The Bitter End
Sophi by Jeff Mark
Illustration by Jillian Kesselman
A breeze blows particles of dirt into my eyes and lost menus of Chinese and Mexican restaurants gyrate in a paper cyclone against the red rowhome brick where Ellsworth meets Passyunk.
Just ahead is a carnival of lights but the circus is not in town. Tourists in Liberty Bell T-shirts wait in line for cheesesteaks under Philadelphia's Times Square neon. The calories consumed will be burned by jogging up the Art Museum steps tomorrow. I walk by and people take pictures of each other. I hear someone say, "You have to say wiz wit."
"What does that mean?"
"It has something to do with Rocky."
What they do not see is the zig-zagging lights of the skyscrapers in the distance in a communion of color. Red, white, and blue on Memorial Day. Green for St. Patty's. Pink for breast cancer. Ribbons of light for sympathy. The cure. I blink as fast as I can without seeming spastic to loosen the dirt or whatever blew into my eye, with no luck. It's there; I have to accept that.
In the spring, softball teammates will heckle each other from the Capitolo Playground. "Go fuck ya-self ya fuckin bastud."
"Christopha can't hit fa shit."
Everyone's either named Christopher or Anthony around here. Or Marie if you're a girl. Maybe Maria.
I turn my back on the scene and continue walking down Passyunk. I don't remember when Passyunk became this trendy. Bicycles with no seats or front tires are chained to the fence around the singing fountain at Tasker, their owners surely at the Sushi restaurant that just opened. Guys sit in coffee shops trying to bring mustaches back and girls with tights watch macchiato foam get caught in the whiskers. It's dark but winter so it's not late. I was born a few blocks from here, and I remember when all this street had was Italian restaurant after Italian restaurant. I'm not saying it's a bad change. It's just a change. An evolution. Because even though there are still cobblestones here and there, there are no carriages left, except the ones that roll around Independence Mall with guides in tri-corner hats pointing at old buildings. This is a progressive city. I guess. But like I said, it's dark, and my coat is black or dark navy blue or something, and I can barely be seen. Or maybe I just look weird because I've shaved today and don't have any visible tattoos. And I don't carry my keys on a carabineer.
It's the second day of the New Year, and occasionally I'll hear fireworks. Or gunshots. Or whatever. I know what people say. How dirty it is. Philly. Violent. People snicker when they say "City of Brotherly Love." They remember the snowballs thrown at Santa. The Broad Street Bullies. Mumia.
"I heard it's dangerous?" people state in a question when I travel.
I used to try to convince them otherwise. Now I just look at them until they go away. But that's just the East Coast attitude you read about in the Times online. Somewhere else. Far away.
In Pennsport there are footprints in the negative space of gold spraypaint bursts on the sidewalk. Two street. Not Second street. The middle of the street is a collage of cigarette butts, Pabst cans, and silly string. Echoes of "Who Let the Dogs Out?" reverberate back and forth from the different New Year's Association signs. At the Mummers Museum they still look surprised when people walk in.
At the Shamrock on Reed, Kelly tells me that my eye's all red.
"I know. Dirt or something."
"Dirt from where?" Kelly asks. He's slumped on a bar stool, his back curved. His ass hangs over the edge of the stool. His legs are on the top rung so his knees pull up almost to his chest. But he looks comfortable.
"Well how the fuck did it get in your eye from the pavement?"
I order a beer and look at the bottles lined up behind the bar.