Swapping old stories of life in Swampoodle

Posted: September 03, 2003

Growing up in Swampoodle 60 years ago, they all had nicknames: Froggy and Scribby, Jackie Prosciutto and Junior Punior, Gooch and Rocky.

Theirs was a largely Italian enclave in North Philadelphia, where Sunday meant Latin Mass at St. Mary of the Eternal and early dinners of macaroni and red gravy. They played halfball with a broomstick bat, and their football was a rolled-up newspaper sealed with rubber bands. They were always together - at school, at play, at church - and it seemed as if they never tired of each other.

"It was only a small part of our lives - most of us were there for the first 20 years of our lives - but we're talking about a time that was so meaningful to us," said Vincent "Junior Punior" Pongia. "They were the growing-up years. The beautiful years. I loved them."

And more than half a century later, they are still friends.

The old gang - most of whom are in their mid- to late 70s - was together again the other day, enjoying a meal at the Country Club Restaurant & Pastry Shop in the Northeast. It has become a ritual these last few years: Every month or so, someone pulls out the telephone list, makes a few calls, and the boys whose lives revolved around 21st Street and Indiana Avenue gather over omelettes and Reuben sandwiches and keep the stories alive.

"What was the last movie they ever played at the Hollywood Theater?" Pongia challenged the group.

House of Strangers was the answer, which none of them guessed.

OK, so when you went to Fleck's Bakery for pound cake, what did you ask for?

"A bag of ends," someone shouted, referring to the trimmed edges tossed into a bag and sold for a nickel apiece.

"We're talking about things we did 60 years ago," said Art Menno, 75. "Now, I forget what I went down the basement for."

But, boy, do they recall the old tales. Like the one about Frankie the Weasel, who went to Mass one day and only heard the end of the sentence, Et cum spiritu tuo. He ran to one of the local bookies and put money, a dime or a quarter (nobody can remember which), on 2-2-0. He won.

They cannot forget Fritz, the beat cop with the bulging belly. Fritz would give $5 to anyone who could punch him in the stomach and knock him down. It cost a buck to try, and Fritz took in a lot more than he paid out.

They loved to dance, and still boast that the Sunday dance parties at their church, featuring the Tommy Verrone Orchestra, were the best in the city.

"People came from all over Philadelphia. It was the highlight of the week," said Ernie "Luke" Lucarini, 77. "That's why we knew how to dance. Today, they don't know how to dance. They don't know how to hold their girls. They dance in six inches of ground and rub against each other. We needed the whole dance floor."

These gatherings bring back memories they say they did not even know they had.

"Without this, I would have no tie to the old neighborhood," said John "Rocky" Carsella, at 71 the self-proclaimed baby of the group.

They named themselves "The Stella Street Midgets," so called because the boys on Indiana Avenue were bigger. But they did not rumble or rob or cause trouble. The group started breaking up in the 1950s, when the Midgets were old enough to join the Army, go to college, or get married.

Now Pongia and Menno are in the suburbs, Blue Bell and Willow Grove, respectively. Carsella spends most of the year in Florida. Lucarini crossed the river to Marlton.

At the most recent get-together, Scribby could not make it because he had a doctor's appointment. Gooch was not feeling well. Jackie Prosciutto was not allowed to drive after heart surgery.

All that made Pongia a bit wistful.

"We were sort of a gang," he said.

And yet, as they were sitting at the diner, shouting across the table, laughing for hours, it was clear enough they still are.

Contact staff writer Natalie Pompilio at 215-854-2813 or npompilio@phillynews.com.

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