As a youngster, Clay Thomas would hustle every which way to put food on the table for his family. He wanted badly to turn his life around, but felt stuck in a rut until a near-fatal car accident made him realize he wanted to live differently, to go straight. A player on his high school football team, he now has college ambitions, as well as a son on the way that he wants to provide for.
Tragedy, then Transformation
“May 9th , I was in a car accident. It was five of my friends, we was running from the cops … It was in the news. Real, real fast - we was going at least 120 miles per hour down Glenwood [in North Philadelphia]. And then, we saw [another] car. [My friend] turned real hard, and the car start flipping. I broke my pelvis bone. I didn’t think I was gonna walk again, for real.
“As I was growing up I was a trouble child, ‘cause I was in and out - I was selling drugs, and [when] it wasn’t selling drugs it was just robbing people… I was trying to change so bad, and I changed after the car accident.
“Life’s too short … nobody asked to be here. We just popped up, so it’s like, you pop up, what are you going to do with it? So I’mma do whatever I want with it. I’mma make a living out of it. I’mma love my life… My dad ask me, ‘Are you existing, or are you living?’ And before I could answer that, I just really had to think real, real deep about it … I’m living now. ‘Cause I’m doing what I wanna do.”
Guns and Bread
“[As a kid] I hustled … anything I can get my hands on. Just to feed my little brother, my little cousin. There was times I came in the house and the lights was off. That’s when you gotta really realize ... You was gonna watch your little cousin starve, cry, ‘cause his stomach hurt, or you [could] go out and get the money. And that’s what I was doing.
“I got a couple friends that’s gone from [gun violence] … If I tell you an R.I.P. list I’ll be going on for days. A lot of people died that I know. A lot of people that I shook hands with every day … My cousin [for example], he got shot over a dirt bike. It was in the store, and I guess the guy wanted the dirt bike that my cousin wanted. So when he came back, [he] shot him down in the middle of the street
“It used to make me wanna go crazy, make me wanna go get a gun, but I’m like, ‘I’m about to take somebody else’s family member away from them … For what?’ I know [the guy] didn’t mean to do that. He was going off of anger. So why would I stoop down to his level?”
Advice for the Future
“Chase your dreams. Don’t try to be something that you ain’t … If you die, today or tomorrow, there ain’t gonna be no U-Haul truck behind you. Ain’t none of that stuff that you cherishing today gonna go with you ... And that R.I.P. sign where they [put] your face on, that’s gonna start to fade … They gonna throw it away, and you just gonna be another statistic that died in the street.
“I think they need to give people more opportunities … to keep kids off the streets. ‘Cause some of these kids is not really into gun violence … Minor infractions [are enough] for getting locked up. When you get locked up, you come out, ain’t no really no decent jobs out there for you that you can do.”
“I wanna cook, I love to cook… When I was a kid, I used to like [watching] my grandma cook. And [as] she was cooking, I used to help her … and then she fed everybody ... I helped make that.
“Then there’s criminal justice [as a career]. I wanna be a PO [probation] officer or something like that … [Now] I be really doing college stuff. I’m trying to get into college so bad so I can get off the streets ... I’m trying to do something with my life.”
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Interview and Photography by Chelsea Alexander-Taylor | Text by Dia Sotiropoulou