Natives & Neighborhoods The Fourth Plague of West Philadelphia
“My girl calls it a balance of New York ambition and Southern hospitality, but I would claim Philadelphia for the Rust Belt.”
While studying Ancient Greek in West Philadelphia I learn that philos adelphos means “beloved brother.” I have no trouble finding fraternity on the stretch of Locust Street behind my apartment building, a block paved in red brick while the rest of the road extends either way in pockmarked asphalt. But in that district where the boundary between the university and the historically black neighborhood keeps advancing, it’s easier to make a brother than it is to cherish one. It’s the block of one dollar Rolling Rock, concrete stoops too hot to put your hand on, turf warfare. There’s a plague on West Philly, one that splits the city in half. You can’t help but breathe it in.
I’m in the café doing translations when they start serving sangria for salsa night. I give up and go next door to the pizza place where they sell beer by the can and I can sit on the front stoop watching people go in and out. Students of the university, old men in fedoras, African Muslims, one day, a pot-bellied pig. The barista gets off shift and comes over. He wears a black shirt, black jeans, and Doc Martens even in summer. I hear him inside with the owner of the pizza shop. He says something like this:
“The rent’s up a fucking grand since I got here. It’s no joke dude. All these fucking kids flooding in from the heartland. That’s all that ever comes in anymore. And now the city’s giving tax breaks to professors who move into the neighborhood. They’ve diverted funds from the elementary school. From the fucking elementary school dude. That’s how it goes down in Philly.”
The cussing’s a comfort—in Michigan, where I’m from, swear words roll off the tongue as natural as spit. Back outside he takes a crackling pull from his cigarette and I smell it isn’t tobacco. He sees me sitting there and sidles up.
“Have a hit man?” he asks.
“I quit smoking pot.”
He looks confused. “Why?”
“I wasn’t talking about you, you know.”
“That’s all right.”
“Regulars are exempt,” he says. “Especially now that Gooch is gone.”
The owner of the café. He just got out of jail for possession of crack and he’s been clean. Sobriety fucks him up. He can’t remember my name or my face, having been introduced five or six times.
“Gone where?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Do you know? Nobody knows. Sometimes he just disappears.”
“You think he’s back on it?”
“Probably. When he comes back he’s going to fuck the whole place up. It’s going to be great.”
I buy the other five cans in the six I opened and head home. On Locust there are long patches of darkness you have to traverse where the only thing you see is the acid-washed sky. You find a population of students even this far out—sensor lights click on as I walk past, the smell of perfume and clove cigarette travels on the wind—but the infrastructure hasn’t been updated to match. My apartment building stretches a whole block and crawls with house centipedes. The grass is unmowed and bricks chip off in fists. I live with two other students, both of them out of town for the month, home in Massachusetts or backpacking in Europe. Ivy League summer.
My kitten greets me when I push in the door. Easy sits on the couch.
“She’s just like a watchdog isn’t she?” he says.
Easy, whose real name is M_____ M_____, only he doesn’t want anybody to know, lives covertly on my couch while my other roommates are out of town. He used to play professional ball for a team overseas when he didn’t get picked up for college scholarship in Delaware, but he caught a distribution charge at home and his contract expired. He says he doesn’t remember which country. Iceland maybe. Now his girlfriend upstairs severed the lease, kicking him out; he’d be sleeping outside if it weren’t for the couch.
“I brought some beer,” I say.
“I could go for a cold one,” he says.
We move to the stoop and drink. He’s been looking for a job for months and tells me about his search that day. He borrowed my bike to meet a guy over the Schuylkill about a shipping job, pending callback. Stopped by the car wash at 42nd Street on the way back but the Egyptian owner thinks that black workers steal. Sat with his buddy Rob in the barber shop trying to brainstorm a job for a guy who doesn’t have his diploma: maybe a restaurant gig, construction for SEPTA.
He says, “I been out there every day trying to pin something down. ‘I’ll call you next week’ but next week never comes man.”
I see tears in his eyes. The stoop faces a mosque and whooshing cars cut across the lit-up Arabic.
“What about Rob’s uncle at the car wash?”
I’m optimistic because it was easy for me to find a job in the neighborhood. The university library’s right there and I got a job in the archives the morning after I drank a half bottle of Nyquil thinking you should treat the dosage as you would an ibuprofen. We finish the Rolling Rocks, then we crack the bottle of vodka my roommate keeps in the kitchen cabinet, then we’re drunk and listening to Rick Ross from the open window, careless and laughing and happy. White streetlights between the concrete apartments blow our shadows down the grass alley. It’s so hot outside the air is thick and sweet like marshmallow. Nobody opens the window to tell us to turn the music down.
My walk to work traverses all the grades of whitening in West Philadelphia. I go down to Locust past the mosque and the Lebanese food joint, down the scrubby alley behind my apartment where I hear stray cats yowling through the night, past the community garden where pale people with tan hands clip salad greens and swollen tomatoes, down my little red stretch of Locust, and once the road transitions back to blacktop, trees planted by the city in trashless plots shade red brick apartments, then come the Greek houses with soggy beer boxes wilting on the porch and tables set up for beer pong, to the theater, to the string of fast food restaurants, to campus. The portal to the university is gated by a giant geometric sculpture another student called the dueling tampons. Inside, it’s just what you would expect from a wealthy institution: orderly, verdant, still. I cross a steep foot bridge over busy 38th Street and brush past the host of canvassers (Multicultural Greek Council, Students Confronting Racism and White Privilege) to reach the cool, dark library.
I work with a girl from New England, Irish and doesn’t give a fuck, who I’m at least 70 percent in love with. My job is sorting an archive of receipts by date and I’m paid more than minimum wage. She works in a different department so I spend a good chunk of the day drinking Dunkin’ Donuts coffee in the break room watching Casey Anthony on TV; she’s so pretty, she couldn’t have hurt her pretty little girl, but Nancy Grace assures me she’s a bitch. Everybody in the office is talking about it, feigning disinterest or irony because we all know it doesn’t really matter, it’s only another murder case, but we can’t help but watch the thread unspool. Occasionally the girl will knock on the door, her arms stacked high with heavy archival boxes. We chat, we’re friends, but she refuses to engage in the proceedings. Only when Amy Winehouse goes down a few weeks later and the office repeats the whole process do I see in her eyes a shiver of real emotion.
After work, emerging from the shadowy basement room where they keep the receipts, I go back to the café to hammer out some Greek morphology. I worry on the walk that Gooch will be at the café yelling into the back room and hammering up pictures but the place is empty. I take my window seat out of range of the overhead fan where I can look between charts at the passersby. I thought when I came that the East would be like the Midwest’s conception of New England—snooty, self-concerned—and I do find some of that at the university, enough in fact to persuade me to abandon the classics path to graduate school at the end of my year, but the city itself is something different. My girl calls it a balance of New York ambition and Southern hospitality, but I would claim Philadelphia for the Rust Belt. The city has a culture of manufacturing and carries an accompanying haze to show. Most of the time I avoid my fellow students for the residents of Locust. There’s Angelo, the owner of the pizzeria, a Greek national from Lacedaemonia just as bullish to toss a body onto the street as his Spartan parentage. The barista is white as a sail but second-generation Irish, one of the few remaining after the great white flight of the ’60s. And there’s Omar, the homeless Moroccan who by day couldn’t be sweeter, wearing his newsboy cap and gushing about his fiancée in the suburbs, but by night after only a lick of alcohol he becomes somebody else, black-hearted by proclamation, he’ll spit in your face if you say his name and block your way as you pass.
I finish my declensions and decide to visit the girl. She lives in the neighborhood southeast, already in the distant grapple of the university. Fat pairs of bumblebees trundle through the air and all the surrounding bloom sizzles with cicada sound. When I arrive she’s waiting on the back porch of her duplex reading Franzen’s latest.
“Do you like it?” I ask. I couldn’t tell you one thing about Jonathan Franzen.
“He should have cut the last three hundred.”
I take my beer inside to the refrigerator. There are stainless steel appliances and freshly painted cabinets. I carry two back out with me but she’s fine with her glass of water. I open both, releasing the smell of grain alcohol into the jungle sweetness. I try to make her laugh drinking out of either side of my mouth but she glares over her glasses. When the sun goes red we retreat inside to watch HBO. She changes into sweatpants with a saggy ass and a tank top through which I can see the color and shape of her nipples. I want nothing but for her to share a drink with me down on the block where she could see me become more relaxed, loose in limb and tongue unstopped. Then she’s ready for bed.
“Just a bit longer,” I say.
“Good night.” She closes the door.
I walk to the main road where the blast of wind from cars speeding by keeps me awake. The BP station is an island of light in the sea of dark tenements. I buy a candy bar because I haven’t eaten since lunch and walk home. Easy’s on the stoop with a tallboy of Ice.
“You were at what’s-her-name’s?” he asks.
I nod. The beginnings of tears make Easy’s grin swirl around the porch light.
“You got to find somebody else,” he says. “If she’s not into it.”
“There isn’t anybody.”
“Let me take you down to Queen of Sheba. I made a couple today.”
“I know you didn’t eat. I got potatoes and chops down at the shelter. Have some of this.”
He hands me a styrofoam takeout container and I wolf down the food cold. Easy told me when he moved in that he was thirty, but I found out another night he’s forty. Feeling betrayed, I spent the night shouting at him while he repeated: Why’s it matter? You lied, I insisted. He said, I didn’t know you.
We walk down to the bar on Baltimore where the old black folks go on weeknights. I’ve been here on the weekend when it’s a totally different crowd—the students drift over from the cheesesteak place a few streets down and block up the narrow bar from end to end. Tonight Easy seems to know each person on every stool. He calls them OG. He sits down at the table with four shot glasses and two cans of beer.
“Should I call you that?” I ask. “OG?”
“You can call me whatever you want.”
“How about M_____?”
“Not here man.”
We clink glasses. The bourbon burns going down but I feel safer having eaten.
“Where’d you make the cash?” I ask.
“I got my hustle. Nobody’s hiring.”
“You’ll find something.”
“When God decides,” he says. “I’m praying for it. Every morning I spend a half-hour on my knees. I just got to keep patient.”
The next day is Friday and on Fridays I take my time getting to work. The morning sun strikes Locust at an unfamiliar angle and the breeze kicks just enough to tickle my bare arms. The garden grows heavy with painted vegetables. I decide to get a coffee for the walk and try to push into the café but the door is locked. I cup my hands around my face and Gooch’s mother, the co-owner, sits at a table with her back to the door. A sign in the window says closed for renovations.
I go the rest of the way to the library with my hands in my pockets. Beside the entrance to the university stands a police kiosk with a long arm that blocks the way at night. I usually don’t notice the man inside wearing a blue hat and big gold star but today a small group of teenagers is gathered around.
“Can’t grant entrance,” the man is saying.
“I left it at home. I go this way every day.”
“Then go home and get it.”
I talk to the girl at the library and she behaves as if nothing happened the night before. Maybe it hasn’t, I’m not sure. I take a draught over lunch at a burrito place nearby and stare at the television. They’re passing judgment on Casey Anthony. Not guilty. Not guilty. Not guilty. On a whim I skip the rest of the work day. I hang around on Locust. Omar’s on a streak, apparently, for I see the night in his eyes. Angelo kicks him out of the pizza shop but allows him to linger on the stoop and even brings him a slice of pizza on a paper plate.
I buy a six and Easy comes by. Angelo emerges from behind the counter and sits on the edge of his lawn chair. The barista passes on the sidewalk and Omar calls him a pig. He sits down as well and rolls up a joint for all of us. West Philly is best understood out there, sitting on the stoop of the pizza shop swapping beers for cigarettes while the marsh air anchors your arms and legs in concrete position. There at least you’re firmly rooted, which is the Philadelphia pose, even if the city perpetually re-sketches the lines.
“Now the goddamn coffee shop is closing down I don’t know if I can afford to live here,” the barista says.
“Nothing anywhere,” Easy says. “You don’t have to tell me.”
“White power,” Omar howls.
Angelo says, “I don’t like this talk of racism. They take a place that is filled with crime and they cut it out. It is very simple.”
“Don’t you see?” I say. “The university buys everything up. They don’t want any brown people living in the vicinity. They’ll shut it all down.”
“You are a student yourself?”
“That doesn’t mean I can’t see it.”
“I don’t know about any of that,” Easy says. “But I know if you push somebody long enough, they push you back.”
We stay out until it’s late. Omar stumbles off with the barista for a couch of his own. A crush of students accosts the pizza counter when the bars close and keep Angelo busy. By the time they’re all gone the katydids sing loud in the garden. Katie did. Katie did. Easy and I are the last on the stoop.
“We should go too,” I say.
“Look, look who it is.”
Out on the street Gooch pokes his head out the window of a black car. I hardly recognize him wearing scratches all around his cheeks. He buzzed his hair and has a look on his face like a fighter about to go down. He calls me over. I drop my can and approach the car. It smells like cigarette smoke and burning plastic bag.
“I know you,” he says.
“You remember?” I ask.
He looks all around the street but won’t meet my eyes. “You heard about the coffee shop?”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“You know anybody who wants to buy some powder?”
I can’t think of a person besides myself so I go around the passenger side. I push an empty beer box off the seat and cans crinkle on the floor. Gooch shows me the baggy, an inch-by-inch Ziplock, and I examine the contents in the window light. The stuff looks like grey rubble.
“This isn’t coke,” I say.
“Smoke it. If you want it spot me twenty bucks.”
The numbness of drunk sits on my face and the only risk I can detect from stimulus is a clearing of the mind. I look back out the window at Easy. His head lies in his lap and solemnity rings around him like a prayer. Maybe he is praying. There’s so much I still have to learn, like: What wizard god calls down this plague? Gooch opens the center panel and produces a thin glass pipe. A wire sponge blocks one opening. He takes a large pebble from the baggy and lays it on the brillo, then passes the pipe to me. It looks like the buildings they pushed down to expand the campus, the apartments falling, the storefronts consumed. Where are all the ruins? I spark the lighter high over the bowl and draw some smoke into the chamber. It tastes surprisingly transparent. There’s only a slight bitterness on the back of the tongue like a quick inrush of air. I hardly feel it filling me up to explode.