Broad Street is called broad for a reason. It is 100 feet wide and the longest street in the city of Philadelphia, as well as “the longest straight urban boulevard in the United States“. It’s broadness offers space, light, and a general openness. That openness should deter any underhanded deals from taking place, especially in the day time. However, it did not stop two young men from following me one Spring afternoon as I walked home from Central High School. Fortunate for me, I had a plan.
At 5 feet, 3 inches, I had yet to hit my growth spurt by high school. I had been lecturing the baseball coach during tryouts that season about my inevitable height explosion. It would be the reason they could expect great things from me. Great things! He was skeptical.
I did not make the baseball team my freshman year. 😦
I would eventually grow almost 8 inches during the summer after my junior year, but on the walk home that spring, the spurt had not yet come, and so my height was not an advantage. My weight was even less intimidating. At 96 pounds (43 kgs), I could not join the wrestling team because the lowest weight class was 98 pounds (44 kg). I also could not donate blood. I guess they didn’t want anyone donating blood who barely had enough of for themselves. I was slim as slim could be.
My father used to encourage me to gain weight by saying we would celebrate me crossing the 100 pound threshold by going to the Olive Garden Restaurant. When I finally reached 100 pounds it was a huge moment. We laughed and ate endless breadsticks while I shared stories of how I could finally feel myself getting bigger and stronger.
Major League, here I come!
I didn’t have the heart to tell him the following week when I dropped back down to 97 pounds. Tiny was a part of life for me. Most of my sporting career in Philadelphia was spent going against people much taller and much heavier than I was. So when two young men with nothing to do saw a tiny 5 foot, 3 inch, 97 pound “child” walking down their broad street they must have thought, “Yes! It’s my lucky day.”
When I first noticed them it wasn’t a big deal. People tended to give me lots of attention in those areas. Not sure why but small white boys strolling around some neighborhoods in Philly seemed to attract more attention. I grew up just off of North Broad Street and Godfrey Avenue. It wasn’t the worst neighborhood in Philadelphia by any standards but it definitely wasn’t the best. I loved where I lived though. It was a few blocks from Fern Rock station, which was the end of the North-South Subway Line. The area is called East Oak Lane. It is a quiet neighborhood with historic stone mansions and centuries-old oak trees that have somehow both lived on hidden from the rest of the city. It was a forest kingdom for a little boy’s imagination to run wild.
That imagination began to run wild as I noticed my two followers were not breaking from their pursuit. In my mind, their sinister ambitions led to a one-sided brawl where I lost my money, books, and whatever self-respect I had maintained through my freshman year of high school (which wasn’t much). I tried to lose them, but each time I crossed the street or turned the corner, they followed. And with each passing second, they inched closer.
I started listing my options. I could take off running, but gauging my size it might incite an eager chase. One that would end poorly. As I thought deeper, most defensive actions ended poorly, so I shifted to the offensive. What would two young men from North Broad Street be afraid of?
I could call their mom…
Formidable as moms can be, that would likely lead nowhere, as the odds of their mother being within shouting distance was unlikely.
I could act gay…
I had heard my brothers talking about people being uncomfortable with that life choice. Could I “come on” to them? Did I even know how to hit on someone as a gay man? The only exposure I had received up unto that point was either the Simpsons (Zap!) or watching a comedian “act” gay by tying the front of his shirt in a knot and letting his wrist go limp. It didn’t exactly instill fear. So I let that idea go as I reasoned it would just as easily end in a beating worse than if I had just curled into a fetal position and started crying. That was my back up plan by the way.
In the end, I was left with the only thing that made sense in the mind of a scared fourteen year old boy…
I would act retarded.
First off, before you are too quick to judge the political correctness of a frightened teenager, please keep in mind that teens are often an amalgam of emotion, hormones, imagination, and experiences. And I was heavy on the last two. I had two unusual parents and eight older brothers and sisters, who had all been through some form of “mugging”, “chase”, or “gun point robbery”. So in that moment, I was not thinking about whether or not I was being sensitive to those with cognitive, physical, or emotional impairments. I was thinking, “Uh oh! I’m bout to get beat up.”
Please forgive me.
The two assailants were mere feet behind me now. My heart was racing, but somehow I was in control enough to begin the process slowly. As if something had been triggered in my brain by the stress of the situation, I began to moan softly, like my stomach ached. Then I combined the slow moan, which got louder with each step, with a subtle twitch of the head. Before I knew it I was slamming my chin against my right shoulder, yelling inaudible screeches at no one, as I swung wildly at the air with one arm, and struck my chest with the other.
This continued for what seemed like minutes.
Then suddenly the footsteps behind me stopped, and I heard one of them say to the other…
“Yo. F**k this! I ain’t messin’ with no retard.”
And they were gone. Poof!
I had done it. I had used my wits and courage to avoid potential physical and emotional harm. It was a good day! I walked the rest of the way home, down Broad Street, with the afternoon sun on my face and the spring wind at my back.
Philadelphia was my city. I would not be disheartened by the malicious acts of a few “boys” with nothing to do on a Spring afternoon. Philadelphia was the city I was born in and it is the city in which I was raised. It’s streets have felt my feet, it’s trees have felt my hands, and this summer, Philadelphia will feel my presence once more. With my wife and child in toe, I will once again call Philadelphia home – my city of brotherly love – for we are moving back.
And I am ready!
When I left Philadelphia almost 4 years ago I did not have a wife or a child. I was 26 and still lived, in many ways, as I had that Spring afternoon – controlled by imagination and experience. This July 2017, I am moving back to Philadelphia, but this is not a move backwards. This time I will be a battle-ready, seasoned warrior… and I’ll have reinforcements.
Philadelphia… here we come!