Captain Jim Cassidy navigates hard boiled Philadelphia

By Jay A. Gertzman

The author of Cassidy’s Girl knew Philadelphia well. David Goodis was a native; throughout the 1950s, he lived with his parents in a row house in the Logan section; he was known, as Phillippe Gardnier’s splendid biography reveals, to have disappeared for a few days and nights at a stretch on binges which took him to underclass neighborhoods where poverty inspired prostitution, gambling, and hard drinking.

“. . .he spent a few weeks in the tenderloin around Eighth and Race, then tried the waterfront for a job.”
8th and Race Streets, 1950's. Courtesy Jay Gertzman.
Philadelphia’s Skid Row stretched from 12th
and Vine Street east to 6th, and the territory in which the residents could be seen included Race, where tough-as-nails Brother John ran a large mission. To the east along Race and Vine was Chinatown, where beneath the pleasant surface of restaurants and retail outlets were opium dens and houses of prostitution. When the men could not find a cheap flophouse or a mission, they “carried the banner” (found a place to sleep) to a doorway or parked truck in summer, and in the winter to the grinder movie houses on Market. The largest number of beds were to be found in “cubicle hotels,” which were plentiful on streets such as Darien, Spring, and Mureus. These were near Franklin Square and the approach to the Delaware River Bridge, where the transients congregated during the day to sleep, talk, or beg from passersby or motorists. Large rooms or lofts were partitioned off by sheets of plywood about seven feet high into spaces small enough to hold a bed. The price was from 40 to 75 cents per night. In the 1950s, as many as three thousand people, mostly middle aged and elderly, resided on Skid Row, but hundreds, perhaps thousands, more transients slept where they could in the vicinity. There was work available to get enough money for admission to the all-night movies or for bottles of “Sneaky Pete,” so a guy would not have to Aride the broom@ (mix Witch Hazel with water). These degrading jobs carried such slang designations as “muzzling” (delivering circulars) and “pearl diving” (washing dishes). One could also visit a blood bank or allow a spot employment agency to get him temporary sweat work in the haze and humidity of an upstate farm during the dog days. Some indication of Skid Row income levels is the 1950 census statistics. In the two tracts which included the Row, over one-third in one, and one-quarter in the other, reported an income of less than $500 per year (mean city level was $2800).
8th and Race Streets, 1938

Cassidy had maintained his pride and manly self image, which is one reason why he only stayed a few weeks in Philly’s “lousy acres.” The regulars had accepted their degradation and dependency. The evangelical missions met their basic needs, but it was a quixotic task to care for them beyond that. The cornerstone of these was The Sunday Breakfast Association at 6th and Vine, a block long building which fed and found work for the derelicts but had no resources for counseling or character building. It maintained dormitories for over 250 men. Because they did not have to respond emotionally, they would sit still for the “ear beatings,” mutter hymns aloud, and “take a dive” when requested to kneel and pray. Being with others made it easier to survive the pickpockets at the all-night theaters, and the thieves and sadists on the dark streets. Your “boons” would share your emotional isolation. They might explain how to make shoelaces from bits of wire (so they couldn’t be cut off while you slept), and how to sew extra “slides” in your clothes to stymie the pickpockets. Survival on Skid Row bred a cynical indifference. Many residents had endured this limbo for a generation, waiting for the end, which may have come from some predator “tying fire” to a “bum,” from disease or alcoholism, or from drinking rubbing alcohol or Sterno.
Arch Street's Barbary Coast, 1950's. Courtesy Jay Gertzman/
Courtesy Jay Gertzman

Cassidy might have turned his back on Skid row by walking east on Vine Street, past Franklin Square, then turning south on Fifth Street. With Independence Hall visible to his right, he could have turned east on Market, walked to Front, Water, and then Delaware Avenue, stopping at any of those streets between Market and Spruce, calling at warehouses, shipping offices, or the docks to ask for work.

101-109 South Front Street, 1953

The Waterfront, and Dock Street: “Small and frenzied fruit stores, farmers, and middlemen and sharp eyed buyers from large markets” (David Goodis,
Behold This Woman)

Dock Street itself would have been a promising start. It does not run parallel to the Delaware, as Goodis suggests, but its eastern spur does end on Delaware Avenue; from there one could see “the big ships rock[ing] gently on the black water like monstrous hens.” Here was not only the Market itself, but also the immense Dock Street Warehouse, a cold storage building, and, a bit further south between Water and Swanson Streets where they intersect Spruce, an Iron Works. On the long “finger” piers were the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Baltimore and Ohio freight stations, the Cunard Lines, the Merchants and Miners Transportation Company, and other heavy industries.

Dock Street, 1953

Waterfront near Dock Street. Courtesy, Jay Gertzman.

Before the wholesalers were relocated in 1959, Dock Street resounded with the noise and exhaust from trucks, and the shouts of the farmers, vendors, teamsters, and union overseers, beginning at about that pre-dawn hour when Cassidy would be returning from Lundy’s saloon on the water front. Dock Street “ran on a uniquely contrary schedule,” write the authors ofPhiladelphia Stories (Frederic Miller et. al, Temple U. Press, 1988). “But like the Tenderloin and the night club area around Broad Street, Dock Street gave the downtown a 24-hour life that set it apart rom the rest of the city.” They also are clear about the squalid, germ-breeding mess it had become by 1950, and how both it, and the rusting warehouses and factories surrounding it, were “strangling the eastern third of the downtown.” Residents and shop keepers had to co-exist with disease-carrying rodents coming up from the waterfront to feast on mounds of garbage, sick and alcoholic vagrants moving down from Skid Row, and careening trucks and carts bearing down from all sides. In the early 1950s, police got fed up with slovenly efforts by waterfront and Dock Street merchants to clean up before unsold, discarded fruits and vegetables rotted. One August night in 1953, under the direction of ham-fisted future mayor Frank “Cisco Kid” Rizzo, the bluecoats moved in, washing and scrubbing. They also arrested some 80 vagrants holed up in “doorways, alleys, loading platforms, and other nooks and crannies.” That mirrored their actions of February 1952, at the beginning of the clean up campaign, when the police arrested three men and extinguished some 20 bonfires around which men were warming themselves while looking for work.
Frank Rizzo

The graft and corruption of the market area was notable. In the 30s, police would take “contributions” from farmers who wanted to be given the right-of-way through the traffic-choked streets to their buyers. In 1948, three officials of a Teamsters’ local (one man was the head of two Dock Street trade associations), and the local itself, were convicted of conspiracy to engage in interstate racketeering. For years, produce merchants had been forced to pay union dues “or else.” If they were not known to union “private policemen,” the latter would pull contracts from their pockets and demand the buyer sign before being able to load or unload his truck. The implied violence, and the imposition of what amounted to fines for buyers who refused to pay the graft, led to the convictions. Union goons had been collecting fines of $50 (over $380 in 2003 currency), and administering knuckle sandwiches to buyers who “talked too much in favor of growers and [in] disfavor of the union.”

Photograph from the Philadelphia Record, about 1943. Numbers racket in Northern Liberties. Man with his back to camera is taking a payoff while a police officer watches impassively. Courtesy, Jay Gertzman.

From Cassidy’s Flat to Haney’s and Lundy’s

Poor people found it convenient to live near the chaotic waterfront area east of Fourth Street between Walnut and Spruce. Like Cassidy, they had the prospect of at least part time employment within walking distance. Where ever Cassidy and Mildred’s “small room near the docks” was, it was not on Dock Street or the intersecting Mattis Street, which were entirely occupied by the market, stores, offices, and warehouses. Nor was it on Front Street. There were dwellings on the south side of St James Street between American and Second. Behind them was a furniture finishing warehouse. The City Mission was nearby to the west. On Spruce between American and Second were apartments and small stores. Similar accommodations lined Leithgow, between St Lawrence and 4th, and 4th Street north of Locust. Goodis writes that to get to work at his bus company, Cassidy walked down a “narrow side street leading to Front.” That could have been Chancellor or Granite Street. The latter was about one half block south of Third.

Haney’s “room” was “a few blocks away from Lundy’s Place.” Haney could have afforded a comfortable apartment. These would have been available on Locust or Spruce between 6th
and 8th. Philadelphia Bulletinclassified advertisements in 1950 show rooms for rent on Spruce Street from 5th and 7th, and apartments at 5thand Pine and as close to the waterfront as 259 S. 3rdStreet. As for Lundy’s, it would not have been on Delaware Avenue. More likely, such a “port for rudderless boats” would have had a Front Street address.

“She said he might be able to find work with one of the small bus companies on Arch Street.”

To get to the struggling bus company where he worked at 13th and Arch (or perhaps Cuthbert) Streets, Cassidy favored walking down that “narrow side street” to Front, then north on Front or Second to Arch, which would have been about a half mile from his apartment. (Actually, Goodis mentions First Street, but as he very well knew, there was no First Street. Who knows what he was up to?). From Arch to 13th was about a 20 minute walk. That ramble would have exposed one to a good cross section of the kind of popular entertainment that bourgeois citizens deplored. At 10th Street was the burlesque theater every red blooded man and boy spoke of with a smile and a lift of the eyebrow, The Troc[adero]. Inexpensive hotels serviced streetwalkers and their Johns. Just south of the bus lines between 11thand 12th was the Reading Terminal, its rail lines bisecting Arch, Race, and Vine on their way to north through the heart of the city. Also very near the bus terminals was Philly’s “Barbary Coast” with its taverns, hotels, chop suey places, restaurants, and after hours clubs featuring shimmying, shaking lines of Conga Dancers. The Vice Squad kept an eye out, its leader being Captain Clarence Ferguson, who had to share the spotlight with the aforementioned Frank Rizzo.
1300 Arch Street, 1960

Politicos and police would have used the terms “rackets” or “vices” to describe the activities they consciously kept “contained,” with the cooperation of the crime bosses, in disreputable sections. The most ubiquitous of these was policy. A tragic consequence of this strategy occurred while Goodis was writing Cassidy’s Girl. A few hours before being scheduled to testify at a Grand Jury hearing, a police inspector, a member of the Vice Squad for ten years, committed suicide. The Jury investigation was to focus on shakedowns, false documentation of finances, and stealing. Allegations of police taking “protection money” from numbers racketeers had become too frequent to ignore. The Mayor, and the Director of Public Safety, assured the public that the inspector had been in ill health, citing his awards for fighting against “all manner of vice,” and winning the praise of church groups for crusading for decency. They seemed to be protesting too much. The man left a suicide note which made their assertions hypocritical. Either the inspector has been involved himself in wrong doing orBeven more tragically he had reached a state of despair because his colleagues and his superiors had much to be ashamed of and so did he, since in failing to stop them from a symbiosis with the underworld, he had become trapped with them in a moral death spiral. The note read, “I have failed as a leader. My wife did not know of my laxity. I suppose my pain has made me mad. . . .”

Gambling was not Cassidy’s vice, nor was prostitution, and he seems to have preferred drinking with friends than visiting strip clubs or burlesque houses. The devils he struggles with are inside his skull, not in the smoke filled rooms, the police stations, or in the company offices. However, how different are hard boiled Cassidy’s manacles from those worn by others who live and/or work in a Dock Street or Southwark? Those manacles are primarily mind-forged, for sure. But it would be a Herculean task to escape the unwritten law about “containment,” money, social class, and political security that imposed them, or the racketeer-cop-politician nexus that thrived under that law. In serving it, for both the powerful and their client-victims, sadism becomes as strong as love; feral compulsions get reinforced until the grooves they make are survival itself; romantic ideals shame even the strongest; alcohol-induced indifference guards against thoughts of rebellion or atonement; self-destructive escapism trumps individuality except for those who think loneliness is a virtue; people are morphed into robots on a permanent carousel ride.
Yet Cassidy, although he fails to reform the alcoholic waif, does get rid of Haney. That is the “wind-up” for many of Goodis’ predatory bosses, the banksters and Big Oil predators of their time (but the corporate dead souls are, it has been proven, invulnerable). Cassidy is no avenging angel, but is it possible that his despair, brutality and alcoholism have led him, as if he has been redeeming himself through his sins, toward a weird and gritty enlightenment? What does it mean when Mildred asks him “What is it?” and he replies, “I’ll be all right in a minute. Then I’ll tell you what it is.” It’s the end of the novel but not his story.

Goodisville 2011
Jay Gertzman