In the 1960s, in my Southwest Philly neighborhood, Nellie Fagan operated the candy store at 64th and Garman Streets. On her corner, several generations of boys gathered while playing stickball, Wiffle Ball and half ball.
With the St. Barnabas schoolyard just across the street, we had our own "sports multiplex," and it didn't cost us a cent. After the games, we would go in to replace our burned-up calories. Cokes and Pepsis were 12 cents, the same price as Tastykake chocolate cupcakes — and they were big enough to fill you up. Tastykake pies actually had fruit in them. They cost a dime. And for dessert, Mrs. Fagan had hand-dipped Abbott's ice cream. Abbott's was the real thing, a family favorite. Mom would sometimes give me a large empty dish, and Mrs. Fagan would fill it with butter pecan and cover it with wax paper. It was generally intact after the short walk home — though there was that time I brought along a spoon and ate about a quarter of the contents on the way home.
Though we hung out on the corner, we never really did anything bad. We couldn't. Most mothers were home with the kids, so there was always someone to catch you in the act. Our most daring act was to climb on a rowhouse roof and walk up and down the block retrieving scores of half balls from games played in the back driveway. The climber simply threw them to the ground, and we'd clean them up for future games. It was a bonanza from the sky.
Mrs. Fagan, who stood about 5 feet tall, walked slowly and wore her gray hair in a bun. She was probably in her 70s in my day, and wore rounded eyeglasses that gave her that classic shopkeeper's look. She was happy to have "her boys" lounge around outside or in the store's wooden booths. My group was probably the third generation of boys she "raised," and we all treated her like our grandmother. If she needed someone for an errand, no problem. Sometimes if the corner got a little noisy, she would pop her head out of the door and give us "the look." She didn't have to say a word.
Back then, beat cops would drive by and check out the area. We knew most of them; several of my buddies' dads were cops. One day, though, a rookie was assigned to our neighborhood, and he was a tad overzealous. The first few nights we saw him, he told us to disperse. We'd oblige, wait 15 minutes, and then return. But then he'd double back and shoo us away again. Mrs. Fagan didn't like having her clientele's habits disrupted. That's bad for business.
The next time he drove by, she came out of the store, broom in hand. She asked him to get out of the car, walked over, 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!"
The rookie was speechless, but he got back in the car, where his partner was laughing uncontrollably. As they made a U-turn to head up 64th, the partner looked out of the window and said, "Good evening, Mrs. Fagan," to which she replied, "So long, Billy."
Billy had been one of Mrs. Fagan's boys 20 years earlier.