Culture Shock

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The City of Brotherly Love… The fact that this is Philadelphia’s epithet strikes me as truly ironic. I believe I am a very authentic representation of a flower child; born and raised in San Francisco by my happily married black father and Jewish mother, believing the world and the majority of the people in it are mostly good. I am a die hard, bleeding heart liberal and I have no intention of ever being anything but just that. I love people, the snow, flowers, children and all of the things that make me smile. I try to see the good even when things look mostly bad and I haven’t given up hope that there truly is good in everyone, somewhere, deep down, if you are understanding and patient enough to look for it.

Philadelphia… Philadelphia is a big city, a place where so many people are desperate and lonely, jaded and damaged, so much so that you can actually FEEL the depths of that pain looking into a complete stranger’s eyes on the subway. It’s frightening, the hurt that is so obviously there. What’s even more frightening is that it is so commonplace in this city that I have yet to find anyone else that finds it in the least bit daunting. The people I have discussed this with that are from Philadelphia usually have close to the same response; ‘It isn’t Philadelphia, it’s the same everywhere. People are desperate, these are hard times. Philadelphia is no different from anywhere else. Maybe when you lived out West you were in a better area but I’ll tell you, what goes on here in Philly, it goes on everywhere.’ This is the general response of the Philadelphia natives I have come across as yet. I do not agree, not at all. I find this city to be hard core, to say the least. It is not the same as everywhere else. The things that go on here do not go on everywhere. I have live in LA, San Francisco, Oakland, Arizona, Texas and honestly, it is not the same, not by a long shot.

In Philadelphia the masses are looking but not seeing, walking but not going anywhere and all of it is crystal clear and written in full on perfect penmanship in stone faces, if you are interested enough to take the time to notice. If you look past the discomfort, the disappointment and frustration, you see clearly that nothing has been resolved, only pushed into corners of minds cleaver enough to pretend the pain is no longer there or never was. If you pay attention you see pain there, clear as can be, undeniable.

Stone faces, unmovable, or rather, unwilling to move, see or change. What I see is disinterest, disinterest in becoming different in any way at all yet unable to stay the same. At first, the people here seemed to fit neatly into one of two categories; the first group I understood, their way of life made sense to me. The second I tried not to judge but my efforts were quite often futile and unsuccessful to say the least.

There are the survivors. Hustlers, workers, they earn, move, provide and they do it by any means necessary. Working so much it seemed to have become, almost always, an addiction, a way of life, something that had to be done. Regardless of rate of pay, number of hours, title, position or even culpability. Legal or illegal, work had to be done; it had to be done and it had to be done around the clock; outside of sleep, nothing at all superseded it. Oftentimes even sleep seemed pushed to the back burner until it was impossible to continue to put off.

This, I understood. Nothing but work could ensure never returning to a place so dark and surreal, so unbelievable that most of the rest of us, US middle class citizens, had no idea circumstances such as these even existed in this country. Philly is a place where it is quite possible, common even, that as a child, you simply went to bed hungry. Not once or twice but most nights, you went to bed hungry, unless you found a way to feed yourself. As a child, you thanked your lucky stars that school served hot lunch and breakfast if you got there on time. School lunches and breakfasts couldn’t be traded by parents or older siblings for drugs or anything else of value and therefore it was guaranteed to be there, each and every week day. In Philadelphia, as a child, this was one of the very few things you could depend on. Hot lunch at school. How do you focus and learn in school when you are responsible for your own most basic needs? When you come to school on time because you are hungry, everything else is simply secondary. In many cases you may also be responsible for the very basic needs of each and every sibling that came along after you. This may not be a responsibility you would have chosen but if not you, then who?

At a young age, two dependable meals a day ensure survival but as you get older two meals will not suffice. So what then? Work. Work around the clock, to ensure that one day the people you love, your own children, nieces and nephews, will never have to hope for no more than two free meals a day. Work, around the clock, so that your children will be able to bring lunch to school if they damn well please, eat steak on a week night and expect to see their mother each day when they come home from school. Work, around the clock, because education was never even presented to you as an option, never even discussed in the high school you attended. Higher education was not expected of you nor was it something regularly accomplished without an athletic scholarship as far as the high school students here in Philly knew. Information is valuable and dangerous and a lack of this information kept the stone faces in minority, middle class neighborhoods uneducated and therefore, working, around the clock.

Then there were those who lived a different way. A way I did not understand. There were those who lived in a way I judged, I judged outright and harshly. I didn’t have all of the information, I didn’t even have most of it so with my pale skin, my West Coast, ‘white bred’ education, my Jewish mother with her chicken soup, warm hands and genius IQ, Her Ivy League education and rich history, I judged. With my Jewish mother who spoke three languages fluently and always held the title ‘wife’. My mother who was always home with me on days I had a fever or a runny nose and shared my last name, the last name of all of my siblings and most importantly, our father, I judged.

With my strong, honorable, hard working father who came home every night and kissed me goodnight, a grown man I still refer to as ‘Superman’ and mean it, I judged. In my estimation he is truly a hero, a Superhero. He called me his princess and still does, he taught me to love myself. My father behaved as if I were the most important little girl in the entire world and even today, I am his baby, even today, I am his first born and his only daughter and I know what it feels like to be loved by a strong, honorable, well respected black man and loved above all else. With ten very strong, very hard-working, very loving, uncles any one of whom would have come to my rescue had I needed them and they most certainly have. All of whom very clearly told me and showed me that they loved and cherished me. With my ten amazing aunties all of whom carried themselves with more class and style than any of the other women I have ever known. All of whom taught me by example that being a black woman was a privilege and was to be taken seriously. My aunties taught me that being a black woman was not loud or boisterous but rather respectable and amazing. My family gave me an unbelievable advantage simply by showing me exactly who they are and therefore, who I am. With all of those amazing benefits under my belt, I looked at these people and I judged.

I was taught and learned to read at the age of six. I lived in a big house at the top of the hill in San Francisco as a child. I, was provided with as many books as my little heart desired and the encouragement to read each and every one; I was taught that reading was good and learning was better. History was mandatory because without knowing where we have been how can we possibly know where we are going? All of that, all of the blessings I was given, I sat back and I judged. I couldn’t even imagine living the way so many people in this city have lived. The struggles they have endured were struggles I didn’t even realize existed and I sat back and judged them.

I called my father with fire and frustration behind my voice; not a month after I arrived in South West Philly on a block where some people worked full time, some worked around the clock and others, simply did notwork at all. The rest of us paid taxes and those taxes paid rent for the people who chose to stay at home on Section 8, food stamps and other programs. It was just unfair. I asked my father,  “Why don’t they go to school? If you have four kids, no job and the Government, the taxpayers, the working people, are paying your rent, all of your bills, buying your groceries, why not get an education while you have nothing else to do but sit at home? Why not better yourself and show your children a way out of the system?!? Why pass it down to them? Why pop? I don’t get it! It’s maddening! I am not working around the clock, not making a fortune but I am learning! If nothing else damn it, I will learn… SOMETHING! I will work toward a better opportunity in the future!” The question was bouncing around in my head fueled by curiosity and frustration, I had yet to find an answer that come close to curbing my frustration with this group of people. This group seemed to be the majority. They seemed to have absolutely no problem with their position. It appeared they had no problem with where they were in life nor where they would obviously be in five, ten, or twenty years. This group that did nothing, the group of people that represented some of those that sat at home and allowed their very own children to hope for no more than two warm meals from school every day, these people had my frustration at a level I had not felt before toward a stranger, let alone a group of strangers. My father gave me a simple answer, only his first, not his final answer but it stopped me dead in my tracks. “Baby, how do you register for college when you don’t know how to READ? How do you work when you have never seen anyone in your family work, earn a living and succeed at it? Where do you learn to do something you have never seen successfully done?”

This answer shook me, it was a concept I had never even considered. Not knowing how to read was something I had not only never encountered but seemed hard to even imagine. His answer moved my mind and heart from anger and frustration to the beginnings of empathy. Having never seen anyone successfully earn a decent living was something I couldn’t immediately comprehend. I became desperate to find a way to fix, repair and correct the possibility that this could continue to happen. This is not OK. The stone faces, the janitorial jobs, two or three of them, in order to support a family. This was not the way to go and someone somehow had to begin to change the direction the culture we love so much was headed. We have to break the damn chains and give out the information that has intentionally been left out of every minority based high school in Philadelphia. It is no accident, no oversight that PELL grants, scholarships, work-study and Community College being a gateway when needed into whatever University your heart desired were not common knowledge amongst high school students here. Instead they could be called a well-kept secret. It was not a mistake that these teenagers had no idea they could just as easily earn a full scholarship to any University in this country based on academics as they could by focusing on athletics. Focusing on athletics in order to get a scholarship, an education, technically was not only far less reliable but more competitive and all around more difficult. Athletics gave you less control over your own destiny. Playing these rough and tumble games that at any moment could produce an injury, deeming perfectly capable students no longer worthy an education.

Focusing on academics gives you the freedom to grow, learning is growth. Focusing on academics gives you the opportunity to choose the school, rather than the school choosing you. There are no chances, maybes, possible career ending moments. You sit quietly behind a desk and you build something, you build your future and you build it from scratch. No torn ACL’s, no pulled ligaments, none of that. You study and you learn, earn an ‘A’ and that grade cannot be injured or outdone by some other athlete. It is far more definite, it is more permanent, it deems you worthy of an education and that cannot be taken from you.

You simply work hard and that work pays off. The information we do not always have is that the lack of instant gratification makes it less desirable. When we work hard within academics in any form, the hard work does not pay off every 2 weeks or every week. When we work hard in the academic field, our hard work always stands behind us. The longer we work, the harder we work, the more we hustle within the world of education the more we are paid for the rest of our lives. This is far from immediate, it takes patience and no one is cheering in the stands while we work our hearts out late at night to pass a test or finish a paper, it is our own dedication that has to get us there. The more we work, without anyone cheering in the stands, at a desk, patiently; the more valuable we make ourselves in a world that tries so hard to make us believe we are less than valuable, less than able and less than worthy. We are worthy. We are valuable.

Based on my own situation, I became something I never intended to become. I became I topless dancer, a stripper, with a desire to get my education and support myself. A desire to live well and not struggle. I also have lupus and with the expense of my medical care, making sure I was able to support myself was absolutely necessary. This journey was one that taught me more in a year than I had learned the previous ten years and it makes an interesting story. I met a man I loved and I trusted and I chose to love him unconditionally. I became a machine, working and working… Working toward a goal until the rug was pulled out from under me with no warning and I had to refocus. I will not let this city beat me though. I will learn what I can from it and I will move forward with fierceness. I won’t let anything hold me back, not my illness, not the man I love, not the strip club or any of the horror that comes along with it.

This will be one of the most difficult things I have ever done but I will walk away from it better, stronger, and far more capable of making it under any circumstances, no matter how seemingly impossible. My struggle will be documented and I am glad to share it. . I am now a stripper, this is my way of supporting all of the costs that come with living in this city and being able to focus on what is important. I am without a support system, family or anyone I can truly trust in this area but I am alright with that. I am stronger now that I have ever been.

I do not plan to walk through this city and become another stone face. I will maintain my hope, my joy and the core and foundation of who I am, my morals, values and my foundation of integrity and character. I’d like to share my journey with you, here… Keep reading…

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