When I first set foot in Philadelphia, I was expecting San Francisco 2.0.
At first, what I saw seemed to fit with this idea. There were towering buildings, cigarette-smoking, long-coat wearing people in the shadows, and, of course, the smells. But it didn’t take long wandering the city for me to notice the key difference between this place and my West Coast haven.
These streets told stories.
Old tales and new ones, all at once. You walk down one block, and there’s an ancient building with metal curlicues and detailed stonework that I swear was carved by fairies. On the other side of the street, you have a full wall mural. Not a slap-shod, three-feet high graffiti sketch, but a full-blown illustration of a fantastical realm of imagination. A giant window into a completely new world, and with the colors and the vibrant characters, I felt like I could have walked right in.
But my favorite story from the streets of Philadelphia was told by its people. I was with my scavenger hunt group, running around the city for Orientation, and the first thing we heard was the beat. Hands clapping in unison, keeping time to something on the other side of the street, hidden from our view by a crowd of people. We crossed, and the next thing we heard were the voices.
The call and response was between members of a group of street performers, whose words echoed across the circle they formed with the crowd. The dancer in the center balanced on a single hand, his legs forming the splits in the air. Another performer replaced him, spinning down and jumping over his own leg.
“Philip our pockets!”
At this last shouted response, the entire group of performers formed a line, holding their hats out in front of them, grinning at the crowd. A couple people tossed in dollar bills, while one of the performers continued to shout.
“Anything you can donate counts! But please, if you have nothing to give,”
“Do not kill the show!”
“Help support our group to keep kids off the streets! Even if you have nothing, do not leave!”
“Do not kill the show!”
The crowd remained, waiting as the group made their rounds. A performer stepped into the middle and put his hand on the shoulder of a fellow dancer.
“Now, ladies and gentlemen, we need a volunteer!”
When one of the performers brought forward a girl wearing an Arcadia t-shirt, our little group cheered. He positioned her in the center of the circle, whispered something in her ear that made her giggle nervously, and turned to the performer who, he informed us, was going to jump over her while she was standing up. All of our hearts were beating as fast as hers, watching the jumper. Could he really do it?
“Keyword! He called to the other performers. The jumper had backed up to the edge of the circle, doing exaggerated stretches. Maybe this was a joke, and he wasn’t really going to make it.
“Keyword!” The others shouted back. The jumper came forward and put his hands on the girl’s shoulders, said something to her, turned her so that she wasn’t facing him, and then backed away again, staying in a crouch. I was worried now. What if he had overestimated his ability? I was sure he was an accomplished entertainer, but could he really jump over someone standing straight up?
“Keyword!” The leader said again.
This time, the rest of the group’s response was the loudest yet, all of it directed at the girl in the center of the circle.
“Do not move!”
The jumper took off, reaching the girl at a low run, and spun sideways through the air, clearing the top of her head by an eighth of an inch.
He landed in a clean crouch, and the girl let out her nervous laughter while the crowd cheered. The jumper shook her hand, grinning.
My group applauded the loudest, shaking our heads incredulously, cheering on our fellow Knight. I watched the girl go back to her friends, trying to figure out the moral of the story. Keyword; do not move. I tried to relate the girl to my life, to beginning college. But that was a mistake. Just because she had on an Arcadia t-shirt didn’t mean that she was the one I was supposed to relate to. Instead, I looked over at the jumper, returning to his group and receiving high-fives, and I realized what his story was really saying.
Starting a new life, starting college, has involved everything but staying still. My fellow first years and I aren’t the girl in the center, we’re the jumper. We’re beginning a new part of our lives, overcoming obstacles we couldn’t imagine, and the whole time we have to have this unshakable faith in ourselves that we will overcome them, even if it’s only by an eighth of an inch.