Joe is the gatekeeper.
That is the first thing my wife and I learned last week when we moved onto 10th and Mifflin Street in South Philadelphia.
My new next-door neighbor, Joe Calise, who is 78 and retired from the shoe business, is an exceedingly gracious gentleman. He’s also the one on the street in charge of the gated alley that runs through to McKean.
That’s how it’s been on Mifflin Street since Joe and Betty and the kids moved in nearly 40 years ago. To go through the gate, you go through Joe.
Last Sunday, I wrote about leaving my old neighborhood. So, it seemed natural to write about my new place. Partly because I wanted any excuse to get to know the street. And partly because, at 39, I am a first-time homeowner. This is all new to me.
I’ve always rented, worrying over deadlines, not interest rates.
By the time my father was my age he had six kids and was 15 years into his mortgage. I called home to Queens with big questions for Dad. Like, how does one go about applying for a mortgage?
Dad was patient.
He grew up in apartments. He was a rookie fireman in 1967 when he and Mom bought what became my childhood home. Mom had fallen for it first. Big rooms. A backyard for the kids.
“I just saw a big paint job,” Dad said.
The deposit cost $25. The mortgage was $18,000.
That troubled Dad until his father-in-law explained how you pay only a little off each month.
The hell with it, Dad said.
“We made it work,” Mom said.
I found our new rowhouse through my buddy Johnny McDonald. The son of a master plumber from Havertown – and a former bar bouncer – Johnny’s a bear of a Realtor. The kind of guy you want on your side in a fight, and that's what we were heading into with Philly’s crazy-competitive housing market.
“Another day in the Colosseum,” Johnny said, showing us home after home. We wouldn’t be sleeping on the street, he said.
“But tell your mother to keep pushing her rosaries.”
Mom had been praying her rosary during our house hunt. Dad would make his devotions in the light of his favorite stained-glass window at Good Shepherd parish.
We fell in love with the Mifflin Street house from the first. Big rooms. A backyard for the dog.
The hell with it, I said.
We’d make it work.
Dad was sitting by the stained-glass window when I called with the news that we got the two-story brick row.
Great, Kid, he said.
“Can I finally put down my rosary?” my mom asked.
It was Antoinette’s house, Joe told us. Antoinette was a widow, but the house was filled with her kids and her sisters, and every holiday she threw big dinners, sending everyone home with ravioli and rice pudding.
“Nobody made homemade ravioli like Antoinette,” Joe said.
Down the street at Mike & Matt’s Italian Market, Mike and Matt Silvano have been filling me in on neighborhood history – and neighborhood characters. For their longtime customers, they have nicknames. Because, otherwise, who could keep track. There’s Joe the Butcher. Joe the Jokester (that’s how they know Joe the Gatekeeper, who always drops a good one-liner when he picks up mortadella). And Joe the Jet, because he comes and goes in such a flash.
The brothers' storefront is decorated with a painting of the bickering Muppets characters -- Statler and Waldorf – the grouches who rain barbs from their balcony perch. This makes sense, because Mike and Matt spend all day busting on each other at the counter.
But Mike and Matt are not grouches. They say it hurts their feelings when a newbie passes without even a hello.
“Hellos are free,” Mike informed me.
I’ll always say hello, Mike.
Like with any new neighborhoods, the rhythms slowly emerge. The morning bells sounding from St. Nick’s church. The daily dog walks along the grass and under a flowering cherry tree in front of Ss. Neumann and Goretti High School -- where, Mike would be encouraged to hear, new and old residents often exchange hellos.
And the talks with Joe over the backyard wall. The other day he even presented us with a copy of the key to the gate. Just a copy. Joe’s still the gatekeeper, of course. We’ll take care of it.