Ce'line half joked, "If you stay anywhere long enough, everyone and everything will stink up, just for your special benefit." Without this pungency, however, there is no real understanding of anything, and Ce'line knew this as well as anyone. With tremendous physical and mental courage, the man endured. He survived being wounded in WWI, a year in Africa, a month in America, being a slum doctor for decades, WWII and the consequences of being an anti-Semite, everything but his first marriage.
I first encountered Ce'line as a 22-year-old, living in a crappy shell-of-a-house in grim Grays Ferry, and paying all of $25 a month for rent. Filled with illusions and vanity, I had no idea Philadelphia would be my life, would define me, but it's perfect, this fate, for everyone must stay somewhere long enough for everything to become richly three dimensional, with a complex and nuanced history.
Thirty of my 54 years have been spent in Philly, and walking or crawling, I've measured this city with my body, for I don't drive. As a housepainter, house cleaner and window washer for over a decade, I worked in dozens of neighborhoods, and I've roamed around many more, so just about every Philly tree or trash can addresses me by name. Behind this bush at 34th and Walnut, I once slept. At 11th and South, I was nearly mugged by a guy wielding a hammer. The last three months, then, have been one drawn-out goodbye, filled with last glimpses of places and faces.
Goodbye, then, to Point Breeze, with the lovely Rose in Sit On It. Months after I'd written about the 54-year-old, she told me more about herself. She was born of a Dominican mother and African father, of which country, she's not quite sure, for she never really knew him. Rose's mom was a bartender. "When I was 14, my mom came home at around 3 in the morning, woke me up and force me to iron her dress. Being sleepy, I burnt it, you know, and this pissed her off so much, she made me take my clothes off and get in the shower, then she burned me all over with the red-hot iron! I ran downstairs and hid in the utility closet, but I couldn't deal with the pain, you know, so I knocked on a neighbor's door. I can still remember the man's face as he called out to his wife, 'Martha, there's a naked woman at our door.' When his wife came out, she said, 'That's not a woman, Robert. That's a child!'"
"You know what I'd like to do someday? Take a cruise!"
"Which country would you like to go to, Rose?"
Goodbye to Dirty Frank's, which I've also written about, including in a poem that mentions Skinny Dave and Sheila Modglin. The first is dead of an overdose, and Sheila is still in the hospital, after being hit by a car four days after the Eagles' Super Bowl victory, as the entire city was partying away. Though merely a bartender, Sheila started a non-profit, Sunshine Arts, that provided all sorts of classes, and an occasional field trip, for the kids in her Upper Darby neighborhood. Buzzed, I'd shout out, "You're a saint, Sheila! A saint!" Everyone agreed. Now, Sheila's a bedridden, speechless angel.
When I was in Frank's in the 80's and 90's, I would see Uncle Moe, a silent, stooping man, nursing his Yuengling in the corner. Twenty years later, I would find out that Uncle Moe was actually a pill pusher. He'd start out his day with a lox and bagel at 4th Street Deli, drop into Friendly Lounge for his morning beer, then drift across town until he ended up at Dirty Frank's, two miles away, his leisurely lifestyle supported by drug dealing.
On Delaware Avenue, there are more beggars than ever, and nearly all of them white, dirty and wasting away. Seeing these likely junkies, my friend Felix would bitterly joke, "They're sure enjoying their white privilege."
Goodbye to 9th and Market, where the electronic news ticker dismally announces, "In the opioid epidemic, breastfeeding emerges as a possible crime."
Goodbye, too, to Suburban Station. With its tacky shops, seedy eateries, confusing passageways and underlit, tucked away corners, it's a magnet for the homeless, drifters, assorted weirdos and busking musicians. In 2013, I wrote a poem about a competent through diffident guitarist who strummed outside the Dollar Store. Once, Tony had made OK money as a pizza deliveryman in Cape May, then came the drugs and rehab, so now, he was reduced to living in a house with a bunch of pigs, including one who consistently splattered and smeared the toilet seat.
Goodbye to 12th and Chesnut, where in 2015 I met a homeless man with an IQ of 165. John's SAT score was 1560, just 40 short of the maximum. When I confessed that mine was only 1110, John laughed, "I hear McDonald's is hiring."
After earning his PhD in applied mathematics from UPenn at 20-years-old, John worked for 18 years in a bunch of countries for the Defense Intelligence Agency and US Army, then he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.