I am the eldest of three boys from a working-class home in West Philadelphia. Despite its other name, the City of Brotherly Love, my experience as a kid in Philly was somewhat different. Its streets were mean and dangerous. My mother’s Armenian family carried scars of the world’s first genocide, and my father’s Jewish family, the Holocaust. My Armenian grandmother’s family was murdered in Turkey in 1915, along with upwards to a million other Armenians. The systematic murder gave rise to a new word in the English language, “genocide,” which the American ambassador at the time said that “the whole history of the human race contains no such horrible episode as this.” ...no such horrible episode as this.” That was before Auschwitz.
To the left is my Armenian grandmother Manushag and Harry in Aleppo, Syria, 1918. Manushag stands on the right, with Harry seated in front of her. Also seen are her Syrian protector and her two daughters. The matriarch’s expression suggests a world-weary toughness in the face of adversity. Manushag has a tough look, too, with tired, sleep-deprived eyes. Her left eye droops slightly, as if from facial trauma—she has no such droop in childhood photos. Unlike the two sisters, Manushag wears no brocade or ornamental buttons. Instead, a Black crepe stole covers her shoulders that signifies recent widowhood. Harry looks well cared for despite his privations, dressed in a broad-brimmed hat, beat up shoes, and two full-length overcoats one on top of the other. The time of this photo coincides with the unwinding of the Ottoman Empire and the ceding of Syria to France. There is a lull in the massacres of Armenians, and in 1923 Manushag acquires a French passport for 25 French francs, crosses France on foot and is bound for the United States. Her papers optimistically document, “going to Chicago, Ill. (U.S.A.).” That was not to be the case.
Above is a photo of my Jewish family taken about 1922. My grandfather is second from the left, with my grandmother third from the left. My father at about age four is to the right my grandmother. The older man is her father who had the good sense to flee Hungary ten years before the Nazis exterminated the families they left behind, along with six million other Jews and millions of other undesirables in the Holocaust.
The author tanned to the shade of an unclear racial identity, aged 8, with my younger brother, Arthur, in West Philadelphia, 1950.
In America in the same century another mass flight was taking place, as Black Americans fled the South in a Great Migration with the hope of freedom in the North. They came to the great cities of the North, including Philadelphia. When they came to West Philly, a Jewish ghetto became a Black one. In time white flight left my family the sole whites on the block, a decision my father stood by for years.
I was my mother’s darkest son, turned brown by long hours playing on the streets. Whites in school saw me as Black, but I was only a summer brother. By winter my skin had faded to a suspect latte, and most Blacks saw me as white. In each racial identity, some fighting was required, at the Police Athletic League and on the street. It seldom went well.
One fight at the PAL with a little Black kid named Marvin convinced me that boxing was not my game. We met by chance forty years later after he had been released from prison after doing time for murder. I wasn’t completely surprised. Our junior high was rated by the federal government as “a persistently dangerous school,” and the numbers of homicides in West Philly rivaled those of Americans killed in Iraq. But as a kid I had no idea that society one day would send young Marvin to prison, and I, a white kid from the same ghetto, would go to medical school.
My childhood home in West Philadelphia is the white one on the left, shown in a 2019 photo. Photo courtesy of Google Maps.
Boxing hurt you, but our gloves were like pillows. At home there were no gloves. My mother used her hand, worsened by her twin afflictions of deafness and uncontrolled mood swings. When she began an attack, there was nothing to hold her back. My father, a tailor, who was scrabbling to build a dry-cleaning business, was often gone. On his way out the door he gave her a Marquis de Queensbury list of rules for hitting kids. Banned were head shots, for which I’m grateful, although to this day, my brother and I don’t know if a breach of the rules explained his epilepsy.
Salvation came from a stream of surrogates who protected and promoted me: a childless scoutmaster stepping in as a father. A teacher reversing my downward slide when she realized I had poor vision. A shop teacher who pulled me out of a violent classroom and set me to building radios. A gay librarian who steered me to stories in The New Yorker. Above all, the local Lutheran Church that took me in as an unwashed, unkempt street punk and gave me values of a lifetime.
The former Immanuel Lutheran Church in West Philadelphia. The church is in the Gothic Revival style, with red brick cladding, a spiky steeple, and ornamental buttresses intended in the past for defense against both Catholics and Muslims. Its long, narrow floor plan make for graceful walks down the aisle. Its basement lends itself to injecting life into the community. There is a small stage on one end where we did plays, and I experienced my first heady rush of people listening to what I said. The Church was where I first heard the music of Bach, which was the dawn of what little spirituality I possess today. In 2010 Immanuel was re-consecrated as the Ebenezer Temple Pentecostal Church and thrives today. Photo courtesy of the Ebenezer Temple Pentecostal Church.
The danger on the streets did not abate until I got out of Dodge and went to college. One brother stayed in the city, and after he was shot at several times, offered the opinion that you can never dodge a bullet. If you’re lucky, it just misses. I disagreed. The people on my side helped me dodge a lot of bullets.