Underneath an elevated stretch of I-95 on a rainy Sunday morning, the Greater Kensington String Band is taking a break. The Mummers Parade is three days away, and the band has much work to do. Near me, a baritone sax player lights a cigarette.
We’re standing in a big, open lot at Richmond and Lehigh. Instrument cases are strewn about, as is a bit of broken glass. A couple of homemade skateboard ramps hint at what the lot is usually used for. Past the lot’s far end, tanker cars rest on railroad tracks.
John, a close friend since high school, hands me his alto sax. “Hold my horn,” he says, going to grab something from his car. The rest of the band members mill about. On New Year’s, they’re the kings of Broad Street, but the rest of their days are less than royal. Some are high school students, and some are retired fellas who practice while sitting in folding chairs. Others work as cops, teachers, and those guys at Home Depot who tell you what screws to buy and how to install a garbage disposal.
No one is here to watch the band practice, save for me and the occasional passer-by. We’re on the edge of Port Richmond, but no neighbors are out, even as the band’s sound carries into the neighborhood, bouncing between the buildings and blocks. The day is raw and miserable. When the Route 15 SEPTA bus rolls up, a woman steps off, lights a cigarette, and glances at the scene before strolling away.
Returning from his car, John carries papers detailing the choreography he needs to learn for the band’s routine. He lives in Ohio now, but every year he comes back to march in the parade. He first joined Greater Kensington when he was 15. He and I are now nearly 40. “It’s in my blood,” John has told me. “I feel like I need to be a part of it. It keeps me part of Philadelphia.”
I also used to be involved with the band. For 10 years, I marched with Greater Kensington as a marshal, basically serving as a stage crew of the street, helping the band with whatever was needed. But then I moved away from Philly and settled in the Boston area. When you leave a place you care about, some things must give. You can’t hold on to everything from your old hometown that’s important to you, so the Mummers have slipped from my life.
On this Sunday, though, I find myself in Philly with a few precious hours to spare before hitting the road to New England, so I wanted to check on the band, especially because it has fallen on hard times lately. Overhead, the rumble of the cars on I-95 is constant, as is the rain, which we are mostly shielded from, save for the water draining off the highway in a never-ending stream.
Eventually, practice starts back up. Greater Kensington is putting on a patriotic-themed routine, so it launches into “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” The captain stands up front. Wearing sweatpants and a Greater Kensington jacket, he acts the showman, smiling and stretching out his hands. On the other side of the lot, young men in hoodies run through dance steps. During the routine, they will hoof it up like chorus girls, albeit with a tad less grace.
Soon, the drill master brings the band to a halt with his whistle. The problem isn’t the music, which the band has practiced for months, but the moves it’s trying to do along with the music. The band seems a bit lost, unsure of where to step. John grabs the drill master, and they huddle over his notes.
Launching back into the routine, the band makes it from “You’re a Grand Old Flag” into “Yankee Doodle Dandy” before the whistle sounds. Adjustments are made and the band starts again. Then comes another stop, another start, and yet another stop. This is how the sausage is made, the hard, nitty-gritty work needed to perfect a routine.
During one of the stops, I talk with Bob. He’s in his 70s and recovering from back surgery, so he’s sitting in a folding chair. He says that the band has better “blend” this year, that last New Year’s they were too “bottom heavy” with not enough alto saxes. Things definitely have been out of sorts with the band in recent years. Putting on a New Year’s routine is expensive, and Greater Kensington has had money troubles. Other bands also have lured away a bunch of members. The post-parade party at the band’s clubhouse has seemed subdued lately, as if the bar closed early and the good times came and went out the door.
Sometimes I wonder if the problems at Greater Kensington run deeper. The string bands draw their members and spirit from the city’s neighborhoods, but are those communities holding together or are they fraying? What if people leave the hood, scatter to the suburbs, and simply watch the parade on TV? Where does that leave the bands? Some still have plenty of great musicians, but others don’t.
Not that I can lecture anyone for moving away, now that I live 300-plus miles from home in a state where most people have never heard of the Mummers.
As I talk to Bob, John wanders over. “It’s cold out here,” I say, stating the obvious. “Yeah,” he says. Bob and John start reminiscing about the band’s glory years. Back in 2001, John says, Greater Kensington finished second, just a half point out of first place. “We should have won it that year,” he says. This year, there is no talk of winning. Out of the 18 clubs, the band will probably finish in the bottom third.
Still, Greater Kensington is full of true believers, people willing to rehearse for hours under a freeway on a wet day. I finally can stand only so much cold, and with my time in Philly growing short, I say goodbye to John. I’m not sure when I’ll see him again. I’m not sure when I’ll see Greater Kensington perform again either, but as I walk to my car a block or two away, the sound of the saxophones trails after me.