Stuck in the middle with you.
Before last month, the most bizarre thing I'd ever witnessed on Broad Street happened on Election Day 2004. Walking to my polling place, I saw a man hunker down and take a shit on the sidewalk in front of a church in broad daylight. I happened to notice him at the exact, exact moment of truth. What was most shocking was the way he locked his gaze onto mine, the way he broadcast a proud defiance in the face of such indignity.
I spent this Election Day at the Loews Hotel. The PSFS building was a poetically appropriate spot. Though built during the Depression in 1932, no expense was spared in its modern design. Optimism is built into its very bones. As we know, optimism can be a strange, clumsy feeling when it's not part of you from the beginning. Cue discussion of the curse of Billy Penn and the larger Balboa industrial complex here.
I didn't party on Broad Street after the World Series win. I hopped on the game-watching bandwagon, but I wasn't about to hug and kiss strangers over it. It seems naive now but I wasn't expecting a sports win to transform the overall vibe of the city. But the feeling on the street really did--dare I say it--change.
Of course, it changed even more after Obama's victory. Out on Market Street after Obama's speech, a stream of people jogged by me, arms up and palms open, slapping high-fives like a kids' team after a big win. Girls in booty jeans danced on top of cars, cops smiled and skinny-jean boys--usually fashionably dispossessed--got positively gymnastic.
I was thinking about a little girl I saw that morning. I watched the girl's dad snap a photo of her in front of an Obama/Biden sign. The daughter looked bored and blissfully unaware of the significance of this particular autumn morning. I also thought about a co-worker whose sickly mother refused an absentee ballot. Her mother, whose grandparent was born into slavery, declared that as long as she was breathing, she was going to press that button her own damn self.
So though I'm generally frightened by unbridled enthusiasm and superfandom behavior, I spent the next two hours zipping around City Hall, honking my horn and throwing the thumbs up at carloads of strangers.
It felt so good, exchanging positive communiques with strangers, that I took it to the next level and flashed thumb randomly for the next few days. Some people reciprocated right away while others hesitantly returned the gesture with a savory blend of confusion and pity in their eyes.
Soon I got vacation anxiety frolicking in this beautiful, exotic place, stripped as we were of the comforts of hatriot humor and habitual rage. I started wondering what it would be like when the drama's over. Will there be traces of this world of stranger love back in the real world or just crappy souvenirs?
I knew I'd need to recalibrate my thumbs-up vs. bird-flipping ratio as we slid back to reality. My middle finger was weak from lack of use. It generally enjoys a lot of exercise and air exposure--driving a scooter warrants frequent use. It's a handy way to let bad car drivers know that their attempt to kill you didn't work. It says, I see your negligence and I raise you contempt.
Whiffs of backlash were already in the air. Clowns to the left babbled as if racial tension was a thing of the past while jokers to the right mocked their zealotry. Black friends laughed about strangers congratulating them on "the win" post-election. Meanwhile, reports rolled in that incidents of racial violence are unusually high since the election.
My friend told me about a heartbreaking incident he witnessed while riding the El. A black woman and a white woman fought so intensely that one of their husbands held her arms back while passengers pretended nothing was happening. When my friend got off the train, a group of young black girls laughed, "That white woman thought Obama was gonna save her ass!"
I'm stuck at a light on 22nd Street in the rain next to a SEPTA bus, when I notice a little girl sitting on the bus, maybe 5, is sticking her tongue out at me. I raspberry back. She goes harder, so I flip my helmet up and retaliate. I think, "She is so cute." Then I think I see she's actually blowing bubbles at me. I feel terrible but go for the save--I'm chewing gum so I blow one back.
She turns around to see if her parents are watching. They're not. I smile and wave. She slowly slides her hand up into the window frame and gives me the finger. Sort of a bent finger with a loose fist, it's a noncommittal, testing-the-waters finger. Trying it on for size. She checks her guardians again.
Once she knows the coast is clear, she delivers a no-holds-barred, full-frontal fuck you--middle finger rigid, supporting-cast fingers curled down hard. She's right up against the glass, smiling wide, nodding hard like, "Yeah, that's right." The light changes and I drive home, slowly and carefully. The roads are slippery and it's already dusk.