THE PHILLY SOUNDS
A while ago, I wrote about the smells of Kensington. I thought I would continue the five senses theme and write about the symphony of sounds we all grew up with living in Philly’s Kensington section. As with most of our Kensington memories from bygone years, they are something we share with all people from Philly and maybe most other large cities.
Here is what I remember most.
THE ALLEY CATS
How often were you awakened in the middle of a hot summer’s night by what sounded like babies crying? No, a better description is babies screaming. It was frightening, especially in your half-awake status. When your wits came back, you realized that it was just Tom cat and his gang looking for a date for the evening. In my neighborhood, we didn’t have barking dogs; we had wailing cats.
THE DOO WOP BOYS
The Rocky movie may have made Doo Wop famous for the 1970s kids, but those of us who were teens in the 1950s listened to the real thing on the streets of Kensington. I remember when my friend Pat Morris and I were on the Wildwood boardwalk trying to harmonize. Of course, we couldn’t and must have sounded like those screeching alley cats of which I just wrote. Still, to this day, I really enjoy listening to harmonized vocals, or what we called Doo Wop.
REVVING ENGINES, SCREECHING TIRES, BACKING DOWN
Most of us couldn’t wait till we were sixteen and could drive a car. We may not have been able to afford a car, but having that license was a kind of rite of passage. In those days, boys were particularly attracted to being able to drive. Not long after I got my license, I saved up and bought a car for $50.00. Like so many other guys, I chose to show off by revving the engine without the air filter to make it sound like a hot rod or keeping it in low gear and taking my foot off the gas pedal, or backing down as my brother, Bill, explained it to me.
Another trick was to keep your foot on the brake with the gas pedal down. Then you popped the brake. If you were lucky, the tires screeched as the car moved forward. You might ask why we boys would wear down our tires, destroy flywheels, and otherwise harm cars we could not afford to replace. For the answer, I refer you to The Alley Cats section of this article.
THE CART PEOPLE’S SONG
“Horseradishhhh. Get yer fresh horseradish here.” If you grew up in the city between the 1940s and the 60s, you must have heard the street cart people’s song. They sold everything from keys and sharpening knives to pretzels and vegetables. I always admired those cart folks. They must have had superhuman endurance to push those carts up and down the streets all day.
THE FUNNY MONKEY AND THE ORGAN GRINDER’S MUSIC
Another type of cart person was the Organ Grinder and his monkey. I can still hear that strange organ music playing as the Monkey Grinder attracted every kid on the block. Once there was a crowd, the enterprising monkey would go through the audience and collect pennies. The monkey tipped its hat as a thank you. If you want to hear some of that music, click here.
SIRENS: COPS, FIRES, MEAT WAGONS, AND PADDY WAGONS
The city is always full of sirens, and most portend something terrible. A police car going to stop a crime, a “meat wagon” taking people to the hospital or worse, and the “paddy wagon” carrying someone to the drunk tank were all proceeded by those sounds of sorrow. If you were born in the 1930s or early 40s, you might remember the air raid sirens during WW2.
My grandmother hated hearing the sirens and would often comment about them. Even though she was not a religious person, she said a silent prayer for the people at the other end of the siren’s call. In 1972, my mother, who was in the Wildwood Villas, asked me to check on my grandmother. I found her in her bed. She had passed in her sleep. There were no sirens for my grandmother, and I was at least a little happy about that.
“Clang, clang, clang went the trolley
Ding, ding, ding went the bell
Zing, zing, zing went my heartstrings.”
These are the lyrics of a Judy Garland song from the 1940s. They’re also the sounds you heard day in and day out if you lived in the city. That’s especially true if you lived close to a street like Allegheny Avenue. Those sounds were amplified by the El if you lived near Front Street, Kensington Avenue, or Frankford Avenue. When the buses took over for the trollies, those sounds were replaced with smoke clouds and the roar of diesel engines.
TRAFFIC AND OLD CHAIN-DRIVEN TRUCKS
My brother reminded me of the sound the old chain-driven trucks used to make. If you are old enough, you might remember that noise. It was a kind of clickety-clack. There were plenty of them on Allegheny Avenue. I remember once, during a PTC strike, companies were picking people up in trucks and taking them to work in the factories. During World War ll (I was not born yet), the Army did the same thing to get people to the factories that were making war materials. Eventually, the government took over the PTC until the workers came back. I wrote about this in my novel Mercy Row Clann.
KIDS PLAYING IN THE STREETS
The most prevalent sound from breakfast till midnight in the summer was kids playing in the streets. Now when I hear that, I find it to be a sweet sound, but back in the day, I was one of the kids making those noises. We were always laughing or fighting. More laughing, I believe. We played every game you could with a pimple ball, piece of hose, wadded up newspaper, or old oil can.
Because the boys and girls were always out on the streets playing, the traditional “dinner bell” of sorts was the mom’s call. For us, it was Mom hanging out of the door and yelling, “Billy, Berta, Buddy, dinner.” She always went through all her kid’s names, even if only one was playing in the streets.
Sometimes a mom or even a dad would get frustrated when their kid ignored them.
“Georgie, you get your ass in here right now.”
And that would get the reply, “Aww, Mom, I’m playing ball.”
That was usually followed by, “If you don’t drop that ball and get in here in one minute, you won’t be able to sit down for a week.”
Do you want to know something? I would give anything to hear my mom call me for dinner again.
If you grew up in Kensington, you got used to the sound of factory machines. They were so common you often had no idea they were happening. For adults, this might have been an issue, but as a kid, any problem with factory sounds was overridden by the value we found in their structure. They had large brick walls that were great for handball, stickball, halfball, and a myriad of other games. If we wanted to sneak away to smoke a cigarette or take a sip of beer, the factories provided the seclusion we needed.
The great sound of people speaking different languages or having different accents gave us an advantage as we ventured out in the world. Many of us were in the service and had to adapt to visiting other countries. I remember being in a taxi in Saigon with a couple of airmen from a small town in Louisiana. It was 1964, and the driver had a problem understanding us, so I started to write down the address. One of the Louisiana guys yelled at the driver, “Goddammit, why don’t you people learn to speak English?” I reminded him that we were in the driver’s country. The airman wasn’t used to people speaking different languages. I was because I was from Kensington.
I’ve exhausted my memory of sounds, but maybe others have sounds they experienced. If so, tell us about them in the comments.
Originally posted on The Kensington Neighborhood Alumni Group on Facebook.