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  • It was early summer and I was working in Philadelphia. I didn't live there. I was a commuter, a regular rider, a woman with a train pass, and my day - from leaving the house to returning back home - averaged twelve hours or more.

    I was the production manager for Nuclear Blast Records. My brother was running the US office and hired me, saying that I couldn't suck any worse than the last guy in the job. Nuclear Blast is a German heavy metal label. Heavy metal is not my forte - I'm more of a bluesy-folksy with a liberal sprinkling of reggae type - but I liked the music industry job and was hired to make sure that we neither overstocked or understocked our titles.

    That same summer, the subway system went on strike. Instead of getting a cab (cost prohibitive) I left the train station and walked the nine blocks to our offices in Old City. I looked forward to the walk, especially liked keeping an eye on the progress of an artist who was painting a mural on a building. A cityscape, the focal point being a wonderfully constructed bridge. I have always liked bridges. By then, I knew the drill for walking in the city. No jewelry, no skin, no makeup, little to no eye contact. Never give out money. I wore headphones whether I was listening to music or not.

    Most mornings I would see the Can Man. The Can Man pushed a shopping cart around all day, scavenging cans for recycling. He was old, with salt and pepper hair, bright eyes and teeth, whiter than white against his black face. Maybe I remember his teeth because I remember his smile. He was pan-handling, but he was always cheerful, calling out good morning in a booming voice to those he met along the way.

    On this particular morning, I broke my own rules. The Can Man got to me. I watched him as the people passed by him never even acknowledging him - yet he didn't seem mind - he wished them a good morning and a god bless you just the same. I scrounged around in my pockets and came up with $1.25 in change, dropping the coins in a can duct taped to the side of his cart. Can Man smiled at me and said, "It's going to be a beautiful day."

    I had only walked on a few steps before being approached by another pan-handler, a young black guy wearing an army jacket. He materialized in front of me, squinting in the sunlight, looking sick and mean. As I approached, he blocked me and said, "Got any spare change?"

    I told him no, which was true, I had just given it away. That really set him off, and he began to curse at me, calling me names that nobody is prepared to hear at 7:30 am. He was so loud and obnoxious that a few people even looked over to where we stood as they hurried by us to their jobs and appointments. I was stunned and a bit disoriented by his diatribe and turned quick, trying to escape him. My shoe must have got caught or his cursing had so unbalanced me that I took a fall to the sidewalk, going down hard.

    Pain shot through my knee and my pants had ripped. Blood began to pool in the scrape and it stung. I pushed myself up on scraped palms, trying to regain my footing. Someone reached a hand down to help me and I gratefully accepted. I looked up and saw that the homeless man who had shouted me to the ground was now helping me back to my feet. As he pulled me up, he kissed the top of my head, then he melted away into the crowded sidewalk.

    The whole episode had a surreal effect on me. I stood there, knee smarting, and wondered if I should just go home. Maybe I had made a mistake taking this job, in this city, in this kind of world. Realizing that I was running late, I tried to shake it off. I started walking to work.

    Old City is a nice neighborhood full of avant-garde businesses and historical architecture. I walked past the graveyard where Ben Franklin was buried, past the Betsy Ross house and the Edgar Allen Poe house. The pain in my knee began subsiding, I had walked it off. Rounding the corner, I watched as the artist put the finsihing touches on his painting. The bridge now contained people, people of all ages and colors walking across it, some of them holding hands. I always liked bridges. Can Man was right, you know? It was turning out to be a beautiful day.

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