The 23 bus: Philly's moving tragicomedy

The old Route 23 trolley on Germantown Avenue. A SEPTA bus of the same designation now runs in its stead.
The old Route 23 trolley on Germantown Avenue. A SEPTA bus of the same designation now runs in its stead. (Inquirer archive)
Posted: August 03, 2011

By Constance Garcia-Barrio

The woman sitting beside me on the 23 bus that night twitched like a St. Vitus' dance patient being attacked by hornets. When she had almost reached the point of frenzy, she bent forward and hid her face near her knees. In the flurry of movement, I glimpsed a spoon, some white powder, and a flash of flame. Then she sat back and subsided into a muttering half-sleep.

The dope fix was just the latest mini-drama to play out on the Route 23 bus, Philly's rolling tragicomedy show. As a Germantowner and regular SEPTA rider, I witness and sometimes get sucked into the rawness, romance, and outrageousness of one of the city's longest bus routes. No wonder a friend of mine asks that I disinfect my hands at her front door if I've come on the 23.

Especially in the summer, between asthmatic air-conditioning and overheated crowds, passengers turn ornery. One day, an old man who boarded at 11th and Market called out for a stop at Spring Garden. The driver pulled over, but the man couldn't squeeze through the jammed-in bodies. "Let me off," he wailed. "I ain't trying to feel nobody. I just want to get out!"

Then he made the mistake of adding, with a grin, "Hell, maybe somebody wants to feel me." A heavyset woman swung toward him, her bulk clearing a path through the crowd. She looked flushed, tired, and on high simmer. "You're an old man on a cane," she said. "Ain't nobody trying to touch you. Now get off." Her clenched fists gave him wings.

Sometimes I get drawn into the fray. Once, I happened to sit beside a handsome dude of sixty-something, the right age for me. I flirted with him, and when his stop came, he hinted at taking me to dinner. I'm too old-school for quick invites, but I said maybe next time. My potential beau was also using a cane, but what's an arthritic hip among friends?

As for the 23's non-arthritic passengers, their overheard cellphone chats leave me in awe and envy of their romantic athletics. Then again, other exchanges spill heartache. One night, a man in his twenties said into his phone, "Will you let me in if I knock, Dad?" He swayed and slurred his words, adding, "I have nowhere else to go."

Thanks to the coaching of my girlfriends, I was ready when I saw the good-looking old gent again. I rode a block past my stop to get his number. Alas, though, the digital divide prevailed: I called a few times, but he didn't have voice mail.

The wackiest moments take place after dark. About 10 o'clock one night, I boarded at 11th and Walnut, and a stinky man maneuvered his red motorized wheelchair into place with difficulty. He took nips from a bottle until we reached his stop, Germantown and Chelten.

By then, he'd gotten so drunk that he couldn't control the scooter. We sat through eight changes of the light while he fumbled with the controls. The other passengers rained insults on him and threatened to dump him off the bus. In a sense, they finally did: Four men virtually lifted him, still in his scooter, off the bus and onto the curb.

The ghosts of the Indians who once trod the trail that became the Great Road and, later, Germantown Avenue may be laughing at us on the 23. The avenue has become a National Historic Landmark, but it remains a monument to strange urban exploits. Listen for the driver who says, "Broad and Erie. Make sure the hands in your pockets are your own."


Constance Garcia-Barrio

is a Philadelphia writer.

She can be reached at cgarcia-barrio@wcupa.edu.

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