Streets of Philly
One morning alone.
By Daryl Burks
I recognized the hard times for what they were back in Philly. Back in my early thirties when youth would pull me through tougher times a hell of a lot faster than today. Back when Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey helped me sleep, hiding in unimaginable places reeking with the smile of urine off the cold winter streets of brotherly love. Well, for at least one more night anyway, since that’s all I really had.
And what about the next day? I always wanted to have some idea what that would bring, even before my eye’s carefully, slowly closed the night before. The following morning was forever a guessing game without question. Roll the dice. Seems like everyone else does. I just had to be dead on with my tosses. Like in the game of high card wins, every time, pull an Ace! But what are the odds in that, right? Still, those early morning compulsive shakings in want of my next drink, my next drunk, are first to get my attention. Where will this falling in a black hole substance come from today I always asked myself. But like the last, crumbling dried leaf in Fall, clinging in denial to a Southern Magnolia in Fairmont Park to the last possible moment. I hang tough for one colder day in hell.
The streets of Philly, where one could go missing and no one would ever know it. Hope. I recall one man I stood in line next to at a local downtown Philadelphia mission told me.
“Hope, it can be a mans friend, or an enemy of his mind.”
“Enemy?” I recall asking.
“I’ve been on these streets so long, every mission this city has to offer I's seen over time an again. Every time hope showed me promise, I is let down. Every time, e-v-e-r-y-t-i-m-e, I saws light at the en of dat tunnel, I right back into the bowls of this shit!" He waves his arms around. "Right back ta this. Hope, just one big tease. Play with yo mind it will. Don’t need dat. See wha I’m saying?” Although I did not respond with words, I nodded.
But that gesture was a lie. Hope wasn’t something I just wanted: I need that brain tease. I needed some kind of promise out of here. I needed to trust in that hope. Milk it like squeezing a wet rag to its last drop. Constrict hope to the point of ripping that wet cloth in half. Poor old man gave up I thought. Not me, not this guy!
For this Colorado kid, life on the streets of a city I did not grow up in was my little rabbit hole ever digging deeper in Alice and Wonderland. Once in a while, there were people, places and things I would cross paths with that made sense.
People I could communicate with and feel a connection. One of those people was the day I met Keshone, a black man not much younger than me and shorter in stature, found him in the same mess I did, but just for this one night. I suppose it helped he grew up here. He knew people. And, from time to time through a series of bad decisions, events would shove him right back to the streets, despite his good intentions.
After this cold, windy, and unforgiving December night where the local missions had already filled their beds, Keshone would return to one of his friends to crash at their place for a while...again. But what about now? With barely an hour left of light, we needed to team up, and standing under a bus shelter off on North Broadway just blocks away from City Hall where William Penn stood tall on top the clock tower, didn't help. We felt the time ticking minute to minute with icy precision. I tap Keshone on the shoulder, using my other hand to point to the statue.
"Safest place to be, off the street way up there. I wonder what he is thinking?" Of course I knew it was a statue but to play with the moment seemed appropriate. Keshone looks at William Penn, then to me with his own precision gaze.
"I know what he'd be thinking. 'Time to get the fuck up on out a here and find some shelter.'...I know a place where we can go. But once we get past the main entrance you gonna have to follow me lead. See wha I'm saying?"
"Yeah sure. I remember a couple of spots I found, but they're at the other end of center city, and not much room really. More like a maintenance walk in closet with access to the back alley." We had both started to work our way up, feeling our faces fight the cold, heartless artic wind with eye's squinting as if they were preparing to remain frozen shut. But we both knew to walk fast to get our hearts pumping and warm up our blood, not to mention, make it that much faster to his clever hide-out.
How I recall the endless sound of traffic on North Broadway that day. It must have then the tail end of rush hour maybe. Then again, this was a big city I'd remind myself. The cars, the buses, the trolleys, and impatient drivers leaning into there horns as some kind of irritating weapons. Probably, just rush hour all the time.
"Here it is!" Keshone shouts.
"Well, just up the street. Quick walk." I looked up at the old ten-story building, which covered nearly half this street. An old factory, Office units for multiple companies maybe? This late 50s' design felt easy on the eyes, as I tried to open mine all the way despite tiny ice sickles covering my eyelashes. It was a simple architectural feel to it with light-brown brick. The pool with the American flag popping out around the seventh floor hanging not quite but close enough over Broad street that had caught my eye. Keshone, stops me, grabs me by right arm to make sure I pay attention.
"Now looky here. We go in, sometimes, but not always, there is a security person there before we get to the elevator."
"A security guard?" I asked.
He smiles as if to almost laugh. "No man. No uniform. These are just people like you and me, they just watch to make sure you using the elevator to head up to the fifth floor where the Bingo games are played."
"Bingo?" As I look up at the ghostly empty windows. Like, there are people in this building? I mean, anyone walking by this building, his or her first impression would be-empty!
"You never play Bingo? For real?" Chuckling again, since we'd already had time to chat about where I was from, Colorado, and how this guy, i.e. me, from out of town had no business being in Philly, let alone on the streets. But there I was, and Keshone felt he needed to take me under his wing, even if it were just for this one night. But I had to clear the air here on any confusion about...Bingo.
"Oh hell yes, I've played Bingo. I just didn't think anyone was in this building."
"Yeah, bunch of old folk play for money on the fifth floor here like almost every night. Sometimes they be closed." He steps in closer to me. "Now what we gonna do, is take the elevator like we going to play tonight. Then once we out da elevator, we take the hallway stairs up a couple more floors. There rooms up there we can crash at tonight. Just follow me."
I remember Keshone having this true sense of 'street smart' about him. He knew I had already been in the city of brotherly love for over a year and that when I first got here, times were better.
I had already been dealing with the missions and a few other hiding places for better than a month now. However, this was taking it to a whole new level. And it was within these next several minutes both Keshone and myself would learn a great deal about each other when it came to that one all important tool to survival on the streets of Philly, trust!
Keshone walks in front of me as we enter the door, and there standing around, just as he said, some person not looking too important in plaid second hand clothing, nodding as we walk by to the elevator.
"Hey how ya all doing tonight? Lot of people up there?" His casual talk could never give one pause.
She answers. "Ah it's not too busy tonight."
With that, the doors opens, up to five we go, and when the door opens I see the large room in front of us about twenty feet or so. It seems filthy or so people had arrived that night, but only a couple look up to take notice of us. Keshone knows the rhythm, walk without skipping a beat around the corner to the doors and hit the stairs up a couple more floors, just like he said.
Before opening the door to our floor he turns to me in a whisper. "Now we's got to be real quite. We'll walk around first and check out the rest of the floor, make sure we alone up here. See wha I'm saying?"
Antsy with a clear discerning look, I nodded. Thinking, once we're on this secluded floor, is this where I get it? Is this where Keshone is going to bust his move? "OK." I said. "Ears and eyes open."
Amazingly, there was little to no squeak in the sound of the door as Keshone peeps up and down the hallway. Still enough light in the setting sun to allow us to see much of where we're going, I follow behind him not far. What sounds if any could be heard was my heavy breathing, and Keshone didn't seem to mind. He had been here before I kept thinking.
"Let's just walk around the entire floor and make sure no one else is here. Maybe we can find something someone left behind we can use. See wha I'm saying?"
He explained to me one could see this in open rooms with various equipment left behind along with the reinvading process this particular building was going through. The seventh floor we cautiously maneuvered around appeared to be half way complete. But that horrendous smell in the air mixed in flavors. Could some of that be coming from Keshone’s daypack?
This odor reminded me of leaving an old clunker of a car in a junkyard, probably the very one I once owned, to a new car fresh off the lot, the very one I’ll probably never own, and back and forth again.
I recall seeing how a good handful of these single rooms, around 12 X 15ft. with a small bathroom, had fresh carpet, new paint on the walls, and some with curtains hanging. And better yet, I learned many of these rooms had locks to the doors that worked. That, I like!
Keshone and I continue our walk around the floor to see all that was there, and more importantly, what or who was not there.
Each turn of the hallway, which would bring us full circle to the door we entered, became more apprehensive than the next. Yet, once we knew the only people on this floor were us, I relaxed.
Until, I reminded myself how much I really don't know this guy. Are just a few hours really long enough? Then I recalled from my days in college, hanging out in the library much of the time like some bookworm who needed to step out into the fresh air, meet a lady at some local bar, get laid and feel better about the world. So, here I am today, getting all the fresh air I can handle, and still, not getting laid! But it was the words of Eric Hoffer I once read that thankfully surfaced at a time I needed them most, a time to help me trust in Keshone, when I needed it most.
“Someone who thinks the world is always cheating him is right. He is missing that wonderful feeling of trust in someone or something.” Yeah, I liked memorizing stuff like that. Who knew one day it would really help.
Again, on the streets, the means of survival has a different set of rules. Keep your wits about you, and go with your gut feelings. I wondered if he was thinking the same about me, but Deshone had a way of reading people. He could tell almost right away if you were up to something or truly being straight with him. He clearly wasn't worried about me, not this Colorado kid.
There’s that damn smell again!
We had picked one of the rooms with fresh carpet, and no doubt due to the fresh paint, we noticed the heat would turn on from time to time, though the night still had its moments of cold, yet still, a nice far cry from the streets.
“The only things is, we’s got to be out a here early morning before people start showing up. But it’s a weekend, so we be good.” Deshone quietly locks the door, walks over and finds a spot on the carpet.
“Hey Keshone, thanks for showing me this place. I may needed down the road.” I lay back up against the corner; pulling out a used army blanket I had been caring with me.
“You be alright. But they don’t always have dat Bingo game going on. The only way you get past dat security on the main floor is cause the Bingo.” His day pack sits near him. I think, that pack needs a wash.
“So you heading to your friends place tomorrow?” I asked.
“Yeah, they hook up. I introduce you to them. Maybe they help you out. See what I’m saying?”
“Nice!” I responded with a hopeful smile. And to sleep I went, at least safe tonight.
Early morning through the window shares itself to the room that will one day be someone’s office. But today, it was our little pad. I leaned over to check on Keshone.
I was caught off guard to see he had already left, but had left his daypack. I look to the door, and it is closed. I wanted to call out his name but knew better. Instead, I slowly crawl to my feet, and creep to the door. I listen first with my ear up against this safeguard from the night, and hear no sound. Quietly, I swing the door my way, and peep around corner. Listen intently. No one here.
“Keshone?” a hard whisper. No response.
“Keshone?” louder, and still, only the light echoes of my voice.
It was then, I turned to his daypack. I wonder why he would leave it? On the streets, whatever one does have, they cling to it like it’s the last shirt off their back.
“Why would he leave so quietly?” I recall saying out loud to myself. Well, nice of him to let me sleep in, I concluded. But that odor! I looked for a way to crack the window, but, since I was out of here anyone. One thing that always makes sense on the streets, is to keep an eye out for items, things that can make life a little easier. So I decided to look inside Deshone’s pack thinking, maybe he choose to leave something I could use. I nice sweater? Food? The pack, for certain I would leave here. Even a good wash wasn’t worth the soap for this used Dinosaur.
“Let’s see, what have we here.” As I began unzipping away, I first looked back at the door to make sure Deshone isn’t about to show up out of the blue only to explain myself. That, would not be good!
As the pack opens more widely, so do my eyes. My mouth drops. I force myself back up against the wall.
“What the hell man! What the hell!” Screaming with no concern now for whoever might be down the hallway, or on the floor all together, it didn’t matter.
“Dude, this is really messed up!” Loudly expressing myself as if he is still in the room. Yet, not thinking another moment to waist, I darted out the room leaving the bag, turning the corner to hit the stairwell, on to the
elevator from the fifth floor, again, without a care in the world anyone who might be standing there.
The elevator was the only rout to the main lobby from this end of the building, and I knew better to slow down without drawing attention to myself since the odds of some informal security person standing there was good. I turned the corner from the elevator, and no one was there. Once outside onto the sidewalk I looked around, first for a cop, and then for Keshone, and both, nowhere in sight.
There were cars, bushes, and people moving about. The winter storm had moved Sunny, yet still a cold winter day, I started my way back to the center of downtown Philly. I kept looking back up at the flagpole with the American flag hanging, near the window I had been looking out the night before. Knowing, that little spot off the streets of Philly couldn’t be a distant memory soon enough!