The Sad Grotesquerie of “People of SEPTA”

A "ball busting" website claims a victory. Philly needs better.

Images: People of SEPTA

Guilt. And contempt.

Those are the two feelings that competed for my attention on Tuesday upon finding out the “SEPTA Mom” — she of the viral video, passed out while her daughter begged her to wake up — had lost custody of that daughter, removed from the home by DHS.

Guilt, because of this: Confronted with the same situation, I’m not sure what I’d do. I like to think I would’ve offered the little girl some help upon seeing her distress. But if the mother had woken up, if the two had scurried off the bus, I’d have probably been mostly grateful that the entire situation had passed into the realm of Not My Problem Anymore. Despite the outcry —”why didn’t any adults rush to help this girl?”— we asked at Philly Mag, I knew perfectly well why nobody helped: Short of stopping an act of violence, most of us would probably prefer not to involve ourselves in a stranger’s drama. It’s discomfitting, to say the least.

And contempt, because it meant the execrable “People of SEPTA” Facebook page would get to claim a scalp. Which is unfortunate, because despite this week’s victory — if you can call it that — the site’s purpose appears mainly to ridicule the poor (and poor in spirit). It celebrates grotesquerie, makes mirth of pain, and by glorying so fully in what’s worst about Philadelphia actively becomes one of the worst things about the city.

Not, of course, that the site’s founder or founders see it that way. I messaged them on Facebook Tuesday to see if they’d be willing to chat. They declined — perhaps understandably: I had let them know I am not a fan. (They’ve got plenty: More than 65,000 people had “liked” the page as of Tuesday night.)

“I see you, much like most detractors, aren’t from Philadelphia,” came the reply. “Maybe if you grew up here you would understand. Ball-busting is just part of our charm.”

With due respect: Nah.

“People of SEPTA” is a lot of things: A mix of ass cracks, poor wardrobe choices, passed-out junkies, and a document of the various fluids that can sometimes accumulate in those cloth seats. Anybody who has more than a passing acquaintance with the city’s buses, or the El, or the Broad Street line, has probably encountered these situations. Probably more than once.

There’s nothing wrong with having a laugh at these moments, either. Sometimes, that’s how we survive living in the city.

But “ball busting” implies a certain fraternal roughhousing, and there’s nothing brotherly or lovingly knowing about what is depicted: It’s just a full-chested swan-dive into lowest of Philadelphia’s low places. And it’s not just one of “those things” that simply makes Philly Philly: It’s online predecessor, People of Wal-Mart, proves that country folk like myself are also adept at making fun of the unfortunate.

Both sites punch down. Which is the cheapest way, ever, to earn a laugh. It’s not all that funny. It’s not at all brave. It’s just … gross.

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, though, and this week People of SEPTA managed to do something good: It caused an intervention that hopefully will help keep a little girl safer than she would’ve been otherwise.

Mostly, though, it’s a site that makes you despair. “Why?” you think to yourself. “Why won’t some adult rush and help these poor people?” People of SEPTA doesn’t pretend to care about the answer.

POLL: What do you think?

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.