I’m not quite sure what has changed within the last couple days or weeks, but suddenly I am feeling like a fish that is attempting to walk on concrete as I go through what has become a pretty consistent routine for me. The early-morning sun is not quite as inviting as it once was, the subway has lost its previous luster, and even picking out a work-appropriate outfit is not quite the same.
Before the start of the summer, I was so looking forward to what an adventure it would be to take public transportation and be able to navigate the city without access to a car, a personal loss I have always deeply felt since leaving my vehicle-dependant hometown. I knew from the minute that I stepped onto the El, with its strange smell and horror-movie lighting, that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, but at the time that was okay. I was so excited to follow the yellow-brick road down to my own personal Emerald City–a job! real people! autonomy!–but suddenly Kansas is looking pretty darn good.
I love to people-watch, which is part of what made riding the subway so fun. It is a veritable explosion of hugely different kinds of people, a characteristic, I have come to find, that is generally associated with the Market-Frankford line. Spending my commute observing has now become a pastime that I dread but cannot seem to drop. If there is something to stare at, I tend to stare. I just can’t help it. Before, all these funny little things that I saw people doing on the subway made me want to be an anthropologist and my fingers itched for a pen. My senior thesis would go by so quickly if this were my subject! Now I am so disgusted, so totally grossed out by all the things that occur on the train. It pains me when my bare skin brushes against the scratchy blue fabric that covers the metal seats. The sound of people blowing their noses, coughing, or any other type of bodily function makes me cringe. I walk the 3 dirtied blocks between my office and the train stop, and I practically jump out of my skin every time someone manages to sneak up on me (and given how busy Olde City Philly is, I’m surprised I haven’t needed a pacemaker).
Like I said, I’m not quite sure what has changed. I suppose I miss the protection that comes from sitting in your car and being able to lock the doors…the way I can turn on the radio and not have to worry about how I look if I want to sing along to some Alicia Keys. I won’t listen to my iPod on the subway because I’m too afraid to spare such an important sense; I won’t move my arm from over the opening of my bag because I’ve heard of so many people whose belongings were taken by someone who randomly reached in to snag something. I basically look at everyone now as a potential ninja who may steal the $5 in my wallet and my TrailPass that I use to take the train. It’s no wonder that people walk around urban streets with that world-weary look on their face.
When I’m walking around Philadelphia, I know now that I look like I (somewhat) belong. Men advertising tours on busses have stopped asking if I would like a ticket for one, and I get frustrated with tourists who are clogging the busy sidewalks. I’m proud that I can get around comfortably. One thing I’m not quite as proud of is how I have started to interact with other people…or rather, how I have stopped interacting. I look straight ahead when a homeless man asks me for spare change, not even acknowledging his existence; even in general, I tend to not look at people as they pass by the way I did before. This morning, I rushed to catch the elevator, putting in my hand to stop the closing doors, to no avail. “It just isn’t worth it” a woman next to me said. I heaved a sigh and said in what was probably a rather cold voice, “Apparently not,” and I turned away to wait for the next elevator.
When I was first looking at colleges, I ventured into NYC with my cousin to stop by a few schools. It was another world to me. The streets were dirty and packed, and people would brush by, touch, without even acknowledging it. Out of habit, I smiled at everyone I saw because that’s how it is where I’m from. I’ve now learned that that kind of friendliness is a lot easier (and less strange) in a place where there are not so many people.
Now I’m one of those impassive and hurrying people, and it kind of makes me sad. While I still offer the occasional “bless you” to someone who sneezes and say “excuse me” as I brush past someone, there are times when I just can’t be bothered. It makes me feel a little jaded. I’ve always been an idealist, but this summer has made me wonder if a part of that has died in me.
These changes feel especially stark when I go back home. A couple weeks ago I went back home, and my Dad and I went out for ice cream. A family next to us began talking about what kinds they might get, and threw a couple comments our way. With my arms crossed over my chest, I smiled and turned away. This made me pause. “Ever since going to Philly,” I remarked to my Dad, “I am just not very nice anymore.” “The big city will do that to ya” my Dad replied.
While this has been my latest summer struggle, my walk home from work today reminded me that I don’t have to be a completely transformed from a suburban girl to an urbanite, but rather that my summer will more than likely result in some kind of synthesis of the two. Yeah, I might go back to Ohio and drive like a real jerk, but I’m also still that girl who will smile at people I don’t know.
Every afternoon as I walk down Chestnut Street, there is a man with long curly gray hair playing the guitar and the harmonica at the same time, while also singing. Even on the hottest of days he is always there. Grappling with doing what you need to do to get by in an urban environment doesn’t mean that I have to act like I am impervious to an unfortunate truth like homelessness or poverty. So while everyone walks by without looking twice at the homeless man who can play two instruments at once and also sing (that seriously takes some skill), I stop and drop a dollar into his guitar case. “God bless!” he calls. It’s my third time giving him money, and every single time he sounds so surprised that someone stopped, noticed him, and bothered to give him a dollar. I turn my head and smile and keep walking. He may go use it for drugs, an umbrella, a cup of coffee…who really knows. It just makes me happy to consciously embrace my natural naiveté, that unblemished belief that maybe you’re helping him to feed his kid, or just get by. It’s what keeps me hopeful that we are capable of a more thoughtful, empathetic and united world.
P.S. Despite my philosophical romanticizing, I am still afraid of homeless people.