It's the kind of place where convenience stores form "three separate lines" instead of funneling the next customer to the next available register. It's the kind of place where every business will always have one door locked for no apparent reason. It's the city that says, "sir, we're closing in 15 minutes." If it's going to take you more than 15 minutes to find me a headlight for a '97 Civic, I'll order it online.
The people certainly don't help. When I first moved to Philadelphia, I was a bit surprised it wasn't as dirty as its reputation. That's not to say it's clean, but for all the bitching and moaning about the place dubbed "Philthy," it's only slightly dirtier than New York and cleaner than quite a few other cities. I was quickly corrected, "it's not the place, it's the people." I was told that by a local.
And it's true. It's a volatile place, one in which you're hard pressed to find personal accountability. The most basic misunderstandings end in screaming matches on heavily trafficked streets and the biggest end in the courtroom. "It's not my fault" should be the city's motto, and while we're at it, add it to The Garden State's license plates as well. You could get mowed down by a white BMW headed for the Ben Franklin Bridge running a red light and it'll still be your fault, even if you're sitting in your backyard. And while we're on the subject, it's apparently okay to run red lights, as long as you honk your horn.
Of course it's not just the small annoyances that carry no rhyme or reason. They're likely the trickle-down fallout of city and state bureaucracies that tend to lob a bunch of red rubber balls across the white line and hope they hit a thing or two. Traversing Philadelphia is a lot like driving across Logan Square: close your eyes, clench your butt cheeks, and hope you come out the other side in one piece.
That brings me to Philadelphia's next up-and-coming ass ache. I'm not talking about tomorrow's Fourth of July celebration or the game of human bumper cars that is the Pennsylvania Convention Center on any given weekend. I'm talking about September's Papal visit.
More than two months away, and I'm already on edge. That's not uncommon. Given my aforementioned rant, I frequently play out argumentative scenarios in my head about things that never happened, because I know they would happen and the unnerving ways they'd play out. But this visit really is going to be a nightmare on par with nothing the city has ever seen, short of a Victorian era influenza outbreak or perhaps the American Revolution.
If you've ever read about the city's disastrous Bicentennial celebration or the last Papal visit, think that, times infinity.
Why? Well I doubt you even have to ask. The city is projecting a swell of 2 million pilgrims to flood Philadelphia the weekend on September 26th. While City Hall, transit authorities, and the Philadelphia Police Department seem to be working diligently on making his visit a safe one, specifics are sparse and rumors abound. For one weekend, Philadelphia will grow in population to the nation's third largest, that is if its 1.5 million residents don't flee beforehand.
But fleeing could easily become one of its biggest problems. Center City roads will be closed, SEPTA's subways will be operating at minimal stops, regional rail will be reserved for those who purchase special passes, and, get this, Center City might even be fenced in with an 8 foot wall.
Yes, you read that correctly: Center City could be fenced in by an 8 foot tall wall four miles long.
If you've ever seen 1981's Escape from New York, you've probably already booked a bunker in Montana and planned your exit a week in advance. Pomp and circumstance can only do so much. Philadelphia's September of 2015 is going to go down in history as the dystopian fantasy it's setting itself up to become.
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Part of that won't be due to the crowds, the complex travel that will need to be arranged for visitors who've already booked hotel rooms outside the Papal Wall, or even the security that's gearing up to make Marshall Law look like Mayberry. It's also because Philadelphia and the United States aren't the same places they were the last time we received a Papal visit in 1979. The Pope will be in town for the World Meeting of Families, and the Supreme Court just ruled that America's truly legal definition of "family" includes quite a few who clash with some of the Catholic Church's aging ideals.
Two weeks ago, it seemed that every reasonable gay, lesbian, or bisexual Philadelphian would have been ready to hightail it to Rehoboth Beach or Asbury Park for the weekend. And that probably would have been the case had Archbishop Charles Chaput not given gay and lesbian families a formal unvitation. Without going into the brazenly hypocritical statements made by Chaput (think phrases like "welcoming environment" paired with dozens of social caveats), he essentially said gay and lesbian families are welcome, as long as they don't point out why they're not welcome.
Naturally this didn't just ruffle feathers in Philadelphia's LGBT community, but also any watchdog whose ears perk up whenever a religious dictator attempts to pull rank. And that's exactly what Chaput has done, and he probably would have been better off barring gay and lesbian families, or simply keeping his mouth shut.
I don't know how things work in the Vatican or behind the doors of his Basilica, but closing roads, shunting transportation services, even building a goddamn wall on the Catholic Church's behalf doesn't make Pope Francis or any of his underlings Supreme Leader for the weekend. We still retain our Rights to Assemble, Speak, and Protest. For the first time since Roe v. Wade, the Catholic Church has found itself at odds with the Supreme Court of the United States, and its timing won't bode well for any hope of a purely peaceful event.
Personally, I'll be in Delaware. For me, Catholicism has about as much clout as Scientology or those building "Little Salt Lake" across the street from the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. I won my battle, and my church is the United States Constitution. But for those fighting for additional rights within the private confines of their church, for legitimate recognition within their spiritual domain, they have every right to shout their beliefs from the Parkway, and I have to imagine the Parkway's namesake might be right there beside them.
They'll just have to climb an eight foot wall and walk a few miles to get there.