Wednesday, September 26, 2007
The seedy side of town
Welcome to nowhere, Chapter 8
By Scott Beveridge
Once we worked up the nerve, my brothers and I took the quarter-mile hike to the bad end of Webster to find the baseball field. Everybody in town believed that the better families lived around us, to the north of the Donora-Webster Bridge, and that the elite owned the few rows of houses up on the hill. So we were on a "dangerous" adventure in June 1962 to find the rocky ballpark beside a junkyard and railroad tracks, where trains carted coal from the mines to the steel mills.
As we neared our destination, two girls who were close to our ages but younger, probably 5 and 4, jumped off their porch, ran into the dusty street and pulled down their britches. They marked their territory with a few turds as traffic approached, and, as quickly as they appeared, they slipped back into the creaky wooden duplex where they lived. Their prank was enough to convince me that our neighbors were right when they gossiped about the seedy side of our village along the eastern banks of the Monongahela River in Pennsylvania.
The real trouble on that end of town began at Dolfi’s corner, a concrete slab that was a hangout for delinquents with all day to waste. That sidewalk led to a three-room store in a shack with well-worn asphalt linoleum on its floors and a pot-bellied stove in the middle of the front room.
Felix Dolfi, a craggy Italian immigrant, made his living there collecting coins from the jukebox, pool table and two pinball machines, while selling children cigarettes for a nickel apiece with their penny candy. He occasionally muttered, “vaffanculo, your mamma your seester, too,” and we would all laugh.
Some days, we pretended to fight and broke our empty 12-ounce Coke bottles on purpose to get him spitting mad so we could hear him rattle off that Italian command for, “go f@ yourself.”
Things only got worse when a circle of girls with chips on their shoulders started hanging out with higher-class boys from the big town just up the river. The girls, who were of high school age, started a feud between a handful of guys from Webster and Monessen, a small city that had the highest crime rate per capita in the United States in the early 1970s. To scare us off our corner, the Monessen dudes made a weekly habit of pelting us with stones and quart-size bottles of beer that from a speeding blue convertible Ford Mustang. At other times, they were abusing the Webster girls in a different manner in the backseat of that car.
It was the summer of 1972. Old man Dolfi had retired by then and sold his store to Joe “Big Flea” Flemming, a pudgy steelworker from Webster. I was 15 when it became time to get even with the rich boys with a fancy sports car from Monessen. Two carloads of our friends waited for several nights in the dark alley across from the store until the Mustang made its final swing by Dolfi’s. As soon as it passed, big Joe walked to the middle of the road and fired six rounds from a black revolver at the car. We then trailed the car for five miles straight to Monessen High School, where those city boys learned a hard lesson for messing with Webster.
A photograph of the Mustang appeared the next day in the local newspaper above a cutline that suggested that the vehicle had met up with the likes of Bonnie and Clyde. Thank God no one was shot that night, but Flemming would find himself facing a weapons charge after one of the Webster girls ratted him out to Monessen police.
Dolfi’s corner became our hard-luck symbol of what happened to a one-industry town after the company vanished, leaving everyone without the guiding hands of educated executives.
Too blind to notice in 1960, we became the first links to corrode America’s rust belt with the idling of U.S. Steel Corp.’s American Steel and Wire division across the river in Donora. It was the first major steel mill in America to shut down permanently, news that came in a July 24, 1962, announcement from the corporation.
In slow order, U.S. Steel handpicked a few of the men in our neighborhoods for jobs at its mills in Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago. Many others who were overlooked for work felt betrayed by the company, while they waited patiently for the mills to reopen, as if they were part of a big joke to soften the labor union during a soft market for steel.
We were being welcomed to a place that was going nowhere in the fast lane. Webster’s fate had been sealed decades ago because it bore the brunt of the filthy smokestack pollution and the bulk of its residents had moved on to cleaner places. Faced with massive unemployment in the 1960s, it was Donora’s turn to gasp for air.
(Caption: Dolfi's corner in the 1950s)