Philadelphia, a city of blue glass that shines bright against the clear sky like a fish’s scales in a river, sits perched between two metropolitan behemoths: New York and Washington D. C. Known more for its attitude and aggressive sports fans than its kindness, it can be difficult to see the attraction of the “underdog” city; however, for those who have spent time here and have grown to appreciate its gruff nature, there’s a uniqueness to Philadelphia that separates it from other cities. “We are what we are, don’t care what others think, and can rightfully stand on our own just fine without needing to convince others of some sort of magic that exists here,” my friend Nate said after returning to Philadelphia, having spent two years in Mexico. It may not sound glamorous, but it’s real. It’s more than just a symbol of prosperity and potential the way all cities are. Philadelphia just has this vibe. Even before I lived here, I knew it was different. Even before I lived here, it felt like home. My friend, Claire, said it perfectly, “It truly is a thriving city with so much personality and character with the charm of community I sense I would not feel in a larger city like New York. Philadelphia is known for being the City of Brotherly Love, the more time you spend living here the more you truly understand that motto.”
On my third day in Philadelphia, I laced up my running shoes early. It was July and without the cover of the lush trees of the Schuylkill River Bike Trail that I had grown accustomed to, it was likely to be a sweaty run. The air outside was dense. I could feel the particles of moisture move around my body as I walked down the front steps of my new brownstone building, but I didn’t care. The city—my city—was just starting to wake up. Cars choked the stretch of Broad Street on their way to work. People walked the streets with their newspapers and podcasts. As I started my music and began the run that I had mapped out, I thought about how good it felt to be a part of something larger than myself again. How, after a year in isolation with only my father and grandfather, I was one of the masses. A Philadelphian.
Running in the city is like trail running in nightmare mode. Not only do you have to make sure you don’t run into any potholes or rusting bulkheads, but you also have to weave in between people, bikes, and the dreaded cars. I had been running for a few months at that point, clocking fifteen miles a week on a good week, but I had to readjust my expectations for that morning. Head on a swivel, I darted between slower pedestrians and looked both ways before crossing streets. It was a higher risk, but fun. It made the time go by fast and, of course, further fed into the idea that I belonged to this new place that I had decided to make my home.
“In Mexico,” Nate continued, “Everything felt like a dream or adventure. And most people there are happily participating in that dream and adventure. But that makes taking life seriously difficult. As I started to focus more on my work and professional development, that environment became counterproductive, and I didn’t quite fit in anymore. So, I began to miss the normalcy of Philadelphia and the ‘corporate America’ environment. Normal people with normal jobs, careers, goals.” That’s what Philadelphia is, a working-class city full of people just living their lives. Dreams do not come true here. We do not make promises we cannot keep, and it’s this authenticity that attracts people, or, sometimes, repels them.
Three miles. That was my goal. A nice, easy run to get myself into the mindset of running in the city. It was a good run for the most part, albeit hot and the cement was tough under my feet. I felt confident and capable as I charged down Passayunk, vibing to my music and thinking of how good the shower would feel when I reached my apartment a mere half mile away. Crossing the slanted intersection at Dickinson, I saw a beat-up red pickup truck out of the corner of my eye. They’ll stop, I thought, continuing through the intersection. He’ll stop, I thought again as the truck approached. By the time I realized the driver wasn’t going to stop, it was too late. The truck hit my right shoulder, sending me hurtling towards the ground. The intersection froze. My AirPods skittered across the road. It wasn’t even eight o’clock in the morning.
“We are nice but not necessarily friendly,” Claire said. “We help each other out but will also quickly curse each other out should the occasion arise.” Picking myself up and dusting myself off after an elderly man with crazy white hair bonked me with his car, I could commiserate.
“Are you okay?” he asked, somewhat perplexed. I murmured a weak “no” as I hobbled to the curb, scared that I would cry if I said anything else. The man, Joe, pulled his truck over and sat with me until the police arrived and we could file a report. As we sat, we talked through what happened. How the stop signs were askew and where I thought he had yet to stop, he already had and had begun driving again. We also talked about life and health. He gave me his insurance information as well as his phone number. He would check in on me three times in the following weeks just to see how I was doing.
Waiting at the urgent care for my shoulder to be x-rayed, I thought about the events of the day. Embarrassment burned the back of my neck. It was only my third day in the city, and it was rejecting me. The one dream I had been working toward for years, the thing that kept me sane during the pandemic shutdown, had been smashed before my eyes like my left AirPod which had been run over after the accident. What was I to do now?
When I told the nurse what had happened, he nodded his head. “You’d be surprised how often people get hit by a car running or biking.” “Really?” I asked, rolling up my sleeve to show him my budding bruise. “Oh yeah, it’s super common,” he continued before welcoming me to the city.
It’s our experiences that make us. This was the first of many experiences that would shape me over the next three years including heartbreaks, publications, diagnoses, and friendships. Even though it was a little painful, I feel strong now, aware. When I charge up the same stretch of Broad Street that I ran just three years before, I know I’ve earned my confidence. What felt like a rejection at first has shown itself to be a baptism into the city. I think about this as I walk to my local coffee shop on Saturday mornings or sit in Columbus Park and watch my neighbors come and go. As my friend Nate once said, “I cut my teeth in Philly figuring out who I was.”
Jillian S. Benedict is a creative writer living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In her free time, she enjoys yoga, reading, and listening to music while people watching from her stoop. Her work can be found in Feels Blind Literary, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Roi Fainéant, and on Instagram @writerwithoutacause.