Several months ago I met a guy at the Iglesias Garden. He had fallen on hard times after working construction and getting injured. A rogue blade flew off a power tool he was using and sliced through his cheekbone. Miraculously, he kept his eye. He had a number of surgeries and was loaded up on pain meds. Eventually, as the story goes, he couldn’t afford the meds when the script ran out, was still in pain, so took a substance cheaper and easier to find on the streets, got addicted, and his whole life fell into the proverbial gutter.
But he’s resilient and strong and wakes up in the morning for the daily hustle.
I ran into him recently at Graffiti Pier. We walked around and talked for a while. He recounted memories going back to his childhood visiting the pier with his grandfather. Back then, it was in full operation and pretty much open to the public. “The biggest crane on the whole river,” he said. “Seriously, it was enormous.” They used to climb it as kids and jump off into the water. “I almost drowned,” he said. “I went down, it must have been 20 feet, I needed another breath before I made it all the way to the surface. Don’t know how I made it. A lot of people died right here. A lot.”
You can feel the ghosts. The place is eerie and surreal. All the abandoned concrete pillars adorned with graffiti. People go to the pier to swim, fish, barbecue, practice their spray paint skills, you name it. Although private property, it is totally unofficially Philadelphia’s urban sanctuary for artists, photographers, tourists, weirdos, crust punks, neighbors, runners, etc etc everyone steps foot on that pier. It is dazzling. It is dream-like. And it represents something wildly human and free.
It is abandoned, and perhaps dangerous, but that adds an element to its charm.
We continued to walk around as he recounted the days when horse stables sat at the entrance. He remembers petting the horses fondly. He said he hadn’t been there in years. All the memories bubbled up visibly into his eyes.
He said he’s living under 95, but the cops came by and gave them a weeks notice. He keeps getting pushed around. The homeless in general keep getting pushed around. They have no where to go, so they move around like refugees in their own city.
It is sad and frustrating, at times infuriating, to think about folks and how they get to be so down-and-out. A lot of people blame the individuals for making poor choices, but the reality is, a lot of them are unexpecting victims of an uncaring system. The type of healing he needed, specifically, was not offered to him. He nearly lost half his face. He was loaded up with pain killers and sent on his way. When the pain doesn’t subside, what does one do?
Our streets are swimming with opiates.
If you live in Philly, walk down to Kensington & Lehigh and you might just get stabbed in the foot by a needle. People openly shoot up and discard their needles right there on the curb. I’m not trying to be dramatic or hyperbolic. I’m not trying to paint poverty porn. I’m not trying to virtue signal. This is, simply speaking, the reality I see on a daily basis.
Conrail, a division of Norfolk Southern, the same company who owns the pier, also owns the tracks in Kensington where the homeless had been living in a tent city. Philly’s Skid Row. It was pretty much, as the saying goes, out of sight, out of mind. The people living there got the boot though, and now they live scattered about the surrounding neighborhoods. A lot have taken refuge under the tracks along Lehigh.
One thing that made me take heart: As he and I talked, he mentioned he’s gone back to the garden where we grow food. He said he picked a bunch of tomatoes and squash. It encouraged me to keep growing. I often go there alone, and sometimes meet neighbors picking food, but it’s another thing to hear it from him. A few tomatoes here and there isn’t changing the world, but it’s a means of connection and showing that some of us care.