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Someone I follow on Instagram posted a photo of a beach and palm trees and ocean with the hashtag #notinphilly. Normally when I see posts from such climes, I feel like punching my own face with frustration. Why am I not also on a Caribbean beach drinking whatever sweet alcohol that person is surely drinking? Why am I, instead, smothered in sweat on the platform of Suburban Station, checking my phone while someone with 40 plastic bags overflows onto my lap?
But today I looked at that Instagram photo and felt like I was the lucky one. This weekend I’m uncommonly glad to be right where I am, in the City of Brotherly Love. Why? For one thing, I can really feel the brotherly love right now. For another, the city is the absolute best version of itself today. Here’s how.
1. It’s quiet
I sat on the steps of the Academy of Music today for a few minutes on my way down Broad Street, and I was stunned by what I heard — all the sounds of the city that are normally obscured by traffic. I heard the tap-tap-tap of an old man’s wooden cane against the sidewalk. I heard the soft thwack of rubber on concrete as he climbed the steps in his sneakers. I heard the jangle of shopping cart wheels, the snap of flags in the wind, even the rustle of leaves when a breeze passed through the trees around me. So this is what the city sounds like without cars, I thought. Such a different soundtrack.
When I lived in Austin, Texas, I was a member of an organization called Bikes Not Bombs. We sent bikes to Nicaragua and other needy places, and I spent many hours in our stuffy, non-air conditioned shack dismantling donated bikes and building new ones. I had a bumper sticker that read, “MY OTHER CAR IS A BIKE.” In other words, I was one of those annoying people who preaches the bicycling gospel even when no one asks. But I no longer ride a bike; I’ve known too many people who’ve been in terrible accidents. When I ride in traffic, I just feel nervous and vulnerable. This weekend, the city has become what my colleague Holly Otterbein called “an urbanist utopia.” I can’t believe how many people are riding bikes through the streets, even putting aside the PopeRide. Many of them, I notice, are on Indego bikes — gotta give Mayor Nutter major props for facilitating that service. The absence of traffic has made the pace of life on the streets move more slowly. There’s none of the undercurrent of anger and tension that you see when bikes and cars are on the road at the same time. It’s the first time I’ve wanted to ride a bike in Philly in a long while.
3. It’s friendly
I don’t know what’s going on. What did PWD put into the water supply this week? People are smiling at each other, saying hello, even laughing together at nothing. I’ve never seen so many smiles between humans in Philadelphia. I’ve taken photos of the National Guard, of tourists, of nuns, of vendors, of homeless folks, of police officers, of street preachers, of anyone who’s alive and walking. Not a single one of them has done anything other than wave or chuckle indulgently. It almost makes me want to ask people if they’re high, but I’m trying not to be cynical.
4. Cooperation with authority figures
And what’s happened to our cops? They’re smiling too! I mean, not as much as other people, but they are being uncommonly genial. I saw a somewhat disheveled vendor with buttons ask a couple members of some law enforcement agency or another (PPD? FBI? TSA? HSA? A different acronym?) about transportation options along Broad Street. They were so helpful and delightful to the guy, who I suspect, in normal times, would get a citation for trying to sell unlicensed items at the wrong place. And the very fact that the vendor approached law enforcement to get help — obviously feeling no distrust — struck me as incredibly positive.
5. Free food
In an earlier post, I mentioned that journalists love free food. Confession: I am one of those journalists. Today an EMT offered me apples and peanut butter in Rittenhouse Square. I was so confused, I asked how much they were. But he wasn’t selling them — he was just giving them away. He told me there was more free food at the medical tent. On Walnut Street I saw a couple of people standing outside of restaurants with samples, as though they were working the food court at Liberty Place. And then there was another person offering free pizza to people on Broad Street. I’ll say this: all the generosity is very filling.
6. Ambient music
In addition to the buskers I mentioned before, there are groups of people singing in random clusters throughout the city. Sometimes they have guitars and drums; sometimes it’s a capella. I appreciate this melodic urban accompaniment even though the songs are Christian and I’m a heathen Jew. It’s a lovely thing to encounter music as you walk along.
7. Openness to reporters
Generally speaking, telling someone I’m a reporter does not garner smiles and high-fives. Often I hear about how evil the media is, how I’m part of the problem, and how the publication I work for, in particular, is shit (though not more so than any other, I’m told). For a person with social anxiety, this makes approaching strangers and asking questions — i.e., reporting — harrowing. But this weekend it’s all sunshine and light about the media. In fact, I’ve had several people approach me to ask if I’d help tell their story. Can things just stay this way? It would make my life a lot easier.
8. Ease of driving
I know I was just praising all the bicyclists, but the reality is that cars still do exist. I even own one. And though you wouldn’t think it, driving in the city and in surrounding areas is easier than ever right now. I took the most pleasant cab ride of my life. Need more proof? Check this out.
Local retailers are really going all out with their store windows and outdoor signage. Many of the signs have comical messages that make me feel like we’re all in on a giant joke. Others provide helpful information that I guess normally seems irrelevant (cash only, public restroom, etc.). Some of the pilgrims are even carrying signs with their nationality.
10. It’s still Philly
Despite all the unusual sights and sounds, I feel very much at home. I ate breakfast at Little Pete’s and it was packed as usual; my omelette was not served with any distinguishable papal reverence. At Rittenhouse Square I saw children climbing on the lion statue, folks sleeping on the fountain, a guy meditating on a stone wall, women strolling with Walnut Street shopping bags — in other words, just another weekend day in the park. A Broad Street pawn shop I went into was playing a song with the lyrics “He love this fat ass.” That reassured me somehow. After all, I had just chased a pack of smiling nuns down the street to get their photo. I needed a reality check.
Follow @lspikol on Twitter.
Previously: 10 Things You’ll Only See in Popeadelphia