I miss strangers. I never thought I would say that because at heart I’m kind of a homebody and a secret introvert. But after a year without strangers I want them back.
The hardest part of this year was missing out on serendipitous interactions and collisions with people I never thought I would meet. How could I have known that those chance meetings were so life-sustaining, the small conversations at the park, waiting for the stoplight to change color, in line at the grocery store or waiting for a table at a crowded overpriced restaurant.
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Back in the days when we could go into restaurants and sit at bars I waited in the standby line at Zahav at 4:30 in the afternoon hoping to secure a coveted seat at their bar without a reservation. I was due to give birth literally any second and I wanted my stomach to be full of delicious food when I did. My husband and I waited in line and I bitched and moaned about something to do with one of my books, as we all did back in the days when our jobs were the only thing we had to bitch and moan about.
A man behind me in line said, “Oh are you a writer?” I said yes and we got talking. He introduced himself as Reginald Betts and told us he was a writer too. In fact he was about to give a talk at the Free Library. He was down from New York and had a hankering for some Zahav. All three of us ended up sitting next to one another at the bar and trading stories. He told us his, about how he spent more than eight years in jail after a conviction at 16, how he taught himself poetry, how he ended up going to Yale and becoming an attorney and then an award-winning poet who gave talks at the Free Library. I was in awe of Betts that day. I still am. I read through a lot of his poems as I was working on our podcast with The Citizen on the gun violence epidemic plaguing our city. He stayed with me even though we met for less than an hour.
The hardest part of this year was missing out on serendipitous interactions and collisions with people I never thought I would meet.
That’s what I missed the most this year. Strangers, serendipity.
But I’ve also started to think more and more throughout this year that we live in an intense culture of complaining. And that comes from social media—people feed off of each others’ complaints, and feed off of each others’ negativity. And this year was truly terrible for so many people. The people who had it the worst have been the ones who have complained the least. Now that there is a light at the end of this long tunnel I want us to think about the things we complain about and how we complain about them. Sometimes I think that our expectations that life should be excellent all the time are simply too high to begin with.
I also think that Philly needs to, once and for all, get over its self-esteem problem, and start feeling better about the wonderful things about this city. I genuinely think that Philadelphians banded together. We all tried to do the best we could. People were, for the most part, kind to one another, and empathetic, and tried to help one another.
I have friends in DC and NY and LA and I just hear horror stories about people treating each other poorly. And, yes, those things happen in Philadelphia, but for the most part, I felt taken care of—not by the city itself, because we know that our city government is one giant shit-fuck—but by other Philadelphians.
Sometimes I think that our expectations that life should be excellent all the time are simply too high to begin with.
I watched other Philadelphians take care of each other, and try to support small businesses and support each other in a very beautiful way. And despite the pandemic, this remained a livable city. Of course it can be even more livable and vibrant if we borrow some of the things we learned during our pandemic year.
We have to take care of one another, all of us. That means getting out of our comfort zones and finding out what people in other neighborhoods and zip codes need and how this city can accomplish that. The pandemic hit all of us, but it hit many of us so much worse.
We have to care and we have to push our elected officials to care. I also want our city to use this opportunity to think about how we use our open spaces. What restaurants have done by spilling out into parking spaces and into the streets, and opening up more spaces for people to live and congregate and enjoy the city has been truly beautiful. I hope that our city government takes that to heart and finds a way to continue this trend, to push the boundaries between indoor and outdoor space even further.
Jo Piazza is an award-winning author, journalist, and podcaster. You can find her books here, and stay tuned for the debut of Philly Under Fire, her forthcoming podcast about gun violence in our city.