EAST SIDE CONFIDENTIAL
PART ONE: FRANK "TURK" JAWORSKI AND THE OPEN KITCHEN
The bar had been open for decades. It was called The Open Kitchen despite the fact that the kitchen had been closed since the late sixties. No one in their right mind would go there for food regardless of its name. It lacked the minimum necessary ambience required of an eating establishment. In the mid to late seventies we used the joint for a meeting place. We never called it the Open Kitchen, we just called it Turk's. The proprietor was Frank "Turk" Jaworski. He was a piece of work. He ran the bar by himself, commuting to work daily from Fox Chase. He was stocky and as tough as nails. Turk always wore a white shirt open at the collar. He wore dark sunglasses with chrome-plated frames regardless of the weather or time. He had owned the bar for so long that nothing that happened on the deteriorating east end of South Street could surprise him. He feared nothing and no one.
A few of us deliberately chose to do without telephones in our apartments. We considered them an unnecessary expense, an annoyance and an invasion of our privacy. Most of the time we weren't interested in being found. There were more important uses for our money, like squandering it and going to the Open Kitchen. I can assure you none of those savings were passed on to any charitable organizations. Our earnings were small and our appetites large. Almost to a man we were mindlessly hedonistic. We rarely brought women into Turk's. The atmosphere was too volatile and the place was too seedy. In other words, the Open Kitchen was perfect.
If my father or anyone else was looking for us, the first place for them to go was Turk's. If we weren't there we had probably left word with Turk where we could be found. It was a beautiful communication system. If Turk knew you and liked you he would impart the information graciously. If he didn't know the person he wouldn't, simple as that. He saw us quite frequently. We collected messages from Turk like he was an impromptu street-level Western Union. It was an invaluable resource for knuckleheads whose lifestyles and predilections leaned toward being inaccessible.
The only beers served in the Open Kitchen were twelve ounce cans of Schmidt's. If someone objected to the limited selection, they would be told in no uncertain terms to vacate the premises. If an uninitiated or unwanted patron came in to use the bathroom or the pay phone before they bought drinks, Turk would succinctly and loudly say, "OUT OF ORDER!" If the interloper was persistent in demanding access, since a bar obviously could not exist without a pissoir, it was not beneath Turk to brandish a chrome plated forty-five and stick it in the face of the dissatisfied customer. Turk would have no truck with people drinking somewhere else and pissing in his establishment. We had seen him brandish the pistol on multiple occasions. Despite our reputation for transgressive behavior, we were never on the receiving end of his wrath. We knew from jump street not to fuck with him. Anyone with a modicum of street smarts could see that it was best to treat him deferentially. Turk was formidable and a force of nature. Luckily he liked us. We admired Turk and were deeply in awe of him and his methods.
Turk was also a very funny man. One day Kevin and I stopped by and the bar was deserted save Turk. He positioned himself in front of the window that overlooked South Street. He was little more than a silhouette to us against the brightly lit mid-afternoon street. With his back to us and his arms outstretched like Jesus, he speculated about the jealousy of some unnamed and perhaps imaginary neighbor towards his success. He described their reaction to the vast mountain of Schmidt's cans that he disposed of each week. "HOW DOES HE DO IT," he bellowed in imitation of the envious neighbor, "HOW THE FUCK DOES HE DO IT!" I can't imagine that the Open Kitchen was a wildly profitable enterprise but Turk was content with his lot. Although he came off as surly, he was in fact incredibly happy to lord over the bar. I have no idea how he did it myself. I will say that I have never seen it quite done like Turk did it ever again.
Kevin and I went in there one day on a Friday afternoon after work. It was overly crowded, filled with workers from the Foremost Meat packing plant at Fourth and Gaskill Streets. The entire clientele that particular afternoon consisted of African-Americans until we walked in. The only reason we considered leaving was that there weren't enough seats for us to sit at the bar. We told Turk of our plans to leave but he asked us to hang around for a bit. It was inconceivable given his reputation for strong-arm tactics but we suspected that Turk might possibly be in trouble so we stuck around. I would have done anything the man asked. It was presumptuous on our part to think that he needed our help with anything. Turk actually enjoyed trouble and there was nothing he couldn't handle and very little that we could contribute to the situation. He was one hard man, the real deal and at the same time mischievous.
Turk employed a certain cleaning man, not that he needed one. The Open Kitchen did not have to be terribly clean to suit a clientele accustomed to frequenting a bar named for a service that it had no intention of providing. Collectively, we were all immune to such paradoxes. It didn't hurt that the man Turk employed as his janitor was heavily muscled. Maybe it gave the appearance that Turk had protection. Only a stranger would think that Turk couldn't protect himself and they would find out soon enough that he could. Turk was basically doing this guy a favor by providing him a job. As strong as this guy was his strength did not extend to his mental facilities. The janitor was learning disabled and extremely loyal to his benefactor. I am sure that experience had taught him that his job options were severely limited by his condition.
The afternoon in question Turk intentionally started an argument between one of the Foremost guys and himself. Turk intimated that his cleaning man would kick the Foremost worker's ass in a fistfight. The argument got heated but Turk played the room like Rostropovich finessing a Bach cantata. He suggested settling the dispute right then and there, pay up or shut up. In the words of Ozzie Myers, "Money talks and bullshit walks." Bets were placed. Turk bet on the his janitor and most of the Foremost guys bet on their co-worker. We just took in the scenery. We had no idea what would ensue. The guy from Foremost was obviously no stranger to violence, having all the physical earmarks of an experienced street fighter. Once the fight broke out Turk feigned shock at the violence. He tore into them for having the audacity to sully the reputation of his bar with fisticuffs, despite having orchestrated it himself. He then threw everyone out of the bar including his maintenance man. Although there was some hushed grumbling about the hypocrisy of his tactics, they left quietly. The Foremost crowd had most likely seen Turk whip out his pistol on previous occasions. The only two people excluded from this wholesale exodus was Kevin and I. The event was no more than a ploy to provide us with seats at the bar. Turk was more interested in having a conversation with his friends than cashing in on a Friday afternoon Happy Hour.
The Bicentennial celebration was quickly closing in on Philadelphia. Turk knew Frank Rizzo since he was a beat cop. He was consequently a big Rizzo supporter. We kept our mouths shut on the subject out of respect for Turk. We were not by disposition terribly fond of the police or political conservatives. Over the years Rizzo worked his way up to Chief of Police and was later elected Mayor of Philadelphia. Turk had a great deal of faith in Frank Rizzo and waxed poetically about the economic revival that Philadelphia would experience during the upcoming Bicentennial. A decision was made to reopen the kitchen in 1975. A quilted stainless steel window was installed in the front of the dive to dispense hot dogs to the anticipated invasion of patriotic and hungry tourists. For a brief period the Open Kitchen served boiled hot dogs from a crock pot but I never saw any passed out through the expensive new window. They weren't all that tasty but, due to our general lackadaisical attitude about our health and in deference to Mister Jaworski, we ate them anyway. As was the custom of the habitues of Turk's, we were not terribly picky about what we ate or drank, although Schmidt's beer was a bit tough to swallow. Drinking Schmidt's was the small price we paid to watch the floor show in the Open Kitchen.
Years later I moved to Northern Liberties, directly across Second Street from Schmidt's brewery. It was owned by a legendary local tough guy named Billy Pflaumer. Like Turk, Billy Pflaumer wore sunglasses day and night. He did some jail time for evading tax evasion. It had something to do with the rental trucks that delivered his beer. When he got out of jail he formed his own transportation outfit, KMA Trucking and put it in his wife's name. Somehow this maneuver allowed him to profit from some loophole in the tax code. KMA, as the court documents took note of, stood for Kiss My Ass. Billy Phlaumer had an unmistakably Philadelphia sense of style. Regardless of the questionable quality of his beer one had to admire his panache.
The workers at the Schmidts factory would leave cases of the swill unattended on the loading dock at all hours of the night. The gate was always unlocked and wide open. There was seldom anyone on the dock after midnight. It would have been simple to walk in at night unnoticed. We knew this fact first hand from watching the place after several evenings of drinking Miller's High Life on my front step. Although free beer is free beer, it hardly seemed worth the effort to steal bad beer. We joked that Schmidt's beer just wasn't worth stealing. We would drink it at Turk's but only because there was no alternative.
The Bicentennial was hardly the financial windfall that the city hoped for. In fact it was a complete bust. This failure was in part due to the mayor stating publicly that outside agitators were planning invade the city to protest the celebration. Rizzo was a master at manipulating the Fourth Estate but this time it blew up in his face. He made national news when he publicly implored the federal government to send the National Guard as protection against the Communist horde. This had the effect of throwing a wet blanket over the event. Tourists stayed away in droves in fear of civil unrest. No significant protests ever materialized. Philadelphia and Turk both suffered financial setbacks. Turk abandoned the idea of serving hot dogs to the non-existent tourists and took his crock pot back home. His wife had probably noticed that it was missing from the kitchen by then and had asked him about its disappearance.
Turk devised another infinitely more grandiose scheme to increase revenue and cover the expenses wasted installing the take-out window. The Open Kitchen had a full bar upstairs but hadn't been used in decades. Turk spoke to me in hushed tones about his desire to open a fully operational gambling casino on the second floor. The operation would be clandestine. It would include roulette and all manner of gaming tables. He wanted to station me on a high stool near the door and equip me with a shot gun to control the illicit gamblers. Despite the insanity of this plan he seemed quite serious about it. Even with police protection I doubted the feasibility of the venture. It was an inadvisable enterprise at best. During this period Turk's health began to deteriorate so the casino never came to fruition. He told us that he had pleurisy. Someone else later informed us that in fact he was dying of lung cancer. It is better for everyone that the casino never opened. I was terribly flattered that he trusted me enough to provide security for the establishment but I just couldn't envision having a full time job that was so dangerous that it required me holding a loaded shotgun on gamblers to perform it.
One horrible afternoon we showed up at Turk's and the place was closed for good. Another merchant on the block informed us that he had passed away. We also found out that we had missed the damn funeral. Frank was never a stickler for formality so he could have lived with our absence if he hadn't already been dead. It was the end of a beautiful and chaotic era. It was also time with Turk gone to invest in a fucking telephone.
We loved Frank Jaworski. For some damn reason he loved us back. When my father was in his cups he would ask me repeatedly, "Do you think it's easy? DO YOU THINK IT'S EASY?" I would reply, "No Al, I don't think it's fucking easy." Kevin knew my father well and was familiar with our familial Abbott and Costello routine. When I ask Kevin the same question today he always replies, "Mike, if it was easy everybody would be doing it." Turk had a unique approach to life and I have never met anyone that vaguely reminded me of him again. I once read a passage in a book entitled Ireland, A Terrible Beauty that was written by Leon and Jill Uris. This quote accurately described Frank "Turk" Jaworski as well as the man in the photograph. Below the picture of a grizzled old Celt was a caption that quoted him as saying, "Take a good look at me now, for when I am gone you will never see the likes of a man like me again." There is no chance that we ever will. They broke the mold.