In Search of Milton Street

It has come to this: sitting in my Chevy Cavalier on a soupy August day, staked out in front of the home of T. Milton Street Sr. Actually, the rancher with seafoam-green siding in Moorestown, New Jersey, is his girlfriend's, but the bill posted by the door from whoever just cut the lawn is written out to “Milton.”

Long removed from his Afroed activism, the big brother of the Mayor of Philadelphia is keeping a low profile these days, ever since the papers soaked Milton and John Street with weeks of sour ink over a maintenance company called Notlim Service Management. Notlim is Milton spelled backwards, and he was its CEO. When the Mayor found out Notlim had a cozy no-bid contract down at the airport, he did something quite unusual. He told his big brother no. Election years have a way of making men say the most unusual things.

So against his instincts, Milton Street — the Muhammad Ali of Philadelphia politics, as a fan once proclaimed — has gone underground. And like The Greatest, Milton is but a shell of his former self in some ways — soft about the middle, battling a crippling disease, bearing the wrinkled brow and heavy eyes of a fighter who isn't ready to fade away yet. Look closely at his lawn. It's perfectly manicured, flowerbeds blooming and lively. The Virgin Mary holds out her arms beneath a sturdy tree on the far end. And as if to dismiss any doubt there's some spit left in the old man, at the edge of his walkway, visitors are greeted by a lawn jockey. A white one. Suburbia, meet Milton Street.

Those close to him say that when Mayor John Street snatched away his brother's contract, it affected Milton more deeply than any other conflict they've had. Milton says he earned it, and did so by the book. But these words come from a man who built his reputation by landing in jail, ignoring political etiquette, blowing off debts — in short, by breaking the rules. Just four years ago, he declared, “I don't have no morals.” It's no wonder few people outside his bloodline believe him.

I want him to make his case to his brother and to the voters who will soon decide whether life under John Street is worth living a little longer, or if his opponent may be on to something with all his carping about “isms,” as in cronyism and nepotism.

If only he'd talk. So I wait for Milton to come home.

THE SEARCH FOR MILTON STREET began with Shawn Fordham, nephew of his deceased first wife and a lieutenant with the Mayor's reelection campaign. With so much at stake for the city and his family — namely, John Street's second term — Fordham's reluctance to speak about Milton is understandable.

“I love my uncle dearly, but sometimes his antics get in the way of what he's done,” Fordham says. “Some of this little stuff now, it's Milton Street trying to survive. I think if the Mayor had never run for office, Milton's life would be very different right now. Milton is damned if he does, damned if he doesn't. The only thing he can do now is talk.”

For a while, he was talking about Notlim. Did the Mayor know about your airport contract, Milton? “The Mayor's probably going to shit when he finds out,” he told a reporter. Did anybody from the Mayor's office lend a hand, Milton? Seconds later, Milton called the Mayor's external affairs chief, George Burrell, a “fat motherfucker” and a “sleazeball,” and dreamed aloud of clubbing his skull. He isn't talking anymore, though, especially now that the Mayor made it clear he wants his brother, and his contract, to just go away. But even when Milton is quiet, he's never far away.

Until this past summer, few people paid much attention to Milton. Once in a while he'd surface as a consultant or when organizing an ill-conceived birthday party for his brother. Mostly, though, he tended to the hot-dog-slinging business he's run since the '70s, always keeping an eye open for new opportunities. Says electricians union chief John Dougherty, “Milton's like a great halfback. A hole opens up, he sees it and dives right through.”

Milton ran for the end zone on a Thursday in June when the Mayor's office and an airport spokesman confirmed that Notlim had won a $1.2 million no-bid deal to repair and maintain baggage terminals, buses and passenger loading bridges. Within hours, the Mayor threw a flag on the play, and called Milton to tell him he couldn't keep the contract. “It has the potential to be looked at as a kind of insider deal,” the Mayor said the following day, announcing that Milton would give it up. “The citizens of this city deserve the assurance that this isn't happening.” He then hinted that his brother had done nothing wrong, adding, “We wouldn't be here if … Milton's last name wasn't Street.”

For weeks, the papers reported on the resulting fallout, but with little context beyond daily developments or a standard-issue outrageous quote from Milton. Fordham agreed to help me, on one condition: that I check out stories about his uncle in two most unlikely sources — the Smithsonian and National Geographic. “You read those articles,” he said, “and I'll set you up with Milton.”

Dressed in denims and perched on the stoop of a rowhome, Milton is pictured in a 1978 issue of National Geographic brandishing his “master key” — a bolt-cutter he used to open abandoned houses for needy squatters. A year later, the Smithsonian examined America's “older cities” and, accompanied by another bolt-cutter snapshot, praised Milton as a “resourceful North Philadelphia black … not to be dismissed as just another sorehead.”

That's the Milton his family still sees: proud survivor of the racism that could have so easily destroyed a child growing up in the '50s with a father of German and Nanticoke Indian heritage and a black mother; the brickmaker's son who fought for the 'hood when few others cared to, or dared to. Born Thomas Milton Street 63 years ago on a farm in Swedeland, Montgomery County, he opted to use his middle name when his brothers started having kids, so he'd never hear them call him “Uncle Tom.” Privately, he's a jokester. To Fordham, he's still the uncle who would race his nephews every Christmas outside their apartment at Broad and Girard, offering up some outrageous purse to the winner. Uncle Milton, of course, never paid up — he won every time. When Fordham's brother started running track and nearly beat the old man, Milton put an end to the competition. “Now you have to carry that defeat around with you for the rest of your life,” he told his nephew. “You'll never beat me.”

Milton Street knows something about winning and losing. In 1977, the housing activist had a political revelation when a planned bus trip to protest in Washington hit a snag — no one paid the bus company. Milton borrowed money from a black minister and headed down i-95, but for all his trouble, he and his “urban homesteaders” got exactly 45 seconds of bureaucratic face time. Milton learned he'd need a title to get what he wanted. The next year, he became State Representative Milton Street.

He moved on to the state Senate, where his theatrics and support for minority concerns continued. (The night Daniel Faulkner was killed, Milton dined with then-journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal.) For the first time in his life, his donnybrook political style backfired, with disastrous results. Elected as a Democrat, Milton threw his support to the Republicans, turning the Senate's balance toward a gop tilt. In Milton's mind, it was a brilliant coup; suddenly, both sides needed to court his favor. “I'm a Democrat in Philadelphia, because that's where the power and influence is,” he'd later say. “I'm a Republican in Harrisburg, because that's where you can get what you need to help the people in your district.”

But his party-hopping cast doubts on whether anyone could trust Milton, and even his devotion to the people who elected him was questioned. His home-weatherization program was savaged when a kyw-tv news team found more than half of his employees were collecting both welfare and salaries. Two hundred and 50 homes were scheduled to be weatherized; just 56 were repaired, and many of those reportedly belonged to his buddies.

Ironically, it was a trio of former friends who eventually orchestrated his political demise. In 1982, black politics in this city reached its defining moment as a scrappy, unbridled Milton Street ran for Congress against the polished middle-class preacher who'd lent him money for the Washington bus trip, Bill Gray. Milton called the incumbent a “house nigger,” while Gray likened Milton's gop sympathies to shaking hands with the Klan. Gray won, then teamed up with consultant Jerome Mondesire and community leader Roxanne Jones to finish Milton off. Mondesire had been the Inquirer reporter Milton would call before launching a protest, and was given the handcuffs Milton used to chain himself to Council chambers. Jones was a guest at Milton's second wedding. Now, with help from Gray and Mondesire, she became a legitimate Senatorial contender, attacking Milton on two fronts — “What have you done for us lately?” and the weatherization scandal. Two years after Milton lost to Gray, Jones took his state Senate seat.

He'd never again enjoy the spoils of elected office, but Milton continued to flirt with municipal work — relationships that always ended badly. There were five-figure vending debts to the city. There was his gig as assistant budget director for Traffic Court, from which he was fired over $2,559 worth of his own unpaid tickets and a courtroom sit-in. (“Why the fuck should I pay?” he said. “I don't have any money.”) At a hearing over those same fines, he was arrested for busting a court crier in the teeth. When he needed better real estate for his hot-dog carts at the Penn Relays, a call to Mayor Ed Rendell's office resulted in a sidewalk promotion. That was not the only time John Street's friends looked after his brother. “People would come up to us on behalf of the then-Council president and say, 'We need to keep [Milton] under wraps. We can't have anything that would embarrass the Council president,'” says a source close to the Streets. With all his public follies, Milton never recovered from Roxanne Jones's addition of “former” to his title as senator.

“He made two major miscalculations,” says Mondesire today. “He stole money [in mishandling the weatherization program], and he fucked with us. Our strategy wasn't just to beat him. It was to crush him. We destroyed Milton Street. That's why he's a vendor today.”

SHAWN FORDHAM DELIERS ME to Milton Street, though not the one I'm looking for. Milton Jr. arrives for lunch on the Parkway, just a paper airplane's toss from Mayor Street's campaign headquarters, armed with his 11-year-old daughter, Alexis, and two photo albums full of his father's news clippings. Junior's frame is fitting for a man who says he spends much of his time stationed behind hot-dog carts. He's prone to bursts of laughter mid-sentence that swallow his words, and his full face is warm, only vaguely resembling his dad when he was Junior's age — that lean 36-year-old, bad-ass and spitting venom.

Our waitress leaves the table three times without an order, since Junior hasn't stopped to look at the menu yet. He has so much to say. As a kid, he was such a fixture at his father's side that Frank Rizzo would order his own security to look after him when things heated up, as they always did. Today, Junior realizes it's time to take cover, not throw punches. “That contract was something that we really had our hearts set on,” he says. “It's difficult to talk about it because the more you talk, the angrier you get. We can't afford to do that right now.”

Notlim was incorporated in January 2000, and Junior says getting into airport maintenance was his idea, not his father's. Junior admits that with Notlim, as with the family vending company, Street Food Concessions, Milton had turned over day-to-day operations to his oldest son. (Younger son Kevin is in a drug rehab program; sister Renee sells real estate.) Both father and son saw Notlim as an opportunity to enjoy a lucrative nine-to-five job for the first time in their lives. Assuming success at Philly International, Notlim would expand to other airports across the country. “I put a lot of time and effort into this,” Junior says. “It impacted me greatly. I respect my uncle. I'm just baffled as to why he asked my father to withdraw.”

Junior, the Mayor and his brother should have seen this coming. Around the same time Junior was researching airport opportunities, Milton was a consultant for something called the American Christian Institute, which was preparing to bid for the city's animal-control contract. At the time, Milton said of ACI's chief, “He doesn't know his way around the political, doesn't even know who the Council people and everything are. I sort of, like, guide him.” Of Milton's influence, the spca's head remarked, “This smacks of the worst kind of politics. You've got the Mayor's brother involved.” Milton's take was simple: “Milton's got to make a living, you know.” ACI did not get the contract.

Milton was also a consultant for General Asphalt Paving Company, owned by the city's longtime ruling gop family, the Meehans. General Asphalt united with U.S. Facilities (invested in and represented by Democrat attorney Tommy Leonard) and a division of Enron to become Philadelphia Airport Services. PAS went after the airport maintenance contract held for 11 years by local firm Elliot-Lewis, praised recently for its role in resolving the Convention Center's labor crisis. Milton said his complaints led to an extension of the bidding timetable so PAS could put its offer together, though the city procurement office denied that account. Regardless, PAS made its bid, and PAS got its contract.

After Elliot-Lewis mounted an unsuccessful legal challenge, things got really messy. As Enron imploded in early 2002, city controller Jonathan Saidel called for an examination of PAS. Airport officials and the procurement department told him not to worry. Two months later, Saidel announced that the PAS contract was one of many his office was investigating for its “integrity.” Again, procurement commissioner William Gamble and airport director Charles Isdell plowed ahead and renewed the PAS contract for another year.

That's where Notlim comes in. PAS had every legal right to farm out non-bid work, which it awarded to Notlim despite Milton's debt history (which includes $97,926 worth of wieners and soda Penn's Landing Corp. is preparing to sue him to recover). But at some point prior, Milton had become CEO of PAS, according to the Mayor's own spokesperson, Barbara Grant. Neither the Mayor's office nor PAS nor airport officials can confirm when or even if Milton was promoted, but if he rose from consultant to CEO, awarded himself a no-bid deal, then resigned from PAS to take it, there's a problem. (Among those looking to unearth these details is the fbi, which is investigating PAS and Notlim.)

The only Notlim-related detail all the Streets agree on is that the Mayor had no knowledge of Milton's Notlim pursuits. That's almost incidental, though. John Street didn't need to lend Milton a hand. Big brother had this one figured out all on his own. And if John Street truly didn't know what Notlim was up to, that's a problem much bigger than a maintenance contract, since it means that the Mayor and his underlings, like George Burrell, who serves as liaison to the airport, are watching over this city-owned $7.2 billion economic generator with one eye closed.

The day after John Street yanked the deal, Milton asked a Notlim administrator, Monique Minnick, to meet him for brunch at the Corner Bakery on the Parkway. He was still fuming, still trying to comprehend what had happened and why, for the first time in his life, his little brother wasn't bailing him out, covering his ass, or standing by his side. “I'm hurt, I'm discouraged,” he told Minnick between munches of a grilled vegetable sandwich. “I've never been so in touch with these emotions before. I need to pull back and collect myself.” Milton agreed to drop the contract, then did an about-face, going so far as to threaten the city and the Mayor with a lawsuit to keep it.

Junior confirms that neither he nor his father is pursuing legal options, and when he speaks, it's not with anger so much as sadness. Junior spent more than two years learning the business, he says, securing minority status for Notlim and getting it insured. His wife is pregnant, and Junior's eldest, Eric, 20, is in the Police Academy. (“I hope he doesn't get kicked out for being John Street's great-nephew,” Junior chuckles.) He's still investigating opportunities for Notlim at other airports, but for now, his ticket out of the hot-dog game is gone. Junior praises his uncle's work in office, and trumpets his father's accomplishments, reminding me of his “ungodly power” after he switched parties in the Senate and his tireless work for North Philly. Junior hasn't talked to the Mayor, and if his father has, he hasn't mentioned it. “If this wasn't an election year,” says Junior, “it wouldn't have been a problem. I just hope it can get worked out and we can all have smiles on our faces at the end. My father wants my uncle to be Mayor probably more so than he does.”

BEFORE CROSSING THE BETSY ROSS to find Milton Street Sr., I visit the Notlim headquarters in Essington. The building is mirrored glass and concrete; its parking lot is barren, and the word NETWORK — signage from the previous tenant — is still burned into its gray facade. Monique Minnick answers the door, then dips back inside to produce a khaki-clad white guy who identifies himself only as George, the general manager. George says he doesn't have permission to give me a tour of the spacious building. Aside from our chatter, there is no other noise.

Next stop on the Milton M.I.A. Tour 2003: his girlfriend's house, where I am presently stationed. He could be off on his bicycle, as he often is, wrestling for control of his body against multiple sclerosis, a condition he's been fighting since he was 26, when doctors at St. Joseph's Hospital said he might spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. In recent years, it's worsened to the point where his legs are sometimes so alive with pain, he can't sleep. As I sit in my car and wait, back over the bridge the city controller's office is auditing PAS and the Minority Business Enterprise Council, which granted Notlim minority status. Soon, the Mayor's office will announce that PAS will be renewed for yet another year, reversing a decision made weeks ago to rebid its airport deal.

A white Chevy Caravan pulls up alongside the white lawn jockey, joining two Mercedes sedans already in the driveway. Out steps Milton Street. Dressed in a polo shirt, a black baseball cap and shorts, he's much more full of belly and light of hair than in those old bolt-cutter photos, but no less intimidating. He pulls his racing bike from the back of the van, and I walk over to introduce myself. I remember that Junior mentioned a local news van recently parked outside Milton's house, waiting for him to come home. It made him very angry.

At the sound of my voice, he looks up from inspecting his bicycle and shakes my hand. A grin breaks across his face, as if to say, Another reporter, you sonofabitch.

“I can't talk now,” he says. “How's tomorrow?”

That's more a statement than a question when Milton Street says it. We agree to meet at 10 a.m. in the Marriott lobby, but the morning passes without so much as a sighting. All I get is what turns out to be the only statement he'll deliver — a voicemail, recorded at 10:36 a.m.:

“This is Milton Street calling. Sorry I was supposed to meet you this morning, man. I woke up this morning, my throat is all sore, like I'm getting some kind of cold or something.” With some hesitation, Milton recites his cell-phone number, then continues: “Again, I apologize for not meeting you, but my throat is sore as hell. Talk to ya.”

Even with his number, I find I'm still on Milton Time, which occupies some otherworldly plane between Eastern Standard and a galaxy far, far away. Messages go unreturned. Junior and Minnick tell me he's either ill or in meetings. Early in the week, Milton has a bad reaction to seafood and spends a night at Hahnemann. Days later, Fordham's 32-year-old sister succumbs to a brain tumor. Top to bottom, side to side, it's been a tough year for the Street family.

A return trip to Moorestown finds Junior outside in his white BMW, pledging to speak with his father for me. The next morning, Junior says Milton is in another meeting, but they'll call back. The phone never rings. I want to like Milton. I want to believe Junior when he tells me they did nothing wrong, that the Mayor killed their deal on only the appearance of impropriety, not on any sound evidence. Then I imagine how sweet Milton's pitches sound now to guys who need a guide through Philadelphia's municipal labyrinth: “I gave my brother $1 million out of my own pocket by giving up this contract,” he can say. “You think he doesn't owe me something when he's re-elected?”

One may argue that indiscretions resulting in a greater good for many are sins worth absolving. Such an argument is much harder to make two decades later, when all the sleight-of-hand, sidestepping and righteous entitlement leads to the fattening of just one pocket. Perhaps Milton could have been saved if his brother had put his foot down years ago, when all that was at stake was Milton's reputation and his livelihood and not a mayor's race. John's tough love might juice his polls a bit, but it comes too late to do Milton any good.

Steelworker, caddie, wig salesman, Mister Softee driver, hot-dog vendor, activist, senator, would-be dog-catcher, convict, consultant — the mystery is not whether Milton will be back, but what he'll become next. If John Street retains control of the city, he'll have four years to make his brother happy again, or at least to try to keep him quiet. If he loses, Milton could sue the city to reclaim his contract. Notlim is on its last legs either way, but as long as Milton can get out of bed in the morning, you can count on hearing from him again as soon as he needs to talk. Milton's got to make a living, you know.