Salute to a scribe

Memorial tour is dedicated to Philly noir novelist David Goodis

WHILE MOURNERS drove through the winding roads of Roosevelt Memorial Cemetery to say goodbye to their loved ones, another group filed into the mausoleum to memorialize an old friend whom only one of them had ever met: noir writer David Goodis.

The people who gathered inside the grand mausoleum, with its high ceilings and stained glass, were there to honor the homegrown Goodis, who died on Jan. 7, 1967. On the anniversary each year, this small band of men and women meet at this Trevose cemetery to remember the writer who is buried there, and then tour his old haunts.

Goodis was known for chronicling Philadelphia's dark side, setting his stories in neighborhoods like Port Richmond and Kensington. His books are populated with downtrodden people whose lives start low and only get lower.

Lou Boxer, an anesthesiologist at Chester County Hospital, organizes the annual memorial tour. This year, Boxer handed out pins featuring a picture of Goodis doing the limbo at a 1963 bar mitzvah at the Barclay Hotel. Goodis is wearing a white tuxedo, with his arms stretched wide, squinching up his face as if to make his body more elastic. It's a funny image for a man associated with writing about Philadelphia's underbelly.

Thirteen people showed up for this year's tour, including a contingent from New York and West Philadelphian Andrew Kevorkian, who met Goodis once and attended his funeral. Kevorkian said it wasn't as cold that day 44 years ago, and there wasn't snow on the ground as there was this year.

Goodis' grave site is a modest rectangular stone sandwiched between the similar markers of his parents and brother, situated not far from the mausoleum. Aaron Finestone led the group in reciting the Kaddish, the Jewish mourners' prayer, and Boxer described the tradition of leaving stones at the grave of the dead to make the presence of visitors known. Boxer had a bucket of stones waiting.

But the mood wasn't somber. Instead, it was like a meeting of old friends. Edward Pettit, a freelance writer, adjunct professor at LaSalle and self-proclaimed literary provocateur, toasted Goodis' memory and took a swig from a flask of Jameson. Later, others joined him in imbibing.

The Goodis memorial tour is an offshoot of the Boxer-organized NoirCon, a biennial meeting of noir aficionados that took place in November. Many tour members met at the convention and Jeff Wong, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based book illustrator, designer and collector, describes this smaller group as "the inner circle of outsiders."

"As much as Goodis talked about the loners, this group of people is the farthest thing from loners," Boxer said. "It's just a group of people who enjoy each other's companies. The camaraderie is so palpable."

Goodis, the man who brings them together, was born in East Oak Lane in 1917. The house where he was born was a stop on the tour, except there's no longer a house at 10th and Loudon streets. Instead it's an empty lot, save for a cement barricade that is spray-painted "True Thug 4 Life." Still, the Goodis fans couldn't have been happier. They snapped pictures together even though there was nothing to photograph.

Goodis attended Simon Gratz High School and graduated from Temple University with a degree in journalism in 1938. He took his talents to Hollywood in the early '40s, where he had a contract with Warner Bros. and wrote "Dark Passages," later turned into a movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. "I threw away a lot of time in Hollywood, although I must admit I had a lot of fun in Hollywood," Goodis wrote in a letter.

But in 1950 Goodis moved back in with his parents and mentally ill brother, Harold, in the Logan section of the city. The memorial tour makes a stop here - 6350 N. 11th St. - too, and at this location there is actually a house. The Goodis-files traipsed around the back yard and posed for pictures on the writer's former front steps, oblivious to what the current residents and neighbors might think.

(Boxer said that last year they knocked on the door, but the owners wanted cash in exchange for entry.)

Boxer and Finestone actually went inside the house when it was for sale several years ago. Boxer recalled hideous tile in the bathroom and the tiny alcove where Goodis reportedly wrote 10,000 words a day. He said it looked like a monk's cell.

At night, Goodis would wander the streets of Port Richmond and Kensington, hanging out in bars and pool halls, attending boxing matches and observing the seedier side of life.

"So many of his novels are set in Philadelphia," Pettit said. "Just as Raymond Chandler is connected to Los Angeles and Dashiell Hammett is connected to San Francisco. Philadelphia is a very alive noir place in Goodis' novels."

Goodis synthesized those observations into novels like Of Tender Sin, Black Friday and Down There, which became Francois Truffaut's New Wave masterpiece "Shoot the Piano Player."

"If I were teaching a course in Philadelphia social history, I would use Goodis," Finestone said. "He writes about the exciting griminess of the city."

Being able to walk where Goodis walked and see the city he saw is illuminating to tour members. "You see the city through his eyes. He walked the streets and he did this for real," said Duane Swierczynski, a crime novelist and comic-book writer who writes about the same Philadelphia that Goodis captured in his own work. Goodis, Swierczynski said, was a stickler for accurate details. In Of Tender Sin, Swierczynski said, Goodis included the correct bus schedule, so that a reader can experience traveling "through the city with this man who is losing his mind."

Goodis, Pettit said, wrote about "a Philadelphia that's lost."

"But some hasn't changed at all," Swierczynski countered.

Goodis died of a stroke in 1967 at Albert Einstein Medical Center. The tour drives by there, too, but the participants stayed in their cars. They instead chose the warmth of Port Richmond Books, where they could roam the stacks.

Goodis' popularity, much like the noir genre, has waned significantly since his death, and few remember Goodis the way they recall Chandler or Hammett. "It's always hard to promote writers like Goodis because life isn't fun [in his novels]," Pettit said. "It's blistering."

But Eric Rice, a New York-based actor, doesn't see despair or hopelessness in Goodis' writing. "David Goodis saved my life. I was living in my pickup truck when I found Black Friday. It made me realize I had to get my s--- together and change my life," he said. "The amount of time he spent detailing the inner lives of low lives, those characters still wanted to be alive."