All Commentary
Monday, January 1, 1990

A Room with a New View

Reprinted with permission from The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 9, 1989.

Three years ago, architect Peter Fox is fresh out of college and catches a bus for his first day on the job. The bus pulls up to 20th and Chestnut, the door opens, and there’s some guy camped out on the sidewalk like he owns the property.

Next day, same thing. And the next day, and the next.

“I had to step over him every morning,” Fox says.

Fox would continue on to work, where he sat against a window one flight above 20th Street. Sometimes he’d design a new swimming pool for someone who was unhappy with their old swimming pool. And when his work didn’t seem to reflect reality, there was always the window.

Three years later, the man is still out there; Peter Fox is still looking.

They don’t know each other. But Fox has found comfort and inspiration in just looking. And the man—oblivious to his starring role in the drama Fox sees through his window—is comfortable with his own invisibility.

The man outside says he is John Madison, Vietnam veteran.

“Shortly after I started,” Fox wrote in a letter, “a Korean fruit stand opened. At first the street guy would bum them for food and money.”

Agents of Change

It looked like only a matter of time before one of them drove out the other. But that didn’t happen.

“Pretty soon they had him helping unload their truck in the morning when it arrived from the food distribution center.”

This despite a language barrier. On some level, maybe because both Madison and the Koreans were on the edge of things, they made a connection.

“Next he was sweeping the sidewalk, then driving the truck for them, all the time his appearance improving.”

Partly because he was getting paid by the Korean fruit vendors. A couple bucks here, a couple bucks there. What was emerging, gradually, was the new John Madison.

“Better clothes, haircut, apparently now off the street. And the wild look disappearing from his eyes.”

What Fox didn’t know—nobody knew—was that Madison had taken to camping in a quiet alcove near the Boy Scouts of America office several blocks away. Though it was still the street, to him it was a fancier address, fit for a man of his upward mobility.

New Responsibilities

“As the fortunes of the vendors improved, they, along with their relatives, bought several shops on the block, and the street guy became responsible for maintaining all of the shops, as well as the street and sidewalk along the entire block.”

Fox watched as the John Madison Corporation conquered new territory. With a household broom, he had staked out the west side of 20th Street from Market to Chestnut. He had the sidewalk so clean you had to look twice to figure out what was wrong with the picture. He even dug cigarette butts out of cracks.

And he was diversifying.

“He is now holding down two jobs—collecting trash for a private hauler in the early morning and then arriving (usually hanging off the side of the trash truck) to work for the Koreans and other merchants.”

Madison’s abilities did not escape the notice of the management of Nuts to You, one of the few remaining non-Korean businesses on the block. Manny Radbill, the owner, occasionally had Madison clean his van. One time Madison found money in it and immediately gave it to Radbill. Debbie Alexander, Radbill’s manager, remembers the time she handed Madison a Christmas bonus. He refused.

Much out of Little

To John Madison, words and possessions are confusing fragments of a complicated world. His luxury is to need so little.

His only vice, Radbill says, is a beer or two on a warm afternoon, a habit the Koreans do not seem to appreciate. Most of them, however, see in Madison a little bit of themselves. He works hard, says Hyun Jin. What else is there?

There is Peter Fox, watching the whole thing out the window. And there’s Madison, the man he used to step over.

“It has been very inspiring to watch all of this happen. It’s a great reflection of the Korean merchants, refugees themselves, who in establishing themselves and their families in this country have found room in their plan to reach down to someone more displaced than themselves and pull him up with them.”

Madison says he’s off the streets now and rents space in a North Philadelphia house for $3.00 a night. He liked hearing that people have seen the change in him and appreciate what he’s done for the block.

As Madison smiled at the thought, broom in hand, Peter Fox watched through the window.