Writing

Lost in the ‘burbs of Philadelphia

It was the spring of 1991. I had spent two years in Washington DC as a grad student immersed in the Deaf world of Gallaudet University. I was looking forward to finishing my studies and starting work as a sign language interpreter. The last hurdle was to find myself a 3-month internship.  After a number of false starts I managed to line up a possible position with an agency that contracted interpreters in Philadelphia. They were keen to have me come work for them, all they wanted was a chance to meet me and cement the deal. So on a sunny Friday I took the train from D.C. to Philly. Having never been there before, I decided to splurge and stay at (where else) but the famous Hershey Hotel!

Saturday morning dawned, a beautiful sunny day. This was before the days of Google map, and I  only had the address to the agency’s office – somewhere out in the ‘burbs of Philly. So down to the concierge I went. After a somewhat protracted discussion with him I set off for the subway, to take a train and then a bus; eventually I was unceremoniously dumped out onto a sidewalk to make my way to the office. It was lunchtime.

After the interview was over, I set off again to catch the bus-train-subway back to downtown Philly.  I got to the road and hit my first major snag. I couldn’t remember what side of the street I had disembarked onto, and hence, didn’t know which side I should wait on to catch the bus. Did I mention I am directionally impaired? I made my best guess, however, and waited. Eventually a bus came along and on it I got.

The bus wandered all over hells half acre before I decided it maybe wasn’t going the way I needed it to go. I got up and asked the driver (not, as it happened, for the first time during this trip) and he confirmed my suspicions, I was not going the right way. So next stop, out I got and crossed the street to wait. Time passed.  Eventually I got on another bus. By this time I was getting fairly stressed. I had no idea where I was, no idea whether I was even on the original bus route I had taken to get out and no idea how to get back to the hotel. I sat down on a seat near the front. The bus was full of commuters, and no one looked particularly friendly. Eventually I got up my nerve, and turned to the gentleman sitting next to me. “Excuse me, I was wondering if you know how to get back downtown?” However, what was a bad trip quickly became worse. It seemed the young man I had addressed was developmentally delayed, and my talking to him threw him into a complete tizzy. As I stammered out my apologies, the man and his companion moved away from me and I was left with people eyeing me out of the corners of their eyes.  And I still didn’t know where I was or how to get home!

The bus continued to jolt along, people came and went and still no hint of a highrise or even a city anywhere. Miles upon miles of nothing but houses. I had to do something. So I got up and squeezed my way to the front. Surely the bus driver wouldn’t mind answering my question – after all it was part of his job. “Excuse me, sir but can you tell me how to get back to downtown Philadelphia?” I asked. The answer though was a stunner: “muhmmh mu n L” was what it sounded like. “Excuse me?” I repeated, and he did, exactly as he had the first time. I thought about asking again and decided it was hopeless. I’d just go sit down and see where I ended up. On and on we went.

The suburban landscape of ticky-tacky houses slowly changed to shop fronts and slightly larger streets, but still no indication of downtown. Finally, the bus turned into a roundabout, and everyone around me began to get ready to get off. This was the end of the ride. I sat there feeling more and more panicked, when one of the people getting off – a well dressed business man – turned to me and said two words “follow me”. So I did. Off the bus, across a median through some doors and towards a turnstile. It would seem we were going down into a subway system. The man asked if I had what I needed for the fare, I said yes, so we continued on and down the stairs. The last thing he said to me as he disappeared down the platform was “you want to get onto that train”. I looked to my left, and indeed there was a train there with all its doors open, and NO ONE on it. So. I popped on, and sat down expectantly, waiting for the doors to close. But no. It was not to be that easy. The train sat, and I sat, and the train sat … and … well the only thing that kept me there was the full and certain knowledge that I didn’t have anywhere else to go or anyone else to ask. After what seemed like hours but probably wasn’t, people started to trickle in. Finally I wasn’t the only person sitting on the train!  Even later, the doors chimed a warning, closed, and we were off!!!

My train was moving, I was presumably headed in the right direction and maybe at some point I was going to get home? I started watching the stops and reading the subway map and eventually figured out where I was and that, by deduction, I knew where I needed to be! For the first time in hours my stomach unknotted itself somewhat and I relaxed. Commuters came and went and then, finally, it was my station. I got off, only to find myself, yet again, completely disoriented. I still didn’t recognize anything! And yet I knew that I was at the right station – 15th Street Station. And firmly fixed in my head was the intersection I needed to get to – JFK and Broad. People washed around me as I stood, an agony of indecision. There were any number of exits I could take, but which one would take me the right way?  Ah ha! I spotted a policeman, and to a damsel in distress such as I, he looked a mighty fine sight. “Excuse me, sir but can you tell me how to get to the corner of JFK and Broad?” I asked in my best Canadian girl accent. He gave me an odd, longish look and then (without saying a word) simply turned and, as he looked, I looked up and there, written on the wall in letters at least six feet high were the words “JFK and Broad Street, exit to right” with (even) an arrow! Heh.

So off I went, and after wandering through a dingy tunnel I emerged blinking, feeling mole-like, into the dim and rapidly dimmer light of the early evening. So there I was. But where was there? I was on a sidewalk of two huge streets with cars and people streaming by in every direction. And which direction was I to go? My hotel was not visible and I didn’t have a clue (again) which way to go. So off I wandered, down a street that was first a boulevard then an avenue and gradually became just a street. It was getting really dark now, and cold and to top it all off it had started to rain. Finally I saw a store that was lit up – and again I plunged in to get directions. This time though, the patrons and owner of the pharmacy were thoroughly helpful, told me (at length) how I was going the wrong way, got me turned around and finally on the right road to the hotel.

I got back to my hotel well after 8, starving, drenched and tired to the bone. The final straw to the day was the discovery that there was no hot water and that warm bath I was promising myself just wasn’t going to happen.

Later on, the agency that hired me for my internship told me that the mere fact that I got there on just their address alone was enough to qualify me for the job! However, I never did tell them about the struggles I had had getting back!

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