Frank Rizzo was mayor of Philadelphia from 1972-1980. During that time, he distinguished himself for brutish bravado. Describing how mercilessly he intended to disembowel opponents, he declared, on several occasions: “By comparison, I’ll make Attila the Hun look like a fag.” For reasons I could not initially understand, my non-threatening, mild-mannered father was enamored of this man.
Before he was mayor, Frank Rizzo had served as police commissioner. Not surprisingly, his reign was dominated by charges of police brutality. Admittedly, the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were challenging times for a big-city police commissioner. There were potentially violent protests from radical students as well as from such organizations as the Black Panthers. To be fair, many credited Rizzo’s aggressive tactics with holding a lid on potentially riotous situations that could have spiraled into deadly chaos. Even his opponents admitted as much, though they were grudging in expressing admiration, understandable from their perspectives on the receiving end of the nightsticks.
Considering my father’s clothing store was in a neighborhood conducive to trouble, I eventually comprehended why Frank Rizzo’s “law and order” platform appealed. But his manner and expressions were so repugnant! Opponents, including my siblings, referred to him as “Ratzo.” Yet, my father, in the face this scathing skepticism and derision, remained a supporter.
My father was an active member of the Marshall Street Store Owners Association. This was a meaningful organization in the 1940’s and 1950’s, when the street was a bustling shopping area with over one hundred stores, but a sad joke by the late 1960’s. In a misguided effort to revitalize the old shopping area and its deteriorating neighborhood, Philadelphia bought out and razed half the stores with the stated intention of rebuilding them. Half the remaining stores were left empty. Unfortunately, the city’s “Redevelopment Authority” ran out of money before the “redevelopment” part occurred, leaving a scene reminiscent of a depression-era movie. By then, my father was the only store owner willing to act as “president” and, accordingly, his name landed on the new mayor’s mailing list. Each year, commencing in 1972, he received a Christmas card at the store signed “Mayor Frank Rizzo.”
“Look what I have here,” proclaimed my father, proudly brandishing the card when he strode into the house after work. “It’s from Frank Rizzo himself.”
“He didn’t really sign it,” said my mother.
“I don’t think he knows how to write,” said my sister.
A teenager at the time, I found my father’s worshipful attitude oddly touching. I’d rarely seen him express affection for a public figure, even an entertainer, aside from Ed Sullivan. And I’d NEVER seen him express affection for a politician. Yet, here he was, wielding a Christmas card as though it were the sweetest thing he’d ever seen. I wanted him to be right. I wanted to believe the card was truly “personalized” but, after looking at the machine-like tone of the ink, I, too, concluded someone had stamped “Mayor Frank Rizzo” onto a standard, green card. I remained silent.
Certainly, I thought, my father, a noted skeptic in his own right, would look at the card again and agree he was mistaken. He had to know the new mayor had more to do than individually sign hundreds of Christmas cards that were doubtless sent to every club, organization and entity in the city. Shockingly, instead, my father doubled down on his faith.
“I’m sure he signed this himself,” he said, “and I want to send him a card back. Do we have any Christmas cards here?”
“We have Hannukkah cards,” said my mother.
“Can we get a Christmas card?” he asked. By “we,” he clearly meant my mother.
“I’ll get you one tomorrow,” said my mother. Not generally given to blind obedience, she, too, seemed taken aback by his fervor, and, perhaps, a little moved.
The annual receipt of the holiday card from Mayor Rizzo became something of a family joke. My mother, sister and I looked forward to making fun of it, but each year, we were a little more private about our scoffing, a little less likely to do it in earshot of my father. His earnestness was simply too sincere to mock — openly. So proud of his personal connection to Philadelphia’s most powerful man, my father would bring the card home and place it prominently on our fireplace mantle, front and center of any other cards we had received. After the first year, my mother automatically presented my father with a card to send in response, without discussion. For the next seven years, as long as Frank Rizzo was mayor, she’d even address and stamp the envelopes, a task my father somehow was perfectly capable of handling at the store, but seemingly unable to do at home.
“Should I sign ‘Lou’ or ‘Louis Sanders?’” he would ask, each year.
We would stifle the roll-of-the-eyes reaction and urge to say: “It won’t make any difference. He won’t read it anyway.”
“Either way will be fine,” my mother would respond.
As the 1970’s proceeded, Marshall Street, which was barely surviving, became increasingly forlorn. Additional store closings and robberies sapped my father’s determination to stay open. After he was pistol-whipped by a thug in 1979, my father reluctantly agreed to give up his business of over fifty years. But what could he do with the building? My father listed it with a realtor for $50,000, but no one would buy it. It was in a worthless location.
“Someone offered $2,000 today,” he reported one day, dejectedly, as we sat down to lunch, “for the bricks.”
“Why don’t you call the mayor?” said my mother. “His term is ending in a week. It’s now or never for him to reward your loyal friendship.”
It was clear to me that her tone was ironic, but my father’s expression brightened.
“Do you have the number?” he asked.
Home for the holiday break from law school at the time, it occurred to me I’d never seen my father dial the telephone at home. My mother retrieved the number for the Mayor’s office from the directory and wrote it down for him. My father went into the kitchen where there was a phone and, before he shut the door behind him, I heard him prounounce:
“This is Lou Sanders of the Marshall Street Store Owners Association. Is the mayor in?”
My father’s discussion continued for several minutes.
“Who could he be talking to?” I asked.
“Who knows?” said my mother. “I guess the mayor’s office has employees.”
“Dad’s probably interrupted their card game,” I said.
“Good thing the Eagles aren’t playing now — they’d never have answered the phone,” said my mother.
I heard the kitchen door open, and my father returned to the dining room.
“Well?” said my mother.
“Who were you talking to?” I asked.
“The mayor’s assistant,” said my father, casually. “Is the coffee hot?”
“And what did he say?” asked my mother.
“We’ll see,” said my father. “I told him to thank Mayor Rizzo for the Christmas card, and to wish him well in his retirement next week.”
“That’s all you discussed, for ten minutes?” I asked.
“We’ll see,” he repeated.
Coyness was not a personality trait I’d ever seen in my father. Clearly, he was not going to share any other details of his conversation. When he left the room several minutes later. I said to my mother: “It’s kind of sad he’s willing to humiliate himself like that. I bet the mayor’s office had a good laugh.”
She nodded in agreement.
Imagine our surprise on December 31 when my father received a check in the amount of $48,000 from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. A short cover letter advised that the City had chosen to purchase my father’s building “in its ongoing campaign to accumulate valuable commercial properties.” The letter was signed by an unknown official. But a handwritten postscript was added at the bottom, in blue ink: “Warmest regards, your friend, Frank.”