“Sir, you may want to try the Tequila Sunrise, it is very popular” suggested the bartender cum DJ of the makeshift outdoor bar at the Sister Cities Park in Philadelphia. It was 87 degrees on the eve of Independence Day and quite humid. I could see young kids dipping in the Swann Fountain at the Logan Square - while their parents watched nonchalantly.
I longed for a cold shower.
Awaiting sunset with a Tequila Sunrise in hand, I thought the name of the cocktail was perhaps a bit anachronistic, but then its name is based on its appearance and not based on when it is consumed. The unmixed grenadine slowly rises into the orange juice in the tall glass and creates the illusion of a sunrise.
People were sitting outside on the lawns enjoying the summer day. Tourists strolled past taking pictures of the fountains. Helmet clad bikers zipped by on fancy bikes.
One guy wore a T-shirt that declared confidently “Life is a Beach”.
Another T-shirt advocated “Stay Wild”.
Two infants were playing in the small fountain area where the water spouted out rhythmically but also quite suddenly from anywhere around them. Their innocent curiosity was fun to watch.
The city of Philadelphia is full of interesting sights at this time of the year.
It is hard to believe that this place served as a public gallows and was used as a burial ground in the nineteenth century! It is truly amazing how things change over time. Even as recently as ten years ago they found 60 graves while renovating the Sister Cities Park at Logan Square. That must have been scary!
Energized by the cocktail and the history of the city, I started walking the city. I must have walked for more than an hour in the July humidity when I started craving for airconditioned comfort and decided to get back home. But then I realized I didn’t have the car with me. I was standing in front of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts when I thought of calling an Uber. Right then the bus 401 stopped in front of me. I knew this would get me home and I badly wanted the air-conditioning so I boarded it. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the bus driver was the cricketing legend Chris Gayle. Ok not him, but very similar in appearance.
The bus had a lot of vacant seats. I was happy to sink into a comfortable seat next to the window. I had not taken a bus from Philadelphia in two decades. When the bus crossed the bridge to New Jersey I was able to take pictures of the Delaware river. Something I am never able to do while driving. But then at the end of the bridge, instead of turning south the bus turned north towards Camden. I had no idea that the 401 goes via Camden.
Camden is perhaps the poorest city in the nation. Nearly 32,000 people live below the poverty line. The poverty line is defined as an annual household income of $22,000 for a family of four.
At the next stop there was an urgent care facility. An old lady got up on the bus. Large cup of soda in hand. She wore a half sweater cum half jacket. Ragged clothes. She carried a huge rucksack on her back that had a million pockets filled with so much stuff that it was bursting in the seams. She sat next to me but decided not to take off the rucksack. Then she started turning on her seat to look back in the bus as if looking for a better seat. Each time she turned - her rucksack would hit me. I wondered if I should complain. But then I decided not to. What if she was sick. The next thing I know she drank her soda and fell asleep - leaning heavily on me.
I was clearly uncomfortable - Should I just get off the bus and call an Uber?
We arrive at the next stop. Before I could even move from my seat, the old lady woke up as if she had practiced this "one bus stop power nap" to perfection, and got off the bus in the most deliberate and unhurried fashion.
The seat next to me was vacant again. A guy with long beaded hair and big ear rings was about to sit next to me when another passenger beat him to it and took the seat.
A young woman. Bloodshot eyes. Runny nose. She looked pale and lethargic. Big bag in tow.
Suddenly she turned towards me and started crying. I was taken aback. She said something about being turned down on a job opportunity. She had been part of a “Program” and she was now “clean” after a prolonged detox period, but they would not believe her.
Before I could say anything she mumbled: “Would you be interested in helping a homeless person?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I merely cleared my throat.
When she didn’t get any appropriate response from me, she started moving her big bag and asked: “Are you getting off soon?”
She wanted to have a conversation and I was clearly trying to avoid one.
For a moment I tried to hide the fact that I was annoyed and asked sternly: “What do you want?”
“Oh, I was just asking if you were getting off. I didn’t ask for anything. But if you were offering then that’s different” she said beseeching.
I looked away. What a fancy way of begging. Should I pity her?
We were at the next stop by now. She started getting off. As she picked up her big bag, she smiled weakly and wished me a nice day! Why was she wishing me a nice day when I had done absolutely nothing to help her?!
At that moment I had a change of heart.
I found a twenty in my wallet and handed it to her. She beamed at me - her tired face brightening up quite suddenly.
As the bus finally sailed towards the sleepy and rural part of South Jersey, I heaved a huge sigh of relief. I had just experienced a slice of real life on the streets of Camden. I felt light for a moment in my mind. I knew too well that the spiral of poverty and drug addiction is not an easy one to fix.
It is hard to imagine that I had changed anything in that poor woman’s life that day, but this little incident did make me think about the critical role of the silent bystanders in society.
Can we not do more to help as a community...
Well, for starters, if you want to experience some empathy - lose the car for a change and just take the 401.