The kid in the alley calls himself Chic. He’s waiting for Tito, his older brother. It’s early yet, eight in the evening in spring. Dogs bark behind a back-yard fence, rain drums on the hood of a car, rap music rumbles from a boom box in an open window. Chic cups his hand beside his mouth and lifts his chin toward the roof line. “Yoooooooooo!” he howls—a lone, shrill note that pierces the rot smell and the amber light and echoes across the ruins of North Philadelphia. Once the Irish and Italians lived here; they worked in the factories along American Street, turning out ball bearings and steel rollers and conveyor belts, little parts of bigger parts that made the machine age run. Today the neighborhood is called Little Puerto Rico. The factories have moved to the suburbs and to the Sunbelt and even farther away than that. American Street is wide and empty.
“Yooooooooooo!” Chic howls again, and then he drops his hand, tilts his ear, listens.
From a distance a faint response.
Tito is coming. He’s got the dog.
Chic crosses a vacant lot, crunching tin cans and car parts and bed-springs and pieces of foam and Pampers that cover the ground like mulch. He jumps atop an old washing machine and lights a joint. The rain is harder now. He tugs the collar of his jacket to his neck. It is a 76ers jacket, red and shiny and much too large for a seventy-five-pound kid. The waistband hits him midthigh. The sleeves keep falling over his hands. He took it from somewhere, he ...