A DAY ON THE STREETS:
June 6, 1991, 5:00 am · Updated January 17, 2012, 10:16 pm·
A Summer Times reporter spends 24 hours with a group of homeless men, learning what it really means to endure.
Johnnie is looking for $5.08 — the price of a half gallon of Thunderbird wine. He counts his money slowly and precisely as he hands over the total of $2.50 to his best friend T., who says he’ll combine their funds to buy the “vino.” Johnnie reaches into his sack to get an Egg McMuffin that he scrounged from the dumpster behind McDonald’s, and offers a cold cheeseburger to June, another longtime friend. Johnnie says he has to find ways around the security measures which McDonald’s uses to protect their garbage. He salvaged his most recent haul by scaling a 10-foot wall, climbing over the barbed wire at the top and jumping into the dumpster. The two eat their sandwiches in silence, and they watch the students hurry down Locust Walk. Occasionally the silence is broken when a pretty girl walks by and June comments that he wants a college girl, “who’s got her head on straight.” He adds that the right girlfriend would bring him back from the dead-end path of “crack and cheap sex.” As the hot summer sun beats down, and the salty food is eaten, both men say they are dying for a drink, but T. has not yet returned with the wine. Luck is with the men today, and the attendent allows them to take the ice, which they bring to the side of a nearby house and fill from a garden hose. They have come to rely on the spout since Roy Rogers recently restricted the amount of free water they will give to the homeless. Johnnie says he was an All-Star basketball and football player while in ninth grade and then dropped out of school when his mother died. Shortly after, he eloped with an Italian girl named Donna and moved to Tallahassee, Florida. The two were passionately in love and they moved first to Miami, and later to Philadelphia in the mid-‘70s. Johnnie had only been in Philadelphia a short time when his “life fell apart,” — banks repossessed his house and car, and his wife walked out on him. This series of catastrophes caused him to begin to drink heavily. “I see Donna once in a while,” Johnnie says. “She’s whoring downtown.” Johnnie remembers one night when Donna tried to stop him from going to a bar because she was afraid something bad would happen. That night, Johnnie stabbed and killed a man he knew because the man uttered the threatening phrase, “I just don’t like you, Johnnie.” After serving a prison term, Johnnie remarried in 1979. He and his second wife, Mumsey, who is also homeless, are not faithful to each other. Johnnie will turn 40 in several weeks. · Tommy returns to the shady bench and tells them the word on the street — someone was shot last night in The Bottom (also known as “The Bucket of Blood.”) The Bottom is the area surrounding 40th and Lancaster — a crack haven where the homeless purchase drugs and get high in the crack houses and cheap hotels. The talk of the murder, however, soon dissipates (Johnnie says that death is an everyday occurrence for him and his friends). The topic of discussion moves onto graphic descriptions of the sexual favors that each man had purchased the night before. Two hours have passed, and T. has not returned from the liquor store. June and Johnnie go to find T., and more importantly, their money. They slowly make their way to the liquor store, and they see that T. is being chased by Red (whom June describes as “white trash”). Red yells that T. must return his eighteen cents so he can buy a beer. T., however, insists that he never borrowed the money. Red raises his fists to hit T., his arms revealing many tatoos and IV drug track marks, vivid against his pale white skin. T.‘s grunting shows that he is in no mood to fight, so Red stops short of striking him. Johnnie’s friend Chuck reflects on how Red has changed in the past few weeks. “Red just found out he has AIDS, and ever since he’s been violent,” Chuck says. “I now break all my needles so that I too don’t get AIDS from drugs.” T. eventually returns the money to Red, so Johnnie makes his move, cornering T., and demanding his money. T. again begins his routine about not having the money, but Johnnie is sober and will not fall for it. In fact, after leaving he has made twelve cents. · Johnnie is the leader of his “posse,” a club of several dozen homeless people that has its own intricate rules and traditions. They used to meet at a clubhouse in a condemned home, but it burned down twice. All members of the club identify their alligiance by donning an American Heart Association button and a Zenith Data Systems painters’ cap. Among the club’s rules, foremost is the stipulation that “your word is your bond.” No one ever goes into anyone else’s bag of possessions without permission, and food and booze is generally shared. Club members enjoy citing their hero, Kenny Rogers, as best expressing the philosophy of surviving on the streets. Twice that day June and Johnnie sang “The Gambler,” in chorus. “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” · Five hours later, Johnnie is still short of his $5.08 goal for the Thunderbird wine, so Chuck goes to the WaWa on the 3900 block of Walnut and “hustles” passers-by for the remaining money. Johnnie says that college students give the panhandlers the most money. On an average day, if one “hustles” from dawn to dusk, he can make nearly $35. “If it wasn’t for the college kids, I wouldn’t be alive,” Johnnie says. Chuck purchases the bottle of Thunderbird, and Johnnie and June join him in the park outside the Free Library to sip the wine and talk. June has many stories to share with the other two, since he has just been released from a prison term for justifiable homicide. Chuck adds that he is thinking of joining Red on his annual tour with the Grateful Dead. He says that he feels it is a great opportunity to sell t-shirts and make some money, but he worries that he could never match the amount Red brings in by selling sheets of acid. The trio is soon joined by Tyronne, and as the wine dulls their senses, the conversation quickly turns to sex. Tyronne brags, as his pronounced beer belly wobbles, that his work went well the night before — Tyronne is a gigolo. June explains that Tyronne is actually a “gigolo-want-to-be,” and that none of his “customers” actually pay him. Tyronne retorts that June is “just being negative” and is always looking for the disappointments in life. Night falls as they finish the wine, and Tyronne leaves. Johnnie, June and Chuck decide that it is time to go to the Bottom to get high. The three cross the intersection of 40th and Market, becoming excited about what the night holds in store. As they walk north, they come to an area called “Tricks City.” Prostitutes line the streets and hawk their wares. “They turn the trick and then buy the crack,” June says. “If the cap [vial] is five dollars, and they have four fifty, the whore will take you around the world for 50 cents.” The hookers have sex an average of thirty times a day for three days straight, and then they rest and don’t work for two, the men say. “I don’t want to get married,” one prostitute says. “This crack is my husband and this glass pipe is his dick.” The group chooses to purchase the night’s crack from a group they call the Jamaicans. When they see the Jamaicans’ familiar truck, they know that means turn right on the next street and look for a guy on the left-hand side of the road. They follow the instructions, and proceed to purchase a five-dollar crack vial each. “Five dollars a hit, for five minutes,” June says. “It’s a rich man’s high.” June explains that men should never smoke crack before sex, but women should. “If the man smokes crack, he can’t get it up,” June says. “But if the women does, she will love that fuck.” The three then walk to a crackhouse a block away, but choose not to go inside. They huddle in a tight circle and begin the familiar ritual. The three men bend over and insert the crack crystals into a glass pipe which is also filled with shavings from a brillo pad that act as a filters. A long metal stick called “the pusher” is used to insert the crack. After they light the pipe, they hold the smoke in their lungs for as long as possible. After they get high, June and Johnnie began to search for the evening’s sleeping location. After careful thought, they decide on the alcove in front of a church at 38th and Chestnut, where Johnnie had left a pillow and two pieces of carpeting the night before. As they lie down into their sleeping beds, they light up their pipes again, trying to get another hit; unfortunately, not enough remains to get high. They are not bothered by the bats which fly above their heads and the large cockroaches which crawl across their beds. After drifting to sleep, Johnnie suddenly wakes up and announces that he is “horny.” He wanders over to the Bottom again and finds a prostitute who will help him for free. “She was feeling good, I was feeling good,” Johnnie says. “So she sucked my dick.” The two return to their bedding location for the night, and sleep until dawn, then they return to the WaWa and the cycle repeats. Once again, Johnnie needs $5.08 to buy a half gallon of Thunderbird wine. . .