NO WAY OUT

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.

By Karen Abbott
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Nov. 28, 2001

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Now, since the "accident," Yvonne's got another place, but the Reverend doesn't like it much. All the other houses on the street look about to fall down and there are people hiding in them. The Reverend is 68 years old and he's been all over this city. But this street makes him think he's in the broken down parts of Jamaica or somewhere.

As for the "accident," he was on vacation when it happened. He came home and there was a phone call, collect.

"I'm sorry, Reverend," Yvonne said.

She was crying so hard he could barely make it out.

"For what," he said. "What you sorry for now?"

There was a sudden quiet on the other end.

"What," Yvonne said, "you ain't heard yet?"

She couldn't bring herself to tell him.

Where does the city start? With Yvonne's grandmother, sent up to Byberry when she was just a teenager, her mind already shot and her body well on the way? With the doctor who raped her grandmother as she lay helpless and drugged on her hospital bed?

Yvonne's mother was one of 13 children from several different fathers, all of them left scattered across the city like abandoned trolley tracks. The grandmother died in her hospital bed, not knowing who she was or how she got there.

Yvonne's mother--Berta, they called her--never talked about her father, never told her about how she was conceived. Somehow, when she was about 10 or 11, Yvonne ended up where all the kids in the neighborhood ended up when there was no place to go--at Miz Geneva Leeks' house in North Philly.

The woman collected children like some old ladies keep stray cats, huddling them all into her house in the 2100 block of N. 19th, a big, dusty space with rooster figurines and snow globes on the windowsill. About a dozen years ago, Time magazine wrote a story about Miz Geneva and her makeshift orphanage. There was a picture of all of them crowded on the porch. The story was called "Save the Kids."

Miz Geneva knows Yvonne's city. It's her city too. Her mother had five kids by four different men, and when she left in the morning to go to work at the Pennsylvania Railroad, Geneva was left to care for them. Her brothers and sisters ran her crazy all day. When she was 15 she started having her own, had to give her first born up for adoption because her mother beat her down for things not being perfect when she came home from work. The day she dropped him off at the shelter she promised herself she'd never let another child go as long as she lived.

Look at her now, 65 going on 90, lines dug deep in her face, praying for the children she considers her own to get out of jail. One of them, Bill, is supposed to call today from state prison. All she knows is a gun was found and his fingerprints were on it. He'll be out in 5 1/2 years--she would do the time for him if she could. By the grace of God she'll live long enough to see him free.

The same goes for Yvonne, that poor child. The way that Pat boy used to beat on her ... She'll never forget the time she was sitting here on the couch with Yvonne, watching TV, and Pat came to the door, drunk or drugged up or both. He came right in and started arguing, who knows about what, but it all got louder and louder. Geneva stood up.

"You got to leave," she said.

When he kept it up, she stepped closer.

"Do you want me to call my son?"

"No," Pat said, and he left.

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