I was walking home from work tonight and I passed the McDonalds on 40th and Walnut, just like I always do. My shift ends at midnight.
Earlier this week Sarah mentioned to me precisely why UPenn used to discourage students and faculty from travelling westward past that intersection. I forget what the clever term was, Murderdonalds or McMurder, something stupid. A few years ago I was walking past that intersection when I had a run-in with some people in a car.
I was crossing the street outside the crosswalk, briskly walking, listening to an audiobook of “the Hobbit” on headphones when this dude makes a screeching right turn heading my way. Walnut is one-way and there are two lanes. There wasn’t any traffic, I was just walking across some bare street, and I’m in the far lane by now. But that wasn’t enough for this dude. He wanted to be king of the road. So he pumps me, thinking I’m going to scurry out of the way of his sedan. He gets right up on me and stops, so, like an idiot, I spit on the hood of his car without giving him another glance and continue on my journey.
Then he gets out of his car. He parked it in the middle of the street, swung open the door and started screaming at me. The passenger door opens just before I turn to keep walking. I’m thinking there are at least two people behind me ready to rumble. I spent the next ten seconds deciding whether to book it, or turn around and deal with it. I’m also thinking about what the hell I’m going to do with my laptop if I do start fighting.
I decided, fuck it. I put the bag on a concrete step that leads to the movie theater, and approach the dude, who I now see is being held back by a woman. He’s calling me names and saying “you tough, c’mon!” So I started yelling back, “Control yourself! Get control of yourself!” He keeps up the shit, but if he wanted to get to me he could have. The woman in front of him wasn’t Hulk Hogan.
The bike cops were already calling the real cops. Him being black and me being white, that put him at the disadvantage so he got back in the car and drove off, telling me he’s coming back for me.
I pick up my bag (phew! still there!), and take the walking path between the theater and the Rotunda. At 41st and Locust a skinny, five foot high, young, female bike cop asked me if I wanted an escort home. I told her no, trying not to be rude, but what was she going to do? Put me in her basket and ride me across the moon?
I walked the rest of the way home (we were still living on 44th and Osage, then). Never saw the dude again. Only a few years before that, people were getting stabbed and shot regularly at that intersection, but I didn’t know that until recently. A few years ago I heard about a guy who had his throat cut out in front of his place before dark on 44th and Osage. That only happened 4 years before we moved onto the block.
The stories about crime and the anxiety that I used to feel about it really got to me when I first moved to Philadelphia. Luckily I got a job where I had the chance to meet some very street-wise people. When things like what happened that night near McDonalds were over, I had a lot of questions. I wondered what the guy meant, “I’m coming back for you!” It seemed important to me to know. Was that an idle threat? Was he going to get me next week when I walked home that same way? Guys at work explained very clearly, there’s one thing I could count on: he wasn’t coming back.
They seemed a little surprised I didn’t know that for myself. But as a kid I didn’t have to live on those games. That’s what got me thinking, tonight. The problems inherent to a city: the crime, homelessness, violence, the things people living outside it really don’t understand. It’s people’s allergy to the overwhelming humanity. The heavy doses of individuality that make people overreact, unable to escape the congestion. And ultimately, that’s what humanity is: individuality. The ability to decide for oneself that next move.
My friends understand city life, because they know these games. They grew up having to learn them. They don’t know the woods. They don’t know the complacency of being lost, surrounded by no one but the complacent. The crimes there have no purpose and no witnesses. What has no shelter is always home. Nothing is reported, because nothing is important.