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The Local Len: My Own “Phantom Rider”

  Years ago the Philadelphia Daily News published a weekly SEPTA column called “The Phantom Rider” by an anonymous writer who recounted his experiences while riding the El and the subway.

  Ride the El or the subway long enough and a variety of experiences will head your way faster than you can say, “Here comes the trolley!”

  Last week I had an appointment at the Germantown Historical Society. I hopped on the 15 shuttle bus on Aramingo Avenue, changing at Front and Girard to go to 11th Street to catch the 23 bus into Germantown. The transportation gods were not with me that day because the 15 was late and the poor 23 was over 40 minutes late because of the congestion created by Flower Show visitors.

  When the 23 finally arrived, it was so packed that even the very elderly had to stand. It was congestion and pandemonium.  Traffic on the roads (the Flower Show again) was so thick it made the 23 seem like, as my grandmother used to say, “a slow boat to China.”  It didn’t help that the 23 was also traveling at a slow rate of speed and catching every single red light. Double-parked cars were also blocking the bus’s passage. I knew I was going to be late for my appointment but I couldn’t even manage to use my cell phone because I saw so squeezed in.

  Overcrowded buses are usually a recipe for unruly behavior. Within 10 minutes of my boarding a woman in the back of the bus began complaining about the smells of some of the passengers. The woman was not, as they say, very discreet in her descriptions of the various smells she claimed she could detect on the overcrowded bus. She kept repeating the line, “I smell stinky asses and rotten corn.”

  As someone who grew up next to a farm, I’ve never smelled rotten corn.  As for that other smell, well, how does one address that politely? Summertime, after all, is when smells like this might be said to come to the fore in really crowded hot urban spaces, but in cold weather they are less likely to predominate.

  The woman continued complaining about stinky bodies but by this point her rant had assumed a comedic tone and some passengers were laughing. I looked towards the center aisle of the bus—I had finally found a seat—and tried to detect unpleasant odors but could only recognize the smell of a popular women’s perfume.  There was no smell on the bus at all.

  Another example of fake news, perhaps.   

  Some people never acclimate themselves to city life, and over time they can become mentally unhinged. I figured this is what happened to the poor woman who was complaining about smells. Years ago in Center City there was the infamous Duck Lady, a former society matron who went about town quacking like a duck and living off the generosity of strangers. She was harmless and, in her own way, an iconic Philadelphia institution because when she died there was a mention of her passing in the press.

  Midway through my trip, the 23 was still so crowded that it started to pass passengers waiting at bus stops. From my window I saw groups of five or 10 people screaming out in protest as the bus whizzed past them.

  The woman in the back of the bus took her stinky mantra up a notch, but this time she went too far because a group of young men started to make fun of her. Cocky young men with attitude show no mercy.  They were shouting that she was the one who smelled. They described the stink with the kind of detail you don’t want to read about here.   

  You stink. We all stink. The world stinks. Can’t we all just get along?

  A fight broke out among these guys when a few of them let loose with cries of “Yo Yo Yo Yo!” as passengers close to the action attempted to move away. There were scrambling sounds and then a girl screamed. Some passengers took the commotion in stride but when the cacophony got past a certain point, even the calm passengers started to look worried.

  The 23 came to a stop, but not because the bus driver was taking action against the rabble rousers.  The driver chose not to get involved. Neutral like Switzerland, as they say. He was stopping the bus because two cars were blocking the street. This didn’t help the manic mood of the young men.

  Then, like a bolt of lightning, came another woman’s voice, and her message wasn’t about stink; it was about atonement.

  “By the blood of Jesus,” she screamed, “by the blood of Jesus… stop this right now. By the blood of Jesus, remember that you stand on the shoulders of your ancestors. Do not disgrace them! Stop this, by the blood of Jesus!”

  It was as if she had waved a wand because immediately the tumult subsided. The bus became quiet and even the woman obsessed with buttocks had gone mute. The name Jesus had changed everything.

  During this quiet last leg of the journey, I began thinking about the time I lived in Germantown.

   As a person of Irish and German descent, my whiteness is of the whiter-than-white variety, yet I never felt the slightest danger when I would return from Center City and head to my Germantown apartment at three o’clock in the morning. One block from my apartment was the infamous Queen Lane housing project, built in the 1950s and designed by Elizabeth Fleisher, one of the first registered female architects in the city of Philadelphia. The Queen Lane projects never struck me as dangerous but as safe as a high-end Center City apartment house.    

  Throughout the years race relations between blacks and whites in Germantown have generally been pretty good.  I was called a “honky” there only once but I hardly count that because it happened during my first week there with five problem-free years ahead of me.

  Most people who have lived in the city for a while develop an urban hide. This might be understood to mean that “hide” people are better able to process the city’s rustic environment more than people unfamiliar with the city who see danger everywhere.  Danger, after all, can be found anywhere, even in tony Rittenhouse Square. Neighborhoods with graffiti and boarded up houses are not necessarily unsafe neighborhoods.

  Some of the researchers who come to the Germantown Historical Society are from places like Iowa or Kansas. They often dress like Henry Fonda in sun hats, khaki shorts and suspenders and they are often ill at ease when walking past abandoned houses and fenced in yards filled with debris, feral cats and, occasionally, pitbulls. Their lack of an urban hide causes their bodies to stiffen, their eyes to take on a feverish cast and their footsteps to quicken so that they can’t wait to get to a safe space.   

  My return trip on the 23 was peaceful enough, although there was the usual problem of overcrowding. I stood for some time in the aisle before eventually finding a seat behind a mother and her young son coming back from an outing of some sort. The five- or six-year-old boy was a facially expressive tyke who was attracting a fair amount of attention from passengers because of the amusing way in which he talked to Mom while munching popcorn.

  As the old Phantom Rider used to report, nearly every ride on SEPTA tends to yield some kind of human story, some less dramatic than others.

  As for my 23 return-trip story, it had to do with body parts but in a much more pleasant way than the ride from 11th and Girard.

  While eating his popcorn the kid suddenly exclaimed, “Ouch, my tooth!” and quickly put  his fingers to his mouth. For a moment it looked as if he was going to burst into tears, but then Mom chimed. “Don’t cry,” she said.

  She then leaned towards him and whispered, “Be happy. You’ve lost your first tooth.” After this she wrapped the little remnant in a tissue, presumably for the tooth fairy, and then put another wad of tissue in her son’s mouth to catch any blood.

  “You’ve lost your very first tooth,” she said, after which several passengers applauded.

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