I turned from the queue leading to the greasy bullet-proof partition that separated the Vietnamese cashier and her products from the customers. A 30-something black woman with short, blonde-tipped dreads was close enough to my face for me to smell her booze-breath.
“Hey,” I responded.
“Could you buy me a dollarbeer?”
“Uh…” I paused as though I was considering it. I already knew that I would buy it for her, though. I’m a sap for random hit-ups. Can’t say no.
From my street kid days I knew she meant a Steel Reserve. The insignia on the can, when turned sideways, looks like the precisely like those numerals. The term was prevalent enough in the culture I was a part of that I didn’t know that the likeliness was coincidental.
As I waited for the clerk to grab my cigarettes and the woman’s tall boy, the dreaded woman told me about how some jackass had hit her car last night, cracking “the fan,” (I know nothing about cars) and how she didn’t want to drive the car to the repair shop with it in this condition.
“Yeah, you just make it worse trying to make it better.”
We continued to bullshit as she cracked the can on the floor of the store. The customer area was browned linoleum. The only things not behind the partition were a series of tables with connected benches that were turned on their sides, as though to discourage customers from loitering. A half-dozen people bypassed this by simply propping themselves on the sharp edges of the benches. They all had tall cans out, and rambunctiously hollered up and down the line as they people-watched through the broad window. I was about to leave.
“Yo, what’s your name?” I asked, sticking out my hand.
“Wendy.” We shook.
“Ey. Can I get a dollar?” she pressed. “I wanna a couple cigarettes from the lady outside.”
“Just have one of these.” I tipped the pack of Winstons her way.
“Naw…I gotta have menthol.”
“Nah…just take a Winston.”
“Aight…” She looked disappointed. “Winston…that was my father’s name.”
“Well, I guess it was meant to be, then.” I laughed and strode out the store into the late-morning light.
I was experiencing a similar situation Miami a few years ago with my siblings, Luke and Liz. Some crazed homeless man had started up a conversation with me which concluded in him trying to spange a quarter off me. After he had jerked off with the quarter, my sister noted that this kind of thing never happened to her.
“There’s just something in your face that says, ‘come up and talk to me’…I never get that.”
It’s partially that I smoke. Although I never bum cigarettes from strangers, goddamned ‘smoker’s community’ legitimizes random nicotine-bumming. This accounts for a lot of it. But there’s something else, too. I feel people who live in urban communities develop a certain closed countenance that deflects the hope of the homeless.
Philly is not NYC. Pasternack, the friend I was staying with on my way through, described it as NYC in the 70’s. Since that decade of bloody headlines, NYC has blasted upwards in safety and money until it now rests as the safest large city in the US. It is now living its heyday.
Philly’s heyday ended in the 60’s. Since then, the city has lost a quarter of its population. As in, one-quarter of the buildings in Philly are either abandoned or have been knocked down to rubble fields. NYC has expanded its borders into Long Island, Jersey, and now, the Hudson Valley, while Philly has collapsed.
All I wanted was a loaf of bread. I was going to be stuck in the mechanical hell of airports for 16 hours on my way to San Francisco and didn’t want to pay airport prices for vittles. Pasternack and I had walked 7.6 miles through West and South Philly, from the crumbled-brick 50’s to the African immigrant sections along Baltimore Avenue, to the hipster paradise around UPENN, to smoke stacks along the Schuylkill, to the poor white neighborhoods south of City Center. I wanted to go to North Philly, which everyone I met said was “just like The Wire,” but Dan refused. He had heard gunfire around his apartment three times since he had moved to West Philly five months prior, and was legitimately wearier than I.
So our feet hurt. I still wanted bread, but Dan had warned me that he lived in the middle of a “food desert,” which is a poor urban area where no fresh food is available. We visited four grocery stores, all stacked with canned baked beans and liver-rotting cheap beer and fat-blasted chip stands and processed carbs upon processed carbs. But no fresh bread.
And we wonder why the poor in America are unhealthy.
“Eyyyy…how you doin today?”
A black woman whose body had been shriveled to emaciation sashayed up to me as I was smoking outside a Vietnamese Sandwich Shop. I hoped she was just being friendly, but was bracing myself for the hit-up.
“You gotta extra cig?”