On Broad Street in the Philadelphia Mummers’ Parade
By John McCabe
Tyson Tucker’s white shoes now matched the gray snow along the curbs. They were soaked through to his socks from stepping in and out of the flow of gutter water. His shoulder up near the nape of his neck pained him. Looking ahead, he could see the end of the parade and buses parked and their motors sending plumes of exhaust into the winter air. The music was spirited as it always was during the last song. Tucker couldn’t remember the bridge, so he held his pick loose, smiled thinly, and faked it, joining in again reluctantly when the second chorus started. His fiberskyn banjo, a favorite with old time, claw hammer, flailing styles, often used by Philadelphia String band and many bluegrass players. tend to have a more plunky sound.
After the song, the music director’s whistle blew, and in what looked to be one motion, the bandsmen all quit the parade stride. Tucker had stopped in place at the whistle, hoisting his banjo strap angrily over his head to relieve his sore neck. Dockstader’s kid came up and handed him a can of beer. They walked together splashing through the gutter water once more before stepping up on the sidewalk.
“Good parade, T.T., huh?”
“Ah, it’s a tank town, Low Dock.”
Dockstader, the kid’s father, was by far the tallest man in the band, His son was probably the shortest. The kid was nicknamed “Low Dock” during the joking on the bus that morning.
“What’s a tank town, Tuck? Whatta ya mean?”
“Hey, kid, there’s only one parade. Damn slush!”
Tucker was examining the wet dirt on his trouser cuffs.
“Yeah, all this other stuff’s just jobs. Ya know?”
“Guess so, haven’t been there yet.”
“Oh, yeah, this stuff is just bus jobs, were we do concerts or yeah you might be in some rincydink parade in some town. You ain’t been down the street yet; you know Broad Street, that’s the only real Parade man. That’s our day man!”
Tucker faced away from the kid and scented out his banjo case in the pile of band equipment beside the bus. Bending down to put the instrument away, he said, “What the hell’s your first name anyway?”
“What’s that, a Jew name?”
The kid’s eyes opened wider matching a sudden flare in his nostrils.
“Jewish? I don’t know, maybe it’s German, but my . . .”
“Whatever. Aren’t you gonna play?”
“Soon as they give me a suit.”
“You don’t need a damn suit. Look kid, it’s the only way you learn is to play. It’s not easy to march and play; like chewing gum and walking.”
“Yeah, I guess you get all messed up, don’t yuh?”
“Does a rockin’ horse have a wooden dick? You’ll think you can’t do it, but if you try instead of waitin’ for a damn suit, you’ll get it. You’ll be ready, maybe.”
Tucker opened another can of beer. The kid noticed the whole band was around them. Among those listening, some appeared interested others seemed pleased to show they had heard it all before. The kid felt embarrassed after Tucker’s criticism.
After the bus was on its way, the kid deliberately displayed his first can of beer. Tucker saw it.
“Hey, kid, Jules,” Tucker said grinning, “is this, your banjo up here, kid?”
“Let’s see it.”
Tucker took down the banjo, strutted up the aisle with it, and coaxed Lafferty, the base fiddle player, into getting his instrument from the back seat. In a minute they finished off their cans of beer, tuned, and started plucking. The music, the singing, and the rhythm of the bus, were hypnotic to the kid. Twisted around in his seat, he followed Tucker’s hands, the one racing up and down the banjo neck; the other flailing rhythms. He looked beyond Tucker’s hands: mouths in laughter and faces strained in song.
“That banjo never sounded like that before!” he thought. “Tucker’s something else.”
The kid felt happy among the busload of men where comedy was king and music the perfect excuse to be together.
“I’m gonna play next time. Tucker’s right. Ya gotta just do it. I’ll do it.”
The kid sat back in comfort. It was dark outside when the bus hissed to a stop. After the costumes and instruments were unloaded, the kid carried Tucker’s headpiece and walked beside him. Their steps crunched into the soft spring snow. The sound of the bus was dying in the distance. Tucker spoke, sending breaths smelling of beer into the damp night air. He had been noticing the simplicity of willingness in the boy’s ways and now it bounced in the kid’s walk.
“That’s a good banjo ya got there, kid. It’s got a nice ring.”
“Thanks. I can’t wait to play with you guys on the next job.”
“You know what, kid? You’re gonna be dynamite! I can tell.”
The kid slowed, changed his grip, and then hastened to catch up to the older bandsmen.
* * *
It was the seventh concert in the park; the last one before the bandstand closed. The temperature had dropped down that night and a breeze blew in under the metal canopy bringing with it a waterfront chill. The summer was over; the kid’s first summer with the band. Together, they played the slow part of a medley of big band favorites. The audience was in a lull with the sound and the kid’s eyes were scanning the seated horseshoe shape of the band. He fixed a stare on the distorted shape of Tucker’s nose pressed against the neck of his banjo. Two elderly couples danced on the blacktop parking lot over Tucker’s shoulder. Tucker wasn’t playing; he looked angry. The kid became disturbed by Tucker’s blatant lack of showmanship. Finally, Tucker began to play, but his eyes held a contemptuous expression until they finally shut in concentration and opened in the warm languidness of the music. Wondering why Tucker had been angry, the kid went back to watching the audience. He focused on an apparently retarded girl dancing without a partner. In the moment, she captured his attention.
“She’s . . . oh, that’s it.”
He looked over at the elderly black couples dancing on their make-believe ballroom confirming his suspicions about Tucker’s behavior.
* * *
When the concert was over, the group that always lingered was standing on the gravel road that led down to a boat launch. Everything was dark out on the river except the lights from the ferry. Sounds of laughter and voices seemed to hang back in the air over the water as if the boat taking away the audience couldn’t pull hard enough to break their previous attachment to the shore.
The bandsmen made shuffling noises in the gravel and their presence there launched the smell of beer and burning tobacco out after the ferry. Tucker looked out towards the people on the river and said, “Don’tcha hate playin’ for a bunch of blacks? Cept we show ‘em every time that a white man’s got as much rhythm as any of ‘em ever dreamed of.”
Some of the others looked out towards the sounds on the ferry. The kid looking down at the gravel said, “Are you serious, Tucker?”
Then he lifted his head and stared out into the dark over the river and said, “What the hell ya gettin’ all angry about those people for?”
Lafferty, standing behind Tucker, stepped forward and said, “The Jew kid likes spooks, Tuck.”
“Shut up, Lafferty!” Tucker growled.
The kid started walking away, noticing Lafferty’s scowl as he passed him. Tucker pretended to be yelling something insulting and racial out at the ferry in a pantomime strained voice with hands cupped at his mouth. The others, including Lafferty, laughed in amusement. Then Tucker ran after the kid saying, “Hey, kid! Yo, kid, wait.”
Catching up, he put his hand on the kid’s shoulder and said, “Look, it don’t mean nothin’ to me.”
“No kid. I don’t care, really.”
“What about what you just said about the blacks?”
“These bands like ours, even the East Side Band, they don’t like blacks.”
“That’s shit, too.”
“That’s the way it is.”
“Get outta here, Tucker. You can’t tell me that even half the guys in this band would give a shit.”
“C’mon back, kid. We’re gonna play down at the Trap.”
“Ah, I don’t feel like it. We closed the Beast’s bar last night. I’m checkin’ out, T.T.”
“Ya, all right.”
* * *
The kid was pleased with himself in his sequined and boa feather trimmed bandsman costume with its gold brocade, blue satins and jewel-like reflections from little round mirrors, cerise lace, and long, white ostrich plumes. It was the day of the parade that Tucker had spoken to him about back on that first bus job.
Directly beside the band in the street and above the crowds on the sidewalk, a priest stood on the steps of his South Philadelphia church. He was preparing to bless the band; the fourteenth to pass him that day. Both Tucker and the kid watched and heard, “God, Our Father, your gift of water brings life and freshness of the earth. It washes away our sins and . . .” The music started abruptly among cheers and a sudden smile from the priest who had begun to fling his holy water into the air.
The band’s theme that year was “American Songs on Rails,” and each bandsman was costumed to be the unmistakable engine of a locomotive. From the middle of Broad and Oregon Avenue in South Philadelphia, they started marching to an old tune, popular in the twenties. Its crescendos and simple charm sent the great parade’s gaiety into the kid and he swung with each step as he strummed the banjo strapped across his chest.
Tucker’s account of the racial history of the bands came into his mind as they began marching out of the white ethnic neighborhoods of the city. Somewhere in the inner-city slums he felt tightened about it all. The streets were lined with blacks; mostly whole families sitting on lawn chairs or standing with their kids who lined the curbs. The kid was on the end of a row, right beside the crowds. The band stopped at a street corner. The people there were almost silently gazing at the costumed musicians the way vacuous spectators do when they know a marching band has been caught in a parade delay. The crowd relaxed, talking to each other.
To the kid, the all white band suddenly seemed to be a separate being; a bizarre feathery form unattached to the streets or curbs; majestic passing sprites cruelly indifferent to the people on the sidewalks. In the corner of his eye he saw other bandsmen’s long, gentle African ostrich plumes disinterestedly touching brown hands, winter clothing, children’s shoulders and unfolded chairs.
The kid panicked thinking, “They think I’m prejudiced against ‘em just because I’m in this band. What a lousy mess I got myself into with this.”
The kid, his face expressing his self-reproach, looked at the black children on the edge of the curb in front of their parents and neighbors.
“They could just assume I’m some kind of white bigot nut.” The kid’s face expressed his pain and confusion. “Who’s really prejudiced? How many of these guys?”
Names darted in and out of his mind until he settled on a few he assumed to be clearly against the blacks. His grief heightened.
After a brief trance, he thought, “Hey there’s a lot of nice people in this band. They can’t all be haters. There’s some nice to everybody. Darn it all! We got the biggest chance in the world! We oughta . . .”
Everyone near him started reacting to the parade moving again. Tucker and the others were yelling out the song they would step out on. The black people were stirred by it. The kid was relieved by their smiles. He faced the crowd and said aloud, “Happy New Year,” breaking the long silence between the two groups. The kid turned back, embarrassed and awkwardly preparing to play and step off. He noticed a man’s brown hand at his side. The kid took hold of the hand, looking at the gesture of the handshake appreciatively. He started marching and found he was out of step with the band, and fumbling for the right chord. The song was easy and happy and he picked up the step quickly. The people on the sidewalk were all standing up now, some dancing, some clapping and shouting out praises. The kid smiled and looked for the faces that would see his. He stepped with a swinging motion to the music. He saw Tucker pulling up his banjo and indicating a pain high on his shoulder by the nape of his neck under the banjo strap.
The kid was enjoying the band’s volume, his own music meshed into the total sound, his own rhythms beginning somewhere in the magic of it all. He noticed Tucker wasn’t playing. The people on the sidewalks were celebrating. The kid caught Tucker’s attention and sternly motioned him to play. Tucker understood but it had unexpectedly begun to rain large shockingly cold drops at first then a sudden downpour. Like an unwound toy, the band stopped playing and stood still in the street. While the streetlights went on over the halted band, the black people, whole families moving backwards, offered protection to the bandsmen. They were calling them under sidewalk trees and the overhanging parts of buildings. The lights shined, glistening on their faces showing concern and laughter.
Tucker shouted, “Shit on a bunch of rain, play! All right, kid?”
Someone in the crowd yelled, “Band’s got heart! Rain or shine!”
The band formed in the street again in the pouring rain. The drumbeat started. The music director shouted. The music began. The crowd stayed, filled with the force of its own pleasure. The kid and Tucker stood side-by-side, rain falling on their faces, playing to the crowd.
When the band marched away, the rain, swept in a sudden strong wind, washed over the empty street behind them. Tucker smiled knowing the kid had discovered both merriment and remorse. Tucker also knew instinctively that the kid might never march the big parade again. Tucker had seen that kind of shame before.
When the song was over and only the drummers’ sticks kept time on the metal drum rims, Tucker, wiping rain off his face, dealt with another inner frustration. The pain up in the nape of his neck had started again. He whispered in hissing disgust, “I’ve gotta quit this shitin’ band . . . another damn year . . . damn! I always feel this way . . . always wanna quit it . . . never do.”
The kid began to feel water dripping on his hair. It was leaking through his headpiece. The events of the day and other times he had spent in the band collected in his mind in carefully connected fragments until he saw them as one body. Soon nothing was left to think of but himself and the rain, the dripping on his hair and the peace of clearly knowing what to do.
John McCabe, a lifelong writer in all genres, is an active member of the Writers Guild at the Pearl S. Buck Writing Center. His novel The Grey Pennies of Wars centers on his experience as a young soldier undergoing atomic bomb testing in Nevada and is actively seeking a publisher.