Polo in Philadelphia: Work to Ride Proves the Game’s Not Just for Ivy League

BRANDOM REASE WAKES AT 6 A.M. to the unwelcome blare of an alarm clock. Elsewhere in the house he can hear his mother, a school lunch aide, readying herself for work, and his sister preparing for school. Brandon is a big kid, more than six feet tall and around 200 pounds. But his bulk conveys no threat, only warmth; his steady, serious gaze suggests an almost precocious understanding of the dichotomy between the two worlds in which he travels. He gets dressed and pushes his way out the front door, emerging onto North Bonsall Street. All around him, dilapidated two-story rowhouses squat in the early-morning gloom.

“Bonsall Madness.” That’s what Northwest Philly residents labeled it back in 2004 when a running gun battle among warring drug factions claimed the life of Faheem Thomas-Childs, a 10-year-old boy waiting to enter his grade school. Six witnesses ultimately recanted their statements, marking Bonsall Street as the epicenter of the “stop snitching” mentality. Brandon was nine years old then. But nothing appears to have changed.

His walk to the SEPTA station near his house is littered with evidence of the underground economy: blunt wrappers, used condoms, empty plastic baggies from crack and heroin sales, spent needles.

By 8 a.m. he arrives, five miles and a worldview away, at South Philadelphia’s Academy at Palumbo, where he will debate the nature of the universe with his classmates in AP physics. He loves his math classes, aces English. He maintains a 3.76 G.P.A. After school, if homework dictates, he goes straight home. Otherwise he attends chess club, or sits in on hip-hop class. Often, he takes the 38 bus to the Chamounix stables at Fairmount Park. There, he practices polo or trains Billy, the horse for which he’s responsible. He burns time, enjoying some freedom before tucking himself back inside the little cell of his home.

Days with a lot of homework are the toughest. Then, Brandon goes straight home and stays there. But sometimes boredom and youth propel him outdoors. He’ll walk a few blocks to the basketball courts, passing kids who recognize his face but don’t know his name. They nod at each other. But Brandon doesn’t have a single friend in the neighborhood.

Basketball offers only a small diversion. Brandon plays furtively. Like a deer at a watering hole, stealing a sip before looking up in search of predators, he enjoys a moment of fun before glancing toward an active drug corner nearby. There, the neighborhood trade gets plied by young boys in the uniform: white t-shirts, baggy blue jeans.

Any inner-city kid knows the corner’s rhythms. Brandon can feel when something is amiss. Arguing, a car circling the block, some kid pulling out his cell phone and making a show of calling his boys—all can signal looming gunplay. Brandon will put his head down, walk home. But the sound he’s trying to avoid reaches him even there sometimes. Every week or two, there’s gunfire, a pop! pop! pop! in the night. If he’s in bed, he listens till the echo fades and the barking of dogs rushes in to fill the silence. Then he goes to sleep—a 16-year-old boy working toward a better life, shutting his eyes to a neighborhood where only his mom knows his name.