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‘We’re in this together’

Residents share keys and move each other’s trash cans on a South Philly block. But coronavirus has upended Beechwood Street.

Delicate blooms that swayed from the cherry blossom trees like floating cotton candy have fallen to the sidewalk on Beechwood Street in a blanket of pink snow.

Here in the heart of South Philadelphia, the 2200 block of S. Beechwood is narrow, with a shaded row of quaint, tightly-packed two-story rowhouses, many adorned with front porches, bay windows, and aluminum awnings.

This is Philly at its best.

It’s the kind of block where residents share each other’s keys. They huddle on porches, chatting and laughing, as Motown, reggae, or hip-hop fills the air. They pick up groceries and haul trashcans for one another, and routinely check on their old and frail.

To mark the end of every summer, they close the block for a party to end all parties — featuring a dunk tank, water slide, and enough barbecue, potato salad, and snow cones to feed a hundred. Drive down Beechwood Street most times and you’ll know the season by the outdoor decorations — hearts, bunnies, flags, pumpkins, ghosts, twinkling lights, and Santa.

But these days, a massive, dark cloud hangs low over Beechwood Street. The coronavirus has upended life here, as it has on thousands of blocks across the city. It’s as if someone flipped the switch to end the rhythm of life.

Lost jobs. Lost freedom. Friends, relatives, co-workers, and patients gone too soon.

“I pray every night for everybody to be safe,” said Kevin Smith, who has lived on Beechwood Street for seven years. “We’re close. Real close. Everyone here lives by the Golden Rule. If anything bad happens, we’re here for each other. We’re in this together.”

Watching people die

Smith and his neighbors are particularly concerned for Chanel Jacobs. She’s a nurse at Centennial Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, a West Philadelphia nursing home.

“Be safe out there, Chanel!” they bellow when they see her step in or out of her black Nissan Maxima.

The people of Beechwood Street constantly text her. They ask how she’s doing and thank her for working on the front lines of the pandemic. They send emojis, including smiley faces, the ones wearing masks.

Charlotte Wilmore, the matriarch of the block, sometimes cooks for Jacobs. Last time, she whipped up chicken soup with vegetables.

“Everyone is there to support me,” said Jacobs, 43.

So far, 22 patients who lived at Centennial have died from coronavirus complications, she said.

“I hold their hands and they tell me they are not ready to die.”

Chanel Jacobs, a nurse at a West Philadelphia nursing home

“Some people don’t get how bad this is,” she said. “When you see dead bodies go out right and left, you see these people dying, then you know this is real. I’m literally on a battlefield.”

“It’s like I go in there and think, ‘who is going to go today?’" Jacobs said. "It’s overwhelming. Patients are hollering at me, ‘Help me. Help me.’ I hold their hands and they tell me they are not ready to die.”

They beg her to stay with them because they can’t breathe. She does.

“A couple of people died on me," she said. "It happens so fast.”

Two co-workers have also succumbed, Jacobs said.

Jacobs said she’s one of at least 12 healthcare workers at Centennial who have tested positive. She’s asymptomatic and hasn’t been sick. Every workday, she goes home to Beechwood Street where she lives with her mom, daughter, and grandson, and lives in quarantine, on lockdown.

Everyone inside her house wears a mask. She stays in her bedroom and her mom and daughter leave food outside the door. They have no choice but to share the bathroom. “We have wipes and bleach spray and clean up before we leave,” she said.

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She worries about her mom, who is 60 and suffers from lupus, an inflammatory, auto-immune disease. “If she gets sick I fear it will take a turn on her. She won’t able to fight it as well as people with no issues,” she said.

“It’s starting to get depressing. It gets to you mentally,” Jacobs said. “Everyone is scared of you and I understand why they’re scared.

“We never knew how good we have it until it’s taken away. Just a hug we took for granted.”

The heart of the block

Charlotte Wilmore is particularly busy these days. It’s that time of year when she does a daily cherry blossom sweep of the block. “The blooms fell off early this year," she said. "Some of the trees are dead with no leaves or anything. God is trying to tell us something. We’re not taking care of the earth like he wanted us to.”

Neighbors say Wilmore, with her broad, infectious smile, is the engine that makes Beechwood Street run.

“She is the heart of the block,” Kevin Smith said. “It’s all her.”

“Charlotte sweeps the entire block," said Melany Masalski, a paralegal. "Even the trash that blows in from around the corner, she picks up. The block wouldn’t look near as good if not for her.”

Wilmore, 64, who has lived on the block 17 years, is the block party organizer. Most neighbors give her about $10 toward the rentals and food. But everyone knows it’s Wilmore’s party.

Wilmore, who worked at the downtown Marriott for 17 years, first as a housekeeper then as a concierge, is retired now. She worries that her husband, who had a double lung transplant five years ago, could be hard hit if he were infected with the coronavirus. Her nephew, who works for SEPTA, is recovering from it.

“When my nephew went to the hospital, I burst out crying,” she said.

A mom of two grown daughters and grandmother of four, Wilmore can sometimes be found on her front porch, smoking her favorite, Newports.

From there, she gauges the pulse of Beechwood Street. That’s harder these days.

“Before, people came outside, sat on the steps, listening to music," Wilmore said. "Now you rarely see anyone. It’s super quiet. People are sitting in their houses.”

The nights are particularly dead. “You could hear a pin drop out here,” she said.

She still makes sure to check on Marian Pantano, 79, who has lived on the block for 60 years. Pantano, a stylish woman with short, swept back red hair who looks far younger than her years, worked as an usher for the Phillies until the shutdown. Before that, she worked as an administrative assistant for the Department of Defense.

“I’m used to going out and now I am totally confined,” Pantano said. “If Charlotte hasn’t seen me, she’ll always check on me.”

Wilmore routinely picks up groceries for her neighbors, Ray and Linda DeFrons, both in their 70s. And she drags their trashcans and recyclables to and from the street.

“She’ll call me up from Trader Joe’s and say, ‘I’m bringing you some eggs and fruit. You need anything else?’” said Ray DeFrons, who walks with a cane. “She takes care of us. She takes care of the street.”

Wilmore panics if she calls them a couple times and they don’t pick up.

“I worry I’m going to lose someone.”

The uncertainty of it all

Across the street from Wilmore, four restaurant workers share one house. All have been laid off.

“We’re getting unemployment but it’s tough not knowing when any of this will be over,” said Caila Tuohey, 22, who worked at Pietro’s in Radnor, along with her live-in-boyfriend Jeffrey Kurkian.

Tuohey was the last of the four to receive her unemployment check. “So my share of the rent I paid late," she said. "I prioritized getting groceries so everyone could eat.”

To not know what lies ahead is unsettling. “It’s so uncertain and that’s what is so scary,” she said.

To pass the time, Tuohey often spends hours drawing detailed mandala coloring pages and drinking coffee on their front porch.

“Being locked in all day is the hardest part,” Kurkian said.

Kevin Smith has found a way around that. At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, the fit, broad-shouldered, barrel-chested 39-year-old hops on his Harley and just rides. “I ride anywhere," he said. "It’s all about the ride. Not the destination.”

His hours as a technician for a commercial cooking equipment company were initially reduced, but a small business loan allowed him to bump back up to a 40-hour week, guaranteed for eight weeks.

“I learned a long time ago I’m powerless over a lot things. This is one of them.”

Kevin Smith, technician for a commercial cooking equipment company

“I learned a long time ago I’m powerless over a lot things," he said. "This is one of them. Worrying is not good for the spirit. It’s not good for the body.”

Smith never turns on the TV. “I have not watched one second of news coverage,” he said. Instead, he plays drums, bass, and guitar in his home studio. The music wafts outside to the neighbors of Beechwood Street.

“Not a lot is different for me. I’m always riding a motorcycle, banging on the drums,” he said.

“The only thing I miss is sitting down to dinner with a beautiful woman.”

Coronavirus closes in

For some of Smith’s neighbors, the coronavirus is almost crippling.

Catherine Richards, 79, has a son fighting for his life on a ventilator at Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital in Darby, Pa. He’s a psychiatric technician who was sick for more than two weeks before he was hospitalized, she said.

“It’s devastating to listen to him gasp for air. I’m almost glad I can’t watch,” she said.

A deeply religious woman, Richards says her faith is all that is keeping her going. “But for God, I’d be hysterical,” she said. “Thousands of people are praying for him.”

Another son is a Philadelphia police officer, who was exposed to the virus but tested negative. And she is caregiver to her husband, who has numerous medical conditions and dementia. She can never leave him alone.

Work has become almost unbearable for her neighbor, Genna Sykes, 43. She’s a SEPTA bus operator who drives a route between the suburbs and the city.

She knows two co-workers battling the virus. One had been hospitalized, but both are now recovering at home. “It’s a risk every day I go out,” she said.

On days Sykes has to work but her route is not operating, she reports to the district office for eight hours a day.

On days she drives, she tries to keep her bus safe. Some passengers climb onboard without masks. She recently told one man to cover his face. He ignored her. She asked again. He refused. She told him, “Either cover your face or not get a ride.” Another passenger gave him a mask.

“It’s supposed to be limited for essential riders, but we can’t tell who is essential,” she said.

When she’s home, at the house that has been in her family since 1998, Sykes can usually be found in her living and dining room, hunched over her sewing machine. She sews everything, even her own uniform. Now she’s stitching masks, some for SEPTA workers, and others for whoever needs them. She offers a slew of designs in bold colors, including sports teams, African prints, and polka dots.

For Sykes’ neighbor, Edward Leftwich, the coronavirus never leaves his thoughts.

“I need to give my mind a rest,” he said.

Leftwich, 55, is a supervisor at a Philadelphia hospital call center. Out of about 40 in his department, nine are battling the coronavirus, he said. He was in close contact with at least two of them.

“I’m very nervous,” he said. After a work meeting to discuss the problem, Leftwich was distraught. “I broke down in tears, knowing I could get sick,” he said.

One co-worker was pregnant, with a June due date, when she fell ill. She was whisked to the intensive care unit and delivered early because the baby was pushing on her lungs, he said. The baby is slowly getting stronger, as is her mom.

“You hear about people dying and I know I shouldn’t have that in my mind, but I do," Leftwich said. "I have a few relatives and friends who are elderly and I have been around them. I worry.”

One recent morning, he received a text that yet another co-worker was being transferred to the ICU.

“I’m drained. I was ready to throw up this morning because that’s how scared I am,” he said. “I’m trying to compose myself. But it’s hard not to think the worst when it’s all around you.”

On a recent afternoon, Leftwich sat on his concrete front steps on Beechwood Street. A blue mask covered his nose and mouth, but sorrow and dread were in his eyes.

The sidewalk, one step down from his bright red sneakers, was immaculate.

The pink blossoms were gone.