Opinion

The view from ‘The Wall’

A student attempts to find a homeless man in the pursuit of storytelling.

Trevor sits outside of the Rite Aid near my home each night asking for change. Trevor used to thank Jesus when a few coins tumbled into his cup, but I haven’t heard him utter anything about the Lord since it got cold outside. Trevor seems fairly new.

There is also the ham-shaped woman who cases 13th Street trying to bankroll an indefinite, three-year pregnancy. Golden Gloves, the underground boxing champ who allegedly knocked a man dead some time ago, will occasionally root himself outside of the 7-Eleven and ask for $20 bills. Golden Gloves – who promised me that he “never forgets a face” – has introduced himself to me on three separate occasions. Intermittently, there has also been Leonard and his sand-colored blazer. Leonard splits his time between my block and Center City asking strangers for hugs.

There are the men that need SEPTA tokens and the women that need a motel room for the night. There was one man in February who knocked on my door to just to ask for an apple and a glass of water.

Then, all of a sudden, there was a man Ali wanted me to find.

***

I get lunch at Ali’s Middle Eastern two or three times each week, not necessarily for the food as much as the company.

Ali’s greatest skill exists in making statements so impervious to fact-checking that they border on performance art. Ali may have been a semi-professional soccer player in his youth and is purported to vacation each year with the ambassador from Oman. Every word that leaves his mouth croaks from the very bottom of his esophagus, and if I listen to him speak for long enough, he will occasionally give me a free meal.

On this particular afternoon, there was snow on the ground and Ali was begging me to interview a homeless friend of his.

“Now, you are in the news, are you not?” he asked. “I’ve got a story for you.”

Ali told me there was a peculiar fellow that comes to the food court each morning for breakfast. Apparently, the man used to run some sort of business in town, and he’d had a wife and a few children before things inevitably fell apart.

“Why’s he on the streets?” I asked.

“Fire,” Ali said bluntly. “His family – they died in a fire a few years back. He had nowhere to go and no family to go back to! What can a man do in that situation, Jerry? One minute you’re stable, the next… Well, you know how it works around here.”

He rapped his index finger – slender and lean for a man of his girth – on the countertop.

“Talk to him, you! A story could really help him out. You know, turn the tides. Last week, he walks up to my shop, and says, ‘Ali, my hands, they are freezing!’” – Ali held his hands up and made them shiver – “and I had no gloves for him. I felt so bad, Jerry. I gave him a cup of coffee and wrapped his hands in paper towels.”

“You said he comes around every morning?”

“He is here every morning. Come like, six, seven o’clock, you’ll find him sitting right there.” Ali pointed back to the benches behind me. “His name is Jerry. Like you. I used to let him watch my shop for a few bucks, Jerry, and he never stole a thing, I swear. A thing!”

I assured Ali I’d speak to the guy, and left with a Styrofoam container of falafel and a copy of the Daily News.

***

The next day, I arrived at the food court before the sun did. Richie’s place was the only one open, so I bought a cup of coffee and watched him pluck stale muffins from his shop window in the twilight. I took enough cash to cover two egg sandwiches, but the benches were empty and I knew there’d be no hope of finding the guy once the crowds swelled.

But as the day went on, there were only students, a throng of them hawking orders into the shop windows as if trading turmeric in a Moroccan bazaar. The graying couple that runs Adriatic Grill shooed away the ham-shaped woman asking for change.

I sat there for two hours on the first morning and I didn’t see the man. I didn’t find him on the second either, and I must admit I gave up and forgot about him for the next four months.

***

For all intents and purposes, Ali has been cemented into his storefront. I’ve never seen his feet.

Ali peers each day from a glorified drive-through window slightly smaller than a schoolhouse blackboard. He was a student here before he became part of the furniture: Ali opened a nondenominational Middle Eastern food truck shortly after graduating. Midway through the ‘90s, this turned into a brick-and-mortar restaurant. The replacement building looks crushingly square and Soviet in its design.

Ali will grumble about the structure from time to time, but the days when he isn’t around to serve lunch are rare. Ali cannot be older than 60, though his presence at Temple seems to predate college basketball and the color cherry itself. Some days he and I will chat, and he’ll ask me about my plans for graduation. On others, we’ll both stare at the northeast corner of Paley Library in silence.

Ali is a relic from when Main Campus used to be a true neighborhood and not a depository for transient suburbanites. Grown men still slip Ali cigars through his window. Students weasel their way to the front of his line to discuss F.C. Barcelona matches. I can’t tell if he likes me more or less than any of his other customers, but – ostensibly – there are few people that care about this community the way Ali does.

It was April before I remembered to bring up his homeless friend again.

“How’s that other Jerry doing?” I asked, glancing up from my phone.

“Really, I haven’t seen him since I mentioned him to you last time,” Ali replied solemnly. “I used to have a photo of him as my phone, my phone–”

“Wallpaper?”

“Yes, my wallpaper. But I got a replacement and now the picture is gone forever. At Christmas, I bought him some cigars and a bottle of wine. They’re still sitting in my shop somewhere.”

“This was a rough winter,” I said. “Do you think he’s…?”

We broke eye contact.

“I am… not sure,” Ali said. “I just hope he is okay, wherever he is.”

At any moment, there are two sides of North Philadelphia perpetually tugging at one another. There are the courtyards paved with stone to look like medieval streets and there are the yellow-shirted cops that keep the Trevors of the world away from them. There are the antennas that catapult my every thought across the sky and the dark alleyways that swallow the sobs of fading men like Jerry and Leonard.

In the middle, there has been Ali.

Jerry Iannelli can be reached at jerryi@temple.edu or on Twitter @jerryiannelli.

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