November 2, 2002
The street looked like parts of Berlin must have looked like
in the years after the war. About half of the houses had sheet
metal in the windows, a sign of abandonment, of decay, of
flight. There were few addresses on the houses so you pretty
much had to guess your way to where you needed to go.
It was August in West Philadelphia; it was unbearably hot
and the long-haired young white man in his 20’s was in unfamiliar,
intimidating territory. This was a place that somebody from
his background would have run from but now it was his job
to be there and he had to find a way to tough it out. He had
to meekly (and somewhat fearfully) knock on several doors
to find the house that he had to visit. He was finally directed
to the right house and knocked on the door. A black child
who couldn’t have been more than 10 years old pulled the door
open. There were several other children of about the same
age or younger running around in the foyer of what was probably
once an elegant home. The child who had opened the door ran
away to play with the others and the young man stepped, as
yet uninvited, into the house.
The smell of piss was overwhelming, an assaulting odor that
made you switch immediately to mouth breathing. Even then
it was like a punch in the stomach that you had to bounce
back from. The young man finally got the attention of one
of the children and told them that he was there to see their
grandmother. The child went upstairs to notify the grandmother
and the young man stepped into the living room. There was
no furniture except for an orange vinyl chair but all you
would really notice in this room were the cockroaches, dozens
and dozens of cockroaches, big ones, some of them seemed to
be two inches long, all over the walls and the floor and the
ceiling. Then there was the dog. There was the loud, intense
growling of a dog that sensed an intruder and it seemed to
be coming from just a few feet away. It was; the snarling
dog was in the back yard of the next house but just outside
a window that apparently was open all the time since there
was no window frame.
This was Darryl’s home. He had lived there, or he lived in
an institution, almost from the day he had been born. His
junkie mother had left him at her mothers house a few days
after his birth. The young man worked for the institution
that currently was caring for and accepting money for Darryl.
Darryl’s grandmother descended the stairs slowly, making
loud moaning sounds as if were painful to walk. She had what
resembled a rope wrapped around her waist and it dropped down
to hold a bell that rang lightly a few inches above the floor.
The children, most of whom I assumed were her other grandchildren,
swirled about her legs laughing and playing as she tried to
walk. The young man tried to speak with the elderly woman
about her grandson. She spoke fondly of Darryl but then rambled
off as if she had forgotten what the subject was. The young
man realized that he was accomplishing little and when the
visit ended he was very grateful to be out of the house and
back in his car.
Darryl is not his real name but the home was real and the
young man in the story, of course, was me. The institution
was for juvenile offenders and Darryl had first landed there
when he was 12. I lost track of Darryl a couple of years later
after he left the institutional system so I don’t know for
sure what happened to him but I have a pretty good idea. He
almost certainly went to prison like so many other young males
from that neighborhood did. He had little or no chance to
do anything else. He was bright, an avid reader (one of the
few kids to frequent the institution library), a phenomenal
pool player and generally fun to be around as long you kept
track of where your wallet was. The last time I saw him he
was 16 and running some small time rackets in his neighborhood.
Had he been born a couple of miles away on Philadelphia’s
affluent Main Line he’d have been college bound and today
would be an attorney or a successful businessman. But Darryl
was a child of the streets, some of the worst streets in Philadelphia.
He never had a chance to be anything other than what he was.
I’d like to believe that he’s Vice President of BET but realistically
I know that he’s either an ex-con or he’s still in prison
or he’s dead. It was a cruel accident of birth.
There’s an election next week and it’s easy to look at the
story of Darryl and blame him on conservatives and Republicans
but unfortunately Darryl never really creeps into the priorities
of liberal politicians these days either. It’s a political
death wish to even acknowledge that people like him exist.
They don’t vote and they don’t make campaign contributions
and so they don’t really even enter into the consciousness
of either of the political parties. America has ignored him
and his grandmother and the other children in that dreadful
home for the past 30 years and in the process we’ve created
a whole new generation of Darryls. And tragically we’re probably
going to create yet another generation whether the elephants
or the donkeys celebrate the most on Tuesday night.
The people at the bottom of the economic scale will not reach
out to the political process because they have little incentive
to do so. Since Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kennedy and Michael
Harrington are gone there have been precious few willing to
advocate for them. Paul Wellstone and to his credit Jack Kemp
have done so in recent years but sadly Wellstone is silenced
and Kemp is retired. Somebody in our national leadership and,
yes, our Democratic Party leadership should stand up for the
millions of Darryls who are still on Americas city streets.
The fact that they don’t is as sad as the things I saw in
Darryl’s house all those years ago.