On a drizzled, misty night, sultry fog wraps itself around South Philadelphia.  In the darkness, traffic lights and headlights reflect as colored smudges on the glistening asphalt.  Sirens sound intermittently beneath the towering skyscrapers that lie some three or four miles away.  Amidst this choking gloom, I pull my 93 camry up in front of a lighted porch and Brian opens the door of the house, looks around, says somethig back inside, and comes down and gets into the car.

With Brian inside, I head South on 32nd street and then hop onto the 76.  The whirring of tires turning in water surrounds us as we drive the freeway, then head to Broad street, and finally turn onto Pasyunk and park in front of Geno’s: home of Philly’s most famous cheesesteaks.

We get out of the car and I order three sandwhiches: one for me, one for Brian, and one for his brother at home.  We sit down and unwrap the little feasts: chopped steak, American cheese, onions, and oil dripping from every bite, sliding down our chins and collecting onto the cheap paper wrapping:

So, Brian, how are you feeling about trade school–are you ready to go?

Ah guess, Ah ont know, really.  Guess ahm ready.

We’re sure proud of you–Brother Phillips and I–this’ll get you ready to get a job and then you can go on a mission.

Yessir, a mission, preach the GOSpel, preach the gospel.  That’s right.

We continue taking bites and exchanging small talk.  While we eat, people park their cars in front of our bench and walk to the counter to order sandwhiches–the stream is steady the whole time we’re there, sort of a funny thing since the restaurant only sells three things: cheesesteaks, beefsteaks, and some other kind of sandwich.  We bite, chew, and and watch the headlights come and go, the traffic light change.

What time does your bus leave in the morning, Brian?

Let’s see, its the 620, but I gotta be they at seven-thirty, it’ll leave at seven thirty.  Then three awahs.

When we finish our sandwiches, we ball our papers into little wads and shoot them at the garbage can like it was a baskteball hoop–he makes it, I miss.  We walk to the car, and I ask him to wait outside.

Brian, I have a present for you, but you have to close your eyes.

He does, and, from the backseat, I retrieve my off-white sport coat, the one that used to belong to my Grandpa Homer, who lived in Philly, who used to attend Church up on 45th and Chestnut:

Brian, do you remember what we talked about in Sunday School yesterday?

Yessir, we talked about MISsionaries, missionaries.  

Yes, and what else?

Um, we talked about the prophet and the authority.

That’s right, we talked about Elijah and the mantle of authority and how it is passed from one prophet to another and then I had you and Mark come up and I put my coat on Mark and we said he was the branch president and then when we called you to be president we took the coat off Mark and put it on you–the authority went from him to you.

Knowing what this was about, Brian started smiling:

You can open your eyes

He did

Brian, I want you to have this.  It’ll be too big, but I want you to take it and remember you’re preparing to be a missionary–remember to be clean.

Now we were looking into each other’s souls, and the cars whizzed by almost unnoticed.

Thank you, thank you very much, for the cheesesteak and the jacket.

Your welcome, Brian, we’re proud of you.

Without much else to say, we got back in the Camry and headed North toward Brian’s home.  Leaving the vicinity of Geno’s, the street-lamps became fewer and the streets narrowed.  Darkness crept about us, made thicker by the fog, and the comforting sounds of the city died down.  In the mist outside, brawny men in dark hoodies huddled on corners and passed in packs, slouching menacingly like phantoms wandering listessly through the night.  Some chanced a glance at us but most passed as if floating, heads bowed–the derelict concrete steppe of abandoned basketball courts and empty swimming pools transformed into a graveyard haunted by wandering apparitions.

The light turned red before I could get through it.  I stopped and tried to non-chalantly lock my door.  The light wouldn’t change, I pondered proceeding through the red light.  I eyed my rearview mirror, my side mirror, my window.  The light changed, we passed fifteenth street.  Brian began:

Dis is a bad neighborhood, one of the worst.  Twenee first street, they like to kill twenee seven; and twenee five like to kill twenee nine.  Ah ont know why they do it, they’s jealous I guess–scared, maybe.  Dat right there, that court, dat’s where they killed one of em–he was doing community service, they killed him with a sawed-off shotgun, blew im right in the face.  Man, why they do that, ay ont know.

Do you know the kids in the gangs, Brian.

Some of em, I know; they uh not my friends, but ah know em.  Shoot.

Stopped again by a traffic light, I look to my right and see mangled railroad tracks, curling in the half-light; the base of a now gone freeway ramp slumps in the darkness like a slain behemoth, its heavy breathing almost showing while rain trickles down from somewhere above.

Again, we’re moving:

Brian, you go to school, you work hard, then you go on a mission, then you get married and take your family away from here–somewhere, somewhere where your kids can play on the streets, where they don’t gotta be scared–take em away from here.

Yessir, yessir.  

We round the corner and I pull in front of his house.  He reaches out his hand:

Thanks for the cheesesteak and for the jacket, I appreciate it very much.

Your welcome, Brian, good luck.

With that, he opens the car door and heads for the house.  I see his mom, waiting, open the door and let him in.  She closes the door behind her and, with that, Brian is gone.

Published in: on November 14, 2006 at 5:00 am  Comments (10)  

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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks for taking us to South Philly and giving us a glimpse of the challenges faced by a young Latter-day Saint there.

    We must pray the Lord will help Brian overcome the tremendous odds he faces.

    Thank you for the beautiful story.

  2. The phrase “is not this real” has double meaning in light of your story. The life you describe is reality for Brian, while at the same time, the Gospel can be a real force for change for him. We must hope he continues to make elevating choices.

    I’m happy you took him to get a cheesesteak. It may sound silly, but he will remember your kindness for as long as he lives. It may have been the first time someone bought him a cheesesteak. And the coat will serve as a reminder of the spirit he felt while he was with you.

    Let me suggest one more thing, obtain his address from his mom and write him a letter once a month. The continued connection will also strengthen him.

    South Philly, what a place. I long to be there. I miss the people, even those on the darkened street corners. “You work for Jesus? We gotchyour back.” Wonderful people. Wonderful people. Salt of the earth.

  3. Very nice!

  4. Your doing a good job.

    Young Men’s president right?

    What a great way to make a difference.

  5. Thanks to everyone for the comments and compliments.

    I’m actually serving as Priest’s Quorum advisor.

    As to whether I’m doing a good job: I sure hope so. The night before the above exchange took place, I drove Brian to Stake standards night and we spoke about our lives. During that conversation, Brian described the conditions in which he lived growing up and then asked me if I had faced similar things while I came of age–his tone indicated he was looking for hope in my positive response. I mumbled something, wanting neither to lie nor to deny him his hope.

    I wondered though, both then and now, about how I could possibly really hope to help Brian–I mean, how can I understand the things he goes through every day, his background, his poverty. The thought is sobering.

    Still, I know gospel message is without race, culture, creed, or economy (despite the cultural baggage with which we might sometimes burden it)–so I know something gets through the way I mean it.

  6. One other note: please excuse the awkward attempt to sound out Brian’s diction and elocution–it doesn’t do justice to the beautiful way he talks; I wish I could do better, but the best I can do is listen to his voice in my head and try to make the letters approximate what I hear.

  7. OH WOW Tyler, I absolutely love a great Philly cheese steak sandwich. You are so lucky to be out there in “The City of Brotherly Love” where a great cheese steak can be had on about any corner of the street.(or are you in Pittsburgh? Sorry friend, I forgot. Something tells me you are in Pittsburgh.) Hey Im sure a great Philly cheese steak can be found in both cities. A great Philly cheese steak is a work of art. Carry on with your fine work Tyler, Im a huge fan of yours and I think you are a first-class person. Hey Tyler, Could you Fedex me a couple of those Phillys?
    Your Friend,

  8. OPPPS. I just re-read your post. You are in Philly. You mentioned “Broad Street” which was or is the home of the “Broad Street Bullies” maybe better known as the Philadelphia Flyers. How well I remember Bobby Clarke flying up and down the ice with his hair flapping in the breeze. Back before helmets were required of course. And then there was Kenny (The Rat) Linesmann who would start a fight and then go hide behind Clarke who would do his fighting for him. Thanks for the reminding me Tyler. You being from the Beehive State probably have never heard of either of these players.

  9. Snarkey–

    Always good to have you around. What would MH be without you. If a cheesesteak were mailable, I’d send one out your way.

  10. […] one spring morning and who needed a ride to a place to stay.  It was the camry that figured in this story.  And, finally, it was the camry that turned around, after four years, and headed back around that […]

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