April 14, 2012

My Story of Hope in Philadelphia

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:

The L

The L

The sky through the windows, anywhere but up.

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.

Street Mural at St. Francis Inn

Backyard Fence Decoration

And give the birds feed.

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?

St. Francis Inn Mural

School Yard Mural

Station of Green. Yes, that is a tub with Jesus.

Wall Quote

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.

After the flames were put out

Factory Fire

News Reports of the Factory Fire | NBC Philadelphia

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.

Fire Fighter Remembrance

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.

Paisley, who only ever let me as close as ten inches.

Jazzy Hazzard ate my tuna, but never let me near.

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:

Backyard Fence and Wires

and this,

Row Houses, Cumberland

Inn Yard

to here…

House Capsule

Green Pocket

Knobby Tree

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’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody. They don’t teach you how to be famous. They don’t teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don’t teach you how to walk away from someone you don’t love any longer. They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying. They don’t teach you anything worth knowing.”
— Neil Gaiman

Baseball in a sidewalk, my feet.

21 comments so far.

21 responses to “My Story of Hope in Philadelphia”

  1. maedez says:

    What a beautiful piece, Cassie!

  2. annagergen says:

    Wow, Cassie. What a journey you’ve been on. It’s both heartwarming and heart wrenching to read your tale. I’m sure you feel the same way.

    One thing I learned while I was working with underprivileged students in southern Seattle was that life is anything but fair. It throws us things at random- some get riches, some get a dirty floral print skirt. Some get to go to the best schools in the country while others will drop out before 10th grade because the ‘system’ doesn’t know how to handle them. It infuriates me sometimes, it gets me at the very core, to think about this and know that I am on the grass that’s greener. Sometimes I wish I weren’t. How can I empathize with a lifestyle that I simply can’t fathom living?

    Good for you for serving our country in one of the circumstances where our citizens need the most. We need a lot more people out there like you, Cassie, people who can serve and be humbled and befriend cats and people named “Chocolate Moose” without judgement. God bless them all.

    Looking forward to hearing more about your experiences in your letter. I am sending mine today after I leave the library.

    • Cassie says:

      I work with those teens that you talk about – and you’re right it really does just disgust you after a while how little effort anyone makes for them in the school system.

      I’ve never met a bad person who serves, or goes on trips to help the poor, or help out in Haiti, or anywhere for that matter. They always seem to be good, solid people. And you’re right it is totally unfair, so it’s up to those of us who are more fortunate to spend our time, money, or whatever we have working with those who are not as fortunate and who were dealt the worse hand.

    • Cassie says:

      PS. Can’t wait to read your letter.

  3. avian101 says:

    Dear C., I stand correct on my opinion about you, You are a special person with a bright mind and a heart of gold.
    I can see that you’ve gotten a little sample of what’s life in the other side of the tracks. I’ve been to many of those places in different large cities in the USA as an observer, as well as in other countries, Some places so poor that if they see a rat they feel blessed that they will eat meat that day! Other people go through barren fields looking for roots to eat and put something in their stomach. Life is hard for many in this world and it’s been like that since day one. Unfortunate fate for those people. However, every little bit of help is good. Like you did in Philly, I commend you for that. You’ll always be a hero in my book. G-d bless you curly C.! 🙂

    • Cassie says:

      Thank you sir. I don’t know about heart of gold and all that, I just do what I can sometimes. The people with hearts of gold are those people starving, or those who have been helping them for years upon years without any rewards other than the smiles on the fed faces. : )

      I would love to hear about the places you’ve been – you should write a blog about it and link it. I love to live vicariously through other people who have experiences that I haven’t had.

      We’re all heroes in some way. : ) YAY!

  4. Elisa's Spot says:

    Thank you very much for trying. I’ve been homeless, twice. I didn’t fit with the homeless in my area and I did so well at covering it up that those in ‘my class’ didn’t even know. They still do not know. These shoes are not really ones that a person can step into. I think one can only walk alongside as best as is possible with one’s current perceptions to try to understand. I know that gratitude is hope, becomes hope, become expression of human life and dignity, in the eye of the human, not in the eye of the observer.

    • Cassie says:

      Elisa, atleast this week taught me how strong homeless people are and how brave. I definitely believe that about you. I’m so sorry that that happened. The people I served told me they didn’t regret it because gutted constantly learning new ways to survive. That is, of course, the brightside though. Thank you for sharing. I agree about never knowing but I will continue to try.

  5. Amazing post. Amazing pictorial. Great post.

  6. zettew says:

    I love hearing about your week. It’s amazing how settled and surrounded by comfort most of us are, and how quickly we forget about the ones who aren’t. Nothing I have ever done seems like enough. love what you did, and the wonderful people you met. Thanks for sharing your week in words and pictures.

    • Cassie says:

      Thank you for commenting. 🙂 It was definitely eye-opening for me because I always say things like “Oh I’m too poor to go out to dinner…” and this week I realized what “too poor” really means. When you can’t support your basic necessities. It is a privilege to even eat, let alone go out to eat.

  7. Sounds like an eye opening experience, I hope you have many, many more. Keep up the good work and sharing your joy for life.

  8. Bea says:

    What a wonderful experience, I wish I would have gone with you, maybe next time.
    We can all use an awakening in our lives, something that makes us think of others and not ourselves, something that allows us to see how really large the world is and how many people are trying to survive in it.
    I know that I can only imagine what their days are like, how cold they are or how hungry they are. Is there any joy in their days? Is that hot coffee, given to them at the St. Francis Inn, the joy in their day? I know that I love my morning cup of coffee. All is well in the world as I sip it in the morning. Do they get that sense of peace with every sip that I do? I can only hope that they have good moments, times that they don’t think about their situation.
    Thank you for enlightening me. I enjoyed all of the pictures, especially Nubs, no tail, but life goes on.

  9. I live in a pretty poor city. There are nice sections here, but we don’t live in one of them. We’re surrounded by abandoned factories that house vagrants and cats, tents and jury-rigged shacks that house people who there isn’t room in the factories for, crumbling projects, peeling houses… but there’s always hope. Hope is in the laughter of the children who moved into the end of my street last year. We haven’t heard kids playing in years.

    I hate that there is so much poverty and homelessness everywhere you look here. There’s a lot that is beautiful about my city but much more that is sad and downtrodden. I don’t wish the tent city life on anyone.

    I do, however, see this city slowly rebuilding itself. We got a UConn branch a few years ago. Three-family homes that once remained empty or were rented out to crackheads are now being made available to students. A downtown that was once only filled with workers and homeless is now teeming with young people on their way to and from class. It’s the community that keeps this city going — not the politicians that continuously find ways to line their pockets while stomping on the already poor — and this city is finally seeing a sense of community again.

    Abandoned factories have been burning here for weeks. I don’t know whether it’s a case of vagrants’ fires getting out of control, joyful arson, or “White Lightening,” but it’s been terrifying; last week, an abandoned factory building a couple streets over from me burned. It’s still smoldering… but fortunately, no one died or was injured.

    Your words reminded me how to see the hope in the hopeless, so thank you.

    • Cassie says:

      Thank you for telling a snip-it of your own story. I love that you say there’s hope in the children’s laughing down the street, what a lovely image.

      I hope you are no where near anymore abandoned factory fires.

  10. cookiejarprincess says:

    I’ve been ruminating on what I wanted to say here for the past few days. But, at this very moment I have the worst migraine I’ve had in more than six years so I’m just going to say once again, that I am in awe of you. Of your writing skill, at your insight into the world around you, and at your insight into yourself.

    • Cassie says:

      I am in awe of you for being in front of a screen with a migraine. I like to lay in a dark room and scream into my pillow.

      Thank you for your kind words, it really means a lot to me to hear things like that.

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Hi, I’m Cass

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.

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