By Shrestha Singh | It is 5:20 a.m. The metal backs of food trucks shine in my headlights as their drivers set up shop in the silent streets near City Hall. Somewhere on North Broad Street, behind barbed wire, sleeps a German shepherd, who, at the sound of feet thudding on the sidewalk, leaps against the metal fence and bares his teeth in the pre-dawn darkness. Men stand on the raised island in the middle of the road, shadowy figures hawking today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, and are illuminated by the quick flashes of headlights as a trickle of cars passes by.
It is cold, the kind of February cold that makes your bones ache. As a junior Journalistic Writing minor, I’m spending my semester documenting the lives of homeless women who are on a running team near Temple University. They are a part of a program called Back on My Feet, which promotes running as a tool of empowerment, a metaphor for moving forward in life. I sleep fitfully the nights before these 5:30 a.m. runs, setting seven alarms, five of them on my phone, leaving the lights on so it’s harder to slip back into sleep once they ring in the morning, and waiting for my parents to groggily and worriedly call me from California at 1:30 a.m. their time. This early, the streets are empty of grumbling cars and grumbling people, of wobbling and laughing students returning from frat houses and bars.
It is this emptiness that suddenly unleashes my fears. That this documentary will be inadequate. That I am inadequate. That I could be the next abrupt local news headline: “Student disappears after morning run.” Most painfully, I am reminded that I am doing this alone, that there is no one here to whom I can whisper, “I’ll be back soon” in the drowsiness of morning. It’s been three years at Penn, yet this pervasive loneliness is still my one fact of life.
But I am here. In a gravel lot behind the homeless shelter, I kill the engine and jog over to where the ladies are waiting, dark silhouettes against a wire fence, their breath condensing the air as soon as it escapes their lips. We call hello and good morning and greet each other with quick hugs, relieved to see faces we know. After a few minutes of stretching, during which the ladies hold onto one another and swing their legs in unison, pretending to be the Rockettes, the eight of us curve our arms around one another’s backs, bow our heads, and close our eyes. A lifeless smokestack rises over our heads into the still-black sky. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference,” rises in a murmur from the circle. The circle breaks. We leave the parking lot and begin the morning’s run.
A few of the women are sick today, so we take it easy. Mel, who is wearing multiple jackets, one on top of the other, pulls her black earmuffs off as we talk, walking alongside the Styrofoam and paper that litters the streets. She laughs with surprise when she sees my tape recorder, protesting that she hates the sound of her own voice. She’ll be holed up in Temple’s library this weekend, she tells me—she’s taking a history class at the Community College of Philadelphia right now, and she’s behind on her readings. I laugh. So am I. I always am. Mel looks like my mom, her wispy hair framing a round face and nose, and for a second I want to throw an arm around her shoulder. She became homeless just a little while ago, when her sister kicked her out of the house for being a so-called “bad influence,” she tells me with disbelief. “I just read books all day!” she claims. But at the end of every run, when the rest of the women return to the shelter, Mel always says a frazzled goodbye and rushes off, breathless, to an “appointment.” I’ve learned that it’s at a methadone clinic up the street.
We reach the halfway point and turn back. Today, Dana, who usually jogs, keeps pace with Sharon, whose right knee is throbbing from an old injury. “No man left behind, no woman left behind, you know?” Of all the women, Dana is the closest to an actual friend. Her morning hugs are never forced; she always talks to me about her life and asks me about mine. Her son, who is about my age, is in the Navy and she’s missed him during the four months she’s been in the shelter. When her ex-husband took custody of her children, she was forced to leave home and put her furniture out on the street, she told me once. She’s been here since. Dana tends to speak with a sense of wonder in her voice. She is one of those people who speckles her sentences with the word blessed.
In five weeks, Dana will run her first race, a 5K in Wilmington, Delaware. She and I will run through the finish line that day, hand in hand, belting out “Eye of the Tiger” from Rocky III. On the last day I run with the team, she will write her address on a scrap of paper borrowed from the shelter’s front desk so that I can send her postcards. I will, as I always do, forget.
We are back at the shelter. By now, Mel’s nose is dotted with small beads of sweat. She hugs me and makes her escape. Back in the parking lot, Dana spots a calico cat, asleep on a pillow next to the train tracks. With a smile and a note of tenderness in her voice, she leans down and croons, “Come here, sweetie … You’re homeless, like me.”
Light is inching into the sky. I give them each a hug, pocket my tape recorder, and tell them I’ll see them next time. Back in my car, I blast music all the way back to 40th Street. It is 5:57 a.m., and for just a little while, I feel alive and whole.
Shrestha Singh C’12 is a Health and Societies major and Journalistic Writing minor from Fremont, California, and would love to be a documentarian when she “grows up.”