How to Board the West Philly Ghost Bus

(1)  It needs to be after dark.
(2)  You should be standing at a bus stop.
(3)  You need to be horribly, desperately lonely.
(4)  You can’t have a specific destination in mind.
(5)  You’ll see a bus with no route number on the display.
(6)  It will slow down but not stop, so you need to chase it.
(7)  You probably won’t catch it, but if you do…
(8)  The driver will let you on without asking you to pay.
(9)  You’ve made it this far. You might as well sit down.

I’ve recently found myself asking people I meet in West Philadelphia if they know any urban legends. Most of what I’ve heard are rumors about real people who have become local characters or stories about bodies being buried under public places. (Because Philadelphia is a relatively old city, the stories about buried bodies are mostly true!) A few people also told me about a ghostly SEPTA bus, which is famous enough to be mentioned a few times online.

According to the stories I’ve heard from university students and friendly strangers I’ve spoken with at local bars, the ghost SEPTA bus picks up people late at night, but only if they have nowhere to go and no one to miss them once they disappear onto the bus. 

There are actually a number of non-supernatural SEPTA buses that drive back along their routes through West Philly when they aren’t in service, and I occasionally see them pick up city maintenance workers and hospital staff late at night. What’s different about the ghost bus is what happens once you get on.

Apparently, there are three possibilities. The first is that the bus vanishes, and you’re never heard from again. The second is that you’re now trapped on the SEPTA bus along with the other desperate and unlucky souls who boarded before you. The third is that the bus travels back in time, albeit within a span limited to the history of the bus, and that you can signal the driver to stop when you’ve reached your desired destination in the past. 

The third possibility seems the most likely, as no one who has vanished or become trapped on the bus would be able to tell other people how this process works. Then again, it may be that a person who boards the mysterious SEPTA bus seems to vanish or sit in stasis from the perspective of someone who’s still in our timeline. There’s only one way to find out for sure…

Wizard Pants

Today is Monday, March 8. It’s supposed to get warm tomorrow, but it’s not there yet. It’s probably starting to be gorgeous in DC – this is the time of year when the plum trees bloom, and the cherries and dogwoods are right around the corner – but I am past the point in my life when I think it’s reasonable to pay $3k a month for a rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment. So now I live in West Philadelphia, which is beautiful in its own way, but it’s far enough north that there are still nasty piles of snow in the CVS parking lot.

This weekend my husband was a human slug that lumped around on the couch and rewatched old seasons of The Wire, and he was starting to get depressed from lack of sunlight. I wanted to take him on a field trip, but it’s Philadelphia. Where is there to go?

And then it hit me – Four Seasons Total Landscaping.

Four Seasons Total Landscaping is in northeast Philadelphia, a little up I-95 as it follows the Delaware River headed toward Trenton. Because it’s right on the river and right off the interstate, this used to be a manufacturing district, but now all the factories are closed and boarded shut. There’s no traffic, and everything is just sort of quietly rusting away. The roads are wide and obviously meant to accommodate tractor-trailer trucks, but they’re completely empty. Local rail lines cross above the roads on bridges, but they’re also rusting and falling down in places. It’s a little creepy and probably super dangerous.

Four Seasons Total Landscaping is on one of these big roads. As reported, it is indeed across the street from a crematorium and next door to an adult video store. The crematorium is surprisingly tasteful, and the adult video store was surprisingly busy on a Sunday afternoon. There was nothing much to see at Four Seasons Total Landscaping itself, save for an excessive amount of barbed wire on the chain-link fence in front of their parking lot and a sign out front that says they’re hiring.

The way I understand it, the Trump campaign choosing Four Seasons Total Landscaping as a venue was a characteristically stupid mistake, but this area of Philadelphia is also the only part of the city that consistently votes Republican. It’s about 85% “white,” but the majority of these people are either immigrants or the children of immigrants from Russia, Eastern Europe, and the former Soviet countries in Central Asia.

So, sitting in our car on the street outside Four Seasons Total Landscaping, we googled “Russian grocery store.” We struck gold with a place called NetCost Market, which is apparently the Eastern European equivalent of H-Mart (by which I mean large and a bit upscale but with mostly foreign brand-name products). They had a Halal butcher and a bunch of kosher food, and I have never seen such a prodigious gathering of meat and cheese and pickled fish in my entire life. They also had enormous displays of German chocolate and Northern European (mainly Russian) herbal tea, and it was all ridiculously inexpensive. We filled a shopping basket and walked out of the store having paid less than $40.

That’s not the story, though. The story is that there was a Dollar General in the same shopping center. I don’t know what Dollar General stores are like in the rest of the country, but in Philadelphia they’re all over the place and where you go to get paper goods (like toilet paper) when the neighborhood CVS or Rite Aid invariably doesn’t have any in stock. They’re super sad and depressing but also super cheap, and they’re like the Wild West in that you never know what fell off the back of a truck somewhere and is currently on sale.

Since the Dollar General was right there, and since we already had the car, I was like, “Listen, I know this is supposed to be a fun day out, but we’re almost out of paper towels.” So we went into the Dollar General, and…

They had wizard pants.

I don’t know how else to describe them – dark blue and black pants covered with various patterns depicting stars, planets, and constellations. Some were high fantasy European, and some were more geometric West African, but they were all fabulous. It might be a stretch to call these pants “tasteful,” but the prints were beautiful. The fabric wasn’t the sort of rough flannel normally used for pajama pants, but a light synthetic cotton like yoga pants, except it was loose and flowing instead of tight and “shaping.” Each pair was $8 even.

My first thought was “holy shit,” which was quickly followed by the realization that I could probably buy these in bulk and resell them on Etsy for an enormous markup. (Which I would never do because that’s too much trouble and lol what, am I going to use myself as a model.) And then I thought, But why is American athletic clothing and longuewear always so gray and boring? Why doesn’t everyone own at least one pair of wizard pants?

So I’m just standing there, right in the middle of the store, staring at these pants and having galaxy brain thoughts, and my husband comes up with the paper towels and is like, “Please hurry up and pick one so we can leave.”

And that’s how I got myself a snazzy pair of wizard pants. They are magical and I love them very much.

I have never seen wizard pants at any other Dollar General location, but I promise this is a real place. It’s the store in the shopping center with the NetCost Market at 2417 Welsh Road.

By the way, when I say that Dollar General is super depressing, what I mean is that it has a bare-bones interior with ghastly fluorescent lighting. The stores are always comically understaffed, so the shelves are in total disarray while there’s just one lonely person at the check-out counter. I used to work at Walmart, and to me Dollar General looks like it’s just a stockroom with no sales floor, by which I mean there’s no attempt to make the space pleasant and inviting. They also sell highly processed American junk food in bulk, which is depressing in a way that runs much deeper than the immediate shopping experience.

I suspect that some people will read what I wrote about Dollar General and jump to the conclusion that I think working-class people are depressing. I actually don’t have much money myself, and the point of my story is that traversing an urban landscape becomes much more interesting when you put stereotypes and generalizations aside in favor of thinking about the histories of specific communities and the daily experiences of the people who live there. I am not slumming it, or whatever, by going to the grocery store in a different neighborhood as a fun day out.

That being said.

These wizard pants transcend social and economic class. They also transcend time and space. They are fantastic and amazing. I don’t know where they came from or where they’re going, but it is a privilege and an honor to accompany them on their journey.

Anyway. I lived in Philadelphia on and off for seven or eight years before moving to DC, but I’m just now realizing that I don’t know the city very well. It will be nice to get out more once the weather gets warmer and we all get properly vaccinated.

Apartment Hunting

I moved to Philadelphia earlier this year. The circumstances weren’t ideal, and I only had a few days to find an apartment. I went on a few tours of large buildings and fancy condos, all of which were way out of my budget. Besides, I wouldn’t want to live in a place like that anyway.

I decided to pursue a different strategy. Instead of looking for listings online, I drove through several neighborhoods and took photos of places with For Rent signs outside. I sat in my car, made a list of phone numbers, and agreed to meet with anyone who picked up when I called.

This was how I found myself standing on the sagging porch of an old townhouse in West Philly with ornamental spires above the windows and a historic registry plaque beside the front entryway. A woman with a colorless suit and a severe haircut met me at the door and handed me a blank application form. Just in case, she said.

The interior was much larger than I expected. I’d never been inside a townhouse before, and I wasn’t prepared for how far back the hallway would stretch. The doors were strangely small, and the ceiling seemed far too high. This must be the building’s historic character, I told myself. Local color. The realtor wasn’t interested in conversation, so I stopped to take a picture of the crown molding, which was ornamented with carvings of infinitely spiraling vines.

When I looked up from my phone, I realized that I was alone. The hallway in front of me was dark, so I turned around and began walking back the way I came.

There were more turns and staircases than I remembered. As I walked, the floor grew spongy underneath my feet. My shoes made unpleasant squelching noises with every step. I started to notice that there were small mushrooms crouching in the corners of the walls and creeping up the support beams between doors.

I swallowed my embarrassment and called out to the realtor, but no one answered. I tried dialing the number printed on the For Rent sign, but no one picked up. I was lost, I realized. I’d somehow lost my way outside. At least I still had the application form.

It’s not so bad, all things considered. I was alarmed at first, but I’ve gotten used to it, and it’s not as if there’s anything I can do. I guess I live here now.

.

This was my submission to the 2020 Philly Zine Fest Anthology. You can download a free PDF copy of the anthology (here). The Philly Zine Fest is held in West Philadelphia every November, and you can stay updated on Twitter (here).

A Christmas Story

My husband is a fan of British football, and his hobby is to scroll through Twitter on his phone while he watches pirate livestreams of matches on his laptop. If I happen to be in the room at the same time, he’ll sometimes read me news headlines from Twitter.

This past Friday morning, he informed me that Visa and Mastercard are no longer accepting charges from Pornhub. “But isn’t Pornhub free?” I asked him. “Maybe they have premium content,” he said. I wanted to ask who pays for “premium content” on Pornhub, but my tea was done brewing and I had emails to write.

Along with British football, my husband is a fan of Germany. I’m not sure how this happened, but I think I can guess.

One summer my husband was scheduled to give a paper at an academic conference in Europe, and we flew through Amsterdam because flights were cheap. My husband wanted to stay in the city for a few days until he got over the jetlag, so he rented an Airbnb in a student apartment at the top of a townhouse. It was high summer, and the apartment didn’t have air conditioning, and I was tired, so I complained. “This is how people do things in Europe,” he said, and I said, “Amsterdam is budget Europe.”

For the record, I don’t actually think Amsterdam is “budget Europe.” I like Amsterdam a lot, and I love the Netherlands in general. To geek out a little, I’m interested in how “science” developed in the Edo period, especially through what people at the time called “Dutch learning.” While the Japanese were studying Dutch medicine and culture, the Dutch were also studying Japanese medicine and culture, and it’s so cool to see the legacy of that exchange in Holland, especially in its botanical gardens. The comics subculture in the Netherlands is also really interesting, and I’ve had nothing but fantastic experiences talking with the artists and writers I’ve met there.

So Amsterdam is not “budget Europe,” obviously. I was just being a brat.

My husband’s pride was offended, however, so before we flew back to the United States he decided to rent a car and go to “not budget Europe,” which he had apparently designated as Germany. Specifically, he wanted to go to the kebab shop that the former Arsenal star player Lukas Podolski opened in the city of Cologne. So we went, and Cologne was beautiful, and the kebabs were delicious, and we got fresh bread at a nearby bakery that ended up being some of the best bread I’ve ever eaten in my life. It was a fun drive, and we had a good time, and now my husband is in love with Germany.

After watching his football match, my husband informed me that he wanted to get German food for lunch at the “Christmas village” that the city of Philadelphia has set up in front of the City Hall building. Despite the city of Philadelphia being what it is – saying “budget New York” might sound mean, but I’m proud to live here and say it with affection – the German-themed carnival set up around City Hall is quite nice.

I staked out a table and remained there to hold down the fort while my husband stood in line to get beer and borscht and wienerschnitzel. It didn’t take long for me to realize that no one else was eating lunch at the German fair in the freezing cold at eleven on a Friday morning, so I had a good ten minutes to sit alone and listen to the pre-recorded Christmas music coming from the cheap speakers set up around the edges of the tables. It was awful. I’m not a fan of Christmas music to begin with, but this was something special. I think there’s brand-name Christmas music that gets played on broadcast radio, and then there’s Christmas music that’s cheaper to license. Budget Christmas music?

I was especially disturbed by a rendition of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” that sounded as though it were being sung by a man who had a gun pointed at the back of his head. I’m not sure how to describe it, but you could tell from the tone of his voice that his smile wasn’t reaching his eyes.

The feeling this performance inspired in me was, “Is this person okay?”

I imagine that the singer probably wasn’t okay. What if he had gone to Julliard, thinking that he wanted to work with a professional choir one day? He might have even specialized in medieval Christian religious music. But there’s probably not a lot of demand for that sort of thing, especially not during a pandemic. So he calls in a favor and gets hired to record “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” for Xfinity Radio or whatever, and he hates every second of it. He made his life choices when he was still young and idealistic, and now his student loans have trapped him in an industry he despises more with each passing day.

He gets back to his apartment after the recording session and eats cheap take-out food that already got cold while he climbed the stairs to his walk-up, and he thinks about all the sacrifices he’s made to become a professional singer. All of his classmates used to go out drinking after performances, but he never did, not wanting to risk damage to his voice by yelling to be heard in a noisy bar. Most of his friends from high school who followed more practical paths into adulthood are already married, and some of them even have houses. He’s lonely, not to mention broke, and none of the thousands of hours he’s put into perfecting his craft have gotten him anywhere in life. He gives up on dinner and turns on his computer before deciding that it’s probably best not to check social media, not tonight. While he’s got his computer open, he might as well go to Pornhub. Try as he might, though, he just can’t seem to finish, and he thinks that he would do anything to be able to forget the decisions he made when he was younger and believed the world was a better place than it turned out to be.

And so, I thought as I sat by myself at a socially distanced table and listened to sad Christmas music echo across an empty parking lot in Philadelphia, that’s who pays for premium content on Pornhub. Except not anymore, apparently, because Visa and Mastercard have cut off all payments to the site.

Happy holidays!

Re: A Golden Mean

Okay, I’ll admit it. There’s one thing Twitter is extremely useful for, and that’s organizing grassroots protest movements. I wish, though…

…and I’m not saying that everything needs to be SERIOUS BUSINESS all (or even most of) the time, because lord knows life is hard and we all need a break, but…

…I wish that conversations about social justice on social media were less about attacking people who like “abusive” fictional characters and more about sharing concrete resources (not to mention specific times and places) for civil disobedience. I’m so fucking scared of mentioning anything even remotely related to race and gender and sexuality and disability in fandom that sometimes I forget how incredibly empowering it feels to actually be a part of a real social movement.

That being said, I’m happy that I’ll be moving to Philadelphia, where community action and organization tends to be easier to access and join in person. I’d like protest to be an aspect of my daily life, not something I can only learn about and join when I get the news that something is happening on Twitter.

As a bizarre side note: This was a weird time to learn, without doubt, that J.K. Rowling does in fact spend time on TERF blogs and forums. Yikes. I hate call-out culture when it’s directed against independent creators in marginal positions, but this is the sort of thing I would in fact like to know.

Crosswalk



This comic was drawn by Frankiesbugs (@frankiesbugs on Tumblr) and written by me, Kathryn Hemmann (@kathrynthehuman on Twitter).

This actually happened to me in Philadelphia in 2012. It was super creepy, and I still think about it sometimes. Maybe this is just me, but I’m not entirely sure that Philadelphia exists in consensus reality.