I was downtown, running errands during a deluge, and I turned my face upward, to gauge the rain. Obsidian windows of office buildings went gritty behind the storm’s incessant sifting. The rain filled space, an insatiable static. The downpour was no longer pouring down—it was just a weird, blank, total stillness.
Looking up, at that sky in reverse, I felt way too diffuse. I felt myself, all of me, flying centrifugally—out over the length of this city, this Philly. It was disorienting—a vertigo of sorts. But if it was a tilting, it was the particular tilt into familiarity.
This is the thing—I’ve been looking upward in Philadelphia for so much of my life. And there’s always that certain feeling—a sort of plea, a sighing please, or the word need, or any phrase that could bring those two together. I guess it was, simply, an asking for justice.
I grew up in this city, and I grew up religious, so I used the language of dolorous Old Testament prophets to do my asking. The wording could be have mercy or O, my city! or how long. I asked in the heave of a heat-wave, when a homeless woman approached me, and I could sense the bloat of death about her. I asked for this justice, when boys in my own Germantown began entering adulthood through the ritual of being shot down. I asked, when I squinted at City Hall’s indomitable façade, and demanded more money for our Philly schools. I asked as I marked out blocks of Olney with my walking, and saw the poverty that spilled out—through doors, over stoops, into the indifference of Broad Street.
That feeling, when I was young, was so many things at once—all ache and love and burden and weightless glorying in this place. I wrote many poems about the city, and almost always used words like surfacing, rising, cresting. In Rittenhouse Square, after-school sunlight surfaced—burnishing lawn and fountain and stone with immutable bronze. There was the breathless, cresting instant when the R8 train arced over the Schuylkill River. There was the rising-up of rusted columns at the North Philly station—their earnest, industrial bolts now riveted only to the sky’s impossible autumn blue.
I felt, in these moments, that the woman I would be—later, when I’d grown up—surfaced as well. Her hands rested on wooden kitchen tables—rested calm and assured, measuring the exact angle of home. Those same hands could touch—without a flinch—the stricken hand that homeless woman had extended toward me. Those hands, I believed, could bring justice through simple, archetypal acts—proffering bread, proffering a small coin, proffering—when nothing else remained—the skin of the hands themselves. I really did believe all that—all that, and more.
These days, I know myself to be no prophet—too busy, too many bills to pay. Too distracted by the convenient commotions that hover at eye-level—Facebook, text messages, user IDs, email alerts. My hands just scroll through websites and chop onions and cramp while holding the pen that grades the papers.
Only lately, I have been feeling it again. I sense it mostly in transit. Between exiting the Orange Line subway and entering the pneumatic indifference of department store doors. Between gathering Trader Joe’s bags and the moment, while waiting for the bus, that I look up.
The prophet feeling has come back—that enduring rawness, that holy heft. It’s a sentimental cling to my previous, adolescent sense of calling—sure. But now, when I look up, and I hold for a moment the shape of my stillness, I feel different. I feel—for the first time—helpless. Helpless against our leaders, who feed kids to whatever Moloch the expedient moment requires. Helpless against our wrong justice, which tastes like gunmetal and oil. Helpless against poverty, the way it’s settled on our country like skin. Helpless, even more, against those who cultivate this poverty, who grow its cells and coax its clone-like proliferation.
One day—one day in June—I was biking home from a protest outside the governor’s Philadelphia office. It was after a rainstorm. These days—this stricken summer—the moments that aren’t after a rainstorm seem to be during one, or just on the cusp before. Crossing the South Street bridge, my eyes were on the road, not rising toward the noncommittal, heat-fuzzed sky. As I hunkered over the handles, intent on not crashing into cars, a passerby yelled “Rainbow! Rainbow!”
It was true. Cresting over the city—surfacing from the torrid atmosphere—were the tatters of color. The rainbow seemed more like an action than a sight, its colors quietly inhabiting, patiently filling up. I looked upward at it. I remained in that outbreath, and I remained in the stillness that the sky allowed. I remained in the interstices between need and please. I wanted to flip my palms up, and let it all—the splendor and the suffering—fall right into my hands.