One of the wonderful things about living your whole life in the same place (and in my case, 45 years in the same house) is the ability to mourn people you’ve never met.
Those who move away from the old neighborhood – whether that be a four-block square or an entire ZIP code – clearly have memories and even make periodic returns like the Capistrano swallows. But the ones who stayed behind have a special gift for appreciating native things.
In some ways, that’s counterintuitive. We always think of the “Philadelphians who got away” as the ones who miss the homegrown stuff the most, and there is a bit of truth in that. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and, in the case of Tina Fey, makes the Pica’s Pizza taste better.
But the people who stay do so for a reason, and it’s usually not because they have to. Philadelphia engenders a love and loyalty like very few other great American towns. We once were cited as having the highest number of native-born residents in a list of 20 or so other big cities.
All of this is a long prelude to explaining why I found myself sitting in front of my computer Saturday night with tears in my eyes. David Brenner, South Philly’s magnificent jokester, was gone. And here I was at my kitchen table, mourning as if I’d lost a family member.
In a way, we all have.
Not once in my 52 years had I met the man. Not once had I been to a show, not even during my ignominious summer as an incompetent usherette at the Valley Forge Music Fair. I didn’t know anyone who actually knew him, never sent a fan letter, never stood within 6 (or even 20) degrees of separation from the man.
But he was from Philly, and I was from Philly, we’d walked the same streets, eaten the same mustard-slathered pretzels, rooted for the same teams, voted for the same candidates (sometimes multiple times in the same election) and mangled the same diphthongs.
That, actually, is one of the major reasons I felt such a connection to Brenner. His voice dripped with Philly Phonics, that distinctive variation on a good-natured urban whine.
When I was an adolescent, I’d come home from school and watch “The Mike Douglas Show.”
Sometimes I’d alternate with the breathless, melodramatic soaps, but Mike was local and I was loyal to brand, so he usually won out. On a number of occasions, he’d have guest hosts, one of whom was the funny man.
Brenner was sweet, funny, corny in a “hip nerd” way, and clean. There wasn’t a mean bone in his lanky, angular body. He made fun of no one but himself, except in the most good-natured way. He didn’t use any of George Carlin’s immortal dirty words, and there wasn’t a whiff of self-importance about this very important star.
And there was that voice, that accent drenched in Schuylkill wudder and lightly salted like his beloved soft pretzels. There was no chance, no hope, and more important, no desire to hide his origins. Elocution teachers would lose money with him.
To those of us who stayed here, that voice meant a lot. It was as if he was proud to use it as a calling card to the rest of the world, a way of saying “Hey, New York, L.A., Peoria: I’m from Philly. We grow them funny back there.”
That unapologetic love for his origins made him, in turn, beloved by his native posse. Like the great Bill Cosby, sage of North Philly and a fellow Temple alum, Brenner always let the rest of us “Fluffyans” know that he might be chatting it up with the legendary Carson but he’d just as soon be at home drinking a Schmidt’s and having a cheesesteak with the guys. He was the local version of what Kipling meant when he wrote: “If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue/Or walk with kings, nor lose the common touch.”
As my friend Cathy reminded me, Brenner was shocked at the wide, open spaces in the suburbs when he moved out there. This son of the rowhouses couldn’t figure out why every other house was missing.
That was the sweet hallmark of his humor, self-deprecating and yet immensely proud of its origins in the urban asphalt.
The breed of comedians like Brenner is almost gone. There’s Cosby, and a very few others who eschew profanity and risqué subjects. The ability to make people laugh legitimately, having them reflect upon the strange yet endearing minutiae of life is a dying art.
And now it’s time to mourn the artist we just lost.