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He looked up, and it changed his life

A meeting at a mural has the power to change

It was a chance encounter in front of a painted wall. One of those moments that seem fleeting at the time but that smolder in the soul.

Curious, he took a place beside her. Grace asked Kenny if he thought the mural was beautiful. Kenny said yes. The woman's warmth was disarming. So Kenny shared something about himself: "I work next door at the video store. "

The strangers stood there for a while, staring at the wall, the septuagenarian grandmother and the 19-year-old video clerk.

"May I take your picture in front of the mural? " Grace asked.

Kenny posed, smiled and pointed at the two gargantuan figures behind him, youngsters draped in graduation robes. A camera click later, Kenny and Grace said goodbye.

Kenny went to work two days later and found a copy of the out-of-focus snapshot waiting for him at the counter. That night, in the solitude of his apartment, he sat and wondered about the woman, the mural and the trajectory of his own life, now at a crossroads.

Grace Lindsay believes that images are powerful - especially when aimed at children.

And the one on the 5600 block of Chestnut Street, she felt, didn't quite deliver for West Philadelphia youth.

At age 78, she had put two children through college from the Sansom Street rowhouse she still owns. Her 55-year marriage thrives. She runs a neighborhood group and mentors youngsters at the same public middle school her sons attended years ago.

So when it came to the mural on Chestnut Street near 56th, she felt entitled to speak up.

In 1997, with the blessing of neighbors, a red brick wall had become a radiant young boy, brushed amid a backdrop of bright storefronts, midsize buildings and the Market-Frankford El. The boy, about 12 years old, wore a red-and-white jersey, a baseball cap, and a smile of pure joy.

In his right hand, reaching to the sky, he held a basketball.

People liked it. So did Grace; she really did. It was a beautiful mural of a happy boy.

But each time she walked past it on the way to the bus stop Grace felt pangs of doubt. So did others among her small cadre of elderly civic souls. City children, they felt, should see hope as more than a big grin and a bright orange basketball. They get enough of that everywhere else.

"It did not speak to us," said Grace with a tone of quiet conviction - the way she speaks in general. "All it said was, this is as far as you can go. "

She calls herself a recycled teenager, but Grace oozes genteel, as does her standard farewell: "Be careful as you travel. "

But as she spoke of the boy with the basketball, she crackled with passion.

"That's all you can be?" she asked. "It has to be more than that. You can still be that, but you have to get your education. "

In November 2000, Grace and members of the Cobbs Creek Neighborhood Advisory Council sent a polite letter to the city's Mural Arts Program.

How about putting the boy in a graduation gown, adding a female graduate and nixing the b-ball?

It was a rare request, to alter a painting like that. But the city embraced it, mostly because Grace and her group were so compelling.

In April of this year, artist Ras Malik remounted four stories of scaffolding to retool the mural he had created five years earlier.

Working freehand with his brushes, Malik preserved the size, form and arm position of the boy but made the face older. He wrapped the boy's fist around a diploma, draped him in royal purple graduation garb, slung a stethoscope around his neck, and painted a female graduate next to him.

From the time the figures began to emerge until the scaffolding came down in June, no one watched with greater pride and anticipation than Grace.

Her wonderment is what caught the eye of a passing teenager named Kenny.

Kenneth Gregory Green finds himself in that vast expanse of uncertainty called The Future. And more often than not, he feels lost.

Getting this far - age 19 with a diploma from Bartram High School - was hard enough. He was raised on 60th Street in West Philadelphia, a bustling corridor that has seen better days. The way he tells it, dealers, drugs and weapons all bled into his youth one way or another.

Now that he's made it to adulthood, life seems harder still. It's tough to stay on the straight and narrow when few people seem to notice the good guys, he said.

"There's not too many 19-year-olds out there that you can say, man, he's got a good head on his shoulders," Kenny said. Instead, everyone talks about the guys who deal and steal.

"Granted, they've got to duck a few cops, duck into a few cars," Kenny said. "But these guys on the corner, they look like they got it easy. "

This was the kind of stuff in Kenny's head the Saturday morning his boss sent him to Yock's: his tiny apartment, his love life, and a part-time wage that covered the rent and phone bill.

Then he saw Grace.

The petite woman was looking at the mural as if it were all there is. Kenny wondered, how can that be?

"My first thought is: I want to meet this lady again," Kenny said. "For a person to be that interested in a mural, when so much else is going on in West Philadelphia, it just makes you wonder - she's got to have more going on in her life than just bad things. "

Grace said hello.

This was Grace's mural. And although it was still blocked by scaffolding, she fawned as though it were a baby in an incubator.

"Isn't that nice, how this man is holding the diploma?" she asked Kenny.

Kenny took in the mural. He had watched it morph for months. But only now did he let it enter into him.

"It just gave me hope - like just 'Go! Go! Go!' " he said. "It puts you right in the middle of life and it lets you know that life is serious, like, get real - head to the future.

"It gave me a little bit of relief. "

The whole encounter happened so fast. But Kenny remembered it clearly. His eyes lit up and a smile stretched across his face as he pieced it back together two months later, puzzling over a woman he has never encountered again.

"I never got her name or anything. It was just a sudden thing. Even if I run into this lady again, I don't know who she is. "

Once the photo arrived at his job, Kenny's coworkers razzed him all night long: "Look at Kenny in front of the mural!" they joked.

But something had happened to Kenny.

"As the day went on and when the end of the night came, I looked at that picture and I just said, wow, it is a beautiful sight. "

"It may sound strange," he added, "but it's more than just a mural. "

It was a nudge. A muse to move forward.

That meeting at the mural persuaded Kenny to find a better job with better hours and better money. He had thought about it for a while but the time had come.

He now works full time at the Wyndham Suites Valley Forge, helping prepare banquets. He rides SEPTA 90 minutes each way, each day, from the one-room University City apartment he shares with a white kitten named Tweet.

"I'm getting paid more, I have a comfortable schedule," Kenny said.

Kenny still chafes at the thought that life can be so mundane. It's hard, he said, to get on that bus every day when dealers are counting their cash and flashing their prized possessions in plain sight.

But something always makes Kenny get on for the long ride.

"By me meeting the lady," he said, "it really opened my eyes - you can do better. "

Contact Maria Panaritis at 215-854-5162 or