Tony Lain is dead

By Christopher Wink | May 06, 2008

There is a suddenness to life in this city.

Surely it is exaggerated in the minds of those who live mostly in fears of their own creation. Four hundred dead of 1.5 million isn’t anything to the pain and poverty of many in this world, but murders on the streets of Philadelphia require a viciousness that can’t possibly come naturally.

The stories come and seem to portray great tragedies in their crushing art.

Tony Lain was a 42-year-old married father of two from Mayfair, a neighborhood of runaways from the gritty, urban decay of Kensington’s old Irish Catholic blocks.

He worked for Petro Oil in Southhampton, a working class man of flaws and simplicities.

Continue reading Tony Lain is dead

My grandfather waits: excerpt

george-wink-as-infant.jpgMy grandmother died on the Monday before Thanksgiving, November 2006, two months beyond my father’s parents celebrated 54 years marriage.

The thought of the weight of loneliness, left after a half century of practiced, dependent love, made me shiver one night, then a continent away, studying in Tokyo. I made an effort to call my grandfather more once I returned in December.

The conversations after her death were always the same. He’d answer my questions with as few words as possible, as if he was waiting for a bus. I guess he was waiting for a bus.

This is a short excerpt. To read the rest of this piece and other writing, go here.

My grandfather waits

By Christopher Wink | Mar 18, 2008


My grandmother died on the Monday before Thanksgiving, November 2006, two months beyond my father’s parents celebrated 54 years marriage.The thought of the weight of loneliness, left after a half century of practiced, dependent love, made me shiver one night, then a continent away, studying in Tokyo. I made an effort to call my grandfather more once I returned in December.

The conversations after her death were always the same. He’d answer my questions with as few words as possible, as if he was waiting for a bus. I guess he was waiting for a bus.

“I don’t know anymore, Christopher,” he’d tell me. “I just don’t feel well anymore.”

“It’s okay, grandpa,” I’d answer. “I’ll talk to you soon.”

Maybe he wanted to say more. Maybe he didn’t. I never knew how to offer to help shoulder his burden. We so rarely know how to help shoulder another’s burden. We so rarely know how to shoulder our own.

My grandmother, his wife, had died, quietly, though troublingly near the beginning of the holiday season. It may have been the only time she was ever a burden. The burden of death is a particularly heavy one.

My grandfather was born Oct. 26, 1923 in Cambria Heights, then a safe, working class neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens. My grandmother shared her birth with that of the year 1928, welcomed into the world on Jan. 1. They met a church social and were married at St. Albans the Martyr Episcopal Church in a leafy stretch of Turin Drive in Jamaica, Queens on Sept. 20, 1952.

My grandfather’s courtship of a single-mother divorcee is unknown to me. Similarly, all I know of most of their marriage is that they decorated the living room of their Levitt-style home in 1973, with all of that year’s fashionable colors, styles and comforts and never got around to changing it.

I know casual stories of his past, though their veracity is unquestioned enough to merit more scrupulous investigation. In the Second World War, before meeting my grandmother, he sat in a watchtower on some island in the Pacific Ocean, listening to Tokyo Rose and firing his issued firearm just once, to see how it sounded one clear and boring night. In 1963, he purchased a handful of .22 rifles, and took to brandishing them on his front steps, race riots plaguing the country, and two black communities – a suburban one to his east and a quickly changing Queens not far west – surrounding the home he had made.

What I know best, though, is how terrified he was after my grandmother’s death. He was never a great man outside of 15 Windsor Street in Hicksville. Those types you have read before, no picture in the newspaper, no great accolades, nor speeches in his honor. Just a small family and a woman with whom, for whatever reason, he spent the better portion of the last 54 years of his life. Before her death, he was smilingly oblivious, immersed most in maps, and history, stamps and coupons. He tended to repeat himself, but was coherent and kind enough that it was charming. After her death, too much was missing from his eyes, like he was removed, sitting on a bench, waiting for a bus that was already late.
By March he was dead, found by my aunt, turned over and gone in the bed of the home he had made with a woman who had already left.

“I don’t know anymore, Christopher,” he’d tell me. “I just don’t feel well anymore.”

As if that bus was four months late.

The supernatural: graves and ghosts at Temple University

By Christopher Wink | Oct. 30, 2007 | The Temple News

Temple University has been built on the backs of the dead. It’s late October, and we think about the old, the hidden and the dead. Temple has its ghosts, indeed.


In the 1880s, Russell Conwell was laying the groundwork for what would be Temple University. He was tutoring young men by low light in the back of Grace Baptist Church, in a room called “the Temple.”

Across North Broad Street was a rambling grave site called Monument Cemetery, already half a century old and filling quickly.

By 1929, Monument had been filled to capacity with 28,000 burial services. Its 11-acre compound had been encircled by a dense urban landscape of rowhomes filled with Philadelphians of German and Irish descent. It sat like that for nearly thirty years, assuring Temple remained a decidedly east-of-Broad institution.


Conwell was one of the last notable Philadelphians to be buried in Monument Cemetery. He died in 1925, 15 years after his wife. After his wife’s passing, Conwell turned cold and perplexing. He stayed on in his fine home at 2020 N. Broad St., along with at least one maid, but Sarah was on his mind.

Not long before his death, Conwell was searching for his Civil War discharge papers but neither he nor his staff could find them. Legend has it that his wife came to him in sleep and told him where to find them. The next morning, the dream proved prescient, prompting Conwell to celebrate his wife’s reemergence to a maid.

Of course, the maid labeled it lunacy. To counter, Conwell had his maid hide a pen, without telling him where. That night Sarah came to her husband and told him where to find the pen. The next morning, Conwell came to his maid, pen in hand. Sarah, it has been said, was insulted by her husband’s desire to prove her. She never visited Conwell again.


Like most city neighborhoods, North Philadelphia had a population jump after World War II, before a precipitous decline in the 1950s. Monument Cemetery became an obstacle. For growth. For homes. For Temple.

In September 1955, a court order was passed, ordering the city to begin transporting the remains from Monument to Rockledge’s Lawnview Cemetery in Montgomery County. Russell and Sarah, together once again, were entombed at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, an act paid for by Temple.

By 1956, Temple bought the cemetery site. The rock walls that separate the Broad Street sidewalk and the parking lot between Montgomery and the Student Pavilion are the last visible reminder of 28,000 dead in Temple’s neighborhood.

Three years later, in June 1959, Temple welcomed two back home. Russell and Sarah were buried in the sidewalk alcove that rests along North Broad Street between Conwell and Wachman Halls. There were photos and coverage from all the major media of the day.

It took more than a decade, though, for the Conwells to have a final resting place, then with much less attention. Just a single clipping from a yellowed copy of The Temple News is all that presented itself to show the last trip Russell and Sarah took. That a short walk to what was then a newly constructed Founder’s Garden. They were settled there late in the summer of 1968. Questions remain whether they have explored other homes for the future.

Text as it appeared in The Temple News on Oct. 30, 2007. See it here.

So far from home

By Christopher Wink | March 1, 2008

She enrolled in St. Joseph’s that summer, her first time away from home.

She didn’t grow up too far away – she went to Merion Mercy – but college is about the time, not necessarily the place, and so, for her, Sourin Hall could have just as well been about a million miles away.

“I was the apple of my father’s eye,” she wrote me once, which either showed her complete lack of personal phrasing or was a better characterization than even a thousand poets working a thousand years could develop.

Her father loved her in the same way he loved her when she was seven and twirled on his feet during the father and daughter dance held by Girl Scout Troop 154 memories ago. Fathers always love their daughters as they loved them when they were seven and twirling.

Her mother only wished she could get as much attention as her daughter got.

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A Port Richmond Puerto Rican

By Christopher Wink | Feb. 16, 2008

Mike came to me.

The platform at City Hall station doesn’t afford much room to maneuver.

Before I knew his name, I knew he was Puerto Rican and friendly, with a bag of CDs and dirt under fingernails that needed attention by anyone’s standards.

After we formally introduced ourselves, he let me on in a secret.

“I just tell people I’m Puerto Rican, man,” Mike told me in the privacy of a crowded car on the Broad Street Line. “So, I don’t get jumped. I’m as white as you.”

And that laugh. The giggle of the deranged.

Continue reading A Port Richmond Puerto Rican

April waits for May

By Christopher Wink | June 15, 2007

She was named after the fourth month. Not for when she was born, but of a time of warmth and beginnings for her parents who thought both had now since died. Interestingly, it was her name’s temporal successor – a month that, among other things, signaled the annual return from school of the boy she loved – that was always her favorite. It is in this way that April was always waiting for May.

She was young and he was everything to her. He was strange and, anyone would say, had no business being everything to anyone, most certainly not to her. Perhaps there is irresponsibility in truth. Of course there is. There is nothing less interested in hurt feelings. But truth hadn’t the power to stop what youth can feel for slightly older youth. So, he remained what she wanted most of all.

Time rode on swift wings.

Continue reading April waits for May

Like someone thought she was. Special

By Christopher Wink | Feb. 13, 2008

She grew up in Kensington Irish Catholic, like so many subjects of stories like this. Too many kids. Too tiny a house, standing side by side with others that fell ill with the same afflictions.

When she was young, she was like a Philly soft pretzel, she told me. Skinny and narrow and twisted and salty. She smiled at that.

She got her braces off 34 days before her 19th birthday. She met a boy 59 days before she graduated from Archbishop Ryan. He would go home with her, the 50 to the 3, 67 days before she chose for him.

Even then, when things were good enough, she’d sneak to Saint Mike’s. Sit in the back. Maybe light a candle. Something about it made her feel like someone was listening to only her. Like someone thought she was. Special. He could do that for her, too, then, she said. But not like those morning in Saint Mike’s, when the world stopped, aside from a girl in Kensington with no braces and a tight grip on the smooth, rolled edge of that pew.

She had thought about community, she told me. Get the grades, go to Temple, even. He wanted to strike out on his own, with her. Get a job. She chose for him, 138 days before she learned she was pregnant, 16 days before he did.

They had the kid. And another. One more, too. Too many kids. Too tiny a house, standing side by side with others that fell ill with the same afflictions. The neighborhood was different, problems seemed more daunting, but it wasn’t anything that hadn’t been said before.

It was sometime around then – the young one couldn’t have been more than two – when he learned he had Hodgkin’s disease, the same day she did. Aggressive. Inevitable. She couldn’t remember much of it. It took more than three years. Seems a lot longer when you say it then when you live it, even less when you remember it. He died in pain. She still lived it.

She stopped going to Saint Mike’s. Someone else could sit in the back. Light a candle. Clutch the pew in control of the wooden and stable. She got mad. And spent a lot of wasted years being mad with kids trying to learn to live in a world that she couldn’t recognize anymore.

The kids got older, though, as kids do, and she got so used to the pain and frustration that unlived dreams became childish fantasies. She was better for having avoided them.

She went to bible study a few weeks ago, she told me. You’re bound to rediscover what once meant something to you. Maybe we have everything at the start and are meant to spend the rest of it finding it again.

It was not long after that first return that she opened the book to find a verse to discuss and came, at random, to Isaiah, “defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” Widows and orphans, and, like that, something about it made her feel like someone was listening to only her. Like someone thought she was. Special.

On attendance of a funeral

By Christopher Wink | April 14, 2006

I choose my clothes carefully, more carefully than I normally tend to choose my clothes. I am dressed well. I am dressed well in black, all black from my freshly shined shoes to my belt to my neatly ironed shirt and cravat. By cravat I mean a length of fabric I tie around my neck according to a tradition with origins unknown to me. This means I am dressed-up. This means fancy. I am dressed well and fancy in black. I have used a shoeshine kit, an iron, and lint brushes, and toothbrushes, and hairbrushes and other items made to help me look nice enough to convince others that I care how I look. I have run out of things to prepare. I enter and sit inside an automobile. I ride.

There are so many other automobiles. The automobile I am inside situates itself between two other automobiles, all ordered according to white lines on rough, hard ground of the same color as the legs of my pants that don’t fit around my ankles as I feel they should. I stop and fix my black pants, and retuck my black shirt under these black pants. I have run out of things to prepare. I enter a big building made of triangles.

This is a place that many people I know think these events should be held. By tradition and desire I am quiet. There are initial furtive glances particular to my role in this event. Or casual glances that are natural for when people pass other people. I do not know which. I think they are particular to me because I think everyone cares about me so that way if that is true I am not surprised. I am still in the lobby. This is an oversized, tiny room that lets you enter. Like my mouth, where I hold my food before I gobble it down my throat to its destination. I don’t know if my food really knows where it wants to go or if it is only given the appearance of a choice. It always goes to the same place. In the lobby everyone goes to the same place.

I pause by faces that I recognize because I have seen them every day for many days. People say my name in hushed tones. I assume this is to reaffirm that it is me because the hug and repeated back-patting that always follows would not be desired by someone who wasn’t me. I don’t really desire them and I am I. But, I don’t know if I don’t desire them. My belt does not stay centered. By tradition, my belt buckle should line up with my shirt buttons. These are all roughly in the center of my body. I have to retuck my black shirt under my black pants. I have run out of things to prepare. I enter a room with a roof that is too tall to remember.

They look at me or I thought or I wanted or I didn’t want them to look at me. I watch the show. Many women wipe things from their eyes with very white kerchiefs. These are portions of soft material with which women wipe things from their eyes. Men look forward or rest their arms on women who wipe things from their eyes. Other men have red eyes, or normal eyes with red tints. Sometimes people get red eyes for not sleeping. I think how silly that is while I bend my leg at the knee to rest my ankle on my opposite thigh. This is how people traditionally relax or sit comfortably. I wonder if any animals do that when I notice a mark on my recently shined black shoes. I use the fleshy side of my thumb to rub the mark until it disappears. So few imperfections disappear after rubbing and attention and care.

People get up and join the show. They say nice things and remember other nice things. Many people lie, if lying can mean to exclude negative information. People get tired of saying nice things to men who get tired of resting their arms on women who get tired of wiping things from their eyes next to the children who get tired of looking sad.

I loosen my cravat just a little. This is why men wear cravats. So, later they can loosen the cravat a little. This is a very fashionable look, but, by tradition, you have to wear it tightened for many hours first. I loosen my cravat. I can think of many things to prepare. I exit the room with the roof and the building of triangles and I enter the automobile. The automobile carefully reverses and drives on the right side of yellow lines, as everyone traditionally does. I tie my shoelace, which doesn’t seem to stay tightened. I tighten my cravat so later I can loosen it and look tired. I look out the window.

Travel Well (Newsweek submission: 3/18/07)

By Christopher Wink | Mar 18, 2007 | Newsweek submission

I have an excessive devotion to my nationality. I like to think there is something distinctly American in that pride of being American. I have saved money and made friends all to answer my desperation to travel, desperate to learn and explore and represent this nation.

I carry a four foot by six foot American flag that was once my grandfather’s whenever I’m abroad, whenever I’m representing this nation. So, that faded flag has gone from his attic, to the wall of my row home in Philadelphia, to a migrant workers’ station in Mexico, to a slave castle in Ghana, to a great wall in China.

I take very seriously my representing the United States. I speak with the polite “vous” in southern Quebec and drink slowly my wine in central Tuscany. Yes, I have an excessive devotion to my nationality. But, sadly, perhaps it is my expressiveness that is distinctly American. I have seen hundreds of Italian club-goers glaring at a group of American girls who were having too much fun–pocketbooks over their shoulders, shoes in one hand, drinks in the other–as they tripped through a break-dancing competition.

Continue reading Travel Well (Newsweek submission: 3/18/07)