What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards stairway four, track four?
If you live or work in New York for more than a couple of months, you start thinking of it as the center of the universe. It’s understandable — crack open the New Yorker and you get smart, witty writing and Roz Chast cartoons: pick up Philadelphia Magazine and you get trite, chirpy features on “our most eligible singles!” hemmed in on all sides by ads for Botox injections and diamond tennis watches. Manhattan hipsters? The hippest. New York deli operators? The fastest, making counter operators in all other cities seem glacial by comparison. I want to bark like a drill sergeant at the nice lady behind the counter of the Cookie Cafe in Philadelphia’s Thirtieth Street Station, where I have exactly four minutes and thirty seconds to purchase a muffin and coffee each morning.
All of which is slightly discouraging to me, now that I’ve chosen Philadelphia as my home base. I’m trying to cheer myself up by finding the things that Philly is really good at, so I can focus on those things. Cheese steaks are a big plus, of course, and the crew shells on the Schuykill river are a welcome sight every morning.
So I suppose it’s at least partially understandable that I was enormously cheered this morning when I saw, sitting on the bench next to Stairway Four in Thirtieth Street, a crazy homeless man that was at least of national caliber. He might even have been world class.
It started simply enough; I was standing in line at the Cookie Cafe, as usual, biting back my frenzied expostulations to hurry the hell up, already, when I heard the indignant, half-mumbled expostulations that occasion a quick glance: cell phone or no cell phone?
No cell phone. White guy, mid-fifties, beard, medium filthy. But what he was saying was oddly, prophetically riveting:
“Multiple fiber optics…”
Now, I don’t mean to be too trite about this experience — the man was probably homeless, probably mentally ill, so calling him “world class” is snide, no question. But he was educated, and his mumbling fell squarely into a category that has been labeled “Physics Psycho” by the librarians of Internet arcana at Portal of Evil*. Seriously, if you were going to film a science-fiction/horror thriller about an ancient cybernetic evil about to be unleashed on the world, you’d use this guy to babble about it to Bruce Willis before the opening credits.
Suddenly, he stood up and pointed directly at me.
“That’s the way empires fall!” he yelled in a cracked, hysterical tenor, his piercing blue gaze boring through me. “Wrongness! WRONGNESS!”
Okay, well he didn’t leap to his feet, and he didn’t point at me, and he didn’t shout in a cracked, hysterical tenor, but he did say that stuff, and it was still pretty cool. Cooler than any of the dozen or so regulars I recognize on my way to and from [My employer] and Penn Station in New York each day.
So there you have it. Philadelphia: world capital of heartbroken, unbalanced Ph.D. conspiracy theorists!
* My personal favorites: Time Cube, a rant that goes on as long and incomprehensibly as the fine print on a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s soap. Also (in my own experience), the Marshall McLuhan-meets-Doctor Doolittle-at-Luke-Skywalker’s-house madness of Dr. Peter Beamish , director of Ocean Contact in Trinity, Newfoundland. Plus,