Philadelphia Stories

In the spirit of Alice Goffman becoming the most famous sociologist in the country by writing down a bunch of possibly apocryphal stories about her friends from Philadelphia and their troubles with the law (and then taking her father’s advice about the performance of self ), I was recalling some of the guys I knew when I worked in a community service program in Philly for a year in the 90s. We had a wide cast of characters, sent to us by the foster system or the courts or recruited into the program on street-corners or in the mall, and most of them had funny stories about their teenage years (they had to be at least 18 to join the program, and they looked back upon their salad days, when they were green in judgment, with mingled amusement and regret.) The guy I worked closest with was Elijah/Ely (not his real name, of course, but appropriately Biblical), who was sent to us by a judge when he was kicked out of JobCorps, and looked like a more-handsome Chris Rock, with a Mephistophelean beard. He didn’t have Chris Rock’s range, but he had plenty of funny routines, particularly about the regret of a morning after drunkenness (“Oh please…God…please…I’ll never drink again, Lord…please,”) that I’ve thought about from time to regrettable time since then, as well as zombie-like impressions of the crackheads in the projects near Temple University where he had once lived. He invented an imaginary “Honorary Negro Card” he was going to bestow upon me, and would threaten me with stripping me of it were I to engage in undignified behavior like running for a city bus, and then re-bestowing it verbally when he saw me at a party talking with a young woman. Eventually– and shortly before he dropped out of the program– he handed me an enormous piece of purple construction paper appropriately made out and covered in Scotch tape in lieu of lamination, and with great ceremony said “Here it is.”

In spite of numerous stories of fisticuffs and sexual exploits (“you ever walked off with a guy’s girlfriend right after beating him in a fight?”) he was in mild but continuous terror of his mom, with whom he still lived, and who had (like Pip’s sister Mrs. Joe Gargery) brought him up “by hand,” and he nursed a slyly encouraged but clearly unrequited love for the most voluptuous of our female colleagues. His most unbelievable story, but one repeated enough to have the air of truth, was that when he was fourteen years old he had earned enough money selling drugs to the crackheads that he and five of his friends went to a car dealership and bought a Plymouth Voyager with $22,000 in cash, which they drove around for a few weeks before crashing it and then getting it towed, never to be seen again. He invited me once to a New Year’s Party at his house, and I was tempted to go, but then he kept saying how his neighbors would have to shoot off enough bullets to make the last two digits of the year (this was the 90s, remember), and I declined.

Midway through the year, my team got another young man sent from some vague run-in with the law, named Mike (well not really), and less agreeable. He was light-skinned and big, with incredibly long and well-manicured nails, and he spoke with a Tennessee Williams Southern drawl that seemed entirely out of place with the allegations of fighting and f-ing everything that moved that were his regular conversation.  He made the one girl on our team, a sweet-tempered and reliable person who had every indication of being headed to college until she got pregnant midway through the year, very uncomfortable, and gradually he also became what I thought a bad influence on Ely. Ely had always been somewhat unreliable– I had to call him up pretty much every morning if he was going to show up even close to on-time at one of the schools where we were tutoring or running community gardening projects–but when he showed up he had been cheerful and enthusiastic and his sense of humor was always a big hit with the kids, who were eager to be in his group in any activity. I was convinced that with my gentle harassment he was going to finish the program, get the small college scholarship that was attached, and move on with his life, or do another year in the program in a slightly more independent role.

When Mike joined the team, though, soon he and Ely would excuse themselves to the bathroom around ten every morning and then reappear, high out of their minds, and useless for the rest of the day.  Mike struck me as a bit of a sociopath– he could lie with less compunction than almost anyone I’ve ever known– and his time sheets were wall-to-wall fantasy, but he was persistent in his fabrications, but Ely was sufficiently honest to put down roughly correct hours on his time sheet, and he was clearly more-and-more behind where he needed to be if he was every going to finish the program. He stopped showing up one day, and when I saw him a few weeks later at someone’s house, he said his mom was sending him to live with some relatives in the South.

(Eventually, Mike told me the story of how he had spent his teens in a group travelling from town to town selling imaginary magazine subscriptions, going door to door tricking people into giving cash or credit cards that would pay for the subscription and give points towards an imaginary college fund, and staying in hotels with groups of kids and a few adults who took most of the money. This perhaps explained his facility at lying.)

Most of the young men ended up dropping out of the program before it finished, perhaps from Goffman-like troubles with the law but more likely because they kept not showing up and ran behind in hours, or had little pressure to bring home the meager paycheck since they were living at home either way. Most of the young women– even the many who got pregnant during the year– finished and got the scholarship. Many of them went to college, many of them moved up into program staff; one of them was the executive director of the program the last time I checked. The big patterns in social statistics are pretty often reflected in day-to-day life.

At one point, the whole program (all 90 or so of us) were shuffled off to SEPTA’s headquarters to thank them for giving us free transit vouchers for the year and explain how we were going to be “SEPTA Ambassadors” as part of our year of service. Literally all of the governing executives of SEPTA were in the meeting, which was intended to be a light-hearted exchange of pleasantries but soon, once all my colleagues realized that these were the powerful people behind the transit system, devolved into a series of shouted denunciations of the 44 bus, which never comes on time, the Orange Line’s track work and the broken steps to the El, which the SEPTA executives listened to with muted shock. Enlivened by the moment, I joined in to tell the suits in the room about the homeless guy I and a friend had found stabbed one morning at the 49th street Regional Rail stop.

When I became a teacher later, the year in Philly was a mixed blessing. Teaching is in many ways about setting expectations for kids and making some behavior seem impossibly out-of-bounds. While nothing can prepare you for the sheer noise of 35 out-of-control 7th graders, the general goofiness of my Philadelphia colleagues made all of the individual misbehavior of my students seem kind of droll, and my tendency was to be amused rather than appropriately outraged. That amusement made me stick-it-out longer, though, until I eventually became, by my own lights, a good teacher. So I owe Ely and Mike and the rest of the guys appreciation for that, wherever they may be.

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