A century of independence and pragmatism

In his 100 years, Albert Talley has had many trades, endured tough times, survived four wives. Now, he tends to his last job.

Posted: July 05, 2007

Even among centenarians, the resume of Albert Talley stands out.

He's been a carpenter, church organist and deacon, plasterer, minstrel show performer, tap dancer and "tenor songster" with Cab Calloway, stevedore, electrician, Army sergeant, and home-renovator.

Talley is now almost eight years into his final job: four hours, three times a week, connected intravenously to a dialysis machine.

"It is my job," Talley said. "I got a lifetime job. I don't get paid for it, I can't quit, I can't get fired, and I can't get laid off. And I got to be here."

Medical experts say most patients do not stay on dialysis for more than about five years, though some have lived more than 10 years and in September, one London woman marked her 39th year on the blood-cleansing machine.

Rarer still are long-term patients like Talley who are on the outer edge of the human lifespan.

"His labs are as good as anyone here," said Jeremy Wilkerson, administrator of the DaVita dialysis center at 60th Street and Cobbs Creek Parkway.

Dialysis removes the body's waste products from the blood when the kidneys fail. But the time on dialysis is just part of the regimen.

"There's a very stringent diet," Wilkerson explained, with certain foods banned, and required foods and amounts of water. Wilkerson said Talley's blood analysis proves he religiously follows the regimen.

"It wasn't difficult for me to get used to anything," Talley said. "Because I know, if I had to do it, I did it. A man's got to do what he's got to do. Regardless."

Talley's independent, pragmatic attitude and his faith have seen him through some tough times. He has survived his parents, three brothers and a sister, and four wives by whom he had 14 children.

A 44-year-old son recently moved back to his West Philadelphia home, but Talley said he did not know how many of his children are still alive: "They don't bother me, and I don't bother them. Because I don't drink, I don't smoke, and I don't gamble. I live for God."

Talley's last wife, Evelyn, a minister, died in 1998 at 77, and until his son joined him in May, he lived alone: "Me and my three cats, we lived in the house by ourselves for eight years."

Talley was born on April 15, 1907, in North Philadelphia. His father was a chef who cooked at the Million Dollar Pier in Atlantic City and retired after 19 years in the Frankford Arsenal's commissary. His mother, Talley recalled, was dedicated to family, and "scrubbed floors for a dollar and a half a day to pay for my teaching on piano and organ." Both were very religious, he said.

Talley said he attended the old Kane School at 26th and Jefferson Streets and Reynolds School at 20th and Jefferson before being transferred to what he called "the truant school" at Second Street and Girard Avenue.

"All the bad kids, they sent them down there," he said. "I was a bad kid, too, jumping from one thing to another."

That trait became a theme of Talley's adult life as he moved from job to job, until discovering he really only liked working for himself.

After school, he went into carpentry, learned other building trades, worked with a brother on the waterfront, and followed an uncle into the plastering business.

Talley said he also pursued his love of music in the 1920s, joining a minstrel show in Philadelphia. That led to a job as a tap dancer and singer with Calloway's orchestra from 1930 to 1934, performing at such venues as the Apollo Theater, the legendary Harlem showcase for African American performers.

But for Talley, show business quickly lost its allure.

"You see, I didn't drink, and I didn't smoke, and I didn't gamble," Talley said. "When you're on the stage, your contract stops you from being your own. You do what they say. And we'd get through a show, 2 o'clock in the morning . . . and we got to go somewhere, maybe five or six of us, to entertain some big shot at his party. And I didn't like that."

When he returned to Philadelphia in the mid-1930s, Talley said, he decided to make his life his own by starting a home-renovation business.

Though over the age of 35 during World War II, married and the father of four children, Talley said, he was drafted and sent to the South Pacific.

He ran a motor pool and left the Army a staff sergeant. He also left minus the middle finger of his right hand after he was wounded by shrapnel.

"When I came home, that's when hell started," Talley recalled.

"There was a lot of Jim Crowing at the time," he said of discrimination in postwar Philadelphia.

First, he said, he objected to the monthly disability payment the Army offered: "Ten dollars a month to take care of my wife and four kids."

The Army agreed to review the payment and, in the meantime, referred him for a job to what was then known as the Naval Aviation Supply Depot in Northeast Philadelphia.

Talley said he waited and watched as younger white applicants were hired as "helpers" to electricians and other trades.

"So they came and called me and said . . . 'We only got common laborer for you.' . . . And I said, 'Well, you mean to tell me all of those shave-tail boys out there are getting helpers, and me, you're going to give me a pick and shovel? And I was a staff sergeant for five years, taking care of the motor pool? . . . I'm not going to take no pick and shovel for nobody.' "

Talley worked as an admiral's chauffeur and as a depot electrician, but soon decided he had to be his own boss and returned to home-renovating.

He retired at age 90, a year before his wife died.

These days, Talley said, he spends most of his time reading his Bible or watching religious programs on television. He doesn't get out much, he said, partly because of health and partly because the streets are too dangerous.

Talley praises his neighbors who, he said, "look after me like a mother hen."

A special friend, he says, is next-door neighbor Evelyn Jones, 82, who cooks his meals: "I love the ground she walks on because she loves me."

Talley said he would not want a kidney transplant if he could have one. In fact, he said, he turned down the opportunity a few years ago.

But Talley has also developed obvious bonds with the DaVita center staff, especially technician Angela McCray.

"He treats me like a daughter," said McCray, 44, who changes her work schedule so she can be there for Talley's treatments.

At one point, McCray leans in over Talley and asks, "Do you need anything?"

"Do I need anything?" Talley says, looking a bit confused.


"Yeah, about $150, right now," Talley replies, with perfect timing and a slight smile creeping over his weathered face.

McCray starts laughing: "Talley, only you. Only you, Talley, that's why I love you."

Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com.

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