(2,000 words, Average reading time: 15 minutes)
It was 27 degrees and windy in Philadelphia. Thirteenth and Market Street was about 100 feet from the then famous, but now long gone, Horn and Hardart Automat restaurant. This was one of the busiest corners in the city. It was a bustling subway exit, one block from City Hall. Across the street was John Wannamaker’s, the largest department store in the city. There was a slight drizzle with a threat of snow. Everyone on the street had their collars tuned up. Most pedestrians were wearing rubbers or galoshes, as they were called in 1939 – a rainy day custom in those days. The time was just about noon. The crowds were hustling on Market Street, dashing to get lunch before the predicted snowfall.
Bruno Giordano was an imposing figure of at least 300 pounds, reaching about 6’4” in height. Daily, he stood beside his homebuilt soft pretzel and hot dog stand. It was built on a flatbed trailer with a fold-up awning. There was a trailer hitch on it for transporting to and from his house in South Philly, about three miles away. It was his space, every day, 8 AM ‘til 6 PM. It was directly positioned at the head of the steps for the subway exit, over the steam vents from the underground subway, which supplied some warmth in the winter. The cops knew it as Bruno’s corner, and nobody “messed” with Bruno. He was “connected” to the South Philly people. He was uneducated, but street smart. His only visible means of support was his pretzel and hot dog stand.
This cold and rainy morning in 1939, a skinny kid walked up to Bruno. He looked hungrily at the five-cent pretzels and asked, “Could you cut one in half? I only have 3 pennies.” The kid was about 13, skinny, in shaggy clothes, and an old golfer’s type cap, like Jackie Coogan wore in the 1930s era movies. He chilled in the remnants of an old trashed and torn raincoat. Bruno gave him the once over and said, “Here kid, take this pretzel. Keep the 3 cents. I got an extra one from the baker today. Youse want mustard?” The kid appeared to be a homeless runaway or playing hooky from school, wandering the city streets. “Hey kid, youse can do me a favor”, Bruno bellowed. “I got one of dem nature calls and I gotta go for about ten minutes. I done for you, now you can do for me. Watch my stand ‘til I get back! I’ll tell the corner cop. He’ll keep an eye on you.” The skinny, bewildered, innocent looking, half starved teenager didn’t know what to say. This 300+ pounder, with his deep gruff, threatening voice, and an archetypical South Philadelphian manner of speech, just gave him a pretzel. “Who me?” the kid said with his face revealing his fearful surprise and disbelief. Bruno said, “Yea, you. Stay here! If youse wanna ‘nother pretzel, take it. I’ll take care of youse when I get back.” The kid didn’t have a chance to answer. Before he could say anything, Bruno was gone. Kids from Philadelphia know that you don’t mess around with 300 pounders from South Philly. When they tell you to do something, you just do it.
As soon as Bruno was out of sight, it started to snow on top of the cold wet, freezing streets. Bruno was gone over 20 minutes. The kid was starting to sweat from fear under his flimsy raincoat. He was now in charge of a pretzel and hot dog stand. The pretzels and hot dogs were in a rather frosty and grimy glass cabinet to protect them from weather. The kid attempted to cover the glass cabinet with part of his oversized tattered, trashed raincoat. He finally saw Bruno returning. As Bruno stepped into the street, heading back to his pretzel stand, there was a squealing of sliding rubber tires in the trolley tracks, and a loud thump. Bruno was down on the ground grasping his leg. He was hurt and yelling for help. The kid ran to his side, as did the driver, and a traffic policeman from his corner post. Bruno’s leg was bleeding. It appeared as if his leg was broken. Police put him in their “patty” (patrol) wagon for transporting to the hospital. Bruno painfully yelled to the kid. “Hey kid, what’s your name?” “Joey”, said the kid. “Stay with my stand. A guy named Dominic will be here to pick it up on a truck at 6:00. Tell him what happened. Go wid him to my place. He knows what to do. Youse can crash dere fer da night if you want. Help yourself to da eats in da fridge. Youse can sleep on da couch. If youse sell some pretzels, keep da cash. It’s yours for being a good guy and helping me. Just take care of da stand and keep da pretzels dry. I’ll be in touch. Youse take care of you’self ‘til I get dere, and don’t get no funny ideas! I got friends.”
Dominic came right on time at 6:00 o’clock, and hooked-up his pick-up truck trailer hitch to tow the trailer away. He took the wagon, together with Joey to Bruno’s house on 9th Street in South Philly. Bruno had called Dominic from the hospital and clued him in on the details of his accident and the kid.
Dominic opened the door for Joey, which revealed two small rooms on the first floor. There was a living room, a kitchen, and a small lavatory added to the back of the house. What appeared to be a locked closet was actually an opening to a narrow stairway, leading to second and third floor rooms. This type home was often called a trinity house. One room on each floor and an add-on shed kitchen. Dominic told Joey the kid, that Bruno said he could bunk on the sofa until he (Bruno) gets back. Orders were, “DON’T TOUCH NUTTIN, but help yourself to anything in the fridge.” Bruno thought that the kid was a runaway, which he was. Now Bruno had the responsibility of helping the kid, Joey.
The next day Dominic brought Bruno home from the hospital. Fortunately he did not have a broken leg, just a bad bruise, cuts scratches and a few stitches. Although Joey may have been intimidated by this big guy’s presence and strength, he felt perfectly safe with Bruno. He was thankful that he could be under this big 300-pound guy’s commanding presence and protection. It was the safest he had felt in his life’s memory, and yet he didn’t even know Bruno. Joey found a kind, new friend that he felt a fearless safety, unlike the miserable life he left – a druggie lady of the streets for a mother and her drunken abusive boyfriend.
Bruno took a liking to the kid and was going to be his protector. In South Philly, Bruno was “connected” and that means, “Nobody messes with Bruno or his friends!” During the few days, when Bruno did not show up at his corner with the hot dog and pretzel stand, his police friends kept any invading poaching pretzel vendors off his corner. The tradition was passed on. It was understood that it was Bruno’s corner, and “Don’t nobody mess with Bruno’s corner.”
Since Bruno couldn’t walk yet after the accident, he borrowed a wheelchair from a heavyweight neighbor. A few days later, he went back to the corner of 13th and Market Street in his borrowed wheelchair. His bandaged, battered leg and ankle were on display. Bruno ran out of hot dogs and pretzels by 1:00. They usually lasted until after 5:00. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why he sold out early. The wheel chair, the bandaged leg, the blanket and Joey!
Joey became a constant sidekick, and was with him daily on his corner. He aided in selling hot dogs and pretzels. When the weather was right he even sold candies and packaged peanut butter crackers. With new hand-me-down different clothes from the neighbors, dark glasses and a stocking cap, he was unrecognizable to whoever may be looking for him. Joey was now a permanent guest at Bruno’s house, sleeping on the third floor on a mattress. They became close buddies and engaged in usual guy talk in the evening after dinner. Joey asked Bruno, why he went to that particular corner every day. Bruno just said, “So dat I can make some dough and know what’s going on, dat’s why. And it works for me kid! I got a few bucks.”
Several ladies in the neighborhood cooked extra meals for old men and widows. They also cooked for Bruno, and now Joey too. It’s a neighborhood thing for the ladies to take turns on different days to cook extra meals for men and women who live alone. They can also earn a few extra dollars. Spaghetti and other ethnic foods were always available. The meals were usually bigger and better than any restaurant in town. They were cheaper, plus delivered to the door, hot, under cover, the same time every night. It usually came with a glass of homemade wine, delivered by a nice lady or her husband. When Bruno was ready to eat, he turned on the outdoor light by his front door. In five minutes, there was a lady at the door with his personal banquet. In 1939, it may have cost 50 cents, including wine. Now there would be two meals delivered. The neighbor ladies like Joey.
Joey never discussed his 13-year-old life, other than he was sadly abused, in many ways. Bruno didn’t pry. He said, “Kid, what’s done is done. But if anybody touches you now, they got me to deal with. We’re gonna be a team, you and me. I’ll take care of you. And if I need help, youse can take care of me, just like youse did when I got hurt. I ain’t never gonna forget you kid. Youse got a friend, Bruno, dat’s me!”
Joey was in 7th grade, but now skipped going to school altogether. Bruno only went to 8th grade, and he didn’t care. He said, “I’ll teach youse whatcha gotta know to make out in this city. Stick wid me!” Joey dressed to look older and avoid truant officers.
About a month after Joey moved in with Bruno, it was a freezing, snowy day. Joey felt sick and seemed frightened. He wouldn’t even get out of bed except for the bathroom where he spent a lot of time. Bruno called Dr. Simone from S. Broad Street to take care of Joey. The doctor asked Bruno to go down stairs and boil some water for him. When Bruno returned, the doctor was aghast at what he discovered and said, “Hey Bruno, what’s going on here. Don’t you know they can put you in jail for this?” “Jail, for what?” asked Bruno. “This kid is not a Joey, this kid is aJosephine, you big jerk. What’s going on here?” “What? Lemme see”, said Bruno. “I’ll be damned. Now what can I do? The kid needs a home and I’m in real trouble now”
“What do you wanna do kid?” Bruno asked Joey. The kid cried for the first time and begged Bruno not to tell anyone. She begged him to keep her secret and let her stay with him as Joey, not Josephine. This could lead Bruno to defend a criminal suit if the secret leaked out. After much anguishing and soul searching, Bruno yielded with her promise that she would never reveal their secret. From now on, he was Uncle Bruno. It worked. She stayed away from other teenagers in the neighborhood and posed as a slightly retarded young man in his twenties so as not to socialize with peers or get involved with local gang members. Bruno passed the word. “Don’t mess wid dis kid! He’s my nephew and he’s a little slow. You mess wid him, you deal wid me!” Nobody messed with Joey!
What happened? Read The “Giordano Building.”
Names, dates and places have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals involved.