The hierarchy of hurt in Philadelphia

The Sunoco gas station at 33rd and York Streets in Philadelphia.

The boys are standing by the entrance of the Sunoco station at 33rd and York Streets, on the lookout for cars.

“Coming in,” says Anthony Palmer, 14, his eyes fixed on a beat-up Toyota Camry.

With that subtle heads-up, he clambers over to the car to ask the driver if he can pump his gas while the other boys hang back, one munching on a bag of 50-cent Doritos.

The man nods and heads inside the station. On his way out, he reaches into his pocket and gives Palmer a handful of change.

It’s a common sight around here, kids trying to make a couple of extra bucks by pumping gas for tips, but on May 9 that practice took a bad turn when two brothers, ages 11 and 14, were abducted from the station by a man who showed them pornography and indecently assaulted them before they escaped.

No one got shot or killed, so the incident didn’t get as much attention as others.

There is a hierarchy of hurt in Philadelphia.

As we approach Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer, shooting season in Philadelphia, I headed out to Strawberry Mansion with numbers that are perpetually outdated.  As of May 24, 118 people had been killed this year in Philly, a 15 percent increase over this time last year. Of the 538 shooting incidents to date, bullets found a victim 451 times. Nine of those victims were people dancing on a Philly street. One was a 2-year-old.

The boys had been abducted on a Tuesday, but it didn’t become public until that Friday.

Police said they thought they had good-enough leads that publicizing the event would scare the suspect off. If I bend my brain just right, I can see where they’re coming from, but I also can’t help but think how quickly the news would have gotten out if it was a different neighborhood, different kids. 

If they weren’t just two more dispensable black boys.

I think of how outraged people would have been at the delay that may have put other children in jeopardy. The driver, by the way, is still out there.  

The man assaulted the older brother after telling him that he’d tip him if he filled his car at another station with cheaper gas. After the teen escaped, the driver returned to the first station and grabbed his 11-year-old brother, who also got away after being assaulted.

Mostly I wanted to know if the boys were OK, if they were getting the help they needed.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I stopped by the gas station. I wondered if there would be any boys out there at all, or if the news of a predator on the loose would have scared them off.

It didn’t.

They showed no fear. Just typical adolescent bravado as they said nothing like this had ever happened before, and they always come out in pairs.

There also doesn’t seem to be much fear for them.

Inside, I ask the clerk, Moh Silah, about the boys, the ones who had been abducted and the ones standing outside.

He’s defensive at first. What is he supposed to do? he asks. The station doesn’t allow it, but when the clerks complain, the police ask if the boys have a knife or are selling drugs. If they’re not doing anything illegal, the cops don’t come for hours, if at all.

Silah steps from behind the bulletproof window. “It’s tough, it’s sad,” he says. They remind him of kids from his native Sierra Leone.

“I understand what hardship is,” he says. “I come from a country where kids go out to the streets just like that, they just want to make some money, there’s nothing at home, they’re struggling.”

And if that sounds like a stretch, remember that in parts of this city, including North Strawberry Mansion, the life expectancy of a child isn’t as high as it is for children in the war zones of Syria and Iraq.

Later I find myself in a nearby church, Redeem Baptist, at an emergency safety meeting called by State Rep. Donna Bullock.

The abducted boys come up. Tyrone Williams, community liaison for the Strawberry Mansion Neighborhood Action Center, stands and says, “We as a community need to be alerted, particularly when predators are lurking among us.”

Most of the meeting looks forward, to programs and services, including a program started by the Rev. Larry G. Patrick II called Project Protect to educate kids and parents on keeping safe. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off. Academics call it grit, resilience; I say it’s what caused generations of trauma. 

Just minutes before church, I’d stopped at the station again and saw a new boy pumping gas for change.

He was alone.