The other day in Franklinton

His dark chocolate face framed eyes wide and flashing. He waved his hand as if he knew us when we came to a stop at the light on the corner of West Town and Plato Place. Mount Carmel West hospital sat behind us in beige oblivion to the ramshackle houses and tenement apartments that surround it. The freeway roared overhead.

He rambled, rather than walked, as he crossed in front of our car. He stood by the driver side window, hopping up and down. It made him look like he was freezing in the balmy 70-degree dusk. His stained t-shirt sagged nearly to his knees. My shock – and slight horror – must have cracked open my face as Grey slowly rolled down the window about 3 inches.

He was ready, his words tumbling out before the electric window came to a halt. His eyes darted from right to left as he began to beg, “I’m homeless man, ya know? I need some money – you give me some money for some food, man? Some food? A sandwich, a bag of chips, anything?”

I knew he really just wanted the money, a couple dollars, so that he could put it with a wad of other ones, hastily shoved at him by those who just wanted him to go away. He was gathering up enough so he could go buy a rock, maybe, or possibly enough heroin to stave off the dope sickness.

Grey began to calmly tell him what he didn’t want to hear. “I got nothing for ya, man. No man. Sorry.”

“Please … anything … can ya help?”

“No man. Nothing.”

My heart began to quicken. My mind flashed images of him pulling a gun in anger, shoving it through the window. I’m sure I’d conjured up an old scene from Law & Order. I chimed in, my voice firm and loud, as I shot Grey a look for opening the window in the first place, “No.”

“Please put the window up,” I almost whispered to Grey.

An SUV came to the light beside us. As our window slid up, he stopped abruptly in his stream of pleas and turned to the other driver. He began again.

Grey is an addict, now clean of his once paralyzing addiction to heroin. He looked at me, a dark expression shadowing his eyes. “I gave that guy a ride home from jail once,” he muttered. He shook his head, knowing the man hadn’t recognized him. Of course, who would? Grey’s gleaming skin and shining eyes are complete reversals of what they once were. Most recovered people don’t even resemble the photos they carry of themselves to remind them how it once was.

Both vehicles pulled away, the man shaking his head in defeat. We were less than a block from our destination, which was a Buddhist Temple. Its exterior is a pale green nondescript box that doesn’t announce its purpose, hiding among the squalor, armored by neatly trimmed sidewalks. It’s a non-sequitur in the poverty and urban decay that is spelled along Grubb Street. I often wonder whether the monks worry more about their cars being stolen (do they have cars?) or about how to save those around them. I hope it’s the latter. I bet they don’t worry at all, now that I think about it.

I asked Grey to take the long way around to the parking lot. “I don’t want him to see us and break into our car.” When we pulled in, the man was there, anyway, waving his arms as he approached each person who parked and stepped out of his car.

Inside the temple, I tried to choose among 15 varieties of herbal tea. As I stood before the spread of coffee, cookies and snacks, I wondered if the man on the street really did want something to eat. It was a momentary flash, because I knew what he wanted. I know the look. I was resigned as I squelched the desire to run outside and hand him a fistful of fig bars.

The addicts and alcoholics and pimps and criminals that populate Franklinton haunt me. As I drive along West Broad, I strike a balance between hoping they don’t rob me and praying for their safety.

They are oblivious to the history of their surroundings, of the generous Mr. Sullivant. I doubt they read the plaques on the statues that sit at the ends of the Broad Street bridge. They are busy hunting, for dope and money – momentary relief.

I often wonder if Mr. Sullivant looks at them from beyond and is overwhelmed with sadness at what his purchase has become. I am pretty sure one of the plaques on the bridge tells how Sullivant raised a freed slave as his own child. I am sure it would sadden him to see the new prisoners of Franklinton, those enslaved by addiction, poverty and societal indifference.

The wounds of the area known as the Bottoms bleed onto the streets in the form of discarded cigarettes, broken crack stems, Steel Reserve cans, shoes – detritus from lives of pain and anguish and desperation. There are flags proclaiming the vitality of Franklinton, parading up and down West Broad near the new fire station construction site.

What I don’t see are the kinds of services and volunteerism that could make a difference in the Bottoms. I believe in brick-and-mortar revitalization, but understand that it can’t make a real difference if we don’t provide what will heal the real ailments – addiction, generational poverty, violence. Erecting buildings, cleaning up trash and stepping up police protection simply moves the downtrodden to another neighborhood.

As I gaze at the radiance of Grey’s face, I am reminded of all the others whom I’ve seen climb out of addiction into the finest people I know. I have hope, because I’ve met thousands of them over the years. I know people can change and can recover. They stop begging and hooking and stealing and begin living and giving. All addicts have this potential. I wonder how we can lend a hand up to those who want it.


1 Comment

  1. Andrew said,

    April 17, 2008 at 11:52 am

    Wow Suzanne, this is a powerful post. The problems facing Franklinton are deep and complex and I think your story has done a great job of touching on this. While it is true that we can and should repair the infrastructure and physical nature of Franklinton we have an even greater issue of repairing the lives of those people stripped of some of their humanity thanks to the social ills and norms our culture generates.

    If we look outward for solutions I think we have an opportunity to discover more than just a way to heal this neighborhood but also a way to bring our larger community together. All too often our society looks to separate good and bad or evil instead of embracing the real question of how to bring together and build up. I think there is still a great fear that by normalizing all members of society those at the top will loose a sense of their “self”. In reality though I think we can all find our “self” through this type of endeavor.

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