The Artist: Tom Schilk

Tom Schilk Headshot

Tom Schilk was born and raised in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. Tom has many interests including art and writing. His work has been exhibited at many venues including The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Barnes Foundation, The Theater of The Living Arts, and various Universities. His essays have been included in the curriculum of West Chester University, Villanova University, University Of Penn, and Princeton University. For the time being, Tom lives and works at SCI-Phoenix. 

This is an ongoing story that will be told episodically. Scroll down to listen to a playlist Tom created to accompany this piece. 


Lockdown, 2023
Lockdown, 2023


It was summer and outside my window I could hear pigeons cooing on the wire. Across from our little row house, the looms of Devon Mills were whooshing and clacking, and nearby I could hear the happy shrieks of children playing in the streets. I hurried to join them.

In the of summer of 1969, I was almost ten and enjoying the recent departure of my father. While it was good that he left, my mother would now struggle to take care of the five of her seven kids still at home. A waitress/barmaid she did whatever was needed to keep a roof over our heads and food in our bellies. Around that time, I started to realize that we didn't have much money.

My brother Joey was eighteen months older than me, and we spent a lot of time together. Scrambling for money, we tried everything from washing cars to selling newspapers. We would check the coin returns from every phone booth, pack people’s bags at Penn Fruit and, at the local laundromat, Joey would tilt back the washing machines as I felt around underneath to see if anybody dropped any coins. Finders, keepers!

Back then, Kensington was a hard-knuckled neighborhood full of working class and poor people, though we didn't think of ourselves that way. Bars littered the neighborhood and bakeries were plentiful too. Both got some business from our house. Along with Devon Mills, factories darkened most streets, and the mostly low-paying jobs were enough for people to maintain but not improve their lives. Factories like Caledonia Dye Works, Clover Mills, Jo-Mar and countless others swallowed up my neighbors at daybreak and spit them back out at night. Even as a kid, I knew I didn't want to wind up like that. There were many environmentally hazardous plants in the neighborhood too. We lived on Westmoreland street and the same street held the foully belching Senn Chemical and Masland Duraleather with its 55 gallon drums of toxic chemicals unsecured out front.

Back at home, I laced up my dirty sneakers and ran towards the door.

Ephemera, 2023
Ephemera, 2023


Some wanted to know why it was good that my father left. Here's my sort of answer. Before my father left, I remember how he would sit on the couch every night to watch TV and drink his beer. He especially liked to watch movies about war. The right end of the couch was his and no one else was allowed to sit there. Next to him was an end table with a lamp, placed toward the back, which sat on a small round lace doily. On the front of the table there was a small, square, clear glass ashtray that also was his. I remember that the ashtray started clean every night then filled up with crinkled Pall-Mall butts as the night wore on. Closest to his hand was his beer glass, which looked like it was made from the same glass as his ashtray. His beer glass sat on a round cork coaster that he replaced every night. The coasters were advertisements for Piels, Blue Ribbon, Ortliebs, or some other beer. My father drank Ballentine’s. He got the coasters for free from one of the many local tappies that crowded our neighborhood. 

Most nights, my brother Joey and me would lie on our thin carpet, in front of our father, and watch TV. Not that we always wanted to. I remember that all the lamps would be turned off and the scenes on our black-and-white TV flashed through the living-room like blue lightning. We weren’t allowed to make any noise, so we lay frozen as the bombs dropped and the bullets whizzed by. Some nights, he would say, “Here, you want some beer?” and I would take the clear glass with both hands and drink a little of the warm, sour liquid. Joey always drank more than me. Although I can’t remember the first time I took a drink, I remember it tasted like something had gone bad. 

Awhile after my father left—I was ten years old—I remember Joey and I came up with the thirty cents it took to buy us a quart of Ortlieb’s beer on New Years Eve 1969. Even though I drank less than half—Joey drank the most—I got sick and vomited in the alley behind our house. When I was twelve, I drank a whole quart of Bali Hai wine on the loading dock of Masland’s Dura-Leather right around the corner from our house. It was as fruity pink syrup that cost a dollar and was worth just about that much. I remember laying flat on my back and experiencing my first case of the spins. I vomited so much and made all kinds of promises to God that I wouldn’t keep. I remember, throughout my teens, Joey, me, and our friends would put our nickels and dimes together to buy cheap wine. Boone’s Farm Apple was a favorite because it only cost ninety-four cents a quart. 

When I was sixteen, at a Christmas party over the McMenniman’s house, I drank almost a fifth of Seagram’s lime vodka and I remember holding my new leather coat away from my body as I vomited on the pavement. I remember the molten heat that filled my chest after downing shots of Ron Rico 151 at Michael DeComa’s house and all the nasty hotdogs that I ate afterward. 

In my early twenties, Mary and me would smoke copious amounts of weed and then make all kinds of sugary concoctions in our Waring blender. We’d mix Bacardi Silver with strawberries, pineapple, kiwis or other fruit with crushed ice and always Goya crème de cacao. The best part was licking her sweet sticky lips. 

I remember the darkness as Mary and me drove in the back of a van to Jenkintown with her pretentious friends. I remember the musky taste of the Puna Butter sinsemilla and the crisp, dry, bite of St. Pauli’s Girl that they handed back to us. I remember all the watery bottles of cold Miller’s that I drank while waiting in some diver bar for whoever my connection was at the time. And I remember downing shots in the hushed silence of a bar in Esplanade Boulevard in Metairie Louisiana right before the FBI caught up with me. From my late twenties until I was 35, I remember tasting a lot of vinegary jail-house wine that I would cook up and sell for cop-money. I remember about eighteen years ago, when I made my final gallon of jail-house wine from two pints of sugar, fresh orange juice, one sliced potato and five days’ worth of impatience. It was my last drink and it tasted like something that had gone bad. 

Now I’m fifty-three and still I remember most things. I remember lying in my cell and wanting to die night after night after night. I remember all the trips to the hole. I remember when I first came to prison and how the cell block seemed to go on forever. I remember the crackle of the match against the striker and the smell of sulfur when I cooked up the dope. I remember my body shivering on that cold December night when I found out that Mary was gone forever. I remember my clothes stinking of the stale smoke from all the diver bars that I half lived in then. I remember my Ohaus triple-beam scale and the weed and the baggies and the rush of the hustle. I remember the power I felt when some sweet young thing shook her ass at me while George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” throbbed out of the jukebox in Tellup’s Bar. I remember the taste of Mary’s lips and how her hair looked spilled out on the pillow. I remember being afraid she would fly and the purple bruises on her arms when I held on too tight. I remember the limp Christmas decorations that hung on for way too long the year we lost Joey. I remember the Roger Dean artwork on the cover of the Yes album that I cleaned my weed on. I remember not eating hotdogs for almost ten years. I remember how good I looked in my three-quarter length brown coat. I remember all the promises that I didn’t keep. I remember how the fake fruit taste of Bali Hai was strong enough to cut through the bitter taste of vomit in my mouth. I remember when Ortlieb’s went up to thirty-five cents a quart. I remember finally, really believing that my father wasn’t coming back anymore. I remember the rough feel of the threadbare carpet against my bony knees and elbows as I laid on the floor and how hard it was to stay still. I remember Joe’s eyes looking into mine as I drank the warm flat beer and the crack of the belt. And I remember he yelped as we watched a blue soldier take a round to his chest and the precise curve of his fingers as he clutched his jacket and fell to the ground. 


When I wasn't running the streets, I spent a lot of time alone. Having four sisters and two brothers, mostly all crammed into our little row house, that might seem hard, but most of them were out running too which left space for me. Along with drawing and dreaming, I read a lot which led to more drawing and dreaming. I liked drawing cars and superheroes and hoped to one day drive or fly right the hell out of there. But then, books were my main first.

My eldest sister Sherry and the next eldest Cathy gave me lots of attention which I craved. One way they did that was to read to me, and before long, I learned to read to myself. We had some ragged Dick and Jane books, The Little Engine That Could and stuff like that. More interesting was the small bookcase right by the front door. (There was also a little umbrella stand which usually didn't hold any umbrellas but always had a baseball bat handy. Just in case.) Along with a beat-up Encyclopedia, there was a well-thumbed dictionary, an atlas, a book of saints and, best of all, a book of mythology! Hercules, Poseidon, Jason and The Argonauts and much more. Sure, the comic books mom pinched for me were great but nothing as awesome as Daedalus building wings for his son Icarus. What a dad!

The comics came from Kelly's Corner, a huge supermarket/ramshackle mall that existed in an old trolley barn on Kensington Ave. at, I think, Sargent St. A dumpy and cool place. Not only did mom bring me comics, she encouraged all of us to read and bought us home coloring books and crayons, paint by number kits and, before he got put away, Joey and me both got nice paint sets for Christmas. Mom also brought home special items she knew I liked. In a corner of the old Penn Fruit, at Frankford and Allegheny Aves, there was a shopping cart full of busted up canned goods, some without labels but most just dented up like some drunk's car. All were priced for pennies and mom always checked out the goods there. 

Once mom came home and after unloading packages of meat from her carpetbag purse, she dug deep into one of the fat bags of groceries. After some crinkling and crunching of the brown paper bag, mom pulled out a big can of Campbell's Pork and Beans! Knowing that I thought beans to be probably the finest food in the whole world, she said, "Here, I got these just for you.” In black ink on top of the can, I could just make out that someone had written, "6 ¢". Cradling the can to my chest, like a long lost puppy, I thought, I got the best mom ever!

Along with Sherry, Cathy, Joey and me, my sisters Chrissy, 3 years older than me, and Joanne, 6 years younger, lived in the house too. Although he sometimes crashed on the couch, my brother Russ, about 10 years older, didn't live with us for reasons I didn't understand. Sherry and Russ had a different dad, sure, but Sherry was there and Cathy had a, uh, different, different dad than all of us. And, if you heard my sister Chrissy tell it, Joanne had yet a different, different, different dad but Joanne and me don't believe it. Not that it matters to me. I don't have any half brothers or half sisters, we're all just family, that's all.

Joey started getting put away when he was twelve. Well, if you count various hospital stays, including a long one for rheumatic fever, even before that. Even though I was usually part of his various schemes, Joey was always seen as a bigger problem than me. He showed his hurt more than me, I guess. I remember him sitting alone in the upstairs hallway, rocking and banging the back of his head against the wall over and over. Maybe now, they'd say he was on the spectrum, but back then he was mainly on mom's nerves. Anyway, he got put in reform school or wherever and a hole was torn in my life.

Still, none of what happened to Joey for "being bad" did anything to make me want to be "good" –– far from it.



If you would like to send Tom a note, you can write to him at: 

Smart Communications/PA DOC
Thomas Schilk #AS0255 
SCI Phoenix
PO Box 33028
St Petersburg, Florida 33733