In the early ’80s I was living in South Philadelphia, two blocks west of the Italian market and two blocks east of one of the most dangerous projects in the city. The neighborhood was tired and dirty, but safe. I had moved there after a crushing breakup of a 10-year relationship and marriage that began in college and had lasted through graduate school, culminating and then collapsing in Philadelphia.

I felt like a broken man. I felt like a failure. I had worked hard and after graduate school had applied for 60 college teaching jobs throughout the nation. I had dreams of a college teaching career, a family, and being a famous New York artist. The year I graduated I had gone through a number of interviews and had been a finalist for a number of jobs, yet received not a single offer.

In the end I received rejection letters always addressed with “Dear Applicant.” They couldn’t even be bothered to put my name on the letter. How dare they address me that way? I had been the 1 percent that had been accepted into very competitive programs and now I couldn’t even get a job offer.

So here I was seemingly with no future in education, no spouse, no future as an artist and working dead end jobs to get by. I felt alone.

One late night at 2 a.m. I woke up to loud noises outside my bedroom window. I got out of bed and looked down onto south 11th street and there on the corner was a group of four boys with a Congo drum pounding out a rhythmic tune. They were all swaying and singing in unison while holding onto a bottle in a brown paper bag. Another smoked a large joint. As they sang, they passed the bottle and the joint. They were rocking out at the neighborhood’s expense.

Thursdays in south Philadelphia were trash days. Early on this spring Thursday morning I climbed down my stairs to the street with one large bag of trash. When I arrived at the street, an elderly man stepped out of the house north of mine. I had never seen this particular man in the neighborhood. He walked up to me after placing his trash on the sidewalk and introduced himself as “Vincent,” my neighbor. He then asked me how old I thought that he was. There was no way I was going to answer that question. He looked positively ancient. He then said he had become the happiest man on earth. He had just fathered his first child at the age of 76. Bewildered, I said congratulations, turned and went back into my home.

Just when I thought my life had no hope. Vincent had changed the course of my thoughts. I thought that if there was hope for him at 76, then I just might possibly have a future at 32. At the end of that summer I packed up and moved to Maine and began a new life.

Charles Thompson is a professor of art at The University of New England. He is a nationally recognized “plein air” landscape painter who has shown his paintings throughout the country.

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