By Charlie Sacchetti
When I was growing up in Southwest Philly, back in the early ’60s, Mrs. Nellie Fagan was probably about 70 years old. She was a key figure in the lives of the neighborhood kids, myself included, because Mrs. Fagan owned and operated the soda shop/candy store at 64th and Garman streets. This little piece of heaven served as the gathering place of several generations of boys who often played stickball, chink, Wiffle ball, and halfball using the store wall as a backstop. Across the street was St. Barnabas schoolyard. It was a mere trot from Fagan’s to enter the world of two-hand touch football, box ball and handball. So, you see, we had our own “sports multiplex,” and it didn’t cost us a cent.
After we were done playing, we would go into the store to replace our burned-up calories. Cokes and Pepsis cost 12 cents then. A package of three Tastykake chocolate cupcakes was also 12 cents, and they were big enough to fill you up! A Tastykake cherry pie actually had cherries in it! Those cost a dime. Mrs. Fagan had the hand-dipped Abbott’s ice cream, too, so you could top off your soda-and-Tastykake meal with dessert. That ice cream was the real thing. My mother would give me a large, empty dish to take to the store, and Mrs. Fagan would fill it with butter pecan and cover it with wax paper. It was generally intact after the short walk home, except for the time I brought a spoon with me and ate about a quarter of the contents on the way back, but that only happened once.
We never really did anything bad in those days. Almost all of our mothers were home with the kids, so there were always watchful eyes to catch you in the act. If by chance you did mess up, and word got back to your parents, there was hell to pay. What passes for “child abuse” today was called “discipline” back then. The most daring thing we did was climb up on top of the row houses, walking up and down the block to retrieve the plethora of roofed halfballs lost during games played in the block-long driveway. The climber would simply throw them to the ground, and we’d all pick them up, clean them, and put them to use. It was a bonanza from the sky.
Mrs. Fagan was a nice old gal and was happy to have “her boys” lounge around outside and inside the store in the ancient wooden booths. She stood about 5 feet tall, maybe. She walked slowly and wore her gray hair in something resembling a bun. These features, combined with her rounded eyeglasses, gave her the perfect elderly shopkeeper look of the ’50s and ’60s. My group was probably the third generation of kids that she “raised.” No matter the age, all of us boys treated Mrs. Fagan like she was our grandmother. If she needed someone to run an errand, we’d do it. One hand washed the other. On the rare occasion that the corner got a little too noisy, she would pop her head out of the door and give us the look. Usually, that was all that was necessary to keep us in line.
But there was that one time …
Back in those days, there were police officers who actually had a beat. The cops in our neighborhood would periodically drive by to check out the area. We knew most of them, and several of my buddies’ dads were cops, so we usually had no problem. However, a rookie officer was assigned to the area, and he was obviously anxious to “make his bones.” Acting like Dirty Harry, for the first few nights he ordered us to disperse or keep quiet, which we did for about 15 minutes, and then he’d double back on us. He was quickly becoming a nuisance. Now, Mrs. Fagan was no fool. It is not good for business when your clientele’s habits are disrupted, so she took matters into her own hands.
Did she call the district sergeant to complain about harassment?
Did she file suit with the ACLU?
Did she call the Action News hotline?
The next time the rookie stopped by, with his veteran partner, to chase us off, Mrs. Fagan emerged, broom in hand. She asked him to get out of the car. When he did, the tiny woman squared up to him, like Earl Weaver about to argue with an umpire, and said in her best grandmotherly voice:
“Who the hell do you think you are, coming over here and bothering these kids? These are my boys. I want them here, and I’ll take care of them if they don’t behave, just like I have for the last 40 years. Now get out of here before I call the district!”
Dirty Harry didn’t know what to do or say. I guess the fact that his more seasoned partner was still in the car, doubled over with laughter, didn’t exactly give him a whole bunch of confidence. He just retreated into the car to avoid an altercation with the broom. As he made a U-turn to head down 64th Street, his partner looked out of the open car window and said, “Good evening, Mrs. Fagan,” to which she replied, “So long, Billy.”
It’s always wise to know the territory. Had Dirty Harry done his homework, he would have known that Billy had been one of Nellie’s “boys” about 20 years earlier! IAH
Charlie Sacchetti is the author of two books, “It’s All Good: Times and Events I’d Never Want to Change,” and “Knowing He’s There: True Stories of God’s Subtle Yet Unmistakable Touch.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mrs. Nellie from the soda shop had friends in unexpected places
By Charlie Sacchetti