Marginal Lives

by Josh Yarden

Living north of the Ben Franklin Parkway, we regularly walk through Logan Square, often stopping to look around at the profound beauty—and the confounded beast—which our city has become. Standing at the Swann Fountain, I am struck by the juxtaposition of the people and the place.

I see The Franklin Institute to my left, The Free Library and Family Court through the spray, the Cathedral Basilica to my right, just beyond Sister Cities Park, in the heart of the City of Brotherly Love—all these powers of a great society at a glance.

Cars zoom through the square. People drive by easily ignoring the widow and the orphan, the broken and the powerless. Hunger and humanity are somehow invisible against the backdrop of these proud buildings. I think about the folks on the square—not the tourists with their cameras, and not the transients like me walking through on our way, but the people who always seem to be there: my brothers lying on the grass next to their possessions, my sisters under the plastic tarp in the rain, the people on line at the public library waiting for the public bathrooms to open each morning, the public waiting for the food distributions—these no-truer residents of the Logan Square Neighborhood.

I am a daydreamer, given to imagining new worlds in the very brief moment of time it takes to sense the thin whisper of a still voice. Look—

LibraryThese neighbors of mine

all stand in the square

listening to the music

the orchestra is performing

on the steps of the cathedral

A Fanfare for the Common Man

The trumpets call

the faithful to prayer

at this open air mass

Parkway drivers stop

park on their way

in the middle of the road

Everyone listens in rapt attention

the rhythm changes

the orchestra is joined by a rock band

two separate-not-so-separate entities

collide and adapt in musical conversation

there is an uncommon energy in the air

Each of the drivers takes out two chairs

each invites a Logan resident to sit for a chat

“What brings you to the square today?”

“Where are you headed?”

everyone asks; everyone answers

everyone laughs; everyone cries

The musicians finish with a flourish

everyone is magically transformed

Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin lowers his baton

lifts a megaphone toward the standing ovation

calls out to the Parkway


The drivers all take

residence in the square

my neighbors fold their chairs

put them in their new cars

and drive away in a flash of light

186,000 miles per second

Across the square

Chief Astronomer Derrick Pitts

on the steps of the Institute

with Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin

explains the theory of relativity

“It's really a very simple matter”

“You just witnessed the energy of that mass

Which was the energy

which the mass

They were, of course, interchangeable

You see, E=mc2 means that energy is equal to mass

when mass is multiplied by the square of the speed of light”

“You saw the mass in a flash of light right here on the square

Not yet clear?

I'll put the theory of relativity more succinctly:

It's everyone's lucky day, but, relatively speaking,

some people simply have more luck than others

We just flipped the coin.”

“We are all entangled

in more than one place at a time

moving through one location

thinking about another”

Having undone the Gordian Knot

the scientist opens his tie


Derrick wraps himself in a tattered blanket

crosses into the square to take up residence

by the golden firmament aviators memorial

Yannick greets him on the stone cold bench

“What brings you here today?

Where are you headed?”

“I used to be a astronomer, but

the sun is going down now

I am getting cold. You?”

“I was a musician and a conductor,

right now I just need to warm up.

Would you sit here next to me?”

They both turn to me for an answer; I snap out of that dream. Long strings of these strange and wonderful images appear to me in a split second.

What's that you say? You still don't understand Einstein's theory of relativity? I still cannot figure out how, if we are all related, some of us are able to consume so conspicuously while others are forced to live so precariously. I see the tired and the poor. If these huddled masses on the teeming shores of the Swann Fountain still yearn to breathe free, open the door; let all who are hungry come and eat.

The heart of this thriving metropolis, this Cradle of Liberty, is pulsing in resurgence, but the whole body is not well. The corridors in and around City Hall may be safe, usually, and the campuses are policed by private forces, but one need only take a short walk into the neighborhoods to see children who may be only one step away from joblessness, poverty, abandoned buildings and abandoned families.

Gang murders may be contained to gang members, but stray bullets do not discriminate. And who are these delinquents we write off like a bad debt, if not our own children who have gone astray? We may be too late to solve our own problems. Struggling schools are hemorrhaging teachers and staff, and the city eats itself alive by closing schools and selling real estate to pay the bills. Could there be a more short-sighted, short-term gamble?


I turn and notice the children

singing on a boat

it looks like a party boat

no wait, a fishing boat, no

a ferry full of passengers

lost at sea

They are dismantling pieces

of the deck

building a fire

they warm their hands

a huge wave is closing in

nearly upon them

Painted on the side of the hull

is the name of the vessel

“The Spirit of Philadelphia”

The children now seem warm

well-fed even as their ship

is as good as sunk


Back at the Swann Fountain, there is no music, yet I remain hopeful as I listen to the rushing water. The drivers do not stop to talk, but others rush in as they speed away. The music could begin at any moment. People walk through the square, averting the eyes of the powerless, but perhaps they will soon engage.

Think of eye contact as human to human power charging. Look away and you deny yourself the humanity you might have shared with another. You know this to be true if you have ever been locked in an electrifying gaze, the kind that gives you the energy to stay up all night talking. You know it, even if only because someone once made you laugh or cry. We are not alone. Go ahead: Call me crazy, but only if you can look me in the eye, see what I see and dismiss my fears.