heart of his idol, Little Stevie Wonder. He had only two roadblocks to becoming an outstanding performer, he was totally tone-deaf and he never understood that each hole in the instrument had a blow and draw note. 

Willie only knew how to blow, and blow he did.

We liked him a lot so he hung with us and we somehow worked around his dysfunction.

After a few months of meetings we were invited to play before an actual audience. 
The local youth club was having a talent show and asked if we would perform a song.

At our next meeting we agreed to play “Moon River” a current top 40 hit by Andy Williams. Although still at the elementary level, we were confident, that with just a little practice, we would be able to tackle this because we already progressed through “Row-Row-Row Your Boat” and “Three Blind Mice”and we would not have to bend any notes like a real blues player.

“Moon River” seemed like a safe bet.

The result was 3 kids with lots of heart who needed much more practice. 
Somehow Willie Fong sounded better than his two semi-pro partners.  It was a very funny performance, or so the audience believed.

Willie Fong was so delighted that he couldn’t stop bowing.

I bring up this story, as it was my 1st real experience performing before a live audience.


Three years’ prior I was to play a part in a school play and I bolted right before the 1st act.  No I did not get cold feet!  Sister Cecilia B. DeMille insisted I have makeup applied before going on stage.  I refused and returned to a seat next to my parents.  My mother was horrified that I quit but when I told my father of my rebellion, he smiled, knowingly, and I gained a powerful ally.

I wasn’t gonna be a second-grade sissy wearing lipstick. I would have had to spend the next month fighting my way through the neighborhood.

Now we finally get to St. Patrick’s Day.

As I mentioned, our neighborhood was predominantly mixed, if you consider almost exclusively Irish and Italian Catholic residents a total composite of American life.

The wealthy Italians (the Pizzeria owners) had their own elementary school, St. Joseph Pesci, just up the block from our school. St. Attica’s.

At St. A’s March 17th was almost a holy day of obligation (the “Pesci’s had Columbus Day).

I never really shared all the enthusiasm as some of my school friends as I was a half breed, ½ Irish (Mom) and ½ German (Dad) with a little Lenape Indian thrown in.

My school chums were mostly 1st and second generation Irish-Americans. 

My ancestors arrived in the early wave of the potato famines and settled in the Pennsylvania coal towns of Schuylkill County. My elders never spoke of the "old country". Their memories were of 6 year old mine workers and the Molly Maguire's. 

I was so clueless about my heritage I couldn’t understand why people emigrated because they had no Irish potatoes, after all, man does not live by coconut, sugar and cinnamon alone.

By now I enjoyed singing, having been enlisted into the all-boy parish choir.  A few of my choir friends asked that I join them in forming a quartet to perform Irish songs at the “Patapalooza” talent show, the grand finale of the day’s activities.

They needed me because they were still boy-soprano’s and my puberty arrived earlier leaving me to become a squeaky alto.

Until testosterone eventually fine-tuned my vocals I was now the Willie Fong of the St. A’s “Patapalooza Extravaganza”.

The parish took Patapalooza practice with all the seriousness of a Russian Olympic Ice Hockey team.  We even had a former professional voice coach brought in, Sister Rose Kathleen Sinead Seamus Shannon O’ Malley, directly from County Cork.

Sister O worked us like dogs.

We got to skip classes prior to the show to practice-practice-practice. We had a repertoire of about 6 songs and even today I can sing each from memory as the themes were all identical; mother, homeland and death.

The show went as expected, every act was a hit, the audience (filled with Guinness and Irish Potatoes) enthusiastically applauded and I was certain to take a bow like Willie Fong.

Afterwards the family went to Gadaletta’s for Pizza.

The Irish say that on March 17th, everyone is Irish so wear something green, enjoy the day, sing “Danny Boy” and be sure to take a bow like Willie Fong.

Then order a pizza.