I entered the freshman class at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall of 1969. What a time! The War in Vietnam. Nixon. Kent State. The draft. It seemed like the world was spinning off its axis a lot of the time that I was there. I graduated in 1971 with a BA in American Civlization. I came in with AP credit in four subjects and I carried a big course load. I wanted out and out fast.
In my freshman year, I lived in Coxe House in the Quad. 229 Coxe.
That is picturesque!
Larry Turtil was my roommate. He grew up in Levittown.
I decorated my room with empty Hawaiian Punch cans. 5% real fruit juice!
This is what I looked like in the winter of my freshman year. It was a great year for music. Abbey Road, Crosby Stills Nash, Music from Big Pink, Let it Bleed, and Tommy were the soundtrack of our dorm.
Starting in the first week of school I worked for the Dining Service. I just walked in and asked for a job. I must have had spunk. They gave me the job. For the first year I mixed and poured orange juice and served hot cereal.
I worked in the morning, I think two hours from 6:00 until 8:00. This was early in my life of getting up early. The summer before going to Penn I worked at a Ladybug warehouse in northeast Phliadelphia and would leave the house with my father before 5:00. During strikes with the UFW starting in 1972 I’d get up at 3:30. I now get up at about 4:00.
After the first year, when I walked from Coxe House to the Dining Service, I would ride my bicycle. Up early, dark, all weather, riding to work on a beat-up three-speed, wind in my face – free! I had two bikes stolen while at Penn (one that had belonged to my brother Ric/Eric) and one wrecked by a car that pulled out of a driveway in front of me.
I was paid $1.75 an hour plus got to eat breakfast and I ate my dinner upstairs, not with the other freshmen. The upstairs dining room was very Ivy League. Faculty ate there, plus us boys who worked for the dining service. Lonely on top of lonely.
We were paid in $.25 meal tickets. We would sell them to students who came to eat on Saturday night, which wasn’t covered by the meal plan. The game was how much of a discount we would agree to when selling the tickets.
Because of my relationship with Hilda (see below), I was the alpha student on Saturday nights. The full-time help prepared the dinner but it was all students serving. I usually took the lead steam table to be upstream on ticket sales. Sometimes I took the ice cream station just before the cash register. I blush to say this, but I believed that if we ate more ice cream there would be less war. I served big scoops.
This is Houston Hall on Spruce Street. It is where I worked for most of my time with the Dining Service. Freshmen had to eat there, in the Freshman Commons.
This is a more or less modern photo of the Freshman Commons. Freshmen don’t eat there anymore, but you get a sense of the place.
In 1970 the Dining Service moved to the Superblock, three high-rise apartment-style dormitories a little further west than Houston Hall. A group of us held what we called an exorcism at the Superblock one night in the winter of 1970-1971, wearing black robes that I borrowed from my high school; they were used in the Christmas pageant for the Judeans wandering in darkness. We hoped to change the Superblock into “something Victorian.” Nice try!
I worked part-time for all five semesters that I was taking classes, plus full-time in the summer of 1971. I often rode my bicycle from Bryn Mawr into Penn to work, 12.6 miles.
Fairmount Park was the buffer between the suburban part of my ride and the Real Urban West Philadelphia part of my ride. Early summer mornings on my bike! Sometimes I rode home on my bike, sometimes I took it on the Pennsylvania Railroad to Bryn Mawr and ride the mile and half mostly level home through lush, humid, Pennsylvania summer late afternoon.
Summers at the Dining Service were slow. A group of visiting French scholars came through one day. I knew that aubergine was the French for eggplant. This impressed my fellow workers.
The full-time workers of the Dining Service were wonderful. Most were African-Americans originally from North Carolina. I felt fairly lost and alienated most of my time at Penn. My friends at the Dining Service were an anchor.
Hilda Moore was the shot-caller in the dining service. She was the AFSCME shop steward. Workers and management did what she told them to do. She once brought a pan of soggy mashed potatoes back into the kitchen: “I don’t want to be coming down here. The next time I come down here it’s gonna be with a pole!” Stand aside!
She took kindly to me. On Day One working there she named me “Tommy Boy” and that was how I was known by all workers for all my time there. I learned more from her than any professor. I worked hard and she trusted me. She never chastised me. She tolerated my occasional absences, such as Thanksgiving week freshman year when I flew to Colorado and drove with Cres and Bobbie and Tina to California and back, or later that year when I got arrested at a draft board protest and spent a night in jail. For a while after that she called me “Jailbird” but that was it.
Albert was the baker. Terrible photo! He let my friend Peter Korn and me bake banana bread using 40 pounds of over-ripe bananas. Lots of loaves. When I was preparing to leave for California, Albert made a big marble cake for me and spoke of my dedication to my work, my friends, the UFW, and Union lettuce.
Hilda and her posse. They were good and tough women. They watched out for me. They are getting ready to be photographed, except Hilda, who was already ready. The three of them joined a food coop that I was part of for two years. Somebody from the coop made a run to the produce terminal Very Early in the morning and bought vegetables and fruit in bulk and then we filled orders at wholesale prices. I did it a few times and loved it. The three of them helped with the distribution in a storefront on Baltimore Avenue.
Skeeter and Danny were the line cooks. They taught me to crack four eggs at a time. They worked hard and lived hard. In the summers they cooked at resorts in Atlantic City. From Danny I learned that “a good run beats a bad stand.” Good wisdom! Skeeter frequently told Danny to cut that dumb shit out.
These were the family men. There every day early, ready to work. Never slacked off.
This was in May 1971. Sherwood was deaf and dumb, and was the funniest man in the whole lot with the possible exception of Skeeter. Sherwood got hit by a car and killed crossing a street a few years later. He lived his silent life fully.
About the time of this photo, the workers of the Dining Service went out on strike. Work-study students continued working but I went on strike too. I rode my bike from picket line to picket line with messages that Hilda wanted delivered. The strike was won after a week and we went back to work. The victory announcement was a Very Special Moment.
When I graduated in 1971 I stayed on living with my college friends on 42nd Street, working full-time at the Dining Service. I moved up to a line cook position.
I was very proud of the French toast that I made. I also worked on lunch but didn’t have a specialty. I spilled hot gravy on my foot and to this day have a triangle stigmata on the top of my foot where the gravy burned me.
I liked my dining service clothing. Even though I had cut my pony tail off by the time of this photo, the sort-of hippie ethic informed my dress.
When I think of Penn, I think of a few friends, of two professors (Gordon Kelley and Robert Regan), and my friends at the Dining Service, especially Hilda.
I visited Dr. Regan in Philadelphia in early 2015. He showed me this sculpture that he bought when living in Berkeley in the 1950s. He gave me a copy of Robert Ramsay’s Mark Twain Lexicon. It sits just to my right on a a shelf in my slang library.
My parents knew Hilda. They came to an employee picnic in May 1971. My mother and Hilda played dodgeball. They were so young! I think that this was the only time I saw Hilda in her street clothes.
I wrote Hilda at Christmas-time for years after leaving Philadelphia and she wrote me back. I wonder if I saved any of those letters. I visited her in the late 1970s. I remember her with great affection and admiration.
As I prepared to leave Pennsylvania and move to California in the summer of 1972, the director of the Dining Service called me and offered me a job as a supervisor. I suppose that this was flattering. I declined.
I showed this post to my friend. He spent some time in Philadelphia when I was at Penn. There is where we first met our friend Gabby, who was working on the grape boycott with the United Farm Workers.
My friend sometimes met me at Houston Hall when I got off work with the Dining Service. There were a few pinball machines. That’s where we would rendezvous. I associate the pinball area with the smell of winter and “Instant Karma” playing on the sound system.
My friend Peter Korn was very good at pinball.
Peter and my friend were true regulars at Cy’s Penn Luncheonette on the corner of 34th and Walnut, known in the vernacular as the “Dirty Drug.” They played pinball there for hours.
Gabby hadn’t met Young Emily who would be his Great Love. Before Emily he enjoyed the company of women from the anti-war movement, especially the Resistance.
These women favored the Bohemian coffee shops, such as they were in Philadelphia at the time.
He favored the Dirty Drug and the Horn and Hardardt Automats with its coin-operated glass and stainless steel wonders.
I did not patronize the automats regularly although I’d stop and go sit with him and buy a cup custard once in a while. I often saw him at the Dirty Drug with Eva, his best friend from the Resistance.
I knew Eva from afar from Monday night Resistance potluck dinners at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church at the west end of campus on Locust. I don’t know if they were ever romantically involved. It doesn’t matter though.
I am pretty sure that the Dirty Drug is where I met Gabby for the first time. He called me “Bryn Mawr” after my hometown. In later years he, like many others in the UFW, called me “Dazzler.” He calls me both names these days even though I have not lived in Bryn Mawr for 43 years. I like to think that I still dazzle.
My friend claims that while in Philadelphia he had a “scene” with Niki de Saint Phalle. He hauled out a few photos he had of her, clearly taken a decade before he had his “scene” with her.
He claims that she talked about wanting to build a sculpture park with huge sculptures depicting the Greater Mysteries of the Tarot. He said she spoke of it as the Giardino dei Tarocchi. I have said this before and I mean no disrespect – there is just no telling with my friend. Memory and fantasy are often one and the same. Each time we recall a memory there is an opportunity for that memory to change. Over time, memories become more like fantasies and fantasies can become more like memories.
Whatever he had or didn’t have with Niki, what about my sentimental jounrey down Memory Lane and the Dining Service at Penn?