I never knew what Al’s last name was — or where, exactly, that he lived.
It had to have been somewhere in my neighborhood, though, but not on my block, where I knew all the first and last names of every kid within five years of my own age on both sides of the street.
The same was true of the surrounding blocks North and South and West, but not East, (because of a busy street), where I had a comfortable working knowledge of most of the kids who lived in the modest houses up and down those blocks, as well as a few of their brothers and sisters.
No, the place where Al lived had to have been several blocks away, out in the mysterious districts outside my own little world, where the names and faces of the residents of those areas– as well as their children and pets, if any, not to mention their daily movements, were quite unknown to me.
It had to have been somewhere within a leisurely walking distance of my house, though, because if there was ever anyone who leisurely walked anywhere, it was Al. Yes, it can now be said that Al walked leisurely—and often.
We kids saw him here –and there–and nowhere.
I can’t quite recall the first time I ever saw him, actually, although I’m quite sure the occasion was uneventful. Al was always just sort of around. Nobody paid him much mind. I may have been playing catch with another kid in my driveway and Al may have been simply walking down the sidewalk on the other side of the street when he first entered my consciousness.
Al was an anomaly. Always alone, seemingly a kid with no adult supervision or friends, although, to be fair to his parents, in those days, we kids were all often left to our own devices, as, almost always, one or in many cases, both of our parents worked. I had no idea who Al’s parents were.
Strangely enough, I never saw Al in any of the places I normally frequented. He was not to be seen in The Soda Shoppe, on Waters Avenue, sitting at one of the black glass tables sipping a nickel coke and reading one of the many comic books on the shelves that lined the wall. The comic books and magazines that every kid read, but no kid ever seemed to buy. He was not ever in the movie theatre on Saturdays– and I never saw him on any of the little league teams or at any of the birthday parties that other kids got invited to. He never even rode a bicycle, that I could tell—and in those days, every kid over the age of five had a bicycle.
He didn’t go to school, either. If he had, I would certainly have known about it, because, being a small shy kid, I made a point of knowing the identities and potential for violent tendencies of most of the boys, anyway, and how fast they could run and whether or not they could beat me up. I sensed that Al was older than me, although it was hard to judge his age, but, at any rate, I never viewed him as a threat.
One day all the students or “pupils” as they called us in those days, were assembled on the South side of our elementary school. The school principal, Horace Flanders, a bald man with glasses and a pointy nose, who always dressed in a dark grey suit ,was addressing us on some matter of importance which I probably forgot even before he finished speaking. My mind has always quickly wandered off course during speeches and soon I find myself thinking about random things that have nothing at all to do with the important information being communicated. On this particular occasion, however, the assembled multitude happened to be seated on the steps in front of the school listening to Mr. Flanders’ oration, but not hearing it, when I noticed Al calmly walking on the other side of the street.
The kid next to me saw him, too. “There goes Al, “he said. “That kid is 21 years old.”
I was somewhat taken aback by this revelation. He certainly didn’t look like an adult, but at least that explained to my nine-year-old’s mind why he was never in school.
A number of years passed before I would see Al again.
It was a Saturday morning and I was seated next to Cecil Martin in the high school auditorium. We were there to take the S.A.T.s. Teachers and others were milling about and busily preparing to administer the test. Several hundred students were in the process of coming in and taking their assigned seats. The scene was rather chaotic. There was a nervous energy in the air.
Into this scene walked Al.
Cecil saw him first and elbowed me slightly—and with a slight nod of his head and a look of mild excitement and bemused anticipation in his eyes, he casually directed my attention to Al, who had quietly entered the auditorium unnoticed, amid all the hubbub, and was now making his way down the aisle toward the stage.
“Watch this,” said Cecil, with a knowing wink. No one ever knew more and knew it sooner and winked about it more often than Cecil.
Al walked right by a couple of teachers who were deep in some kind of friendly discussion, based on the looks on their faces– and Al, seemingly unnoticed by anyone except us, ascended a short flight of stairs to the stage. Then he placed his right hand on the solid brass doorknob and opened the cream-colored door with the shiny paint that led back stage.
“Uh-oh,” said Cecil, who seemed to be gleefully amused at the prospect of what might happen next.
Fifteen or twenty seconds elapsed as we fixed our gaze silently, but expectantly, upon the stage. Then, slowly at first, and then with slightly more force, the dark blue velvet curtain began to open– and then stood fully-opened and triumphant upon an empty stage.
I looked at Cecil who was now grinning broadly. It was the greatest show he had ever seen. Every scene in Cecil’s life would be like that. No one ever grinned more broadly– or more often than Cecil.
Then, perhaps in reaction to the slight squeaking noise of the curtains being drawn open by Al, the two teachers who had been pleasantly conversing turned to look over their shoulders at the empty stage. Then, they looked at each other. A few minutes later, the custodian, Mr. McGuire, a short man with close-cropped white hair and matching khaki shirt and pants appeared and quietly and gently led Al away. I watched as the two of them walked across the back of the stage, and in the darkness I could see Al, his eyes fixed on the floor, walking leisurely, as usual, and guiltlessly, as the man in the khaki pants and shirt with the big bunch of keys at his side escorted him away. Then the two of them disappeared from view. In a few minutes the blue velvet curtain was drawn shut and, except for the three hour test, that concluded the show.
One Sunday morning, a few years later, just one year after President Kennedy was assassinated, I was at home, upstairs studying American history.
Gradually, I began to realize that something unusual was amiss downstairs and that whatever it was, was upsetting my father, who was normally rather imperturbable.
Much to my father’s consternation, someone had locked a German Shepard dog inside my mother’s 1959 Cadillac, and then lit a fire consisting of leaves and old cardboard boxes and newspapers scavenged from the trash out in the alley behind our house.
Then that same person, perhaps in an attempt to douse the fire, had turned on the garden hose, but had opened the valve to such a great extent that the force of water through the hose was causing the hose to thrash about wildly out on the concrete driveway like some sort of wounded boa constrictor, spraying the old magnolia tree and spraying the azelea bushes and spraying a jet of water against the windows along the side of not only our house, but the house next door.
It was the water hitting the window on the side of our house and not the fire in the alleyway or the muffled barking of the German Shepherd in my mother’s Cadillac that first alerted my father to the situation.
I knew something was terribly wrong, but, being the type to let others take the lead in all situations, I decided to let my father handle it.
I stopped reading my history book, got up from the little green chair that used to be brown that my mother had painted and walked over to the upstairs window and looked down. Through the limbs and leaves and ladybugs of the magnolia tree next to the house I could make out a small male figure struggling to get his hands on the thrashing hose and getting sprayed in the face in the process but enjoying the experience immensely.
Into this scene, my father made an abrupt entrance stage left. Passing by the young fellow, whose clothes were now soaking wet from his futile attempts to grab the hose, my father immediately turned off the water at the spigot.
Then he smelled the smoke and noticed the fire in the alley. Taking the hose in his left hand, and turning the water back on once again with his free hand, and followed eagerly by the happy young man in the dripping shirt, the two of them managed to get the fire in the alley extinguished in a minute or two of my arriving on the scene.
The immediate danger over, and to my utter amazement, my father began to question the young man as to why he did what he did.
The young man just stood there dripping wet and stared back at my father in an unconcerned way. For a moment, I envied him. There was an awkward silence. It was awkward to everyone except Al. It was almost as if he expected my father to answer his own question.
Then my father and I heard the frenzied but muffled barking of a large dog coming from somewhere up near the street. Al eagerly lead us to my mother’s Cadillac where he had proudly and wisely placed his dog for safekeeping while he busied himself with the fire in the alley behind our house. The dog became even more agitated as my father approached the car and it jumped back and forth from the front seat to the back and back again, barking furiously as it did so. Unfortunately, the car was locked and my father didn’t seem to have the key.
Just as my father was trying to decide what to do next my mother appeared in a car driven by one of her friends. It seems the two of them had been out at Bonaventure cemetery that morning raking the leaves off her friend’s late mother’s grave. That’s what people did on Sundays in the old days.
My mother took the car keys out of her pocketbook and let the German Shepherd out of her car and, tail wagging, he and Al walked off down the street to wherever it was that Al called home. And they did so leisurely, at their own pace, seemingly in no hurry to flee the scene.
A year or two later, someone told me Al had died, I don’t remember who it was.
He was in his 30’s I think, a man, by some standards, but he always looked like a boy to me.
I learned in school and from my history books that, in the United States, “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among those are life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Al may not have exactly been created “equal” and he may not have enjoyed a long life, but Al certainly had his fair share of liberty, and freedom–and from what I saw, Al always pursued his own idea of happiness as best he could.