You’re Welcome, America: We Killed hitchBOT

There was only one way this story was going to end. And only one place that could end it properly.

HitchBOT via Facebook

hitchBOT via Facebook

Most weekends I don’t leave South Philly, let alone the East Coast. But I spent the past couple days in Los Angeles, and I have to admit that by Saturday evening I started to entertain the idea of extending my stay.

Because really, California doesn’t seem like such a bad deal. It never snows and it barely rains. There’s a beach to the left and mountains to the right. If you forget your laptop in a coffee shop, it will be waiting for you behind the counter with a glowing barista who smells like sunshine and rainbows. What, I wondered, do I have against happiness? Why do I insist, year after year, on proving that I can survive Philadelphia?

And then you beautiful assholes killed hitchBOT.

I’ve been homesick before, but never in the crystal clear, perfectly realized way that I was when I heard about the untimely demise of that Canadian robot. When I read about how — after traveling peacefully down the East Coast with the help of friendly humans — he was decapitated on the streets of Old City, I almost went to LAX and got the first flight back home.

Because things would have gone down differently in California. If hitchBOT had spent the weekend in Los Angeles, he would have had a perfectly nice time. Strangers would have asked how his day was going. Old friends would have filled him in on the wonders of the West Coast. New friends would have promised to hook him up with their buddies over at Google. Which is great, except that they wouldn’t have saved his number, and when hitchBOT was left to wait for his next ride, he’d have been as alone as ever in this cold dark world.

Maybe I’ve just spent too much time in Philadelphia, but I’d rather get my ass real-kicked in Old City than fake-kissed in Malibu any day of the week.

To be clear, there’s nothing endearing about our city’s more violent, members-only tendencies. When Flyers fans trashed a Montreal reporter’s car during the 2010 NHL playoffs, they embarrassed a town that couldn’t afford it. But this particular Canuck wasn’t a living being. Or even someone’s property, per se. No, hitchBOT was an experiment by two social scientists meant to “initiate discussions about trust, notions of safety, and … our attitude towards technology” — and if you ask me, we answered their questions quite clearly and concisely. Model participants, you might say. There was only one way this cute little exercise in human nature was going to end, and Philadelphia simply cut to the chase. (You’re welcome, Canada! Now stay on your side.)


An unexpectedly short journey.


The rest of the world doesn’t seem to see things this way. They see a disabled robot and a city of savages who threw grenades at the Easter Bunny. It’s easy to dust off and embellish the familiar stories, and I expect that the hitchBOT incident will provide a couple more days of “What is wrong with those people?!” coverage. But when it’s all over, I know our secret: We’re really not that bad. In fact, when shit gets real, we’re pretty great. So great that I left a state where they sell discount wine at the CVS counter like the universe’s most glorious check-out candy.

I’ve never tried to hitch a ride in Philly because it’s 2015 and that’s how horror movies begin. But two winters ago I found myself stuck — really, really stuck — in a snowy parking space after a particularly bad day. It was one of those days that only comes after months of bad decisions, and my wheels were spinning deeper and deeper into the ice trench when a pickup truck stopped in the middle of 45th Street. A man jumped out, grabbed a shovel from the back, dug out my tires and refused money, explaining that he hoped someone would do the same for his wife. I was so stunned that I couldn’t thank him properly, but I still remember that day and that feeling of the city reaching out and holding you up for a minute when you need it most.

If you’re reading, sir, I’m still grateful, and it will be my privilege to fight alongside you when the robot armies invade. Let’s just hope they don’t sneak in across the Washington state border, or we’re all screwed.

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