Homeless. People say that word the same way they spit out a speck of dirt when a car drives by on a dirt road in the summertime. Tasteless. Useless. No more valuable than dirt on your tongue.
Obviously it’s some people’s choice to live like that. Those people are the ones you know exactly who they are - they stand on street corners, with signs, wearing ragged clothes. Then they’ll get into the driver's seat of a brand new Lamborghini parked in an alley. The “homeless business” can be lucrative.
Others that don’t own a Lamborghini. They don’t beg on street corners. They are either too busy applying for jobs that most likely won’t hire them without a home address. Or they are one of the millions of abandoned children. They are victims of natural and financial disaster or abuse. They are unwanted “baggage”, pushed around and left to fend for themselves. In some countries and ages, they’ve been offered government assistance, which gives little comfort when considering the task of figuring out how to grow up to be responsible adults.
Sometimes in those lonely hours, lit by street lamps and dim alley apartment lights, the anguish meets the ageless reflection of a million others when looking into a single reflective puddle of water…
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Evening of March 10, 2020
Headlines were everywhere: Philadelphia announces first case of Novel Corona-virus, COVID-19. Tony had heard ripples of this new virus in the news in other places, but now it was actually here. Some people thought it was going to be as devastating as the war on terrorism, maybe more. Some people said there were people making drugs to create the virus just to kill people. Who knows.
Tony shifted his gaze away from the TV to his foster parents, Ted and Rebecca. They leaned back with their feet propped up on the coffee table, crunching potato chips, while the other kids screamed loudly in the background.
Tony sighed. His three weeks of freedom had been short. What was going to happen next with this new thing called “Covid”?
“You know,” Rebecca was telling Ted, “in some areas people are going into self-quarantine. Other places there’s talk of entire cities shutting most businesses and restaurants down. Do you think that will happen here?” Her face looked concerned.
“It might. But I know we will be OK, Rebecca. You know why? Because no matter what, we have each other, and we have God to watch over us.” Ted patted his wife’s arm and reached over to hug Tony. “Right Tony?”
Tony shrugged, pretending not to care. But he had to admit, he kind of liked this new family. They were different from all the others. Things didn’t scare them and they were always kind. They said it was God. Tony didn’t know much about God, but if God made people like Ted and Rebecca Hansen, then he guessed God was alright.
Philadelphia, Three weeks earlier, 2020
A gangly boy of twelve wove an uneven line down a rutted alley in Philadelphia one day in February. It was Tony, who wore a pouty lip and confident swagger like someone hanging in the balance of child and adult. He stooped to pick up someone’s half-eaten, spoiled gas station sandwich for his dinner. Tony was on the run...again. He’d just been switched to a new foster home, but the kids all picked on him and the parents just had him around to schmooze off his foster care stipend and food stamps. His siblings were lucky - there was Joe who had been adopted out to a middle-aged couple with a yacht. Then there was Toya, who was still in foster care, but loving every minute of the attention the young college couple gave her, along with that yappy little dog. Now, Tony...he was just the bad apple… nobody really wanted him.
Going on his 6th home, he was fed up and decided to skip town...again. Yes, he’d left his last residence before and the social worker had caught up with him eventually. But this time, Tony had staged a kidnapping, so that nobody would ever find him, and he could just do as he wanted. No one would find him in a big city like Philly. Maybe then he wouldn’t have to worry about someone always shuffling him off into corners or telling him to shut up like he was their worst kept secret.
He was too old for someone to want him, and too young to be of age...Really a frustrating thought, but he’d manage.
Tony laid down on the dirty pavement of Franklin Avenue, a sorry excuse for a row of houses. He stared into the darkness at the houses, tall and bare-faced, knowing all the colors of them in the daylight: red, blue, green, blue, yellow…
Yawning, Tony turned on his side, and saw a glimmer of light. The street lamp was reflecting off a puddle a couple feet away from him. In the murky water, he made out the wobbly figure of the lamp. Squinting his eyes, he pretended it was a ghost with a huge club coming to knock him out and drag him away into oblivion…
The next morning, Tony stretched and stood up. His stomach rumbled ominously and he realized he hadn’t eaten since that awful sandwich. He glanced at another hobo who was munching on a bag of chips, wondering if they would share.
“Hey sir, could I maybe have one…” he began.
The scraggly old man looked up and grinned a toothless grin. “Sure, take it! I got some soda too if you want.” He held the food out. Tony plopped gratefully down beside him, resting his back against the brick structure behind them.
“What’s the name, son?” asked the man.
“To-nry,” he answered with his mouth full.
“I’m Mason. You got parents looking for you?”
Tony shrugged and kept eating.
“Ah, you’re one of them foster kids aren’t you?” Mason guessed.
Tony shot a look at the man. “How’d you know?”
“I know,” he said. “Look, kid. This isn’t a place for young people. If you know what’s good for you you’ll go where you get fed and clothed and then try and figure out how to be a responsible adult once you grow up. This isn’t a good place to start being one.”
Tony gulped some soda and grunted. “Not going back to that place. All they care about is using my food stamps.”
“Ya got siblings?” Mason asked.
“Yeah. Not there though. They have it good. Not like me.” Tony licked the grease and dirt off his fingers.
Mason patted Tony’s shoulder. “You know kid, they say there’s other kids like you that still roam around this street at night. Franklin Street used to be a pretty fancy place to live. Back then they called it Sanders Place. It was the up-side of town, where all the rich merchants and bankers lived.”
Tony wasn’t too interested in American History so he tuned out Mason’s rambling voice until he heard something that peaked his interest.
“You can just see the figure of the boy if you look close enough in the lamp light at night,” Mason was saying.
“Who?” Tony asked.
“Philip Perkins Sanders,” answered Mason. He lowered his voice. “They called him Perks. People don’t like to own the fact that he used to live on this street. In fact this was where his parents settled after they arrived in America from Poland as wealthy silk merchants in 1783. His folks were pretty important people...that is until they died of yellow fever. It was first found at the wharf of Philadelphia, but spread so much it killed thousands of people. Within two months 20,000 people were told to evacuate Philadelphia because of the epidemic. Unfortunately many cities refused to receive the refugees from Philadelphia because it was already spreading to other states and Europe. Many became homeless and died of other causes.”
“Did Perks die?” Tony asked.
“Nope, he didn’t. But he lost his house, family and servants all in one week. Until the evacuation, he wandered this street, sometimes stealing and selling produce he could find at the open market downtown. No one knows if he stayed in town, left or ever came back to Philadelphia.” Mason sighed, shifted and began to pull himself off the cold pavement, offering Tony a hand.
“I got it, thanks,” he said, hopping up. He helped Mason put on his duffel bag.
As Mason turned to leave, he squinted over into an abandoned parking garage down the road. “Then of course there’s Chip.”
“Chip?” Tony wondered.
“Yep. His proper name was Charles Handley.” Mason began his slow shuffle down the street as he told his story. “He was another kid lost on the streets of Philadelphia. Back in 1918 he was with his folks at Philadelphia Liberty Loans Parade. It was a fundraiser to aid the troops who were going to fight in World War I. Well, some of the people there had what they called the Spanish Flu. The pandemic spread so far that it reached around the world, killing millions of people.”
“Did he die?” Tony asked.
“Nope, but all his family did. Two days after the parade every bed in every hospital for miles around Philly was filled. He didn’t know where to go. Everything shut down, stores, banks, businesses. He was taken to an orphanage, but then the Spanish flu invaded it, and they had to close. He took to street living, and made Franklin Street his home. They say you can see him in that old factory, because they think that’s where he took shelter.”
Tony squared his shoulders and scoffed, “I don’t believe that.”
Mason shrugged. “Suit yourself, kid. I best be going now. Do you want to come with me or are you destined to go somewhere else?”
“I’ll be ok. Thanks for the food,” Tony answered, wiping his mouth on his T-shirt.
All the rest of that day, Chip and Perks kept going through Tony’s mind. What if some kids from years past were still living here on the streets? They’d be old by now...in all actuality they should be dead. But what if they weren’t? Could you see them?
Philadelphia, February 24, 1919
Chip stole a glance under the table of the fruit stand in front of him. Everyone’s feet were turned away, so he should be safe. Like lightning, he made off with an apple and rounded a corner before the vendor could see where he went. He could hear them yelling, though. He ran down a few more alleys until he couldn’t hear any more shouting, then sat down to eat his apple. It was crunchy and juicy, the sweet moisture tickling the sides of his dirty mouth with pleasure.
From this side of Philadelphia, he could look up at a grey-blue patch of sky, interrupted by clothes lines stretched between brick apartments to dry out the wash. His mother had used to do that too…
Chip shook himself. He shouldn’t think about his mother. The ache was just too painful. Since the orphanage closed in January, Chip had been trying to get back. He’d left everything in Philly. He at least wanted to try and find his old house so he could get his bicycle and some clothes, maybe pictures of his family.
As Chip crossed the bridge into Philadelphia, he was struck by the difference. The population had gone down. Buildings were in disrepair. A red cross buggy sat in front of what looked like a makeshift hospital. Signs hung on doors and windows that said “Spanish Influenza deaths result from spitting - don’t spit!” A family camped in an alley in a horse-drawn wagon, Gypsy-style, cooking over a camp stove. Occasionally a soldier in uniform strode down the street towards the shipyard. Everyone on the street was wearing some kind of a mask over their mouths and noses. Wearing a mask was the law, negligence punishable by fines, imprisonment and even shootings.
Turning the bend of Franklin Street, Chip saw his father’s old shoe factory, now abandoned. His throat tightened, and he adjusted his mask to take a gulp of air. It was in shambles, windows smashed in. Father would have hated to see it like this.
Chip stood in front of his old Tudor-style house. The door was boarded over. A storm had blown the branch of a tree into the roof and broke a window. Glancing around, Chip sneaked over the fence into the storm cellar. Upstairs in the kitchen he found Mother’s china shattered on the floor. Her Bible lay on the table where she’d last read it before taking ill. Chip tucked it lovingly into his pocket.
Slowly he wandered through the house, going over every corner where weather had not made it impassable. He found his father’s shaving set, his sister’s teddy bear, and his old bike. Stashing these into a bag with some of his father’s clothes and a few canned food items from a cupboard, he quickly changed out of his rags into a better albeit baggy shirt and trousers.
By nightfall, Chip had wandered in through a broken window to the old shoe factory. A couple other vagrants were there too. They let him warm himself over their fire, although they wouldn’t share any of their rationed food.
In the middle of the night, Chip woke with a start to a strange sound. He listened for a moment from the blanket he’d stretched out over the floor. It was a frantic scrabbling, a shout for help.
Chip glanced at the others but they were sound asleep. Luckily he had an owl’s night vision, and crept to the window, looking out. In the street was a boy, about his own age, but wearing a tricorne hat and buckle shoes, with a coarse coat draped over his shoulders.
Chip jumped to the ground from the second story window and neared the boy cautiously. “Say, are you alright?” he asked.
The boy swung around, startled. “Where in blazes am I anyway?” he demanded rather loudly.
Chip surveyed the boy, wondering if he had taken part recently in a play with his 18th century dress. “You’re in Philadelphia, and this is Franklin Street,” he answered. “I’m Chip. Actually, Charles Handley,” he added, sticking out his hand.
The boy shook it hesitantly. “Perks. Philip Perkins Sanders, but everyone calls me Perks.” The boy had a strange accent, as if he’d come in from another country.
“Good to meet you, Perks,” Chip replied. “Are you new to Philly? Did you lose your way home?”
“Actually I don’t have a home right now. I lost my parents and dog last year to the yellow fever. Did your family get it too?”
Chip looked puzzled. “No. I lost my family to Spanish Flu.”
It was Perks’ turn to look confused. “Spanish Flu? What’s that?”
Chip stared at him in the moon and lamp light. “You don’t know? You really aren’t from around here, are you?”
“Actually I came here when I was two years old with my parents,” Perks answered defensively. My father was a very important silk merchant in Philadelphia, and he did very well. What did YOUR father do?”
“My father owned a shoe factory. That’s it,” Chip motioned to the building behind them.
Perks scratched his head. “A factory? For shoes? I don’t understand. All I wanted to do was get home to Philly, because they made everyone leave back in November because of yellow fever. My old house was called Sanders Place, and they named the street after our family.”
Chip shook his head. “No street by that name around here.”
Perks sat down on the ground, twirling his hat. “I just don’t understand it. Would you help me look for it maybe? I don’t think we should be seen walking the street during the day because they might arrest us.”
“They wouldn’t arrest us unless we don’t wear these,” Chip answered, pulling out his face-mask.
Perks looked at it questioningly. “What is it?”
Chip shook his head again. “So you arrive in Philly, claiming you’ve lived here since you were a baby on some street that isn’t here, and don’t know what a face-mask is?”
“I don’t know! All I know was I was walking down the street when I fell into a puddle! And here I am with you! It was dreadfully strange and I wish I could go back but I don’t know how.” Perks sighed.
Chip looked at the ground. A puddle from a recent rainstorm glimmered softly in the lamplight. “That...puddle?”
“I suppose so,” Perks shrugged.
Chip thought for a moment. “Come with me.” He began walking down Franklin Street toward his old house, and came to a stop at the front gate. “This was my old --”
“Yes, this is my house, Sanders Place!” Perks exclaimed. “But it is worse for wear isn’t it.” Perks stepped back and scanned the street. “Then...then that must be...where my aunt Mildred used to live, and down there where you said your shoe factory was is where my father owned a stoop to sell dry goods and the market was down there...but I don’t understand...everything is...different.”
“My crazy aunt used to say that the anguish of the world echoes in your reflection, from times now, before and to come,” Chip remarked quietly. “I didn’t know what she meant, but she said you could probably find a place where you might get a glimpse and live in another era.”
The boys stared at each other for several minutes. It was purely impossible. A time warp...in Philadelphia?