Parks for Passionate People – Perry Genovesi
October 7, 2023
“There’s this guy out there praying,” I told my wife.
“But why’ve you been recording him?” she said. She’d gotten out of the shower and smelled like lavender. I knew the Race Street tent city bothered her; if it was dark, we crossed the street to avoid it on the way back home. She wouldn’t like the man being so close. I swiveled in my chair.
“He and the other homeless out there, they’re at risk of being pushed out.” I’d improvised the reason, but it sounded noble.
“Pushed out by whom?”
“What’s that have to do with you?” The room felt like a sauna.
That morning, PENNDOT (the PA Department of Transportation) had convened a meeting about the project in the Central Library’s auditorium. Librarians and my colleagues from the Court of Common Pleas next door shuffled in their seats. Someone had asked the Planner, “What are you gonna do with those homeless camps out there?”
“They’ll have to be moved,” he’d said. The Planner wore a shiny black suit as if he were a Chippendale’s replica of a civil servant.
“Our officers have already started on those Race Street shacks.” He pointed behind him to the projector screen and a dim cutaway animation of the bridge construction paused. “Once the bridge work starts, they’ll all have to be moved.”
Colleagues I rarely talked to expressed relief about the shacks moving. It bothered me, but I didn’t know what to say.
“I’m happy to announce that your Book Festival can go forward uninterrupted,” said the Planner. Librarians had sighed in relief. But I’d worked across the street for five years, and no one had asked me for any input on the new sidewalks, and I took them every day. I’d started working at the Court when I was 27 and now I was 32. I was maybe even more inconvenienced; I’d had to establish a new walking path to work based on the construction’s whims.
Now, Rachel studied my face.
“Can I show you one more thing, Honey?” I opened my laptop, trying to be compassionate, especially with her brother being the alcoholic P.O.S. cop he was in Upper Darby. The Facebook page I’d called, “The Philly Prayer Guy.”
“Babe,” she said.
“All those followers?”
I looked. The count had risen to nearly 230. She sat, her towel damp on our Ikea comforter. Some steam from the shower was fogging the bureau mirror.
“And…you made this page?” she said.
“That’s new for you.”
By now I’d posted 10 photos and videos of the man. He had a sallow mustache and dark skin. In his left hand a Bible dangled. Over the highway his heels rocked on the concrete barrier’s edge. At first I’d been concerned he’d jump. Prayers in Spanish and English flowed from his mouth. The herd watching him increased with each photo she clicked. I’d captioned them all with the date: on a video from 6/4, my first, you could see about ten people, students from the Catholic high school. In another, some regular picnickers kneeled on blankets, the wind howling. In another, the man preached before a crowd of eight, their bright Art Museum visitor badges visible. Some of them were recording him too.
“What’s so great about him that all these people are watching? Two hundred-some followers.”
“I don’t know. He’s got this…presence—the way he moves. I mean, not in a crazy-person way but, well, maybe a little. Maybe he was a rapper in a past life.”
She didn’t laugh. “He looks crazy. Careful you don’t get mugged next time you visit. You know Blair got her phone stolen last week. Some rando claimed he needed to call his daughter for a ride.” She slid me my laptop and scampered back to the bathroom.
I wanted to rip her towel away. “You wouldn’t know he was homeless,” I called.
The next day after Happy Hour at Mixto, Rachel decided to accompany me to the Prayer Guy and the dregs of the tent city. We stopped home for gear first—at this point, I’d bought one of those Amazon tripods you could lock your phone into. He was steps from our building and I knew that the amount of homeless people there bothered her. She’d had a bad experience once with a mentally ill person in a New Orleans park. She peered around now like a frightened cat.
About 17 people mulled around in front of the man, who gesticulated in the rock garden on the pedestrian bridge. It was a mix of regular people and the ones who lined up for sandwiches every day at five near the Logan Square fountain, which was spraying halos a few feet from the bridge. The man prayed in the same warm voice in Spanglish. His bible swayed in slo-mo as he windmilled his arms. He smiled and slipped down from a concrete planter into the rock garden. He took little leaps that crunched around pebbles, praying “Our Father” now. Even from a distance, I could see that fine cracks roughened his lips and I thought he must be thirsty up there. Rachel shot me a What’s this freakshow? look.
There was a black gentleman with sunglasses and a strange hat I think a Union soldier would’ve worn in the Civil War. I’d seen him out there before. Rachel slunk closer to me.
“Hey!” the man said. “You press?” He slid his sunglasses onto his hat.
“I’ve been working on a project to protect these people from being pushed off the grounds. We’re trying to raise awareness as a…a larger means of addressing this.”
“Yeah?” said the man, who introduced himself as Anthony.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m hoping that with each post, more attention will come. And it might force PENNDOT to actually consider these people. Or have a better plan for them.”
“Uh-huh,” said Anthony.
Rachel spoke up. “You know, a silver lining to all this could be that these underprivileged people are put in a shelter. They’d live better lives…jobs.”
I gawked at Rachel. Anthony said, “Sometimes a shelter’s not the answer. It’s not a home.”
“It’s better than this,” she said.
“Some guys don’t want a shelter. Or their rules are too restrictive.”
“Do you follow my page?” I asked, spinning a plastic knob to release my phone from the tripod.
I said, “Here.” I felt weird handing it to him. But Anthony just prodded through the pictures with dirty fingernails. “That’s good. That’s good about him. Get rid of those shots with me in them.”
“Now, what about everyone else?”
“Well, you’ve got to have standards. We want to help him because he’s got some,” Rachel paused, “thing he can offer.”
“Ok,” said Anthony. “I’m just…listening to y’all right now. How do you feel about what’s going on with the police and this community?”
Rachel went on, “Sometimes you get these, bad apples in the police departments, it’s true. It’s—”
“You’ve got to look back to the Reagan years. That’s when the occupation of poor, brown communities really went into hyperdrive.”
“We know black lives matter!” I said. “And what gentrification is, too.”
“Ok,” said Anthony.
Pacing back home, Rachel said, “What’s he doing to improve lives? You’re doing something. Our city has characters! You’re doing a good thing by bringing attention to one.” I must’ve nodded. “What are we going to do?” she said.
My words felt strained; my life was challenged by things happening. And the way it typically improved was by listening to Rachel as much as I could. But that came with its own barriers.
It was arduous finding musicians who’d play some secular religious hits—“This Little Star of Mine,” “Spirit in the Sky,” and, when I did, the players turned out to be three African-American students from Temple. This made everything feel more authentic. The saxophonist and drummer already followed my page.
Planning took about two weeks over email. There was a lot to work out with just parking and unloading. I must’ve spent an hour writing one message about the space: telling the band how loading-in would work, where to plug in the PA, and where the library’s bathroom was.
“Greetings!” I said to the musicians the day of the Book Festival. We took up 19th Street; three cops observed us against the other highway fence. I was afraid they’d shut us down. The drummer and bassist were chatting with the Prayer Guy. Talking with him was something I never considered.
A drum kit, bass, keyboard and alto-saxophone appeared on the sidewalk on either side of the Prayer Guy. He seemed oblivious as they raised the mic to his lips. Anthony crossed his arms near a post office box. Rachel stayed close to me instead of asking folks if they already followed my Facebook page which she said she’d do.
She had printed me a stack of laminated cards at her work. They featured a QR code which linked to the Facebook. Now she told me I should hand them out.
The drummer stepped into a beat and the keyboard came in to paper the edges over. Bass dug in and the man went right into it. The musicians were all black and they were backing a Spanish man. I marveled at how authentic they looked up there.
“What’s all this?” A new voice at my shoulder said. I shut my eyes and winced. “It’s a peaceful event. Because, ahm, with the construction, they want to kick out the encampment.” I turned and saw it was a middle-aged black woman in a loose pastel t-shirt with a lizard on it.
“Oh, it’s the Philly Prayer Guy,” I said. “You can follow us on Facebook!”
“Look at you. It’s great you’re trying to help the community,” she said. The compliment felt genuine. But when I handed her a card she kept talking. The bass shook my molars. About 60 heads, I saw beyond the woman, had gathered to watch. Here we were, on 19th Street outside the Central Library, with a real crowd thanks to the Book Festival, watching a jazz quintet accompany the Prayer Guy. The Guy was practically scatting. A grizzled, shirtless, clearly homeless white man, the hole in his belt homemade and ratty, approached the band. When the sax player pointed to Rachel, the shirtless man lurched over to her. He yelled, “Is this open mic? Could I get up there?”
I assumed Rachel would confer with me and I excused myself from the woman to scoot my wife’s way. But Rachel said, “No.” He asked again. “No! Leave us alone!” In the end, I was glad she told him off. But then Rachel was speaking with a bald black gentleman in a white Led Zeppelin t-shirt.
“I remember how it used to be,” the man, whose name Rachel later said was Ulysses, said, “back in the day the homeless would take over public spaces like this. Nobody wanted to use them.”
“What do you think about the homeless and the cops?” said Rachel. “Forever enemies?”
“In these days? With all the black lives matter you have out there? I wouldn’t recommend putting the two together, no.”
Anthony was leaning against a beech tree, watching the band, Ulysses, and Rachel. He pulled on the brim of his cap, and then moved toward us.
“Evening, Ulysses,” said Anthony.
“Eric,” said Ulysses.
“Thought you said your name was Anthony,” said Rachel.
“Middle name,” said Anthony.
The band finished their last song, “I Saw the Light.” The Prayer Guy smiled but didn’t say anything when I thanked the band for performing. We moved off of the street to let cars pass again. More cops had by then materialized. The homeless watched the regular people trickle out and then it was just the homeless and the grounds again appeared blighted.
“That wasn’t bad,” said Anthony, a.k.a. Eric.
“Yep,” said Rachel, glaring into her phone.
“Definitely. Thanks for coming!” I said. Relief surged through my arms. Neither police nor Library people had stopped us.
Rachel said, “Hundreds watched online. Way more than here. Impressive, right?”
“Didn’t say it wasn’t,” said Anthony.
On our walk home Rachel voiced more opinions about the campaign than she had all week. “It’s gonna be a power grab now,” she said. “Mark my words.” We skirted around the tent city. Prayer Guy screamed, “Praise the lovely, lovely Lord!” and it echoed over the traffic din.
“You know,” she shouted, “it’s unfortunate, but…black people can be racist too.”
I swallowed, then nodded. Rachel had a way of speaking truths I’d rather not think about.
“And no one should be telling you you shouldn’t be doing something because of the color of your skin. That’s reverse racism. Yeah?”
I must’ve nodded again.
“I think he hates women, Anthony. I’m glad Blair and Nichole didn’t come.”
After that day, the campaign boomed. Overnight, two interview requests came in through Facebook DMs. That morning, one reporter called my job. “Says his name’s Hugo?” my boss had said, handing me our office phone.
That evening there was a cobbled-together story in Philadelphia Magazine’s web edition about the Prayer Guy.
“See this?” I texted Rachel after I slid my headphones into my bag to leave work. I learned a little bit more about the Prayer Guy, Lucien, from the article. Lucien. I’d never even asked his name. He’d given the interviewer vague remarks. He called Mexico home. Still, the interview with the Prayer Guy unearthed more about him in one story than I’d identified in two weeks. That night Rachel and I smoked some of her weed and made love.
After work the next day, we hiked to where I usually set up to meet Allison Gamble, a CBS reporter. But when we arrived we found the place festooned with banners. Behind the Prayer Guy, a white banner hung with black block letters read, “PENNDOT OWES REPARATIONS.” A “DON’T KICK US OUT” placard, scrawled in the same thick brushstrokes with black paint, was held by the grizzled guy who’d accosted Rachel at the Book Festival. One long “HOUSING NOW” banner zip-tied to the highway fence along with several posters, rustled over the traffic’s rising heat. The attendees to the Guy’s service looked bedraggled and the burning sage bothered my nose. Next to them I recognized Anthony with a fistful of zip ties like uncooked spaghetti. I waved to him cautiously. I’d never seen this many homeless people before, even in the five years I’d lived in Philadelphia.
“What do you think?”
“Nice,” I lied.
“What’s going on, Eric?” asked Rachel.
“Excellent show,” Anthony said. “Y’all did a great thing. I wanted to see what Lucien thought, what the other guys did too. That could shore up this project.”
“What do you mean you wanted to see what the other guys thought?” said Rachel, scanning all the homeless faces.
“Lucien’s opinion was lacking,” said Anthony. “That’s not fair. Turns out he wanted to keep his pulpit. To not get pushed away.”
“Exactly!” I said. “That’s why this project’s so dire. We wanted to save him.”
“That demand should’ve been more up front.”
“I mean, that’s why we’re here.” Something inside told me to laugh but I couldn’t.
“Really?” said Anthony. “Because it sounded as though y’all wanted to make him into some kind of celebrity.”
I must’ve looked like a stuttering cartoon.
“I mean,” Anthony said, pointing back to the demonstration. Homeless people circled the construction. “We still need help with this.”
“We’d love to,” I said.
The CBS news van slowed to a stop in front of us.
“Why are you butting in like this?” said Rachel. “I hate this. We thought of this, and then you come in here and try to take over like some crazy person?”
“You were talking to that Ulysses nut. What you thought of was exploitative. We need a cleanse.”
Rachel and I watched more homeless people mill around. At some point, Anthony took to the rock garden, speechifying about the sins of PENNDOT and the Center City District, the failures of the shelter system and “their spineless impotence in treating this community with respect.” The grizzled man threw a placard onto the highway and a silver Jeep screeched and swerved to avoid it. I turned to Rachel, but she was talking with the man she’d seen before. “This is a mess,” said Ulysses. “What y’all were doing was much better. This won’t end well. They need to get these people out of here.”
“They need a place to go,” I said. “They need housing. Permanent housing. Otherwise we may as well occupy the empty rooms at the Marriott.” I realized I was cribbing from Anthony’s speech.
“Let me ask you,” said Ulysses. “What’s your plan for trying to work this all out? You need more people. A sustained crowd. These little shows aren’t going to cut it unless you get it together. And working with him,” he pointed to Anthony, “is digging your own grave.”
Rachel disappeared behind the fountain. She counted and pointed while talking on her phone. Another homeless person heaved a banner down onto the highway. It wasn’t all chaos, though. Something else was happening too in the short time we’d been there: more normal people were using the area. A young barefoot couple sprawled on a Wawa beach towel, their backs turned to the demonstration, watching water burst from the glistening fountain. The kid drank from a bottle of fancy French beer with a purple label, then inside his loafer he stuffed the bottle. I watched the CBS News anchor coif her shoulder-length hair as a cameraman hunched toward her. Once Rachel returned, Anthony stormed over.
“I need to talk to you,” said Anthony. “You’re going about this all wrong. You’re trying to save…one person, one person who to you is a novelty, at the expense of this whole community.”
“Why do you say that?” I said.
“Because that bitch called the cops! They’re gonna deport the poor man.”
“Don’t talk about my wife like that! That true, Raych?”
“He’s going to cause an accident,” she said. “People are complaining.”
Anthony shot his head up. “You’ve never even asked what Lucien thinks! How could you let this go this long?”
“I told you, he won’t talk to us!” I said. “He just does his bible thing.”
Anthony marched over to Lucien in the rock garden and tried prodding him to speak. Lucien smelled like church incense. But then, as if he were waking, Lucien stopped praying and blinked.
“Can you talk to them?” Anthony asked.
And, softly at first, he did. He said the weight of his sins were why he kept quiet. He let them out a little bit every evening with prayer. “I feel the weight lighter and lighter. Some folks appreciate it, they say, Lucien, you’re glowing! That’s the light of the Holy Spirit, my friend.”
I nodded. He kept waxing about the sins he cast off like river rocks. Dusk fell and red and blue dome lights enveloped the four of us. Sirens wailed. Lucien said that nobody knew shit and excused himself with “praise.” How nobody knew a thing about him, that that was the way he wanted to keep it. He said they might deport him, and that was fine too. Whatever God had in mind for him, everything would be okay. He spoke in an anxious voice. I was almost certain he’d dive off the ledge onto the highway now. Maybe I should’ve been recording.
Four police cars screeched onto Vine Street next to the demonstration.
Lucien trudged through the crumbling rock garden. Two cops faced him. Then they passed over to the “HOUSING NOW” banner zip-tied over the fence. They cut the cables and rolled the banner up like a comforter.
Three bulldozers appeared the next day. PENNDOT evicted all the homeless. But they’d return, months later, a half-block from the Fountain. All except for Lucien. For a good part of the year everything around the Library and the Court closed; more streets shuttered and new concrete poured. And then in September, a brand new park opened, more beautiful than anyone could’ve ever imagined.