Bryan Morton: North Camden
By Alex Meier
Start with a full house of kids. Add two cup of laughter and one cup of screams. Stir in some neighbors. Combine a dash of music, a pinch of bingo, and a teaspoon of hospitality.
Bryan Morton’s childhood tasted like a big bowl of his grandmother’s gumbo. His house in North Camden, filled to the brim with six siblings, was always sprinkled with the spicy sounds of music and the distinct accents of his Spanish, white, and Asian neighbors.
Just like each bite of the Cajun dish, every day had a new flavor for Bryan. One minute he and the neighborhood kids would play football in the schoolyard, the next they’d race go-karts in the streets. The fun continued into the evening. As the young’ins freeze tagged, parents crowded the porches of State Street.
The Morton door was opened wide to visitors and at anytime, a part of his extensively extended family could drop by. Despite being poor, Bryan’s grandmother would never let a guest leave her house without a satisfied stomach. Therefore, mastering the art of cooking potluck meals was essential for maintaining affordable hospitality.
Perhaps his grandmother’s Southern roots gave her the spell that charmed her kitchen. She’d grab two onions from the ‘fridge, snatch a potato from a cabinet, and presto! a deliciously pieced-together meal would appear from what seemed like nowhere.
After enjoying one of grandma’s many from-scratch specialties, the family would settle in the living room and play Po-Ke-No, Monopoly, checkers, chess, bingo, whatever! The game didn’t matter, as long as it was the spoon that blended the family together at the end of the night.
Place the city in a colander to drain out the jobs. Cut back the spices.
Take out one ingredient, and your stew could turn sour. As jobs were drained from the city in the ‘80s, they grabbed on to parents’ ankles and dragged them along. Bryan’s mother, along with many other adults in the neighborhood, exchanged their seats on their porches for a late night’s work in Philadelphia. Others found themselves tangled into the drug web in order to put food on the table.
Home, for the kids left behind, was no longer protected by the safety of a community pieced together by parents. Entering his teenaged years, Bryan listened to Camden’s volume turning down.
“The unity, the fun, the laughter—the beautiful sounds were now replaced with silence or siren wails. Gunshots. You could stand in a park for hours, and you wouldn’t hear kids laughing,” Bryan recalled. “When I walk through the park and I don’t hear kids’ laughter, it strikes me as wrong immediately.”
Bland, colorless, stripped of its flavor, the city tasted like rice cakes.
Unless you had drugs to spice it up.
The corner dealers’ bright clothes, flashy jewelry and shiny rims on their cars looked as delectable as a big chunk of rainbow-sprinkled birthday cake. And 13-year-old Bryan, the poor boy with beat-up sneakers, craved a bite.
“Kids are like monkeys. You put a shiny object in front of them, and they lose their mind,” Bryan said. “That’s what the drug trade culture is. We put in front of you a bunch of objects. We overwhelm you visually. And then we come and we talk to you when know other adults aren’t around.”
Initially, the fast high and the even faster money tickled his tastebuds with euphoria, empowerment and release from his rice-caked home. He saw no need for hard work, community—the pieces of a potluck life. He had his blue-icing cool.
When arrested at age 16, he thought he could maintain this attitude. He stood tough and proud as he called home from jail. Yet when he heard his grandmother’s voice pick up on the other line, he broke down, crying like a baby.
You’ll never feel fully nourished living off birthday cake.
Still, the yearning for home could not unstick Bryan from a hot and heavy drug addiction.
Everyday, he woke up with an instinctual urge to chase his high, chase his escape. He followed it down the darkest alleys of Camden, into loneliness, coldness, and eventually homelessness.
By age 18, he became a father. By age 20, he was incarcerated for 10 years for dealing.
Freeze for 10 years.
His new life of handcuffs, plexiglass, and sally ports encased Bryan’s heated spirit and froze it to the bone.
“When you’re surrounded by concrete, glass, steal—everything is cold,” he revealed. “We begin to reflect that inside of our persona. You can’t survive in a place made of ice when you’re walking around with sunshine. You begin to kill your own spark. The light in your eyes is replaced by the glint of steel.”
No longer was he called Son, contributor to a family, Daddy, caretaker of his daughter, or Bryan, manager of responsibilities. Morton 08100999, as the prison guards called him, was a number, unaccountable for the other steel faces of his peers.
The warmth of home—the soft beds, hot meals, hugs, and kisses— felt alien to Bryan. Home was no longer safe: he found comfort in the coldness.
But through it all, ankle chains never shackled the memories of his past.
Strip off the pride, then thaw.
Before his decade in prison, Bryan experienced a moment before his sentencing that marked the beginning of his gradual transformation.
He stood in front of a judge with only a public defender by his side. Awaiting his inevitable fate, Bryan scanned the court and made eye contact with a familiar face. She was rather insignificant, a family friend, but what she mouthed to him from across the room would hold weight on the rest of Bryan’s future.
“Where is your family?”
Where was Bryan’s family? He didn’t know. Family was a piece that did not fit into Mr. Big Shot’s birthday-caked, rainbow-sprinkled drug game. Twenty-year-old Bryan was no longer on speaking terms with his mother or grandmother. Throughout his teenaged years, he’d set their relationships in the far corner of the cabinet, leaving them to rot.
The realization that he was alone killed the person Bryan had become.
”I was finally awakened to the fact that all the potential that I have was meaningless,” he remembered. “Every plan that I had was gone. The people that loved me didn’t care right now.”
So despite the handcuffs, plexiglass, and sally ports, a cold and desensitized Bryan took hold of any opportunity that could lead to self-improvement. He pieced together a new self with simple ingredients: phone calls to home, bits of advice, self-evaluations.
Most importantly, the memory of his gumbo-flavored childhood was the oven that kept Bryan cooking. This was the foundation that turned Bryan Morton into the highly motivated, college-educated community activist and leader that he is today.
Add three cups of laughter, two tablespoons of teamwork and the crack of a baseball bat. Stir in some friendship. Mix well and enjoy.
After returning to North Camden from serving hard time, Bryan looked around the neighborhood and noticed a change. No longer could kids play in the school yards, read at the libraries, work summer jobs, or play for a local baseball team.
Their only spaces were trash-drizzled, weed-filled, needle-infested community parks.
And from his desire to prevent others from creating a recipe for disaster similar to his own, Bryan took initiative. He organized and now coaches for North Camden Little League, an opportunity for the girls and boys of the neighborhood to come together and play ball at Pyne Poynt Park.
“We’re here. We’re on the field. It’s baseball, let’s play,” he said. “Let’s laugh. Let’s pick each other up when we fail. Let’s not laugh at each other’s fallings or misgivings. Let’s wrap our arms around one another.”
Bryan hopes his constant presence as a strong adult figure shows his teams that drug dealers aren’t the only role models, and that hard work his OK. Through their struggles, he hopes that the kids realize the community will always have their backs, always turning down the easy way out.
“Standing for something is what should be expected from each and every one of us. Being supportive of one another, being supportive of the struggles, is a part of life. It’s when we run from these challenges that we become lesser people,” he said.
Just like his grandmother pieced together items from the kitchen to cook a meal, just like she pieced together odd jobs to afford a home, Bryan used baseball to piece together a renewed community for the residents of North Camden.
“That’s the biggest gift my grandmother gave me: how to make potluck meals,” he said. “It’s showing everybody that we all have something we can put in, so the end product is much greater than the sum of our parts.”