PART I. So Much To Say (The Beginning)

Writing by Ted Boughter-Dornfeld Copyright © 2010

Just Another Day

“What you looking at? You lost or something?” Asked a stranger to Aisha[1] as she looked on at the collapsed foundations of her family’s former duplex. She gazed at the solitary surviving remnants of her upbringing; now just a vacant corner space across the street from the new Hamilton Park Plaza. A twinge of pain stirred beneath her folded arms. She had not been back here since she was a sophomore at Overbrook High, over a decade ago. Abandoned lots like this one where all over now, littering the downtrodden neighborhood. She stood at the intersection of 38th and Hamilton Street; amidst an area of homeless communities known notoriously throughout West Philadelphia as “Satan’s Kitchen,” a locality she had very consciously avoided the previous ten years of her life. As she sat in a daze, she reflected on the history of this exposed section of concrete that was once her home.

The summer weather outside settled oppressively on this late July day, and the combination of muggy air with her tattered black “City of Philadelphia’s Capital Campaign Initiative” t-shirt and torn, dark wash jeans had her sweating freely in the mid-afternoon heat. Her long, black hair was frizzy and disheveled. Sharp hazel eyes pierced out at all she watched; wounded, but beautiful. Hunger pangs were slowly creeping up her sides again, eventually finding their way to her head. She had not eaten, and it was almost midday. After a few minutes of walking, the yearning for food subsided from her stomach, and the sharp pangs went numb. She remembered a quote from an old sociology professor that she had while studying in undergraduate education at Rutgers University, which went something like “A hungry man is never really a free man.” It made a lot more sense now.

She continued down the block, made a right 32nd street, and sat down inside Ted’s Deli. A tall, dark-haired man walked from behind the counter to meet her at the booth next to the soda machines. The deli was empty. “Aisha, good to see you! You hungry? You want a sandwich or something?” Asked Carmine as he eased himself down into the booth seat across from her.  “No, thank you.” She replied. He signaled to a small, darker-complexioned woman behind the counter, and within seconds, she was slicing a hoagie roll.

“How goes it, my friend?” Asked Carmine as Aisha pulled out a wad of Dunkin Donuts napkins and blew her noise. “Same as it ever was.” Replied Aisha. The small, olive-skinned woman brought over the hoagie, and set it down in front of Aisha. She grabbed a bag of barbeque chips from the top of the soda machine, and put them down next to Aisha’s plate. Aisha put her hands up as if to decline, but dropped them after a pause. “You know, I had a long talk with my uncle Enzo last weekend who lives out in Ben Salem, and he told me he might be able to set you up with a job and a place out there, you know. You could at least stay with him until you get yourself situated.” Said Carmine, looking Aisha intently in the face. Aisha took a couple bites of the sandwich, and then spoke. “I appreciate the offer, but I’m ok, Car. Thanks for thinking of me.” Aisha put down the half-eaten sandwich and stood up from the orange booth.  “Let me at least wrap that up for you, Aisha?” Carmine called, but Aisha was already out of the small doorway and onto the pavement. “I’ll be back Carmine, thanks for everything!” She exclaimed as she turned the corner and went out of sight.

 

Daily Bread

Aisha woke up with the sting of the morning light on her eyelids, and groaned at her throbbing temples. Her stomach growled, a cue to roll out of her old, flower-print blanket. She folded it neatly, and put it back in the corner of her tiny tent’s floor. The smell of broken waste pumps and sewage drifted up to Aisha’s nostrils, making her headache more acute. She opened the flap of her tent, walked through to the other side of the park, and started to make her way down Locust towards 16th Street.

It was another day to hustle, and another day to find a way to survive.  Aisha had offered to do cleaning for Faye down at the Chestnut Street YMCA, but Faye had already been generous about the amount of work and money she had given Aisha earlier in the week. Aisha didn’t want to press her kindness too far. She decided to go to the precinct, to see if she could participate in police line-ups. She could earn at least ten dollars to “broaden” the suspect pool, but she had to get there early, otherwise someone would likely already have filled the slot. Most of the jobs she could access during the day were the same: labor or small specialty jobs, in other words: Shadow work. They were tedious and thankless jobs which were infrequent at best, but she needed them. Jerry might let her sweep in front of his barbershop on 63rd Street, but she wasn’t in the mood for that walk.

Work was getting harder to come by. The people looking for “unskilled” urban laborers continued to decline, or expanded their searches to other geographical regions outside of Aisha’s walkable distance. Even if you had a college or high school diploma, jobs had methods for screening “unqualified persons.” Technology was leaving a class of people farther and farther behind, and those without the resources or awareness were quickly becoming the lost generation. To make matters worse, jobs that did remain in the city were intermittent, and nearly impossible to get for those “who cannot provide a potential employer with an acceptable address.”

She envied the way Mayor Robinson and the local media characterized the apparent “problems” of the homeless, or how most journalists who actually took the time to visit their abandoned neighborhoods glossed right over any merits or redeeming qualities of the community to focus on the already depraved images envisioned alongside their front-page spreads. Would anybody ever think of more productive, creative solutions then the “efficient” homeless shelters and soup kitchens? She doubted if anyone really cared. People like her ever rarely ever made it back into the working-world. It was another Invisible Man story, and that was just the way things were.

It had become exceedingly clear – through legislation and funding, city papers, and welfare offices alike: people without jobs would never be treated as respected, contributing members of society. It was really only the people in the neighborhood localities that ever actually reached out to aid the evicted and support their livelihood.

Referring to the work of the poor, rootless souls of the city in that cold, political idiom of “compensatory, non-wage labor subsistence strategies” was certainly not going to actually solve the problem of alienation facing Aisha or her community. She had been to the public library three times, and every time, she looked up strategic planning strategies for the homeless. It seemed like previous administrations cared a lot less about getting people off the street than they did about keeping up the appearances of “low” unemployment, “nominal” homelessness, and “cleaner” streets. You could still see it any time Philadelphia was hosting a major national or international event, and tried to give Center City a facelift.  She had heard that city officials even went as far as handing out 20-dollar bills to people to get them off the street corners by way of “municipal donations” for the NBA’s All-Star-Weekend, though she hadn’t been so lucky to receive one.

Her frustration with the government grew daily, multiplied many times by the fact that she had spent a good part of her working life navigating the hierarchical and often hollow rhetoric of Philadelphia’s local politicians. She knew the systems, infrastructure, and programs that were in effect for the typical home-owning citizens, and the glaring inequalities for the street-laden. The bottom line was that if you were homeless, you didn’t have a voice. Your successes, your problems, your life, were all fractionally marginal. She knew what it took to get by, to tap into the undependable resources of the streets. You had to learn. Living on the streets for an extended period of time had forced her to do a lot of things she might not normally have done before the accident.

Finding the next meal was always a challenge. She could teach a graduate-level course on the topic. Aisha had thought of a course title already, “Adaptive Entrepreneurship: Recognizing and Utilizing the Unofficial Markets of Your Surrounding Locale.” But she would never teach that class, and students would never really understand the real consequences of such information.

Digging for a half-eaten hot dog in the garbage bins around the Penn Plaza was not uncommon for Aisha. Begging for a pretzel from a street vendor on Market was routine. Going to the bathroom in public restrooms at 30th Street Station, or finding unlocked porta potties in neighboring construction sites had become a necessity. She wanted people to know, just for one day, what it felt like to pull their dinner from a place where others threw theirs away.

A Friend

Moses and Aisha frequently had identical approaches to the often harsh realities that surfaced in the streets. The day they met, they had an instant platonic chemistry, and the bond that formed between them often left the two finishing each other’s sentences. She would never forget his advice on the first day that they had met; or his words: “I steer clear from the shelters because of the type of people they tend to attract. A lot of people who come through those stations like to smile in your face, talk about brotherhood, and behind close doors they call you every name in the book. I can’t stand it. The atmosphere that is… It breeds self-pity and low self-esteem. And the people that work there? Either they are trying to push their own pious revelations onto your unsacred behind, or they think they are doing you a favor, out of some sort of warped pity. I didn’t need to stay the entirety of my first week to figure that out. That’s why I live out here on my own. Alone in these streets. I count on myself. Nobody else.” Those words had stuck to her, trapping her thoughts like a fly inside a spider’s web. The more she tried to escape them, the further they entangled her.

Moses had been a working man for thirty-two years of his life. His story was unique, like many of the people that called themselves “residentes” of Satan’s Kitchen. He had worked for years in a Steel Factory in Pittsburg, before moving to Philadelphia to have a child with his wife. After the birth of his child, his wife had run off with another man, and he had been forced to take up another job to support his daughter and the loan that he took out for their new West Philadelphia row home. He had worked before Aisha was born. Unfortunately, when it came time to pay for his daughter’s undergraduate degree, he couldn’t afford both his mortgage and her schooling. He chose her tuition, and had her stay with his sister, while supporting her all the way through the time that she graduated college from St. Joe’s University. He had an air of unmistakable pride and independence. You could tell by his well-groomed countenance that he was a man who respected himself. His hair was always short and well-kept. He was clean-shaven, never unkempt or scraggly. Even when he did have stubble; it was a beautiful, sweeping fullness that hugged his strong jaw line. He was often dressed appropriately for different seasons. She wondered how he managed it.

She was impressed at the outfit he wore the first time they met: a pair of pristine cream slacks, and a crisp, light blue dress shirt. She was shocked to find out that he was a part of the street entourage. The only thing which truly gave him away was his older white tennis shoes, but even those looked respectable enough to be part of his getup. He was a handsome man, with deep chestnut-colored skin, and head of gray hair that was slowing making its way up from the sides of his temples to the top of his head. He had gone to prison for a three months last December, for “robbing” a street vendor in a neighboring community, and had come back telling people that it wasn’t bad. Aisha wondered if he hadn’t got himself arrested on purpose; especially after hearing him talk about how it was “never cold in the joint,” and how he even got dental care and medicine for the arthritis setting into his huge, glove-like hands.

At the end of the day, Aisha would take refuge in empty bus depots or train stations, or upper floors of abandoned houses and warehouse buildings, away from the hustles and danger of the unpredictable nighttime and early morning. There was truth to safety in numbers, but she had never been one to trust others completely with her own security, so with the exception of a few good friends which she had made during the past five years, she made no permanent residence, and stayed away from the city shelters and drop-in centers. She knew about them, and occasionally utilized their daytime resources when she was hard-pressed. For the most part, that was her only connection to them.

There was the Traveler’s Aid Society, a temporary place for homeless women and children on Juniper Street, and St. John’s Hospice on Arch, dedicated to feeding homeless people of both genders, but she rarely went to them. Only for food or books would she sometimes venture into them, and even then, she kept her interactions brief and reserved. That was of course, with the exception of Sister Anna. Sister Anna was a nun in charge of the hot lunch service, and weekday prayer vigils for those who were either too sick, or too troubled to leave the Saint John’s complex by themselves. Sister Anna was always a trip. Upon first meeting, Anna had remarked that she was “very impressed” by Aisha’s knowledge of Christianity, and the “charitable character” she displayed while hanging around the Hospice. Anna told Aisha that she could find her a place to stay, and work if she wanted to consider joining the Sisterhood. She asked Aisha to join the Order many times, telling her that she would find a way for her to make a decent living. Aisha continued to respectfully decline. The two would talk in the early hours of the morning, about life, and the lessons one could take from religious traditions of the “Good Book”. The talks were sometimes helpful to Aisha, a welcomed distraction that kept her from thinking about the past.

When nighttime came, it brought respite from the muggy day with the descent of the sun, but Aisha’s thoughts often took on a life of their own in the darkest moments of the night.  During the day, the warmth of the sun’s rays distracted her from the endless ruminations that had become her mind. Street life was a deeply cruel horizon to set one’s sails upon, and it seemed like an endless fissure that she had fallen into. It was a glaring, everyday reality, a reality that forced the swelling pride of her past brusquely down her throat. The tears always came. And it always happened the same way. She would choke, trying to swallow the mass inside her swelling esophagus. The streams would flow unreservedly for a time, treading silently down her cheeks from weary hazel eyes, until the tear ducts themselves seemed to dry up, a reservoir that lost its mother river.  She wondered if she would ever let her go.

 

Downtown

“Can I get a donation, sistah?” asked a crippled old man with regal grey dreads, as Aisha strolled by him in the waning spring daylight. She ignored the request, and evaded the detached solitary gaze of his eyes, walking hurriedly down the sidewalk, and up through the ornately decorated, spacious floor of Alma de Cuba. Once inside, she thought it over, and returned to where the old man was sitting against the wall, resting on an old milk crate. She extended her hand to his, and dropped a folded bill inside. As the man opened his hand, his eyes spread open to the face of Andrew Jackson staring back at him. “Thank you, and god bless you, mon.” Was all he had time to muster as Aisha walked back into the restaurant.

Once inside, she was warmly greeted by a hostess, and guided to the third floor, a much more private section of the restaurant. Aisha sat down gingerly at the small, square-shaped mahogany table with snow-colored candles.  A clear glass unit surrounded the table shimmered, with superimposed opaque tobacco-leaves. A dim, scarlet lighting silhouetted the historic photos. Aisha crossed her legs, and began to tap her right foot against the side of the plush, white seats.  A brief glance down at her watch told her that David[2] was unusually behind schedule. It was 8:15 P.M. She reminisced about doing the sketch of this top floor personally; the design group used a basic off-white palette, adding dramatic lighting to the entire floor with a sensual red glow, along with a selection of evocative, historic Cuban photos in the background. She and David always came here to celebrate, especially when things were going well.

A tall, dark-haired waiter smoothly approached the table, introduced himself, and asked politely if Aisha wanted to start with something to drink. She ordered a mojito for David, and pink lemonade for herself. The waiter nodded, paused, and finally asked, “Are we sure there will be no alcoholic beverage for the lady tonight?” Turning a coy, but confident smile on her. Aisha leaned back, patting her stomach and smiling. “Aha,” Exclaimed the waiter. “Congratulations, m’am. I’ll be right back with a mojito for the gentleman, and a lemonade for the mother-in-waiting.” He turned and walked back across the elaborately patterned floor.

Nervously fiddling with her gold wedding band, Aisha finally decided to fish through her purse to find her phone. David was rarely late, and in the seven years that they had been married, she had never known him to be more than ten minutes late without calling. Before going to dial his number, the flash of an unrecognized missed call caught her eyes. 2-1-5, 6-8-6, 3-4-1-6. She knew it from somewhere. After a moment, Aisha realized that it was very likely a part of the municipal complex in City Hall. She recognized the first six digits from working as a Chief of Staff for Councilman John Chambers on the 4th and 13th Districts of Philadelphia, but she didn’t know the exact party line. She hit “send”, and listened as the phone rang three times, before being answered by a familiar, deeply-set southern drawl.

“Hello?”

“Yes, hello. This is Aisha Durante. I am calling this number back, because I received a missed call from it about 10 minutes ago.”

“Oh, yes.  Hello, Aisha. This is Police Commissioner Morton Solomon.”

[After a hesitation] Commissioner Solomon…So good to hear from you! How are you doing? How is your family? I think the last time we talked it must have been during the City Council Budget Hearings, no?”

“I’m doing fine, Aisha. I called you because I have some very bad news. There’s no easy way for me to say this…your husband David was involved in a car accident on the way home from work and was severely injured. I am so sorry to have to tell you, but I figured it was best I call as soon as I found out. I’m so sorry, Aisha.”

“Ok.”

“I’m so sorry, Aisha. If there’s anything I can do to help…”

“Where did you say he was taken, Commissioner?”

“Umm, yes. He is at HOP. On the second floor.”

“Ok, thank you. I have to go.”

“Ai….” [Phone cuts off, Aisha drops phone on restaurant floor]

The Funeral

Throughout the procession, Aisha remained silent.  After the funeral, she sat down next to her husband’s headstone, bowing her head.  Several of her local church members, and her brother Jose, pleaded with her to let them come back to her house to cook dinner, but she remained quiet, not moving from David’s grave.  She sat for hours after everyone left, staring longingly at the small piece of earth that was now David’s final resting place. She sat, reflecting on her future.

As the light began to return, and birds chirped in harmony, she walked away from his tiny plot, her stomach seemed determined to tie itself into thicker knots. Their success had always been together, and she didn’t know what success would be worth if she didn’t have him to share it with. Part of her became a ghost when David passed on in the hospital earlier in the week.

She relived the last moments over and over; holding David’s bruised yellow hand; the moment that the Dr. Berger came into David’s hospital room, somberly telling her that her husband’s brain activity was in serious jeopardy, almost non-existent.  The man she had respected so much for his mind now lay beside her, completely thoughtless. The doctor had said with 99.9% certainty that David would remain in a permanent vegetative state, reliant on a ventilator to breath for him for the rest of his life. The only thing to really decide was when. She cried uncontrollably, asking God the same questions, until the dawn came again. A final prayer from Reverend Campos over David’s still body in the morning made her nightmare complete. She cried the entire drive home, and lay paralyzed, unable to move, in their second-floor apartment bedroom at 8th and Bainbridge.

Gone Till November

Unsure what the balance held, Aisha found solace in the thought of life shared between her and David, and the little one on the way. From time to time, she would touch her belly, overwhelmed with emotion. She would tell her child that his/her father was a good man. She had trusted every part of him; felt the kind of love that just felt pure, made it ok to desire another human being so strongly. He was a man that had worked to be successful, but it always seemed to be more of a bi-product of his efforts to help others. From his days as a community organizer in the struggling neighborhoods of Strawberry Mansion, to his law practicing days at Harper and Zach on West Maplewood Street, even to his job as Philadelphia City Councilman of the 5th and 14th wards, he kept one goal in mind before all others; improving the lives of those around him. Though David would not be around to see the seasons change, or see their baby grow, Aisha would do her best keep those comforting thoughts in mind. She would name her baby Zion, and the joy of her world would be her child.

 

A Dream

Aisha jerked awake and sat up, caressing her stomach. Her pillow and clothes were drenched in sweat. She quickly turned her head to the right and glanced at the digital clock on her dresser.  It’s red glow read 2:45 a.m.  She placed her face in her thin, honey-golden hands and sighed.  Her body yearned to lie down, and go back to sleep, but she refused.  The dream terrified her, and she wanted to forget it. If it meant staying up until the morning light peaked in through the window shades, she would wait. The dream was too vivid.  And it felt too real.  She replayed it in her mind, again and again, until she was nauseous from the images. She made the sign of a cross, and whispered a prayer under her breath.  Her eyelids felt heavy.  She fought with all of her strength to remain awake, sliding out of bed and heading to the bathroom for some Tylenol. As she walked a few paces, she noticed a consistent pain shooting through her belly. She made it to the bathroom, turning on the light the bathroom to see blood dripping down her legs. She panicked, and fainted to the floor.

She awoke, sprawled out, in a pool of blood and sweat. Frozen in horror, Aisha felt the icy touch of horripilation crawling up the nape of her neck. She looked down at the tiny fetus lying on the ground between her legs. Cries echoed off the bathroom wall. From the ground, rose a final blood-curdling scream, one that brought a squall of tears down Aisha’s cheeks.  “No! This can’t be happening!  My baby!” She cried out loud, as a cold shivers ran down her back. The baby’s mouth was shut, its eyes closed, and its little body unmoving. She realized that it wasn’t the baby screaming.

 

The Hospital

Aisha woke in a solitary room, occupying one of the two white beds facing a small flat-screen Panasonic television. Everything was quiet. She stared out the window at the raindrops slowly forming pools on the windowsill of the hospital room. Slowly, the horror of the night before crept back into her reality. She sat still, in a daze. Then, she cried until there were no tears left. Her body became numb again, a stone worn away by the movement of the tides. There was only sand left now. She wished she had bled to death the night before, instead of waking in the hospital bed, continuing this daymare. Pain seeped through her body, spreading from the center, until there was not a part of her that was aware of deep sadness. Her thoughts roamed from one line of the bible to the next, unable to shake the haunting lines from Job which she had read while mourning her husband’s premature death:

“Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery, and life unto the bitter in soul…let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, there is a man child conceived.”

A pink box caught her attention, sitting in the guest chairs on the side of the room. She picked them up and opened them, along with the card attached to them. Her brother Jose had come to visit her, and had left a set of I Love Lucy DVDs. The note said how sorry he was, how even Mom and Dad had said they didn’t wish anybody her misfortune. She didn’t remember him being there, but she knew Jose, how faithful he had always been, even when her own parents had turned their backs. None of that seemed to matter much now. Her spirit was broken into a thousand tiny pieces. Trying to pick them up would only draw blood.

Home Is Where The Hatred is

A day later, Aisha was cleared to return home to the lonely apartment. She walked into the small room that she had worked tirelessly to create for Zion. It made her sick to her stomach, and she gagged, silently. She lay down in bed. No thoughts could comfort her, and nothing could bring her away from her misery. Quickly, the baby’s room became an empty vacuum, filled with Aisha’s unspoken screams.

Needle marks in Aisha’s arm grew more and more pronounced, and she stopped trying to hide them from Jose and her close friends when they came to visit her. People couldn’t understand. The worst part was that she didn’t even care. She had stopped listening. Advice, as well-intentioned as it was, was generic and meaningless. She only knew pain. To lose something is one thing, but to lose it all? She had become delicately frail, losing the contours of her previous figure; and her golden skin had sank with its hearty glow to a pale yellow hue, clinging tightly to her skin. Eating became a chore, no longer enjoyable. Jose came by every other day, and cooked for her, but she didn’t eat much besides that, and was rarely even motivated to get up to the kitchen to get a snack.

Happiness was gone, a thimble in a giant haystack that she was certain she would never find again. Every day was worse than the next, and she knew it from the moment she woke, until the time she crawled back into bed. Even her dreams wouldn’t allow her to come up for air. Every sound was magnified, every nightmare more vivid than the last. The days happened. The nights became a never-ending rabbit-hole; shadows within shadows. She would lie in the dark green reclining chair in the bedroom, conjuring images of her past that she would have done much better to forget.

Nameless clanks and creeks sounded within her room. She wore David’s old unwashed sweatshirt just to be reminded of his cologne, and refused to wash it, or thrown away any of his things. She would have given anything to have his curly brown hair resting on a pillow beside her. She missed the drool spots that he left after a particularly long day of work. He had been her jazz band; the one to steady her, bring her away from frightening dreams, kiss her hands when she was nervous about a project at work. She couldn’t bring herself to turn off David’s five o’clock wake-up alarm, so every morning was another reminder of his absence.

YMCA

Anna walked through the double doors of the Chestnut Street YMCA as two young boys in oversized basketball shorts scurried by her. She smiled at their youthful energy. As she moved into the main lobby, she waved to a girl sitting at the front desk, and continued to walk through the hallway until it ended. She made a left, and walked up the steps, into the women’s locker room. She continued down the first aisle, and made a sharp right turn into what appeared to be a tiny janitor’s storeroom. She lifted up the combination lock, and turned to each individual number, until she heard a click. She pulled the lock up, and opened the small locker. Inside sat a picture of David, a beat up copy of the New World Bible, and a CD that read, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.  She picked up the Lauryn Hill CD, slipped it into her back pocket, and put the lock back on the handle of the small door.  She turned to leave the room, but remembering something, turned her attention back to the combination lock. Once open again, Aisha took off a silver amulet that hung around her neck, and placed it down into the cubbyhole next to the picture of David.  She picked up the Bible, and closed the locker, again. She was ready to go home.

——————————————————————————————–


[1]Aisha – translated in Arabic as “alive.”

[2] David – which in Hebrew means “beloved.”