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The ballad of a Kensington wanderer | Helen Ubiñas

A young man walks into a Kensington shop to pawn his guitar. Something good happens.

Photo of an unidentified man playing his guitar as he tries to sell it to Luis Payan at Payan's electronics store on Kensington Ave., November, 2018. (Courtesy Luis Payan, Video screen capture)
Photo of an unidentified man playing his guitar as he tries to sell it to Luis Payan at Payan's electronics store on Kensington Ave., November, 2018. (Courtesy Luis Payan, Video screen capture)Read moreLuis Payan

The knock came after hours. Luis Payan was still at work in his electronics store on Kensington Avenue, wrapping up for the night. A couple of customers and friends had stayed behind.

From the back of his long, narrow store in the epicenter of the city's heroin epidemic, Payan could see a man standing outside.

He's selling something, said a friend who opened the door.

Selling what? Payan shouted.

A guitar.

Payan waved away the request. He didn't buy those.

But the man, a young guy with dreadlocks, was persistent. Desperate for money, Payan figured. "Supposedly to eat," he recalled when I visited the other day when the chaos of the Avenue was rendered momentarily still by a surprise snowstorm.

The man and the young woman he was with were let inside. Except for a couple of bags they carried, they looked to be wearing everything they owned. The man talked a little, said he was homeless. He said his name. Something with an F, maybe? Payan, 23, had to admit that he didn't remember all the details.

Everyone's got a story out here. It's part of the hustle in a place where feeding yourself or your addiction depends on it.

Play something, someone asked the man.

"Show us your talent. Let us see what you got."

He played a few songs, strumming his guitar as he sung. When he began belting out "Stand by Me," Payan picked up his phone and started recording.

I wondered, as I watched the video of this young man singing for his next meal, why he chose that song. What was it, if anything, about the words that he took some liberties with that spoke to him?

If the sky that we look upon
Should tumble and fall
And the mountains should crumble to the sea
I won't be afraid. No, I wont be afraid

Just as long as you stand, stand by me

Payan handed the guy $40. The man smiled, thinking he had just sung his way into a sale.

"Mind if I keep this strap?" the guy asked before the video ended.

People who saw the video that Payan posted on Facebook, getting more than 65,000 views and 1,000 shares, wondered:

Did he really sell his guitar? Did Payan take it?


Keep it all, the shopkeeper told him.

What happened that night wasn't all that unique, Payan told me. Nearly every day he comes across someone like that young man, people who for many are nothing more than a representation of what ails this neighborhood. But there is always more to them. He sees it in the photos stored in the cellphones they try to sell him, snapshots of lives that are stuck.

Sometimes he gives them a few bucks and lets them keep their phone. They'll probably sell it to someone else, but maybe they won't and maybe something or someone in those pictures will pull them away from the drugs that render so many out here numb, frozen in place as they nod off, lost to the world.

People who know this North Philadelphia neighborhood only from the headlines are often afraid of it. In the time Payan has lived and worked here, he said, he's never had a problem.

That doesn't mean it's an easy place to make a living. Every morning his mother comes to the store and sweeps up used needles. "Daddy, what is he doing?" his 5-year-old son asked recently when he saw a man shooting up. Using medicine, Payan told the boy.

It's an uneasy coexistence. How could it not be as residents are continually expected to tap a well of sympathy that would have dried up a long time ago in most other neighborhoods.

In the days since Payan posted the video, he and his buddies have been on the lookout for the young man. They want him to know that a lot of people who watched him sing have reached out to say that they want to help, that they are ready to stand by him.