Growing up in the city, for as long as I could remember, public transportation and walking were the main ways to get around. To this day, even though I have a driver's license, I still rely on the Broad Street Line of SEPTA to go to and from school, which runs directly under Broad street in the South and North directions.
SEPTA stands for Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, and it runs through Philadelphia and the surrounding counties.
Most people, when they picture the subway or public transportation in general, imagine a grimy, depressing, overcrowded, smelly, and overall unpleasant ride. I'm not going to sugarcoat it - all of that is true, and worse sometimes, especially when it comes to the Broad Street Line.
Almost on a daily basis I enter the subway car and am hit with waves of densely unpleasant odors, piles of trash, overcrowding, manspreading, and beggars.
Sure, it is all unpleasant, and sometimes I lose patience and want to scream at someone. But riding SEPTA exposes me to a diverse group of people from all walks of life, something I would never experience riding in a car.
From interactions with people and the things I've seen, I am aware of the problems people face not just in Philadelphia, but in our society as a whole.
I've met amazing people that are kind, and I met people who have scared me to my core, and most importantly, I met people who have altered my perspective on things and changed my life. Here are some of those experiences:
1. The blind man.
It was late at night, around 8 PM, and as I boarded the subway car the intense, but pleasant smell of cloves hit me. It was a nostalgic scent that evokes my childhood during Lent. I sat adjacent to this young man who appeared to be visually impaired, he was holding a cane and had dark glasses on, and he was also the source of the clove smell.
I was listening to music through my earphones, which was proving to be a bit difficult because there was a group of Temple students loudly having a conversation a few feet away. Suddenly I realized the man was talking to me, so I took out my headphones and leaned close in an attempt to hear what he was saying over the deafening roar of the train on the tracks.
With a big smile, he asked, "Are you those your kids?" referencing the loud group of girls. I was taken aback, and with more attitude than I meant I said no. He immediately apologized and tried to talk to the group; he was going to the El.
After he finally got the girls' attention, they look dumbfounded, and I clarified for them that the El is the Market-Frankford line, and there is a free transfer from the BSL to the El. They were embarrassed and clarified that they're not going to the El.
I myself wasn't going to the El, but I saw that this man needed help to the next platform, so I was determined to help. I asked around for someone who was heading to the El until I found a woman. The man was very grateful for all my help and started having a conversation with me, he told me his name, which I wish I could've heard properly, and his story of how he is struggling because his landlord took advantage of him and stole from him.
The conversation was choppy because I could not hear over the roaring noise of the train tracks, but I had heard enough and this man wanted help. What could I do? I'm a first-year college student with no money and no job, and when people beg me for money I usually ignore them or pretend I can't hear them.
But there I was; I felt trapped in this conversation and was forced to give this man an excuse as to why I could not give him any money or shelter. It's not that I didn't want to help, it's just that he was a stranger and I have no resources to help him anyway.
I didn't know where the conversation was going to go after all of my lame excuses, but he was very understanding and grateful to have even just talked to me. He even took advantage of how I was leaning in close to him to hear him and went in for a hug, which is usually something I would avoid like the plague, but I let it happen for once and I'm glad I did.
I was shocked by the experience and didn't even put my headphones back in. I was happy that I helped this man even though all I really did was talk to him because it just goes to show the importance of being kind to others.
2. The tourist.
I went to a Catholic all-girls high school in center city Philadelphia, so the BSL was my mode of transportation to and from school every day. I remember it was during the time of the NFL draft, a big event that drew thousands of people. I was on my way home, in my uniform, when a man and his wife started talking to me.
He noticed my uniform and was looking at me with nostalgia like I was an old memory come alive. I told him I went to an all-girls Catholic school, the first in the nation actually. He was fascinated by the fact that I take the BSL every day, yes I have ever since I was a little girl, I confirmed with him.
He explained that he was from the suburbs and came down to see the NFL draft. I told him that it's exciting, living in the city because there's always an event going on. Then he and his wife got off and said goodbye, and wished me luck.
It was refreshing to have a normal and calm conversation with someone who is living a different life than yours. My being in a uniform and attending a Catholic school was somehow nostalgic for him, and I'm glad it made him and his wife so happy.
3. The artist.
It was a cold March morning, I was running on little sleep and feeling very groggy. I had on earphones in and was listening-but-not-really-listening to some music, my Eagles hat was on my head in an attempt to hide my dirty hair and my heavy backpack was sitting on my lap.
I was trying really hard not to make eye contact with anyone, which is a daily struggle, and was pretending to be interested in the ads. Suddenly the subway pulled up to city hall, the most trafficked station, and a flurry of activity stirred around me.
I was so tired and tuning everything out until suddenly a man, as he walked out of the subway car, showed me a sketch of . . . myself. He mumbled some words along the lines of "I just drew this" but I couldn't hear clearly because I still had my earphones in.
Then just as quickly as he appeared, he was gone, and I was left shell shocked with a huge smile on my face. So often when you're riding public transportation you try to ignore the other people and get out as soon as possible, but this man was actively paying attention to his surroundings, to ME of all people, and instead of scrolling through his phone or listening to music he decided to draw. He made my day.
4. The one with a message.
It was late at night again and I was coming home from a night class when this man, holding a stack of metro newspapers, came in from the City Hall stop and sat right in front of me. I was pretty upset because his stench was really unpleasant and I was beginning to lose my appetite, but what he did next made me stay in my seat.
He produced a pen from his jacket and started writing vigorously on each paper. I strained to see what he was writing if it was anything meaningful, and I saw that it was a repetition of words: public enemy #1 and death row records and a bunch of other sentences that seemed to be song lyrics.
Then a few weeks later I saw him again, writing on the ads that line the top of the windows, the same lyrics. Now, even weeks later, I notice his writing remains on the ads, his handwriting is rushed yet meaningful. What is on his mind? Why is it so important for him to scribble these certain lyrics all over?
5. The unstable one.
I remember the day clearly, November 14th, my birthday. I was turning 16 and was happy all day, happy enough that I wasn't even fazed by how crowded the subway car was. I walked in and right away I struggled to turn around to face the door because the car was absolutely packed; there was barely room to move.
I noticed a commotion behind me; there was this man striking up a conversation with the guy next to me. I don't remember exactly what the man's appearance was, but the way he was talking I remember that he was unpleasant and the exact type that you'd usually go out of your way to avoid.
The man suddenly took an interest in me and started talking to me, he took an interest in my necklace, which was an Italian gold pendant of Mary with my name engraved on the back. He reached out to touch it, which repulsed me and made me want to back up, but I was already squished between the door and him, there was nowhere to go.
"That's beautiful, what does it stand for?" he loudly said to me. Even though he touched me, I decided a conversation wouldn't hurt, and it would be rude not to answer. "I'm Catholic, it's Mary," I responded. He acknowledged what I said then proceeded to tell me a long and sad story.
He showed me his own necklace, a dog tag with names engraved in it. They were the names of his parents and brother, who died when they were driving in the car and then got shot at. He was the only one to survive out of his family.
Suddenly my mood turned somber. What does one say to that? I was flustered and apologized, putting on a sympathetic face. Then it was my station to get off, and I left. There is so much pain in this world and in this man's life, and here I was judging him for being friendly and striking up a conversation based on appearance.
"Never judge a book by its cover" became clearer than ever.
6. The beggar.
I love to read when on the subway and I usually read on my kindle, but I decided to switch things up and pick up my copy of Maya Angelou's 'When the Caged Bird Sings.' I was a little scared that the book would draw attention, something I fear for every physical book I read on the subway.
I enter the car from Cecil B. Moore and there is this woman I recognize, she is begging for something to eat, I quickly put my headphones in and try to read my book as to show I'm not listening. Then, out of the corner of my eye I see movement, it's the beggar and she is trying to talk to me.
I was about to open my mouth and tell her I had nothing to give her when she motioned to my book, "Oooo that's a good book, are you reading it for class?" I smiled and tried to tell her that I was reading it for fun, when she continued her pacing back and forth in the car, begging for food.
Then I caught her attention again and she told me, "That's a really good book. Are you reading it for school?" Again, I tried to tell her I was reading it for fun, but she didn't seem to comprehend that and continued her pacing and begging.
Even though I feared someone would get mad at me for a book I'm reading, I was happy that in this instance, I connected to this human through a book. It's one of the many reasons why I love to read in the first place.