AN UNLIKELY BROMANCE

 

For some reason, I’ve recently been pondering our relationship to politicians.  There can be surprises.  Consider Frank Rizzo, the mayor of Philadelphia from 1972-1980. During his term, he distinguished himself for brutishness. Describing how he intended to deal with opponents, he declared, on several occasions: “By comparison, I’ll make Attila the Hun look like a fag.” For reasons I never understood, my non-threatening, mild-mannered father adored this man.

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Before he was mayor, Frank Rizzo had served as police commissioner. His reign featured continual charges of police brutality. Admittedly, the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were challenging times for big-city police. Potentially violent protests bubbled up from radical students as well as from organizations like the Black Panthers. To be fair, many credited Rizzo’s aggressive tactics with keeping a lid on several situations that could have spiraled into deadly riots. Even his opponents admitted as much, though they were grudging in expressing admiration, understandable from their perspectives on the receiving end of nightsticks.

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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 was so repugnant! Opponents, including my siblings, referred to him as “Ratzo.” Yet, my father, in the face this scathing skepticism and derision, remained supportive.

 

*****

My father was an active member of the Marshall Street Store Owners Association. This was a robust organization in the 1940’s and 1950’s, when the street featured over one hundred stores. By the late 1960’s, however, Marshall Street’s customer base had moved away and development of malls added another challenge. 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 skeletal streetscape like a depression-era movie. By then, my father was the only storeowner willing to act as “President.” As such, apparently, each year, commencing in 1972, he received a Christmas card at the store signed: “Mayor Frank Rizzo.”

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“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 mass-produced card. I remained silent.

Certainly, I thought, my father, a confirmed skeptic, 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 sent to every club and organization 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?”

“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 touched.

 

*****

 

The receipt of the annual 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 front 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.

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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 handled at the store, but couldn’t manage 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 barely survived, continued to deteriorate. Additional store closings and robberies sapped my father’s determination to remain open. After being pistol-whipped by a thug in 1979, my father reluctantly agreed to give up his business of over fifty years. But what about the building? My father listed it with a realtor for $50,000, but no one made an offer. Hardly anyone looked. It was in a worthless location.

 

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“Someone offered $2,000 today for the bricks,” he reported one evening, dejected, as we sat down to dinner.

“Why don’t you call the mayor?” said my mother. “His term ends in a week. It’s now or never for him to reward your loyalty.”

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 holidays from law school at the time, it occurred to me I’d never seen my father dial the telephone at home. My mother found the number for the Mayor’s office in the phone book and wrote it down for him. He went into the adjacent kitchen where there was a phone. As he shut the door I heard him pronounce:

“This is Lou Sanders, President of the Marshall Street Store Owners Association. Is the mayor in?”

My father’s discussion continued for several minutes though I couldn’t make out every word.

“Who could he be talking to?” I wondered aloud.

“Who knows?” said my mother. “I guess the mayor 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.

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I heard the kitchen door open, and my father returned to the dining room.

“Well?” said my mother.

“Who did you talk 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 a week later 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.”

An unknown clerk had signed the letter, but a handwritten postscript appeared at the bottom, in blue ink: “Warmest regards, your friend, Frank.”

 

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