Papal Work


in Features


It’s 1979, and it’s Pope John Paul II’s visit to Philadelphia, and I’m standing next to Alexander Calder’s river god fountain at Logan Circle, next to the male figure grasping a bow. Buried in my backpack are hundreds of freshly minted coins. My father, who owns a company that makes commemorative medals, struck them earlier that week. Pope John Paul II’s bronze image is sculpted on the front, and my father has asked me to sell them at the special Mass the Pope is conducting on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

I’ve just graduated from college. Having majored in English, I’m unemployed, living at home, and about as miserable as a 22-year-old can be. My boyfriend doesn’t call me as often as I’d like and I spend too many nights hunched over the pink princess phone on my night table willing it to ring. When my father passes by my door, he yells at me for waiting around for a boy who is obviously not interested in a serious relationship. The truth hurts, and around 9 PM when my boyfriend still hasn’t called, I’m too distraught to do anything but sleep.

Though sometimes, I get ideas for poems. And it is these poems that make me feel capable of greatness and give me the courage to shout back at my father that my English degree will not go to waste.

Right now, a group of nuns is watching me. Their black habits fill me with fear as I reach into my backpack for the coins. I am too afraid to set up a stand and reveal the entire bounty. I’m terrified they will chastise me, or worse. My religion — Judaism — prohibits graven images. I merely take out a couple of coins and jingle them together when the Sister standing beside me asks if they are for sale. She tugs the arm of the Sister beside her and havoc is let loose. I am surrounded by people who want to buy my coins. In just a few hours I will have sold them all. When I board the subway home, my backpack will be light.

My father didn’t always own a mint. For most of my life he was Mr. Welded Tube, having risen from floor sweeper to VP of a factory that produced steel tubing often used as barriers on highways. It wasn’t until I was much older that I came to understand that this was why my father preferred taking highways over side roads. Although my father dropped out of college, the owner of Welded Tube recognized my father’s brilliance and paid for him to go back to high school, then earn an engineering degree in college. My father rose through all the ranks of his industry. He knew how to fix every piece of machinery in the plant, but also how to design it. I’ll never forget the time that I, failing algebra, opened the door to his office to see the four blackboards on the walls covered in obtuse mathematical equations. A decade later, after most of Philadelphia’s steel industry had relocated to the Midwest, my father started the mint. He rebuilt the outdated machinery he purchased, and was so renowned for his ability that a mint in China flew him first class to Guangdong Province to rebuild a machine that its owners bought for scrap.

Now that a second Pope is coming to Philadelphia, I wonder how many people will be scheming about ways to make money from his visit. Popedelphia is an online website for local residents to list their properties. “Find a rental. Rent your home,” this website promises. To place an ad, a homeowner simply describes their property in 750 words and attaches a picture. It’s AirBnB on steroids. A site called Market Watch instructs people to “turn your home into a cash machine,” inviting owners to “neutralize any religious iconography in your home…Put away the Menorah on your shelf or statue of Buddha. If there’s a copy of the Quran lying around, you should probably put that way [sic], too.”

Lured by similar sites, I tried listing my property for the scores of wealthy golf enthusiasts who flooded the city’s western suburbs during the 2014 U.S. Open. Yet those sites asked for money up front: $600.

Other ways of making money involve selling food or drinks on the Parkway. When my nephew told me that his father, who is a dry goods distributor, asked him to help sell waters and soda, I felt the gap in years shrink. It was then I began to consider the real reason why my father asked me to humble myself selling coins the day Pope John Paul II visited Philadelphia. Mired in attitude, I did not see it then, but now my understanding is clear: He was hoping to give me some direction in life much the same as he told me he’d pay to send me to Columbia University if I studied journalism instead of poetry. “Are you kidding?” I shouted back at him, then, “You know the only thing I’m interested in writing is poetry.”

He had little faith in poetry’s ability to supply me with food and shelter. Yet years later, when I showed him a poem I’d written about his father, a stamp collector, comparing his father’s obsessive interest in stamps to the lack of attention he showed his family, he wept. The poem was published in the journal New Letters and he still keeps the issue on his coffee table.

More than one retailer has gotten their start from hawking products on street corners. According to the Museum of Family History, Marmelsteins, one of the oldest fabric businesses on South Street, began from a push cart. “By the 1920’s, many of the peddlers and stand keepers had moved up the business ladder into dry good and fabric stores.”

Today, trucks have replaced carts, and businesses ranging from dog bathers to art dealers can be seen driving or parked along downtown streets, food trucks having the biggest visibility. At the noon hour, outside City Hall, customers line up an hour deep for Delicias empanadas.

That day back in 1979 was one of the very few I did what my father asked of me without an argument. I stuffed my Jansport backpack with bags of coins. On the back of the medallion, Olde Philadelphia Mint was stamped. Selling coins from a pirate’s bounty might have been more honest, but fewer people would accept their authenticity without proof. I started selling the coins for five dollars apiece, then reduced them to a dollar. I’m sure that the people who bought them from me display them in a prominent place. •


Harriet Levin Millan's debut novel, How Fast Can You Run, based on the life of "Lost Boy" of Sudan Michael Majok Kuch has been selected as a Charter for Compassion Global Read. She's the author of two books of poetry, and a third to appear in 2018. Among her prizes are the Barnard New Women Poets Prize and the Poetry Society of America's Alice Fay di Castagnola Award. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and directs the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing at Drexel University. Click here for more essays on The Smart Set.