Wednesday, March 28, 2012


If you were to visit North Philadelphia, you would see that its streets are a naked, forsaken gray. What you might not see, if you haven't lived here, is how deeply that gray penetrates below the obvious surface of things. Beneath the gray gutter water and the matted gray pulp of morning newspapers crushed into sidewalk crevices, below the gray clothes of druggies stretched like shadows across late afternoon sidewalks, beyond the gray wails of evening sirens, lies the grayer reality of despair accepted as fact-of-life, even embraced as destiny.

Up these gray streets I walk each morning on my way to work as a resident in Internal Medicine at Temple University Hospital, and down them I return in the evening or late at night. As I walk from the bus stop to the hospital and back, I try to look beyond the grayness of streets and above the facelessness of buildings into the tunnel of sky that opens like a bloodless gash overhead.  That, too, is often gray. Even if I had a naturally sunny disposition, the relentless gray would eventually discolor my spirit. As it is, I vacillate between despair and annoyance, with an enervated numbness stretched across the long spaces between.

Just yesterday, I took the subway downtown during lunch hour. Several subway-car windows were open, as they often are in hot weather. The car stopped at a station, briefly as usual, while stragglers ran from turnstiles to the still-open doors. Across the aisle from me sat a young man, a boy of perhaps fourteen, with short cropped hair, a well-washed face, and neat clothing. As the door slid shut, a group of five boys about his age ran up to the car. I thought they were trying to catch the train as the door was closing. Then three of them reached their arms through the open window behind the sitting boy and hit him on the head and shoulders. The boy looked up in bewilderment. The train began to move. He looked over his shoulder to see who had done it, but the gang had already run down the platform, whooping and chattering as in a primal war dance. When the train slid out of the station, he turned his head back around and looked down at his hands as if ashamed. An advertisement for Marlboro cigarettes, festooned with swirls of red and black spray paint in some indecipherable script, flashed through the window behind him before we went into the dark tunnel. I asked if he had been hurt. He didn't answer or look at me.

Since that encounter I have felt giddy and skittish, vaguely confused and threatened. On my way to and from work, I usually pass a fortune-teller's shop with a sign in the window showing a red hand painted on a yellow background. The name "ROSA" is hand-printed in pink block letters above it and "FORTUNES" below. After leaving work today, I feel more dispirited than usual. The bright sign catches my eye, and, on impulse, I walk up the cement steps to the door.

When the doorbell chime isn’t answered quickly, I start back down the stairs, but then hear the door open behind me. I turn to see an old woman in an oversized gray sweater and brown skirt peering through the partly opened door.

"What you want?"

"Is this Rosa's fortune telling place?"

"You want your fortune?"

"I guess so," I reply, no longer sure I do.

"Come in then." says the old woman, and lets me into a dim, inner room. Covering half the floor is a faded and frayed oriental rug; a round table and two chairs stand idly atop it. At the back of the room, a dingy green curtain hangs along one wall by rings strung on a dark rod. The old woman calls out.

"Rosa!" There is no answer. She calls again: "Rosa!"

"Huh?" comes a drowsy voice.

"Rosa. Is someone here to see you."
"What do they want?"

"They want to see you. A fortune."


A frowzy woman in her late twenties, perhaps slightly older than I, draws the curtain aside and saunters unenthusiastically into the room. She sits down slowly in one of the chairs by the table.

"You can sit," she says, nodding toward the other chair. I sit down and adjust my purse strap securely on my shoulder.

She looks me over with a detached air and says, "You want the ten dollar fortune or twenty dollar?"

"What's the difference?" I ask.

"The twenty dollar fortune is longer. More complete."

"Ten dollars," I say.

"You pay me now."


"You have to pay me first," she says.

I lift my purse off my shoulder, pull out a ten dollar bill, and put it on the table. She puts it in her pocket. I settle the purse securely in my lap. She asks me to show her my hand and I extend one hand tentatively across the table. She takes it, glances at the palm, lets it go, then pulls a deck of cards from a small drawer in the table and cuts them once.

"What’s your question?"

"What do you mean?"

"What is your question? What do you want to know?"

"Oh. I didn't know I was supposed to ask a question. Let me think."

She looks at me with narrowed eyes. I divert my glance to the pattern of swirls on the table cover. I had expected her to tell me something interesting or amusing. I have to think for a moment about what I really want to know.
She is stares at her hands with a bored, impatient expression. Finally, I ask, "Will my life be significant?"

An undecipherable expression flits across her face, an amalgam of surprise and annoyance. "What do you mean?"

"Will I do something that others will consider of real and lasting value?  That will be remembered?"

She lifts the top card off the deck, looks at it, looks toward me with a self-satisfied air, and says, "No."

She puts the cards back into the drawer.

"Is that all?"

"You wanted the ten dollar fortune. You get only one question."  

She rises from her chair; the interview is obviously over. She walks slowly toward the curtain. I hoist my purse strap securely onto my shoulder, walk toward the door, open it, step down the stairs, and walk out onto the dun-colored sidewalk.

 [This was written in the mid-'80s as I recollected my two post-doc years at Temple Health Sciences Center in Philadelphia. It intends to capture the spirit of what I felt while there]

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