Penn students love to Uber. Whether it’s to a Friday night downtown, to a Center City shopping trip, or even to class (DRL though), we are always using Uber to remedy our lack of cars on campus.
But while Uber is safe and convenient, I think we should learn to love the campus-accessible SEPTA system a little more. I admit I always have a mini battle with myself on deciding whether to SEPTA out to the city, but I never regret it when I choose to. That’s because, throughout the entire journey, from hopping onto a packed trolley car to emerging aboveground through the beautiful glass head house of Dilworth Park, I feel completely immersed in the Philadelphia community.
Here is my typical SEPTA experience: On a Saturday morning, I head down Spruce toward the 37th Street station, passing the Quad and a fruit cart along the way. Upon descending the stairs of the trolley-shaped entrance, I wait for a 13th-Street-bound trolley while bobbing my head to Portugal. the Man.
Once the trolley grinds into the station, I tap my trusty KeyCard against the red-rimmed SEPTA interface and let out a tiny sigh of relief when I have enough money for a ride. I move toward the back of the car to find an empty seat, which is usually not hard to find. And once the trolley rolls into motion again, I always take a discreet look around at my fellow SEPTAers.
In front of me is a young woman brushing her hair using the reflection in the window. On my left are two school-age boys having a heated discussion about a recent phone app. And right next to me sits a tired Penn Medicine nurse retiring home after a long day on call.
The vast majority of the trolley guests are black, and I admit that I usually find myself the only Asian woman seated on the trolley. But despite being rather conspicuous, I never feel out of place or somehow excluded from the ridership, which tends to vary every time.
Some passenger groups are rowdier than others or more numerous on any given day. But what’s always the same is the up-close look at pure humanity I have on the ride.
During a trip to Center City last fall, I glanced out of the trolley window and noticed two women boarding the trolley. One of them was a young mother pushing a large baby stroller and ahead of her was a tall woman with pretty cornrowed hair. The tall woman began stepping aboard the trolley, but suddenly turned around mid-step. In silence, she lifted the front end of the mother’s stroller and heaved it up and onto the trolley.
I was touched by this kind gesture and expected that the two women were friends. But I was surprised to find that once aboard, they moved to opposite ends of the trolley. I realized that this was something I’d been seeing less and less of recently — a stranger helping another stranger, without asking for help or any previous arrangement.
This is just one of many acts of humanity I see while on SEPTA. Trolley riders joke with one another and learned mothers dote on quibbling children. But some occasions aren’t quite as wholesome; once, I witnessed several passengers openly criticizing a clearly troubled woman who was yelling obscenities on board. But nonetheless, these are all things I don’t see quite as often at Penn, where the norm seems to be avoiding eye contact and interaction with strangers whenever possible.
We here at Penn have a very unfortunate habit of antagonizing the West Philadelphia community, with even the cute catchphrase, “Don’t go past 40th.” But if this is the kind of community I have been taught to avoid, one where people aren’t afraid to laugh with strangers, correct wrongdoings, and live independent and productive lives, I want to spend more time out in this community and reconsider our preconceived distrust of West Philadelphia.
So while I admit that it might not be the best idea to use the trolley or subway late at night, I highly recommend for Penn students to utilize SEPTA more often. Not only is the fare cheaper and the trip faster than Uber, but the humanity you will see makes the trip all the more worth it. And besides, who doesn’t want to look like a hardened, bona fide Philadelphian?
JENNIFER LEE is a College sophomore from Fairfax, Va. studying international relations. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org. "The Wallflower" usually appears every other Monday.
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