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George Street

Under a milky overcast, Tass Warfield crept through the rear window of an abandoned rowhouse on George Street and stood for a time in the silent kitchen. Wide gaps in the worn-down linoleum exposed the old tile flooring, a checkerboard of murky dark-light. He closed his eyes and took in the smells and sounds around the house. The acid tang of peeling wallpaper and its bone-dry paste from the dining room. A woman’s hoarse shout in the street and a boy whining back at her. Tass picked up Chico’s wheezy breathing upstairs. He’d be sleeping off his night of downtown sex for hire.

Chico’s whole life was down Philly’s pickup corner, 13th and Filbert, away from the downtown shopping streets and across from the porn shops. He hustled gays from dark to morning, some nights half a dozen guys, then home by daylight with a pocketful of cash money. Was that what sex was? Tass wouldn’t know. But he and Chico had something in common. Each had left home without a goodbye. Each went back rarely, in daytime, when only his mother was home. Chico gave his madrecita hundreds sometimes and told her to stash it where her husband couldn’t get at it. Tass’s job at the swimsuit factory didn’t pay much, but he’d slip his mama a twenty when he could, more if he had it.

George Street Ronald Jackson Philadelphia

JFK took a bullet in the head the week before, but it made no difference to Tass, and he knew it didn’t to Chico. Tass was outside such things. The same with the season. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s. His mother wanted him home, but she was the only one.

It was Friday, and the last parade of the week would start before long. His ears told him no third person breathed in the house, and Tass stepped down the flight of splintered, mouse-colored planks and onto the cement floor of the dank cellar. Two windows high on the front wall let in light from the street. From where he stood, he could see anyone who strolled by, but only their legs, unless he got up close. Chico had a little TV in his room upstairs. He’d spliced into the neighbor’s power line, and they used long extension cords to plug things in. Tass had no TV. Only a radio, his books, and the cellar windows.

In his little world at the bottom of the house, he had a private view of the afternoon high schoolers on their way home. Girls of all ages and colors from neighborhood schools came by at the end of every school day. They were lured to a narrow side street that few others passed through. Tass liked the life and guts they brought in. They smoked and lingered on stoops to tell dirty stories. He could see it in their body language and hear it in their tone, even when he couldn’t make out the words. They dipped into foot alleys to make out with any boy brave enough to tag along.

The joist above the window to his right supported the delivery end of a coal chute, which in better times fed coal from a truck outside into the bin between the windows. The drop end of the chute now hung by a thick rusted wire. The square opening at floor level allowed coal to spill out, and people filled their shovels and stoked the furnace behind them. He used to do it at home.

He got down and crawled into the bin. From inside, Tass liked to lean his elbows on top of the wooden fencing and get the view he wanted of the students. Chico thought he was loco, but Tass liked sitting in the bin, smoking and waiting for the parade to begin, then getting up and watching in secret. He could duck out of sight if someone peered in. Small chunks of coal rested in their own powder in corners of the bin, and shadows dimmed the floor in the middle. Now Tass positioned his milk crate to sit on and wait. He lit a Chesterfield, took his first drag, and blew out a cloud of smoke. The coal at home smelled like burnt wood, but here in the bin he could not smell anything. He took in a deep nose-breath and detected only dampness and the smoke curling around his face.

He held the palm of his left hand up. The late afternoon light was enough to see the blackness of coal dust on his skin. He scooped more up and rubbed it all over his hand to make it as dark as he could. Black surrounded by flesh without pigment. At nineteen years old, it still bewildered him. Not a light or dark brown tone or near black, like the people he lived among. Instead, a pearly albino complexion, washed-out yellow here, pale pink there, always trying to be one or the other, depending on the light. He reached for more dust and spread it over his entire hand. Was it this easy to undo God’s joke on him?

Cruel joke. His older brother Marques never let him forget. He’d picked up the badmouthing from Dad, who preached, “It toughen him up, he need it.” Through high school in Philly’s Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, Tass hung with the brothers in the evening on any stoop that let them gather. He stayed at the edge of the group and got used to taunts from Marques, who stood like a preacher, facing a crowd of a dozen or more sometimes. Tass laughed with the others—a way to pass time and an easy way out of shame. He pretended it didn’t bother him, and sometimes, when he lost patience, he got in his licks—usually something that had “Fat Boy Marques” in it. When Marques got nastier, he came up close and Tass smacked at his pointing finger, even as fear rose in his belly. Sometimes, he got slapped around till the others got tired of their act and broke it up. Once in a while, Tass snapped out, fought back, and got in close enough to do some hurt. Marques would stop quick, blink, and give everyone his little laugh of shock.

“See? That boy crazy.”

But Marques would not mess with him as much for a few days.

It was the same at home.

“Yo, Moby Dick, pass the butter,” Marques bellowed at the dinner table, all 330 pounds of him. His father sat at the head of the table, his mother at the other end, near the kitchen, and two boys, one too white and one too fat, sat opposite each other on the sides.

“Pot calling kettle black, fat-ass?” Tass replied.

Marques threw a slice of Wonder bread, Mom lit into them with words about respect and family, but their father enjoyed it when Marques taunted Tass, and he laughed. They battled till no one was left at the table except their mother in tears. Whenever their father led Marques from the room, his parting comment to his wife was something about the white freak she’d given birth to.

In the coal bin, he looked up to the window. Empty. George Street was a dilapidated place, housing the poorest and ugliest the blue-collar neighborhood had to offer, with every shade of skin, riffraff, and hard knocks. Tass liked it. It was easy to get lost and forgotten. He stood up and looked out the window on the left. An old white woman surprised him, ambling down the sidewalk, struggling to pull a fully loaded two-wheeler grocery cart behind her. He cupped his cigarette. Her eyes were wide open, her lips pressed together, and her head bobbed nervously. Whiskers sprang from her chin and her pewter-gray hair stretched back in an unruly bun. When she moved past the window, he hurried over to observe through the other one. She looked like the witch in Snow White. Or like the old ladies with babushkas tied under their chins who peered out the windows of the number 7 bus, avoiding his gaze when he rode downtown to his job at the factory. He could see the repugnance in their faces. Like the man said in the whale book, “The albino shocks the eye, loathed by his own kith and kin, more hideous than the ugliest abortion.”

Tass abided in the shadows. A black girl loped along, a gap between her two front teeth and a schoolbag bouncing on her hip. The hem of her uniform fluttered well above her knees, exposing her coppery thighs with every step. He’d seen them do it. The minute they were out of sight of school, they tucked up at the waist to raise the hemline. He lit another cigarette and waited some more. A group of Puerto Rican girls came roaring by, shoving each other, yanking hair, tossing cigarette butts and apple cores, shrieking and yelling “Bicha!” and “Fuck you, whore!” One girl stopped and tucked her uniform higher and higher and creased her panties in till her butt cheeks played peek-a-boo with the hem of her skirt. The others laughed hard and hiked theirs higher. They were rowdier than the brothers he’d hung with. He liked them.

Toward dusk, on his fifth cigarette, she came by. A lone white girl, dark hair down to her shoulders, creamy skin, and a slender nose. She stopped just outside the window on the right and checked out the street, moving her head one way, then the other. She lifted her leg onto the second step of the stoop leading into the house, then bent to pull up her knee-high, Kelly green sock. The hem of her uniform rode up and Tass trembled. He lowered his gaze as she reversed her legs and slowly adjusted the other sock. Then he looked back. With one leg still on the step, she lit a cigarette, smoked it down in deep drags, and became a goddess: breasts forward, head back, and lips flexed hard as she exhaled.

It was the girl he’d encountered a few weeks before when he’d popped out of the narrow, head-high alley that ran between rowhouses like a tunnel. It had been dark, and he was surprised that she simply said hello and smiled into his eyes. She was nothing like the white girls who turned away from him. He’d seen her before, always alone, always stopping somewhere to light up. At first, he’d wondered if she was whoring around. He said no to that. There was no whore in her. A girl who lived by her own rules and whims.

Tass looked up once in a while. The streetlamp at the end of the block came on and cast a pale light on her face, but not enough to see her clearly. It looked like she might disappear, but with each drag, the orange glow from the cigarette tip lit her face gently. Tass timed his glances for that. She was on her third smoke when a soft footstep and a man’s voice broke the silent, one-way communion.

“Gimme a light, miss?”

Tass stood quickly and leaned against the bin wall. Two legs covered in dark sweatpants appeared in the window, but the intruder had his back to the window and stood close, and Tass could not see a face. Now he could make out the sitting girl’s face more clearly. She grew serious and looked straight at the man.

“Where’s your cigarette?”

“Can I bum one off you?” came the reply.

A few moments later, “Thanks, slut.”

When Tass heard that, his breath quickened. He got low and crawled out of the bin, not knowing what to do, but unable to stand still. As he straightened up, he heard her scream.


When Tass got up on the window, the man attacked her. He held her wrist with one hand while he swept his arm across her face with the other. There was a long, dark metal object in his hand, and it took Tass a moment to see it was a knife. He’d slashed it across her face. The girl tried to scream but it came out a loud gurgle. The hooded man took one long drag of his cigarette, threw it at the cellar window and looked to where it landed. A pair of harsh eyes told Tass that the man caught sight of his face behind the glass. He was bending to look closer when a voice called from a distance.

“Hey! What’s going on?”

The attacker turned away from Tass and walked unhurriedly from the stoop. Tass took the stairs two at a time, ran to the front door and opened it. He stuck his head out just in time to see the man’s hooded silhouette strutting around the corner, like he was out for an evening stroll.

The girl groaned through a bloodied face, and Tass stepped over her and down to the sidewalk. The cut was diagonal, from the forehead over her right eye, across the bridge of her nose and down through the left side of her lips. She moaned quietly, from the corner of her mouth on the good side. In a trembling rush, Tass took off his jacket and sweatshirt, then slipped his T-shirt off and folded it into a thick pad the size of her face. He breathed hard and placed the cleanest part over her face, working quickly. He was careful to leave her good side free to breathe, which took a couple tries. She moaned loud whenever he touched her, and he breathed faster, feeling more and more panicked. With quivering hands, he took his belt off, lifted her gently by the back of the head, wrapped the belt around the pad, and made it firm enough to slow the bleeding. That moan was a loud, wet yell. Then her moans got lower in volume and pitch. She sounded strange, like she was changing who she was and flying off to somewhere far from the stoop she lay on. He hadn’t known what shock was, but now he did.

“Hey, you! I called the cops!” came a voice from down the street.

From another voice, “Don’t you hurt that girl!”

Tass heard a siren in the distance and grabbed his shirt and jacket. He took the stoop and staircase to the second floor in great leaps, stopping only to close the door behind him.

“Get up! Cops!”

Chico had his headphones on, but got up and didn’t question Tass, not for a second. He grabbed what he could shove in his pockets or carry easily, while Tass got his notebook and his copy of Another Country from his room. This all happened in half a minute, and as they ran down the steps, sirens told them the cops had entered the street. In the kitchen, as Tass threw his sweatshirt and jacket on, he broke the silence with a few words to Chico on what had happened. They slipped through the back window and out into the foot alley that ran down the spine of the block between high, painted-wood, backyard fences. Two rats scurrying from peril. Chico went east toward the Francisville neighborhood of many Puerto Ricans where he grew up. Tass went west toward his Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, mostly black. When he got to the end of the block, 28th Street, he adjusted his shirt and jacket and poked his head out. A large man limped slowly in the darkness down on the left, ignorant of the trouble around the corner. Tass darted out, crossed 28th, and entered Cambridge, another little side street.

He was nervous about Girard Avenue. It lay a half-block north, the lower limit of the sea of black known as North Philadelphia. In daytime, the Avenue was alive with shoppers, trolley cars, and deliveries—a dividing line where whites from the Fairmount neighborhood to the south and blacks from North Philly shopped, brushed against each other, and sometimes clashed. At night it was quiet, but still a place where stragglers made their way to a late-night diner or laundromat, and where patrol cars cruised regularly.

Tass slinked down Cambridge toward 29th. It had gotten colder through the day, and he felt the difference his T-shirt had made by fitting snug on his chest and belly. The wind gusted and swept the late fall leaves on the sidewalk into a flurry that slapped at his back and scraped past his ears. At the corner, he looked north to the intersection. If he could cross Girard without being seen, he knew every alley in Brewerytown and Strawberry Mansion. A patrol car raced through the intersection without stopping. There might be another following, but it was just as dangerous staying on the side street. They’d be cruising the neighborhood by now. He made a break for Girard, saw no flashing lights, and walked across quickly, but not too quickly, so as not to attract attention. He disappeared into an alley. In fifteen minutes, he was home.

He used his front door key, which he always kept on him, and entered the front hallway. On the other side of the archway, his father sat on the saggy armchair in the living room. That room and the hallway were lit in a silver haze from the light of the black-and-white-TV. It was tuned to Have Gun—Will Travel. For a moment, Tass felt soothed by the voice of Paladin, the gnarly gun-for-hire dressed in all black, except for a platinum horse—a chess knight in bold relief—that decorated his holster.

His father spoke over the TV.

“Oh, you home. What kinda trouble you in now?”

–Ronald Jackson


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