By Fr. Stephen Siniari
He went out there, and lucky man, he found her. Looking at her, in her short little outfit, tattoos and piercings, the jet black hair and combat boots, he couldn’t believe it. How many churches had her mother called? There were more than forty in the city. Hmm. That was a surprise. Forty Orthodox churches. Not one had answered her call yesterday. Then she somehow remembered, Ah, the priest who baptized her. I wonder if he’s still alive. And before she left for her four to midnight shift in the ER, the trauma nurse took a chance and called Father Naum. And damn if he didn’t answer. And damn if he didn’t say, “Okay. I’ll go and see what I can see.”
They call it the tunnel, there in the perpetual shadows under the elevated train. The section that runs up above and shadows Kensington Avenue. Elevated train tracks two stories overhead that snake for almost 13 mile through Philadelphia, from Bridge and Pratt up north, diving underground for a while under the skyscrapers of downtown Philly, coming up for air, not bothering to look back at William Penn atop City Hall, and heading out to 69th Street on the city’s western edge.
They call the boys and girl who work under there, tunnel-boys, or tunnel-girls. Selling themselves for eight to ten bags a night, in and out of cars, eight to ten times a night.
Ten dollars a pop. Cheapest. Purist. Most plentiful and potent forget-life-potion a person in pain could wish for.
Out in the open hidden right in front of everybody’s eyes.
She was one of the most infamous, this little girl Father Naum had baptized. Maybe he’d been doing it too long. No matter how he tried, and despite her mother’s reminders, he could not remember baptizing the girl in the tight net clothing with the blue-black lips. Elisa. He just recalled her name.
Encrusted, like a Google map from space, street-grime delineating every avenue, pore, and crevice on her arms, her neck, her forehead, fingers, and pretty face.
Bright blue eyes shining up, looking at the old priest, as if to say, now please don’t take this personally, taking the chocolate milk he offered and bouncing it off his head. The corner of the carton left a dent, which either became permanent, or that had been there all along and he just had never noticed.
Nothing personal, dude… Just don’t waste my time. Out here to make money, not to talk to religious-do-goods. Only after the same thing every other guy in every other car coming down the avenue is after, after dark.
Same con – Different suit – Nothing personal.
Once this Avenue had been the center of immigrant life in the Kensington and Fishtown communities of Philadelphia. As a boy Naum often accompanied his grandmother, Llamba, as she went with her wire cart on wheels, to the green grocer, to the butcher, to the baker, to the dairyman.
“You, be quiet.” She told the young Naum in the only language she knew. She’d been sixty years in America by the time it was all said and done, and never learned to speak English.
Naum could not understand why one night a week, she sat, fascinated, in front of the old black and white TV, watching Walter Brennan on the Real McCoy’s.
“What’ cha’ watching, Nunna?” He’d ask in their language. He thought he did a pretty good job for a kid born, ketu, here, in America, in Kensington Hospital.
Grandmom Llamba shushed him and answered in the one word of English that made her happy. “Grandpappy.”
Her husband had died many years before. She’d been a widow living alone for longer than she’d been a bride. Many of the women in the neighborhood worked in a sweater factory assembling various parts of the product and being paid piecemeal, by the amount of work they produced. Llamba did too.
Once when Naum went with his father to see the old woman, she was hiding behind a cupboard crying when a gunshot resonated through the house. Naum’s father, Theo, shoved his son to the floor. He’d been one of the boys who landed at Normandy. Theo and Georgie Kendro had gone ashore together and somehow both had survived. “Mom,” Theo called in their language. They say Theo had been born on the boat, and not spoken a word, in any language until he went to school, and then suddenly began expressing himself in the language of his fathers, as well as with the accent that made Philadelphia famous. “Wooder” = Water.
“Mom.” He called again. “What did you do?”
From her hiding place she told him she’d been cleaning and found her husband’s pistol, and a dusty box of little bombs. She’d thrown the box into the kitchen wood burning pot belly stove and now the bullets were exploding, piercing the stove and ricocheting around the kitchen.
“Was the box full?” Theo asked his mother.
All she could do was sob.
Now on the Avenue, Llamba wanted eggs. Naum knew better than to speak after she’d admonished him to silence. Even in his frustration, as she stood there in her black widow’s garb, going back and forth with the little Jewish grocer. “Kid?” He looked at Naum.
Llamba thumped her grandson on the head with her cane. “Nuk flas.” Don’t speak.
“Lady.” The man in the white apron said, “How am I supposed to help you for crying out loud?”
She took a potato from the bin, bent forward, the potato in perfect position to be laid, and made the noise, “Buck buck buck buck,” like a chicken.
“Oh!” Said the grocer. “You want eggs.”
It was late. He was under the tunnel again. But all these years had swept away the immigrant communities from Kensington and Fishtown. The widows with the wire carts on wheels, the green grocer, the butcher, the baker, the barber, and the dairyman, and even the bar on the corner, Honest John’s, were no more.
The man who tried to rob Naum told him, “Don’t say a word.”
Naum said a silent prayer asking Llamba to ask God to protect him. The man looked at Naum. “You a reverend?” He said.
Naum said, “I am.”
“Why ya’ around here, Rev?”
“I was born in Kensington Hospital.” Naum answered.
“You was born in a rehab?” The man was incredulous.
“It wasn’t a rehab then.”
The man looked at Father Naum and said, “Yeah, well, you are pretty old.”
“I’m looking for a girl I baptized. Elisa. Her mom’s worried. I wonder if she’s out here.” Naum offered the man a chocolate milk. He’d been told people using certain street drugs often craved sweets.
“She’ usually hang out up at Kensington and Somerset.” The man took the chocolate milk. He said, “I don’t know why youse’ wanna’ bother, I mean, we’re already so far busted it ain’t likely we’re coming back.” The El rolling overhead rattled the beams and shook the pavement. Naum looked up. When he looked again, the man was gone as if he’d been sucked down the tunnel in the wake of the train. Naum felt shaky himself, but there was no one to hold on to. He tried to recall the words of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, not the version on the internet that deleted Christ, but the real one.
Every one of us is in the image of God
And every one of us is like a damaged icon
But, if we were given an icon damaged by time
Damaged by circumstances
Or desecrated by human hatred
We would treat it with reverence
We would not pay attention primarily
To the fact that it was damaged
But to the tragedy of its being damaged
We would concentrate on what is left of its beauty
And not on what is lost of its beauty
And this is what we must learn to do
With regard to each person
Unless we look at a person
And see the beauty there is in this person
We cannot contribute anything to him
One does not help a person
By discerning what is wrong
What is ugly
What is distorted
Christ looked at everyone He met
At the prostitute
At the thief
And saw the beauty hidden there
Perhaps it was distorted
But it was beauty nonetheless
And what he did
Was to call out this beauty
This is what we must learn to do with regard to others
But to do so
We must first have a purity of heart
A purity of intention
An openness, which is not always there
So that we can listen
And can see the beauty which is hidden
After Elisa bounced the chocolate milk off Father’s head, they sat down together on the grime-encrusted slab and stared at each other while he rubbed my head and tried to get into hers.
“Everybody out here already knows there’s only so many versions of the same twisted man. You see him in every vacant-lot and doorway, every town and city… Just blink and there he is…Out here on the hunt. Offering you a ride around the corner, same seat Mommy sits in. Ain’t that great?” She told Naum.
Elisa said, “And wouldn’t he be proud if only mommy could see his sorry ass now… All varieties and flavors, just name your game. Can’t blame the normal world. They look at it and don’t even see it. Sit in the same damn seat and don’t even smell it, hear the music, like the beat, but no-wise get the lyrics.”
There was an Orthodox Brotherhood clergy meeting scheduled that morning at Naum’s parish. He put on the white apron and prepared the breakfast, happy that it wasn’t a fasting day. It smelled so good. Bacon, eggs, coffee, and toast. Elisa set out the places and poured juice in each glass. The girl with her bottom peeking out of her too tight outfit asked for two aprons. She covered herself, front and back, bottom and top. And even stayed after to help Father Naum with the clean-up. None of the clergy offered to help. They were polite to Elisa, but no more so than they would’ve been to any waitress or bus person in any café.
Naum thought perhaps one might’ve asked, during the meeting, who is that girl? He would like to have told them, if he could have, about what he’d experienced that night, about the complex human geography of simple everyday life out there under the tunnel.
You mother’s shift at the ER’s starts at four, sweetie.” Father Naum told Elisa. “Doris Drobish is coming in any time now. Her and some of the ladies are sewing sweaters, like your Grandmom and my Grandmom used to do, except now it’s to give to single mom’s at the shelter. Our grandmothers had hard choices, Elisa. I remember your grandmother. Her name was Martha. She dressed in black, just like my grandmother. She was a young widow. I’m pretty sure your grandfather got killed in the war. They were tough women. Strong. Creative too. She raised your mom and your Uncle Billy by herself. Couldn’t’ve been easy. Kids gave her a hard time. Probably like I did my parents. Always been something out here trying to make you forget who you really are, really. Where you’re really from. And where you’re really going, ya’ know, ultimately, I mean. I think we forget all that, maybe we’ve been distracted by how much we have. Truthfully, I don’t know the answer. But somehow or another they managed to stay connected to God and the church, that older generation of women, and not end up fooled when people promised something better, somewhere, out there. Never got caught up in that tunnel vision. They remembered who they were.”
He wasn’t sure Elisa understood, but he knew he had to find a kind, non-accusatory way to plant the seed of her deeper remembering. He wished he knew the name Lord Jesus called her by, the one on the white stone. But then again, he couldn’t even remember baptizing the kid. Felt like a failure as a priest, not to mention as a person.
Elisa said to him, “I remember my baptism.”
Naum was stunned as she described the day in detail. She laid it out, right there in front of him. It made him ashamed.
Then she said, “I don’t knit, or sew, with yarn or thread, but maybe I’m creative too. I knit together my thoughts on paper. I have a rule, from when I was little. Every day I write something. Something about the people who come in and out of my life and about the things that happen. Someday I’m gonna’ sew them all together in a book. And Father, I do remember, who I am, and where I’m from, and I do know what you mean by that. You’re not talking about the old country. That’s not where we’re going, ultimately. It’s just sometimes I forget, or, maybe stuff around us makes it hard to keep it in mind.”
Naum said, “Me too.” Then he said, “And I’d read your book, if you’d let me.”
Elisa said, “I wrote something, for you, but only you can read it, okay.”
He said, Understood.”
“I’m tired now, Father.”
He said, “You wanna’ take a nap in the back, you could. You’d be safe here. There’s cushions on that bench in the back. And after I’ll drive you up to see your mom. She’s worried, kid.”
“She’s only worried about herself.” Elisa was not impressed. Or maybe she was just tired. “She’s self-obsessed.” Elisa said. “All my life she’s either ignored me for the men she was with, got me and her high, or bought me off.” It wasn’t angry or resentful, the way Elisa said it. It was just matter of fact.
Elisa handed Father Naum a folded paper. “Here, she told him. This is what I wrote. I wrote for you while you were hobnobbing with your fellow wizards.”
Wizards. Made Naum smile.
Elisa said, “And damn Padre, they were some fat ass boys, weren’t they? Most of your meeting all they talked about was what they could or couldn’t eat during Kreshme.”
“You think?” Naum was surprised she remembered their name for Great Lent.
When she started to describe one or two she knew from the Avenue, customers, so to speak, that’s when Naum heard Doris and the ladies come in. Street savvy Elisa changed the subject. “They can put away the bacon, can’t they?”
The ladies sewed and whispered. Elisa passed out on the bench. Father Naum covered Elisa, went into the temple, lit the censer, and stood before the icon of the Theotokos and child. He read her note. He made the cross. And had he not been so exhausted, he may have wept.
A cold stone step
On this bleak avenue
Where no one
Wants to sit
A shadowed doorway
Along this street
Where no one
Wants to sleep
An abandoned shell
In this crumbling neighborhood
People no longer call a home
A darkened car
With someone inside
Who no one wants to touch
But I am sitting here, Lord
I am sleeping here
I am being touched
And I am dying of this darkness
Lord, please send someone
Who will remember my name
I am here, Lord, and I am Yours.
About the Author
Father Stephen N. Siniari is a priest of the OCA Diocese of the South. During more than 30 years as a priest, Father Stephen served parishes in New England and the Philadelphia/South Jersey area while working full-time for an international agency as a Street Outreach worker serving homeless, at-risk, and trafficked teens. He currently lives on the Florida Gulf Coast with is wife of more than 40 years.
He is the author of two short story collections, Salvaged, and One Eye Open, 50 stories of Orthodox life in America, featuring the fictional Father Naum, long-time priest at Saint Alexander Parish in the ethnically diverse Philadelphia neighborhood of Fish Town.