Hello there everyone- sorry about the lack of a post yesterday. Tuesday was a horrid day. To make it up to you though, here’s a new post from our good friend Eric Foemmel, who is currently travelling with Philadelphia Eddie for Eddie’s books, The Life and Times of Philadelphia Eddie.
Later that night, after we checked in, I walked around the town to look at the amusements, and it occurred to me that South of the Boarder has many of the elements that would appeal to a man who got his start tattooing in a small shop on Coney Island. Both South of the Boarder and Coney Island are built around entertainment, rides, and foods associated with carnivals. Also, Eddie, like Pedro, started in a little shop, but he eventually started National Tattoo Supply and hosted the first tattoo conventions. It make have taken Eddie and Pedro decades to build, but they did it one improvement and addition at a time. For men like them, they realized the American dream.
In the morning, we woke up shortly after sunrise, ate breakfast, and hit the road and left South Carolina. Hours later we were in Virginia, and as we drove along the I-95, Eddie would point out American tattoo history. As we approached Petersburg, he explained that Desman Conely relocated to Petersburg after tattooing was banned in Norfolk, Virginia. He said, “Conely was so good that the sailors would travel from Norfolk to Petersburg to get tattooed by him. He teamed up with Captain Coleman; they were an unbeatable team. Sailor Ned and Paul Rogers were also in this town.
After he told me about these four tattooers, he lamented that his grandson has not called him and continued with his tattooing. Dominick is about sixteen-years-old, and he has dabbled in tattooing. Eddie said, “I could do something with him. If he would have traveled with Timmy and Ken on their tattoo tour of Ohio, he would have come back a seasoned man.” Hearing this, I realized that Eddie sees tattooing as Dominick’s birthright.
Eddie decided that we would stop in Petersburg and have lunch in honor of Conely. I asked Eddie what Conely’s favorite meal was, and I suggested we order that dish for lunch. Eddie said he did not remember, but he suggested that we could eat like Coleman. Eddie explained, “Coleman used to buy dented cans of food that were missing their labels. He got them really cheap. He never knew what was in the cans.” I guess Coleman was either eccentric or cheap. I’ll leave it to you to decide.
I enjoyed driving with Eddie because as he travels, he points out which tattooers were located in certain cities. As we passed Richmond, Virginia, Eddie pointed out this was Billy Easton’s city. It is interesting to note that Eddie did not point out many cities with old-time tattooers in them. He explained to me on several occasions that there were not that many tattooers in those days. He explained, “Fayetteville, North Carolina has more than thirty tattoo shops, back then I don’t even think there were that many tattooers up and down the entire East Coast. It’s insane nowadays.”
Several hours later we pulled into Philadelphia, and it was great to see Eddie in his hometown. He was tired from the one-thousand mile drive, and it was difficult for him to see the road signs while driving at night. As I read the street signs for him, his mind quickly charted our course. Living in Philadelphia for four decades, I was surprised that he was not using landmarks to navigate through the city. The only two landmarks he pointed out were the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and a skyscraper that had huge red neon letters on it: PSFS. Eddie asked me if I knew what the letters stood for, and I told him I did not know. He informed me that it stands for Pussy Sale on Friday and Saturday.
We checked into the hotel, rested for the night, and hit the convention floor the next day. This is an extremely busy convention, and I was too busy helping Eddie to take the notes necessary for a decent article. All I can tell you is that people love coming by Eddie’s both. My advice is to attend a convention where Eddie is selling his books. His signs are true to his character, and prepare to blush if you are a woman. Also, I should note that even though Eddie is retired, he is still an “old school” tattooer. Talking loudly to get his attention or to get your picture with him while he is doing business is a bad idea. A couple times this weekend he barked at a few people, “Can’t you see I’m fucking busy, you idiot!” Ignoring the request, the very next second he would say to a young woman walking by, “Hey, baby, when are we going to start taking our clothes off and have some fun?” Questions and suggestions like these were always followed by giggles and blushing faces. The ladies love Eddie.
Monday morning, we checked out of the hotel and loaded the car with our luggage. As we pulled out of the hotel driveway, Eddie said, “We have some time, Eric. I’ll show you the old neighborhood.” In Chinatown, Eddie slowly drove past where the buildings once stood that were once his tattoo shops. He was driving very slowly as he took in the neighborhood, and pointed out where all of his favorite bars used to be located. Approaching one corner, Eddie said, “Where that restaurant is, that is the bar I was thrown out of when I busted my front two teeth.” He told me that they were often packed with sailors and hookers. Now, they are Chinese restaurants.
Driving too slow for a trucker behind us who was in a rush to make his Monday morning deliveries, he laid on the horn. Blasting us with his horn, Eddie got irritated and drove even slower and patiently pointed out where the tattoo shops used to be in this small neighborhood with narrow streets. Again, the trucker blasted us with his horn. Eddie hit the brakes and came to a dead stop. Looking in his rearview mirror, he yelled, “LET’S SEE WHAT YOU DO NOW! HONK AND GET OUT OF YOUR TRUCK, YOU MOTHERFUCKER!” He turned to me with a patient, calm voice and continued on with his tour. Pedestrians looked into the van with astounded faces. Yes, sir! Eddie is crazy!
We turned down another narrow street, and Eddie showed me the one of the only tattoo shops that still remains in Chinatown from that time. It was once Harry Von Groff’s tattoo shop, but Eddie bought it. The sign still says, “Eddie’s Tattoo.” The watch repair store right around the corner from this tattoo shop was also a tattoo shop at one time. Eddie explained that it was Harry Von Groff’s shop, Eddie’s friend Johnny Clark, known as the mayor of Kensington, attempted to burn it down.
That was a long time ago. Eddie said, “The neighborhood was filled with bums. You had to be careful that you didn’t hit them as you drove down the street. They’d be sleeping in the street. The buildings were once dilapidated—bricks used to fall on you—and they should have been condemned then, but the city hadn’t gotten around to it, so we opened tattoo shops there. Eventually they did. Eric, change is not only necessary, it is also inevitable.”
Saying that, Eddie looked down the street and turned to leave Chinatown. “Let’s head to DC and put you on a train.” We said our goodbyes, and I told Eddie that I would see him on the West Coast in a week. He said, “Great, I’ll call you tonight when I get to South of the Boarder, and you call me when you get to Chicago.” Later that night, I missed Eddie’s call. He left a message, “Hey, Eric! It’s me, Crazy Eddie. I’m at South of the Boarder. It’s a quarter to nine, Monday night. I’m at Don Pablo’s having the prime rib, thinking of you drinking a bloody Mary. I’ll call you again tomorrow. See you.”
We have many miles to travel. That last thousand miles with you was just a drop in the bucket of our time on the road. I can’t wait to see what is around the next bend or over the next hill. See you then, my friend!