The Al Monaghan Club; Tales From the Corner
My younger days were hard, but not as bad as it might have been. I know this because my friends let me into their homes. We were friends. And we knew the deck was stacked.
I never told my kids. I never told my new friends. I left. Moved far away. I felt as if I had to start over. I did, actually. I hope you enjoy this true tale. It helps me in a way. My life was filled with characters. Of every stripe. My streets teemed with life. Every corner was an event.
This story here only appears because of another story. Me stumbling across LGF. A way that I could express myself, give a part of myself, and see others do the same. I feel safe almost giving me away. Almost. But time and tide and all those things me ma spoke… There is so much I wish to speak, and I wish I could. Thank you all.
Maybe I tell you of the other tales from Kensington and Fairhill and Fishtown? Tell me.
Tales. Stories. That what old men do, right? So bear with me as I travel back and in quiet moments think of things and people who shaped me. Both good and bad.
Please allow me to walk you down some streets I once did.
5th Street in Fairhill North Philly had a corner bar and a book store next to it at Allegheny Ave. I got run over by a car at 5th and Allegheny right after I started 1st grade. They had to lift the car off me….. This isn’t that story. But it was one hell of a way to lose most of my baby teeth.
Tobacco, candy, newspapers, comics, magazines, cold soda, pinball machine in the back, shortwave radio for the horse races and valued customers, a restroom. Behind the counter most days is Al. Al Monaghan. Small guy. Compact. Always said he was a Golden Gloves boxer. I lived two blocks down, and it was my store. The Mann Recreation Center (now the Rivera Rec Center) was across the Ave. It had a playground, pool, indoor and outdoor courts, gymnastics equipment, and two ballfields. LL and Pony, and pickup. We played ping pong, shot hoops and snuck in the pool on summer nights. And fought.
Al ran a book. Open secret. The cops would roust him from time to time. Some money would probably change hands and all would be well. The money behind it all had another book at 6th and Indiana. Huey ran that.
Who am I kidding? It was large.
Al would sometimes get kids to take a paperback (stuffed with slips) over to Hueys. Strict instructions. Hold it tight, don’t open it, and if the cops pull up, you found it and are taking it home to Ma. She likes those books.
He’d give a half buck, sometimes a dollar. Large money. Comic book, pinball money. Cold coke. Candy bar.
A nickel was a lot. 5 balls on a pinball machine and if you knew where to hit it, it would skip matches and if done right could get you a few more games. When the fedora wearing old guys had a race with money riding it coming across the shortwave and you was playing pinball, one would come back and either kick it or push it with his cane to tilt it, throw a quarter on the glass and say, “Be quiet.” Then they would huddle around the radio picking up a race from who knows where. I was a little guy. They would always say “You ought to be a jockey.” Yeah. Sure…
One night some older kid was reading a Ring Magazine, and started screaming “Holy shit! Holy shit! Al WAS a Golden Glover!”
Yep there was his name and his, ahem, record. He was a amateur boxer all right. He was a tomato can. Just a body to put in front of another body to tag a win on a potential money maker. But he boxed! For MONEY! Prizefighter. Everybody slap boxed. Or body boxed. Or call out a a “fair one” just to set a dispute straight.
People would even hold your coat. Dignified fistfights.
It always seem to come down to fists. At first…
But there he was. In that magazine. Damn.
Numbers and ponies. What’s a poor boy to do? Floating crap games were down the street, around the corner with stoop and floating poker games, that was my dad’s favorite.
He was a city truck driver. He came home some weeks with money stuffed everywhere. Under his newsboy hat. In his socks. Piled on the kitchen table. More money that you could count. He’d give me a buck. Mom said put some away…Yeah. Next week, we didn’t have enough to buy food. Never had anything new. Never owned a home.
Al always had a soft shoe routine, or a fancy footwork friendly jab to his “boys”. He liked us and we liked him. I was just one more kid and held no sway. I was 10 or 11. It’s 1961 or 62.
One night a bigger kid, and I mean a bigger kid, thought I had done something I didn’t. He punched me in the face, and then grabbed me around the throat and spun me off the ground in a circle until I was almost choked out and threw me through the air like a rag doll at the ballfield at the Mann Rec. I bounced a few times. He came at me again and I ran for my life. Made it to Als. I came in dirty and bleeding and crying and screaming. I ran to the back where the empties were and grabbed a bottle and turned just to see him coming in. Coming for me again. I was screaming my lungs out, insane with fear. I went at him. Al grabbed me, smothered me, told my attacker, “if you ever come in here again I’ll hurt you. Get out.”
They consoled me. Calmed me down, cleaned me up. Asked what happened. I was shook. Al had someone walk me home. I’m a kid.
Came in the next day or so, Al looked at me and said, “You was going to hit him with that bottle, weren’t you?” I think I said you bet or something. Al just looked at me.
So one day a week or so after that, I’m checking out the comics and this older kid comes over. Asks if I ever heard of the “Al Monaghan Club.” No. Never did. Then he goes on a spiel about how great it is and all the benefits, but, me? Nah. Never be good enough. Who, me? I’m good enough. “Na. You ain’t tough enough.” Yes I am. Nope. He walked me all over that lawn until I demanded to be allowed to “try out” for the coveted “Al Monaghan Club.”
So he goes and talks to Al. I stand a ways off, and they look back and forth….Yeah.
So Al nods me over. “C’mere. So he told you about it? You want to join?” You bet. Yes. Yeah.
“Ah you ain’t tough enough. Probably wind up crying.”
No I won’t.
“It’s tough. You tough?”
“Ok. He says he doesn’t think so, but I think you’re ok…Put ‘er there”
He reaches out his hand so we can shake.
I reach out my hand, and a left cross open hand slap hits my face so fucking hard I’m knocked back on my ass on the floor. It stung, and my heads buzzing, and water is coming to my eyes….
“He’s gonna cry! I told you Al! He’s gonna cry!”
I managed to contain myself. The older kid was cackling, and Al looked down at me and said;
“Never trust anybody. Hear me? Never trust anybody. Welcome to the Al Monaghan Club. Now get the fuck up.”
I got to walk books to 6th and Indiana. Bought comics. Cold cokes.