I was walking my bike up the South Street sidewalk a few days ago, red-faced and sweaty, when a man with a British accent and a bald head asked me if there were any bars in the direction I had come from. Yes, there are lots, I told him, a little creeped out by how close he’d gotten to me just to ask the question.
“Oh, are there?” he drawled, putting his hand on mine.
“Yup, just keep walkin’,” I said, pushing my bike past him and adding, “Like I’m going to do.”
This is one part of city life I could do without.
Having spent most of my life in either suburban or pastoral bliss, I’ve always found myself intimidated by cities. I assumed I would get lost or mugged the moment I left the safety of my car or apartment — cities were dirty, labyrinthine places where bad things happened.
The first time I came to Philadelphia on my own, one night last January, I parked my car in a garage and balked when the attendant reminded me to leave my key. Leave my key? I panicked a little. They’d steal my car! Or they’d go through my extensive collection of mix tapes! Surely Philly parking garage employees spend a good portion of their working hours combing through the junk people left in their cars.
The fourth time I came to Philadelphia, I was still clueless, but this time I came with a friend who knew her way around the city. She drove recklessly and honked at pedestrians and could parallel park so smoothly that had she been a man, I would have been totally turned on. I followed her sure steps around the streets of Center City, amazed at her sense of direction. She was showing me around her favorite haunts, because in a few weeks I would be moving to the city for a summer internship, and I wanted to have at least an elementary grasp on my future environment.
Slowly, my own sense of direction began to develop; my brain accepted a new map and I began to recognize the neighborhood. Philadelphia is a pretty user-friendly city, I discovered. The numbered streets run north and south and most of the other streets run east and west, so if someone told me to meet them at 19th and Spruce, from where I lived I just had to travel four blocks. I did get lost once, in my car on my way out of the city at 10:30 at night. I spent an hour trying to find the highway, fretting the entire time that I was doomed never to leave Philly ever again.
As the summer progressed, however, I learned how to get in, around, and out of the city. I learned that homeless people really do dig through the garbage, that the streets aren’t actually all that dirty or dangerous, and that most of the people I pass on the sidewalk are just doing the same thing I am: living their lives in the city.
After just a week of living alone and spending my evenings with my Comcast Cablevision, I was ready to wander the streets in search of some human-to-human connection. Instead, I ran into a neighbor in the entry hall of the building. His name was Matt. His blond hair looked well-slept-on, and he had a perpetual half-smile accompanying an unwavering yet empty gaze.
He invited me to his porch for a beer, where we chatted about his cat, about the fact that Matt’s appearance didn’t match his 36 years, and about the huge weed I had mistaken for a tree towering over my creaky leisure chair. That was the only time we hung out, though we did run into each other far from the apartment in late August. His gaze was still unwavering and vacant.
This is the kind of city where you cross paths with people you know.
And this is the kind of city where people you’ve just met spill their romantic issues to you in a single stream of consciousness. Mark, the tallest, most awkward man on earth, befriended a couple of my extra-outgoing college classmates at a theater event and followed us to the post-show happy hour, where he proceeded to stand creepily by the door. As I passed by him on my way out and said, “Bye, it was nice to meet you,” he stopped me and said that he liked living in the city, but that his love life could be better.
I nodded and agreed and said goodbye again, which he took as a sign to stare off into space and talk about how girls never give guys they don’t know a chance, how you can’t get to know someone unless you go out with them, but the girls are always telling their friends, “Don’t go out with him, you don’t know him!”
As I stood there, unwillingly captive to his strangely belligerent rant, I resisted the urge to blurt “It’s cause you’re fuckin’ weird, dude!” as the explanation for his romantic troubles. But who am I to deconstruct someone I’ve only just met?
People like Mark may enrich the fabric of summer social interaction, but it’s the people you come across for just moments that really make up the story of where you live.
As my friend Rob and I were making our way up South Street back to my apartment, we passed a man with dreadlocks grooving to reggae on the street. “Come dance with me!” he said.
“No thanks,” Rob and I replied, not looking at him.
“Aw, I was just tryin’ to get you guys to be happy!”
“He makes a convincing argument, Jill. Let’s go back,” Rob said. We giggled and kept walking.
Much later in the summer, I was sitting on a bench in Rittenhouse Park, enjoying the sunshine and early September breeze, avoiding eye contact with anyone but still keeping a soft focus on the people moving around me.
A homeless man loaded down with plastic bags shuffled over to me and asked if he could share my bench. I nodded and scooted far over to one side. He seemed harmless enough.
“I have cake,” he told me once he was settled. “Would you like some cake? I have three kinds.”
I politely declined. He offered again, explaining that the cake was fresh last night from the Rittenhouse Hotel’s garbage. When I said no thanks again, he offered to teach me to speed read.
In the park another day, I was learning lines for a play by muttering them out loud; my conversation with myself drew a passerby over to comment that I was too young to be talking to myself. When I smiled in response, he took that as a signal to stop and chat. He had a short ponytail that swung off the back of his head, and said he started talking to himself too when he was my age.
He asked me what I was learning lines for, how I liked the Philly theater scene, where I’d gone to school. I told him honest answers for all the questions, but after he left, I found myself wishing that I’d made up some dramatic storyline for myself instead of telling the plain-jane truth. You can do that sort of thing in the city.
The Bottom Line
This isn’t my home. I’m still a wide-eyed, introspective college graduate with an uncertain future. I feel uncomfortable when I’m in an elevator with women wearing thick perfume and Prada. But I’ve spent a summer watching the other people, noticing the couple reclining on the benches in the park after sundown, dodging the shady young men asking for change outside of Wawa, wondering about the stories behind the people I pass on the street.
Where else have they lived? How did they get to where they are? Have they had their hearts broken? It helps me stop thinking about my own fate for a little while.
This is the kind of place where you don’t find out the stories of most of the nameless faces. This is the kind of place where, if you want to, you can blend right in and become one of the masses just crossing at a stoplight on your lunch break.
This is the kind of place where you don’t question the fact that a police car is sitting under an overpass beside railroad tracks (is he going to chase down an errant train?), where a potato-shaped woman walks down the street screaming intermittently, where an intensely overweight and pockmarked lady sits on a milk crate on the corner of 18th and Walnut and plays the Flintstones theme song on a cheap plastic recorder. This is the kind of place where Rastafarian men ask you to dance on the sidewalk, where homeless men offer you cake, and where you see gardens on rooftops.
This is the city, and it’s not so scary after all.