December 15-21, 2005
From the grit of the city to the heart of the country.
Lancaster Avenue is a landscape.
(The realized, the forgotten, the snuffed-out dreams.)
It is a landscape unique in its disparity: 62 miles long from the tattered rhythmic streets of West Philadelphia to the comfortable tranquility of the Main Line to the dust-bowl eyes of shuttered factory towns and finally to the sprawling Amish farms of Lancaster County.
It is a poem, a plea, a waltz.
It is its people, woman, man and child, bruised and beautiful and all found in their struggle.
It is us in a glimpse.
It is us in a brief flash of light
It is Harold, 70 years of age, fit and muscled, jheri curls, sleeveless nylon shirt, matching gym shorts and socks, sitting outside his candy shop at Preston and Lancaster. A voice that could boom through a hurricane. Listen to him yell at everybody who walks past. "All right. All right. How ya all? How ya be?" And everybody shouts back in laughter. It is a welcomed exchange, dependable. Someone once told Harold that reality can be overwhelming or it can be shadows, depending on how you look at it. Harold liked that, understood it. Harold has his pastwomen, booze, bank robberiesand he has what's in front of him: the Avenue. Its broken glass and peeling paint. Its trolley cars and street vendors. Its sirens and victims. Its faces. Sometimes, Harold will lean back in his chair, narrow his eyes and let the faces blur with his imagination, blur with the shadows. Miss Jones becomes Marilyn Monroe. Ole Ronnie becomes Boris Karloff. Harold will laugh with himself and then someone will walk by and shout hello, snapping him back into it. "All right, all right. How ya all? How ya be?"
It is Our Mother of Sorrows Catholic Church at 48th and Lancaster, where parishioners recently repurchased the organ they were forced to sell off some years ago to pay the parish bills. The organ is broken now. "But maybe someday," says Father Okonski, "we'll get it working again."
It is Junior's tire shop at 60th and Lancaster. Junior used to keep pit bulls tied up in the front yard. One night, someone stopped by to rob Junior and wound up caving in his skull with a ball peen hammer. The pit bulls didn't bark. "It had to be an inside job," says Junior's nephew Mike, who runs the shop these days. "Or else those dogs would've snapped."
It is the Saturday afternoon football game at the Haverford School, where, after a victory, the cheerleaders cheer, "We're so proud of us but we're also proud of you."
It is the gardener whose ass crack shows as he clips the shrubs of a Main Line estate.
It is a young mother in Wayne corralling her four children into a gourmet bakery while her husband spends the afternoon golfing.
It is the eyes of an old woman peering out from a hair set. "Whatcha looking at bubblehead?" she asks.
It is endless car dealerships and strip malls.
It is an aspiring rapper named Day-Day sitting on a stool in a record store in the depressed steel town of Coatesville, his head in his hands, embarrassed, as his self-produced CD plays over the speakers. "What would you do if I die?" he raps. "Would you look at the ground and walk on by, would you laugh, would you cry, would you even ask why?"
It is Dottie Allen, whose peeling roadside cabin gets splattered with mud kicked up by 18-wheelers that power down the Avenue. It is her son Jonathan who was shot and nearly killed at a party. His breath suddenly escaped him and he felt a burn in his chest. Two of his fingers stuck together. He walked into the bathroom, pulled down his shirt and a fountain of blood sprung from a dime-sized hole. He lay down on the floor and a friend propped up his head. He remembers everything getting peaceful in the ambulance. Commotion without noise.
It is Ike Eichelberger, who worked in a steel plant for 46 years before retiring to play Santa Claus. Ike and his wife never had any children. He wells up whenever he talks about the joys of playing Santa.
And, it is Barbara, a middle-aged woman who works in a pretzel shop in the village of Intercourse, the heart of Amish country. Barbara is not Amish but spends a lot of time fielding dumb questions from tourists. Barbara always answered the questions the best she could but never really understood Amish culture until last year when her daughter accidentally ran over an Amish boy who was rollerblading in the darkness. The boy was hurt bad and Barbara and her daughter were unsure if it would be appropriate for them to go to the hospital to visit him. Then the boy's father called. "We don't believe in accidents," he said. "God meant it to be my son and he meant it to be your daughter. He meant for our families to meet." Barbara and her daughter spent every day at the hospital. Sometimes, they would hold hands with the Amish family and sometimes they would all sit together in silence, waiting. The funeral was held on the second floor of a barn and Barbara remembers hearing the cows and the chickens below. There was singing and the boy looked peaceful in his suit. The boy's parents met Barbara at the door and they all hugged and cried together. It was all so beautiful to Barbara, like it was meant to be that way.