Understanding Philly in Signs and Blood

Signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs, it’s true. Like most cities, Philly is awash in advertisements and public service announcements. You can discern a lot about a place by what’s advertised to its residents. Sometimes an entire city can be summed up in a few measly words. “We’re getting better,” reads a message from the transit authority posted in the trolleys. I can’t imagine the level of dysfunction that prompted the transit authority to decide “We getting better” was their best they had to offer riders.  “We’re getting better,”  is still displayed just as it was when I moved here three years ago. I believe the joke’s on us. Despite a week long strike in 2009 and a fare hike in July, service in my estimation is still not very good.

But one thing the transit authority is good at is posting rules. Standard are prohibitions against eating, drinking, cursing and playing your music too loudly. Of course, these rules are violated as routinely as they are unenforced, but it’s the special warnings and alerts that are curious since they’re usually a response to troubling trends. Some buses have signs warning that “assaulting transit operators is a crime.” The goal, I can only assume, is to clear up the public’s confusion over the finer details of this obscure legal concept. But it raises the problem of now who do I punch when the bus driver yells at me for swearing or leaving my trash on the floor?

For the passive authority of the Spare-the-Driver campaign, a new safety message adorns city trolleys has all the umph! of a parent warning against eating too much candy. Against a blaze orange backdrop an iPod with big cartoon eyes and U-shaped smile is the transit authority’s proxy. The iPod explains that he wants us to enjoy listening to music while riding or waiting for public transit, but cautions against lowering our guard. The iPod’s imparting wisdom: Be aware of your surroundings and keep alert so your valuables don’t become someone else’s valuables.

It’s cute in a hopeless sort of way until you realize it’s not a joke. In recent months, top court officials have dismissed charges against 19,000 of Philadelphia’s 47,000 fugitives in a desperate effort to unclog the court system. Crimes, wipe clean off the books as though they never happened. Dismissed. And these weren’t just pot smokers and joy riders. The Inquirer reports, “Judges closed criminal cases and canceled fugitive bench warrants for thousands of accused drug dealers, drunken drivers, thieves, prostitutes, sex offenders, burglars, and other suspects.”

The article notes further that the cases were all from 1998 and earlier. That’s good until you consider the 28,000 more recently minted fugitives still prowling the streets, not to mention the culprits of unsolved crimes who have so far escaped detection. And now, in the city’s Kensington section, fears over a serial strangler who’s killed three women in just over a week are reaching fever pitch.

Keep your music down and guard up, indeed.

I’ve never actually felt unsafe here. Instead, I find myself often mesmerized with all of Philly’s seething commotion, action and mayhem. Aside from a high speed chase, a couple of exploding cars and several heated arguments, I haven’t seen too much. I certainly have never been victimized. Philly is dense, but it is small, so the madness is always feels close by. For three years I’ve lived on the edge of University City, in West Philadelphia, an area where the colleges have a brigade of security guards covering dozens of blocks, which probably makes them among the city’s safest.

My first apartment had its own security, which stood around-the-clock vigil at the corner of 46th and Chester ensuring students who lived on the first floor were safe. Nothing much ever happened. But once in awhile you’d happen upon evidence suggesting something awful and scary had happened. Like when I stepped out for coffee one sunny Saturday morning and found a blood trail across from my apartment by the church. That morning, I began to appreciate Philly.

None of the dog walkers, joggers or couples on their way to the farmer’s market seemed to notice it. For nearly a mile I followed hundreds of blood drops down Chester Avenue, up 45th Street, and down Baltimore Avenue until it went cold at Clark Park. I walked along the park’s perimeter until I found the spot where the trail picked up on the other side at 43rd and Chester. As I walked around, watching intently for the trail, I imagined a seriously wounded someone being hunted in the wee hours and hiding in the park’s dark shadows until his pursuers had gone.

If that was the case, the wounded went up to the Public Health Center, back toward Baltimore Avenue, right on 42nd and then a right back onto Chester. A few buildings down it led up a set of steps into a doorway. The inside door was locked. A second overlapping trail leading back outside ultimately led to a blood-spattered driveway alongside the building. You could see castoff on the wall and big brown splotches still drying on the sidewalk.

Was this where it began or ended? The building was on a dicier stretch of Chester Avenue and people were definitely aware that we were taking pictures of blood. Had been I been braver, I’d have asked one of several residents coming or going what the hell had happened. But I felt if I didn’t split quick I’d have my own blood trail to take pictures of.

Because I’m not a blood spatter expert, I couldn’t discern the story the trail told. So I sent some pictures to a blood spatter expert in Georgia, but he was just as clueless as I was.

“If I was a betting man and liked long odds I would tell you someone’s hand was injured and they were walking and shaking it, but even that doesn’t fully explain what I’m seeing,” he wrote back. “Every once in a while folks find weird and wonderful patterns that defy immediate explanation; you just joined that club. Once in Helsinki on the way to a store I ran across a blood trail, followed it for nearly a mile, never did find an explanation.”

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