Homebound: How a new circumstance is helping me rethink an old place

Protesters watch smoke from police vehicles rise. (Phobymo)

Protesters watch smoke from police vehicles rise. (Phobymo)

Welcome signs stake the perimeter of our city, standing tall and sure as guardians.

“Welcome to Philadelphia. Enjoy our past… Experience Our Future!” they read in a collective refrain. The words are set against muted red and blue colors, accompanied by stars, placed around the city to mark the definite line between here and anywhere else.

A city sign by 30th street station. (Tim Tali)

Once easily ignored, I’m now thinking about these signs, wondering what in particular makes their message such hollow, unfitting scenery for our times. Enjoy our past: as though the past were something to be experienced on emotionally singular terms—or worse still, consumed like a product. Enjoy your flight they say, as the delicate, unfathomable mechanics of a machine lifts us into clouds. Or enjoy your beverage, as the flight attendant offers the familiar varieties of chemically engineered sweetness. But do we enjoy our past? Can we enjoy history?

Experience our future: as though we are the inevitable consequence of a valorous past. As though we live in the future, more than it lives in us. As though we’ve already arrived where we can only hope to be headed.

But most interesting is the baiting space between past and future, marked by an ellipses and a line: the present. Maybe there is nothing to say about it, it defies solidity and characterization for being neither memory nor aspiration. I imagine the blank space on the sign as a quiet admission to the speechlessness of our moment—as much as we like to pretend to know where we’ve been and where we believe we’ve arrived, we cannot dare to say we know where we are.

**

I wrote this essay months ago, about Philadelphia: a place I love, and a place I’ve felt eager many times to abandon. I wrote about being a boy here, and growing into a man, and leaving, and growing into more of a man, and coming back, and leaving again. Then days passed and the world changed; the present became the past, and my essay turned into a kind of accidental time capsule, assembled to the frequency of an unthinkable “before.” Revising it now feels like carrying the past into the present, reconciling my old thinking with a new time. Recovering what is worthwhile of old thoughts, rescuing them here, leaving the rest somewhere to sink away.

As a country, we have witnessed the state execution of Breonna Taylor, of George Floyd and of Tony McDade, and have watched time and American greatness once more fold in on itself. We have witnessed what happens everywhere in America—on and off camera, witnessed and unwitnessed—all the time.

As a city we have wept or shouted or shushed. Some of us have sifted or stumbled through white noise, while others fight to imagine into the future a new city, one that doesn’t murder and prey upon its own people. We have prayed and confessed and denied, pushed and scurried, braced and wondered in the struggle to be a city that doesn’t kill its own kind. At stake, perhaps, are the stories we tell about our city, this home of ours, its definition in, and relationship to, time.

**

A memorial assembled beside city hall. (Phobymo)

I have left Philly and returned twice—enough times to know there is a sadness to coming home, the weight of some unadmitted grief held inside any arrival back to an old place. As we and the places we are from change, perhaps coming home is an invariable reminder that something, sometime, has been lost. Where things are the same, that sameness becomes a steady backdrop against which we take measure of our mutations (how my sister and I would stare, disbelieving, at the lines my mother scratched onto the kitchen door frame, each once traced against the tops of our heads, adjoined to a scribbled date, a year past, marking the forgone places where our bodies used to end).

Where things are different, we must get to know our home, and it must get to know us, over again.

I wanted to write about how I love Philly, but was immediately halted by the recognition that nothing true can be said about any entire place. Location and time matter too much. We are a multiracial city made of monoracial blocks. A city where men delicately penned declarations of independence, a city that hosted slave auctions. A city of brotherly love, a city that dropped a bomb on itself. The mystery and tragedy of a place is held in its defiance of congruency, its inability to be solidly itself. Institutions bend easily to absolute characterizations, while places outlast and outrun them. I wonder if writing about home requires me to not say anything about its entirety at all; if to write about Philly through declaration would be to kill it.

**

The days I spend protesting on streets are married to their nights, when I lay alone in the familiar solitude of quarantine, and wonder. I imagine my days and nights as the same song played on two different volumes: trying to confront the world, myself, my location and time in this city, my place in its ugliness and possibility.

At night, the slippery language of the state—found dressing street signs or addressing huddles of reporters, splicing reality and time—circles in me. I remember the words of Commissioner Outlaw, who equivocally defended dropping tear gas and shooting rubber bullets at a crowd of protesters. In the crowd were two of my best friends—both arrested that day on 676, tackled by men in SWAT uniforms as they gasped for air and scrambled for safety. “When folks run up on a freeway… at that point, it’s not deemed peaceful” she says.

Protesters deface and attempt to take down Frank Rizzo’s statue. (Phobymo)

Her language swells and turns on itself in my mind. She is conflating peace and compliance in order to justify violence. “Run up” is substituted for march, to infuse their actions with some false sharpness. It is the typical language work of the state, and it does its job: to equate marching on a freeway and dropping chemical weapons from helicopters as simply two “not peaceful” things, one a necessary consequence of the other. But it is dangerous; a linguistic maneuver of governments and strongmen, rulers whose greatest power might be the veil of their words.

I wonder if one of our tasks, as writers and people, is to make better language than theirs—more potent, more imaginative, able to cut through the smoke they drop from high places. To make other records of home, of what happened in a place and time. To make scratches on the doorway; marks like coordinates or memories, signs that will remind us: we were here.

**

After the second night of protests, my father is worried for me. He warns: “Just be careful. What has happened in other parts of the world is that the police has opened fire on protesters. It happened in Colombia several times. I would not put it beyond them.” My father left Colombia in the ‘80s—he is no stranger to city curfews, or uniformed national guardsmen stalking street corners, or the soft crazed whir of helicopter blades slicing apart night with their strokes. In his worry, I imagine him running his finger along the seam of the American dream, wondering whether his past will leak into his future, if his future will vanish into his past.

I tell my father I will be OK, that my light skin and good schools make for me a kind of American shield. Then I think about shields. For the past five years, I’ve taught English language learners in a variety of settings and forms. I imagine telling my students that shield, like hammer, is an English word that is noun and verb, thing and action, or a thing named for how it is used. Just like silence, I imagine telling them, or dream, or hope.

My mind shuffles through the footage that has become somehow commonplace to us: those donning the uniform of our state brutalizing college students, Australian journalists, 75-year-old men, and many others, in the way they are used to brutalizing Black and brown people every day. Many, I notice, use the faces of their shields to strike their blows.

Is everything made or remade by use?  If so, when does an American shield, in the right or wrong American hands, cease being a shield and become a weapon? When do American dreams and hopes become something else, too? Something forceful, agile, able to delude, able to strike.

A group of bike police travel down John F Kennedy Boulevard. (Tim Tali)

**

I hear the writer Teju Cole quote Virginia Woolf, who is credited for this bare, astonishing line: the future is dark. “That is the best thing it can be,” says Teju. Dark, not for being ominous or at all negative, but simply and entirely for being unknown, like stepping into a room where the lights have gone out, the danger tangled with the possibility. This shouldn’t scare us, and it must console us, I think. The future is always dark. We are always someplace new. We are never anyplace again.

I wonder about this darkness, if something we are learning now is how to form an agreement with it, how to step and reach into it with incredible, constant courage and grace. We have let the monuments of our failed and conjured past fall, and cheered as they tumbled. Now we must do something harder: build new ones against the tough shapes of their shadows.

Stepping in the dark, aware of and enlivened by its character, there—this is to experience future. There, we can find ourselves a new city. There, we can find each other: home.

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