Septa Man at Ellsworth & Federal
Since moving to Philadelphia from the golden hills of California, I have become a subway user or rather here it is called the Septa. The underground, or Septa has its advantages and horrors depending on the time of use and the particular destination—some are more popular than others. I got in the habit of waiting for the throngs of rush hour folks to dissipate like smoke from a train as it departs the station. Then I’d stroll the sidewalk my expectations elevated and descend the concrete stairs, praying the smell of urine would not stick to my shoes, to face the Septa man. The Septa man, at Ellsworth and Federal, was not of a friendly persuasion sitting in his secure stainless steel booth—in fact I secretly thought he hated most people. It appeared people gave him a rash or uncontrollable itch as he was always scratching the side of his face. Whenever I consulted him for directions on the particular line I should use—I was met with a grunt and a look of utter disgust while he scrubbed his left cheek.
“Why don’t you know where you’re going?”
“I am new to the city sir and there are no signs anywhere to look at.”
“Not my fault. Follow the orange line then walk to the blue. Next”
As folks stampeded past me I sashayed right and left as to not collide into oncoming shoulders and strollers. Averting my eyes for directions was challenging as I feared doing a header into someone’s chest or knocking over an elder accidently. Finally I managed to glimpse an orange strip that I assumed indicated directions to the famous “orange line.” I would worry about the “blue” later.
I tried different techniques to get the disgruntled Septa man, at Ellsworth and Federal, to smile. The handiest was to plant a wide expressive grin across my face. The kind that made my eyes close and left me looking like one of the Chipmunks-- puffy cheeks and all. That seemed to really irk him. I admit I felt a sense of pride over my tenacity. I tried striking up casual conversation—he yawned twice and shoed me threw the silver levers. Often he’d just look at me and shake his head as if I’d bumped into the wall or tripped—which on a few occasions I had. I contemplated buying him a bottle of calamine lotion for his itch, sort of a peace offering, but since moving I had little money to spend on presents.
Some days, when I was feeling extremely homesick for the beauty I’d left behind to move to a city that lined its streets with empty wrappers and called it art, the Septa man’s nonchalance got to me. It felt harsh like the urban environment—cold stares, the loud squealing of cars, buses, and yes—Septa rails. Those were the days I would make up stories about the Septa man. Try to figure him out and understand why he was as puckered as a toothless lion slurping pickle juice. For instance, maybe his mother made him wear ugly clothes as a kid or his sister beat him up as a teenager. There had to be a motive.
As the holidays arrived, I thought that perhaps the Septa man at Ellsworth and Federal would cave in. I fantasized of purchasing my ticket as he stared through the plated glass of his booth weeping apologies for being down right ornery these past few months. But day in and day out the grunting continued with no hint of relief as I kept steady the path—smiling as wide as my face would stretch.
It was the day before the 2012 New Year’s Eve. As usual I approached the Septa man, at Ellsworth and Federal, to purchase my ticket. It still had not sunk in that I could buy tokens in advance.
“It’s you again.” He muttered.
“Yes—I am a regular now I guess.” I nodded looking for signs of any change in Septa man’s condition.
“Yes you are—and why is that?”
Hope bubbled within.
“I just wondered why you became a regular here—you said you were from California—why on earth would you move—although I hate California myself” Septa man said scratching vigorously.
I became giddy with the idea that Septa man, at Ellsworth and Federal, actually remembered what I told him.
“Well my parents—they live in the burbs but…”
“What they getting old?” He asked.
“No—not old—I supposed it was just time to come back.”
“Now listen here—
I waited petrified-- what would the Septa man, at Ellsworth and Federal, say next?
“You have yourself a nice New Year you hear—in case I don’t see you.”
I felt a surge belonging rise up from within—if the cantankerous Septa man could wish me well-- then indeed there was hope that I could be accepted in my new city.
Since that day, the Septa man, real name, Hank, and I have a routine of “How are you and what’s new?” I don’t notice the itch any more as we catch up. And although I buy tokens now, I still need directions.
Causes Karen Devaney Supports
Eve Ensler and any organization that deals with issues supporting women and children and the advancement of their education.