What are you doing?!
Being a Streetworker at Voyage House included going for long walks with throwaway kids trying to get them to see a future for themselves. Geri was very bright and already living in one of our group homes attending a private high school on a scholarship. On this particular Saturday she told me she was high on some hallucinogenic drug and wanted to go for a walk. We left Rittenhouse Square and walked past the Art Museum into Fairmount Park.
At the Glendenning Rock Garden we stopped and sat next to a small brook running down to the Schuykill River. It was all very quiet and peaceful – not another soul around. Geri was being pretty insightful about her life, the world, and her future. I’ll always remember her telling me how humans should expect higher cancer rates, after all we give cows these chemicals to grow faster. She was just beginning to tell me about how she hoped to date this Black guy, and what all that might mean (she was a 15 year-old white girl who ran away from the suburbs to escape the racism she saw there), when this tiny man walked up with two packages wrapped in brown paper, one dangling in front and one in back, from a stick he had over his shoulder.
He came right up to us, didn’t say a word, didn’t look at us (as if we weren’t there), and began to unwrap the packages. From one he took out a scrub brush and began scrubbing the rocks over which ran a small waterfall. I had to ask, “What are you doing?”
“F******g Nig***s pissing in it all the time,” he said. No sooner had he said the “N word” when literally at least a hundred black kids came swarming right towards us. He gathered his belongings and went off a short distance standing behind a big tree so as not to be seen. We were glued to our seats in disbelief at how our quiet solitude had so quickly changed. Each little black kid took a turn getting a drink of water from the brook cupping their hands under the tiny waterfall.
Finally an older kid came up and I asked him what was up. He said he ran an outdoor adventure club for some inner-city kids and this was their spot to get a drink – the water in the brook was pure from deep down. Nobody I saw took a piss. Finally they all ran-off; the little man re-appeared, and recommenced to scrubbing. Sure enough he then used his stick to set up a spigot for the water to run off, and filled two plastic bottles with his drinking water and headed home. Geri continued to be one of our success stories and stayed with us until off she went to college.
Not every kid I worked with turned out a success story. The word on the street was that Hunter had taken the rap for his dad having seriously assaulted his mother because his dad convinced him that as a juvenile he’d only get a short sentence. Hunter was an angry young man no matter how many walks we went on. Once I took him to the Puerto Rican neighborhood near where I lived and immediately upon seeing a small group of Puerto Rican kids playing in the street he kicked off his shoes and charged into them fists flailing. (Apparently sans shoes was the signal for a fair fight.) I had to race after him and drag him out before the kids’ parents beat the s*** out of both of us white guys.
Hunter never changed. After I left my street work job I read in the paper where he was killed by a police sniper because he was up on a roof shooting at people below.