The Thinking 

Housing Matters

April 24, 2015


HERE is Part IV of my husband’s recollections of growing up in Chester, Pennsylvania during the 1950s and ’60s. Earlier installments can be found here.

Renner was going on trial. The neighborhood drama, which had receded to the haunting reality of Renner’s ransacked property, was getting new life.

His fate was the only subject of discussion during the daily afternoon gossip sessions at our dining room table, sessions specifically convened to address the crisis and enlivened with beer. The assembled talked of adult matters that I was not to be part of, and I was expected to have the good sense and courtesy to be in another part of the house. They themselves were too courteous to ask me to leave the premises, and I voluntarily consigned myself to the living room, where I was free to watch “Bandstand.”

My mother and her sister-in-law and the others did not take great pains to keep their voices beyond my hearing. Most of what they said was repetitious, if not meaningless. I heard the same details about the selling of the diamonds to Benny and the suitcases in the living room.

The capacity of adults to repeat themselves and belabor points evidently was boundless. Hearing those same details had an effect similar to what I felt when Gabe, the barber, would continue snipping at the same strand of hair during those dreadful and tedious Saturday afternoon haircuts. Please, Gabe, move on: Chop off a huge lock somewhere else, anywhere else.

So it was to my immense surprise that one afternoon I overheard them discussing something that was actually new and exciting. It concerned me. The prosecutors wanted to call me as a witness. My mother knew this because she was plugged in. She was an active member of the fire company’s ladies auxiliary, which gave her the enormous privilege of cooking and cleaning up at fund-raising events. She numbered among her acquaintances the very fire chief who had pronounced, “That’s the most-obvious case of arson I’ve ever seen.” From church, she knew the detective who had arrested Renner. She was pleading with them to leave me out of the case.

I wanted badly to testify. The very possibility was electrifying. I might even be able to skip school one or two days for official business. It would have been one the most-exciting absence excuse of my life. It did not occur to me that my testimony probably would have condemned Renner faster than any of the other evidence.

Renner had returned 10 days after the fire, to my mind miraculously. His disappearance had left me with an overwhelming emptiness. No adult had yet evaporated from my life. His return at least delayed that inevitable experience.

I was certain that his return was the direct response to an elaborate prayer.

In addition to the two daily Masses and a brutal Sunday schedule that began with the 5:45, the priests at St. Michael’s  presided at various ancillary services in the afternoons and evenings. Among these was the St. Francis Xavier Novena, a prayer service that climaxed with a congregational kissing of the cross and a benediction. I was a choir boy, and we spent almost as much time at the church as the priests. Our role in the novena was to sing the hymns.

Among all the services at which we performed„ this novena was a personal favorite. I was not entirely clear on exactly whom St. Francis Xavier was and why the novena bore his name, but I knew he was a missionary and I admired any man who went through life with a last name that began with “X.” I especially liked the novena music. We did our favorite versions of the “Tantum Ergo” and “0 Salutaris Hostia,” not the tedious Gregorian ones. Gertrude, the organist, immersed herself in the novena music. Gertrude always dressed elegantly and had a talent that far exceeded what was required of an organist at a Chester church, but she was a deeply religious woman who gave her soul to her work and St. Michael’s. The more sparsely the pews were filled, and only a handful of the usual suspects made the novena, the more enthusiastically she approached the music. Her timing was impeccable; she never missed a cue, her playing enhancing and perfectly counter-pointing our singing. She was a splendid role model for us. She taught us through example that one should always do one’s best no matter who didn’t notice. You never knew who was watching, and it didn’t matter if no one was.

To monitor what was occurring on the altar, she consulted an enormous mirror above the organ, and in that mirror we could see her huge breasts heaving as she played.

The Novena lasted nine nights, as the Latin word suggested. It was a good deal for the choir boys, overall. We were excused from homework on Novena nights, and we were entitled to the same spiritual and temporal benefits as the few pious souls who made the Novena voluntarily Those benefits were substantial. We were granted “plenary indulgences,” which meant that upon completion all our sins were washed away and our souls perfectly clean. If one of us left church on the ninth night and got run over by a truck, always a possibility, your soul would go straight to Heaven no matter what you had done not to deserve it — at least that was my understanding. On the temporal side, you could ask God for one special favor, and if it wasn’t granted you would get something better.

I was grateful for the indulgence, but assuming one stayed alive, few things in life have a shorter shelf life than a pure soul. I was far more interested in the secular favor. Coincidentally, the novena started on the third night after Renner’s disappearance.

I had asked God to bring back Renner. I had never made the Novena more fervently, or sang more vigorously or kissed the cross more reverentially. I did not look at Gertrude’s heaving breasts.

On the morning after the Novena ended, I awoke to an apparition. Renner was in my father’s easy chair, smoking a corncob, a cold bowl of oatmeal on the coffee table. It had worked. God had kept his side of the bargain. Renner volunteered that he had gone upstate to visit some relatives. Now he was back.

That afternoon, detectives came to our house and arrested him.

He remained in jail to await trial. All evidence to the contrary, I could not bring myself to believe that he had set his house on fire. The charges against Renner were serious: arson and nine counts of reckless endangerment, which would be one for each occupant of our house. My mother attended each day of the trial. She reported that Renner steadfastly denied setting the fire.

Whether it was my mother’s lobbying or the prosecutors’ realization that they had no chance of losing the case, I was never called to testify at Renner’s trial. Had I been called, my testimony would not have been the nails in the coffin of Renner’s case — it would have been so many rivets.

At trial, they said Renner had set the fire in 12 different places. He owed back taxes and gas, electric and water bills. Damningly, the only thing paid up was his home insurance. In Renner’s version, the fire had been set by “vagrants” whom he had allowed to sleep on his un-heated upper floors. He, himself, had decided to live on the first floor exclusively because the upstairs had become so cold. Had I been called to testify, no doubt I would have been asked if it were true that Renner housed vagrants. Having taken an oath, I would have told the court that it would be unimaginable for Renner to allow any human being to sleep in his house. The only person Renner ever allowed inside his house, period, was me.

In Renner’s version, he had fallen asleep downstairs after listening to the late-night news on the radio. He awoke to the smell of smoke about 1 a.m. The first thing he did was to alert his next-door neighbors – that would be us.

Renner was convicted of all charges.  He disappeared from my life forever.

On a white-hot summer afternoon after the fire, I made one last visit to Renner’s house. This time, I didn’t have to ring the doorbell; I was able to walk right through a smashed-out front window. The house had been ransacked. The fixtures were so elegant that even thieves could recognize the quality. The marble fireplace mantel was gone, so was the lamp with the fringed shade, the pipe collection and the tabernacle-shaped radio.

I climbed the remnants of the ornate staircase, upon which his wife had died, and toured the second floor. On my other visits, Renner had been my guide, like some minor figure in a horror movie leading me down a creaky hallway by candlelight. On this visit, I had never seen so much light in the house. It did not wear daylight well. I entered the bedroom in which Renner had shown me the diamonds. Nothing was left, not even the bed frame. I encountered sterno cans and the stench of human excrement.

In the light of that summer afternoon when I visited the house, my “secret passageway” was plainly nothing more than a servant’s staircase that led to the kitchen. Near the stairway, I found the pried-up floorboards the investigators had talked about. The floorboards, they said, had been stuffed with paper rolls from a player piano.


For such a densely built and geographically tiny neighborhood, we had an extraordinary variety of houses. They all appeared to have been built in different eras in different styles. Even the three sets of rowhouses bore almost no likeness to one another aside from the fact that they consisted of several attached houses. The exteriors, however, gave little indication of just how truly different all the houses were. Over time, I was in and out of almost every one of them and quickly discovered that houses had more than personalities. They had souls. They were organisms that lived and breathed, and when you breathed inside one of them you knew instantly where you were.

The Wilkies on Crosby Street had a small yard with indeterminate vegetation and laundry always hanging on the clothesline. The inside of the house wasn’t much different from the yard. It smelled vaguely of peanut butter on white bread that had been left on a table. The walls and furniture were nondescript, and the house was dark and uninviting.

Mr. Wilkie invited me to come into his house one day, to which I agreed reluctantly. He took me to the basement stairs. “I want to show you something.” He turned on the cellar lights, and we made our way down the stairs. I was astonished to see the most elaborate toy-train set I had ever encountered, one with snow-capped mountains and a village church and a post office. Wilkie flicked a switch and started manipulating the red lever on a transformer. He could make it go as fast as he wanted, and it never jumped the tracks. He could make it to slow, go backward. It climbed the hills like a roller-coaster.

Down the street was the home of Helen Doyle, my mother’s first cousin. She had inherited the personality of her loud and coarse father, the legendary Otto Traub. Otto had 10 children, and three of his daughters lived on Crosby Street. Helen was forever cleaning sweeping the front porch or mopping the already-spotless floors, her voice bounding off the linoleum. Most of her conversation consisted of yelling at the kids (“Shut your damn mouth”) and poor Harry (“Shut your damn mouth”).

Legend had it that Harry married Helen for her body, which was large and pear-shaped by the time I knew her. She had fleshy arms that were as wide as legs and fleshy legs wider than most waist-lines.

Harry was the opposite, physically and in personality. He was thin and quiet. He had a deeply-shadowed face behind a chronic beard growth of two or three days. We would listen to ball games together and drink Cokes. He could read the newspaper critically, pointing out grammatical and typographical errors. Though he was a welder at Sun Ship, the shipyard where my father also worked, he appeared to know everything. His only apparent domestic ambition was to drink beer in peace. Harry did get to drink often, but not in peace, not when Helen was around. I was told that in his younger days, Harry was something of a ladies man.

He collapsed one Sunday afternoon, and my mother took him to the hospital in a cab. Helen was in the cab with them. My mother asked her accusingly: “Did you ever try to show him love, Helen?” Back then, no one went to psychotherapists.

My godmother, Mary Settine, lived next to the Doyles in the only house in the immediate area with air-conditioning. It always smelled of plush vacuumed rugs and furniture polish. The kitchen had varnished wood cabinets; the living room, sumptuous oversized chairs and sofa and a console television set with a round channel dial. The house was dark, which added a mystical quality to the extreme order that Mary Settine imposed on every cranny. Mary was married to Sandy Settine, and that’s why the Settines had air-conditioning. It was keeping Sandy alive. He was dying of some horrid disease that was robbing him daily of his strength. I watched his deterioration with sadness and fascination. I saw it unfold incrementally and ineluctably.

From April through the summer, I would play ball in my back yard, bouncing it against our steps. About once a week, it would hit a corner of the cement step and bound all the way into the Settines’ yard. It had to walk around to Crosby Street to Sandy’s front door. Each week it took Sandy longer to reach the door to let me in. With each summer, the deterioration escalated. Before five summers passed, Sandy was dead.

I missed visiting the house, which reminded me of what the neighborhood must have been in its heyday. And how different it was from the other houses in which I spent most of my time, particularly our house.

Not far away was the Hendersons’ house, built on a grand Victorian scale. It might have been the most elegant in the neighborhood if it were not for one detail: The first floor had no furniture. The family lived on the second floor for mysterious reasons, perhaps to preserve the elegant details of plaster moldings and carved staircase.

Mrs. Henderson was always warm and generous. There was a sense of health and cleanliness everywhere in their cramped second-floor quarters. The two Henderson boys were the model of athleticism and coolness and we could only admire the environment that bred such talents.

So it was an immense shock when we learned that Mrs. Henderson was dying of cancer. She went rapidly. It was the first death of a mother in the neighborhood. At the wake, her son Clayton patiently and stoically answered inappropriate questions from the neighborhood boys about how the body was prepared for viewing. He was being tested, and he knew it. It was a variant of the torments that accompanied all the tedious hours spent hanging out on the local Corner. Could you find a weak spot faster than anyone else? Could you make the great Clayton Henderson break down in front of all his admirers. You could not. I never admired him more.

I spent more hours in the DeFonzos’ house than any other. It didn’t quite rival ours for quirks and absurdities, but it was peculiar enough to feel like home. It always smelled faintly of Palmolive soap and bad spaghetti sauce. The Palmolive came from the tiny bathroom, the only one in the house, at the top of the stairs leading to the second floor. The odor tumbled down the stairs and mixed with the odor of the steaming sauce perennially cooking in the kitchen. The DeFonzos lived next to Pat’s Sandwich Shop, a block from Helen. This was more than coincidence. Helen Doyle and Missy DeFonzo were sisters. Missy was the raving beauty of the family and was immensely attractive even in middle age, as we all could see. She had married a boxer who had taken the fight name of “Jimmy Ireland.” It was not clear why, since he was certifiably Italian. Jimmy DeFonzo had been a successful bantamweight, winning over 100 fights. He smoked cigars, wore starched shirts and flashy ties and in all likelihood was flat broke. He looked incongruous in his cramped living room wearing a red-satin robe.

Their two-story house was far too small to contain Jimmy, Missy and the four kids, who slept in two bedrooms. It had a primitive and peculiar heating system. A large coal-burning furnace in the basement ejected heat through a massive grate that straddled the living room and dining room. So in winter, someone had to keep shoveling the coal and stoking the furnace.

The kids adored their father. Missy did not. She had too much class to air their troubles publicly, but we knew enough of Missy to know he must have been hard to live with. It was clear they did not get along. Jimmy eventually moved to Wilmington to be among his old boxing friends and came to visit every other weekend.

The only remnants of Missy’s Italian marriage were her attempts to make spaghetti sauce. Her sons said her secret ingredient was wire, and when I had occasion to eat there, I had to acknowledge that it was awful.

Missy had the loveliest singing voice I had ever heard. I was once seated at a table at the Eagles with her and three other adults I did not know They sang elegantly and in harmony Missy was crying. When they finished he song, she said, “We could have made it.”

I had a recurring dream in those years of my childhood.

I dreamt that my parents, my four siblings, and I, absent the assorted boarders who stayed with us, lived somewhere other than the house in which we lived. I dreamt that we lived in a suburban home like the model I had seen one summer on display at Steel Pier. It had a glistening modern kitchen. I was admiring the oven when two older friends lifted me up and held me over the balcony railing as though they were going to drop me into it. They thought it was funny beyond all belief. I screamed and kicked until they pulled me back.

I wanted to live in a house like that. I would dream of being on my hands and knees with my mother and father cleaning the oak floors with Lestoil. The dream always had the same ending. I would wake up at 622 Madison Street.

To Be Continued.

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