To get the full effect of this blog you have to listen to some Sleepy John Estes -“The Girl I Love has Long Curly Hair.” Once you have that in the background, commence reading. I heard this song last night on the way home from Philly, driving the back roads of Henderson on US 1.
For the past week, I lived and worked on Kensington Avenue in Philadelphia. I can’t put into words (which is unusual for me) how much this experience helped me grow as a person. It made me realize how much more simply I could live and how simply others are forced to live by factors that are sometimes beyond their control. At night, the L sweeped by on its metal tracks, never grinding, but swiftly moving through the night carrying passengers to and from the Frankford neighborhood. I’m sure some of the guests of the Inn would have been happy just to have the change to take a ride through the sky metal. I wasn’t in the neighborhood where Ben Franklin wore his coat jacket tails and carried quills in his pockets, but a neighborhood filled with abandoned row houses and amazing people.
I live in suburbia full-time. I’ve grown up here with the white picket fences running down the main neighborhood row, the cave of trees overhead that are perfectly pruned and paid through home owner’s fees. No one has ever said to me, don’t go out at night – in fact I run at night when I get off work sometimes and no one stops me. People are walking their dogs, talking on their cell phones, enjoying the Southern breeze. Neighbors sit in their driveway’s and have beers, men get up at the whip of dawn and mow their lawns.
In Kensington, women were reminding me not to go anywhere by myself and gaffed when I went off exploring with my camera. I took photos of the barbed wire fences, circled in knives hung atop school yard enclosures, trash collected on stoops and I watched a prostitute get picked up by a man with a ring on his wedding finger. She smiled and a gold tooth flared in the sun, it was always sunny in Philadelphia (like the show). When you drive in from Frankford Avenue, these are the first images you see:
This is a metaphor for life in Kensington. When you close off the sky to a city of people, you get people who have no where up to look. Where can hope ride if you can’t look up and see stars, see sky, imagine a presence or another world out there. Hope has to hide in the pockets of abandoned factories, prayers, row houses, streets filled with poverty and people without coats. I think the L is a physical symbol of crushing people down to the street; stay grounded, stay poor. It was the first thing I saw when I entered Frankford. At first I thought, “how awesome” and I snapped a million photographs while the streets became more and more unfamiliar. And by the end of the week, I saw The L as this silent predator that you don’t even hear moving in the night. It’s almost stirred quiet while it rides empty in the dark hours. It reminds you that there’s no way out.
You force yourself to find hope in the wrinkles at the corners of smiles and below the plump of cheeks. You see a guest with a large coat and you know that they’ll be warm through the night wherever they go. You watch them eat hard bread because they still have teeth. These are the things you find to hope at. Hope, a verb.
People in Kensington hang hope on the wall.
There are pockets of hope in the streets as well. They are beautiful in their ugliness, in their reminders. I didn’t realize Philly was a pretty religious city until I was immersed into the murals of Bible Verses and reminders of John 3:16. I was living my faith throughout the week by attending Mass everyday, prayer service every evening, and spending my days sorting bagels, cleaning dirty plates, cooking ham and deer stew, or peeling carrots. I was living hope and faith through works and not through my own selfish desires (which is how it normally goes). I often find myself praying when I think there is no hope, when I’m teared up in bed and I need someone to answer to what is happening in my life. I hardly say thank you, but am always saying, “I need you…I need you to fix this.” I lose sight of hope because there’s so much of it in my life. I hope my dad walks me down the isle, I hope my nephew grows up healthy, I hope I get into graduate school. My hope has options, my hope has fall back plans. What do you do when your hope is life-sustaining, when you need that hope to live?
And yet, I’ve never seen a city come together in the face of tragedy the way I did this past week. The night before I arrived in Philadelphia, a local abandoned factory was set aflame by unknown causes. It was the staying place of a few homeless who were guests of the food shelter, and the fire took the lives of two firemen. A volunteer I worked with called it “White Lightening” because she suspected the owner set the building on fire to earn the insurance money (this is heresy). Apparently this happens all the time. In a frenzy, the volunteers left the food shelter and rushed to the Nun’s house down the street. They lost bits and pieces of Clare House where the Nuns were to move in two weeks from today.
On Thursday night, coming home from dinner I was able to see the City’s response to these deaths and to the fire. In an act of remembrance, hundreds of motorcyclists gathered to celebrate the life of the passed fire fighters. There was a police led parade through Kensington Avenue just under The L.
Even through all of this, and because of it, I was taken with Philly. I was in this love-hate relationship with the street trash, the people who remembered my name after one day, but had no kitchen to cook in, used public bathrooms for their own privacy. I love Philadelphia (Kensington Ave) because it lives everyday like the light coming out of the darkness. And the St. Francis Inn is one of the bright spots of the narrow streets. Feeding between 200 and 500 people a day, the Inn serves restaurant style to the homeless, or down-trodden in Philadelphia. The guests are more than memorable.
Carlos who taught me how to pet a street cat. Chocolate Moose who’s wife wore rolled-up sleeves in forty degree weather and told me jokes about “egg bombs” creating a mess in their kitchen. Rambo who told me I “shock him” and who protects the neighborhood from crime while wearing tights like a superhero, the old man with blue eyes who had the kindest smile, the lumberjack who said I had “pretty eyes,” Dreads who’s life went haywire from meeting a bad woman and who calls me “Baby PhD.” He also told me men were merciful and women were severe and backed it up with examples. All of them were unique, all of them had something to share.
Thank you, for letting me be completely sarcastic with you and for laughing at my corny jokes, and for being bright when there’s nothing in your world to be bright about, but the meals that you eat inside the walls of an Inn. I now know that hope is a gaunt figure, lonely, cracked like the sidewalk with a few clover sprouts poking through. Hope smells like ham on your fingers and is in the slow peel of a carrot or a potato. Hope is in setting tables and perfectly folding napkins. Hope is in dish washing, which I used to loath, but I see the romance in it.
Carlos introduced me to Nubs, the street cat without a tail who everyone calls Marisa or Stumpy. We became friends rather quickly after that.
His brothers and sisters weren’t really fans of my human smell.
At this point, my mind still won’t let me fathom homelessness. How do you live never knowing where your next meal is coming from. I don’t know what it is to own one skirt that I wear everyday, or have my child wear the same pants for a week only to find ten cents and a laundromat that will let me wash just one pair of black cargos, too small. How does your hair feel when it’s only been washed once this week. How do you ask someone else for diapers for your child. How to, how to, how to. Where is the manual.
In Philly, one street separates poor and poorer. I was walking down Jasper and then turned onto Cumberland, passing Kensington High School and heading towards Genericville (where Applebee’s and CVS hold still). Genericville is goodville, and the journey-through slowly rises to the occasion.
It goes from this:
It’s just strange to me how close we are to nothing and we still feel that we have everything.
I wish, for this, that I had words to move a whole country to social justice. To make people see that their whole world needs help, not just third world countries. There is education to be had in your own backyard, difference to make in your own city, mouths to feed at your own table.
I’ve always thought that literature reached passed these boundaries between people. We’ve all read Catcher in the Rye and heard Holden Caulfield’s homeless shenanigans. Flannery O’Connor has given us a window into the poverty of the South. Salvage the Bones tells us of happiness in the eye of tension and uncontrolled circumstances. The literature has forced into us places that are uncomfortable, trash-ridden, unavoidable and yet, here in America we rush to the suburbs. We place our feet up on our white picket fences and breathe a sigh of relief that we’re out of our suit coats and into our Saturday pajama pants. And I’m to blame as much as anyone because I forget to live like I know there are people who have less, but are not less.
This is for all of you who say, “if they would only get jobs, then they could feed their family,” or “Even if you work at McDonald’s, you at least have a job.” We’ll news flash, McDonald’s doesn’t give average workers a living wage, and most times people who work at minimum wage jobs work two jobs just to survive in their small crack of a home on the “bad side” of town. We forget that these people may work harder than us, may have hands dry and cracked, may make their children write extra book reports to make sure they go onto college and push past the stereotypes of poverty. It isn’t THAT easy to just “pick yourself up by your boot straps,” put on a tie and get a job. The wife of “Chocolate Moose” (a guest at the Inn) owns two t-shirts, sleeves cut at the shoulder bones, a pair of gym shorts and a flower print skirt. She has tennis shoes, speaks with an accent. If she walked into your business tomorrow would you offer her a job?
I want to talk about it. I want authors to write about it. I want people who have “beach reads” to experience poverty while sand is between their toes. I just want people to think about it. We live in a world where my family owns three cupboards of towels for showering and I have twenty-some pairs of jeans in sizes I don’t even fit into anymore, but people are out there with a t-shirt, missing sleeves. Our class system, it’s broken.
Here’s to hoping:
I am a writer, educator and genuine creative living on the coast of NC. Our house is built on sunshine with my husband BJ, dog named Tucker, and our two very sassy cats: Fromage and Jasper.