Excerpt: Somehow, He Escaped
THE ENTRANCE TO the East Falls Housing Project was no more than a couple hundred yards north of the Schuylkill River, which flowed straight through the city. The Schuylkill was neither a raging cataract nor a mythical waterway, and while it’s true that the river was the preferred setting for paintings by Thomas Eakins, the greatest artist America has ever produced, few Americans are aware of this. Despite this lack of epic stature, the river was reasonably wide, with plenty of open space on either bank where people could picnic, fish, frolic with their children, or sit back and watch the world go by. It was a feature of the landscape that had the power to console and inspire; it was lovely, it was accessible, and it was free.
My family never went down to the Schuylkill. We never went on picnics. We never set up a folding table and sat out playing cards or checkers. And we certainly never watched the regatta teams row past. The river was off-limits to us. The official party line was that it wasn’t safe for children to go down to the river by themselves, because the area was poorly traveled and rampaging Negro gangs from North Philadelphia were known to pounce on defenseless tykes and beat them to a pulp. As for the prospect of a picnic, that would never have occurred to anyone in my family or just about anyone in my neighborhood. Poor white people didn’t go on picnics; the bucolic fete was the province of the bourgeoisie, or otiose Negroes. Poor white people stayed inside and watched sports and drank beer and terrorized their kids. All the years that we lived in the project, all the years that we lived just a hundred yards away from a placid, slow-moving river that could have provided a respite from our unhappiness, we simply ignored it.
One summer morning not long after we moved to East Falls, my father woke me early. He said he was headed downtown to apply for unemployment compensation and wanted me to come along. I didn’t know what unemployment compensation was — it took me a long time to understand the protocol involved in losing a job — but the prospect of embarking on an adventure with my dad was thrilling. What I didn’t realize when he issued the invitation, however, was that we wouldn’t be taking the bus, the subway or the trolley car downtown that morning, because we had no cash on hand. Not one thin dime. Not one red cent. Not even one wooden nickel. Nothing. Instead, we would be making our way on foot. Children have a distorted concept of size and space, so in my memory, the distance between our home and downtown Philadelphia was easily 15 to 20 miles, a Herculean trek for a youngster, as we would also be making the return trip on foot. This made the outing immeasurably less appealing.