Rita's Water Ice, soft pretzels, Tastykakes and cheese steaks galore. If you don't know what those things are, you are missing out!
However, Philly also has a bit of a drawback. We are listed by Forbes and the FBI as being one of the top 25 most dangerous cities in the nation. Growing up in Philly, I saw the change creep in as neighbors flew to the suburbs.
Luckily for us kids, our mother did an amazing job of ensuring we were always on the straight and narrow. We didn't touch drugs, none of us cared about drinking, and we knew who we could play with and when we needed to be home. Looking back, I now realize that many other children weren't so lucky.
Anyway, we had our share of violence. There's simply no way to shelter yourself entirely from it in Philadelphia.
Our home was broken into several times (once with the jerks even slipping a sleeping pill to our dog!). My brother was held up at gun-point, I was jumped, I think my older sister was jumped, and God only knows how many times we've had our cars broken into.
There were always reports of murders, arsons and gang violence on the news. A couple times they had to put our school on lock-down because of criminals shooting up someplace a block or two away.
However, none of that really registered for me. I honestly grew up thinking that sorta stuff was normal. They were minor irritations that acted as speed bumps in an otherwise blissful existence of aforementioned water ice, butterscotch krimpets and pretzels.
That all changed some 15 years ago (give or take).
My mother, myself and my two sisters were driving our priest-friend home after a nice dinner out. At the time, he was stationed at a beautiful parish that was smack in the center of a particularly thorny part of Philadelphia.
It wasn't super late, but everything was pitch black due to the season. We were sitting at a red light when we saw what looked to be firecrackers going off ahead of us. The "pop, pop, pop" sounds actually made me ask, "Are they playing with Poppers?"
At first, my mom and Father (who were sitting in the front seat), thought the same thing. However, as we saw one of them slump over as he went for the entrance of the corner store, we realized what it was we were witnessing. The light turned green, and I remember my mom asking (freaked out) "Do I keep going or what???"
Father actually said, "Let me out" but my mom shot him her best "That's not even funny, shut up and get the craziness out of your mind" look as she floored it through the street. I remember looking back as a woman ran off the porch towards one of the young men. She was screaming, "Call the cops, they shot him! They shot him!"
As we neared the end of the next corner, my mom was shaking. My two younger sisters were scared, and Father was doing his best to keep everyone calm. I felt like I had just witnessed a clip of a movie. I didn't think one way or the other about the actual shootings... I was focused on the woman who was running to tend to the young man I saw slumped against the brick wall.
By the time we reached the next block, Father and my mom were in a heated exchange. Father was trying to figure out how he could quickly get back there. My mom was trying to talk him out of it.
You see, Father's first reaction (aside from shock) seems to have been "I need to perform Last Rites. I'm a priest, and those two young men need me!"
He obviously didn't want to put us in harm's way again (which is why he suggested dropping him off a block or two off so he could walk by himself the rest of the way), but my mom (who was driving) wouldn't let him. The last two or three minutes to the rectory were spent in this worried exchange. I think the compromise was "I'll drop you off at the rectory and you can get another priest-friend to go with you because it's not safe to go alone."
After we dropped him off, my mom was in tears the rest of the night. We spent some time at the police station (where we learned that both men had died), and for weeks afterwards, both of my younger sisters had nightmares. I know my mom was upset about it for a while afterwards, but I never got past that woman in the street. I guess my mind simply ignores the murders and focuses on the pain it left behind for that frantic woman.
More powerful than that, however, is the deep respect and awe I had (and still have) for Father. Without thought he wanted to jump into the middle of a gun-fight so that he could prepare those two souls for their final judgement. By no stretch of the imagination is this priest the quintessential superman, either. He's not imposing, he's extremely gentle, and probably the most overly-cautious people I know (oh the tricks I'd play exploiting that aspect of his personality!). So the fact that he'd immediately throw all that out the window so that he'd be there for these two strangers (God only knows if they were spiritually inclined or not), speaks volumes about his character and his dedication to his vocation.
It was as if in that moment, the Holy Spirit enveloped him and nothing could be said to sway him from his mission. He became Superman, and I have little doubt that had my mother not refused to let him out of the car, he'd've been by their sides delivering whatever emergency baptisms, words of comfort or blessings he could possibly bestow.
Such is the heart of a priest.