If You Thought Yesterday Was Weird in Popeadelphia …
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It’s the second day of total weirdness leading up to the Pope’s arrival. I walked around for hours, in and out of the secure perimeter, and here are some things I saw. I venture to say you’ll see them too, so I hope this helps you decide if you should leave your house.
Post-apocalyptic Center City
I’ve always wondered what it would be like in Philadelphia after an apocalypse, and now, because I work in Center City, I think I have a good idea. It’s eerily quiet downtown without any cars moving, and due to Pope Panic (trademark: Mayor Nutter), many streets are largely deserted. Stores are closed or empty (except the Apple store, left, which was packed). Walking down the middle of a carless Market Street felt transgressive and vaguely Mad Max-ish. I kept turning around to see if I was going to get run over, though the only vehicles around for miles were tractors. Which leads me to …
Is this what it would be like if the auto industry collapsed entirely? Construction workers, FBI, Secret Service — they’re all riding around either in John Deere tractors or in golf carts. It’s kind of cute, actually. I feel like we should all be in a Pixar movie.
The busking situation in Philly right now is phenomenal. I saw famed Philly jazz musician Eliot Levin standing next to a thrilling drumming ensemble on 12th and Market. I saw two guitar players singing the blues in harmony around the corner from that. I saw an electric violinist playing “Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Best of all, I saw an elderly man dancing in red pants and a red hat next to a sign that read: “70 YEAR OLD GRANPOPS, OLDEST HIP-HOP DANCER.”
So many people selling event-specific merchandise made especially for this weekend. Pope t-shirts, pope buttons, pope hats — one vendor was even dressed like the pope and was blessing those who had their photo taken with him. The most inventive gambit I saw was a guy asking for a dollar for the homeless and “selling” Al Día’s glossy papal supplement that could be found for free in honor boxes all over the city. Maybe Al Día wants a piece of that action, I don’t know.
A massive religious event of this scale will inevitably attract people whose opinions are on the margins. At the corner of Broad and Chestnut today there was a cluster of men who’d come from all over the country to denounce the Pope. They were taking turns with a microphone, saying things like, “The Pope needs to bow his knee to Jesus Christ!” I asked one of them, a Baltimorean, how Philadelphia was treating them, and he said the reaction had been mostly negative. In fact, he said Philly residents are less open to the Bible generally, especially African-Americans — a fact he attributed to “the Muslim influence.” He said the Pope doesn’t believe in the truth of the Bible, which is all that matters. “Left to his own devices, man is evil,” he said, noting all the mass murders in recent American history. When I said I thought it might have more to do with access to firearms, he said, “I hope you find Christ before it’s too late.”
I’ve gone through two security checks merely to walk down the streets of my own city, both of which involved multiple TSA agents and metal detectors. The first pat-down I got was incredibly intimate: The officer touched my breasts and felt the underwire on my bra, ran her hand across my pelvis, and plunged her fingers into my hair, pulling it from its bun. I was tempted to ask her what she was doing later. At all checks my backpack was completely disengorged and my computer was turned on. Word to the wise: Do not have porn playing on your computer if you plan to enter the secure perimeter.
I so loathe any form of physical exertion, it never occurred to me that people would see long empty streets as an opportunity for athletics. But along Arch Street I saw several people throwing a football around, a group playing volleyball, even two priests playing frisbee. A reporter covering the event for live broadcast TV had someone throw a football to her so she could catch it on camera. And outside of the Hard Rock Cafe, police officers were dancing to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I think for many Philadelphia cops, that much movement would be counted as athletics.
I spend a lot of time on the Parkway. I visit the Art Museum and the Fairmount Waterworks; I drive to and from Mount Airy, where I live; I go back to my high school, at 17th and the Parkway, for alumni events. Today I walked along the Parkway and hardly recognized it — I’ve seen plenty of large-scale events along its length, but nothing like this. Again, the stillness of the road without cars was palpable, but there was also a lack of human beings. I walked for at least five blocks without seeing another person. Of course, all the homeless people have been removed, but it was so solitary because it turned out I had been let into a place I wasn’t supposed to be. I threaded through a network of barriers and fences, passing empty trashcans that have been strategically and conveniently placed, and reached what looked like the site of a college commencement ceremony: hundreds of white chairs on platforms in front of a large stage. Slowly, other media people began to materialize to wait for a chartered bus to the Convention Center, and one of them noticed a rainbow above the stage. She started jumping up and down with joy, while another reporter suggested it was divine influence. Soon there were several jaded media folks looking up with wonder at the rainbow in the sky. All around us, silence. It was a kind of a precious moment.
Speaking of those media buses, they were accompanied by police motorcades, which meant that anyone lining the streets today assumed the shlumpy reporters dozing off on the bus were important people connected to the Pope. They were all taking photos and waving at us as we sped through the city. One reporter said, “They’re going to be really disappointed when we get off the bus.” For sure.
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