THERE ARE MANY CITIES WITHIN THIS CITY. YVONNE WILLIAMS' OFFERS FEW PLEASURES, MUCH HARDSHIP AND LITTLE HOPE OF ESCAPE. HERE, WHEN ALL ELSE IS GONE, THE CYCLE OF POVERTY KEEPS SPINNING.
Suppose you spent the last 10 years running for your life. Suppose you ran as hard and fast as your body could handle a body that bore six kids and had two abortions and once needed staples to hold the folds of its scalp together. And suppose, as you ran, you never once stopped looking, terrified, over your shoulder.
Suppose the crash of breaking glass and splitting wood was the only song in your head. Suppose you flinched at something as harmless as a kitten jumping from a countertop to the floor. Suppose you ran from block to block and house to house and neighborhood to neighborhood and in the end succeeded only in retracing your steps.
Suppose after 10 years, the thing that made you run for your life was no longer there. And suppose you were the one who made that thing go away, and because of that you might never be free to run again.
There are many cities within this city, and chances are you don't know the one Yvonne Williams knows. Yvonne's city is haggard and bruised and tired. It beats itself as often as it's beaten by others. Its young are old and its old watch over everyone but themselves. It tries quick fixes for century-old ailments. Darwinism, in its rawest form, rules.
Yvonne doesn't expect you to understand--how could you? You, sitting comfortably on the other side of the table in the visiting room of the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center, pen poised over your notebook, using shorthand to describe a sprawling, angry city with closed exit ramps.
You're not the one wearing an orange jumpsuit, your hair in tight cornrows, sporting a scar that snakes across your skull and comes into view whenever you drop your head to cry. You don't have to return to lockdown when time is up. Your brother wasn't shot nine times in the back at 20th and Diamond for flirting with the wrong lady. You would never have to heat your house by leaving the oven door open while your four-year-old boy and his kitten jump and crouch and scurry nearby.
You don't need to recite Psalms 23:1--"The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want"--with fervor just to get through another day. Your face didn't look 40 when it was just 26. You don't have to worry whether you'll ever see your kids again-- and wonder how you could have had six children before you were 25. You don't have to worry about coming up with $7,500 bail. You'll never have to take a life to save your own. Your fate doesn't lie with a judge who, come February, will decide if you're worth returning to a place where no one wants to live anyway.
Rev. A.T. Blassinggame is pastor of Faith Tabernacle Church at 19th and Susquehanna. A sign out front reads: "THE NORTHERN CHURCH WITH SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY."
Reverend Blassinggame isn't from here--he came up from Georgia 34 years ago. When he arrived in Philadelphia he went straight to the city that Yvonne knows, because he knew that's where he would be needed most.
When the Reverend met Yvonne, the man she spent her time with--Pat Jones--was in jail. When Pat was sober, the Reverend says, he was a beautiful person. But when he got to drinking and smoking angel dust, Pat would fight. He fought Yvonne all the time. The Reverend suggested they separate. One day, when he had tired of watching Pat chase and Yvonne run, he took them aside.
"One of y'all gon' kill the other one," he said.
The Reverend deals with a lot of couples who fight, but this was the worst he'd seen. That boy hit her in the head with a drug gun. Sometimes she would fight him back. She knocked his teeth out and threw him down the steps. She cold-cocked him with her fists.
"Why you keep taking that boy back?" the Reverend asked over and over again.
And over and over he got the sameanswer.
"Because," Yvonne said, "his mother got my kids. He says I'm never gon' see them kids again till I drop the restraining order."
If they loved each other, like they say they did, it was the kind of love the Reverend knew could come only to no good.
Yvonne came to the church three or four years ago needing a place to stay. the Reverend rented her a place at 19th and Susquehanna, but she got behind in the rent. Then he rented her an apartment in the building next door for $250 a month. She was getting assistance. She tried working at various places but none of the jobs panned out. She was too busy running from Pat to get to work on time.
PW's 2015 Gift Guide
Dinner with Luke Palladino