I always looked up to Al Brown. Nowadays, I guess you would call him a “community organizer,” someone in the neighborhood a person could turn to with questions about the block, the new and older people who lived on your street. Like that section of Brewerytown where I grew up in North Philadelphia.
He must have had some “connections.” Not at any high level, but for small things like turning on a fireplug during the hottest days of the summer. Al Brown had one of those specialized wrenches, the ones owned primarily by firefighters who used them to turn on a hydrant for battling a fire.
The hydrant on the 1400 block of Marston Street was just north of the middle of the one-way street. Those with cars parked on the one side seemed to always be home when the hydrant was “opened,” and graciously moved their vehicles, thus allowing a dozen or more kids to splash unimpeded the entire length of the narrow street.
Motorists would cooperate. Slow to a crawl, while rolling up their windows to prevent us more advanced hydrant “operators” to splash their cars as they drove by.
You could cause the water to spray if you sat behind the fireplug, legs stretched in front and around the hydrant base while leaning into the center of the plug, wrapping both arms around the front, and clasping your hands together, with fingers interlaced. Pulling your hands over the gushing water, you could make the liquid shoot into the air, creating an arc of water as kids younger than yourself (and sometimes their parents), would run “inside” the arc, remaining dry until spotted by the hydrant “shooter.”
I could always tell when a person was trying hard to avoid wetting their hair. It was usually an “older” teenage girl or a young mom. I’d show them no mercy.
“Gotcha” I’d cry out as I maneuvered the water into their direction, hoping the stream of water would hit their head as they turned and screamed when getting the full blast. The kid in them came out as soon as they realized how much fun they could have wet all over.
Smaller kids would simply lie in the gutter of the street, letting the water rush over them as they made “snow angels” on the black macadam, letting the water form “ponds” as it flowed into the outstretched legs and groin area. We’d advise smaller kids not to swallow any of the water. Even at the mid-point of the 20th century, we had concerns about Philadelphia’s water supply, especially the one provided for emergencies.
Al Brown also worked at the Fairmount Movie Theater, once at 26th and Girard Avenue, directly across from Girard College for Boys.
He’d open the side door when he recognized the kids from his block. Let us “sneak” in during a matinee and save the cost of admission — I believe it was a whole quarter! He’d wink at you, like a conspirator, and tell you not to say anything. And I never did. Until now.
Al Brown may have been my first honest-to-goodness role model. He was athletic, wise, smart and “savvy.” Could also be sensitive and protect the smaller ones against bullies of all shapes, sizes, and colors. I wanted to be just like him.
Al Brown was Black. An African-American who showed kids like me to be “color blind” and to accept all people as authentic, and to befriend those who had something we called “heart.”
He taught me lessons at age 8 that I have never forgotten. Thanks, Al Brown. You had a lot of heart. See you in the next life.