The corner of Broad and Erie is the Times Square of North Philly, but instead of flashy signs pushing Kodak, Samsung, Canon or Virgin Airlines, you have stark billboards urging you to “ELIMINATE YOUR DEBT” and “REBUILD YOUR CREDIT.” On utility poles, styrofoam signs promise, “JOBS! $400-$600 PER WEEK. CALL TODAY, START TOMORROW.” Is it legit? Ring to get sucked in, or you can stock your fridge, finally, by ditching your junk wheels for “$400,” according to one flyer, or “$250-$400,” per another. The biggest billboard touts “RAND SPEAR 1-800-90-LEGAL. He Eats Insurance Companies for BREAKFAST!” Are you aching all over, your skeleton permanently askew from that bus accident you weren’t even involved in? Are you emotionally spavined from having to dodge that abruptly swinging door? Now you know who to call!
With such signage, you know this is one broke neighborhood. The only high-rise is a long kaput National Bank of North Philadelphia. Its art deco grandeur gone to seeds, it’s now a 14-story eyesore, with all its windows broken or spray painted. On its sides are huge graffiti, FOREVER BONER. In fact, it’s known colloquially as the Forever Boner building. Here, there is no Planet Hollywood, Forever 21 or Disney Store, only a 99¢ DEAL outfit, with items for 59¢ and 79¢ also, though their sign also claims, “EVERYTHING 99¢ OR MORE.” With that logic, they can also flog a Lamborghini, though of course, in this hood, such whips only appear in rhymes. Hunched over on a beat up folding chair, a gypsy cabbie asks passersby, “Taxi? Taxi?” The Coke sign is broken. Crossing the street, a lanky man wears a “MY PRESIDENT IS BLACK” T-shirt, and here comes a middle-aged woman with consonants crowding her print blouse, SSSDDDMMMLLLRRRGGGFFF…She’s going into Black and Nobel, an urban literature purveyor with titles like Curse by Darkness, Ghetto Girl Games, If My Pussy Could Talk, Ride or Die Chick, Preacherman Blues (by Jihad) and Ghetto Ballerina by Philly’s own Tenia Jamilla. It’s about this valedictorian chick turned stripper, then whore. S he has two main snuggly buddies, one loaded yet shady, one square. On the side, she also muff dives. Will our grasping heroine choose to be wined and dined until her facade fades, sags and crumbles, just like the Forever Boner edifice, or will she lock herself inside some dumbass room night after night to study for a degree at Howard University? While deciding, she continues to muff dives. Soon, though, one of her live dildoes will be wetted, for real, straight up. Buy book to find out more. “WE SHIP TO PRISON,” states Black and Nobel sign.
Curious about Jamilla, I NSAed her twitter page to find this tagline, “Too Sexy and Too freaking smart…” I then clicked on a video to marvel at her bumptious assets seriously quaking to Wacka Flocka’s “We Don’t Fuck Wit Dat.” Jamilla sang along, “I don’t fuck with fake jewelry. I don’t fuck with fake clothes…” Atlanta verses are itee, I guess, but if you prefer more homegrown stuff, North Philly has plenty, as in Dark Lo’s “I fuck your girl once or twice, I don’t keep her/Naggin’ stalkin’ ass bitch, I don’t need her/Pussy has a funny smell, I don’t eat her.” Or the currently jump suited AR-AB, “My aim nice when I’m tossin’ lead/Eyes closed I’d shoot a fly off your head.” And, “I’m hard as hell and I got hard for sale/Trash day I’m throwing bodies in the garbage pail.” Just before he got draped in prison garb, AR-AB briefly swept a playground and visited elementary school classrooms to prove that he was “more of an asset outside than inside.” Some people even signed a petition. It’s not clear who, since by AR-AB’s own admission, he “ain’t got no friends ‘cause they all been shot.”
It’s hard to get kids to care about poetry, you know, so you’ve got to bring in a rhymer like AR-AB, someone they can relate to, being just down the block, and I don’t mean just cell. As a daddy of four, he also knows how to communicate with children. “Techs blast, chest splash, that’s a mess right there!”
All of these images of butchery is making me damn hungry, dog, so let’s eat. Well, we can have cheap chicken at Church’s or Crown, or really, really cheap chicken at Checker’s, and if you want to go upscale, a platter of short ribs at Dwight’s, with two sides and corn bread, will set you back 17 bucks, but that’s way out of my range, so you’ll have to eat there alone, OK? We can also duck into the Clock Bar and get “COLOSSAL BUTTERFLY SHRIMPS. NOTHING LARGER,” but its concussive rap will knock out our few remaining brain cells. Drooling ketchup, we’ll collapse into an irreversible coma. Instead, let’s just drink ourselves full at the Broad Street Tavern.
It’s a mellow trough for old heads, with more R&B than rap, and even has Steely Dan in the jukebox. I know, I know, it’s weird, but get over it. The music is rarely so loud, you can’t talk. Often, there’s no canned music at all, which is best. On the wall, a Miller Lite poster, “We Celebrate Black History Everyday! IT’S Miller TIME,” so to down pissy beer is to celebrate Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King? I discovered X my last year in high school, read all I could and wrote an essay, then composed another on him during my first year in college. Meet Chili Willie from North Philly. He comes here around 1:30PM each day. Sixty-nine-years-old, Chili served four years in Korea, one in Vietnam, where he fought in Khe Sanh, then Hue, during the Tet Offensive, “I had buddies die in my arms.” Tour over, he missed his flight out of Saigon, “Cause I was getting some pussy.” In Korea, Chili fell in love with a Korean whore, “She was my woman. I gave her money for everything. Took care of her. We nearly got married.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I told my sister about this, and she said, ‘You should marry your own kind’.”
“And you listened to her? You were your own man, man! You should have done what you wanted to do.”
It’s not exactly wise to wed a whore, though the Vietnamese have a saying, “Better to turn a whore into your wife, than your wife into a whore.” Chilli continued, “But I listened to my family. After I was sent to Vietnam, my girlfriend thought I had died. Someone told her I had died. But I saw her after that. She was pregnant, you know, with my child.”
“You sure it was your kid?”
“Did you ever see this kid?”
“No. She got married to another GI, and moved to Hawaii.”
“So your kid’s in Hawaii, with a stepfather?”
“I think so.”
In Vietnam, Chili made extra cash by funneling American cigarettes and liquor to the black market. He even sold gas and diesel pilfered from the American base, “I was a businessman, a hustler. I’ve always known how to make money.”
“But you could have gotten into some serious shit!”
“But I didn’t.”
Chili served 22 years, one month and 5 days altogether. With his pension set, he could relax a bit back in North Philly, where he lived with his ma. Until five years ago, he drained half a gallon of vodka a day, “and I could get two-dollar pussies up and down Erie Avenue.”
“Two dollar pussies?! How much does it cost today?”
“I don’t know, cause I ain’t buying no more.”
I asked Chili if it was weird to land in Vietnam, “I mean, Vietnam is nothing like North Philly. Did you freak out when you first saw it. I was born and raised in Vietnam, and it still weirded me out when I returned there as an adult.”
“No, it didn’t freak me out, because I had a job to do.”
Chili did what he had to do, without flinching, at least not in this retelling. Now, America has a fully professional Army of sentient drones willing to be sent anywhere. In Africa, we have troops in 35 countries, and it’s a safe bet most of these guys and gals have never heard of Djibouti, Mauritania, Burkina Faso or Seychelles, etc., until they got their marching orders. In Cheyenne, I chatted with a woman who thought her daughter was stationed in North Korea. In Philly, I saw a war veteran panhandling with a sign stating he was in “Sigon.” Another had served in the “Gulph War.” We sure don’t need to know where we are to start shooting. Behind the anti-terror smoke screen, we have created a nation of paranoiacs and psychos. As we kill and rape, many of us rap about raping and killing.
Leading me towards the back, Chili showed me a framed funeral program for one of his buddies, Ronald Joe French, with the deceased photographed in his Army dress uniform. Sunrise, 1942. Sunset, 2008. There is a long, uncredited poem, “Last Request,” with these lines: “Please don’t say that I gave up,/just say that I gave in./Don’t say that I lost the battle,/for it was God’s war to lose or win./Please don’t say how good I was,/but say I did my best./Just say I tried to do what’s right,/to give the most I could, not less […] ” While it’s certainly no great literature, you can’t argue against its sweet, reverent and humble sentiments, for they reflect positively on the dead man’s family, and on all those who mourned him that day. What we hear and read reflect who we are. We are what we choose to hear and read.
All over North Philly, you’ll see these “Sugar to Shit” stickers that steer you to the Reading Sucks website. Its masthead: “Reading SUCKS! until…A unique book—a vital tool for literacy—currently in production.” Say what?! No novice to reading, I can barely make out what I’ve just read, but subsequent sentences do clue me in: “Teenagers who HATE to read will love this book—and then actually want to read more books.” And, “Reading SUCKS! will have short concise stories written by Hip-Hop artists, athletes, prison inmates, soldiers, and HS students.” So this is an initiative to get teens to read, which is good, obviously, though it’s interesting that actual writers are considered unenticing, a turn off to reading. Tales told by rappers, jocks and criminals are preferred to stories by trained fiction writers, but part of the problem must be pinned on these same writers, for too many of them have spent their entire adult lives cloistered in universities. Since they barely associate with anyone unlike themselves, they hardly make sense outside the academy, and here I’m talking as much about emotional as literal sense. They can’t grasp what’s urgent to ordinary folks.
To those who still think of American universities as hotbeds of radicalism, please note that former boss of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, is now President of the University of California system; Condolezza Rice was recently a Provost of Stanford; Patriot Act co-author John Yoo teaches law at Berkeley; and even a well known “liberal” school like Bard is run by an Israel apologist, Leon Bostein. At many colleges, professors may be disproportionately Democrats, but that just shows the limits of American dissent. Protesting, they voted for Clinton then Obama, two war criminals, and to prove how really progressive they are, they’ll vote for the next Democratic mass murderer. Yes, the university will allow you to cross dress and rage against all the wrongs done to your subgroup, for this serves their divide-and-rule scheme, but don’t think too hard about what’s destroying us all.
So the ones who more or less know spelling, grammar and syntax are out of touch, while the foot soldiers on the ground are stuck on “You know what I’m sayin’,” “Just sayin’” and “Aye.” Of course, the entire culture has been dumbed down to a frightening degree. According to the Journal of American Medical Association, 46% of American adults cannot comprehend the label on their prescription medicine, and The National Center for Education Statistics reports that half of our adults cannot read an 8th grade level book. Since most Americans no longer read much of anything beyond emails, texts and twitters, we should rejoice, I suppose, at each instance of book reading, though in a place like North Philly, they’re not soaking up Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, Etheridge Knight or Sonia Sanchez, the last two Philly products, but Demettrea, Ca$h, Jazmyne or homeboy Brian Harrison, author of the novel Sugar to Shit (not to be confused with the website, though everything has gone from high fructose corn syrup to high fructose corn syrup). Here’s how Harrison defines himself, “Having an inner-city background and a suburban education, he combines these two forces and erupts in shear, flawless, diamond-like quality classics. While in the lowest moments of his life, surrounded by disaster and heartache, Brian Harrison narrowly finds his escape and turns his experience into an explicit, mind-blowing novel tht has never been told like this before.”
Jamilla thinks she’s “Too Sexy and Too freaking smart,” and Harrison considers his novel a “flawless, diamond-like quality classic.” After leaving Broad Street Tavern, I saw a man in his early 30’s wearing this T-shirt, “I NEVER CEASE TO AMAZE MYSELF,” and he wasn’t being goofy, “It’s true, I amaze myself every day.” Seeing that I was interested in his shirt, he even told me where I could get one, for only $3. How fitting that in a crumbling society that still stridently trumpets itself as number one, you’ll run into so many insanely narcissistic citizens with no sense of their shortcomings, though of course life will sucker punch you, good, even maim you thoroughly, until you learn what’s what, and in a moment of silence, alone, you can also reflect on all the humbling, even terrifying, clues to your smallness. Too many of us, though, would rather shoo away lurking insights with endless noise, alcohol or drugs. Numb, we rely on the pounding beat as our pacemaker.
Sorry, dude, to sound like some preacherman dropping Ecclesiastes. I best shut my grill. If you want religion, though, there’s the Universal Church just a block from here. Sometimes they have, ah, Holy Oil from Israel and shit, and if you’ve been hexed by witchcraft, the evil eye, envy or just plain bad luck, they can also fix you up and shit.
The first time I came to North Philly, I visited Etheridge Knight. I brought a yellow tin of jasmine tea. He fed me pork chops. This was in 1984, when I was dumber than dirt, naturally, though I had somehow managed to be featured with Knight in a poetry reading. This was at the Bacchanal, now long dead. Underaged, I had shown up on Mondays for their open readings. Speaking English not even a decade, I was presumptuous enough to think of myself an American poet, but then many young people see stardom in their future. They won’t just be good, but the best. An Oakland middle school teacher chuckled, “All of my kids think they’ll be stars,” and she taught 151 of them.
“A star at what?”
“They don’t know, but they’ll be stars!”
As Mike Tyson observed, “They all suck, but they all think they’re superstars!” (That’s not an exact quotation, by the way, since I’ve long lost that Ring Magazine.) So all these young’uns start out with visions of themselves as a future champ, CEO, kingpin or kick ass artist, but these hallucinations are quickly revised downward, until they find themselves pondering their spare change for the longest time, fidgeting, frowning and taking deep breaths, before deciding, finally, to buy that day-old donut. In 1984, I still thought that the right combination of words could wake up and transport everyone, bank tellers, bus drivers, butchers, and I was loco enough to think I had been chosen for the job. In any case, I had written so few poems by then, I could memorize them all. With my eyes closed, I’d recite without paper, clutching a beer bottle. The applause pumped up my confidence, and after a few weeks of this schtick, the organizer had me read with Knight. That night, as I was drinking a Rolling Rock at the bar, Etheridge ambled over.
“Are you a poet?”
Annoyed, I stared at the man, “I'm reading with you and I’m not a poet?”
“Just answer me. Are you a poet?”
“Of course I’m a poet!”
“OK, so let's go read then!”
That was the old fox’s way to get me riled up, and it worked. Later, Etheridge would jokingly call me “professor,” for my jejune seriousness, I suppose. I have never earned a college degree, and neither did Etheridge until 1990, the year before he died. Knowing Etheridge was very sick, I phoned him in Indiana.
And goodbye, North Philly, at least for now, and let’s end with Etheridge’s words:
My life, the quality of which
From the moment
My father grunted and comed
As the sounds of my words
Bruise your ears
And can be felt
In the one word: DESPERATION
But you have to feel for it.
Editor's Note: This essay originally appeared on July 18, 2013, on State of the Union, a website featuring commentary and photography by Linh Dinh. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Dinh.