One of the first things I noticed was how many visibly disabled people there are on the streets – people in wheelchairs (not the electric ones) trying to navigate the same lanes of traffic as the cars; people on crutches with significant disabilities crossing dangerous intersections; the prevalence of the obviously mentally ill who engage in shouting matches with unseen opponents. It’s not that the suburbs are free of suffering. It’s just that this neighborhood seems to be a place where, proportionally, more suffering people live.
Yesterday I saw something I will not easily forget. I was on my way back to the Hospitality House, driving north on Frankford Avenue. A sudden and violent rainstorm made driving difficult and visibility poor. Coming towards me, in the opposite lane of traffic, was a little boy of about 9 or 10 laboring to push an old woman in a wheelchair through the torrential rain. They were both completely soaked and he was trying his best to run and push the chair at the same time. The old woman was no bigger than the boy: she was a tiny woman, and both of her legs were amputated above the knees – the stumps protruding below her short pants.
In that one moment, so many things went through my mind. My initial thought was that, here was a young boy doing his best to take care of his grandmother – though I have no idea of the actual relationship between them. I feared for their safety – there in the midst of a busy street, during a storm, with cars everywhere about them. I flashed on how many people I had seen on these streets in recent days with amputated limbs and I wondered about the prevalence of diabetes among this population. I thought, again, about what it means to be poor and disabled – particularly in a society where to be either is bordering on the criminal. I did not, in that moment, wonder about why a child so young was left with a responsibility so great – an obligation that had clearly put him at risk. I did not wonder about why he was not, instead, in school – though it was early in the afternoon and he was of school age. I do not know their story. But, as a mother, I do know that this child was being asked to do something too big for him to do.
“Nobody comes to Kensington because they want to,” he said. It was during a conversation with one of the staff members of The Simple Way. “They come because they’ve been dropped here, or because it’s cheap and they can afford to live here.”
This is a place where people come when they have no margin — when they have no savings, no first and last month’s rent, no security deposit, no medical insurance. This is where they come when they are trying to get by on a tiny pension, or no pension at all, or Social Security Disability Insurance. This is where they end up when they’ve run out of other options and find themselves careening through traffic in the middle of a thunderstorm with no margin for error.
“Nobody comes to Kensington because they want to.” I don’t know if that’s true or not. What I can say is that, in this one section of Philadelphia there is a great gathering of humanity who live in the midst of terrible deprivation. And some of them manage to get by — despite very little margin for error.