Willow Street Days

The milky gray framed Victorian, which our former Bailey Avenue neighbor, Edwin [Eddie] Johnson, had renovated and converted into a vertical duplex, drew our little family one block east and two long blocks south up the hill to the corner of Willow and Grant Streets. The crooked sycamores and canvas awnings that framed the open, expansive front porch with spindled railings help set the scene. I will always remember the shedding bark of the crooked old sycamores that provided Mother Nature’s air conditioning on sultry summer evenings. The massive protective arms of the sycamores swayed and cracked with summer thunderstorms. The bark litter on the porch was a common annoyance for Daisy Jean and other housewives, along with the black soot from the National Tube Works over the hill in the Monongahela River Valley downtown.

Eddie Johnson was so much more than just our landlord during the Willow Street years. Eddie was a true family friend and sometimes made daytime visits which were fun and helped to derail Daisy Jean from her housekeeping regimens. Eddie was medium height and thickly built as I remember—solid, but a little pudgy. His hair was dark, thinning, and wet-combed to the side. He was always well-groomed and smelling of Old Spice. His soft-spoken, Swedish accented English rolled off a hair lip that gave him a distinctive look.

I recall an afternoon drive in Eddie’s Chrysler New Yorker to a place called Monroeville to see the first suburban shopping center in our southeast sector of Allegheny County. It was called Miracle Mile and, to Daisy Jean’s delight, the anchor store was Woolworth’s five and dime. As a single gal, she had worked the steam table at Murphy’s Cafeteria in downtown McKeesport, serving hot lunches to businessmen in the city. She remained loyal to Murphy’s, which incidentally was headquartered in McKeesport. I rode the Penn Transit bus with her many times to downtown on Wednesdays; we never failed to visit Murphy’s. We often came home with bags of sugary green leaves for the coffee table candy dish and redskin peanuts, Nippy’s favorite. Nonetheless, Daisy Jean had no problem patronizing other versions of the American five and dime store. With Nippy working steady daylight, it was a treat for Daisy Jean and me to be driven by luxury car to an exotic new shopping mecca.

Eddie spent much of his time chauffeuring relatives and friends. We were fortunate to be on the friends’ list, considering that he was our landlord as well. Having a rather precocious appreciation for motor vehicles even as a child, I marveled at the quiet, almost imperceptible shifting of the New Yorker’s silky automatic transmission. Because Eddie was downright rich by our standards, having inherited a substantial sum of money from a wealthy uncle, he could trade in his New Yorkers every four years. It’s not like Eddie was born into money and never knew the working world. He told of hard times farming in his native Sweden and working as a laborer for the City of McKeesport Municipal Authority digging ditches to lay sewer lines in his early years in this country.

A lifelong bachelor, Eddie shared a large Bailey Avenue Victorian with a sweet older woman named Ellen Swanson. When we were still living on Bailey Avenue in Uncle Bill’s house, I remember a few occasions in Ellen’s kitchen when I was dizzied by the aroma of homemade ginger cookies. I remember Ellen’s quaky speech at the highest ranges of a fragile alto. On those occasions it felt like having another grandmother close at hand in my own neighborhood. Several times a year Ellen and Eddie prepared specialty items for Eddie’s gentlemen card parties to which Nippy would be invited, along with Chuck Foggin Max Greenfield, and a few others. Potatoskorv, a Swedish meat and potato sausage, and homemade Swedish rye bread anchored the party spread.

Several times a year Eddie would bring a batch of potatoskorv to our house on one of his daytime visits. This unique and delectable sausage was boiled and could be eaten warm. However, Mom, Dad, and I agreed that it tasted best cold and could be sliced for sandwiches, the flavor heightened more with a bit of brown mustard. I have never seen, tasted, or heard about the amazing Swedish sausage since those days. I hope that someone still makes potatoskorv somewhere in this world . . . or maybe the next.

In addition to the Miracle Mile excursion, I recall an early summer evening ride to Renziehausen Park for a simple hot dog cookout with Eddie. Since Nippy was home from work, all three of us could accompany Eddie. These were the days before the transition to backyard barbecues and gas grills on decks and Omni stone patios. Like many families of that day, we packed up the charcoal grill, the snap-top cooler for drinks and perishables, and the picnic basket with Daisy Jean’s legendary lemon or coconut cream pies . . .

To think of old McKeesport, and even the McKeesport of today, is to think of Renziehausen Park, usually called Renzie by the natives. Bordered by the McKeesport High School complex and Penn State-Greater Allegheny to the West and North, and Haler Heights to the South, this city park features tree-shaded picnic tables, many open outdoor and one completely enclosed indoor pavilion, a band shell for outdoor concerts, tennis courts, a historic one-room school house and heritage center, and the second largest rose garden in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In those days when we were grilling wieners in their natural casings with Eddie, the park also included a wading pool and playground for tots and by the mid-1950’s a large L-shaped swimming pool with high dive at the deep end . . .

The only new car my dad ever purchased was the two-toned 1953 Plymouth Cambridge two-door coupe, blue-gray body and darker gray roof. It was about two years old when we moved to Willow Street in 1955. Nippy was generally a Chrysler man, but settled for the Plymouth variety on the earnings he made as a driver salesman for the Cook Coffee Company.

I recall one afternoon, when the Plymouth coupe was only about five years old, we set out for a family get-together at Grandma and Grand pap Knoepfle’s in Versailles Borough. We had barely made the turn onto Jenny Lind Street, a block away from our house, when the most awful screeching came from the front wheels, followed by the foul smell of smoky, burning brake fluid. I was nervous in the back seat, but comforted by the fact that we were so close to home. The car seemed to lock down and was barely drivable except to make a screeching retreat to a parking place on Grant Street beside the house. We missed the trip to Versailles that day, but the car was later repaired and Nippy milked a few more years out of it.

After nine mostly dependable years with the ’53 Plymouth, Nippy talked to his friend, Red, at Galen and Jones Motors in downtown McKeesport. Red found Nippy a four-year-old ’58 Plymouth Savoy, two-tone surf and pale green with fins or wings that were so popular across manufacturers on 1957-1959 models. This Plymouth was wider and much more stylish than the ’53 Cambridge. It felt almost as quiet as Eddie’s New Yorker.

Many of Eddie’s daytime visits were for practical reasons, especially to collect the $75 a month rent payment. This was the better part of a week’s earnings for Nippy in those years. [Through a quick calculation I discover that my mortgage payment today is approximately the same 25% of my total monthly income.] I suppose that times change even as they remain the same.

Even though Eddie was there on business, Eddie’s visits were always friendly, neighborly. He took impish pleasure in diverting Daisy Jean from her daily regimen of housework. I can hear him laughing at the kitchen table, admonishing my mother in his protracted drawl with his Swedish accent, “Sit downnn. Take it eazzzy. You make me dizzy. Sheuss! Ha! Ha! Ha!”

“Oh yaaa,” ‘take it easy.’ And who’s going to scrub those floors and vacuum if I don’t do it?” She adds, “You should be glad I take care of your house. You could have had some riff-raff move in here.”

Eddie chuckles again, “Hire a maid. You’ve got to take life eazzzy.”

“And with whose money? We don’t all have rich uncles, ya know,”

How Eddie loved to get a rise out of Daisy Jean. He pushed all the right buttons and we had a few laughs for the day. I loved the way Eddie frequently used the utterance, “Sheuss” in conversation. I am not sure, but I suspect that it was some kind of transfer of his native Swedish language into everyday English.

On special occasions like Christmas or my birthday I could always look forward to a greeting card loaded with a ten or a twenty dollar bill from Eddie. After the Willow Street years, though we only moved three blocks down Grant Street, we gradually had less contact with Eddie. He had always maintained that when the time came, he would spend his final years at a Lutheran facility in Philadelphia. Details of his later years are sketchy, but I presume that one day, after the passing of his housemate, Ellen Swanson, it was time for him to make the long drive east on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I can’t help smiling as I imagine how he might have teased and charmed a favorite nurse in his new Philadelphia home . . .