Major Richards has been a small part of my life since moving to Philadelphia in 2009. The first night I spent in the city as a soon-to-be freshman was the first time I spoke with him. He asked for money, which I gave him. This would be the first interaction in a saga of late-night conversations on stoops and streets, in front of restaurants and convenience stores.
This all took place near 17th and Berks streets, in what is sometimes called Templetown. He didn’t always panhandle; if he’d already gotten his fix for the moment he would merely acknowledge me like an old friend, throw around some enthused catch phrases – mostly cliché lingo from the Marines – along with a series of problems common to veterans of his age and makeup. His clothing was, to say the least, well worn, and his beard longer than most.
Throughout the years we maintained this unusual off-and-on relationship, and I never turned him away if he needed money and I happened to have some. Then he disappeared and I was left to wonder where he was, whether he was alive or dead. I forgot about him. Months passed and from time to time I would recall some situation or have a moment of déjà vu regarding my acquaintance. But over time they went from few and far between to non-existent, and he receded to the back of my memory.
And in the same fit of unknown circumstances under which he left, he came back, lumbering down the street, swaying back and forth with sweet inebriation, grinning as he basked in his homecoming.
“Slim!” he shouted at me when he noticed I was outside. “You ain’t so slim no more!”
I’d gained a significant amount of weight since his departure and laughed mightily at his brutally honest observation.
“True. Where’ve you been, Major?”
“Gone, gone, gone,” he said. He looked down and shook his head. “This neighborhood is a-changing. Ain’t no room for folks like me.”
He asked me for a cigarette. I happily handed him one and he sat down on my porch.
“Look at all these new buildings for you kids,” he grumbled, lighting his cigarette. “This used to be the worst part of the city.”
“Yeah, it’s on the up and up. What brings you back?” I asked.
“I was helping my sister move out. She’s moving to a housing project in North Philadelphia.”
I’d never heard him mention a sister – or any family, for that matter. Since we were already in North Philadelphia I could only imagine that he meant farther north. He might have been helping her move, but something told me he would stick around. There was more opportunity for bumming in an area full of students with varying degrees of disposable income. Then again, he was a vagabond of sorts and where he hung his hat on the regular was largely a mystery to me.
Frankly, I had no idea what to say, so I tried to be as sympathetic as possible, spewing some iteration of, “I’m sorry to hear that.” I’d never seen him in any mood other than overwhelmingly convivial. Now he seemed contemplative at best. I don’t think the two of us, in our short series of interactions, had ever spoken of anything remotely serious.
The changes that come as a result of a built-up community like Templetown seem to be increasing and inevitable. These improvements, while beneficial for students, come with a price that is paid for by local residents who have been living in the community for years. Property tax increases, changing aesthetics, neighborhood tensions – it’s a story that transcends the surrounding areas of campus and spills over into areas all around the city. And, often times, local residents – people like Major Richards – find themselves having to make tough decisions concerning their own livelihood.
As Major Richards and I sat on the stoop during that last moment, we were bordering upon what seemed like gentrification conversation. We sat in silence and watched a couple of bros try to wedge a sofa through the front door of a house across the street.
Breaking the silence, Major looked up from the diminishing smoke of his cigarette.
“There goes the neighborhood.”
Sefton Eisenhart III is a junior English major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.