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Where the Heart Is- Part One

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I wanted to be a rock star when I was younger. There was something about my personality that just gave me the drive to become talented with  Homeless in Philadelphiamusic, and become praised for my talent. Fortunately I had the means to invest in the tools I needed to achieve my goal. I had a supportive father who went out of his way to make sure that I had the right tools to practice, experiment, and eventually record a demo for a garage band I was once in.

I sometimes think if I would have actually had the same drive if I didn't have the means to become as talented as I did. What if my father hadn't bought me my first drum set? What if he hadn't cared enough to sound-proof our garage so the neighborhood would complain? What if he hadn't paid for all the sessions in the studio? Fortunately, he did. The important thing is that at least I know I had the opportunity to even attempt to achieve what I wanted to do, and just for that I am grateful.

Back then, there wasn't anything holding me back from being a professional musician. I was young, energetic, I had no bills to pay, and I had an optimistic, "Just Do It" attitude. To me, all I had to do was play the drums well enough and eventually; a record deal would just fall into my lap from the sky. The more mature I got, the more I realized that success doesn't just come to you because you’re good at what you do. You have to pay your dues and then some. You have to sacrifice a portion of yourself that you may not want to give up and tackle your goal, no matter what it throws at you. And as time went by, I grew into different hobbies and interests and becoming a rock star wasn't exactly at the top of my to-do list anymore. I got discouraged. More than discouraged. I got scared. I ignored my fear of sacrifice and slowly, but surely I forgot that I wanted to be a rock star. I'm fortunate enough to have other interests that I want to pursue even more, and I still have that same drive to achieve.

I walked to Love Park at an unreasonable hour a few nights ago to meet up with a friend. While I waited, I walked to the edge of the fountain to see if people still threw coins in the water in hopes to get their wishes granted. When I was a kid, I remember going to the fountain and seeing that the whole floor was illuminated with little stars of copper, giving it a shiny, almost golden glow. When I looked into the fountain this time, there were very little spots in the water, mostly black, ineligible circles. For all I know, most of those spots could have been old gum pieces or melted tar.

“Philly’s broke!” Someone yells from behind me. I look behind me and see this older gentleman in his mid 40's, dark, wrinkled skin, salted beard, and a camouflaged trucker hat with an ineligible, faded emblem on the center of it, black, over sized t-shirt, black, faded jeans, and what looked like old white sneakers. I chuckled and asked, "Who isn’t?" Smiling with a suspiciously wide grin, he asked me "You know where all those wishes go?" I assumed he meant the coins and shrugged. He pointed behind me towards the William Penn statue on top of city hall. "It's a gold mine!" he says while laughing. "You throw your money in, thinking your gonna get a million dollars or a new car, they collect it, and shut down a library!"

Despite the fact that I knew how inconvenient the truth was that more and more libraries are being shut down in Philadelphia, oddly enough I laughed as well. I asked him if his neighborhood’s library had been shut down yet. He chuckled with a smirk, “Sort of, but that was what I wished for!” He could tell I was confused by my lack of response. “Waste of money, man. Some of these places aren’t even being used, but when I try to use them, I can’t because I’m not on the grid. These people don’t even know that they have the knowledge to cure cancer. They just need to combine the right books together.” He said while twisting his hands together. “Nothin’ you can do.” He said in an apathetic tone while he pulled a half-smoked cigarette from behind his ear. “Keep wishing?” I suggested with a half shrug. He nodded. An awkward silence followed. I didn’t understand this guy’s angle, or if he even had one. I’ve seen every method of getting a stranger’s attention to ask for a handout. It varies depending on the person, but recently it’s been what I like to call the homeward bound technique. “Excuse me, sir? I’m sorry to bother you, and I never do this, but I’m stranded and I really need to get back home to New Jersey. Could you find it in your heart to spare some change so I can take a bus? No? God bless you, sir.”

The techniques for begging have gotten elaborate over the years. It used to be that a stranger would come up to you, tell a few jokes, and ask for a donation. Usually if they actually manage to make me laugh, I tip them for their services. But in this harsh economy, one must brainstorm in order to find the most effective way to increase their profit from street charity. A friend of mine was at a bus stop in center city when he was approached by a homeless local who asked him if he wanted to buy 2 bus tokens for 4 dollars. Since 2 dollars is the standard pricing for a single bus token, he was happy to purchase the bus token and provide the man with some change. The man said thank you and smiled. Simple enough, right? What my friend didn’t know at the time was that although bus tokens are generally 2 dollars, the token vending machines in the subways sell 2 tokens for $2.90, a $1.10 discount turned into profit. “He explained this to me after I bought his tokens.” James, a student at Temple laughed. “All he has to do is buy 2 more tokens to repeat the process and get a $1.10 profit. The whole process including the walk down to the subway and buying more tokens must take all but 2 minutes. It’s actually a creative way to make a quick buck. In this economy, I don’t think I’m above doing that.”  I asked the man at Love Park what he would do with the right books. While exhaling from his cigarette, he said he would “probably paint”. Interested, I asked him what he would paint. “I don’t know, man. I clearly haven’t gotten the chance to do it. Told you, the library won’t let me.”

I laughed, “Probably because you’re power and influence got them closed.” No reaction. “Sorry.” I said, back to seriousness. “You seem like a reasonably bright guy. Why don’t you just go for it?” Now, I don’t even know what I meant by that, but I could tell he took that as criticism. “I will.” He said as-a-matter-of-factly. “I’m hopeful.” Skeptical, I asked “Hopeful that the library will let you?” He laughed, “It’ll work out. The world isn’t such a bad place.” By that time, my friend had arrived to the park; curious to whom I was speaking with. I wanted to talk with this guy some more, but it was getting late. He knew my friend was eager to leave. “Take care, man!” he said with enthusiasm. I shook his hand and told him the same.

That was that. No sob story, no asking for spare change, no “By the way, I need bus fair to New Jersey.” Just a chat and a handshake. I wonder if he would have been insulted if I had handed him something for his time. Here this guy was, homeless, dressed in old, beat up clothes with nothing but a plastic bag filled with empty cans and a better outlook of the future than most people I know. “The world isn’t such a bad place.” I remember thinking of how ironically inspiring it was to hear such a thing from someone who seems to have been forgotten and ignored by the world in the first place. I was afraid to pursue a musical career because the obstacles it brought daunted me, but here he was, living in Love Park and confidant that his day would come.

I wanted to know his story. His background. How does he live? How did he end up homeless? What are his goals, if any? And what’s stopping him from reaching them? I wonder about a lot of homeless stories. It seems every time I walk by one in center city or south street I always speculate as to what is going through the minds of these individuals. I decided to find out for myself. Over the course of the next few weeks I will speak with homeless individuals to hear their story and what they have to say in hope to shed some light and perspective on some voices that Philadelphia has yet to properly hear and hopefully install awareness of Philadelphia’s forgotten population. Whether it’s medical, legal, or financial; some of these individuals are overwhelmed by their daunting fears so much that they forget about their ability to hope. And I hope to remind them of it the same way the man from Love Park did for me.