The summer of 1976, when I was fourteen, Dad decided that our family of five would take a two-week patriotic pilgrimage. We rarely indulged in big vacations. We were unable to afford either the cost or an extended absence from our farm. Yet there was Dad, pouring over his Triple AAA brochures and the World Book Encyclopedia, mapping our route to Plymouth Plantation, Bunker Hill, the Statue of Liberty, Independence Hall, Valley Forge….
What I remember most about that vacation occurred over a two-day span, late in the trip. On the evening of July 4th, after a furious swing through New England, we arrived in New York City. Dad intended us to enjoy the spectacle of fireworks over the Hudson River. For several days after, we would visit various historic sites.
Caught in a huge traffic jam ahead of the fireworks, Dad cut off on a side street, hoping to escape. His endless zigzagging soon got us lost in Harlem, a place we knew only by (white) reputation. “Lock your doors,” Mom said, eyeing the black pedestrians on the crowded streets.
Exhausted from hours behind the wheel, frayed nerves, and whining kids, Dad finally gave up on the fireworks. He pulled over and studied his city map. Then he started for the Holiday Inn where he’d booked a room, assuring Mom it was in a “good section of town.” (I somehow understood that was code for “white.”) On our way there, we passed a taxi parked at an odd angle from the curb. A man’s body was hanging out the open door of the driver’s side. The murder of that cabbie made the late local news.
The next morning, Dad announced that we wouldn’t stick around to sightsee all the attractions on his New York list. After touring the Statue of Liberty, we’d leave at once for Philadelphia (our version of “white flight”).
Our hotel in the City of Brotherly Love lay in the heart of the Historic District. Despite torrential rains, the District was jampacked with bicentennial tourists. In the hotel lobby, Dad asked the front desk for directions to the nearest McDonald’s, thinking we’d walk.
“Oh, you don’t want to go there,” said an older man, dawdling nearby.
“I don’t?” Dad said, forcing politeness.
“No,” said the man, who looked short as Danny DeVito next to my tall father. From his shoes to his fedora, he was clad in black. Thick, dark glasses obscured his eyes. He put me in mind of a mobster. “Let me take you someplace good,” he said. “Do you have a car?”
Dad was a proud, self-reliant farmer, rather scornful of city slickers. Yet within minutes we were piled in our car with this strange man, wending through the narrow streets at his instruction, our wiper blades not keeping up with the rain. After what seemed forever, we pulled into an alley and parked beside a dumpster under a lonely security light behind a shabby building.
“Come with me,” the stranger said, stepping from our car and popping his black umbrella.
Dad switched off the ignition. The man had already vanished into the building. We exchanged nervous glances.
“We’ve come this far,” Dad said at last to Mom, his fears unspoken. “Might as well go in.”
We were met at the back door by a waiter in fancy clothes. He seated us at a linen-covered table and distributed menus for La Scala’s Copper Penny, one of the most fashionable restaurants in upscale Society Hill.
“We can’t afford this,” Dad murmured to the waiter.
“It’s already taken care of,” the waiter said. He informed us that the stranger was the priest at historic Christ Church. “He also thought you could use this,” he said to Mom, handing her the black umbrella.
The next day our family located Christ Church, returned the umbrella, and put money in the poor box. But we never saw the priest again.
I tell this remarkable story out of gratitude and love for my father, who now dwells in the fog of Alzheimer’s. But I also tell it with sad recognition: Our family would never have had this story of kindness to tell, had the stranger’s skin been the same color as his clothes.
This was originally published in the June 21, 2020 (Father’s Day) edition of Staying Power.