The novelty of working in the city is starting to wear off. This morning, as I walked up from the train, a woman asked me for money. She had a baby in a stroller in front of her who was sleeping, and there seemed to be a man lurking from the far corner. She knew I would say no before I said it—she had already started to nod. I tried to give her my most empathetic look. Whether she was hungry or homeless or just looking for drugs, she was still a person asking me for something that I refused to give. There was still a baby involved. I felt terrible.
At lunch time, when I wander out of the office to eat something or do an errand, people walk too slow. There are all manner of creatures in the city, from the roaches lurking in the corners of the subway to an older woman I see sometimes with peroxide blonde hair and bright red lipstick that can’t seem to find its way onto her lips. At almost every corner, there is the sour-sweet scent of someone’s piss.
Last week, a man stood in the center aisle of the train, covering his face with a piece of cardboard that said “Hungry.” A chill went through me, not just because I didn’t know what to do or how, quite, to help (or whether I should), but because he had done such an odd thing in covering his face for the duration of the train ride. The passengers wouldn’t want to look him in the eye, and he had circumvented that.
No one gave him any money.
Meanwhile, there are women in high heels that look like mini-skyscrapers, a young man who holds his iPad like a delicious treasure and bops to the sounds from his earphones. There are the old people wandering toward Reading Terminal Market, holding out their cigarettes so the smoke wafts into the mouths at passersby. And recently, I’ve started to notice the occasional threat of violence on public transportation (the acronym my husband has developed is TOV). Last week, two men got on who were obviously high and full of too much energy, capable of almost anything. Another man stood and smoked between train cars; any second he could have fallen and been run over by a series of wheels. And when a bus driver didn’t show up for the bus in time, the woman sitting next to me was full of so much fury, I could feel the heat of her thigh long after I’d gotten off at my stop.
Along with the piss and guts is the inspiration, though: the two strangers who start a conversation, the row of bikes that line up like a painting outside the courthouse, the guitar sounds that emanate at lunch hour from Love Park, the smell of cinnamon buns baking. Coffee, sun. The shade under a tree across from my office.
I suspect I will not always have such doe-eyes on my journey into work every day as the weeks turn into months and, hopefully, years. So much of what I see—the uplifting or the sad—depends on my own mental state. But I hope I’ll continue to search for the beauty.
(If you want to get a real taste of the underside of Philly, check out Zoe Strauss’s photography.)
(Feel free to check out my images and thoughts on the City of Brotherly Love—among other things—on my Tumblr, Phillytude.)