The other night I walked to my car, parked on the side of the street in my neighborhood, with a pair of work gloves and heavy duty construction garbage bags. A monumental task lay ahead of me; I was cleaning 11 years of garbage out of my car so that I could sell it to a dealership to buy a new one. It’s the only car I’ve had since I’ve lived in Philadelphia and it bore the scratches and scars of a car that’s done its share of city living.
The scene was typical for a Philly neighborhood. Kids were playing, runners weaved their way through human traffic and people sat on stoops using makeshift fans to move the heavy summer air.
Before I even finished cleaning the front seat of my car, a man sitting alone on a stoop let out a guttural yelp and slumped to the ground. He dropped the paper bag he was holding and started to convulse. I yelled to him to see if he were alright and received no response. I ran over to him to find him having a seizure, trembling so vigorously that one of his shoes slipped off. His head was hitting the ground repeatedly with such force that the sidewalk had drawn blood.
I dialed 911 and ran to my car to grab a towel to stabilize the man’s head. One bright side of being a packrat is that you’re prepared for almost any situation. The dispatchers from Emergency Services told me to hold tight and that an ambulance would be arriving right away. I was skeptical about that.
The strangest part of the entire experience up until this point was that no one else around me was reacting to the situation with any sort of urgency. People walked by on their phones without stopping. Two people actually looked out their windows and closed their blinds. The only people who approached me while I was standing over a shaking body sprawled on the sidewalk were two teens who came to check that they didn’t know the man and a guy who was walking his dog whose reaction to my calling 911 was, “You’ll be here all night.”
All of this was very disheartening, to say the least. The ethos of Philadelphia could be described in many ways: a rough and tumble attitude, a take-no-prisoners approach to life or even a chip on our shoulder. The one thing you could never say about Philadelphia was that it was indifferent.
Growing up in a small town, this experience represented all of my worst suspicions about living in a city I had as a small kid. Before I knew how awesome things like late night food and bars within walking distance were, I just assumed cities were full of scary monsters who wanted to take your money and uncaring people who wouldn’t help you recover.
This situation felt so anomalous precisely because my experience of living in Philadelphia has been just the opposite of my childhood suspicions. I’ve met wonderful friends and have been helped by kindness of strangers quite often. Brotherly love abounds, and it’s something we shouldn’t take for granted.
As the ambulance arrived 20 minutes later and the EMTs snatched the man up like a rag doll and took him away, a woman in scrubs arrive on the scene and asked if she could help. I told her what had happened and that everything was under control. I said that if she really wanted to help, my car needed cleaning. She laughed as she walked away and said, “You’re not from here, are you?”
“Actually, I kind of am.”