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Living just enough for the city


I GREW UP poor and black in a Philadelphia rowhouse, but when I was 10 years old, I'd never seen anyone shot, nor even heard a gunshot. And nobody ever tried to steal my bike.

The same can't be said of children caught up in the pathology of poverty that plagues North Philadelphia today. They've seen far too much, and too many bad things have happened to them.

I've written twice before about Cory, a 10-year-old whose grandmom is struggling to keep him safe and smiling in an environment where crime is rampant, drugs omnipresent and danger everywhere.

One of the things that made Cory smile was his bike. Now it's gone -- stolen along with his sneakers by some thugs after he went unaccompanied to the neighborhood recreation center, just two blocks away. He had taken his shoes off to go swimming, and parked his bike. A sneak thief took them.

The bike was a Christmas present and Cory had fought off thieves who wanted to steal it once before. They hit him with an aluminum baseball bat, bruising his leg and arm. But Cory managed to escape with the bike before he was badly hurt.

Not long before that incident, Cory's grandmom had told me that he had been fighting with his younger siblings. I gave him some advice -- that kicking and fighting someone with whom he had a disagreement should not be his first option. Talk things out, I told him.

The street taught Cory a different lesson, and I'm afraid what I said didn't have much impact. I saw him later, still bruised, and felt sheepish.

Where Cory lives, young males resort to violence as their first and only option when disputes arise. No wonder a boy like Cory has a brittle edge at age 10.

How can he not? He hears gunshots weekly. To Cory, violence is not some glamorized scene on television. He has seen the blood and felt the pain inflicted by those who seek to take what is not theirs.

Now that a thief has taken his bike, Cory has learned another harsh lesson. He has to learn to take care of himself and his property. Much as his grandmom would like to protect him by confining him to his house and small yard, she knows she can't do that to a growing boy.

Cory must learn to walk the two blocks to the school or the two blocks to the recreation center by himself. In the process, he will unfortunately have to take his lumps. And lock up his bike.

What happened to Cory made me reflect on my own youth, and how different it was. I was raised in a nuclear family by two parents. The people in my neighborhood were poor, but many had jobs, and hope. Most of the adult males on Cory's block -- men who might serve as his role models in the absence of his father -- are not employed. And they have little prospect of ever getting a job due to lack of education, training and other obstacles.

There were some neighborhoods back then that I avoided. I knew if I entered them, the result might be a fight -- for territorial or racial reasons. But in my own neighborhood, I felt safe and secure.

For youngsters like Cory, there has to be a feeling of daily desperation. And while the loss of his bike is a blow, something positive has happened to Cory.

He has met a young man who offered to be his friend and mentor after reading my first column. He's a young white man, an Irish Catholic from the Northeast and a recent law school graduate, whose father died when he was a child and wanted to "reach back and help a boy."

They've met twice so far, once to go swimming.

Social workers I have talked to have mixed opinions on whether a white male can have a meaningful relationship with a black boy raised in an inner-city neighborhood. Cory and his mentor have much to overcome -- race and class differences, of course. But much depends on whether their personalities mesh, whether they really try to understand each other.

It's too early to tell whether Cory and his volunteer mentor are going to make it. Because the relationship is so new, I'm not going to reveal the mentor's name or be very specific.

I want to give them a chance. So far, things have worked well.

Acel Moore is the associate editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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