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Non-ceremonious Smudgings in the Tunnels of Philadelphia

If you have followed us for a while, you may have recognized that a few of us spent time living in Philadelphia. Philadelphia, in our opinion, is a city that must be lived in to be full appreciated. The best parts of Philly, the most distinctive parts, the most memorable and sacred, are small moments that can only be experienced spontaneously and often unexpectedly.

One of these moments happens in the evening when leaving the SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) subway and trolley station on the west side of Philly across from 30th Street Train Station, the main train station serving Philadelphia with both Amtrak and Main Line commuter tracks. Allow us to set the scene:

The trollies in West Philly are used predominantly by students, making their way to the University of Pennsylvania or Drexel, and nurses, doctors, and patients traveling to the Hospitals. There are also the occasional tourists looking for the Liberty Bell, although it’s unusual to find non-locals using the aboveground and underground trolley system. The trolleys themselves are small and aren’t exemplary demonstrations of cleanliness or organization but we loved the ritual of taking them. Something about pulling the rope running along the windows to indicate to the driver your stop is approaching felt intimate and endearingly antiquated.

Most of the underground trolley stations are small, dimly lit, and perpetually damp. Somewhat post-apocalyptic, the stations feel forgotten and the energy levels of passengers seem to vaporize as they walk down the steep stairways, past suffocating turnstiles and ceaselessly caged construction sites, into the subway-tiled alcoves to await the next trolley. The station at 30th street, while significantly more populated, isn’t much of an exception to the previous generalization. Nearly everyone is rushing to or from 30th Street Station to catch a train they believe they’re late for (although anyone who takes SEPTA will know nothing is ever on time). People experiencing homelessness occupy corners of the corridors beside religious zealous trying to hand out pamphlets promoting redemption and salvation. It can be an exhausting endeavor at the end of a long day, especially when the weather is poor, as the slick surfaces ensure a strong 80% chance you’ll slip into filth. We know this sounds grim, but bear with us!

The corridor out of the 30th Street trolley station is long and winding, ultimately abutting a large wide staircase that turns up to street level. About 10 steps up, the grime and industrialism of the underground is interrupted and cleansed by a whisper of burning incense that builds with each step toward the surface until it amounts to a thick blanket of aromatic relief. Outside the entrance to the station is a street stand selling random—typically uncoordinated and disorganized—items, including incense that is burned by the stall owner to entice impulsive buyers. Regardless of whether the marketing ploy is successful, the experience of reaching this moment during a tryingly long commute home and be met by sweetness is one that we truly cherished. It was a reminder of simplistic and unexpected luxuries. The brief walk through the incense filled entrance left us with a meaningful sense of gratitude and purity, cleansing us like a non-ceremonious smudging.

If you find yourself in Philadelphia, take a trolley to 30th Street and embrace an excerpt of life in Philly; it’s sometimes dirty, impoverished, and exhausting qualities are deeply tied to its moments of simple eclectic perfection.


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