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Get Back Up
From the Streets to Microsoft Suites
By George A. Santino, M. J. Beaufrand
Greenleaf Book Group PressCopyright © 2016 Santino Enterprises LLC
All rights reserved.
TASKER STREET PROJECTS
Whenever someone says "South Philly Projects," one word almost always comes to mind: rough. But if you grew up in the country or the suburbs, your idea of rough might be different from mine.
My last name, Santino, means Little Saint in Italian. It definitely didn't describe any of us.
My father, John Santino, was a salesman, and from what I heard, he was a good one. He fashioned himself after Frank Sinatra, with the fedora and the smooth voice and everything. He certainly sold one of the most difficult products anyone ever had to move: himself.
When he was twenty-eight years old he met my mother, Florence, a sweet girl of eighteen who worked at the West Philly Five and Dime. The lunch counter was close to where he sold shoes, so Dad would stop by. He stopped by more and more often as time went on. He sold himself as a charming bachelor, and my mom bought him.
* * *
By the time I was born in 1956, the fourth of what would be seven kids, Dad was not a salesman anymore. He may have been charming outside the home, but he wasn't to us.
As I first remember him, I was four years old and he was forty. He was already a beaten-down old man.
At first, my sisters and brothers and I thought that our lives were no different from anyone else's. My parents always put food on the table and presents under the tree at Christmas. It didn't matter that our Thanksgiving turkey came from the church or that our presents came from the Salvation Army. The fact that my father didn't go off to work didn't seem strange. We knew he was disabled because he'd filed for Social Security disability — a check we didn't see until years later. But we didn't know what was wrong with him.
Everyone explained away the fact that he didn't work. Mom said that he had been the victim of a root canal that went too deep, causing him constant facial pain. He had also slipped on ice while waiting for a bus, shattering his knee. He'd had a major operation to fix it, but this was before arthroscopic surgery, so he had a scar so long it looked like the surgeon had "fixed" him with a butcher knife. He had to walk with a cane for the rest of his life.
Whatever the reason, he was in pain and couldn't work.
In my memory, he's either coming after one of us, or he's sitting on an easy chair, surrounded by the smoke of unfiltered Pall Malls, watching baseball over and over on TV. With a beer in his hand, of course. There was always another beer.
His drinking, when we were in the projects, was a case-a-day habit. Unlike the cigarettes he smoked, he didn't care which label of beer he had as long as there was another within reach. He also took painkillers, something called Paregoric, which was a kind of opiate, even though we didn't know that at the time.
His only real goal in life was trying to get his disability check. He never talked to anyone about anything, but we always heard him yell whenever rejection letters arrived at the house. He'd tear them up and shout that he was going to get a lawyer and sue the sons of bitches. It seemed impossible to believe he'd ever get it.
Without going into a lot of detail out of respect for my family, suffice it to say that he was an abusive alcoholic, and we stayed out of his way when we could.
Mom always says that without him, she wouldn't have had us. We never thought that she was blind to his faults. We just think she loved us more. And she thought children should have a father — even one like my dad.
* * *
The Tasker Homes in South Philly were two-story row houses with three bedrooms and one bath. The four boys (my oldest brother, Johnny; then Dennis; then me; then my younger brother, Anthony) had one room, the three girls (Joanne, Florence, and Madelyn) had another, and my parents had the third.
From the very beginning, we all had jobs to do. Dad might have been around physically, but he had clocked out mentally. Mom could've gotten a job outside the home to supplement the welfare money, but she had her hands full with feeding, washing, and dressing seven kids. We were her full-time job. So we all had to contribute, whether it was sweeping the kitchen with a broom, helping to hang the clothes on the line, or making our beds — or should I say, bed. All four boys slept in the same one.
One of my jobs was making the milk. We drank powdered milk because that was what we got from the Surplus Food Warehouse. The Surplus Food Warehouse wasn't like a normal grocery store. They had no fresh fruit or vegetables or meat, just rows of metal shelves that held cans with black and white labels. The cans were all filled with things like string beans and spinach, and there were also boxes filled with powdered milk and eggs. This was in the early sixties, before food stamps existed. At the Surplus Food Warehouse, you showed them a card from the welfare office, and they gave you the food for free.
I can tell you firsthand that Surplus Food Warehouse powdered milk, mixed with water, made liquid that tasted like chalk. But we got other things from the Surplus Food Warehouse that made it fixable: cans of evaporated milk and tins of chocolate powder. When you added them to the mixing pot, you wound up with something that was okay to pour over cereal or Cream of Wheat.
Other kids we went to school with, the ones who lived outside of the projects, shopped at places like the Acme Market or Food Fair. They actually got milk that was in liquid form and eggs still in their shells. They also had nicer houses and more toys to play with.
My brothers and I used to walk around those other neighborhoods. We would see the houses and the cars. We saw kids with bikes, kids who talked about going to the movies. We knew a life like that cost money, which we weren't going to get from our dad.
I don't know what my brothers dreamed of, but me? I dreamed of this better life.
* * *
My brother Dennis and I decided to try to earn money. Glass soda bottles were worth two cents, and you could return them to any supermarket or corner store for the money. So we would look all over for them, including other people's trash.
Collecting bottles worked for a while. And then came the guy that you usually hear about in stories like these. The one with the turnip truck.
Only this guy had tomatoes.
The guy would pull up in the neighborhood in a truck with wood paneling. The bed of the truck was loaded with bushel baskets filled with Jersey tomatoes that he'd bought at the docks. People came up to the truck and bought a bag of tomatoes for a quarter. When people stopped coming, he would drive off and come back a few days later to start all over.
I was only eight years old at the time, but I realized that rather than just selling his tomatoes from a parked truck and then leaving, he could do more business if he went door to door. So I told him my idea.
He said, "Who would watch the truck while I was going door to door?"
"I would. For a quarter."
He didn't like it. But he asked, "Would you be willing to do the footwork?"
"I'll give you a nickel for every bag you sell."
The first time, I sold ten bags and made fifty cents. That was more money than I'd ever had, and I was eager to spend it. I bought candy and movie-theater matinee tickets. Practically as soon as I had the money, it was gone.
Soon, though, my father found out that I was earning money. He started taking half.
"The house always gets its cut," he said. There wasn't anything I could do about it. Trying to argue with him wouldn't have been worth the pain.
* * *
Between my father and the candy and movies, the pennies I made just weren't adding up.
That's when I first thought about using money to make money.
I decided that instead of going to the store and buying something just for me, I would buy something to sell to someone else.
So I bought a box of ice cream bars. The box cost a dollar. It came with three bars, and I sold them for fifty cents each. Then I bought more boxes of ice cream and sold them the same way until I had enough to buy a small snow-cone-making kit. I'd put an ice cube into it and then turn a crank to make the snow, and then I'd cover it with the syrup. We sold these snow cones to the neighborhood kids out of our back window.
My brother Dennis and I decided to pool our money and buy a fake alien from the back of a comic book. We were going to use it to put on a neighborhood show. Sadly, what turned up in the mail was nothing more than a balloon with cardboard feet that popped when we inflated it. So the money was gone, but we learned some valuable lessons: Save your money, make your money work for more money, and don't buy crap from the back of a comic book.
* * *
There are a couple of things you should know about growing up in the projects in the 1960s. The first was that it wasn't a miserable childhood. All the kids from the projects got along with each other, and at first, everyone got along with the people who lived outside the projects too. There were always friends around to play with. Kick the can. Stick ball. Rat fishing.
Yeah, that's right. Rat fishing.
The projects themselves were kept fairly clean, but in any big city neighborhood, you had to deal with rats. We never saw them in the row houses, but we knew they lived under the streets. One day, we saw one run into a hole where the sidewalk met the dirt. The neighborhood kids found sticks and started to poke at the hole, but nothing came out.
Then one kid brought a fishing pole. We baited it with government cheese from the Surplus Food Warehouse. We took the baited hook and line to the hole and slowly lowered it in.
After just a few seconds, something bit on the cheese, and we pulled out the line. There was a rat attached to the cheese — not to the hook, but to the cheese itself — and when he came out of the hole, he ran right at us. None of us had really expected we'd catch one. We started running in all directions, but it seemed like the rat knew which way we were going, because he always seemed to be at our feet.
We finally got away, breathless and scared — but not so scared we didn't try again. This time, we would be armed.
We all had either a bat or a stick. We went back to the hole and, after playing a quick game of odds or evens, the loser put in the line. The rest of us waited, and when the rat came out, we started swinging. The rat was faster than us, so we missed a lot, but when the first blow landed, the rat exploded like someone had attached a bomb to him. He was big and fat, and when the bat hit him in the body his guts flew everywhere. Something sticky even hit one of the kids.
The kid yelled, "Get this off of me!"
But we could only laugh.
* * *
Gradually, the fun started getting out of hand. The bashing wasn't limited to rats anymore.
Across the street was Lanier Park — the one where I saw a kid take a baseball bat to the face. Long before that, it had been a nice park with two baseball diamonds, a basketball court, a slide, and lots of swings. The little league teams played there. So did all the neighborhood kids — the ones both from in the projects and the ones outside. It was run by the city, and they even had an office where you could check out basketballs and footballs to play with.
As we got older, though, that park seemed to be the center of all the trouble. There were older kids drinking and doing drugs. It was the sixties, after all.
But the tension ratcheted up from there. Who could hang out in Lanier? People started saying that those of us from the projects should stay in the projects. The lines were starting to be drawn.
Fights broke out. First with sticks and bottles, then with knives, and eventually with guns.
Even the younger kids got caught up in it. If you didn't want to get jumped, it made sense to join up with a group: safety in numbers. Gangs formed.
When I was eleven, those of us who lived in the projects had a gang called Mountain Drive, since that was the name of the street in the middle of the projects. We had our own tag, and we spray painted it on places we considered our territory.
We didn't even consider ourselves a real gang — just a bunch of guys looking out for our own. But since there were other gangs tagging what they thought was their territory, and since their territory sometimes overlapped with ours, you didn't want to be caught alone in the wrong place.
I got caught — but it wasn't while I was tagging.
* * *
I had earned a quarter collecting bottles, and I decided to go to the movies. The theater down the street from us was playing the horror classic, Creature from the Black Lagoon. The theater was less than a mile from my house, but it was outside the projects. This had never been a problem before, but times were changing.
As I walked down the street, I saw three kids walking on the other side. At first I didn't think much about it — I was too excited about seeing that monster climb out of the swamp on the big screen.
The three kids watching me were from the rival gang outside the projects, the kind who shopped at Acme Market and could go to the movies whenever they wanted. I had seen these guys before in church, and they knew where I was from, but they would never mess with me in church. There were always nuns around, and everyone knew nuns could be scary.
They saw me first. Before I knew what was going on, one of them yelled, "Go back to the projects where you belong!"
I knew these guys were trouble. I should have just shut up and kept walking. But even at eleven years old, I never backed down. I replied with a standard tough-guy comeback: "Make me."
That was a mistake.
They came running across the street, and before I could react, I was punched in the gut. The air left my body so fast that I thought I would pass out. I doubled over on the ground.
As I looked up, I saw one of the kids had a straight razor in his hand — the kind you see in the old movies when guys get a shave at the barber shop. I was trying to catch a breath when I felt the razor graze my face. It wasn't a bad cut, only about an inch long, but there was enough blood that the guys decided to take off.
Later, after remembering the size of the razor, I realized the damage could've been much worse.
I went home, hoping the whole time that my father wouldn't be there. But he was, and he saw me. After slapping me on the other side of the face for "starting trouble," he put a bandage on the cut. I still have a faint scar.
When my brothers found out I'd been jumped, we went looking for the guys who cut me. We took our friends Tommy, Frankie, David, and others. Dennis explained it: We couldn't let them start to think they could go after any one of us without having to deal with all of us.
We knew the kids who jumped me hung out on the other side of Lanier Park near the Acme Market. So I walked there, apparently on my own, the bandage on my cheek. The kids came walking over.
"Didn't you learn your lesson the first time, punk?"
They were so fixed on me, they didn't see the rest of my guys coming up fast from behind. When they finally did, it was too late, and the punches started flying.
Dennis was a much better fighter than I was. While I started fights by throwing wild and wide, swinging lefts and rights, Dennis would always start by throwing a few well-placed left jabs. When his opponent raised his hands to try and block them, Dennis would move his attack to the body.
At first, the guys who jumped me were holding their own pretty well. But when I spotted the guy who cut me, I headed straight for him. This time I didn't swing wildly. Instead I threw a single punch that landed on his jaw, and he went down. I stood there looking down at him. The feeling of his face collapsing under my fist had felt good.
As I stood, I shouted, "You ever touch me again, I'll fucking kill you!"
One of the shop owners who saw this happening must have called the cops, because soon we heard sirens, and we were off to the projects. The cops didn't go in there. There were just too many of us.
The Tasker Street Projects were too dangerous even for the police.
* * *
It wasn't over.
Just as we'd gone looking for them after they jumped me, they came looking for us. For the next few nights, we couldn't go anywhere without stones being thrown and bottles being tossed.
* * *
The projects were never the same. Fights broke out all the time.
I saw a man die in front of me.
I was wandering around the edge of the projects near 30th and Tasker Street one winter night, looking at the burning trash cans. The big kids usually lit them so they could warm cans of beer. To Dad, there wasn't any reason in the world to drink a warm beer. But to the big kids it was simple: It was cold out, so they wanted to drink something warm. It wasn't the stupidest thing they did.
Excerpted from Get Back Up by George A. Santino, M. J. Beaufrand. Copyright © 2016 Santino Enterprises LLC. Excerpted by permission of Greenleaf Book Group Press.
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