Notice that small silver-headed and crumpled shape, wearing a shabby coat and battered hat , standing alone in a doorway along 10th Street between Spruce and Pine. From the narrow alleyways thick with overgrowth sometimes strange physiognomies will emerge . These, too, should not be taken for granted; nor the frightful ship-wrecks, mutilated by time, mottled with skin diseases, their odd disfigurements, their crazy eyes.
Our attention will be focused upon a narrow quadrangle: from 8th Street to the east and 12th Street to the west, with South Street as southern border, Lombard and Pine Streets in the middle, and Spruce Street to the north. 40 blocks in all, a garden plot of half a square mile.
In 1961 the Afro-American ghetto of the downtown area filled up the full length of South Street between the Schuykill River to the west and Delaware River to the east. Sacrificial altar to the religion of progress, walking along it invokes the desert, a howling waste, an abyss of hunger , humiliation and defeat. By walking up to Pine Street, two blocks to the north, one can temporarily find relief from its unrelieved cry of despair. One might then stroll along Pine from 9th to 12th, to lose one's heart within the dusty labyrinths of rows of antique shops, emporia of jewelry, old china and cutlery, lampstands , stained Victorian opaque glass lampshades, costumed dolls and outsized surreal mannequins, trivets, pokers, bellows and brooms, sofas, hassocks, farmstead furniture and shuddering ghosts. The relief is short lived: it requires a tougher stomach to continue another block north to Spruce Street.
It is primarily in this subdivision of the garden plot, Spruce Street between 8th and 13th, that one may contemplate, lying exposed to view, the malignant tumor at the heart of American hubris, containing some of the most pitiable chapters of the human comedy.
The area is residential though far from being a neighborhood. In the part of the city, Spruce Street has no private homes; there are a few shops and stores. However, cutting north-south at right angles one discovers several narrow streets of restored colonial houses: Quince, Jessup and Camac. All these miniature homes are extremely charming, complete with 18th century windows, narrow winding staircases and open hearths, some with small gardens clinging at the margent of their much worn and eroded doorsteps.
These houses are occupied by young professionals, newlyweds, some students. Once they are established as doctors, lawyers, actuaries, architects, the kinds of people that give to Philadelphia its drab catchet, they quickly leave this neighborhood. Less than a mile away to the east, the crusty respectability of Society Hill beckons.
Going back to Spruce, and its stately rows of rooming houses. I would boldly assert that all of them , substandard by any standard, would be condemned after an honest inspection. But people have to live somewhere, dont they? Including those substandard by any standard? The houses are handsome, or were once upon a time, though the sidewalks in front of them be covered with slicks of refuse and garbage. Bugs, including some abnormally large ones, migrate through the sewers and stairwells.
Behind their picturesque exteriors these buildings overflow with derelicts of every category . Bars are strategically stationed on each street; peering through their opened doors one sees the worn prostitutes, some old, some mad; the regiments of alcoholics; the drug addicts, the derelicts. I made the mistake once of giving some money to a lively unkempt kid sitting on the steps of a building on the south south side of 12th and Spruce, across the street from the rented room I'd been living in. I came back out on the street again half and hour later: no less than 40 children, slovenly, sickly, perhaps hungry, were standing in rows on the sidewalks demanding their share. A small gift had turned me into the neighborhood Midas! Their disappointment was acute, but brief; my sadness persisted through the day.
The housing is inferior, though the population is mixed: in this garden plot one also finds students working towards degrees in various professions. They study at the the Museum School of Art at Broad (14th Street) and Pine, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at Broad and Cherry Street, the Medical and Nursing Schools of Jefferson, Hahnemann, Philadelphia General, St. Lukes and Pennsylvania Hospitals, some business and preparatory schools, even (!), at 10th and Lombard, the Henry George School of Economics! Wedged in between the bars, the greasy diners, the slums, the tenements and crumbling firetraps, like gold teeth in a mouth of rotting cavities, one finds a number of medical school residences and fraternities.
On 11th Street, between Pine and Spruce, stands mouth of an crypto-suburban anomaly named Clinton Street. One might call it the "doctor's village", as it is filled mostly with medical personnel: two prim blocks garlanded with blossoming trees, blessed with asphalt unlittered, neat rows of empty trash cans, brightly shining red doors freshly painted in red, with casement windows and prudish shutters. Along the sidewalks stand some fine cars, and there are many other evidences of respectable society. This two block artificial oasis abruptly ceases, all too quickly amputated against the seeping ivy and lichen-covered brick walls surrounding the hedges and lawns of the most venerable of Philadelphia's venerable old institutions, Benjamin Rush and Benjamin Franklin's Pennsylvania Hospital.
Mike Steiner did not look like a slumlord. Unlike the melodrama caricatures of a bygone age, the humped misers and shriveled hags, Steiner belonged to a new breed of aggressive young businessmen out for quick profits. The exemplification of 20th century man, shallow rather than villainous. His manner was brisk, as if he tolerated no nonsense; the muscles of his fixed smile never relaxed. The calculated neglect that was virtually a trademark of his properties was nowhere in evidence on his sleek, cautiously dressed and groomed person. He treated me with deference because of my education, meaning that he actually listened to my complaints. Sometimes he did something about them.
A day in mid-December: I arose at dawn, choking like a drowning victim, my room brimming over with coal fumes and gases, by-products of the furnaces blazing in the basement. It was not the first such attack, only the most severe.
I scrambled out of my bed and went to throw open the large bay window at the far corner of the room. Within minutes the temperature dropped below freezing. Pondering the options I dismissed the expedient of lighting all the burners on the gas range; neither a fire nor an explosion could be entirely ruled out as possibilities. I closed the window again, went back to my bed and pulled the covers over me.
Almost immediately I jumped off the bed again, vomiting from the stink. I threw on some clothing and hurried out of the house, down the street, to the Spruce restaurant at the corner of Spruce and 10th. Nick Pandapas, the owner, let me wash up in his apartment . I took some breakfast, and hung out at the Spruce until 8 A.M., talking with students from the Museum School of Art. They formed a kind of arts colony in this neighborhood to which I belonged. Returning to my building I stopped by Steiners office. Steiner's secretary might have been better designated his Secretary of State:
"Hello, Mr. Lisker; is everything all right?"
"No; everything is not all right . Don't you know about the coal fumes? I almost died in there."
"We're aware of the problem, Mr. Lisker. The janitor forgot to close the flue."
"What's being done about it? How soon can I return to my room?" Her brows contracted: a signal to me that I should understand that she recognized that this was no joking matter:
"We're working on it, Mr. Lisker."
I went up to my room, discovered that it was habitable, and organized my day.
Steiner's buildings reeked with squalor, filth, neglect and some more tenebrous attribute that might best be labeled contempt. The mounds of trash filling up the vestibules extended into dark corridors illuminated, if at all, by weak bulbs standing in the wall-sockets. No sunlight penetrated. The rooms themselves were bright enough; this was due to their large windows from the previous century, when this neighborhood reverberated with newly acquired wealth and elegance. The stained and greasy wallpaper peeled from the walls onto bare floors whose exposed planks were covered with paint chips. The wooden slats of the walls were visible at places where the plaster had fallen down or been punched through. In the corridors a lamentable aroma of mold exuded from every tangible object. The building held only one good feature: one didn't have to feel responsible for it. One would gladly leave on a moment's notice without nostalgia or regret.
The room I'd rented was on the second floor; the staircase passed parallel to my door. Mr. Hoffman lived in the room adjacent to mine on the second floor. Poor Hoffman, old, alcoholic and sick, would get up every night at 3 A.M. to empty the bucket under his sink into the bathroom toilet. I became accustomed to hearing his tubercular cough as he dragged the bucket from his room and splashed its contents into the toilet bowl.
It was a few days before Christmas when the pipes of the sink exploded. My floor and the downstairs apartments were flooded. I stood by while Bob, the ex-janitor, forced the door to Hoffman's room. The light switch didn't work and there was no lamp; whatever we could see was visible only through the dismal illumination coming in from the hallway. The broken sink was across the room from the door. The water from the faucets dripped continuously. A roll of filthy rags stuffed the bowl, the overflowing bucket lay beneath . Never had I seen so desolate an inhabited room . Apart from a picture of Eisenhower clipped from an old Sunday newspaper, the walls were completely bare.
Covering his bed were a threadbare moth-eaten Army blanket and one disgustingly dirty sheet. Nothing, not a single personal possession, not one item of clothing, suggested occupancy. On the wash-stand stood a razor and a bar of soap. Under the bed a pair of torn boots under the bed completed the inventory.
By now the entire building was in an uproar. The water was falling into the pots on the stove of the woman in the apartment directly below. She stood in the hallway next to her opened door, yelling: "When's the old man coming back?" She was a single mother with two daughters; one of them was bed-ridden with rheumatic fever.
An elderly invalid living in the room next to hers stepped out of his door; he asked me to go across the street to the bar and call the police from a pay phone. He stood on the steps wrapped in his bathrobe and waited for them to come. Bob prevailed upon me to stay. He would have liked me to be present as a witness, but I was on my way to a free-lance teaching assignment at an eccentric preparatory school in the neighborhood.
One should not imagine that Bob was adverse to talking to the cops; indeed he welcomed the opportunity to get a host of grievances off his chest. The police arrived, made an inspection and wrote up a detailed report which was sent along to the Department of Health. A week later Bob told me that the front office had called him down to rebuke him for talking to the police; at the same time he was informed that they had raised his weekly rent to $16 . Steiner had wanted him out for some time, and was using this incident as a convenient pretext.
On the floor just above Steiner's office there lived a frail old prostitute named Grace. She was about five foot tall, her gray hair shot through with white streaks, with very dry flaking skin that gleamed with a sickly gray pallor. She only had partial vision in one eye; a glass eye was fitted into the socket of the other. We had several good conversations .
She always began them by announcing, in a quavering and barely audible voice, that she was a 'soldier of life'. According to her she had worked for many years as a clairvoyante - not to be confused, she warned, with medium or fortune-teller - at the Russian Inn, a fashionable White Russian restaurant on Broad Street, near the Academy of Music and frequented by musicians. The difference between a medium and a clairvoyante, she told me, was this: she knew how to read the future in a person's face, she didn't need to examine palms or tea-leaves. I didn't doubt her story, although there was no way that she could hide the fact that even if forecasting the future had been her vocation, prostitution was her way of life.
Grace instantly aroused pity: she had the air of a desperately lost child in need of help. Whenever I spoke to her, she told me about her son living in Austin, Texas. He'd written her a letter announcing that he was coming to Philadelphia to fetch her, take her back to Texas and provide for her in her old age. I very much wanted to believe that the son, letter and the promise , or at least some combination of these, were more than fantasy.
The day after the incident of the burst pipes I slid a $10 bill under Hoffman's door, along with a note asking that he please accept it because of the Christmas season. On the way down the staircase I ran into Grace. She was carrying around an oversized bottle of stale beer. Some bills were tucked into her brassiere, visible against her flattened and wrinkled chest above the threadbare blue sweater she'd thrown over her shoulders. She'd been knocking at Bob's door but he wasn't in. Now she wanted me to have the bottle of beer. I didn't want it , but she kept forcing it on me until I accepted it. It sat in my refrigerator, untouched, until I moved out in February.
Grace went to Bob's apartment almost every day. Usually these visits turned into quarrels. One could hear their shouts and screams around the building. They always ended the same way, with Bob pushing her out the door:
"Get outta here! And don't come back again!"
"You think ye're quite a man! Well, ye're shit!! I've known lot'sa men better'n you, and you ain't nothin'!" My recollections of that cracked voice, heavy with sobs, convey a pathos that is impossible to describe .
"Get the hell away from me, you damned slut!!"
If the stream of insults went on for too long it brought the new janitor running out of his room on the first floor:
"What the hell's goin' on around here? Shut up and leave me in peace!" With his intervention the fighting usually came to an end.
Bob's room was down the hall from mine, at the head of the staircase on the second floor. His face was pale and flabby, ruddy in places from alcoholism. Now he was a sedentary invalid; he must have been quite vigorous at one time. On certain mornings he would abruptly emerge from his room, moving quickly with a lumbering gait, his sunken, defeated features trembling with fear. More than once he scared me half to death by opening his door and shouting at me as I started down the staircase. There was no cause for alarm; he simply wanted me to get something for him at a local store, usually a pack of cigarettes. When I returned from this errand and knocked on his door, his response was a sharp, hostile cry: "Who's there?"
On the day Steiner raised the rent, Bob walked into the front office to announce that he was refusing to pay it. This was sheer bravado of course; he knew that he would soon have to move. By his own reckoning he'd been the janitor and handyman in these buildings for 15 years. A heart attack had forced him to retire . Before that, so he claimed, he'd worked as a bartender on New York City's Bowery, on the Lower East Side. One thing was certain, though Bob didn't want to admit it: Bob was collecting welfare. I discovered this when he gave me a letter to mail addressed to Philadelphia's Department of Social Services. For others to know that he lived on welfare was acutely shameful to him.
A man in his 20's named Steve whom I'd met at the Spruce Restaurant, invited me up to his apartment for a party. He'd recently been released from a mental hospital and worked nights as an orderly at the Jefferson Hospital. He'd told me some stories about delivering babies in elevators, but I did not put much stock in them. Steve's apartment consisted of two barren refuse-strewn rooms fitted up incongruously with bits of furniture, a table, a few chairs and a ripped-up blue satin sofa. Like a theatre set, the entire scene was illuminated by the ghastly light of a single bulb in a broken chandelier dangling from the high ceiling.
Grace was one of the guests. Steve sat down next to her on the sofa and tried to proposition her. She wasn't interested and continued drinking from her bottle of beer. The others included an elderly couple, both senile A man dressed in ragged castaway clothing, with a misshapen head like a squeezed gourd, was walking about ranting and ranted and waving his thick-veined arms in the air above his head.
Shirley, a shy, stocky waitress from the Spruce restaurant with creamy skin, was standing next to a violent drunk named Charley. He made it very clear to the rest of us that Shirley was his property. Swearing, he shouted in a loud voice that he hated Jews.
Charley went about the two rooms setting up confrontations. When he accosted me I informed him that I didn't hate Jews; my courage did not extending to letting him know that I was one of "them" . Then he tried to force me and the others to sing with him. I knew Shirley from the Spruce, so we began a conversation. Charley responded with a surprise attack, a blow to the side of my face that knocked my glasses across the room. He roared at me to get out; I told him to apologize. Whereupon he socked me again, then began chasing me through the rooms. The ranter, rather than helping me, accused me of having done something to antagonize Charley, even if nobody knew what it was .
It was by far the most exciting event of the evening. Fully awake now and exhilarated I shouted to them to keep Charley at bay while I made my escape out the door. As I ran down the staircase, Shirley, deeply embarrassed, came out into the hall and watched me leave.
A few days later, Steve told me that Charley had broken into the house the next morning and started attacking people again. The police were called in and took him away. At the trial he was sentenced to four months in jail. I saw him once again after his release; he was standing at a street corner with others; as I passed by, he looked the other way.
Like an infected blister, Bob's 15-year accumulation of grievances against Mike Steiner, Steiner's father, for whom he'd worked in the past, and the personnel in the real estate office, burst open and spilled its venom onto everyone . As the date for moving drew nigh, his audacity mounted. It seemed that he himself was unable to control his bitterness. Bob inveighed against everyone : the Steiners, his secretaries, the accountants, the other tenants, including me. In the final days before his departure he stayed locked in his room and refused to speak with anyone. As he walked out the front door on his final morning he pushed me aside with contempt. He did not want to acknowledge anyone's pity. There was some consolation to be found in believing that he was thoroughly alone.
Shortly after Christmas I knocked on the door of Grace's apartment to see if she needed anything. The woman living in the neighboring apartment, was a heavy-set brunette who'd been placed here by Social Services after 5 years at Byberry, Philadelphia's public mental hospital. When she heard me knocking she stepped into the hall. She told me that Grace was gone; all to the good as far as she was concerned . 'They' didn't want her kind living among them. As she put it, Grace was 'a whore and a bum.'
Nick also enjoyed: throwing employees out on their ear; over-seeing the restaurant to make sure that it didn't fill up with too much 'garbage', ( a term as unambiguous as it was pitiless); and playing the buffoon when sitting in a booth surrounded by admirers.
Both hard- and soft- hearted; that's how Nick was. His friends learned that they could get away with almost anything but a free meal. Not so much as a cup of coffee. If they wanted to eat at his expense, they could wait until he invited them to one of his parties, where they could stuff themselves like pigs.
The case of Jerry was typical: Jerry had worked off and on for Nick as a dishwasher while he was studying photography at the Museum School. Then for a time he helped audit the restaurant's books. The shoes he wore could often be a cast-off pair of Nick's. Incredible as it may sound, despite its sybaritic functions, Nick had once put him up in his apartment for a week. Jerry was 26, tall without being big, alert, excitable, impulsive. He could become quite agitated over small matters. At times when he seem to come close to losing control, he could be rude and abusive. His friends understood him, and after awhile I did too. He couldn't be considered dangerous, and his character was essentially friendly and outgoing.
The last time I saw him, it was June of 1962, and he was sitting in the Spruce. He'd been destitute for a month or so, defining his friends by the number of meals, and nights on their couches, they were willing to give him. This was not a long time after he had known real money. Almost immediately upon graduation from the Museum School he'd landed a phenomenal job in New York, editing a TV series at the incredible salary of $1000 a week. When the job ended his savings evaporated . For awhile he coasted along on unemployment compensation. Now he'd hit rock- bottom again, generally a happier state for those so used to it that anything else feels alien and uncomfortable.
Jerry constantly teased Nick about his nothing-on-the-house policy: "Look, Nick: why don't you cut the wise old grandfather crap and give us a decent meal, okay? Why not start a new chapter in your life with the sirloin steak special, that fantastic mushroom soup you make here ... did you know that, Nick? Your mushroom soup is great! ... two vegetables, ice cream and coffee? I know you're not really stingy, you're just pretending, aren't you? Hey, Nick: starving artists need your help!"
Nick ignored his sarcasm. It must have hurt him given his insistence that everybody, ( everybody who counted that is ), should like him. Others could afford to be generous with his Meal Ticket. He knew all too well the consequences of opening the tiniest crack in the door.
In 1961, when these observations were compiled, the antediluvian Gladstone Hotel on 11th Street between Pine and Spruce still stood at the mouth of the posh anomaly of Clinton Street. A few medical students had rented rooms there. Emergencies involving cuts, broken bones or cracked ribs frequently arose at the Gladstone, as might happen for example when a drunk fell down the elevator shaft. When that happened the desk clerk would put out a call for all the available med students. They would apply hurry down to the basement, apply splints and get the patient ready for the ambulance.
An intern told us about a woman in her mid-20's who'd come into the Emergency Clinic at St. Luke's Hospital suffering from stomach cramps. The intern anticipated a common case of gonorrhea. As required by law he inspected her in the presence of a female nurse. The patient was emitting The putrid discharges that the patient was emitting filled the room with an insupportable stench. Together he and the nurse removed unbelievable quantities of pus and other toxic wastes. Finally his hands encountered a large, thick object: a leather glove. A few weeks earlier she'd had sex with her boyfriend in his car. Lacking contraceptives they used the glove. Then she forgot it was there.
It was a regular occurrence in the maternity wards at St. Luke's, that within a day of the delivery of a baby the boyfriend would show up, rarely the father, crawl under the bedding and force the mother to have sex with him. This damaged the already bruised uterine tissues. A staff doctor had devised a way of sewing up the vagina with a fine steel wire that could be removed just before the mother was sent home.
Several interns worked at the same clinic; one of them told us about a 80-year man who'd walked in complaining of pains in his groin. Upon examination it was disclosed that the man had enjoyed a rare erection a few days before. To keep it from going down he'd encased his penis in plaster of Paris to keep it that way. Gangrene had set in and it had to be amputated. The story went the rounds of the Spruce.
One of the art students drew a sketch: It showed a naked old man grimacing with agony as his exaggerated penis, surrounded by a cast, was being hacked off by a butcher's cleaver held in the upraised hand of a gleeful, fat and bearded surgeon. Everybody liked the drawing. So did Nick: he hung it up over the lunch counter where it remained for a month.
They advertised a combination trick for a very high price, about $300 . They were also actresses; they did a stage act a few nights a week at a night club on Locust Street, practically around the corner. Even their mannerisms were rehearsed to make them look like carbon-copies of one another.
They spoke with the same high-pitched falsetto voice, and had developed conversational routines, formatted in one-liners, responsive lead-ins and questions and answers based on silly sexual innuendoes. One of their standards was an endless story about "what the boss was doing with his secretaries". They told me that they'd been a team for two decades, because "life lost all meaning for them in the war".
When they came into the Spruce they favored a booth near the front. Even in the restaurant they were always on stage. Beneath their superficial warmth they were cold, insulated, callous. They attracted certain kinds of men like honey draws flies, possessed of a strange power to lure others to their destruction.
One night while I was attempting to make sketches in a booth at the back, aman came into the Spruce wearing a winter overcoat a few sizes too large for him. His manner was harried and there were deep furrows in his pallid, empty face. He asked me, the edge of a threat in his voice, not to draw his picture. For no apparent reason he confessed to me that he had less than a week to live. Then he noticed the prostitute duo sitting at the front and sat went to sit down in their booth and begin talking to them. One of them waved for me to come over; I'd sketched both of them several times before .
The intruder didn't like this of course, but they ignored him. I sketched the one near the window on the right. She kept repeating to me that she resembled Greta Garbo. She did have a beautiful face: tired, worn, yet lively in its own way, hard but not unkind. Underneath I sensed an intrinsic pride which held her depraved milieu in contempt. When the sketch was completed the man hastened to assure me that it was lousy, which was true. I knew nothing of drawing, I was just having fun. My model also agreed that it didn't look like her, but she said that I had painted her soul.