A less than pleasant bike ride through North Philadelphia.
My friend called me down to his apartment for a visit, a longstanding townhouse in the belly of the beast that is Philadelphia. Years prior five men were shot dead on the doorstep, but the area itself has made strides in cleaning up the area, and in less than a decade, the area was refurbished by leaps and bounds.
As I drove down the narrow streets, through a tunnel of cars on blocks and organic debris roaming the infested alleyways, I noted the addresses on the prefabricated buildings. “3456, 3459, 346..1″; I had arrived.
The plan was to map out our course of action and bike our way to a concert several miles in to uncharted terrain. We sat on his rooftop, as I gazed over at the city skyline, teeming with thousands of lives going about their own transgressions. I kept my feet rooted deeply in the center of the rooftop, not caring to stimulate my sense of vertigo. My shrewd actions led to the amusement of others.
As we prepared ourselves for the voyage we found ourselves en route to an area with which none of us were familiar. No matter where you are in the city, whether it is two in the morning, or four in the afternoon, there will always be somebody, somewhere, roaming the streets, for better or for worse.
As we drove farther and farther towards our goal, the area seemed to spring in to darkness. The streets were festering with garbage, as syringes, cigar wrappers, and assorted odors poured from bags brimming with obscure colors and textures. The dilapidated buildings were basically falling apart as the seams, crackling pillars and all.
“This is the type of place that police are scared to go” I said out loud.
I turned my head to the glimpse of a silhouette, only to find an empty porch beneath a caged awning. “Crap” exclaimed my friend Julian, staggering behind me “my chain broke”.
We huddled in the middle of the Ghost Town, and a very disgruntled Julian flipped the bike upside down. Only then did a shady character make himself apparent.
“Y’all fellas want some champagne?”
Out staggered a drunkard, slurring his rhythms, pointing to his crotch inquiring as to whether we were interested in his “champagne”.
“I think we’re just fine” said Julian with a forced smile and a distant response.
We did all we could not to chuckle, and I reached in to my pocket to feel around for loose change. This man seemed dismal and deranged, with a look of a hardened warrior in his now twitching eyes. He attempted to take the bike, and was now screaming at the top of his lungs whilst removing tattered clothing from his bruised and malnourished body.
Behind us we heard inaudible whispers and the vernacular of the area. The bike was ready and Julian sped off ahead. I attempted to zoom of myself, but the man refused to release my handlebars. In a panic he began screaming and tightening his grip, with wads of spit being flung through the gaps in his decaying gum line.
Then it all stopped.
I opened my eyes to see Julian standing over me holding half of a cinder block covered with tar, no doubt from one of the nearby building being burned to the ground. The man lay motionless on the floor, convulsing every now and again only to prove he would inevitably cease to be.
I looked up at Julian, perplexed yet somewhat relieved, and strangely not stricken with consequence.
“Help me fit some of this in to my bag”.
I could not believe what I was hearing. Julian walked over to my bike and removed the chain before I began to pedal away, as if he saw the inkling of an action manifesting itself within me.
Before I could ask questions, I saw him crush the collar bone, his hands together over his head a deadly hammer, forcing the human form in to jello. He beat the body for several minutes, not even giving me a second glance as I watched on from a distance in horror.
I felt the cold air wrap its all encompassing arms across my neck, as the chill burned away at the fibrillose in my respiratory tract, dangling pressure sharpening around my jugular. My pulse began beating like a drum roll.
As he stuffed the play doh man in to his messenger bag, he tore away tenderized flesh with his carnivorous fangs with an uninhibited roar of primal aggression, pressing the now gushing shell deep in to the school bag. He continued until he was about torso deep, and with a deep shudder I noticed the blood soaking in to the material.
I felt the hairs rise on the back of my neck. That feeling you get, when you look over the side of a roof to certain oblivion, or reprehensible act of brutal animosity, the churning of the stomach, the instinctual alarms blaring, warning you that the situation is potentially dangerous, a body pleading for distance, for control, from a looming terror.
I looked down to see ligaments hanging from his savage jaws, my chest weak and my sense of identity now depleted. Julian was deranged; he had no fear.
I was looking at an animal. He was looking back at an unsatisfied craving.
My knees buckled as I turned my back on the situation, only to see the dark abyss surrounding me. What I would give to have my initial fears realized, to have walked out of that concert to a broken chain and two stolen bikes, for that man to be standing before us brandishing brass knuckles, to go home wallet less and blissfully naïve to the rooftops and the underground.
Not knowing what the word safe meant anymore, I began to weep uncontrollably. Julian looked up at me with a sinister smile, and proceeded to pat my shoulder.
“Don’t worry, pal” he said. “I’ve got bigger plans for you.”
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