Before sunrise, I have walked 2 miles through the city of Philadelphia on most working days. An excitable fellow looks for me when I pass CVS, announcing to everyone, “This guy! Every day at quarter to six!” Unfortunate, I tell myself, and wave.
There are as many cats as people, this time of day. No one wants to cuddle. Actually, that is interesting. Yesterday I saw a dark skinned man escorting an anorexic blonde woman; we crossed paths. You see it occasionally. They don’t say anything to me.
Today a guy spotted me. He made such a to-do in asking for a light that it was only afterwards that I noticed the adrenaline in my thighs. But I told him I didn’t smoke and he muttered even though I apologized: I was very sorry for not smoking.
A lady tried to sell me prescription drugs off her front porch. She asked if I like percocets. She asked if I liked jewelry. She asked me what I liked and I said I like to read a book. That satisfied her interest -- but for the next few days I worried she would be waiting for me on that unlit porch.
People ask you for money, and most of the time I try to accommodate them. This can be complicated by the fact that I don’t usually carry cash. Ideally, I have some handy for this purpose, somewhere that is easily accessible. But when I don’t, I just tell them that I’m sorry and that I don’t have any change. Most people accept that, but it’s good to look them in the eye. I can’t imagine ignoring someone altogether. Some people say that mendicants are either drug addicts or millionaires, but the fact is you don’t know their situation and everybody has to eat sometime.
Something surprised me once; it changed the way I look at my commute. This was in winter -- not when you expect to have problems. Nobody is hanging out on the corner, for example.
These two weren’t hanging out but moving through my neighborhood, the very beginning of my walk, with a lot of commotion. Later I would think that they were probably laborers in the Italian Market based on how they were dressed, the direction they were traveling, and the hour of the day.
They were ahead of me, going in the same direction, carrying on what I would call an angry exchange with the world. Naturally, it occurred to me to avoid them; subconsciously, I must have thought that by going toward them, I could. They cut across the street, to my side, proceeding down a small perpendicular alley.
The second one saw me, half a block away, just as he reached the mouth of the alley. He motioned for his buddy, who reappeared. For the first time they were perfectly quiet, watching. City lighting must have revealed a tall, thin person without much detail; for my part, I could see two dark shapes, the first stocky, the second tall and thin, in hoodies.
The first started what I interpreted to be a kind of routine.
“Yo, whatzup?” he said with pointed hostility.
“What’s going on?”
“You tell me.”
“Just going to work.”
The conservation dropped out as we came into view of one another.
“Hey! Aslaam Alaikum, my brother,” said the first, seeing that I had a large beard. “Are you Muslim?”
This was not a new question for me in my comings and goings around Philadelphia. People always asked me if I was Muslim, Amish, orthodox Jewish, and so on; and my friends and family needled me about the fact they did. I had different versions of the same basic answer, which in this case I stated simply as, “I believe in the truth.”
Unfortunately, this was taken to mean that “the truth” is I something I hold to be in opposition, or superior, to Islam.
“Oh yeah, what’s the truth?”
“Make your own truth,” I said.
A pause, then, “Man, you don’t believe in the truth!”
But the truth was that I was past them. The second guy urged the first to drop it. “Come on, man.”