I got up before 6:30 am, made myself a big cup of strong coffee, grabbed two bananas and an apple, climbed into my car, and hit the road towards Philadelphia. I was only semi-awake, but I was happy that I would finally photograph a rope suspension workshop and interview a man who organized it. It was for my pain project, which I started last fall. I had contacted this man weeks ago and last Friday, we agreed that I’d photograph the event and him and do an interview with him on Sunday.
I got to the location at 9:40 am only to hear him say on the phone: “I am sorry, today’s event was canceled. I forgot to tell you. I guess it is our fate not to meet.”
“…” I was too shocked and didn’t know what to say.
“They didn’t tell me until yesterday…and I just forgot to tell you…” He continued as he yawned.
Did he even feel bad at all?
I didn’t hear any sincere regret in his voice for being so irresponsible. For a moment, I was too outraged to say anything. Then I was too scornful of him to say anything because I now believed he was not worth my efforts to photograph or interview. Besides, what could I say? If an “F” word could pay me back the time and the energy, I would just shout it out loud to him. But it wouldn’t.
Instead, I said “have a good day” and hung up the phone. My voice was extremely cold. I didn’t want to be polite and say “that’s fine,” because it was NOT fine.
I put down the phone and was suddenly shocked by a strangely angry voice – “STUPID!” It took me a couple seconds to realize that the word actually came out of my own throat. And I felt very uneasy. I sat in the car, trying to calm down and check my urge to curse as I looked around.
Finally I started to think: Since I’ve never been to Philadelphia before, I’d better take a look at the US capital from 1790 to 1800, also the commercial, cultural, and educational center of the Delaware Valley, home to 6 million people, and the country’s fifth-largest metropolitan area. This could be my only chance to tour it, since I am moving back to China.
I started from the northern part of town, about five miles north of Temple University.
It was a sketchy neighborhood. On each street, I saw colorful murals, heavy graffiti, boarded windows of many abandoned homes, littered sidewalks, shattered beer bottles on the road. From time to time, I saw ambulances and police cars, whose sirens made my head skin itchy. On street corners, young people with alert eyes – often colored people – dawdled and laughed. They stared at me as if I were an alien from another planet.
At 5th Street, where I stopped to photograph an interesting sculpture, a young man kept asking me for a phone number and my Facebook name. I told him my number would be disconnected because I would soon move back to China.
‘Can I move to China with you?” he then asked. His tone was like “can I have a cup of tea?”
I looked at him. He looked sincere.
“Well, China is not an easy country to live in,” I said. Of course he had no idea there was a time I loathed the idea of moving back to China and desired to stay in his country. He certainly showed a strong desire to escape this ghetto.
At 7th street and Lehigh Avenue, I saw a man sneak into an abandoned schoolyard. The school was burnt down from top. I could tell it was once a magnificent building. The secretive man was in his 60s, or 50s and had long white beard. He looked around, then stole his way to a corner near the boarded gate, and bent down to the ground. Obviously he didn’t see me watching him from inside my car. I was wondering if I was witnessing a crime activity and if I should follow him to find out his secret.
Was he trying to get into the building through a hole or something? What was in this abandoned schoolhouse that attracted him? Drug? Or something even worse?
Now the man stood up, a hammer in hand.
Was he going to break one of the windows so he could climb in?
As I was trying to solve the puzzle, he repeatedly hammered a metal storm drainage pipe.
What was he trying to do? I was so puzzled and I had a strong desire to get out of my car. Rex, whom I was talking to on the phone, urged me not to go out and get killed. He knew I was in the bad lands of Philadelphia.
I continued to report to Rex what was happening outside my car as the man hammered the pipe. A Muslim man all in white walked past. Two men probably in their forties came to the street corner right by the school house. They shook hands and started talking. The man hammering the drainage pipe was either unaware of them or they three were all related…maybe they were planning something together? Something in the abandoned school yard? I felt like I was dragged into a conspiracy movie…
“You DON’T get out of your car in that neighborhood!” Rex warned again, as my eyes, wide open, switched between the man hammering the pipe and the men chatting at the street corner. From time to time, I also glanced around to see if more suspects would appear. I was almost convinced I was indeed in a crime movie now. What else would I witness? Would they find out I was watching them? Would I be able to escape if they found out? Maybe I would find myself racing crazily on the streets trying to get rid of some followers who were insane but skillful drivers? Would they torture me to death if they caught me?
Now the man hammering the pipe stopped. He pushed it slightly and part of the metal pipe came off. He looked around again. Then secretively and quickly he walked away, the pipe in his arms. The two men at the street corner continued chatting. They were either unaware of the thief or were used to this kind of activities, which were not worth their attention.
I sat in my car for another two minutes, wondering if the story plot would turn and twist. Nothing else happened except a few cars drove by. It was almost quiet, but the whole place felt murky and mysterious.
I decide to move on.
I entered Hope Street, which didn’t look hopeful at all. Many houses were abandoned and boarded. The lived-in houses were not well taken care of. There were few people on the street, but from time to time, I saw vigilant looking faces peeking from behind their windows or doors.
Finally I saw a man bathing his dog. At least that’s a positive sign of life, I thought and walked up to him. It is always easy to start a conversation when there is a dog or a child in the scene. The man told me the neighborhood was “all right but a little too loud.” I understood the loudness came not only from hip-hop music, but also from fights and drive-by shootings. After traveling with my camera for a couple years, I am now far more street-wise than when I was living in the ivory tower, though I am still ridiculously naive in many people’s eyes.
At Somerset Avenue, I found a group of people dawdling under a railway bridge. They could be drug sellers or buyers. Everyone was watching me. Many warned me not to take their pictures. One asked what I was doing in this ghetto. He seemed quite surprised to see a Chinese woman with a camera. Another one simply asked, “hey, how old are you?” He seemed too young to understand I was not from there. Or he immediately saw I am not as street wise as others and hoped to take advantage of me.
“I am OLD!” I replied.
“Like in your forties?” he said.
“Do you have kids?”
“I have several kids.” I said.
I learned this lesson from my experiences at a ghetto in Dallas. Young men usually left me alone if I told them I was much older than them and had kids. One time, I told a man I had six kids and he believed it! I also learned that I’d better look sloppy and not dressy in those neighborhoods. I did look sloppy that day. But my new D700 made me vulnerable. Instead of hanging it from my shoulder, I hung it from my neck, my right hand holding it all the time, unless I had to take notes.
About 1 pm. I decided I had enough sightseeing of the ghetto, and it was time to take a look at the good side of the town. I drove south to downtown. It was a totally different scene. Middle class tourists enjoyed carriage rides and appreciated the historic buildings, which might take them back to the over 200 years ago. This reminded me of a flag with a number “76” I saw on a wall in the ghetto. It felt ironic.
Then I saw a line printed on a wall inside the first courthouse of the country. It said: “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay, right or justice.”
This was quite a good wish, wasn’t it?