Tag Archives: Philadelphia

Industrial Tools in a Digital World: or what good is money to a cave man

I once found myself sitting at my desk with a magic check book. I could scrawl out numbers large or small to anyone (except myself) and those checks would clear. I was under the general charge to use those checks to help those in need, and records were to be strictly kept, but other than that, it was all up to me. I was the genie, I could grant wishes, and I really wanted to help. I wanted to do good, to tackle the troubles facing those within my reach and now I had the ultimate tool; a magic checkbook.phillysky

This office was right on North Broad Street in the heart of one of Philadelphia’s most blighted neighborhoods. I was positioned perfectly. I was right where help was needed, with all the money I could imagine, possessing more will to do good than I knew what to do with, and I have never felt more useless and impotent then I did during that time.

I didn’t even make a dent.

This isn’t to say I wasn’t able to do some good or help some folks here and there, nor am I fishing for support with self-deprecating comments. No. I really wasn’t able to fix a thing. I have never felt so utterly thwarted.IMG_0423

I wrote a lot of checks, but not as many as you might have thought. We did our best to be financially responsible by not replicating services available elsewhere and thanks to WIC, food stamps, section 8 and a plethora of slum lords I paid out a lot less on rent mortgages and food than others I have seen with similar check books. I paid for a refrigerator, a water heater, paid tuition, bought subway tokens, patched a hole on someone’s roof, and funded a lot of plumbers and electricians. I also paid for some mental health services. Those ones were tricky, not because the money or service was funny, but because I discovered that those who needed these services most were hard to track down. They kept going homeless and getting arrested or admitted to hospitals. I did pay for some phones. Those were probably the most useful things I wrote checks for.

There was one woman I knew who was battling Cancer. She was unable to work and didn’t own a car that ran. We used to sit in her living room, her reeling from the effects of chemo, me reeling from the stacks of unpaid bills that she kept incredibly organized in a stack next to the couch. She knew who she owed, when things were due, and how much she had, but what she couldn’t get was a straight answer from anyone on the phone. She would be in the ratty recliner queuing up the bill, I would make the phone call and use my best respectable white man voice to try to get some clue as to what number to put on my magic check. Mostly I was put on hold or lectured about financial responsibility or sternly warned about service interruptions.

There was this other retired woman whose inherited house was reassessed and she magically owed back taxes. Old age and epilepsy made getting a job a non-starter so she borrowed money from friends and family to scrape together taxes. Scraping included not paying her water or electricity. She had previously been on a payment plan for both, and these plans included the stipulation that should you ever miss a payment you would be required to pay all the fees that would have accrued had you not been on said plan. I wrote a check for $2,000 to get the water turned on and $1,700 for the electricity. She was incredibly grateful and as we flipped the switch and there was light, she stared off into space and asked, “What am I supposed to do when the tax comes due again next year?” The house wasn’t particularly nice.copandfire

There was the truck driver who was on a rent-to-own program to gain full ownership of his rig. He was forced to forfeit with two payments left because someone rear ended him at a stop light. There was guy in the carpenters union who was laid off for over a year and then billed for two years of apprentice school when he finally took a menial job outside the union. There was even a stripper who didn’t want to dance but was struggling to find a way to pay her bills when she had no other marketable skills. There were all sorts of stories and I wrote all sorts of checks, but what I was mostly unable to do was change anyone’s long term situation.

My endless checkbook’s funds were insufficient in the face of greater contexts.

In some respects, and to some extent in retrospect, the failure was mine. I was afraid of going big and swinging for the fence. Every month I would meet with approximately five other men who had similar checkbooks but with different jurisdictions. They were mostly suburban and they almost always spent more money than me. They were also older than me and more experienced. We would meet and talk about solutions, and principles of work, and the overall theme would be in wondering how we could write fewer checks or get people to stop asking for money. There was much ado about responsibility and self-sufficiency, both of which I was on board with, but as we talked each month they would bring up a small redundant set of scenarios, or even repeat certain family names again and again, and here I was talking about everyone and everything. They would repeat to me some principle about work having it sown value and that rather than handouts we needed to encourage people to take control of their own situation. I would talk about the woman with cancer, or the new taxes, or the carpenter, I didn’t share the stripper because that would have seemed salacious, and they would just repeat those principles. I found it very dissatisfying and I was branded a passionate young firebrand. Whether it was the branding or the caution toward frugality, I never did what I really wanted to do which was to just pay off all of these people’ bills with some sort of trust moving forward, freeing them from the crushing weight of the unpaid bill shuffle or the impending doom of bills yet to come. I wanted to just write some big numbers that would give these people more than just some wiggle room but the solid footing needed to build a skill or chase an opportunity. But I didn’t. No one told me directly not to do it, yet I remained afraid knowing full well how the others interpreted those principles and my magic was rendered impotent.IMG_2057

I remember that check book any time I read policy debates about public school funding, government entitlements, or healthcare. Any time I hear the statement that problems cannot be solved by throwing money at them, I hear echoes of those monthly check writer’s meetings. They sound the same and that same feeling I had there rings and resonates inside me with the same feeling of helplessness and I know that this discussion will fall short. I know this because I am no longer a young firebrand but rather I am a little older and experienced. I know better now and were I to go back to my former self in those meetings and with that checkbook, and in the discussions of policy now, I would write those giant checks.

I would agree that the problems of a post-industrial world cannot be solved by just throwing money at them- then- I would add that any solution that doesn’t include throwing lots of money at it, is incomplete and wrong.

We live in a 1st world country with 1st world problems and those who have the means to become world traveled know this. They point out that the impoverished in America have so much more than almost everyone else in the world. I haven’t been to those places but I get it. I understand. I realize that in some countries people walk miles to get water from a well in bare feet and toil with seeds and soil to pull out rice or yams to eat in their tin roofed shacks with dirt floors. I am reminded of these things or these places when Americans look at our budget deficit or entitlements or failing public schools. We are rich and we are wasting it and we need to stop the bleeding and become more responsible. I get it.IMG_3343

But I cannot tell that retired woman that rather than asking for $2,000 to get her 1st world water turned back on, that she should get a bucket and walk to the well. Because there is no well.

I cannot tell the man from the carpenter’s union to stop wasting his money on rent and use his skills to build himself a tin roofed shack. We don’t allow that here.

I cannot tell that dancer to employ her health in planting and harvesting because she has no land, no seeds, and no time.

And the woman with cancer. Were she in one of those places the answer would be somewhat more direct. She would go untreated and die. Because that is what happens there.

Truth is that in America people need money. If someone has some money, they must spend their time in accruing more in order to keep up with the clock because in America time has a cost. If you happen to have an abundance of money you can buy time, and spend it as you choose. But if you start out with no money you will at some point need to borrow or beg because you cannot afford the cost of living that time demands while you are spending your time in the act of accumulation. And that initial cost of time is the rub.

Time is the rub because it is so much more expensive than we realize and our 1st world has completely adjusted to those who can already afford it. It has taken us quite some time to get here, but we have arrived and if we just deal with now, acknowledging how we got here but willing to deal with the present, we have a lot of work to do and it is going to be more expensive than we realize.

For instance, schools are not only expensive to run, but opening up charter schools and options for parents, is mostly only open to those who can already afford the costs of changing schools, including the cost of time in researching and applying. Retraining those displaced from industrial jobs due to mechanization is not just expensive as it relates to tuition or instruction, but the time it takes to learn and get re-hired. Who pays the bills in the meantime? It is as if any one who finds themselves at zero is being fooled by the goose egg. There is no such thing just as time never stands still. Zero lasts only a moment before it becomes a negative and as soon as you realize you have hit the bottom you are in negative numbers.

So as I remember back to those days where I had the magic check book but was too afraid to write a tectonic check I also remember that one of the reasons I did not, one of the reasons why I felt so helpless, a foundational contributing factor to my in effectiveness, was that money wasn’t and would never be, enough. I knew it then. I couldn’t stop time. I didn’t have enough extra hands, enough hours, enough extra bodies or opportunities, to throw at these people’s problems in addition to throwing money. Because it was instantly obvious that this is what was, and still is needed.

We cannot solve the problems of poverty by simply throwing money at them. Reality is that it takes money and then it takes more. Throwing money and throwing time.

Developed society has left behind the sweat of our brow and replaced it with allowances either purchased or granted. Because of this we cannot expect any progress within the lower half of society unless there is some sort of concession granted by those who control, or own resources. We will never solve poverty in the 1st world till more of those who can afford time, start spending it on helping those who can’t.

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I Once Saw a Black Man Hug a Cop

I once saw a young black man hug a Philadelphia cop, and the cop hugged him back. It was almost midnight, in the middle of what could be described as a riot, and the Phillies had just won the world series.champs

It was the make up of a rain delayed game 5 and John Hollingshaus convinced me to go down to the stadium without tickets. He thought that maybe some of the ticketholders from the day before wouldn’t show up leaving a bunch of empty seats. MLB doesn’t like empty seats on TV so maybe they would let us in. About 5,000 other people had the same idea and we all watched the game on the jumbo tron as we were smashed up against the gate.broadst-2A fortuitous rush at another gate allowed us to enter for the final pitch. It was bedlam. Wonderful, joyful, bedlam. The stadium eventually emptied out onto the street and everyone kept marching up Broad st. toward City Hall. Everyone was cheering, old men were crying, and strangers hugged each other.broadst-4While some kid without a shirt was pulling a potted tree out of the sidewalk someone else was launching fireworks that bounced off the skyscraper walls exploding in the urban canyon. Everyone cheered.

And that is when I saw the young black man and the cop hug.streetsignIt blew my mind.

I am not truly a baseball guy but that sight, that whole experience, taught me something about collective experiences. It taught me something about the power of elective common identity to occasionally cross boundaries otherwise insurmountable.

Sometimes there are snapshots in time, though temporary, where we glimpse a possibility.

Happiest riot ever. Congratulations Cubbies!

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No Pictures at the Barnes: they don’t follow rules so neither do I

If you want to completely hate every angle of the art world do like I did and watch the documentaries “Exit Through the Gift Shop” and “The Art of the Steal” back to back. But, then after watching it, don’t be like me and wait 7 years before you go and visit the Barnes.

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So the short story is that there was once this guy named Albert Barnes who got rich and amassed one of the world’s greatest private art collections. But he was new money and the Philadelphia art crowd relegated him to the little kids table. So for paybacks this Barnes guy left his collection to a small historically black college outside of the city and wrote into his will that his collection could never be moved or sold.

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He basically wrote into his will that everything he knew the established art world would want to do, was not allowed.

So of course once he died the art world, and the city of Philadelphia, broke every one of those rules.

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So now, as is so often the case with wonderful, beautiful, and historic things that are worth money, we, the general public, can enjoy and consume said beauty, but not without some bit of moral compromising.

Having broken my seven year hunger strike, I advocate for this compromise.

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Van Gogh, Modigliani, Monet, Cezanne, Renoir, Seurat, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso, and then more Van Gogh, Matisse, Cezanne, Monet. so much. Just. So. Much.

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Taking pictures inside is absolutely not allowed. I learned that they do in fact enforce that rule. Had they not enforced that rule I would be treating you to what I consider the highlight of the place (the Matisse triptych up in the arches), but the guards gave me my second warning at that point.

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So worth it. And besides, I don’t really advocate breaking rules… but they do.

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Philly Skyline: a new addition

It felt like going home. I didn’t grow up there, I don’t live there now, but it still feels like my home.

Philadelphia has a new spire in its skyline and the weekend I spent there recently was one of the more “Philly” sorts of weekends I could have imagined.

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It was full old friends, old buildings, new buildings, and new restaurants. But mostly it was that one new building.

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What once required a lot of car pooling and a three hour drive to DC is now a subway trip for them… and an all day flight for me.img_7283

it was worth the trip.

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In the Studio: Philadelphia

I do not regret living without blizzards, but I do miss sledding down the Rocky Steps.IMG_8225

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In the Studio: DiBruno Bros.

The process:

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and then…

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I Can’t Breathe and Orange Light Bulbs

When you are a witness in a criminal case they don’t let you sit in the courtroom during the entire proceedings. I’m not sure if it is to keep your testimony pure from the taint of other people’s stories or to simply add some dramatic flair with a dramatic reveal. “Your honor, the state calls Dalyn Montgomery”, the doors swing open and there I am cape fluttering in the wind. Whatever the reason, I once found myself in a sort of holding lobby outside a Philadelphia courtroom.shoes (7)

I wasn’t alone. With me were two police officers, the ones who caught the guy stealing the radio out of my car. There wasn’t any doubt as to the defendant’s guilt, they caught him in the act and the thief left his phone in my car when he tried to run. We were the prosecution’s bull pen and we were sitting around, waiting for our numbers to be called. We were there more than an hour, plenty of time to get to know each other.

I already knew the one with the shaved head. He used to be my FedEx delivery guy. I once had this job where the company would send me packages every week, sometimes more often, and the guy would call me on my cell phone to see if I was going to be home. My street was really narrow and he didn’t want to drive his truck down that little alley if I wasn’t going to be there. It was odd seeing him in this different uniform but I knew it was him right away; he had a scar in the shape of an x almost right between his eyes. He told me it was from his brother stabbing him with a Phillips screwdriver when they were young and ever since people have mistaken him for a Charles Manson follower. “I’ve been doing this (serving as a police officer) for almost a year now. You still get giant boxes in the mail every day? Your street sucks for big trucks.”

I told him the deliveries had stopped once he was no longer the driver.

The other guy had blonde hair and a bad disposition. “Quit f- – – -g around and let’s get this together,” he instructed his partner. “Now read me what you got.” My FedEx guy pulled a queue card from inside his hat and read off an account of the night in question.

“We received a call from the owner saying his car was in the process of being robbed. We stopped our car at the end of the block and proceeded on foot toward the car in question. The driver’s door was open and as we approached, the accused jumped out of the car and started running toward the other end of the block. I pursued while my partner cut through the alley off to the right. At the top of the block I saw the accused hop on a bike and turn down the street to the right. When I got to the top of the block I saw my partner had caught the accused and was in the process of handcuffing him on the sidewalk.”

The blonde guy looked over at me and said, “That’s what happened right?”  I replied I had no idea since I was asleep during that whole scene. “My neighbor had been having a beer on his stoop at three in the morning and the guy didn’t notice him there when he broke into my car. My neighbor is the one who called you guys. By the time I got pants on and answered the door you already had the dude in the back of your car.”DV IMAGE

“Mother f- – – –  ,” the blonde one said to the other. “This is the type of s- – – –  I can’t stand.” The officer looked to be in his late 20’s, maybe thirty, close to my age. “Sorry about that. I just get frustrated about these little things because this is how lawyers ruin the work we do. We arrest the bad guy and then these mother f- – – – – put ‘em right back out there again because your neighbor is the one who made the call.” I admitted that I could see how that would be frustrating. “This happens regularly, lawyers getting the person off the hook?” “All, the f- – – – – -, time.”

“Dude, your mouth. This guy doesn’t curse like that.” The bald guy told his partner. “F- – – – you, he doesn’t care. Now re-write your card so you don’t screw it up.” While the junior officer scribbled on the card inside his hat I talked to his partner.

He said he had been on the force long enough to remember when things were better. He told me he liked his job when Rizzo was the police chief. He said that down at the station there is a huge poster with a picture of Frank Rizzo holding a Billy club with the words “There aint no courtroom that can dispense justice better than the end of my night stick.” Frank Rizzo was no longer the police chief, and by the time we had this conversation he was also no longer the mayor. The blonde officer explained that it had gotten so bad in the court rooms that he does everything he can to be the first one to catch a perp, hoping that he can have a couple seconds to himself before the other officers show up. He wanted just a little time to dispense some justice before the crowds arrive.

“Really? You want to beat somebody? What if the guy you catch is the wrong guy?”

He looked at me blankly as if he didn’t understand the question.

“Haven’t you ever caught the wrong person?”

“No.”

He answered me flatly and with no sense of irony. He meant it.

“In all the years you’ve been a cop you have never once caught the wrong person? Never brought in an innocent suspect?”

He looked up in the air as if trying to recall something, looked back down at me and with a shrug replied that, no, he had never arrested an innocent person. I could not hide my surprise and must have chuckled just a little bit. My chuckle opened up a barrage of stories from these two about incidents where police officers have injured each other while attempting to injure a captured suspect. I was told of a plain clothes officer who while in pursuit of a bad guy was caught by an officer in uniform and given three broken ribs before he was able to produce his badge. The bald guy showed me a scar on his calf that he said he received from one of his comrades who beat the wrong leg with a baton in a multi officer melee.IMG_9353

After listening to this for a while I told them the story about my friend Terrell. I told them about how he was ID’d by the victim despite his eyes being swollen shut at the time of the ID. I told them how the victim testified he never saw who hit him and had never met Terrell before. I told them about how the cop testified it was easy to catch Terrell because “the accused is fat and slow.” Both of these officers sat silently listening to the details. When I finished they sat there silently for just a moment.

Then the blonde one spoke up, “F- – – – that. Your friend did it.”

Eventually a bailiff opened the door and told me it was my turn. Sadly there was no theme music as I made my way up to the witness stand. Once seated I was able to settle in and take a good look into the eyes of the thief. I had never seen him before. He was a scrawny little white guy in a suit three sizes too big. His hair was cropped short and he had the sort of beard a person grows when they haven’t hit puberty yet. I told my story to the lawyers while the judge looked at me intently. There was no jury. After my ten minutes was up they all thanked me for my time, by all I mean those employed to be there, the accused just sat there hunched over uncomfortably, and I went back to the bull pen.

I got to go back out for the decision, guilty, and the sentencing. The judge listed off a series of other convictions, then noted the defendant was an expecting father and an addict. He ordered that I be paid restitution equal to the amount of the damage of my property and that the accused, now the convicted, enroll in a substance abuse rehabilitation program. It sounded fair to me till the prosecutor leaned over and whispered to me that there was no mechanism in place to make sure I was actually paid what the judge had ordered, blood from a turnip and all that. He told me I should just be happy with the moral victory.

Six months later I was summoned to the court to hear the appeal. The conviction was overturned on account of the officer’s inability to recall what color hat the defendant was or was not wearing at three o’clock in the morning of the night in question.

My neighbor was upset but not surprised that the guy got off. “I bet that was the same little pissant that stole Paulie’s radio. How much you get for a stolen car radio, five bucks? Ten maybe. Stupid Kenzo.” A Kenzo is someone who lives in Kensington, the bad neighborhood that started 1oo yards west of my good neighborhood. It was always the Kenzos that caused trouble, and by Kenzos they meant the new Kenzos as everyone in our neighborhood grew up over there before the black folk moved in and ruined it. My neighborhood was filled with retired school teachers, guys in the carpenters union, and the parents of police officers. Philadelphia is a tough town in which to be a police officer.

Police get killed in Philadelphia. It was surprisingly normal for I-95 to be shut down to let a motorcade escorting a fallen hero travel unobstructed. Whenever an officer was killed in the line of duty my neighbors would replace their porch lights with blue light bulbs to show support. On one such occasion there was a frantic search for the killer who had evaded capture. Having spotted an individual matching the description the authorities gave chase and we all watched it on television. The news helicopter got a great shot of a huddle of blue clad men beating something or someone for a good five minutes. It turned out the man they caught was the wrong guy. While in the hospital he was charged with resisting arrest.

I sat on my stoop talking to my neighbor the next day and she didn’t see it the same way I did. “I can’t blame ‘em. That mother f- – – – – killed a cop.”

“No. someone killed a cop but that was the wrong guy. They beat an innocent guy.”

“Innocent my a- -. They know what they are doing.”

“Wait, what? I get that the guys were a little charged up and its dangerous but they put the guy in the hospital and it was the wrong guy.”

“Yeah. You say that because it isn’t you. They kill cops out here and you have to watch out. I’ll listen to the cops and not some reporter on channel 9. They know what they’re doin.”DV IMAGE

We had lots of conversations sitting on the stoop. She never doubted the officers. Not when they were caught on camera shaking down the corner store, not when the five guys were caught running a steroids ring out of the precinct, especially not when they pulled over the black guy, patted him down and never gave him his wallet back. Turned out the black guy was retired officer himself but my neighbor took the side of the current duty boys. She kept the faith all the way up until that one party around Thanksgiving.

Some folks a few blocks over threw a birthday party for their adult son. One of the guests was a cop. He knocked back a few, because it was a party, but then he got in an argument with the home owner. They sent the cop home. Ten minutes later he came back with is service weapon and shot the birthday boy to death. The whole neighborhood was up in arms and mobilized when it looked like there weren’t going to be any charges filed. The same people who normally went around distributing blue light bulbs, came around again, but this time they were giving out orange. The whole block, as well as the next one over, lit up their porches with orange light to show their support of the victim’s family.

I sat on the stoop and asked my neighbor if this made her doubt all those incidents from the previous year. “You can’t hold everyone responsible for one bad cop. This guy is a disgrace. They need to charge him with murder.”

“Oh I agree. You can’t blame everyone for the mistakes of the bad ones… But what about those guys from last year? The ones who shook down the corner store over in the black neighborhood?”

“See, you don’t get it. The news is out to get these boys and its war on Cops on the streets. Naw, these boys know what they are doing. That’s a whole different thing.”

The officer was eventually tried and convicted of murder and all the bulbs are back to blue. I’m not there anymore but I’ll bet my neighbor thinks all this “I can’t breathe” stuff is bull. I would wager that she thinks those cops in Brooklyn knew what they were doing and that the guy deserved it.  It is indeed war on the streets. A war on truth, a war on reason.

I think being a cop must be the hardest job in the world. I respect that. They should get paid more. We need not just cops, but good cops. We need great cops. How hard it must be to pin on a badge that feels like  target for $50K a year? How hard to clean puke out of the back of a squad car, argue with people who claim they didn’t just punch that woman while you just watched them do it. Hard to keep catching the bad guy because a lawyer insisted the perp was wearing a hat you never saw. A hard job.

I also know Terrell never beat that guy.

I also know you can’t shoot someone because you got in an argument at a party. I know that no matter how flawed the courtroom is, the answer isn’t a nightstick. I know too many black folk who know too much about both courtrooms and nightsticks.

At the end of the day I know that bad guys are going to be bad guys. Because of this, the good guys need to be even better than good, they need to be great. Part of being great includes recognizing when you aren’t acting as such.

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