Cover Photo: Me, Eddie & the Gang 2010 Marcia Ward
(one way to make a man change his mind)
I’s strange how conjuring works. You can’t go to school for it. Preparing and praying guarantees nothing. Hope won’t work as a game plan for it. Augury is fruitless. As is a study of coincidence. Simply said: voodoo is beyond control. It just happens. One thing leads to another is as close an explanation of voodoo as there is. And it’s voodoo that causes a man to change his mind.
A few years ago, a woman from almost forty years ago contacts me on FACEBOOK. Debbie M had been a student at the high school where I worked in the late 60s and early 70s, and she messages me that, although I never was her teacher, she used to secretly audit my classes as her parents did not approve of the material I was teaching: Rock Poetry and Bob Dylan. She adds in her FACEBOOK text that whenever kids from those days (now in their fifties) get together, someone always muses aloud, “I wonder what ever happened to Mr. Ward,” and so following the recommendation of her daughter, Debbie had found me on FACEBOOK. Within a week I am FACEBOOK friends with some fifty former students from Woodbury New Jersey - a Philadelphia suburb - all of whom attest that I was a major influence upon them, an influence germinated not by the knowledge I had imparted but by my enthusiasm for learning and discovery and wonder (and maybe my exceedingly long curly hair). One, a Pulitzer Prize nominee went so far as to say she owed her storied and starry career as a journalist to me, even though at fourteen she was better writer than I was at twenty-five. Naturally, all the students I found attractive and about whom I secretly fantasized as a young man (Hell I was at times only five years older than some of my students), they all admitted to the same. Anyway, one thing leads to another in cyberspace and soon my former students are planning on throwing a party in my honor when I mention to one that I’ll be in Philadelphia for a niece’s wedding. I tell all it sounds like fun but I warn them if there’s to be a party for me, I’ll need a stage as I intend to put on my one man play, JERRY JUDGE, which concerns the school year 1974/75, my last year of teaching, the year most of my new old FACEBOOK friends graduated high school, the last year of our lives together.
I rehearse JERRY JUDGE daily the month before Marcia and I leave for my niece’s wedding. During that time I contact a couple childhood friends of mine and friends of the real life Jerry Judge and let them know I’ll be performing my theatrical tribute to Jerry at a party in Woodbury, across the Delaware and down river from where I was born and raised in Tacony. Even Jerry, himself, the former heavy weight boxer who fought George Foreman in 1975, is planning on attending the Rendezvous with Eddie Ward hosted by my former high school English students. Another principal character in my play – one of the people in John’s Tavern with me the day the events of JERRY JUDGE took place, Bobby Ethridge, is also planning on attending. Needless to, I’m anticipating a night in theater and nostalgic camaraderie heaven. I mean, come on, two of the invisible characters on stage with me in my one-man play will actually be in the room! So it is with great distress that I receive the news in a phone call from one Jimmy Lafferty, Jerry’s best friend, on the night before my departure to Philadelphia, that none of my old neighborhood pals are willing to make the drive to Woodbury New Jersey to see my play because there are, he tells me, way too many DUI checkpoints between Tacony and Woodbury. But my disbelief and disappointment turn to utter anticipatory delight when Jimmy adds, “So you’re just gonna have to do your play twice. Once in Woodbury and once here in the old hood, at no place other than John’s Tavern," - the setting for the play itself.
The week prior to my niece’s wedding and my two East Coast shows is a whirlwind reverie of old friends, family, partying and nostalgia. Even so, Marcia and I somehow manage to squeeze in a trip to Manhattan where we take in the Guggenheim (the walls are bare so patrons can imagine great art), the view from the Top of the Rock (makes a man feel small), some Greenwich Village comedy (I laughed not once), and a production of Sam Shepard’s latest hit, his two-man drama Ages of the Moon (during which both Marcia and I fall asleep for much of the second act). On our way back to our hotel room which is only slightly bigger than the double bed it houses, we speak of the silliness and absurdity of the standing ovation that Shepard’s play had garnered. I remark: when tickets are $90 bucks I guess the audience has to validate its purchase by such unwarranted displays of approval. I mean, come on, it put me to sleep. And the premise, as Marcia asserts on our cross Manhattan trek is preposterous: twenty year old women simply do not give sixty year old married cowboys “minor blow jobs in parking lots outside bars in Billings” – this the reason the two characters come together to wax poetic about the ages of the moon at a fishing shack where the recently divorced (he who had the dalliance with the youngster in the parking lot) has come to drink and fish away his new found unwanted bachelorhood. If it sounds like I’m saying our trip to New York was underwhelming, well, it was. Give me The Kirkland Museum over the Guggenheim, the top of Mount Evans over Top of the Rock, the Mercury Café over a Greenwich Village tourist trap, and Stories Stories Bring Your Stories over off-Broadway anytime. Here in the Jungle Room, no one falls asleep on nights like tonight, and standing ovations are not de rigueur, and, not to mention, ever the point.
So anyway, the night after our disappointing encounter with Ages of the Moon in Manhattan, Marcia and I are in the century old establishment of John’s Tavern in Northeast Philadelphia relaxing before the Tacony premiere of JERRY JUDGE. My old neighborhood, to use a current and apt metaphor, is Detroit: abandoned, broke, dilapidated, hopeless. The street where I grew up looks war-torn, my home of twenty-years, windowless and empty, except for stashed gang paraphernalia: needles, belts, guns and empty Krylon cans. Odd it is, however, that this saloon where we now sit awaiting the arrival of old friends of mine from forty and fifty years ago is much the same as it was that day in 1975 when my boyhood pal, Jerry Judge, inspired a friend and gym mate of his, Sylvester Stallone, to write the first Rocky movie. Beginning around six, the past begins arriving with Brenda, the first to arrive, my girlfriend at age fifteen, in the company of a half dozen women whom I knew as teenagers. Forty-five years of life have not diminished Brenda’s beauty although the sadness in her eyes is hard to miss, as, she tells me, her husband of forty years, Jimmy Ryan, had died unexpectedly the year before. Widowhood had not been her goal; nonetheless, with self-acknowledged shame, a part of me secretly gloats as Jimmy Ryan (at six-two and 220 pounds) had kicked my ass more than once in fist-fights surrounding the, at the time, two timing Brenda; but, at least, I outlived the mother fucker who stole her from me! And so, the voodoo begins at this hometown take on this Rendezvous with Eddie Ward.
Next it’s a stream of old pals including Jerry Judge himself who I hardly recognize as the last time I saw Jerry was in 1975 on a twenty-one inch television mounted above the very bar where Marcia and I now sit, when the mustachioed heavyweight was kicking George Foreman’s ass in a post bell street-fight fight on ABC's Saturday Afternoon Wide World of Sports after supposedly having been TKO-ed by George in the second round of their fight. Jerry’s brush with boxing stardom had ended that day, despite the acclaim the color commentator at ringside, Mohammed Ali himself, had heaped upon my boyhood friend. Jerry Judge had gone on to be well-respected Philadelphia cop and even ran for mayor in the Philadelphia suburb of Bensalem, Vote the Judge, his election slogan. Obviously the years had been kind to Jerry as my football teammate, the pug faced Irish fighter, had matured into a dapper, extremely handsome sixty three year old man (with a second wife and pre-school-ers scurrying around his Scranton Pennsylvania home). Jerry never lost his star power. To this day when Jerry walks into a Philadelphia drinking establishment, barkeeps play Bill Conti’s Gonna Fly Now, the theme from Stallone’s first screenplay Rocky. And then it’s a parade of old friends and classmates from Saint Bernard’s Catholic Elementary School (now closed), from the public school across the street (Edwin Forrest Elementary), from my Jesuit Preparatory High School, Saint Joe’s, as well as members of my teenage gang, the Wall, for which I served as shot-caller. I mean when it came to gang fights in the 60s, if I said let’s rumble we did; if I said, it’s cool, we didn’t. There are even people I don’t know who have come at the behest of their spouses, and we fill the basement meeting room, where my performance of my one man play JERRY JUDGE is over the top, world class. When the lights go out at play’s end, the standing ovation is for real – unlike last night’s polite self serving one in New York – because as Lafferty tells me, “You made stars of everyone in the old neighborhood.” Everyone is smiling. For some in the audience, it is their first time at theater.
Soon everyone is back upstairs at the very bar where I’d watched the fight almost forty years before. The empty shot glasses that represent drinks purchased by others are stacked up ten deep, for in the old hood one never buys a drink, one buys a round. Naturally Jerry loved the bigger than reality slant I gave to my narrative and for many, my intoxicated and embellished memory of how the fight went down replaces theirs. The Irish never let the truth get in the way of a good story, and, after all, me mother was born in County Mayo! And then its even more voodoo as the mojo of my performance downstairs enters the room, dances on the bar, and electrifies the air around us.We are not five minutes into partying after my theatrical recount of neighborhood fistfights and Jerry’s professional fights when two young men standing next to Marcia - who were not in attendance at my play downstairs - start brawling. Who knows for what reason. The sucker punch that initiates the combat is the sound of fist and jaw colliding with the velocity of a monster right hook. I’ve never seen Marcia move so fast except perhaps on the ski slopes; she’s across the room out of harm’s way in an instant. And then, with a move of grace and brute power, Jerry comes between the two thugs and with seeming effortlessness puts both brawlers in separate headlocks, one under each arm. He tells the bruised kid who had been hit first, to scram, and when Jerry releases his grip, the kid does like a wounded bear released from a trap and he is out the door in a heart beat. The other, the aggressor, however, does not get off so easy. In fact, for the next half hour, Jerry keeps the kid in a headlock as Jerry holds court, visiting with everyone, drinking beer, telling tales, and buying rounds. Every time the kid under Jerry’s arms struggles or threatens Jerry verbally, Jerry just clamps down on the kid’s neck a little more rendering him powerless and silent. And then with casual charm, Jerry humiliates the brute with soft spoken taunts:
“So, what’s your mother gonna say, when she has to bail you out of jail in the morning because you started a fight in a bar? What are you gonna do when you’re fired for not showing up for work in the morning? And you lose your health insurance. Are you looking forward to joining the Aryan Nation tonight so you have back up and protection in county jail? Or are you just gonna be some brother’s bitch? Huh, come on, are you happy now, tough guy? Do you know how serious the charge of assault is these days?” The kid says nothing and even though he’s forty years younger and twenty pounds heavier, he stands bent over, quiet and limp in Jerry’s headlock. And when Jerry eventually says “Git” and loosens his grip, the kid never looks back as he scurries out the door. It’s hard to imagine someone over two hundred pounds expressing the characteristics of a rodent, but, trust me, I believe I saw a tail as his sorry ass went out the door. Voodoo, indeed!