A pope zone cut Philly in two. Hundreds of soldiers poured in. Throughout downtown and OldCity, they manned every intersection, including alleys. Since 9/11, Americans have been conditioned to see soldiers in battle fatigues on their sidewalks, but this is unprecedented for peacetime Philadelphia. At least these troops were not armed. Only the cops were. Concrete barriers, heavy steel fences and security check points hindered both car and foot traffics. Hearing movie-acclimated blades rotating overhead, citizens looked up to gawk at choppers. Pope Francis would not arrive until the next day.
On 9/26/15, the Pope’s first day in Philly, I found in Washington Square a shabbily dressed black man fishing for nickels, dimes and quarters that had been tossed by tourists into the fountain. His entire body was soaked from the sprays. Just over a block away, Pope Francis was about to appear to cheers, screams and gasps from earnest believers, half doubters and curiosity seekers. Can you tell a saint from a Satanist? Pope from antichrist? A Pennsylvania congressman had made the news for grabbing a glass of water half drank by Pope Francis. He and his family then sipped precious gulps from it.
Philly businesses were duped into thinking the Pope’s visit would bring grace to their depressed cash registers. Among the signs, “POPES EAT FREE,” “Pope-fully, you’re hungry,” “Celebrate the arrival of Pope Francis with our cross shaped soft pretzels.” Nuts to You had popcorn in clear plastic bags with an image of Pope Francis. Grim faced street vendors wandered around pushing Pope T-shirts, Vatican flags and bottled water. Burger King had a Papal Visit menu with jacked up prices. A double cheese burger, small fries and bottle of water cost $8. Teuscher offered the “Official Chocolate of Pope Francis’ Visit.” A lady had her toy mutt dressed up like the Pope. On its mitre, two golden paws flanked the golden cross.
On the outside walls of Dirty Frank’s, there’s a mural by David McShane that depicts a bunch of famous Franks. Recently added, Pope Francis now hobnobs with Frankenstein, Frank Zappa, Frank Sinatra and Aretha Franklin, etc. She would sing, rather tediously, I thought, to the Pontiff on a magnificent stage. Her impromptu dance steps at the end made it all worthwhile, though.
I first stumbled into Frank’s more than thirty years ago, before I was old enough to drink even. I’ve written poems about this beer trough and know it better than my mother’s house. To get the lowdown from the locals on Pope Francis, I went to Frank’s and spent hours there over two days.
I spotted my old friend Karen Rodewald smoking outside. We walked in together. Karen has taught photography at University of the Arts, UPenn and/or Drexel since 1996, but she has no tenure since she hasn’t shown enough. To make ends meet, Karen also cleans a bar once a week, does catering and sells cards at various shops. For the Pope’s visit, Karen hit the streets to sell 3-D Pope Francis cards. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I’m just not a hustler.” She didn’t do too well.
Karen confessed, “I’m not a Christian and not a Catholic, although I was baptized as a Catholic. I like him because he seems like a very good human being. He’s a good example as a human being to the rest of us. He’s lived a very modest life and he wants everybody to think collectively, that we’re all taking care of each other, that there’s a responsibility to being alive… that I appreciate. He’s really a good voice right now.
I wasn’t aware of any other Pope, it’s like off my radar, but his voice seems to be louder and more resonant than most people in that powerful position. His modesty and openness seem similar to the Dalai Lama for me. He’s really asking people to be better human beings.”
And hey, there’s Clark DeLeon in his colonial suit! I’ve known Clark as long as I’ve known Karen. Unlike with Karen, however, I’ve never committed adultery with Clark in my heart. (Matthew 5:28) For twenty years, Clark wrote a daily article for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Before I came across Clark in Dirty Frank’s around 1984, I had read him. Everybody did. With newspaper readership rapidly declining, Clark doesn’t write nearly as much, so must work as a tour guide at Independence Mall. Sometimes, he takes people to Kensington to see Rocky’s fictional home. Clark has also taught writing at Graterford Prison. He’s a big, rugby playing dude.
Clark, “The commentators are talking about his message as being more favorable to a liberal approach, but actually, it has nothing to do with being liberal or conservative. I love what he said about the aim of government is to seek the common good.
I think the Pope’s visit has an effect, but I don’t think it’s gonna affect Washington. It affects people, meaning the rest of the world, in America, wherever he touches. He has a proven touch. I mean, he’s touched Dirty Frank’s. He’s on the wall of Dirty Frank’s!
I’m a cultural Catholic, which means I went to Catholic school, my kids are baptized Catholic. I don’t go to church, but I feel a basic connection to the Catholic church. It’s like an ethnicity. It’s the food I eat. They eat fish on Fridays. It’s the way I grew up.
There’s a lot to the Catholic Church that I admire, and a lot I can’t stand. Pope Francis represents what I admire.
He can’t just turn around and say, ‘Change everything,’ but I think he’s moving in that direction, and people should be pleased. It’s the symbolic power of this papacy… He’s representing poor people, the people that are least powerful. The history of the Latin American church, the Jesuits especially, they were the first ones to stand up against the European conquerors, they stood for the indigenous people, and he comes from Argentina, so he’s a part of that tradition.
He’s a very good politician. He knows who he is. It means he knows his position. He was a different guy in Argentina. People called him dour. He had a very serious and frowning face. Today, you see the Pope in your mind’s eyes and he’s smiling, so maybe he was liberated by becoming Pope. Maybe he realizes, now is the time I can be on my mission and he feels the freedom to do it. When he was elected Pope, the first thing he did was pay his hotel bill. He went to Rome and took a small room, he didn’t take the palace, then he served mass the next day at the Vatican to the guys who were like the janitors. When the people in charge found out, they were like, the Pope doesn’t do that, but he says mass everyday, to the workers at the Vatican. I like him for that.”
Each day for the last 30 years or so, you can count on finding Clark at Dirty Frank’s by late afternoon. It’s how he lives. Done with Clark, I asked Raphael Tiberino what he thought of Pope Francis. Raphael comes from a family of artists. His dad, Joe, owned the Bacchanal, a dive that hosted poetry readings each Monday. Joe’s Victorian home in West Philly has a huge collection of crucifixes and he painted Pope Francis for a cover of Philadelphia Magazine. Before Joe’s wife, Ellen, died of cancer, I saw her on her sick bed. Surrounded by lush pillows and her own drawings and paintings of swirling, naked bodies, the gaunt woman commanded that room. There was something fantastic about it, a scene from Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Like his dad, Raphael exudes a gentle confidence, “The Pope is very intent on following Christ’s teaching and living in the shadow of Christ. I think he’s extremely good for the world because he’s a very humble individual, and if there’s anything the world needs, it’s a little bit more of a lesson on, ah, humbleness.
I think he’s extremely genuine. Before he became Pope, he was in a home where he was taking care of two blind priests in their 90’s. He was cooking and cleaning and washing them everyday. Anyone who can do that, it’s definitely not an act. Actually, he didn’t even want to become Pope.
He doesn’t shy away from someone who, say, has leprosy or elephantitis… He doesn’t hesitate to give them a big hug and grab them and kiss them. He’s like that with everybody. I mean, he drives his bodyguards crazy, but he’ll get out of a car in the middle of Rome. He’ll go to the poorest neighborhoods and hug people and kiss them, shake their babies and kiss their hands.
He’s leading by personal example, and the whole world is paying attention, not just Catholics. Obama did the deal with Cuba because of him. Boehner dropping out also has a lot to do with him. I think everyone is following his example, and it’s having an effect on everyone in very strange and different ways, but in good ways.
In my opinion, I think this Pope surpasses John Paul. John Paul was huge and influential but he didn’t leave the palace and move to a hotel and set up there because the Pope’s palace is too grandiose, but this Pope has.
I’m extremely Catholic, born and raised. I will be going to the Pope’s mass on Sunday. We’re all big fans of the Pope in my family.”
That night, Karen, Raphael and I were driven by Clark in his beat up car around CenterCity. With so many soldiers and traffic barriers, most of the bars and restaurants barely had customers, and this was after all the hype about how the Pope’s visit would be a big boon to the city economically. Fearing the congestion and chaos, many Philadelphians had fled town. Many tourists stayed away.
Those who came to see the Pope had to sidestep beggars on Philly’s sidewalks, many of whom were young white males. Though most hurt by our economy, young men are the least likely to elicit sympathy. Traditional male jobs in factories have been sent to Asia while the more arduous work on farms, construction sites and in kitchens are dominated by illegal immigrants. A constantly increasing number of our young adults now live at home, but what if you don’t have a living parent?
On Market Street, I spotted a young blonde man sitting on the ground behind a begging sign that included, “pope hope.” Twenty-three-years-old and from South Jersey, Kenny used to work as a mechanic but when his mom got sick, he asked his boss to cut his hours so he could take care of her. When the garage owner refused, Kenny quit. Kenny’s mom is dead, he hasn’t found another job, so for two years now, he has been living on Philadelphia’s sidewalks. Sleeping on cardboard, Kenny put weight on his wrist and damaged the radial nerve. His left hand was bandaged.
When Kenny complained about the commercialization of the Pope’s visit, I suggested it wasn’t really Francis’ fault. Kenny responded, “You can’t really pin it on him, but he’s the leader, he has ways of making choices of how things should be, and he’s not saying that this is wrong or anything like that, and he’s not going to the poor places where he should visit and actually see, go to the places where he can actually give hope to. I have friends in North Philly and they’re like, ‘Why isn’t he coming here?’ Why doesn’t he come and see what it’s actually really like? Why be downtown where it’s completely upscale?
He’s a politician. He addressed Congress. I never thought in a million years a Pope would do something like that.
I’m a Methodist. I’m not going to lie to you… I only go to church on occasions, on holidays, but I’m a believer. Absolutely.”
The next night, I returned to Frank’s and met Dorothy. A woman in her mid-fifties, she had come from New Jersey to see Pope Francis over two days. Since the Ben Franklin Bridge was closed to cars, Dorothy had to trek across it from frightful Camden, and once in Philly, she and all the other New Jersey pilgrims, no matter how old or crippled, had to traipse several more miles to chase down their beloved Pope. If unable to afford a hotel room at ungodly prices, jacked up especially for the Pope’s visit, each would have to hobble or crawl back to menacing Camden at the end of the night. An ex-Philadelphian, Dorothy had friends she could stay with, however.
Dorothy had on a sweat shirt with a large peace sign, and among her several bead necklaces, there was one with a small Buddha pendant. On a shiny button, thorn-crowned Jesus grimaced. Dorothy, “Pope Francis speaks and everybody is hearing him. Today, for instance, when he quoted the Declaration of Independence, he said, ‘All men and women are created equal.’ I don’t think I’ve ever heard any world leader said ‘and women.’ It’s always ‘All men are created equal,’ but this man said, ‘and women.’ I’m not a Christian, I’m not a Catholic, but there’s something that’s wonderful about this man, and he’s for everyone. He’s a good man.
I went to a little Protestant church. My father was a Catholic, and my mother was a Jew. We went to church every Sunday. To be honest with you, they just wanted us to learn the Bible, and I also think it was a way to get all five kids out of the house for a couple of hours on a Sunday.
I was drawn to this Pope immediately. Just from reading some of the things he was saying about the environment, about the poor, about immigrant, about homosexuals, about women, about… just about everything. Everything he said was just so right on, and it’s just amazing to hear a man of God saying these things, especially of the Catholic Church. He’s a good man, a good man, and you can feel that with him. It was overwhelming today… watching the reaction of the people. People were screaming, like he was some kind of rock star. I’ve never seen before… in just a regular person like that. I was crying. I was talking to this woman from Argentina, and we were saying what I’m saying now. We both just started… We both got emotional and just started weeping talking about him because his message was so powerful, and he’s such a humble and sweet man. I mean, he doesn’t even ride in the Pope Mobile with the bulletproof glass all around him. That’s faith. This man has true faith.
I liked John Paul. I didn’t like the last guy. He was a Nazi, and he was a quitter. You don’t quit being the Pope.
I thank my parents for never taking me as a baby and christening me, and baptizing me into a church. They give me a choice.
Would I become a Catholic because of him? No, because I don’t really care for the Catholic Church. I care for this man. I care for this man, a lot, but the Catholic Church, you know… It’s not a good organization.
My biggest objection is the power and the money. I really don’t think they use it to help the poor, and the homeless, and the needy. Then there’s the kids being molested. They move the priests around. They don’t fire them. They don’t get rid of them.
The corruption is disgusting. They’re the biggest organization. They’re bigger than the mob. They’re their own country. I really don’t think they’re helping people like they should. They have a lot of money and they’re always begging for money.
I think it’s despicable what they did to that woman, a teacher that they fired here in Philly because she was a lesbian. She was a teacher at this Catholic school for years, and they fired her because she was a lesbian.
I know a lot of people were offended that he said women who had abortions should be given forgiveness. You know, a lot of women were pissed off about that, but I was touched that he would say something like that because I’ve never heard any Catholic leader, or any man of God say a statement like that. And you know, somebody said, and I feel the same way, ‘The only person who should forgive me for having an abortion is me. Nobody else.’ But the fact that he would say that, I thought was lovely. Especially for Catholic women to have that burden… Granted, they have confession, and repenting, and God forgives, but guilt is a funny thing, especially Catholic guilt. I grew up with a Catholic dad and a Jewish mom, so I got guilt tenfold! I got the Jewish guilt and the Catholic guilt! But I refuse… You know, because of that, I feel guilty about nothing! They tried to make me feel guilty, but it didn’t work.
It was just an amazing day. Everyone was so happy and smiling and warm, and believe me, it was… young, old, black, white, Latino, Asian, everybody was just warm and wonderful. It was a great, great, great day, and I’m so glad I came. When it was over, everybody was just smiling. Their reaction was incredible. It blew my mind. As he came up Market and turned onto Fifth, people were just… screaming! You could hear people gasping. It was just incredible. I was like, oh my God, listen to them!”
In Frank’s, I’d heard nothing but praises for Pope Francis, but as he was shown on TV, a black woman sitting by herself, nursing a Budweiser, was denouncing him almost nonstop. To better hear what she was saying, I planted myself on the stool next to 54-year-old Peaches. “Bullshit! Bullshit! He’s no God! Jesus is coming back! Jesus went to hell, so we will all have to go to hell. Jesus went to hell to get the key of hell from Satan.”
Peaches felt the Pope was stealing God’s glory, “Look at all the gold on his fingers. Solid gold! And we don’t know how many children he’s molested.”
We must go to hell to be purified, Peaches preached, “How do you make gold? You have to forge it in fire, right? That’s what God will have to do with us also.”
Peaches has six kids and nine grandchildren. One, only two-months-old, has a bad kidney. “Will you pray to God for my grandson?” she pleaded, nearly in tears. Making her squat form even more compact, Peaches then tilted her head down, placed her hands together and prayed without moving her purple lips.
Peaches said she wanted to live until a hundred and die of a heart attack in her sleep. God would not let any violence kill her. Though countless lives, including Christ’s own, have proven otherwise, Peaches believes a benign God would not let one of his faithful servants suffer agonizing pain and abject humiliation before exiting this mad earth. With an impish grin, Peaches declared out of the blue, “God is black!”
Radiant Sheila was bartending that night, as she has for nearly every night for more than 30 years. What’s most remarkable about Sheila is that she runs Sunshine Arts, a non-profit that provide art, writing and other classes for neighborhood kids in her mostly black neighborhood. Sheila is white. Sitting next to an old friend, I slurred, “Sheila is like a saint, Lowry.”
“She is my Pope!”
“You should tell her that.”
It was very loud in Frank’s by this point, but I managed to shout, “Sheila, you’re my Pope!”
“Ah, Linh!” Sheila laughed.
“You should kiss her ring,” Lowry urged.
I grabbed Sheila’s extended hand and kissed her ring.
Son of a coal miner, Lowry was a nurse who had the foresight to buy ghetto dwellings and remodel them. I used to scrape wall paper and paint for Lowry. Now that his houses are worth half a million dollars each, Lowry can afford to booze leisurely and buy beer for his friends.
Before the night was over, I also chatted briefly with a born and raised Catholic who said she wanted the Catholic Church to eventually approve gay marriage, abortion and even priesthood for women. Frank’s is just outside the Gayborhood and only a block away, there was a large sign on an apartment building, “LGBT Families Welcome Pope Francis.”
What you have, then, is a Pope who’s admired not for his firm interpretations of Catholic doctrines, but for his perceived willingness to overhaul these to better suit the time. In this way, he’s a progressive Pope, all right, but it would be wrong to declare Francis a radical. Too much of a diplomat and politician, Francis does not challenge but sidesteps and even accommodates evil. Thus, he can smile with Bibi, praise Obama and, to get applause from the Capitol Hill war criminals, declare of this most belligerent and besieged nation, “a land of the free and home of the brave.” Seeing Middle Eastern and North African refugees flooding into Europe, Pope Francis does not condemn the US and its NATO allies for devastating so many lives, but merely asks Europeans to help these desperate people. Far from criticizing the Evil Empire, Pope Francis just wants us to endure its chaos. He denounces air conditioners, but not drones. As for the money demons who have wrecked so much of the world, Pope Francis can’t say nada since the Vatican Bank is itself a cesspool of corruption. Unlike Jesus, Francis can’t afford to disturb the money lenders.
Lapsed Catholics take only what they like from the church, but political and business leaders can simply ignore the Vatican. They haven’t gotten where they are by paying attention to popes. With Francis, though, they can even use his teachings about humility, forebearance, tolerance and charity to make us better endure the coming years of suffering and austerity as orchestrated by them, our true rulers. As Simone Weil points out, Catholicism is the religion par excellence for slaves.
Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America.