(1) When I Got There (4/7)

“A life of wisdom consists of constantly being engaged in letting go.”
Francisco Varela

Joe and I drove up in the Ryder
We parked on the sidewalk
Walnut Street was jammed up at 43rd
On a hot July day.
We met the landlord at Walsh’s Tavern,
Learned about the swipe and run guys
Who looked to clean up the seats
Closest to the door,
Signed the lease,
Unloaded the truck,
And off Joe went.

That would be the next to last time I saw him.

I had decided to let go of Williamsburg.
Now I found myself in the dark
Waiting for the next day
When PECO would come through.
Then I could make better sense of my situation.

Traffic was non-stop,
The carts did not leave the inside of the grocery store,
The laundry mats were packed,
There was yelling, there were occasional shots, and
Just down the street was West Philly High.

It stood there like no other school I had ever seen.
It seemed part fort, part castle, and sadly
Part prison.
I wondered what it was like going to school there.
Years later I would work for a program
Serving kids from the public high schools in Philly.
It was as bad as I imagined.

The MOVE bombing had already happened.
Crack was destroying a community.
Penn and Drexel were still buying up everything.
There was a guy going solo on his stoop
In the middle of the day.
People stood in the street yelling at voices, but
Having nowhere to go.

West Philly was struggling in the early 1990s.
Philadelphia was struggling.
For every laugh I heard in the streets,
There must have been twenty sirens screaming by.
Somehow I grew to love the city,
Yet I don’t think I was really a part of it.
People were just trying to survive,
So they had little time for the ideals of 1912
When the big school up the road
Offered to help West Philadelphia realize its potential.

Something let the community down.
Naysayers will blame the schools for a communities failings.
Schools might blame politicians.
Politicos blame industry, taxes, or the other party.
What no one realizes is that it is everyone,
Everyone who failed to accept the changes that were coming
And who failed to let go of the “personal particulars”
That were contributing to the downfall.

In the case of West Philadelphia, drugs were a problem.
Violence followed, but where were the jobs,
The attractive options to give people real choice against
The illicits of chemistry and costs of living?
Where was the support for the school as a social institution
Instead of a pawn to be sacrificed
For political or economic gain.

I stayed in West Philadelphia for a year.
Age and ambition were in my favor for making a move.
On a recent trip through the city, I was disappointed to see
Walsh’s Tavern is gone. Koch’s Deli is gone.

West Philadelphia High School?
Sort of gone…

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