Nine Lives of Charlie Rivera

Rivera at the bar he built | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Yesterday, at Johnny Brenda’s, we met up with Philadelphia carpenter Charlie Rivera. This is our second interview with a Philadelphian shaping the streetscape (for the first, with transportation planner Jeffrey Knowles, click here). Rivera has nearly drowned (twice), flipped a ’67 Beetle (twice), and last January, working on a scaffold at a building on Fourth Street in the Northern Liberties, he was electrocuted, nearly destroying his right hand. He rediscovered his craft working on Stephen Starr’s beer garden, Frankford Hall. (For Dan Cox’s review of Frankford Hall, click here.)

NP: Your training as a carpenter, it’s not the usual story.
CR: When I got out of high school, I drove to California by myself in a ’61 Ford Galaxy. It was 1974-75, right after they got rid of the draft. But I couldn’t deal with California. I came back and moved to Brooklyn, and my sister Mickey worked for a bunch of lawyers. She got me a job maintaining their buildings, which were dance and massage parlors near Times Square. I was just the kind of guy who wanted to take a shot at everything. One of the buildings, I remember it was managed by a little Jewish guy named Elliot, the building was attached to Broadway Burlesque. Basically, I was a cathouse carpenter.

NP: You came to Philadelphia in 1967.
CR: I moved here when I was 11, when they closed the Brooklyn Navy Yard. My father went to work at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and so we moved from Ozone Park, NY to National Park, NJ, right across the river from the Yard. My father took the ferry across. I was thinking about that the other day, the men would come off the boat flying out to their cars, you could feel the sound, the rumbling of the men as they came out of the tunnel. We kids would be playing on the river and our fathers would drive us home or maybe not, we spent most of our time on the river.

NP: You are no stranger to loss.
CR: My sisters couldn’t stand it here. My sister Mickey was my mentor, was the biggest influence in my life, she died of leukemia. She and my other sister Naomi were closest. Naomi was killed. And I think Mickey never recovered.

NP: Do you remember what happened last January 8?
CR: I can tell you exactly what happened. I was doing siding at Kurt Bonk’s house. It was the end of the day. Everybody else went down from the front of the building already. It was the last piece of metal. I had to get it into the building and I had done this all day long. But this piece was long and I had to lift it all the way up, bring it up in the air to bring it back in. I thought I had plenty of clearance between the metal and the wires. I didn’t exactly touch it to the wires, but the thing was the wires were uncovered and I hit the electric field. The next thing I know I was holding on and looking up Fourth Street and everything had turned red and I said to myself, fuck! And then the next thing Kurt Bonk was standing over me. I looked past him and I could see the house was on fire, and I said, Kurt, the house is on fire. That was my first response. I was still burning and my clothes were on fire. But I just had to get out of the building and I kicked my way out, and then we were on our way to Hahnemann. In the ambulance, they were asking me questions because most people they said don’t survive. It turns out the current actually grounded on the building instead of me.

You know what, I think I might just be afraid to die.

NP: A couple months later, there was a benefit at the 700 Club.
CR: That was an amazing thing—I’ve never had an experience like it, in my heart I was totally overwhelmed, flabbergasted. I didn’t realize how many friends I had. And the union really came through. There was a handful of us working to get in the union and that fall we got our union cards we actually became full-fledged union men, we had work and we had a great team of guys. And then for me this happened. At this point, they’re more than willing to give me a shot at continuing. I love doing it.

NP: And after 5 surgeries (to reconstruct his right hand and forearm) you went back to work.
CR: Well, I still have my feet, my arms, my hands. Actually, I tried to go back to work the spring of that year. Then the guys at SJ Design gave me the chance to work at Frankford Hall. That’s when I started to use tools again. We did the bars and the wood work. The benches are built out of material we salvaged from the film industry in Philadelphia. And the wood walls are made from lumber we salvaged here in the neighborhood.

NP: And now?
CR: We’re working in the corner restaurant at Symphony House. We’re changing the space so that this time it will work. Wait till you see it. We’re doing the carpentry, all the finish work. The food is going to be American cuisine. They’re trying to match the décor to the food.

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. Popkin's literary criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, and The Millions. He is writer-in-residence of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.



4 Comments


  1. Great interview.

  2. Great piece, and great to hear Charlie is back at work.

  3. Great article about the greatest man in the world, so grateful that he has 9 lives!

  4. Excellent piece on the unstoppable Charlie Rivera. It does a heart good.

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