If you find yourself wandering the corridors of City Hall, keep your eyes peeled for an old man with a manilla folder overflowing with paper, and a plastic grocery bag full of knick-knacks. Maybe you’ve encountered him. If you have, you would remember.
If you find yourself wandering the corridors of City Hall, as people sometimes find themselves doing, keep your eyes peeled for an old man with a manilla folder overflowing with paper, and a plastic grocery bag full of knick-knacks — snacks, food containers, crumpled napkins, more paper. Engulfed in a cloud of lavender and chamomile, he casually strolls from one council office to another, dropping off packets of information for each council member’s constituents.
Maybe you’ve encountered him. If you have, you would remember.
‘The Young Boy’
His name is Bobby J. Williams. He’s a 79-year-old Nicetown-Tioga resident who has dedicated the past 62 years of his life to the uninformed, unfortunate, and unrecognized of his community.
I met him this past spring while working in the trenches of City Hall. Like clockwork, Williams is there every afternoon distributing restaurant coupons, nonprofit flyers and neighborhood clean-up reminders to anyone who might be interested. Admittedly, I didn’t know what to make of him at first. He can be hard to understand at times, speaking in hushed, semi-lucid riddles and referring to himself as “The Young Boy.”
“It’s terminology in reverse psychology,” he said recently when I sought him out in the halls. I still make time to pay him a visit every now and then. “All these knuckleheads out in the street calling their mothers and fathers ‘old heads.’ They know to say ‘Yes, sir; no, sir’ — they just don’t hear it enough. You get to know them three or four weeks, you get on their level, then they learn. That’s why.”
Born in 1935 in Anderson, South Carolina, Williams was raised in a church founded by his great-great-grandmother. (His relatives still head the congregation today.) His family moved to Harlem when he was 11 years old. Then, when he turned 17, he left for Philadelphia with his family, moving in on the 3500 block of North 15th Street. He still lives there today.
Upon settling in Philly, Williams became a coordinator in the NAACP — first under Philadelphia chapter president A.J. Higgenbottom, then throughout the tenure of Cecil B. Moore. He founded several community organizations and became a member of countless more, all while working his way up the ladder at a men’s suits warehouse and running his own dry-cleaning service.
A man on the brink of breaching eight decades of existence, Williams is more active in the community than most young Philadelphians. Even if the information he hands out ends up in the trash, he still makes an effort to tell people how they can improve their community. He sat me down and showed me a list of some community organizations he’s involved with: Urban Coalition, Allegheny West Foundation, Breslin Learning Center, Tioga United and Re’Markable Transitions.
“Son, those are just the tip of the iceberg,” he chuckled.
Six decades of opinions
There’s a wealth of wisdom within Williams. He’s an opinionated man, but those opinions are rooted in a life rich with experience. If you give him the time of day, he’s more than willing to lend you some insight. For instance, how does he feel about technology today?
“It’s good and bad. It’s fast. It’s quick. But you got your virus, you got glitches, identity theft, Blackberry and your iPhone. And Steve Jobs — as smart as he was, could he save his own life? No, nobody can.”
Like most older folks, Williams isn’t a big fan of today’s popular music.
“You know who Snoop Doggy Dog is? Fifty Cent? Beyonce and Jay-Z? You seen on TV, they’re singing their songs, holding themselves up and down the stage [by their crotches]. Son, that’s disrespectful, is it not?”
He despises how popular music glorifies the word “hood.” In fact, he downright hates the term.
“The word ‘hood’ was created by people who want to do bad things. I see someone break into your home, and I’m not supposed to say anything? That word means you can do anything you want. You live in a community. It’s not a hood.”
He has predictions about upcoming fashion trends.
“Stetson hats are coming back.”
How about some advice on finding love?
“Be humble. If you’re humble, you can find love. You love yourself when you’re humble. We all go astray, but when you got love in you, it’s easier to find your way back.”
Words of encouragement for younger generations?
“To the knuckleheads, they gotta be able to talk to one another. If you’re humble in your heart, you let your heart control your brains, and good things come out your mouth.”
Williams is a walking treasure trove of offbeat guidance and information. Wedged between the packets of information he passes around is a Chuck D quotation superimposed on an image of the American flag:
“In order to save the people, one must serve the people. In order to teach the people, one must reach the people. In order to lead the people, one must love the people.”
I’ve had several conversations with Bobby Williams. It can be easy to write him off at first. Most do. He can be difficult to comprehend at times. But if you look him in the eyes and feel the raw emotion behind the message he’s conveying, you walk away with a sense of balance. He radiates love and passion for people like you’d never expect from a stranger.
“I’m happy,” Williams told me. His eyes were welling with tears, his pupils trembling as he grabbed my arm.
“I’m smelling my flowers now before I close my eyes — while I can still move around, see and hear. See? I could be around 100 more years, but I’m content. I’m ready to be with my master.”