Yesterday, Leon Brown's back yard on Savannah Street SE was filled almost to overflowing. Children were everywhere -- pitching horseshoes, chasing each other, playfully teasing Brown's dog Butch, who was, of course, tied up.
For at least the seventh year and maybe longer, family, neighbors, friends, and friends of friends gathered at Leon Brown's. And more than the celebration was about Independence Day, it was about community and neighborhood and one man's trying to, as he said, "do something for the kids."
Most of the week, Brown, 43, is a cleaning crew supervisor with Curtis Brothers Furniture, where he has worked since 1967. But on weekends, when his son, Leon Jr., 10, is with him, and on holidays and any other occasion he can dream up, Brown is the host extraordinaire of his neighborhood. Especially for the children.
"All the kids around here know me," said Brown, a thin, shy man. "A lot of kids, they don't have a lot of things, and if you have the money to do for people who may not have as much, that's good.
"A lot of the kids around here live just with their mothers. It's mostly women without a man. Sometimes, their money runs out and times are hard. When I do this, I feed the whole neighborhood; everyone around here is welcome.
"Whether I know you or not, you come by here and you can have something to eat," added Brown, who said he cooked enough for "60, 100, as many people as come by."
Brown stayed up nearly all of the night before the Fourth getting ready for the cookout. First, he cleaned his house. Then, he said, "I sat down, celebrated and had a couple of drinks." After that, Brown cut up the ribs and put them on to cook, checked his supplies and made the baked beans. Then he went to sleep for a few hours.
But not for long. The next morning there were bags of trash to be picked up from the strip of hilly back yard where the picnic would take place. There were weeds to be whacked and tables to be moved outside. Brown had help from his fiance'e, Cheryl Murphy, who works at National Airport, and his son.
"People say, 'It ain't my trash,' " said Brown, "but somebody's got to pick it up. So we get out here and collect the trash, whack the grass when we want to give something."
LaVerne McCray and her three children have been Brown's neighbors for as long as he's lived in the Savannah Park Apartments. "We live here in the worst conditions," she said, gesturing around her.
The apartment unit next to Brown's home is partially boarded up, its unused doorway piled high with rotting trash. In a corner of the yard, a refrigerator, stove and washing machine, long past usefulness, sit rusty and rotting.
"We live here," McCray said, shrugging. "But that man right there, Mr. Leon, he doesn't let it faze him. He says we may as well make the best of it, and then he does. If you need a hand, he will help you.
"Last year," she said and laughed heartily, "last year it rained, but we were having such a good time we stayed out here, rain and all."
Amid the yelling children, the smell of chicken and ribs cooking on the grill, the pans of potato salad, baked beans and deviled eggs, and the laughter, the grimness of the surroundings vanished. Brown bustled here and there, filling cups, serving plates, welcoming any and all who came by.
And they came: lots of children; friends from work, from the neighborhood; his sister, Joyce Brown, and her daughter, India Peterson, 10. "Wait until a little later," said Leon Brown, looking around at his 30 or so guests. "It'll be packed out here; all the kids in the neighborhood will be here."
His mother, Elsie Brown, 81, was there. "I was going to stay home," she allowed, "but I knew Leon would worry me to death.
"No, I didn't cook today. I came to eat," she added.
"I taught all my children to cook and sew," said Brown, the mother of four sons and a daughter. But the rest? "I guess he just loves people. He was always like that," she said.
After dark, Leon Brown always sets off fireworks. If it wasn't for the fireworks, you wouldn't know it was the Fourth of July. There are no American flags in evidence. The music coming from the tape deck is vintage soul, not a word about "bombs bursting in air."
"The Fourth of July?" said Brown. "It's about people, doing things together, being together, laughing, having fun. I don't know why I started doing this. It's just something that's in me and had to come out," he said thoughtfully. "I spend my last penny, but I don't lay down broke. I lay down thinking about what a good time we all had."