Kamaya swung our joined hands back and forth as we walked through the cluttered streets of Eighth and Butler in Philadelphia. The August heat rolled off the concrete, and the unrelenting humidity clung to our bodies. It was a Tuesday – garbage day. The stench of rotting trash stalked us as we passed men lounging on their stoops and listened to the ringing bells of the corner stores. Kamaya pointed out places and showed me each important building and traffic light. A small yard bounded by a gray fence was where her mom had been married for the second time; Kamaya had worn a “really, really pretty white dress with yellow flowers.” The church she attended on Sundays was on the corner of Hunting Park, and her grandmother’s house faced Popeye’s Chicken Diner. Kamaya always took her 70-year-old grandma “really yummy dessert with icing and candles on top.”
Other kids at the camp had their own stories to share, stories woven with innocence and hurt, laughter and pain. Some stories were worse than others. Antwon, a 13-year-old boy, kicked pebbles on the street as I walked beside him. He dug his hands in his pockets and focused on the pavement, broken open by years of wind and weather.
“That’s my stepfather’s house,” he said, nodding toward Fifth and Butler Street.
“What do you guys do there?”
“Just video games.”
“What about your other father?”
“What about him?
“Do you visit him?”
“He was shot last year.”
Like I said, some stories had more chapters of hurt than of healing.
Around 350 steps from Antwon’s stepfather’s house was Caviana’s house, a block down from the Eighth Street Community Church. She told me that even on hot days, she and her friends Nekeema and Imani would sit underneath a tree to talk and listen to music. I smiled as she described sitting cross-legged and barefoot while the leaves from the trees danced before their faces. They were just three teenaged girls savoring the taste of summer before taking on the world.
And then there was that traffic light between Hunting Park and Butler Street. John, who was 19, talked while we waited for the walk signal.
“Yeah, my life has been nothing but great after my father left,” John said.
“Well, after my father left, my peachy mother went to jail and decided to come home with a wife. It’s really funny if you think about it. Don’t you think?”
Five seconds later, I offered him the melted Tastykake I had been saving in my pocket. He accepted it.
If you walk about two blocks down from that intersection, you come across a fire hydrant. Timmy, a nine-year-old, frowned as he squinted into the sun.
“Timmy, what was your favorite part of the summer?”
“Well, um … oh, I know!” He held my hand as he skipped beside me.
“All right, I’m listening.”
“Last time someone opened the fire hydrant and we all played in the water. There! There! Over there!” Timmy pointed at the fire hydrant in front of Marcia’s Grocery Store.
“Did you guys get in trouble?”
“Nope, no one really cared,” Timmy said with a goofy grin.
He leaned over and licked the dirt-encrusted wall. I told him that was a very unsanitary thing to do, but he insisted he had to. He smiled up at me and said that was how he got his good luck.
All these stories created a road map of the hauntingly beautiful city of Philadelphia. Traffic lights told stories of angry red outbursts, mellow yellow memories, and cheery green incidents. Street signs were written in the language of the people. For each child I spoke to, different pinpoints on the map of Philadelphia held different meanings – miles of ignorant bliss and kilometers of bitter sorrow.
My favorite memory of Eighth Street, Philadelphia, took place on the subway ride to a Phillies game. Kids danced and cheered as the neon underground lights whizzed by. The older kids rapped and laughed at their clumsy improvisation; the ground beneath my feet shook as the young ones tapped against the window and banged their hands against the seats. Antwon break-danced on the floor of the moving train, his eyes twinkling in the lights.
As we passed beneath streets and buildings, I wondered how many other stories I was trespassing upon. I listened to the whistle of the wheels on the invisible track and paid close attention to the singing of the kids around me. At that moment, I could hear the voices of Philadelphia rising all around me. They were faint at first, but slowly they accumulated into a deafening roar.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the March 2015 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.