Eddie had never gotten a personal telegram before.
It had surprised him as much as it surprised his boss when it had been hand delivered to him at the brokerage office of T.J. McCracken and Co. on the fifth floor of 11 Broadway in New York City.
His boss came over behind the telegram delivery boy who made Eddie sign for the envelope and enclosed message.
Eddie knew that the boss might be suspicious of such a thing being that someone might be making a stock purchase and through an employee’s account at the firm to avoid full commission payment on the transaction.
But being new on the job for some seven weeks Eddie had heard of such accounts and employees hanging on to every loose word around the office ticker tape machine and he had not gained a lot of trust or confidence yet with some of the other office fellows to talk about “hot” item stocks to keep an eye on.
Eddie read the telegram first with its cryptic message before casually handling it over to his boss to inspect, he still standing over his desk.
“Important stuff Eddie?” his boss asked as he began to read the message.
“Urgent. Meet me before 10:00 A.M. tomorrow 3832 Frankford Ave – get off at Frankford Junction station. Two blocks. Funeral begins at 11:00 sharp. Aunt Rose.”
“Who died Eddie?”
Eddie was unable to answer with anything specific.
“Gee. I didn’t know anybody was sick and I don’t know anybody at that address.”
“Ah – we all got a lot of relatives, some of who we have never met.” said Eddie’s boss.
“Your Aunt Rose got a husband?”
“He is. Was alive last I heard. A big shot in the wholesale grocery business down there in Philly. Won’t hire any relatives or so I have been told. Otherwise I wouldn’t have come up to New York to try my luck on Wall Street sir.”
His boss had heard the story about Eddie’s uncle and had done some marketing research on him. He had organized a hundred or so independent corner grocery stores in Philly to create and sell their own brand label of canned goods. Kind of a cooperative situation at the moment. No stock offerings yet. Great commercial possibilities in consolidated grocery retail. Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company was an up and coming lead in that growing field of retail.
“You take off tomorrow Eddie. Go to the funeral with your aunt. Be back in the office on Wednesday.”
The boss walked away and back to his desk as Eddie was saying a polite thank you.
The focus on the past few minutes had devalued the surrounding atmosphere of telephones ringing, typewriters typing, people running back and forth booking and confirming buying and selling of stocks.
For a moment Eddie wondered if he had done the right thing leaving Philly and then he realized that being a cog in a wheel of some other person’s business is sometimes better than being some dumb sap found floating face down in the Delaware River which might have happened is he had stuck around town.
A slight chill went up his spine. He walked over to a nearby window and briefly looked below to the people and traffic around Bowling Green Park at the beginning of Broadway going north. He closed the window without looking at the magnificent temple built to the gods of commerce, the Customs House designed by Cass Gilbert, begun in 1901, finished by 1907 and now barely more than a dozen years old as complete. The immense building of an old style seemed an awkward start, an anchor, on the other side of that tiny park that had once been the old town square of the original Dutch town and now merely was the very beginning of the very large and impressive modern Manhattan moving ever upward along Broadway.
He had to switch trains at Trenton out of New York to catch the local south to Philly.
The conductor announced Frankford Junction as the next stop.
Eddie put on his coat and folded up a newspaper and put it under his arm.
The train platform onto which he stepped was a flat patch of concrete between two train tracks. He looked about as the train cleared out of view and the station was over across several tracks that had no wooden walkways laid out across the tracks as should be the custom. It was a way of making the awkward walk across tracks easier to travel as well as direct the uninitiated in the right direction as they exited a maze of tracks to get to the street.
It was then that he saw a wooden pathway over one set of tracks and leading to what looked to be a downward set of concrete steps leading to a tunnel and walkway under the many tracks and likely leading over to the station house. There was an underpass tunnel. One flight of steps down into the pedestrian tunnel lit by only two bare light bulbs along the short distance and one flight of steps up. He had to stop briefly to adjust to darkness at the bottom of the tunnel where the light of the bulbs did not seem to reach. It was rather disorientating to walk where you could not see your shoes to reassure yourself that you were stepping along a safe path. The light adjusted in his eyes and he then saw the faint outline of his legs leading to his walking cautiously feet.
The station house was small and of old style architecture but it seemed recently built, not showing signs of wear and tear of an old line local depot. Perhaps a previous station had burned down and the railroad merely sent out a few carpenters to replace the basic bones of a basic local station house?
The nip in the air of a chilled October morning met him unexpectedly as he had disembarked the train. That a slight mist, perhaps a faint fog lingered in the morning, no doubt due to a close proximity of the river.
The morning chill had hit him, that he had not noticed so much as the smell of a native Philadelphia that somehow smelled different from New York.
It was perhaps the smell of the soil or the quality of coal burning in a small pot belly stove in the station house that linked many senses and ideas together with a thought “I guess it is cold enough to build a fire”.
In any case, within view were many chimneys of many factories and even if heavy smoke was not seen this early in the workday coming out of those stacks, stacks of steam floating up from other factory metal chimneys was already streaming upward here and there.
There off a small waiting room was a ticket window next to an open door. The ticket office was only big enough to accommodate a roll top desk, a telephone and lots of clipboards full of paper.
This small office was visible through an open door that was a probable passive heating system of letting the heated air in the small waiting room pass into the office by an open door.
Eddie went to the ticket window and asked for directions to the address his aunt had sent him.
Down the concrete walkway ramp to street level, to the left under the railroad overpass and in a slight distance was the sight of the Schlicter mansion visible through trees shedding their leaves and in the fall colors of the season.
Getting from out under the dark railway underpass he noticed another set of stairs leading up to the tracks.
“If I was a local or knew where I was going I could have avoided the whole circle of going from train to tunnel to train station to here. A wasted effort. Not entirely. I need to go back to the station to catch the north bound local later. That is if I am leaving right after the funeral thing.”
Walking passed a dye factory on his right he could not but help peer into a courtyard formed by an old looking, dilapidated factory building on the left side of the courtyard. The old building was connected by several open to the air walkways on different levels to a larger newer looking brick building further right within view and the building was buttressed right up against the nearby railroad embankment.
The smell of the dye works and the sight of worn cobblestones in the courtyard and what appeared to be an abandoned, old gauge by sight measurement by the look it, set of tracks with one missing and one present metal rail still embedded within the cobblestones. The old gauge tracks dated the old building on the left perhaps to the 1840s and the industrial courtyard gave an overall air of some dismal print of some Dickens’ era novel engraving he had seen somewhere.
His Aunt Rose had sent him to a two week art appreciation summer course at the Academy of Fine Arts downtown between junior and senior years in high school at Roman Catholic High. Though tuition at the high school was nominal, the real expense was in books, transportation every day on the streetcar down Broad Street to Vine Street all the way back up in Olney. Plans for a subway were still on the boards for Broad Street. Once that subway got built, his father’s house would appreciate greatly in value.
The Market Street subway downtown was building an elevated extension to the old town of Frankford here block by block and year by year. Once opened all this remaining open land he surveyed would be built on with row homes and factories. In this area, with a place in a storefront, a business under the overhead elevated train would be a great place to do business. The customers would be coming and going all day long around the new transportation hubs at every el train stop.
His mind returned to his daily commute to Roman Catholic High and the overall costs with transportation and clothes to dress in as part of a young Roman Catholic elite class of males that did not have to go to work in the factories and foundries after eighth grade in the Catholic school system. That system was built after the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant riots in the 1840s. “Separate but equal” was a term he heard spoken about the coloreds that lived in the various enclaves around the city. “Separate and superior” was a term he often heard from the clerics that taught him in that school system regarding same.
It was at this moment that a thought came to him. That it was Aunt Rose that had paid for the expenses of his past grade school and high school education.
His parents came over on a boat from Ireland as children and had assimilated into the American way of life. His father still had a touch of an Irish accent and his attitudes towards many things were definitely old world. It was Rose who had convinced him to let Eddie and his one brother to go onto high school after grade school instead of going out and earning wages to contribute to the welfare of the household.
Not that his father was a slacker. A Mick off the boat at ten. Trained in engineering at a technical high school in the public school system. It was odd to see him go off to work in collar, tie and three piece suit and even stranger to know that in a paper bag, once a week, he went off to work with a clean set of bib overalls two sizes too big that his mother used to launder.
Building engineers had many duties in the basement and occasional above ground visits to the mighty Witherspoon Building downtown. Some of those duties included supervising the coal stokers getting the right amount of fuel into the boilers, or the reading of the many pressure dials and also involved the occasional turning of a wrench as in plumbing.
Thus the need for oversize bib overalls to go over a white shirt, vest and suit trousers along with rolled up sleeves on the shirt to get the job done whatever needed doing.
On more than one occasion he had heard Rose’s low sweet voice say “This is blood. We are family.” To calm his father’s manly outbursts which in retrospect may have coincided with rents due, or doctor’s bills or Eddie’s tuition, education, expenses at Roman Catholic High.
He reached the gateway of a big Queen Anne style house he saw approaching him as he walked among fallen leaves, dried and crunching under his shoes. He smelled too horse manure in the streets which was these days something of a novelty in lower Manhattan.
The area here still had a few small farms and empty lots but this end of the greater Kensington was filling up with the newer reinforced concrete factories some stretching four city blocks alongside block after block of city row house that here in the northern tiers, not quite suburbs, sprouted porches and bay windows.
Bay windows had become all the rage in building here after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Not that they did not exist before then. But the idea of an extending bump out on a second story of a house with three windows instead of two and above a porch said or suggested an air of pretend eloquence when above a front elevated off the ground porch. Bay windows suggested a view of San Francisco Bay or more close to home the Atlantic Ocean. Bay windows were already a popular item on summer boarding houses there at Atlantic City on the Jersey shore and before 1906.
So too the dimensions of newer row houses were a standard fourteen feet wide as opposed to the old ten or twelve foot widths in lower Kensington and that on porchless houses where the marble stoop of steps was the mini porch of the working poor when hanging outside was the only form of relief in hot sticky humid Philadelphia summer evenings.
Eddie surveyed this crop of newly minted worker’s housing across the street from where he was standing. The same color brown adorning the tin embossed facades of the upper bay windows to complement the Pompeii style colored bricks exposed on the walls on either side of the tin. Ionic wooden columns to support the porch roofs. So too in some classical theme were laurel leave garlands impressed in the tin above the three bay windows. An imitation of sorts perhaps of the terra-cotta decoration that adorned all the mansions on Broad Street above downtown.
Having an analytical mind, Eddie could not but help speculate that these houses from block to block had one landlord, an insurance company or a factory owner. Workers would not qualify for the standard five year mortgage with the banks to buy and live here.
His own father had moved recently to the farthest edge of the northern suburbs near the city limits into a semi-detached house with comforts like a fireplace, central heating and an enclosed porch with the real sign of the new age, a narrow driveway along the side of the house to a garage taking up half the space of the back yard.
The Queen Anne style house was impressive and again Eddie who had an appraiser’s eye for such things thought the house almost newly built but with the out of fashion Victorian era style architecture.
There was another gate at the other end of the block. No direct front gate per say to the house. A driveway entrance and an exit gate down by the railroad. That spoke of money. That said that whoever built this house very well expected for visitors to arrive by carriage or automobile. Walking up a driveway to approach this house spoke of tradesmen and the need of a kitchen or backdoor entrance which he saw did have a break in the wall on the side street nearby.
Such a house was a mansion in the eyes of the owner and in the eyes of all who beheld this large house.
At the front driveway gate people were stopping to talk to a man with a clipboard. Eddie looked about to see his aunt Rose. “This really was a funeral?” he thought to himself. “Whose?”
The man with the clipboard asked him his name and he responded.
“Ah, you are with Mrs. Flaherty. You have bidding number 62 with her. She is already arrived and seated up front. The auction is about to begin.”
“Auction?” he thought to himself as he walked up the driveway and up the front steps, onto the porch and into the mansion.
Inside a lot of heat both from the radiators and the body heat of many people sitting and standing on portable wooden chairs in what once must have been the main living room or parlor as the older folks called such places.
A lot of plaster rosettes on the ceiling about a rather plain looking light fixture.
Eddie looked about and saw his aunt seated in front and with her handbag on the seat next to her to reserve the seat visually and verbally if need be as well.
“Aunt Rose?” Eddie said from the side approaching her.
“Eddie. You made it.”
He pecked her on the cheek and sat on the seat next to her after she moved her handbag.
Before he could say anything, she was digging through her bag and withdrew a small tin of peppermints.
“Your breath Eddie. I can see or smell, you have taken up that disgusting seegar smoking habit that you men seem to enjoy.”
Without fuss, he popped two mint lozenges into his mouth.
“What was the telegram all about Aunt Rose? You mentioned a funeral.”
“Look about you Eddie. A once grand age of the upper middle class is disappearing into the dust. Right before your eyes.”
Eddie knew to keep silent. Aunt Rose had her public face on. She presented it to the world in church, to tradesmen waiting for their invoices to be paid and usually that face was present when she was alongside that of her businessman husband.
When Aunt Rose and Uncle Henry came to visit it was a stiff and formal thing. Her husband was an ambitious man who had tried many things in life but it was as a salesman that he eventually built his canned goods empire on. That and an ambitious and frugal woman behind him.
She went on about the Schlichter house being all old fashioned built on the cusp of Victorian tastes and before the real modern hit the electric fan after the great European war that ended in 1918.
Everybody came home with France in their minds and they were mostly young and ambitious enough to imitate some of the style and tastes that those people were famous and infamous for. Indeed the decades old vision of a great boulevard across William Penn’s gray city grid was taking shape finally downtown in the shape and imitation dimensions of a Champs-Élysées starting at a grand Second Empire style city hall and making its diagonal way northwest to a grand Greek temple of a museum built over the artificial hill of the old obsolete water reservoir.
Classical new downtown. Classical too in the workers’ houses with porches across the street. Classical new too with a new breath of the stale European air that smelled so fresh in dull backwards America.
“…so they built this house barely a dozen years ago when the daughter’s husband died. The daughter and granddaughter moved in and then they virtually tore down and rebuilt this place to accommodate all the new impoverished but aristocratic southern relatives that the dead husband brought into the blood line. All in all a sad story…”
The auctioneer was already sitting on a stool behind a podium to start bidding on this or that item for sale.
Today the building was only auctioning carpeting. Small throw rugs, stair runners pulled off of wooden steps. Hall rugs and other larger oriental and Persian style tugs.
All through the bidding, his aunt had been nodding and gesturing. This built into a joint effort with Eddie as they began to make hand gestures on the lots she indicated and bid on.
She had a catalogue on her lap with certain lot numbers circled in pencil and with some handwritten single digit numbers. Eddie quickly learned as her two, three, of four fingers translated to him into twenty or thirty or forty dollar bids. A movement of bending her index finger seemed to mean another five dollars. And finally a flat palm waved flat in view of the auctioneer or to Eddie now doing some the non-verbal bidding meant a stop or finish by her. On successful bids, Rose waved a white cardboard tag with the number “62” written on it to finish the contracted bid.
Eddie found it all a little exciting with some the numbers involved and his feeding off of Aunt Rose’s clues offered a surprising bond of teamwork with his mother’s sister.
Without saying a word, Eddie realized why his aunt had sent him to things like a two week art appreciation course in high school during a summer break. She was grooming him for things other than his status in life would bring him in contact with, like an auction of a once great man’s mansion full of goods.
The bidding was intense on some items and lackluster on others.
Finally, near the last list of the catalogue, one big item was a Persian rug of something like a seven by ten foot dimension.
The auctioneer was about to open bidding when Aunt Rose raised her hand. The auctioneer acknowledged her.
“I addressed the issue of damage to the rug in this lot. You have not acknowledged it yet. It is not listed in the catalogue.”
The auctioneer looked with a puzzled face to some assistant as to what was she talking about.
Aunt Rose whispered into Eddie’s ear. Eddie addressed the auctioneer.
“My aunt says that the rug is damaged. It has a hole big enough to put your fist through.”
The auctioneer gestured his assistant to go into the next room, the onetime dining room to inspect the rug. The assistant came back and whispered into the auctioneer’s ear.
“There is an announcement regarding his next lot not mentioned in the catalogue. There is no hole in the rug. There is a slight tear in the fabric that can easily be repaired. With that acknowledgement we will resume bidding.
“Bidding opens at five hundred dollars. Four? – pause – Three? – Two? – One? We have an opening bid of one hundred dollars. Do we have two hundred?”
The room was strangely silent. Rose gave an elbow to Eddie. Eddie raised his hand on a two hundred dollar bid. More silence.
“Lot 383. Sold to bidder number 62 for two hundred dollars.”
Followed by a gavel bang to the auctioneer’s table.
The auction was wrapped up in another fifteen minutes or so. Rose went over the treasurer’s table to write out a bank draft for the total of all her successful bids and wrote out instruction as to delivery.
There was some tea being served to some of the customers.
Aunt Rose and Eddie took their tea out onto a side porch and sat on a wicker style settee.
“Interesting auction Eddie?”
“Yes, quite an adventure for me. Spending large sums of money can be very intoxicating especially when it is not mine. Aunt Rose. Rather good of you to have inspected the rug ahead of time and get a good price in the bargain seeing that it only needs a simple repair.”
“I wanted that rug because of its dimensions and I got it.”
“Your Uncle Henry made a bid on this house. Luckily he was outbid by some factory owner down the street who will probably tear it down and build another factory. It is not the house that that guy wants but all this land surrounding it, almost a whole city block.”
“Uncle Henry wanted to buy this place?” asked Eddie. “Rather expensive in upkeep alone. Coal alone in winter might cost one to two hundred dollars considering the size of this place.”
“Precisely Eddie. Your uncle is rather successful at the moment. He finally agreed to stay where we are at. We are going to double the size of the dining room so he can bring his clients home to entertain them.
“Most of his clients are grocers who live mostly in one room, the kitchen, on the ground floor and in the back of the store. Feed them in one big grand dining room and they will think they have died and gone to heaven.
“Besides,” she added. “I am thinking of our old age. I want the house paid off and some investments in place, some tracts of land near the city that will go up in value as the city expands over into the sticks.
“And remember Eddie, success can be a sometimes mistress. She comes. She goes. She never stays around forever.
“You have to look to the future. Marry a rich girl. Not pretty but plain will do. But rich.
“Do you remember when you were seven or eight and I asked you if you wanted to become a priest?”
“No” replied Eddie.
“You said that was for sissies.” She said with a bit of a giggle.
Eddie had a quick but quiet thought. Aunt Rose’s public face is disappearing
They had walked a block passed a clutter of different style row houses and entered a small luncheonette and sat in a corner booth. The lunch time crowd from the factories had vacated the joint and it was only one o’clock.
They ordered modest fare from the menu and talked over coffee.
“Would rather have had this talk in a saloon.” She said somewhat to Charlie’s surprise.
“My brother’s uncle and cousin were saloon keepers. It’s a rough business. Long hours. Counting pennies to survive. We lived in a few furnished rooms upstairs after my dad died, your grandfather. Your mother was a bit too young to remember it all, some of it I think.
“Mom cooked in the kitchen and I helped clean up a bit in the barroom and kitchen and then went up to do my homework.
“The afternoon crowd was more older men, retired or men out of work, hanging out, looking for work, word of mouth reaching the saloon. Or some day laborers were taking a break being hand laborers in the street working on the tracks and cobblestones for the streetcar companies or digging ditches for new or burst water pipes in the streets…
“I say quiet in that there was no shouting or music. And my uncle would allow me out front to refill the tray on the bar with slices of bread, pickled eggs and slices of baloney or liverwurst depending on what was cheaper that week at the butcher shop. And refill the mustard jar. Most times the bread was pumpernickel from the German bakery down the street. The tray on the bar was the free lunch served with two nickel beers. If they were in a hurry the beer was a nickel and the sandwich carried out to the job was a nickel too. All depending on how much time a street worker could catch under the eye of his site supervisor.
“In bad times you knew that on the free lunch tray an out of work man was spending a dime on two glasses of beer drowning his sorrows which ain’t much. That that poor soul, the free lunch was likely all that man ate that day if he was single and alone in the city.
“Of course we had simple fare on a small menu to eat at lunch and supper. Ten and fifteen cent platters. Soups, seasonal, a lot of pepper pot in the winter, steaks, chops, mashed potatoes, gravy and it being a German neighborhood everyday some sauerkraut, dumplings, boiled German style sausages…”
“Come five and six o’clock and then workers coming home from the factories, the place would crowd up and I would not be allowed out front by my mother or me uncle.“
Eddie listened. He had heard bits and pieces of his mother’s family story all his life. He had never been privileged to a private telling of it in such large hunks of history at one time.
Suddenly the boring stories told over and over again had a fresh breath of life and he felt the honor of having something of an equal place at the grownups table.
“Never saw the saloon at night with its crowds and music and such but I heard some of the men as they gathered outside, smoked, peed, fought and what not. I learned a lot about life just discreetly listening behind the curtains of my bedroom window on a hot summer’s night. We never opened the windows in summer until after dusk. When it was dry, the dust was terrible and most of it dried horse manure blowing around if we had a breeze…”
Eddie’s order of homemade vegetable soup and a grilled cheese sandwich arrived. He went for the soup first and was disappointed with its content, some of which seemed to contain mushy canned like string beans.
Rose had a chicken salad on white bread which she barely touched as she continued to talk.
“As a man, don’t get married before you are thirty and then don’t marry until you can afford it. Enjoy your youth before you settle down but save for the future. It arrives sooner than you think.
“Henry married rather late in life. Always married to his job as a traveling salesman and all that. He settled down with me, almost an old maid, we couldn’t have children but we tried…”
“Where is all this leading to?” Eddie thought to himself.
“Oh do have a piece of pie darling.” Rose said to her favorite nephew.
Charlie ordered the peach cobbler special and it arrived shortly.
“I know about your little mistake with those gangsters. Your mother finally got around to telling me. You blew town over a year ago now. Had one or two jobs in New York and you are miserable away from Philly.”
Eddie looked up from his pie on the table with his mouth half open. “Huh.” He thought.
“But don’t worry. Things are looking better for you all the time.”
She opened her purse and withdrew a newspaper clipping and put it down on the table.
Eddie picked it up and read it.
“Johnny Doyle, local fight promoter found dead in alley…murdered…funeral services Church of the Holy Paten 11:00 A.M. October 20”. (Today)
“That clipping is for your boss in New York in case he wants to know about the funeral you went to today…”
Eddie looked up speechless from the clipping and over to his aunt.
“You aren’t safe yet Eddie. Two of his cohorts are still on the lamb and the police are looking for them. Just a matter of time.”
“All I did Aunt Rose was loan that bookie S.O.B. a couple hundred for a quick ten percent return on capital. Somebody was supposed to throw the fight or something. I knew nothing about that. But that crazy bastard Doyle turns around, accuses me of being in cahoots with his bookie competition and being in on the fix. Then he refuses to repay the loan…”
Eddie face grew redder and redder as he spoke until he stopped and Rose took over the conversation.
“That goon Doyle was in the protection racket, asking for donations from a half a dozen grocers who joined Henry’s co-op operation. When news of his death reached the streets, forty more corner grocers joined up with Henry and company. I had told Henry some time ago to hire some private detectives to look this guy up and see what they might be able to turn over to the police to get him off the streets. And lo and behold some of his fellow goons knock him off in the meantime. It is the most incredible thing in timing that is, for Henry’s business and for you especially…
“Just one or two other things Eddie…
“I’ll walk you to your train…”
Eddie sat down on the local train and briefly reviewed a big house on the right that he had pointed to earlier to the station master when he called the Schlichter house a mansion. Eddie had eyed the top of a once stately proportioned house and pointed to it out the window of the station house in the middle of his conversation, much to the annoyance of that railroad employee.
“That is not Schlichter mansion, that is Chalkley Hall, an old plantation, goes back to before the revolution. Schlichter hall, I mean mansion, is that way on the other sides of the tracks.
The train car was mostly empty. He was beating the evening rush by two hours. He reached for a cigar in the inside pocket of his tween jacket, put it to his lips chewing off a bit and looking around to see if it was clear to spit it on the floor without anybody noticing. He fumbled in his other coat pockets looking for a match. Lit the cigar. Took a deep breath and was into reverent reflection of the day’s events.
He needed a good double shot of whiskey to steady his nerves right about now. Could not stick around Philly. All his favorite watering holes had probably disappeared since Prohibition went into effect.
Even New York when he first went there over a year ago you could drink your way up Broadway going from bar to bar when you had the mind to and when you had the scratch to waste on such things. Now even there, it was a matter of being a regular before anybody served you even a beer. And a lot of stuff, beer included, just didn’t taste the same and the prices doubled and tripled overnight. Just like the stock market. What a mess!
Second puff. The smell of the smoke, the draw of the flavor, the burst of nicotine on the brain all calmed him and reduced his anxious psyche within a few moments of time.
Time to finish the cigar before transferring to the regular New York bound train in Trenton? Until then, maybe six or eight more local stops?
Lunch has not satisfied Eddie. The watery vegetable soup was warm enough but it needed too much salt and pepper added to suggest a taste. The grilled cheese was alright. But he could not get to finish his cobbler. His aunt had the train schedule down to the minute.
Their walk to the train station was only two and a half or three blocks. They passed the Schlichter mansion, the front door padlocked shut after the auction. Workers were still moving rugs through the side entrance.
Before Eddie could ask.
“They will move those rugs to their warehouse downtown. I asked for a delivery date knowing full well they will wait for my check to clear before they deliver them.
“They deal with crooks all the time Eddie. People will have rugs delivered to an empty house and abscond with them if these auctioneers do not act carefully. “
Eddie wanted to say something but couldn’t squeeze in a word or two.
“You know. Henry has set me up with a ten thousand dollar budget to build a new dining room, tear down the wall into the old kitchen. And a new kitchen, smaller, will be added onto the house, and into the back yard. It is small in order to keep a balance to the general appearance to the outside of the house. Have to always keep in mind the resale value. Nobody wants to buy a big house if it looks ugly on the outside. The remodeling and addition will be first class and modern, the kitchen especially. All the latest kitchen appliances.
“I dare say I envision Henry bringing his grocer clients into the kitchen to show them a bit of the modern to excite their imaginations. Tell their wives. It will all add to the image that my husband sells so well with his canned goods marked “Frankford United Grocers” in green lettering on a white background and a printed image in color of peas, string beans, corn, spinach, beets and carrots, the six top sellers. “
They arrived at the ramp leading up to the top of the railroad embankment above street level. Eddie could remember when he was eight or nine when the Reading Railroad lifted all its tracks within the city off the streets around 1910. Quite a feat and quite a cost, investment in infrastructure in the city all paid for by the company. If you waited for the city to finance something like that, well … But this was the Pennsylvania Railroad’s track. They followed suit with the Reading in pursuit of the modern.
He has thought his aunt might have stayed at the street level and hailed a cab, not that many were about this station at this time of day. And considering her penchant for saving nickels and dimes to build her husband’s fortune, he thought she might take the street car home which was on the avenue right there.
Once at the top of the embankment, he went into the station house to buy a ticket. When he exited, his aunt Rose was standing on the waiting platform examining the tracks, focusing on something below her.
“Anything interesting Aunt Rose?”
“Only the thought about all the Irish labor that went into the building of the railroads. If there had been no famine in Ireland, there might never have been any railroads in America.” Followed by a momentary pause.
“Or a civil war.”
Eddie looked blank.
“It was something I heard said a thousand times or something like that from all the laborers who used to drink my uncle’s beer.”
She paused. Looked about. Then pointed.
“That big chimney over there. That is the Schlichter rope factory. Supplied most of the navy‘s needs in the Civil War. Government contract. Made his fortune.
“So I really have no guilt about taking a souvenir from the mighty Schlichter family in the form of a rug.”
“You arrived later at the auction than I had anticipated. I wanted you to use my pen knife to puncture a perfect rug and tear it ever so slightly a bit as to bring down the price a bit.”
Eddie was again looking puzzled.
“My older sister Sadie worked in that rope factory for a time. She eventually died of consumption. They threw her out of their company housing when she was too sick to work. We took her in, had her for a few weeks but her condition worsened. Then the Sisters of Mercy took her in to a facility where she died. Whenever the good sisters personally ask me for help, I always give more than I can out of my monthly budget. It is the only charity work I do. Write a check.
“Henry is leaving all his loose money to charity. Leaving me the house and an annuity. So in all fairness I too am leaving all I have left when I die to the Sisters that took care of Sadie.
“We have no children and far too many nephews and nieces on both sides that would get any big chunk of any money left in our estates.
“But you Eddie, you I am going to loan you some money to set up that finance company that you told me about in your senior year in high school. Give you some seed money to make the big start. Loaning the Irish Catholics in the neighborhood cash to buy automobiles, refrigerators, washing machines. Loans those Protestant bastard banks won’t loan to laborers in the old neighborhood. I dare say I see you in a storefront over at Kensington and Allegheny with a big loan sign hanging out over the street in neon.“
Eddie was bewildered.
“Where are you getting that kind of money to loan me?”
Suddenly all his big talk and big dreams seemed like they might become a crushing reality.
“I can salvage four to five thousand out of the house remodeling budget without compromising the quality of the project.”
The train was approaching in the distance. Rose began to throw a lot of little things in talk all at once at Eddie.
“I saw a rich woman once at an estate sale, damaging a rug and getting the price reduced. I always wanted to try the same thing myself. Needed a man around to assert himself in public on my behalf. Nobody pays attention to what a woman says in place of business like an auction house.
“I had thought to spend four hundred dollars on the rug. You helped to get it reduced to two hundred. I’ll tell Henry I paid seven hundred. That’s five hundred of the five thousand I intend to lend you. You saved me two hundred. Here is ten percent commission for your troubles Eddie. She pressed a folded twenty dollar bill into the palm of his hand.
“Any money I took from the dead Schlichters I took for my sister Sadie. Don’t get angry. Get even I always say. I did it for her and I did it for you Eddie. “
The train had arrived. Eddie took the money. Eddie never refused money. I was in his makeup as a person. It was in his blood.
He boarded the train, up the steps. Stood there looking back down at his aunt and briefly waved and then went to his seat. The train was still stationary. He saw his aunt approach the station master on the platform no doubt to order her a cab via telephone.
In a way his aunt was so stiff and formal when she was at her husband’s side. She was an interesting if not eccentric person as from what he had seen this day. This pieced together a lot of loose ends of all his years of memory.
He was amused sometimes to see a woman play that woman’s game in a man’s world, now like how she was asking the station master to order her a cab instead of just doing it herself. There was a pay phone in the station. She certainly could do that one for herself. He thought it was more than her saving a mere nickel on the pay phone and having the station master use the company phone. But sometimes the formalities and rituals of everyday life were like some small part of a stage play that needed to be staged in just a certain way and acted upon.