The house was empty, it seemed, save for the history that so obviously still resided within its graffitied walls. Its floors were piled high with rubbish, almost as if a dumpster had been upended above them, but peculiarly the refuse had no noticeable scent. Either that or my sense of smell just wasn’t good after being in the house for more than five minutes. The stairs leading upward were rotten from the bottom up, a sure sign that no one was up there.
It was a Saturday. I was 16 or 17 — probably 17 — and it was a late spring afternoon in North Philadelphia. We were supposed to be in church, the five of us, wiling away the afternoon before the vesper service at sunset, but we were squirrely. Our parents were all otherwise occupied (having large scale conversations, sleeping in the kindergarten classroom, eating lunch, or in one of the various meetings that would crop up), and we were old enough to be on our own. So we did some exploring.
North Philadelphia was entirely run down in those days — in the early-90s — so it wasn’t hard to find some abandoned houses to explore. The hard part was making sure our nice church clothes didn’t get ruined from the experience. We would actually pick up some non-church kids along the way, gathering steam and people for a major expedition some days.
The kids from North Philly were a lot more world-weary than we were, even though we were the same age. There’s something to be said for growing up in the ghetto, with no pretense that there was something more to the world. They lived in the world of drug deals, drive-by shootings, and five families living in one row home.
But back then we were all inquisitive, which seemed like a good thing at the time. Sometimes we would walk for blocks and all we saw were abandoned houses. It made me wonder how things like that happened. Some were crack houses that had gone under when the dealers were forced to relocate, but some had been single family homes, full of love and laughter. Children had grown up in those houses. Their growth charts still recorded on dusty walls. Somehow, though, none of it had mattered in the end. Those children were long gone, molded into the image of a world that was brutal and cruel.
And the houses remained, at least until the bulldozer would arrive to lay them low. It seemed like our responsibility on those lazy Saturday afternoons to bear witness to the lives that had resided there, to chronicle the history of that place even after attempts to snuff it out. We saw plenty, too, that gave us moments of pity. A baby’s crib in one room where the ceiling had begun to cave in, mobile still attached to part of the falling roof. Sheets still spread across a couch, as if the person who had slept on it so long before would be coming back at any moment to reclaim his spot.
That house was empty, yes. We all agreed as we explored the breadth of the place, as we imagined what had been and wondered what might have been had things not gone the wrong way. And it brought us together — the sheltered church kids, and the street smart locals — this journey into the past, these feelings of loss and discarded possibility. It was only for a few Saturdays, but those memories will stick in my mind forever, the sense that these people had lived and died in that place for ages, that they never knew what would befall them and the home they had known.
When I look back, I can see that house wasn’t empty after all. And I hoped the family that had called it home had found another place to continue that history, that it hadn’t ended there. I hoped others would see it as I did, and remember.