White and Red: Life and Death in Allentown, Pa.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — I knock repeatedly. I knock again.

The man behind the door opens it a crack, tired, eyes weary.

“I’m sorry to bother you. I’m a reporter with the local paper, and I was wondering if you might speak to me.”

He looks to be about 20 years old, like me.

“I was wondering if you knew an Alex who was killed here early this morning. This is the address listed on police reports.”

His stare is weary, but not blank.

Quiet. The door is still open, and cars roll by. They stop at the traffic light by the gas station, then continue down N. Seventh Street. Heat rises lazily from the pavement. The door is still open.

“I’m really sorry to bother you. I was just wondering, if you knew him, if you might tell me a little bit about him… if you knew what happened.”

He shakes his head. In a quiet voice he tells me he doesn’t want to talk about it. The door shuts softly.

Is it possible to feel the sadness of others? There are people walking, laughing. Cars rumbling. There are smiles and grief in every home, people everywhere.

I feel alone.

I wonder what he was thinking. I wonder about Alex, the 35-year-old man shot about 2:25 a.m. on the second floor. I wonder why a 35-year-old man would be staying in a rooming house, as police believed he was, on a street where some of the residents told me the shooting was nothing to be surprised about.

Alex. His death that summer, Homicide No. 8 in Allentown, in 2004.

I don’t know anything about him – a first and last name, a hometown.

Allentown, Pennsylvania is a mix of grey and green in a corner of the world where few have traveled. Grey for concrete and row homes. Green for cornfields and farmland that surround an urban island of what sometimes seems filled only with colorless despair.

I know that isn’t true. People work hard and make their lives here, in downtown Allentown. For every sad story there is love.

In this grey area, this city on a farm. If you look closely, the grey isn’t grey at all, but shades of every nature. Blues the color of the Delaware that flows not far from here; pinks the color of the sunset that casts a rose glow on the city before evening settles; limes the color of a push pop.

There is a lot of beauty here. A lot of character, a lot of history. The stories of success here are not ones of privilege.

But it’s hard sometimes to remember that grey is not the only color here – grey and red.

A deep, dark, red. The crimson of bloody handprints smeared up and down a hallway wall in a building not too far from here. Those handprints. The white walls may have been the last thing those hands touched, the last thing they tried to hold, cling to, grasp like life. The last desperate motions of those hands, clawing for life, knocking on a door, seeking help.

Those knocks are now gone in time, invisible. Who will remember?

Three people were stabbed on the street. I don’t recall how many of them died. I remember knocking on doors, asking 14-year-olds if they had heard about the triple-stabbing on their block.

I remember residents showing me blood on the walls, on a lawn, on a door handle. I recall the thickness of that red, a heavy color.

I am writing this now so I won’t forget what little I do remember.

I remember wondering what happened to those three people, if they died or if they lived. I still wonder, and I’m wondering now, where they might have gone in life. And if they are still living, where they are now.

It is summer again, now, two years later. Are they admiring a bright sun in a clear noon-day sky? Maybe they are. I hope so.

White light contains every color from red to violet. A simple prism, glass or crystal, can open a world. The wavelength of red light is about 700 nanometers. Blue comes in at around 450. These wavelengths are what allow our eyes to differentiate between one object and the next, between the grey of the pavement and the green of the trees. Between the white of a plaster wall and the crimson stain of life.

White light contains all of these wavelengths; a prism achieves a separation, revealing every color. Divulging the essence of the invisible.

Story written in summer 2006.

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