10 Things You’ll Only See in Popeadelphia

These are strange times we're living in.

view from art museum steps

From whichever vantage point, the city sure does look different these days. | Photo by Bradley Maule

I overheard two women talking on the train last week. One said, “Hey, did you hear the pope is coming?” and laughed. The other one, with a verbal eye-roll, said, “I hate that joke.” We’ve all heard, of course, that the pope is coming, but at the time those women had that exchange, downtown Philadelphia showed few signs that a massive event was going to take place. Oh, sure, a barricade there or a scaffold there, but life went on pretty much as always. Now, however, with one day left before his Holiness’ arrival, things are definitely different — and getting weird. Below, some of the odd moments that reveal just how off-kilter things really are.

1. Divided city

If you take a walk on the blocks around the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where the World Meeting of Families is taking place, you’ll see happily crowded streets and hear a number of different languages spoken by “pilgrims” wearing official WMOF clear plastic backpacks. But once you’re west of Broad and farther south, Center City feels like a ghost town: There’s little traffic (some streets are already closed off), fewer pedestrians, and stores are uncommonly empty. Retailers are already complaining about the dearth of business today, though Mayor Nutter cautioned earlier at a press conference that we can’t know what it’ll really be like for merchants until the pope actually gets here.

2. SWAT team selfies

There are SWAT team officers all over the city right now, gussied up in so much black armor and militaristic hoo-ha, you’d think they were all about to charge into a Dog Day Afternoon hostage situation. Actually, for now, they’re mostly just standing around, which this morning allowed a little girl to get an unusual tourist photo: her tiny self surrounded by Philly SWAT guys. After the photo was taken, she dashed into a waiting car and the SWAT team members walked away chortling with satisfaction and no small degree of wonder. This has got to be the most exciting week for them in a long while.

3. Curious juxtapositions

They’re everywhere. At the Basilica this morning there was a teenager in a DeMarco Murray Eagles jersey kneeling at an altar, a young Asian guy, maybe 19, wearing lots of rainbow pins, and his companion who was wearing a T-shirt that said, “I’M ONLY HERE FOR THE CHEESESTEAKS.” Then there was this man:

praying man

Photo by Bradley Maule

4. Unexpected obstacles


This guy was not expecting to see this fence on the Schuylkill River Trail today. | Photo by Bradley Maule

Everywhere you walk or bike there are pylons and Jersey barriers and sections of fence that you never saw before and scaffolding and even objects that you can’t identify but you know are related to keeping people out, or keeping people in, or telling people where to go, or keeping people safe. At the Art Museum there are three different types of Pope fence, including one that looks like it’s made from red chicken-wire and a heavy-duty steel fence that’s more like a wall. I used to be able to read a book while I walked in Philly; that’s how familiar I am with the city’s streets. I don’t advise that — or looking at your phone — right now.

5. Bagpipers

bagpipers2The last time I saw bagpipers out and about in Philadelphia was at a bookstore reading for Murdered By Mumia by Michael Smerconish, a book that was enthusiastically supported by law enforcement. Prior to that, I saw bagpipers at a friend’s wedding. Today, I’m just walking down the street and there they are, red-faced and hearty, bringing the sounds of Scotland to our sunny sidewalks. Why? Because it’s Popeadelphia, that’s why.

6. Bottled water


Wrapped Wawa water bottles. | Photo by Bradley Maule

It’s omnipresent, despite Philadelphia having an excellent water utility and high-quality water available from our taps. Has anyone thought about the environment at all?

7. Catering to the media

media room

The vast, endlessly spacious media room at the Convention Center. | Photo by Liz Spikol

Normally, being a journalist doesn’t afford one much special treatment. It’s not like being something heroic, like a firefighter or an astronaut. But at the Convention Center the media (which at the moment seems to number maybe 200) has its very own hall, a vast space with rows and rows of tables and outlets perfect for laptop working and phone charging. The same hall has a comfortable seating area with big-screen TVs, a booth with on-the-spot experts, concessions from Termini Bros and Chickie’s and Pete’s, and helpful attendants to offer free tickets to places like the Zoo. There’s a lot of room in there, fellow reporters. Make use of it.

8. Conservative activists

Philadelphia is not exactly Ground Zero for conservative politics, so I almost felt sorry for the cadre of young boys standing with clipboards outside of the Convention Center. They were trying to get passersby to sign a pledge of some kind in support of traditional marriage, i.e., between a man and a woman. One lady laughed when approached by a Clipboard Catholic and pointed to the woman she was with: “That’s my wife, right there.” Oops. When asked, I told one of them that I support marriage of every kind. “Even between a man and a dog?” he asked, incredulous. These kids are going to have a rough few days in Philly.

9. The rows and rows and rows of porta-potties


Look at all those potties! | Photo by Bradley Maule

Note to city: How about we keep some of these after the Pope leaves so the Mummers don’t have to piss in the street? Less street urine and fewer unexpected penis sightings is always desirable.

10. Foreign people

We get tourists, sure, but I’ve never heard so many different languages spoken as people walk down the street. I recommend turning it into a game in which you try to guess who’s local and who’s not before you hear what language they’re speaking. Example: Woman with an exposed muffin top, holding a bag of candy corns, and smoking outside of an office building? Local. Woman dressed in all black striding confidently down the street arm in arm with another tall and stylish woman with phenomenally long hair? Foreign.

Follow @lspikol on Twitter.