The Bard of the Broad Street Line

Posted: August 16, 2013

NEAL McLAURIN remembers taking the 33 bus to the movies as a kid with his parents and seeing a man living on the street, thick with layers of clothing. He couldn't understand it.

Less than two decades later, he understood all too well.

McLaurin was in his 20s and homeless, sleeping at Broad and Arch streets in 2007, when a mother and her child walked by.

The way the little boy looked at McLaurin is the way he had looked at the homeless man as a kid. The way the mother grabbed her son is the way his mother had grabbed him.

"So, I was that man that I'd seen all those years ago and it hit me," McLaurin said. "The way she grabbed that little child, it was like, 'I'm that guy.' "

A man of many parts

McLaurin is 34 now, and in that time he has played many parts, just as Shakespeare said men do.

He's been the dutiful son, the tortured soul, the bum, the drunk, the mourning lover, the salesman, the actor, the writer and the student.

He went from a loving family to being homeless. He went from being homeless to selling the city's homeless newspaper, One Step Away. And, he went from selling and writing for One Step Away to becoming a theater major in college.

McLaurin used the money he made from One Step Away to take acting lessons. Those acting lessons - where he learned to recite Shakespeare - helped him become One Step Away's top-selling vendor.

"My name is Neal McLaurin. I'm a representative of One Step Away. A dollar donation is greatly appreciated," is how he begins his pitch. "I'm a theater major in college. I also give out Shakespearean monologues for a dollar, so if you give me a dollar, I will give you Shakespeare."

McLaurin is also a writer. He's one of five people nominated this year for an International Street Paper Award in the vendor-essay category for his story "Things Can Change," about his battle with homelessness.

Raised at 22nd and Lehigh in North Philly, McLaurin said he felt as if he never fit in anywhere. The suit his parents had him wear growing up - they were Jehovah's Witnesses - made him stick out among the guys who wore baggy pants and chains.

He got picked on. He got into a lot of fights. McLaurin said that because of his dyslexia and the fights, he was placed in special-education classes. After graduation from Simon Gratz High School, his family moved to Olney, where McLaurin said he fit in even less.

He grew up to be a strong, strikingly handsome muscular man of 5 feet 10 with a bald head, booming voice and 205-pound frame.

"Because I'm black and I came into a neighborhood that wasn't statistically filled with a lot of black kids, I got harassed by the cops a lot," he said.

McLaurin said he was stopped 17 times by police officers who thought he could be a suspect. However, his criminal record shows just one incident - a 1999 robbery case, which was dismissed.

The brushes with police made him feel like a suspect in his own body. The way people interacted with him - always nervous and cautious - made him feel like a stranger in the world.

"I am a suspect, automatically," he said. "People are always on guard with me, so being an African-American male I'm not allowed to be who I am. I always have to be in a certain manner, even with other African-American men."

McLaurin said that because of the way he looks - brown-skinned, muscular and bald-headed - many white people automatically assume he's been in jail or he's going to rob them.

"They just automatically have a bias toward me," he said. "If you're a strong black man, that's not allowed."

Around other black men, however, he has to put on the bravado, something he said he learned from growing up in North Philly the eldest of four children.

"It's like a protection mechanism that you put on for yourself to survive where I come from," he said. "I'm not allowed to skip down the street.

"I'm never allowed to be Neal," he said.

'I felt death'

McLaurin trained to be a machinist for a time, but when that didn't work out, he landed a job at a Dunkin' Donuts and then at the Lawncrest Recreation Center.

It was around age 19 that McLaurin began drinking and smoking weed.

His drink of choice was cheap beer, and at the height of his addiction, he was drinking five 40-ounce beers a day and smoking pot.

McLaurin said he had two nervous breakdowns, one of which was brought on when his girlfriend became pregnant with his child and both she and the baby died of medical complications. The other happened when two men threatened to shoot him because he'd elbowed their cousin during a basketball game.

"By then, my addiction had already spiraled to an outrageous extent," he said. "I was dying; I felt death."

McLaurin bought a bus ticket to stay with his brother in Jacksonville, Fla., but his problems followed him south. He stayed only a month before taking another bus back to Philadelphia.

When he got off the bus in Philly in summer 2007, nobody would take him in. He went back to his old neighborhood and just sat by a pool thinking, "What the f--- is going on?"

"I called 9-1-1 and said, 'I feel the end is near.' "

McLaurin underwent a psychiatric evaluation and hoped he'd be placed in a rehab for his alcohol addiction. He was - for a month - and then he was back on the street.

"I had my briefcase and I was walking around the streets of Southwest Philadelphia," McLaurin said. "I remember going to a basketball court and sitting there and I was like, 'How did I get here? What the heck did I do?'

"I didn't have no strings in my shoes."

For days, McLaurin wandered around Philadelphia, before heading to the corner of Broad and Arch streets. He didn't know about homeless shelters until an old man told him there was one just up the street.

It was in the city's shelters that McLaurin was inspired by television programs about black actors like Charles Dutton, Forest Whitaker and James Earl Jones, men who'd faced adversity to reach success.

"These guys overcame great obstacles and they were minorities from the inner city," McLaurin said. "They reminded me of myself; I felt I was related to these guys, and I felt like I could be an actor."

After several months, McLaurin's father realized just how his son was living and helped him rent a room.

"I stayed on the streets for four months, but it felt like it was a lifetime," McLaurin said, crying.

A legit jawn


Once he was back on his feet, McLaurin went to Freedom Theatre on North Broad Street, a place he remembered from his childhood, to take acting lessons.

He spent summer 2010 handing out fliers at 15th and Chestnut streets for the Philadelphia Vision Center.

"I loved it because I never knew there was so many beautiful women in Philadelphia," he said.

But, at the end of the summer the job came to an end. McLaurin remembers talking with an "old head" who sold One Step Away, the homeless paper.

"I said, 'I don't know about that, man,' " McLaurin said. "It didn't seem legit; it didn't seem like I could make no money off that jawn."

But that jawn was legit. The nonprofit Resources for Human Development began production of the monthly newspaper - which is written and sold by homeless people - in January 2010, said Kevin Roberts, RHD's communication director and editor of One Step Away.

"We know sometimes people will buy it out of charity, but we hope they read it, too," Roberts said. "If you just have a chance to put it in people's hands . . . you can change people's minds and break down the stereotypes of homelessness."

Vendors get their first 20 papers for free and sell them for $1 each. After that, vendors pay 25 cents per paper, sell them for $1 and keep the 75-cent profit. Writers do not get paid for their work.

Vendors pick up the papers from One Step Away director Emily Taylor, who hands them out at Arch Street United Methodist Church.

"You have to have really thick skin when you're beaten down already, and you have to go out there day in and day out and pick up those papers," she said. "A lot of vendors take pride in the fact that they do this and make their own money and can buy their own food and clothes."

Top seller

McLaurin first tried hawking the paper on 13th Street, but what really helped him was when the Occupy Philly movement descended on City Hall.

"People would ask me if this was the Occupy paper, and I was like, 'Yeah, this is the Occupy paper,' " McLaurin said with a smirk.

McLaurin used the money he made from selling One Step Away to enroll as a theater major at Community College of Philadelphia, which he still attends. He hopes to attend Temple University or the University of the Arts one day, but he said his dyslexia and his age make it hard for him to fit in.

"It's just like, being in a classroom with them kids and stuff, it's intimidating because they so fast," he said.

But, back on the streets, selling papers, nothing could intimidate McLaurin. He knew, from One Step Away's orientation process, that he wasn't supposed to sell on the subway. But he thought if he could just get a captive audience, maybe he could reach people.

So, McLaurin would go on the subway, break into his pitch and then burst into a monologue from Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice." It's an incredible transformation McLaurin makes from North Philly guy to Shakespearean gentleman, from timid to assured and from soft-spoken to grandiose. He's the Neal McLaurin he feels he usually can't be - powerful and charismatic.

"Everybody started giving me dollars and stuff, and I just took off," McLaurin said. "Sometimes I would make $130 a day."

McLaurin rode the subways all over the city and became known by college kids and senior citizens alike, he said.

"One time a young guy was like, 'Old head, come here for a minute.' I was thinking he was going to try to rob me or something," McLaurin said. "He was like, 'Yo, they talk about you up at CFCF [Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility]. They said about some old head who be on the subway who do Shakespeare with a bald head!'

"He said, 'Keep it up,' and he gave me a dollar."

People began to ask McLaurin about his own story, so he decided to write it. His dyslexia tried to stop him. He fought back.

"I had to tell myself, 'Neal, keep going and write it the way you feel it, don't simplify because you don't know the words or you don't know how to put the words in a proper sentence,' " he said.

In just three hours, McLaurin was able to pen his first piece, for which he was nominated for the award last month. Roberts submitted the essay on McLaurin's behalf.

"You're constantly seeing people lay themselves bare on those pages. They take great risks to tell their stories," Roberts said. "Neal is amazingly honest. That's a part of his life he's not afraid to own and confront."

Once McLaurin began writing for the paper, he was able to go out with an even more refined pitch.

"I could go on the subway and say, 'I'm a writer for One Step Away.' People would ask me, 'Well, where's your story?' and I could point it out," he said. "My sales was up so high because I was selling the paper and writing for it."

So high, in fact, he became One Step Away's top seller, earning him the honor of throwing out a first pitch at a Phillies game.

His father, Neal McLaurin Sr., is proud.

"He has an exceptional desire to move ahead and achieve," McLaurin Sr. said of his son. "He's done this on his own and with his own heart."

McLaurin plans to return to school in the fall and earns money through personal training, selling bottled water on the street and sometimes One Step Away.

"I have a fear of success - it's self-sabotage," McLaurin said. "I still struggle with it to this day.

"I don't really have a consistent job or, you know, things," he said. "I just have to keep going, you know, and keep putting forth the effort and developing yourself.

"I can't allow myself to be defeated."

On Twitter: @FarFarrAway



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