Norris Square is both lovely and out of place—a park interrupting trash-strewn streets and dirty concrete with a sudden surprising burst of green. Elegant decaying townhomes surround the square and convey the neighborhood’s history—its prosperous origins and decades spent waiting for rescue.
Momentum generated by new construction and an influx of new residents in nearby Northern Liberties and Fishtown suggest that Norris Square, which sits just 3.5 miles from City Hall, might be reborn. And by all the principles of urban development, it should be—the homes restored, the park filled with families slurping ice cream, young couples picnicking, musicians strumming guitars. But something is wrong.
There’s a toxic quality to the surrounding streets, made real by the boys on the corners, bristling and edgy, who serve up dope and other drugs to the customers streaming in from wealthier neighborhoods on the nearby El trains. And then there are the incidents that attend these boys, like sparks trailing a fire.
Shawn “Frogg” Banks grew up in the midst of all this, and this past spring he started teaching classes for schoolkids—two groups, totaling 22 boys, in trouble for repeated behavioral issues. Most of the boys had no father figure at home, or had dads who’d done jail time. Statistically speaking, these kids are known as “at-risk youth”—a population we’re most likely to encounter 10 years from now in mug shots or victim photos.
Banks, an ex-con, is in a unique position to keep these kids from living out that fate. He calls his course The Urban Lifestyle 101. When I start attending Banks’s classes in May, at the William McKinley School, his attention is focused on a new gang that is forming—recruiting kids as young as second grade. The name of the gang is childlike: Bad Boys Rumble. But Banks says it would be a mistake not to take the group seriously.
“I grew up around gangs,” he says. “But they made you wait till you were a certain age to join. Now you got second-graders being pressured to be in a gang.”
It’s a Tuesday morning, and Banks is starting the first of two classes he teaches. The first group includes seven-to-10-year-olds, sitting at attention as he starts to speak.
“How many of y’all heard the gunshots the other night?” he asks.
Right away, five of the 13 kids in the room raise their hands.
“How many of your moms told you afterward that they saw it?”
The same five little hands remain up, tiny fingers splayed.
Banks gave up guns and drugs a long time ago. But at 42, he still appears youthful. Even his curly hair suggests athleticism and vitality. The kids can smell his experience on him like musk. And they respond with unconcealed interest to the sudden presence of a man, offering to help with their pain.
“For those who don’t know,” says Banks, “two guys shot each other out in the street. One died right there at the scene. The other died in the hospital. It’s bad, right?”
The kids nod glumly.
“And what we doin’ in here,” says Banks, “is learning how not to become one of those people.”
The kids keep nodding, more vigorously now.
“Let me ask you a question,” he says, “just to see where you’re at. How many of y’all know what them boys on the corners be selling?”
Little-boy voices call out: “Weed!” “Dust!” “Crack!” “Coke!” “Dope!” “Heroin!” “PCP!” “Wet!”
Banks nods along to these sweet voices trilling misery—anA-B-C song of the neighborhood.
Between January 1, 2001, and May 29th of this year, 18,043 people were shot in Philadelphia. That equates to about one shooting every six hours. In that same time period, there were 3,852 murders—a new body yielded up for disposal nearly every day. The entire length of the conflict in Afghanistan hasn’t produced as many dead Americans as we’ve picked up off our city’s streets.
Unfortunately, political debate over urban violence reduces to opposites: On the left, politicians blame economic factors, bad schools and ineffective, even racist law enforcement; to the right, conservatives preach personal responsibility, citing out-of-
wedlock births, absentee fathers and the welfare culture. But many decades of violence—equivalent to a protracted shooting war in neighborhoods like Kensington’s Norris Square—have yielded a more pressing problem. According to some medical experts, a diagnosis we most commonly associate with troubled military combat veterans now fits many thousands of people in our poorest neighborhoods: post-traumatic stress disorder.
PTSD symptoms include intrusive, upsetting memories; nightmares; chronic anxiety and fear; memory loss; diminished interest in life; emotional numbing and angry outbursts. But it’s the effect of these symptoms that tears at the fabric of families and communities and produces the dysfunctional neighborhoods we see today. A war vet who suffers from PTSD is more likely to be unemployed, stuck in an abusive relationship, addicted to drugs or alcohol, mired in poverty and subject to violence. The same is true of people living in this city’s most impoverished neighborhoods. And it’s not a coincidence.
PTSD has been studied most in soldiers. But in research conducted in Philadelphia, Drexel doctors John Rich and Theodore Corbin have found PTSD rates of more than 70 percent among young men who survive being shot or stabbed. Steven Berkowitz, of Penn’s psychiatry department, citing the research conducted so far, suggests the PTSD rate among the urban poor at large could be as high as 40 percent.
“We’re talking about huge portions of entire communities that are impaired in terms of their basic functioning,” says Rich, chair of Drexel’s Department of Health Management and Policy. “These people are suffering and require medical attention, or the cycle will continue.”
The cyclical nature of urban trauma confounds us. We throw up our hands in disgust at the young, violent men of this city; we’re unable to comprehend how anyone could be so emotionally numb, so calloused toward the value of human life. What we fail to grasp, in terms of any coherent policy, is trauma’s strange dual nature.
Violent or traumatic events can produce what some researchers have termed “limbic scars”—real, measurable, physical damage to the brain. This is an effect of violence. But it’s also a cause, because the damage done impairs brain function—producing people who are emotionally numb, indifferent to the value of life and likely to lash out. “It’s a cycle that feeds on itself,” says Rich. “Without intervention, violent, traumatic events precipitate more violent, traumatic events.”
In Philadelphia, this cycle not only continues but mutates, pushing into comparatively well-off areas in dramatic ways. In summer 2011, the media’s attention was riveted by a series of “flash mob” incidents in which gangs of teens, with names like the Young Money Gang, prearranged to meet in Center City. Some of them robbed and assaulted pedestrians and restaurant patrons.
On July 4th of this year, a teenager trekked to 16th and JFK and punctuated a neighborhood dispute by shooting his rival. That incident was never publicly linked to the flash-mob phenomenon, but it was part of it. “These same groups that were flash-mobbing last summer were tweeting about coming out for the Fourth of July early in the day,” says deputy police commissioner Kevin Bethel. “It’s not clear which group this kid, the shooter, was with, but he was one of them.”
Bethel says he expects similar potential for flash-mob activity and violence around the Jay-Z Labor Day weekend concert. And Rich, at Drexel, says such occurrences don’t surprise him anymore. “Violence really does lead to more violence,” he says, “and we’ve got these hurt kids from the neighborhoods who are suffering the effects.”
What Rich and other trauma specialists really seem to be saying is: We meet the kids of Philadelphia’s poor neighborhoods too late—in mug shots, crime stories and obituaries. This distorted, narrow view wrecks our understanding of what’s really at work— showing only the ending, through death or a jail sentence, of a life that spans an entire narrative arc. This summer, however, working with activist Shawn Banks, I watched a couple of such stories unfold—stories of kids crippled by the neighborhood disease.
For a long time, Joseph Garcia stayed out of trouble. At 11, he was a gorgeous kid, with the thin physique of a boy built to bloom and the doe eyes of a child. He earned good grades in school. He did what he was told. And his mother, Diana, was less concerned with the dangerous streets than with getting him out of their small rowhome near 5th and York, where he played video games for hours on end.
“Are you sure you don’t want to go out?” his mom would ask. “Why don’t you go play?”
“Nah,” he’d say. “I’m good.”
All the while, his eyes remained focused on the screen, his fingers steadily working the game controller in his hand.
Diana’s days began early in the morning, doing quality control at Hatfield Quality Meats. Evenings, she arrived home and cooked dinner for Joseph and his sister while he filled the house with electronic booms and blurps. Sometimes, she filled his head with visions of the future—“You’re going to go to college,” she told him, “you can be a lawyer”—and he seemed to believe her.
Late at night, when she would awaken to go to the bathroom, she took the opportunity to peek into the separate bedrooms of her daughter and son. She loved seeing them at peace, their chests rising and falling under layers of blankets.
The family wasn’t unaware of the violence outside. They heard gunshots, like everyone else. And they knew what the ambulance sirens that followed meant. It was just that these facets of life in their neighborhood seemed separate, somehow, from what they had built. Then one night about 18 months ago, when Joseph was 12, Diana woke up, used the bathroom, and crept to her son’s door. On this night, when she peeked into his doorway, his bed was empty—his bedclothes lay frighteningly flat, as if he had been sucked out from under them.
In many respects, Diana was alone—had been alone for a long time. There was a period when the biological father to her children had been deeply involved in raising them. But he got arrested when Joseph was just four, on a drug-dealing charge. After his arrest and jail time, he was deported to his native Dominican Republic. Diana moved on, seeing another man, who even moved in. But Joseph never took to him as a father, sometimes even calling him “Bro.” So it was only her blood that was really missing now—that had disappeared from the house.
That night, she dressed, her heart filled with the worst possible fears, and swept into the streets, looking for her son—the little boy she’d once begged to go outside and play, now loose in the wind.
In 2010, around the same time Joseph was still content with video games, seven blocks away, a young man seven years older than him, named Antwan Pack, seemed ready for big things, a special kid rising up out of a bad neighborhood.
Pack was five-foot-four, lean and good-looking, with high cheeks that caught the light when he smiled and enough little boy in him to go right on kissing his mom, even at 18.
Melva Pack was a big woman. She bequeathed Antwan that smile and felt grateful for how her boy had turned out. Living around 4th and Berks, Antwan grew up hearing gunshots squeezed off regularly. But he lived a life that suggested the echoes hadn’t touched him.
He graduated from high school, at Benjamin Franklin, in 2010. He took his sister to the prom. He started attending community college, hoping to major in architecture. The only thing he did that worried his mother was keep bad company.
Melva Pack often told Antwan he was running with the wrong people. His clean legal record, high-school diploma and year in college, she told him, should be all the proof he needed. But he took them on as his set all the same, men on the same path as his father, who bounced in and out of jail on drug charges.
Then something happened to alter his course.
One night in 2010, Antwan, then 18, met up with his friends in Fairmount, near 17th and Francis. They were just sitting on some stoop, talking, when bullets started whizzing past, ripping up the pavement.
Antwan ran so fast, his adrenaline pumped so hard, that he never even felt the stern punch of those bullets—to his hand, to his chest.
Then someone else saw the blood.
There was no official breakup ceremony with him and those boys. But he started keeping his distance. Shot in the chest with no major organs damaged, Melva Pack’s son seemed to understand his luck.
“Cortisol and adrenaline are important and healthy when delivered into the bloodstream in the right amount and under the proper circumstances,” says Drexel’s John Rich. “Like, say, if you’re chased by a dog.”
Cortisol and adrenaline are what fuel the fight-or-flight response. In evolutionary terms, they’re a big reason we’re here—they narrow our focus to the source of a perceived threat and produce our sudden burst of energy to fight or run. The problem is that when they’re released in large amounts, these chemicals actually cause damage to the brain.
What our soldiers and the citizens of our poorer neighborhoods have in common is the regular, repeated experience of undergoing this fight-or-flight response. In many city neighborhoods, residents hear gunfire frequently—at least once every two or three weeks, sometimes far more often. Parents speak of training their kids to get low at the sound of a gunshot, to crawl toward interior rooms, away from windows. “People in impoverished neighborhoods can have brains that are essentially bathed in cortisol,” says Rich.
And that can damage crucial areas of the brain—the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus, the amygdala—central to long-term thinking and reflection, learning and memory, and emotions like fear and anger. In fact, imaging scans of a PTSD sufferer’s brain show the winnowing of gray matter responsible for adult reasoning and thinking. They also show hyperactivity in the more primitive, emotional parts of the brain.
No one knows precisely why some people can recover from a traumatic event while others require treatment for PTSD. But we do know the urban poor may be even worse off than our country’s soldiers. Among the clearest risk factors for developing PTSD is undergoing trauma as a child—something inner-city kids are particularly prone to. Further, a traumatized soldier home from war might well return to a safe community and stable family structure. In comparison, poor urban neighborhoods comprise test labs where vast numbers of people with PTSD—tens of thousands, if not more—live in close proximity to one another, undiagnosed and untreated. This dynamic, in which poverty, violence and a large traumatized population co-exist, points toward a second condition that Drexel’s doctors call “toxic stress,” wherein people enduring persistent threats and trauma may suffer from many of the symptoms of PTSD without qualifying for that diagnosis.
In this environment, comparatively healthy neighbors can only adapt to the dysfunction in their midst. The result is that the effects of trauma become all-pervasive, embedded in the culture of the urban poor, and difficult to divine. Trauma, as it substantiates in a human being, can take so many forms. It can drive people to drink and take drugs. It turns the good men in this city’s bad neighborhoods into living ghosts—men who drift off to work and back inside their houses, heads down, afraid to tell skinny 15- and 16-year-old boys how to behave for fear of being shot. Trauma and this poisonous, persistent tension make it difficult, if not impossible, for people to maintain healthy intimate relationships—splintering the two-parent family. And trauma produces extreme reactions to real threats, like an argument, and smaller trials, like peer pressure.
In fact, under the constant threat of violence, inner-city kids tend to bond in extreme ways—hanging onto friendships even if it means putting themselves at risk, a phenomenon that helps explain everything from flash mobs to Allen Iverson’s sketchy entourage to our city’s ludicrous murder rate. “People will ask, ‘Where’s their common sense?’” says Drexel researcher Sandra Bloom. “And that’s a good question. People should ask it. And they should listen to the answer. Because what you and I consider common sense, the ability to plan for the future, to put problems in perspective and respond accordingly—these are some of the functions trauma destroys. And what you get from this is a breakdown of civil society and all its institutions: families, schools, children, everything.”
“How many of y’all think your friends will take care of you?”
On an early June day this summer, Shawn Banks is leading his class of youngsters again, and he smiles as all the boys raise their hands.
“Yeah?” he says. “Your friends, when you were a baby, did they ever come over and wipe your ass?”
There is a small window of silence before the boys grudgingly answer: “No.”
“Who did that?” Banks asks.
“And who puts food on the table?”
Again, a pause. “Mom.”
“And who is there for you when you get hurt? Do your friends come over with Band-Aids and clean you up?”
“Y’all think that if you get in with a clique, if you get with a gang, that’ll be your family and keep you safe. But I can tell you, ’cause I was in a gang, the gang’s what got me hurt.”
The kids look more circumspect at this, quizzical expressions drawing shadows across their young faces.
“A real friend isn’t gonna ask you to put yourself in danger,” says Banks. “A real friend is gonna want you to stay safe.”
After a while, Diana was clear about what was happening with Joseph: Her son’s problem was peer pressure. He had started hanging with a new crew, with boys who went by the names Javy, Fatty and Dante. These boys turned up at the house at odd hours, in the middle of the night, as though they had no parents at all. And sometimes Joseph sneaked out, when everyone was asleep, to run the streets with them. For Diana, it was like having a different son. Joseph mouthed off to his teachers. His grades dropped off. And one afternoon in January 2012, following school, he tried to sneak away from his grandmother’s house and get in a car with a bunch of teenagers.
His uncle stopped him, driving him back home to his mother.
Later, the news arrived.
Joseph’s friends had been in some kind of Facebook war, trading insults with boys from the Juniata section of the city. They arranged to meet for a fistfight. After Joseph’s uncle stopped him from getting in the car, his friends went on without him. When they arrived, the other kids, three brothers from Juniata, were nowhere to be found. Instead, their stepfather showed up, gun in hand, and started hailing bullets at the car.
Joseph’s three best friends—Javy, Fatty and Dante—all died from gunshots. And Joseph, who wasn’t even there, seemed somehow wounded, too. “He started freaking out at me over every little thing,” says Diana. “He would just explode, over anything I said. And that—that was not my son.”
Diana warned him: “I’m going to send you to your father, in the Dominican.”
Joseph missed his father but knew: She’d never send him away.
His hypersensitivity, the sudden explosions of temper, were likely signs of trauma. He tried to act brave. But he clearly struggled with grief. “My friends are dead,” he said, like an announcement for those who missed the news. “All my friends are dead.”
At the lowest depths of all this, his mother put him in a program for at-risk kids run by the Norris Square Civic Association. And there, one afternoon this past June, he talked with Shawn Banks.
“Would you like to get some grub before we talk?” Banks asked.
In response, Joseph, now 13, simply nodded, then made a show of being in control of the whole situation. The adults there, running the program, brought him some food. Sauceless spaghetti. Salisbury steak in thin brown gravy. Joseph leaned back in his chair like a king on his throne as the adults placed the food before him. Then he looked it over, and instead of devouring it eagerly, like a kid, he eased into his meal, like he wasn’t really all that hungry, like he had all the time in the world to eat at his leisure while everyone waited for him to decide he was ready to talk.
It was during this part of the charade, when Joseph darted glances around the table to see how his performance was going over, that he revealed himself—his mouth stuffed with spaghetti, his eyes uncertain. And in minutes, Banks got him talking about his fears—about how he’d rather not be in a gang but considered membership a necessity.
“If I ain’t in,” he said simply, “they’ll stroll me”—meaning the very kids promising their friendship would kick his ass if he didn’t swear allegiance.
How long might that last, before they gave up and let him go on with the life he wants?
Months. An eternity in adolescent time, quite possibly forever in North Philly. And it was Banks who comprehended and remarked upon the dark thought flickering behind Joseph’s eyes. “You can’t think farther than that, huh?” he asked. “Tell me, what do you see for yourself in 10 years?”
Joseph just sat there, staring at the table.
“You don’t ever think about that?”
“No,” said Joseph.
“What about being 20? I mean, you think you’ll live to be 20?”
Joseph looked weakened by the question. The silence stretched on—time suddenly gone elastic. At one point, some small noise emanated from his throat, as if he might groan his way to an answer. But the moment passed. And Banks just sat there, waiting, till finally Joseph spoke, shaking his head like he was sorry: “No,” he said.
After a year in community college, Antwan determined that his chosen field, architecture, was a lot tougher than he’d thought. He wasn’t quite sure what path to pursue. So in 2012, he decided to take a year off from school, to think about his next move and find work. With his mother’s help, he got an interview at the Hopkins Center, a live-in health-care facility in Wyncote. The food service director there, Aqullia Thomas, liked his enthusiasm and gave him a part-time gig, ferrying meals to residents and cleaning up. The job required a long commute—starting with the number 3 bus and ending with a shuttle, all for a 4-to-7:30 p.m. shift that paid just $10 an hour. But he took to this life.
A couple of weeks in, he phoned his new boss. “I’m just calling,” he said, “to tell you I love my job.”
Thomas responded warily. “What did you do?” she asked. “Did you do something wrong?”
“No, Ms. Thomas,” he replied. “I really just wanted to call and tell you I love my job.”
As he tried to navigate his way into the adult world, he started paying particular attention to an old head in the neighborhood, Shawn Banks. They’d have long talks about how to stay safe, about how Antwan could work toward employment that might mean real money. A couple of times, Banks gave him a ride to the subway so he could get to his job.
“You just keep doing what you’re doing,” Banks told him.
Antwan took that advice, giving himself over to the center, calling Thomas every night. “Has anyone called in sick for tomorrow?” he’d ask. If they had, he’d take their shift, putting in a 12-hour day. Aqullia Thomas had never seen an employee like this one, who gave effort so far beyond his pay, who saw in the rewards of his work a cause for celebration.
On payday, Antwan would stroll outside and open his check where the staff of the Hopkins Center gathered to talk and smoke.
“I love my job,” he’d say, performing some funky little dance and kissing that check. “Oh, I love my job.”
Sometime after his friends were killed, Joseph Garcia came to his mother with a question. “Mom,” he asked, “am I going to be a crackhead?”
Diana heard this like a signal from outer space—an artifact so alien to her own thinking she could barely decode it. “Of course not,” she said.
“What am I gonna be?” he asked.
“You’re going to be a lawyer,” she told him, “like we’ve always said.”
“For real, Mom?” Joseph asked.
“For real,” she said. “Now don’t talk this nonsense anymore.”
The question made sense to her only later, one night when she came home and Joseph was asleep. “Do you smell anything funny?” her daughter asked.
She didn’t. But she went upstairs. She leaned down over Joseph’s face and sniffed. She leaned down again and smelled his hands. Nothing. His computer was still on, though. And Facebook was pulled up. So she went ahead and looked.
“Anyone got any weed?” he’d written. “Any tree?”
When she confronted him about smoking pot, he didn’t deny it. “All my friends are dead,” he told her. “I’m depressed, and I don’t know what to do.”
“How many of you,” Shawn Banks asks his class, “if a friend said, ‘Hey, I need you to take a walk with me to the store,’ would just roll out and go?”
Every boy raises his hand.
“You’d all just go, no questions asked?”
The boys keep their hands in the air, heads nodding.
“You wouldn’t say, ‘What do you need at the store?’ And ‘What do you need me for?’”
The kids are emphatic, shaking their heads no, firmly, without hesitation.
“Nah,” says Banks. “When a friend is a little mysterious like that, then you gotta start asking questions.”
The kids stare back at him, inscrutable.
“I lost a friend,” says Banks. “Because a guy he thought was his friend was in trouble. And he said, ‘I need you to roll out with me,’ and my friend went, just like you’re saying you would. But listen to me: You don’t owe anyone your life.”
It was the afternoon of this past Memorial Day, and Antwan Pack was napping. He’d been pulling double shifts, picking up hours from people calling in sick. And he was going to get some rest. But a friend, Jahid, one of the boys he’d been running with for years, arrived and woke him.
“I need you to roll out with me,” he said.
Antwan hadn’t been hanging around Jahid so much since the shooting, but this was different. No one knows exactly what Antwan thought when Jahid showed up, but friends say he was essentially being asked to man up. And by the rules he had grown up with, he likely didn’t perceive himself as having any choice in the matter at all.
They set out on foot a few minutes later from the 800 block of Uber, where they’d dropped off a dirt bike with some neighbors. Then Jahid led Antwan north. Before they could even get beyond Poplar, however, they were confronted.
Two teenagers blocked their path, supposedly carrying on some beef with Jahid. Antwan must have understood, at this point, precisely why Jahid had asked for his company. The story that made it back to his mother is that he tried to forge a peaceful way out. “C’mon, it’s not even worth it,” he said, dragging Jahid away with one hand and pushing the younger boy back with the other.
A security camera soon caught a video of two boys—Melva thinks Jahid and Antwan—walking to the 1700 block of Ridge Avenue, moving easy, like whatever happened is firmly behind them. Then they disappear around a corner, out of the camera’s view.
A few seconds later, bystanders in the video turn, staring expectantly in the direction the pair has traveled. Then something happens. They stiffen, craning their necks like antelope suddenly catching signs of danger at a watering hole—and they run, scattering in every direction.
Melva Pack got to the hospital as fast as she could. The first doctor she saw told her the good news: Antwan’s heart was pumping strong. The worst was over. She felt a relief it’s hard to understand—her son spared, twice, from the price of his loyalty to his friends. But then time passed. Long minutes. No one emerged to tell her she could come see Antwan, could kiss him on the cheek.
After an hour, a second doctor came out to see her. He asked Melva Pack to sit down. And the next thing she knew, she was being helped up off the floor.
Antwan Pack’s funeral drew hundreds of mourners. The staff of the Hopkins Center was so broken up, management gave them paid time to attend. But when it was over, the life of the center had to continue. Aqullia Thomas returned to work.
She started by catching up on her voicemail. She sat down, picked up the receiver, and set her messages playing. The first was from several days before, on Memorial Day, time-stamped 1:59 p.m.
The voice registered, suddenly yet slowly, and for a moment Aqullia Thomas couldn’t believe it: She was really hearing Antwan. “I was just calling to tell you,” he said, “I really love my job.”
There’s a solution available—a remedy that might change this city’s funereal culture. But when entire neighborhoods become toxic, the medicine has to be vast in scope. “You really only have two choices,” says Drexel’s Sandra Bloom. “You can remove the person from the environment, or you can change the environment itself.”
So, says Bloom, individual treatment can be helpful, including both talk therapy and pharmaceutical interventions. But big cities like Philadelphia, with large neighborhoods subjected to decades of violence, need to think in broader, more dramatic terms. “To treat large populations and cause a cultural shift,” she says, “we need to look at the kinds of group treatments”—including group therapy sessions and a wide mobilization of mental health resources—“that have been employed in war-torn places like Rwanda and Bosnia.”
Upon first reading, this seems an outrageous statement. In 1994, Rwandans suffered 800,000 deaths in 100 days. But Bloom’s point isn’t that the horror visited upon Rwandans and the murder and injury rates in Philadelphia are statistically equal. Her point is that they are shared experiences of protracted violence that have shaped the way entire communities think and live.
Seven blocks away from where Melva Pack sat, grieving, Joseph’s mother, Diana, had been saving her money—$550, enough for a one-way ticket.
When she bought it one day in June, she sat Joseph down and told him. And just like she figured, he didn’t believe her. So she showed it to him:
Depart: 9:45 a.m., Philadelphia
Arrive: 1:37 p.m., Santo Domingo,
“You’re leaving in three days,” she told him.
“If you want me gone so bad,” he replied, icily, “you can send me away today.”
But Diana was too concerned for her son’s well-being to be moved by his anger. If she could enroll him in a boarding school or move him to a safer neighborhood, she’d bring him back right away. But the streets of Philadelphia seemed far more dangerous to her than living in the Dominican, where the boy’s father had opened a barbershop in the countryside. He described the violence as better controlled, less random and all-encompassing than in Philadelphia. And that was that. Joseph was leaving.
The following days passed strangely. Sometimes Joseph seemed excited about seeing his father. Sometimes he seemed scared at leaving all he’d known. “I’m going a long way away,” he’d say. But when Saturday morning arrived, he acted cool.
He dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt, the neighborhood uniform, topped by a Nike zip-up jacket with black kicks. He rode shotgun to the airport, fiddling with the radio while his mom drove. “I ain’t gonna hear music like this for a long time,” he said, trying to find every hip-hop song on the dial.
Even at the airport, he remained mostly silent. He ate the breakfast his mother bought for him—egg-and-cheese and a carton of orange juice. And a little after 9 a.m., his flight was called.
His mother’s face was already wet with tears by the time they exchanged I love you’s. But he kept his composure, even as they embraced. He always needed to act so brave.
It was only after he crossed to the other side of the gate, when he looked back over the thin nylon strap that separated him from his mother, that Joseph Garcia—a child, making his escape from Philadelphia—finally started to cry.