Commentary: In praise of our dearly beloved Philly community

Karen Lassiter at the South Fourth Street post office.

When I learned Prince had died on April 21, my first thoughts were about someone I barely know: Karen from the South Fourth Street post office. And I wasn't the only one.

My former housemate, now living in Brooklyn and caring for a newborn, sent me a text asking if I'd checked on Karen. Another friend sent me an unsolicited email saying she was going to go to the post office to express her sympathies.

On the page of a private Facebook group of South Philly residents, dozens of people said they were concerned about Karen and there was talk of sending cards and flowers. Last Friday, when Martha Graham Cracker performed a Prince tribute concert at the TLA, she called Karen to her - to Karen's great surprise - wrapped an arm around her neck, and improvised a few lyrics about Karen and the Prince shrine she used to have on display at the post office.

"I am so honored that you are here tonight," Martha told her. To the crowd, she said: "This woman brings joy. She brings joy to the Postal Service. And that's not easy."

We often talk about Philadelphia as a city of neighborhoods. This is an example of how a community comes together for one of its own.

Before writing this, I never even knew Karen's last name or age, much less why she liked Prince so much. Others said the same, that they only knew her as "The Prince Lady" or "Karen from the Fourth Street post office." And yet we all worried about her.

A little background: Karen's last name - as I know now - is Lassiter. She's 54 years old, married, with two children. She lives in Overbrook. She's worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 31 years, the last 14 at the station on South Fourth between South and Bainbridge Streets.

Karen has loved Prince since she was 17 and he released his first album, For You, in 1978. She estimates she saw him in concert more than 60 times. She never met the man himself but in 2013 danced on stage about two feet from him when he played the Electric Factory. ("He was little," she said, holding her hand level with her nose.)

That first album was like a first love. Prince's birthday is June 7; Karen's is June 8. They're about the same age, she said, and it was as if they grew up together. "Maybe that's why this is so hard," she said.

Karen waxes philosophical about Prince's lyrics, his skills as a musician, and his funk. "He could make polka funky," she said.

Karen wears her Prince love on her sleeve - literally, as she has the Prince symbol tattooed on her lower left arm. She also frequently wears a ring, necklace, or earrings of the symbol. When I first moved here, Karen had a Prince "shrine," as Martha Graham Cracker noted, on the wall of the center cubicle where she usually stands. One day, the shrine disappeared at the request of Karen's bosses. A short time later, it gradually began to grow again: one photo at a time, once a week, until it got so big that supervisors, again, asked her to remove it.

Since she can only display items related to the Postal Service, Karen's son has offered to photoshop Prince's face onto a photo of a mail carrier with a letter sack. It hasn't happened yet.

Karen was on vacation in London when Prince died. She was so upset by the news that she came home two days early. When she returned to work, her station's drawer held at least 15 sympathy cards. The small counter was jammed with bouquets of purple tulips, wild violets, and dark pink - almost purple - roses. A typical note was addressed to "Karen Prince Fan."

Karen doesn't know who sent any of the arrangements. She wanted to send thank-you notes, she said, but all of the accompanying cards were signed "From your friends" or "From your neighbors."

I've lived in my Queen Village home since 2003 and I know my neighbors. I even like most of them. In 2005, when my neighbor's wife succumbed to the cancer that had her in a hospital bed in their living room, I heard his cries through our shared wall and ran over. His wife's skin was still warm.

Last weekend, the 5-year-old who lives down the street, whom I've watched grow up, asked me when she and I were going to do "our work" - sweeping our one-block-long alley. She also asked if she could take some time off this summer because she was going down the Shore. Despite the lack of advance notice, I graciously granted her request.

When my mother died two years ago, a new neighbor left a plate of cookies at my back door because she'd heard how much my mom had loved all things sugary. It reminded me of the time I'd pushed a still warm loaf of banana bread wrapped in aluminum foil into one neighbor's hands when she lost her husband.

About five years ago, a former Philadelphia journalist moved his family back to his small Louisiana hometown after his sister's death. He wrote a book about the wonderful ways the local community rallied around his family and how at peace he felt with his move. Whether he intended it to or not, it came off as "City bad. Small town better."

Maybe he shouldn't have moved. Because we do have that sense of community here. This is not an anonymous place. People are paying attention and they care, even if that's not always obvious. As Prince sang, "We are gathered here today to get through this thing called 'life.' " Getting through is much easier when we do it together.

Natalie Pompilie is a Philadelphia writer. 

nataliepompilio@yahoo.com

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