JAN PHILLIPS sat with Bobby O’Farrell as the two watched TV late one afternoon. Bobby’s dad worked for the local cable company, and their household was the only one in the run-down neighborhood to have expanded programming like HBO and Showtime. It was one of the perks his dad had in lieu of a decent wage for risking life and limb dragging miles of TV cable over steep city roofs. Jan and Bobby sat and watched the cast credits roll across the screen.
“Well, I gotta go,” Jan said with a sigh.
“Wait, I have something to show you.”
“Okay, but make it quick. My mom will be home in a couple of hours, and I gotta get some work done before she gets in.”
“Okay, okay,” Bobby said. “Keep your shirt on. I’ll be right back.”
Jan looked around the basement “den,” as Bobby’s dad called it. The overstuffed couch had that same musty smell every other couch in every basement family room in every row house in Kensington had. Dotted Swiss fabric covered the three tiny windows that were wholly inadequate in providing light or fresh air. A ratty sheepskin rug sprawled across the cracked concrete floor.
Jack O’Farrell’s trophies and ribbons, earned when he was a high-school jock, ringed the basement walls on homemade shelves. They were the only items kept dusted and polished.
Bobby returned with the newest edition of Xbox.
“Geez, Bobby! Where did you get that?” Jan gasped with envy.
“Whattya think? I bought it,” Bobby said.
“You bought it? Did you get a job or something?” Jan asked.
“Well, kinda, but you gotta promise you won’t say nothin’. Okay?”
“What are you talking about?” When Bobby hesitated, Jan said, “Look, you’re my best friend. If you don’t want me to say anything, I won’t.”
“I got it in Center City… on Van Wyck Street.”
Jan looked puzzled. “Van Wyck? There’s nothing up there but big houses and apartment buildings. I didn’t know there was a game store there. Is it some overstock outlet place?”
“Uh… you really don’t know, do you?”
“Know what?” Jan said. “What’s to know?”
“Jan, guys make big money at Fifteenth and Van Wyck. All you got to do is let queers suck your dick. Look.” Bobby pulled four twenty-dollar bills from the pocket on the side of his baggy pant leg.
Jan looked at the money in Bobby’s hand. “Is this a joke? What are you talking about? Are you queer or something?”
“Or something. Jan, I’m not queer. I just do it for the money. Look, why don’t you go up with me this Friday, and I can show you?”
Jan’s hand flew out, grabbing Bobby by his hair. “To do what? You… you… filthy faggot! Don’t you ever say a thing like that to me again!”
Bobby pulled out of Jan’s grip. “Hey, take it easy! I was just trying to share the wealth. You don’t have to freak out on me. I just thought you might want to make some easy money. I bet those old geezers would really go for you in a big way. With your hair, you could pass for younger than you are, and they like ’em young!”
Tears started to stream down Jan’s cheeks. “Fuck you! Why did you have to screw everything up, Bobby? You were my best friend! But now….” Shaking his head, Jan backed away, turned, and ran up the stairs, out the back door, and down the alley. Jan wanted to be alone. He needed to be alone.
THE following day, Jan avoided everyone in the neighborhood, especially Bobby O’Farrell. He spent most of his time checking on the job applications he had left with small businesses that struggled to stay afloat in this economically depressed area of the city—nothing.
Wandering into Minqua Park, he found it deserted, except for two old black men playing chess in the shade of a honey locust tree. Jan chose a picnic table nearby and lay on his back. He looked up and imagined the faces of Olympian gods from the lazy clouds that passed in the late summer sky.
He began thinking about the things that he’d change in his life if he could. His name was first on the list. Jan hated his name. It was a girl’s name. He begged his mom to call him by Christopher, his middle name, but her reply was always the same: “There’s nothing wrong with it. Your name is a good Dutch name. Your grandfather and great grandfather were called Jan, and they were rough and tough stevedores at the Port of Philadelphia. Our heritage can be traced back to the first settlers who helped William Penn found Philadelphia.”
Well, thought Jan, if you happen to be a rough and tough stevedore, you could be called Pricilla and get away with it.
In the six years he had attended Saint Dominic’s Academy, Father Sobinski had pushed him through an academic program reserved for college-bound kids where families had the money that Jan’s family didn’t. Jan often wondered just what the priest intended—the priesthood, perhaps. Sobinski was constantly yakking about canon law. If he had an agenda, he never discussed it with Jan.
Without the money to continue his schooling, the college prep courses were more of a liability than an asset when it came to finding the kinds of jobs offered to a newly graduated high school kid. With his father dead and his mother working a minimum wage job, Jan knew there would be no college for him unless he went into the seminary or into the army. Both were options that were equally unacceptable to him. Furthermore, Father Sobinski had been transferred to Rome, and with him went Jan’s only source of direction, as well as the financial shield that allowed him, along with his sisters and brother, to attend Saint Dom’s. So, what was the point?
Jan focused his eyes on another cloud. This time a wispy figure lashed a horse drawn chariot into the sun. He began to think about what happened at Bobby’s yesterday.
“Jan?” Startled, Jan sat up and saw his mother approaching.
“Mom! What are you doing here?”
Jan’s mother stood by the picnic table. Her hair, once blonde and lustrous like Jan’s, was streaked with gray. It hung around a lined face that was considered pretty by the neighborhood boys who pursued her when she was Jan’s age. Jan remembered when she came to his eighth grade graduation Mass. She wore makeup and a new dress. He thought she looked pretty then, but that was then.
She sat next to him on the table, looked away, then took a deep breath and spoke to him. “Jan, I have to be straight with you. You’ve got to leave home and start on your own. You’ve wasted all summer when you could have been working and helping me with the bills. I just can’t afford to take care of you and your sisters and brother anymore. You’re eighteen; you’re a man now. It’s time for you to leave home. Maybe you could join the army?”
“Join the army? What are you talking about? Out on my own…. Wasted the summer! Sobinski made me study night and day and weekends all summer long so I could graduate before he left for Rome. I’ve got job applications out all over Kensington! I’m trying! It’s not my fault I can’t find a job! Why do I have to leave?” he said defensively.
Jan’s mother set her jaw and looked him in the eye. “I can’t afford all you kids anymore!”
Jan chewed his lower lip to keep back the tears welling in his eyes. “How about Aunt Susan, can I go stay with her?”
“Oh, Jan, grow up! Your Aunt Sue didn’t even want her own son! You know that’s why Daniel lives with us, so get real!”
“This isn’t fair. I’ll try harder.”
“Fair? You wanna talk about fair? Look at me. Look at my life, and then we’ll talk about what’s fair! You gotta month, then you gotta go, if I have to drag you out by the hair. So get off your ass and get moving!”
Jan’s mother stood. “This isn’t easy for me, Jan Christopher. It’s just the way it is.” Joy turned on her heel and stormed out of the park.
Jan sat, stunned. His mom had never talked to him like that before, and he certainly had no idea she felt that way.
What am I going to do? What did I do to deserve this? I’ve tried to be a good son. I got good grades in school. I’m never in trouble with the law.
Where would he go? How would he live? I don’t know anybody. How can I live without money? Can I survive on the street?
Bobby’s words about making money letting old men do it to him crept into the back of Jan’s mind. It did look like Bobby made a lot of money from it.
Would it be enough? He thought about what he would have to do to get that money: cold wrinkled hands groping him; boozy mouths full of rotting teeth breathing on him; the smell of body odor in his nose—the kind of old men he’d see sitting in the park all day drinking from their brown paper bags—touching him for money! Maybe if he closed his eyes it wouldn’t be so bad. He wouldn’t have to pretend he liked it. If he did do it, it would only be as a last resort. Disgusted, he tried to drive those thoughts away.
TWO weeks later, and with no job, Jan gazed at his reflection in an antique shop window on Van Wyck Street. No doubt about it, he looked far younger than eighteen. He wasn’t as tall as guys he knew. They had shot up to respectable heights while Jan remained locked at five feet seven. Unlike his few friends, he also sported no facial hair, and while acne ravaged the faces of his peers, generous genes blessed him with an unblemished face. Cool gray eyes, golden hair, and sweet looks combined with a genuine innocence made Jan a natural to be singled out by the chicken hawks that frequented the city. That he had never been approached for sex in such a large city as Philadelphia was a minor miracle—but then again he rarely ventured into Center City and certainly never alone—until now. Now, everything was different.
The idea of sex for money nauseated Jan. He had never had sex with another person. Most of the guys he knew had already lost their virginity, or at least that’s what they said. He never seemed to have the time or the opportunity to meet anyone or even talk about sex. His whole life was taken up with family, homework, and the priests and nuns at Saint Dominic’s Academy. Like all young guys, he jerked off, but afterward, he always felt guilty. Didn’t Father Sobinski say he was killing potential babies that God wanted for his own? Jan prayed that Jesus would forgive him, and he tried hard not to do it again. Sometimes he avoided the temptation; often he didn’t.
Still, the idea of quick money nagged at him. Jan had to leave home soon. The time was getting for him to make life-altering change. He didn’t like to think of his future in those terms, but instinctively, he knew what was about to come down. He knew if he was going to survive, he needed money—but sex for money?
“I’m not a fag. I won’t have to do anything, and no one will know if I go with some old fart,” he told himself.
It was the last Sunday in September. Jan stood staring at his reflection. The air was cool, but he was sweating. He was just one block from Philadelphia’s tenderloin district. Jan had made this same trek alone into Center City twice before. Both times he wimped out. Both times, a mixture of fear and inexperience had produced the perfect recipe for failure.
Jan thought, The third time is supposed to be the charm, right? I wish I was sure about this.
The bus returning to Kensington would be arriving soon.