SEPTA award: Proud, with a capital Pee

Posted: March 06, 2013

AS I WAS watching the Academy Awards last week - the red carpet, the paparazzi, the cleavage - I was struck by the thought that Philadelphia missed a big opportunity a few months back to glitz up an award of its own.

There were no breathless speeches or fawning reporters on hand for that one, though. Just a gaggle of tattooed passengers yelling obscenities in a stinky train station. OK, maybe it wasn't exactly like that, but that's the way I would've announced that SEPTA had won the 2012 transit Oscar - the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) award for Outstanding Public Transportation System in a major metropolitan area.

But let's not focus on how the award was or wasn't announced some months back. Let's talk about the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority actually winning an Oscar. I mean, it's nice that SEPTA has spent gobs of money to fix everything from the Market-Frankford El to the Girard Avenue train station. But do they really deserve an award when the City Hall subway station still smells like pee?

I'm thinking there might have been some kind of mistake. Maybe APTA meant to give SEPTA some lesser award, like Best Pee Smell in a Major Subway Station, or Most Layers of Grime on a Bus, Train or Trolley.

Maybe it wasn't supposed to be an Oscar at all. Maybe it was supposed to be a Grammy. You know, for best gangster rap by a duo or group. What's the name of the song again? Oh yeah, it's called, "Screw the Passengers," by DWA - Drivers With Attitudes.

Perhaps you've seen the music video. It starts with a teenager running for the bus in a driving snowstorm. It's the last bus of the afternoon, and if the kid misses it, he'll be late for his first day at work. The camera cuts to the bus driver. Then everything slows down as he watches the teen's last desperate strides toward the bus. Just as the kid is about to reach the double doors, the driver pulls off with a fiendish, gold-toothed grin.

OK, maybe that's not really a music video, but perhaps it should be, because if you've ever had to ride SEPTA, especially during a blizzard, you've had that sneering driver pull away while you were running for the bus.

But it's not the mean drivers, the funky stations or the dirty vehicles that make SEPTA such an odd pick for the transit Oscar. It's the people.

Yep, the passengers make SEPTA the weirdest place on Earth, and I've been reminded of that over the last two months as my Center City job has forced me to do something I swore off long ago: ride public transportation.

Some of you will think I'm wrong for saying this, and maybe you'll be right, but riding the Market-Frankford El through downtown Philly is like plunking down $2 for a freak show. I've seen people with shamrocks tattooed on their necks, Liberty Bells tattooed on their faces and piercings in places that I thought would kill you. I've seen body parts that should be exposed only to spouses or medical professionals.

I shudder to think what will happen when the weather turns warm.

Riding the El means seeing dozens of young women with elaborate breast murals, and wondering what they'll do when they turn 60. It means asking yourself, does the school system teach kids to curse that way, or are they just naturally gifted orators? It means silently empathizing with people, obviously tourists, who seem confused when people start yelling in the aisles.

Yes, it's weird. No doubt about it, but I'm relearning the rules of the rails. Look straight ahead and try not to stare at the dude with the piercings in his forehead. Don't touch the bars if you want to stay healthy, but wear sturdy gloves if you must.

That sudsy yellow stuff running down the aisle isn't beer, so don't let it touch your foot. And whatever you do, don't sit down in the stinky chair. The odor gets off the train with you.

Finally, and perhaps most important, ride SEPTA as if you're starring in a movie. It'll be easier to deal with the drama that way. And if you need help seeing your daily commute as a film, try to remember this little tidbit: SEPTA won an Oscar.


Solomon Jones is the author of 10 books, including his latest novel, The Dead Man's Wife (Minotaur Books), and the humor collection Daddy's Home: A Memoir of Fatherhood and Laughter. The married father of three has been featured on NPR and CNN, and has written on parenting for Essence and other publications. He created the literacy program Words on the Street. His column appears Tuesdays. More at Solomonjones.com.

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