My neighborhood

We played full contact football on the prison wall at 20th and Fairmount Avenue in the City of Brotherly love. lt was the only grass I knew of in the ghetto. In order to play, we had to hike each other up a wall about seven feet high, and then pull the last man up by his hands. The strip of grass was perhaps ten yards wide and at least sixty feet long before we would hit another wall.

In retrospect, I realize even more fully now how dangerous it was. If we would have run out for a pass or got hit wrong, one or both kids would have fallen to a bad one on the cement below. Although as I recall, a few did fall and made it home alive. I think it was the danger that made playing football on the prison wall such fun. The guards in the tower would watch us and at times give us a cheer.

This was an old prison that looked like some medieval castle with large granite blocks roughly hewn. Georgie Farr lost his two front teeth when he went down head first into one of those blocks. When he got home his dad gave him a vicious beating for it. His dad was a mean drunk who a few years later was shot to death on his way home from the taproom. Georgie snuck out of the apartment that night and came over to see me. He had a quart bottle of Ortliebs beer. I got him up to my bedroom via a fire escape rope that was curled in a metal box next to the wíndow.

My bedroom was on the third floor. We lived in an apartment building owned by a Puerto Rican man named Mr. Rodrlguez. He lived on the second floor of this buildlng with his wife and two daughters, Sonia and Maria. I was 12 at the time and the girls were 14 and 15. Both of them, as I recall, were stunning. Sonia had hair down to her calves, and it was really curly. I used to hide and watch while her mother brushed it every day and then braided it up.

The fírst floor was a shoe shop that Mr. Rodriguez owned as well. I swept the floor for hím every day, and he would give me a quarter. He did not speak any English, and I in turn did not speak Spanish. Yet, through sign lanquage, we got along famously. T think he always wanted a son, so I became sort of a surrogate for that purpose. I always tried to have lunch with his family. The food was really good, but my true motivation was to sit down with Sonia and Maria. Both of them flirted with me, in turn. Like their father and mother, they did not speak English. My biggest break in life was when the girls came home from school and their father asked me to help them learn to speak English. This break paid off in big dividends both financially and romantically . . . with both girls at different times.

My mother worked behínd the soda counter in a drugstore on Ringe Avenue. Mr. Silverman and my mother had to be the only two white people in that entire section of the city. Each evening I would go to pick her up and walk her home through blocks of hatred. It was always fraught with danger for a young white boy. One time, a couple guys chased me with bows and arrows. A fired arrow once stuck in the cement between the bricks of a building. It just missed me by inches.

When I approached one block in particular, I went up a fire escape and ran along the roof to the other end of the other end of the block before climbing back down and continuing on my way. Georgie Farr had a few guns and gave me one, which I began carrying with me every place I went. Especially when I walked my mom home after work. On a couple occasions I fired it into a gang of kids who were chasing me. I became bolder, and never again did I run over the rooftops.

Today, Philadelphia is among the worst American cities for gang violence and murder. It remains the only American city that was bombed by the police, destroying three square city blocks. The mayor at the time ordered the bombing in order to dislodge James Africa from his apartment building. They killed his children, yet mayor Goode was reelected. This was my city and my neighborhood.

Joe Labriola

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