A weekly series about the ordinary people who make Philadelphia extraordinary.
As Reading Terminal Market’s director of maintenance, John Sebastian — a plumber by trade — takes great pride in tending to the steel arteries that pump water through and waste from Philly’s historic food mecca.
But before he specialized in steel pipes, the 52-year-old Trinidad native was a master of the steel drum who toured with a Caribbean orchestra and played with Jimmy Buffett.
“As a little kid growing up in Trinidad, my father used to make steel drums,” Sebastian said. He fell in love with the instrument.
Sebastian joined Trinidad’s Desperadoes Steel Orchestra, leaving his island home and traveling the world. While touring, Sebastian said, the orchestra opened for Liza Minnelli and Skitch Henderson at Carnegie Hall, and played about a dozen shows with Buffett in the Miami area.
“There were a lot of Coronas,” he said.
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Playing with the Desperadoes first brought Sebastian to Philadelphia in 1983. By the time he left the orchestra in 1989, his parents and sister had settled here, and he, too, decided to make Philadelphia home.
“I liked the whole multicultural experience here,” the Mount Airy resident said.
That’s what he loves about Reading Terminal, too. Sebastian said Yale University scholar Elijah Anderson “hit it right on the head” in his 2011 book, The Cosmopolitan Canopy. Anderson called Reading Terminal a place where people of all ethnicities come together.
“That is exactly what this place is, people from all walks of life,” he said.
In 1989, Sebastian began working part-time in the market’s maintenance department.
“When I started here, the roof used to leak, and I’m the one that used to hang the plastic with the big bubbles of water in it, and they would shower customers sometimes,” he said. “But the customers just didn’t care. Not at all.”
Sebastian is always on call and often puts in six- or seven-day weeks.
Asked if he’s seen anything interesting in the pipes or drains over the years, he just smiled.
“Oh, yes, I wouldn’t tell you though,” Sebastian said. “Other than grease, I wouldn’t tell you the rest.”
I chose Philly because of family.
What was the most Philly moment you’ve ever experienced?
Philadelphia moment is music. Just playing all over the place. Atlantic City, all of the clubs on Delaware Avenue. Remember the clubs down there? Eli’s, Katmandu, Rock Lobster. That was unforgettable.
What do you wish for Philadelphia?
Philadelphia, I just wish we keep rising because this city is on the rise.