N O R T H P H I L A D E L P H I A
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 and 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? … I’mma make a living out of it. I’mma love my life … My dad asks 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?”
“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 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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December 2015 | Interview and Portraits by Chelsea Alexander-Taylor | Text by Dionysia Sotiropoulou