Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Fourth Wave

It had been so hot that day we returned to the hotel at four to partake in the sort of relaxation a century ago could have included tea or iced lemonade made from pressed citrus and slivers of shaved ice block. When we reentered the streets before dusk the humidity had settled and faint breezes passed through the narrow alleyways once crossed by carriages. We were carried on to South Street, passing murals of mirror and stone, window boxes inset with thin glass so delicate the panes looked to be made of sugar. Relics of Philadelphia's past, two-hundred-year-old town homes quickly gave way to project homes, their bricks newer, their faces unadorned.

Three blocks west of 12th Street, Philadelphia's old world charm vanishes. The humbly low skyline of the city seems to smother the sidewalk which, on the 4th, was crowded with idling men and children. It was growing late, and with the encroaching darkness, my tensions rose. That stretch of the city so close to a symphony hall, to Starbucks, and the Victorian garden felt dangerous, desperate. It reminded me of Crown Heights, a neighborhood in Brooklyn I'd experimented with for six months in 2011. For that long I lived absolutely within my means: the proportion of my income spent on rent did not exceed 50% percent. I shopped locally, relied on no one for financial buttressing.  

Within weeks I was ready to flee.  I'd seen the apartment just once before moving on the hottest day of the summer. Temperatures reached 100 degrees and few people were on the street, which seemed nice enough. I was intrigued by the fact that to the east the neighborhood was entirely Hasidic. To the west, it was populated by a mélange of Caribbean immigrants. It was undeniably fascinating. Cultures clanked and crashed into one another, customs mingled, and accents flew across the subway platform like dissonant flight patterns.

But by night it was not so cheery. I would walk home in the dark, often on roads with missing street lamps, always covered with trash. Swift, I'd think, move swiftly and keep your head down, but look tough. If anyone tries to fuck with you, shoot them down with your eyes. I took to wearing a faux leather bomber.

Days before Christmas the Eastern European man who ran the laundromat attached to our building was shot, and died. I grieved his death; I was traumatized. My roommate had left him minutes before he was attacked in what police described as a hold-up. They killed him for thirty-eight dollars.

When I left the apartment in January it was with sick relief. My experiment with poverty was over. I fled to Manhattan, to Harlem, to move in with my boyfriend and his roommate, a friend of ours already. I threw most of my belongings in storage--books, a fox-trimmed coat, paintings. I had had the option of escape the whole time. Those young men I'd often seen on the streets in Indian Summer doing nothing of great importance, waiting for breezes, for hours to pass, didn't have the same chance.

In Philly, the scene was similar. So many young men idled on the street. (You didn't see many young women out there, just waiting.) There were scant signs of industry in the city as a whole. There were plenty of restaurants and bars, chains mostly, and familiar-looking clothing stores, but you didn't get the impression there was any place to really go. We passed through the sprawling campus of Temple University which is a marvel for its size; LaSalle is there, Drexel, Penn; but what is there to do once you've graduated? All of the friends I have who attended school in Philadelphia moved on to some other city. And what about the 19-year-olds who don't attend college, either because they can't or won't? What is there for them in any city?

We walked north, up towards the Rocky steps and the Philadelphia Museum of Art for the fireworks. On the way, we passed two hipsters who leaned with apathy from the front door of a bar. Their shirts were the colors of sweat and dust. The Alpha's mustache was tipped with blue and in a glance he broadcast his disdain. But of what? Life in 2013?

What is this life we're supposed to share, this American dream? Does it include a $100 thousand gourmet kitchen, even if we can't afford to pay our teachers well? Does it rely on a standard of living incongruent with our savings? Is the world--let alone our country--divided, more clearly than ever, into the haves and the have-nots? Do the have-nots always know of their situation? Do the haves care? Does Washington know where this next generation will go? How they will eat, survive, or care for their young who are already here, being yelled at by a cigarette-smoking father who swears to his three miniatures who still brim with enthusiasm and love to move the fuck over?

The fireworks began at 10:30, following a performance by the R&B musician Ne-Yo, like the Matrix character. The MC for the night took no pause to introduce what would be the capstone of the festivities which we celebrate each year to commemorate our freedoms and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. That most cherished symbol of liberty went unmentioned. We watched, standing under the inky sky as it lit up before us, some invisible hand sketching mandalas and patterns whose meanings were lost upon us.

A wave of sound hit us from behind, and we turned to see a rush of stunned people charging through the open park. Faces and pumping limbs grew larger. I threw my pineapple towards the garbage can, missing, before grabbing Rory's hand to run. We heard what I was already fearing. "It's a bomb."

We moved northwest with the crowd, running without letting go of each other. Two policemen stopped at a street sign, the one in front pausing to lean his body against it as he peered in the direction of the explosion of energy that was at that point only human force. He and his partner were slack-jawed and scared but their ears were not pressed to radios with orders. They did not panic so neither did I.

By that point we were two hundred yards from where we had stood. Bystanders streamed from the epicenter many shaken. Some were on cell phones, recounting their experiences to recipients who must have ranked in their lives as Emergency Contacts. One young girl next to me held back tears as she told whoever it was on the phone that she thought it was a gun. Behind us, three teens visibly drunk or stoned yelled as they walked, "We gotta gun! We're all gunna die!" The crowd at that point knew to spread out but ignore.

Cops were stationed along the closed streets, none yelling orders. Lights flashed blue and red, silent. We streamed along in the thousands through downtown streets closed to cars. We were enough to clog the wide, new alleys. Under the overhang of some metal and glass office building, a white-haired hippy played an electric violin, "The Star-Spangled Banner" detonating from his speaker. It felt exactly like a scene in some terrible apocalyptic movie I'd purposefully avoid.

We kept checking the maps on our phones, unaccustomed to the streets, willing our way back to Chinatown. There was no way of telling who knew and who did not. Rory checked his phone incessantly waiting for an AP update. None came.

We were swept into the stream of human bodies moving south. Under the florescent streetlights it all looked grotesque. All I wanted was the safety and silence of my rented room, but all I could see was the endless stretch of asphalt to cross, corners to round. A group of drunk teenagers shared the sidewalk with us for blocks, so close for so long I had to pretend not to hear their conversations. They were high-schoolers, maybe, still high on the liberty of a Thursday night out. How many of them had been part of the stampede, had knocked knees or grabbed hands? They didn't seem shaken. Maybe because, like someone had said, this happens every year. Maybe it happened at home or at school all the time. Maybe this is just the 3D reality of 2013.  

No comments:

Post a Comment