After over forty-five years of founding, running, and participating in creative marketing companies, I finally did what I was meant to do. I became a novelist: a writer of fiction or if you prefer, an author. Is sixty-eight too old to become an author? It wasn’t for me.
My first novel, Mercy Row, drew on my early life growing up in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. Kensington was a blue-collar neighborhood where factories stood on the same streets as their workers’ red-brick row houses. It was also known as an Irish neighborhood, as it was initially populated by Irish immigrants fleeing the oppression of their British overlords and the devastating results of the Great Potato Famine.
By the 1940s and 1950s other immigrants from many European countries had made Kensington their home. One could walk down the street and experience the sweet smell of Italian cuisine; the pungent odor of borscht and cabbage, goulash, and kielbasa; or the aromatic scent of roast beef or pork.
Roving merchants pushing carts or guiding horse-drawn wagons sold everything from fresh horseradish and succulent Jersey tomatoes to hot, freshly baked pretzels. The children waited at their doors to see the organ grinder with his funny monkey, the truck that sold yummy ice cream on a stick, or the roving carnival rides.
Kensington seemed to have as many stores as it did families. Shopping districts such as Kensington Avenue and Front Street provided almost everything people needed, and there was a bar or candy store on nearly every street corner. In fact, it was common for children to be sent to the corner bar to tell their fathers that dinner was ready.
Bars and after-hours clubs were important social outlets where factory workers mingled with doctors, other professionals, off-duty police officers, and local mobsters. The poolroom was another important social outlet. Although they were less plentiful than taprooms, people could always find a nearby poolroom to play a friendly game of eight ball, wager on their skills, or play poker in the back room if they had the money.
I spent most of my after-school hours in a poolroom between the ages of 8 and 12. It was uncommon to see kids that age in a poolroom, but I knew the owner: he was my dad. I didn’t know it then, but a Kensington poolroom—or any poolroom, for that matter—is an excellent place for an aspiring writer.
I met many personalities in that poolroom, and it was the first place I heard about the K&A Gang. I don’t doubt that members of that gang played pool at my dad’s place, but no one ever admitted it. Sometime in 1959, the newspaper covered the Pottsville Caper, in which a woman named Lillian Reis and several men were accused of robbing a coal baron from Pottsville. As I read the newspaper’s account, the story unfolded like a Hollywood movie. Reis was a showgirl, and the men were possibly members of a criminal organization. I asked my dad if he knew who these men were. He told me they were just some guys from the K&A Gang.
From then on, I knew I would someday write a book about Kensington and the Irish mob. It took a while, but I achieved my goal. In fact, I’ve written four books in the Mercy Row series about a fictitious Irish gang called the K&A Gang. My series doesn’t portray any real people. It’s just my fantasy regarding what I thought the Irish mob might be like based on the people I met at the poolroom and in my neighborhood. My Irish gang has a strong family orientation, is loyal, believes in giving back to the community, and defends its members and their families to the fullest extent possible. These are all attributes I saw in the people who touched my life while growing up in Kensington, Philadelphia.
My novels cover the period 1880 to 1975, but and I am currently working on a fifth book that will extend this to 1990. Philadelphia, especially Kensington, is as much a character in my books as are the people. The streets I mention, the food the people eat, the buildings, and the homes they live in are all as I remember them. Like all good mob stories, my books have an exaggerated level of violence and could be described as gritty.
During my marketing career, I worked with clients from the largest companies in the United States, such as AT&T, IBM, and Honeywell. I wrote plenty of proposals, scripts, ad copy, and other materials for these companies, but none of it was as fulfilling as writing stories about the place where my grandparents, parents, siblings, friends, and I grew up: Kensington, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Originally posted on The Kensington Neighborhood Alumni Group on Facebook.