By Maury Z. Levy
IT WAS RAINING NOW. It was Monday morning and the thick gray air was chilly and damp and it was raining now. The skies had been holding it in for a week and now they had burst open to soak the streets and break the promise of an early summer. People walked along quickly under black umbrellas with their collars up and their faces down and automobiles with snow tires still on made a whirring sound as they moved up Susquehanna Avenue, heading for the Mansion and the Park, never stopping.
For a week, it had been summer again. For a week, the kids with bandanas around their heads roamed the streets in shirtsleeves, while men stood together on corners and drank the contents of brown paper bags and women in housedresses pushed strollers up and down 17th Street looking for bargains.
For a week, the desperation of North Philadelphia was no longer quiet. For one great week of Indian spring North Philadelphia was alive and ticking with anticipation of the warmth ahead and some memories of some heat behind.
But the Monday morning rain put things back to normal. It was trash day and the beginning of another week.
The flat-red pushcart of the 15th Street Junk Shop made its way up French Street toward 17th. The man behind it was old and black and he was wearing a dark plastic raincoat with the hood up over his head and the drawstring knotted around his chin so that all that could be seen were the slits of eyes that stalked the curbside cans for salvage.
He pushed his way between the cars parked on one side of the narrow street of ancient brownstones. It was the side of the street with the signs that read “NO PARKING MONDAY 7 AM TO 7 PM-PARK OTHER SIDE.” It was 7:20 a.m. and French Street was asleep.
Bucking traffic, he turned right on 17th and pushed past the cozy old James L. Claghorn Elementary School. The rain made the gray 84-year-old building wetgray.
Claghorn takes up less than a third of the block. It is surrounded by a big black iron fence that comes to within a few feet of the tiny building. Pressing against one side of the fence—in what is supposed to be a schoolyard—is a black iron pole that holds a slightly bent basketball backboard. There isn’t even enough room in the yard for a half-court game and even less room to hang the blame, because back in 1884 outdoor sports were not exactly national pastimes.
Claghorn sticks out—an ancient school in a procession of old stores. The building was supposed to be torn down back in 1944, when it had reached its 60th birthday, but that was a war year and people had more important things to do than break up little old schools. Somehow it never got back on the demolition list and so for the past 24 years Claghorn has been living on borrowed time.
Across the street from Claghorn is a luncheonette, the hub of what little activity there is at 7:30 on a Monday morning. There is a bus stop on the corner there and a handful of people were huddled in the doorway of the luncheonette to avoid the downpour and wait for their bus.
It was 7:40 now and the bus hadn’t come yet and the doorway was filled to capacity. As they craned their necks to watch for the bus, none of the people in the doorway seemed to take notice of the scattering of kids who made their way down 17th Street toward Claghorn, soggy brown lunch bags firmly in hand. Read the rest of this entry »