Pennsport and Two Street*
Ghosts in the blood, ghosts of lost peoples, the bonded Irish servants, the migrating everybody else. Ghost stories abound in this neighborhood. Ghosts in the tiny row houses. Sitting over coffee in the tiny kitchens, you can hear them moving about upstairs. Duck beneath the brick archways that punctuate the narrow streets; enter the tight little courtyards. Ghosts troubling the calm of the Trinity houses ringing those enclosures.
A Pennsport man tending bar on Front Street descended, down into the 240-year-old basement to tap a keg. He heard a noise, felt a chill, and turned around. Standing on the hard-packed dirt floor, between himself and the twisting stairs, were an elderly couple. A mist swirled up around them. The old man was dressed in a baby blue suit, and beside him, his partner, dressed in a pale pink dress. The bartender froze. Froze for so long that the owner noticed and came looking for him. She sized up the situation, talked the keg tapper past the ghostly couple, coaxing him back up the stairs. “You saved my life”, he said. “They liked you,” she answered. “They were smiling.”
That corner bar was Ila’s, where longshoremen gathered each morning to get their work assignments. A makeshift union hall pitched wide against the open sky. Inside, the eponymous bar was a gathering place for sailors, for those who worked alongshore, for neighborhood people. Crab cakes and pepper pot soup were specialties of the house. Big feeds, at little cost. The owner, Ila, a legendary figure. People say that she lost money on the food, maybe lost money all around. But the sainted Ila was hell-bent, a comfort to people in the shipping trades, to anyone venturing by. Pennsport is a watery place, lying close beside the river, many locals still abiding near the waterfront. ‘Ila’ abided there too, abiding in her custom.
*An earlier version of this essay was pubished in Journeys South, Evolving Immigrant Histories of South Philadelphia, City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and Mural Arts Advocates, 2011, pp. 78-9.