by Carolyn Fansler
The street where I grew up in Philadelphia contained 80 row houses, 40 on each side of the street. It was a wonderful place for a child — always something going on and plenty of other kids to play with.
When I was in my late teens, a new family moved across the street. The parents were unemployed and spent lots of time sitting on their front porch with their kids running amok in the neighborhood. Their oldest, Joey, always seemed to be looking for trouble. He and his friends used to hang out on the corner and harass everyone who went by.
Our trolley car let me and my sister off on that corner, and it was sheer torture to walk by them. They followed us down the street, taunting us and getting in our faces, just itching for us to give them a reason to get violent. We tried riding the trolley an extra block or two and then coming up the other end of the street to avoid them, but sometimes they’d be at that corner, too.
Occasionally we heard Joey was picked up by the police for some minor infraction and then brought home — only to be let loose again by his weary parents. One day he was arrested for holding up a bread truck. We thought this might be the last we saw of him for a while, but he was back the next day, up to his old tricks.
The night before Thanksgiving of 1975, I was awakened from a deep sleep by the sound of glass breaking. Groggy, I went back to sleep. Again I heard breaking glass, got up, then smelled smoke. Our house was on fire!
As usual, Joey had been sitting up all night on his front porch. Seeing the smoke and flames, this “juvenile delinquent” came up onto our porch, which was completely on fire, broke our front windows, and yelled into the house to wake us. His yelling woke my mother and myself.
We couldn’t leave through the flaming porch. We went out the back, and down the alley. When we got around the corner, it looked like our house was completely on fire. If it weren’t for the commotion Joey made breaking our windows and yelling, none of us would have woken up in time. The smoke would have killed us.
Given his history, you might be thinking maybe Joey was the one who started the fire — after all, he was something of a criminal.
Well, he wasn’t. They caught the man who did it. That fellow had lived next door, but had been evicted, so he broke into the empty house and set it on fire.
Joey risked his life to save ours. I heard he received an award for his actions. I don’t know what became of him, because shortly after that I married and moved away. But I think of him occasionally, hoping that his heroic act saved his life, too.