I’ve recently released a book of short stories about a Philadelphia that no longer exists. It’s called Good For One Fare. I’ll also be posting stories from the book from time to time here.
Printed copies, which include extra bonus content that I won’t publish online, are available for sale. Just send me an email.
The first story that I want to share, Father George, is below. It’s about a conversation I witnessed one day when I was taking the subway from my house in Port Richmond into my studio at Space 1026. I was about 25 at the time, so that means it was 2005. Philadelphia was a different place then.
Like all the stories in the book, this isn’t an exact transcription of the conversation, or of those exact people that I saw on the train that day. Instead, I’m creating a new scenario, based on my actual experience. It’s not supposed to be a documentary account. Instead I’m pulling from various experiences I’ve had riding Septa. If you have lived in Philadelphia for any extended period of time, you know that Septa is a universe unto its own, encompassing some of the more dire, most surreal and also the most human and real moments.
I hope you enjoy, and let me know if you have any feedback. I’ve love to hear it.
Father George rides the Market Frankford Elevated subway every Wednesday, heading to work at the St. Jonas men’s shelter in Center City Philadelphia. He sits in one of the battered seats of the newish train cars on the blue line, trains that are scarcely four years old but whose windows are already covered in graffiti. The seats are torn and stained from the daily activities of the riders.
Father George is a Russian Orthodox priest in his late sixties. He wears a” intimidating silver crucifix around his neck and has a long, unwieldy grey beard. His hat is large and made from black felt, like those worn by fishermen on the Baltic sea. His shoes are those of a factory worker.
The el train slowly screeches around the sharp curve just before York and Dauphin stations. The piercing sound does not shake Father George’s concentration. He has found a young man that is listening to him, one that he can reach.
Across the narrow aisle of the subway car sits a young Puerto Rican man, dressed in blue Ralph Lauren sweatpants and tan Timberland work boots. The brim of his Phillies baseball cap forms a perfectly straight line low across his brow. His arms are spotted with tattoos. The man also wears a crucifix around his neck, but made of gold. His name is Angel Benitez. Angel takes the el each day around noon to the methadone clinic at 9th and Girard.
Naturally, Angel is suspicious. The old man says he is a priest, but none of the priests Angel had encountered at Our Lady of the Assumption Elementary School were anything like this. They always felt far away from him, cold, like they could never know anything about his life. They seemed weak and sheltered from the world. But this man’s—or this priest’s—face seems to carry real secrets, secrets that Angel himself feels that he already knows. As the train continues its elevated journey Westbound, Angel makes every effort to listen to the priest’s words over the din of the other passengers and the cold sound of steel wheels against steel tracks.
“I’ve fucked up a lot of times,” Angel says, “but I owe it to my daughter, and to Kelly. I’ve got to make it right from now on.”
In a tone that could come only from one that truly understands the gravity of Angel’ situation, Father George replies, “There are two things you must choose between in life; you can choose to live, or you can choose to die. Everything else will come from the decisions you make. How old are you, Angel?”
“I’m 27,” Angel replied.
Angel tells Father George about his old drug addiction, his child and girlfriend, his job. He can see that Father George is actually listening, not just pretending to care like his parole officer and the case workers Angel had when he was a teenager. It is as if the priest knows Angel’s story already.
Angel tells Father George about the halfway house and how much he hated it there, stuck with the other junkies and losers. He tells him how hard it is for him to deal with the other patients and doctors at the clinic, but that he’s gotta do it to stay straight, for Kelly and the baby. He speaks with sincerity, hopefulness peeking through his hardened speech.
The city is full of people like Angel. Father George knows their anger and despair, the sense of loss and the disconnect that they feel. Father George also recognizes the flicker of hope that Angel has. This hope is something that Father George knows is rare. He knows that he must do all he can to help Angel hold onto it, because it’s the only way he will make the right choice.
Their conversation is interrupted by the automated voice of a female conductor: “Next stop Girard Avenue, connections to the 15 trolley and 5 bus.” The train slows as it approaches the station and Angel rises from his seat. A sudden awkwardness hangs over the two commuters.
“Thanks, Father,” Angel says to Father George, breaking the silence. “Thanks for everything.” He turns and walks out onto the train platform.
Father George nods his head, looking Angel in the eye. The doors of the train close with a snap of metal and rubber. The choice is Angel’s. Life or death.