I met Antoine by accident. I was trying to get a picture of the train cars as they slowly moved East on the tracks that begin the division between Kensington and Fairhill. He was standing just in front of the iron fence that runs the entire length of Guerney Street, watching me as I tried to get in position to catch a picture of the rowhomes and the black train cars on an intermittently cloudy Sunday afternoon.
The area is most definitely deserving of the name The Badlands. This spot looks pretty “safe”, at least compared with other, much rockier stretches along the tracks, but I’ve run into serious problems in this area and am extremely cautious. My camera was pointed straight at the tracks, and I was quite literally standing on top of my car to get it right when a menacing figure began to approach quickly, and very unexpectedly. I never got the picture I was hoping for because I had to get back into my car. The man told me I couldn’t take pictures. He was moving fast and I said that he should not threaten or harass me and that I had a right to be there. I was really angry and had my car to retreat into otherwise I would’ve kept my mouth shut. Having the car allowed me the courage to give in to my urge to correct his inappropriate behavior towards me. He decided I was too difficult to bother with and, after a few more verbal exchanges decided to leave. Antoine spoke once he left, telling me not to worry about the guy…. He was gone, and would not present any further problems. He wanted to tell his story, be part of whatever documentary I was doing. It seemed to come to him suddenly, this urge to tell me about his life.
Antoine told me that his lover, a beloved part of his life for twelve years, had cheated on him with a neighbor. As he began to talk to me about this pivotal event in his life, the tears came. I sat in my car, window down, wanting to be closer so that I could better connect, but afraid that the threatening man who didn’t like my camera would return. Antoine had been at work, but suddenly decided to come home in the middle of the day to eat lunch. He had been clean for years, successful in his job, living in a great condo on City Line Avenue just outside Philadelphia with his boyfriend. He had thought his life was a good one, and he had been clean and completely free of the urge to use heroin for years. He walked into his apartment unexpectedly in the middle of the day and his whole life changed. He found his lover (his terminology; he never used the man’s name as he related his history) in bed with another man who lived down the hall. Antoine lost it. As he spoke, it was very apparent that he had never gotten over the betrayal. He was reliving the pain he’d felt, and the shock of the sight as if it had just happened. His past experience was still deeply painful and had completely destroyed his life. I didn’t know how to respond….I just listened. Antoine grabbed a switchblade he had in the bedroom and attacked his lover, stabbing him seven times. The stabbing seriously injured but did not kill his boyfriend. Antoine spent a few years in jail for the assault. He said he didn’t want to kill him at the time but was out of control. Antoine has to take medication every day to combat HIV, which he contracted from the man who betrayed him. The former lover passed away several years ago from AIDS. His pain relating to the loss of his relationship and his explosive reaction to the situation, the resulting jail time that had significantly derailed his life, and the catastrophic, devastating emotional crash that followed led him straight back into addiction. His mother and two sisters refuse to speak to him and he has no other people that he can rely on in his life. He is in a situation on the street that is very difficult for someone his age, as he is in situations with much younger people who have more strength and stamina than he can muster. It’s not often that I meet someone who is as steeped in hopelessness as Antoine, someone whose surrender is so apparent, so complete. In Kensington it is commonplace to run across people who are suffering from hopelessness, despair, catastrophically low self esteem. But Antoine was completely adrift, lost in an expanse of bereavement, regret and misery.