The request was simple, and selfish, really.
I’d begun to lose faith in the one thing I thought I’d always love — Philadelphia.
In an eight-month span this year, Philly gassed its own people; the National Guard descended on City Hall; small-business owners saw their shops looted; the homicide rate rose by 31%; vigilantes were allowed to “defend” a Fishtown police station, a Target store, and a statue of Christopher Columbus; protesters were assaulted by police; and reporters were arrested.
All of this in the face of a pandemic that has largely kept the best part of Philadelphia — its people — separated from one another.
So, in a moment of despair, I took to social media to ask people for their favorite interactions with a stranger in Philadelphia, to help remind me why I fell in love with this city all those years ago.
I began by telling a story of my own.
When I came from a small town in central Pennsylvania for my interview with the Daily News in 2007, the papers were still at the Inquirer building at 400 N. Broad St. I had no fashion sense then (I still don’t), but I’d gotten the best suit I could at my local JCPenney — a black blazer-and-skirt combo that got drenched with muddy water on my way in because I (like a fool) drove on the Schuylkill with my window down after a rainstorm.
As I paced the 300 block of North Broad, nervously awaiting the start of my interview, a woman in her 50s or 60s stopped me.
“You look really nice today,” she said.
“Thank you. I’m interviewing for a job today,” I told her.
“You’re going to get it,” she said, as she patted me on the shoulder and walked away.
And I did. And I think about that woman all the time.
I’m a firm believer that the seemingly small moments in life, especially between strangers, are often the big ones. And Philadelphia is filled with those moments — and with the kind of people who give them to us freely.
So, if you need a reminder this year about all the good there is in Philly, as I do, here are a few of those stories. Thank you to the hundreds of people who shared their memories with us on Twitter and Instagram. And may these stories serve as a reminder to all of us how one simple act of kindness can reverberate throughout a lifetime.
Joan Taylor, 32, Fitler Square: “When I was in college, I was a big sister through Big Brothers Big Sisters Independence. I wanted to take my ‘little sister’ to see Hairspray at the Walnut Street Theatre. I didn’t have a ton of money at the time and was spending my last dollar on those tickets. When I went to the box office to buy them, I started chatting with the clerk and told him I was bringing my ‘little sister’ to the show. He handed me the tickets and when I went to pay, he refused my card. He said, ‘It’s on me. Just keep doing what you’re doing.’ I never forgot that moment — that quiet act of kindness and generosity. And, years later, I bought a subscription to the theater.”
Laurie Mason Schroeder, 54, Emmaus: “When I was 12 my best friend and I briefly ran away from home. We took the train from Bristol to Philly. We ran out of food money pretty quick. While standing at a lunch counter looking over the menu and discussing what we could afford, a man leaned over and handed us $10. $10 in 1982 money got us a full meal. We went home that night but I will never forget that guy’s kindness.”
Lost and found
Megan Smutz, 29, Queen Village: “I once left my wallet on the SEPTA bus on a major route. It had hundreds of dollars in it in gift cards for my event-planning job. The gift cards were donated because we are a nonprofit. I felt so guilty that I lost all of that money. I didn’t think I would get it back but the ENTIRE wallet with ALL of its contents was turned in to the SEPTA station!! Restored my faith in humanity for sure.”
Coryn Wolk, 31, West Philadelphia: “I realized a block after getting off the trolley that my keys had fallen out of a hole in my coat pocket. Within five minutes, multiple strangers were helping me look and giving advice. After I found my keys and thanked one, she called after me, ‘And get that hole fixed!’”
Christopher Aziz Johnson, 25, Germantown: “As a Black man who was commuting every day by train, I was very used to casual racism as almost every other passenger would avoid sitting next to me and other Black males, till every other seat was full; I did make it a point to leave room for anyone who needed a seat. Regardless, one day this white woman sat next to me without a second thought, and plenty of seats were available next to other white individuals. I looked at her with skepticism; this was the first time in two years I had been train commuting that a white person sat with me like that. I decided to start up what was a very pleasant conversation with her. She was from the Midwest and in town for work. We eventually found out that she was on the wrong train and was trying to go to the airport. I offered to have her get off at my stop and I would drive her there. We had a lovely chat all the way there, and she emailed me once home to confirm she made it safely.”
Rudy Chinchilla, 26, Brewerytown: “I got towed on literally my first day in Philly (thanks, PPA). A Lyft driver took me to get my car, went back for my mom, sister and dog, and waited around until they finally gave me my car back.”
Kevin Tees, 41, Huntingdon Valley: “I went to a concert at Arcadia University (then Beaver College). After the concert we went to get food. My girlfriend and I then separated from the group we were with and waited for a SEPTA bus to come. After two hours (we) tried to call a cab. No Uber back then. So we sat at a gas station just waiting. A man pulled up to get gas and asked why are we sitting there. We responded, ‘No bus, no taxi.’ Turns out, the guy was a judge in Philly. He and his armed bodyguard gave us a ride from Glenside to the Northeast. I will never forget the day a judge and his armed guard drove my girlfriend and I in a brand-new black Range Rover. Ballerest thing to happen to me. Thank you, judge.”
Katie Burns, 23, North Philly: “I was sitting on my front step smoking a Newport and drinking coffee from a large mason jar, my hair still damp from a shower. A woman stopped to parallel park and as she was backing up she stopped and looked at me, put her window down and said: ‘My, you beautiful girl, out for my own heart. A cigarette in hand and a mayo jar of coffee at your feet. In the sunlight you look like an angel, I can see your blue eyes from here.’ And she stared at me with a huge smile on her face until a car behind her honked and she finished parking and told me to have a blessed day. I was having a really bad morning crying and that’s why my eyes were so blue. She was the first thing to put a smile on my face. The whole interaction felt like something out of a book.”
Colin Weir, 34, Graduate Hospital: “Once Lisa and I were walking the dogs along Arch Street and a SEPTA driver stopped the 48 bus to open the door and tell me they were beautiful dogs.”
Jaime Longo, 43, Philadelphia: “For years, I took the subway up from Temple and caught the H at Erie. On a miserable winter evening, a little girl was also waiting for the bus with her mom. She cooed at the pigeons that were strutting around and eventually started sharing her chip crumbs with them. One pigeon in particular started cooing and billing back. She told it — an ordinary filthy Philadelphia pigeon — how beautiful it was. It chirruped back at her. They ‘conversed’ until the bus arrived. She charmed the pigeon and the rest of us.”
It takes a village
Penny Starr-Ashton, 56, Drexel Hill: “When I was a new mother and I would have to navigate stairs with a stroller, people always helped me carry the stroller up/down the stairs. One time a guy just silently lifted the other side, went down the stairs with me, and kept on walking. Major salute!”
Kathryn Quigley, 53, Deptford: “My son has ADHD and was a handful when he was little. We were at the Please Touch Museum and he was about 2. I needed to use the bathroom, but he was having a tantrum. I burst into tears. Another mom picked him up and comforted him for me while I went.”
Meghan Winch, 36, South Philly: “On the sidewalk, hugely pregnant, when a man yelled ‘HEY SWEETHEART’ at me. As I turned, ready to scream at him about catcalling anyone, let alone someone this pregnant, he yelled, ‘I JUST WANT TO SAY CONGRATULATIONS, PARENTHOOD IS BEAUTIFUL.’”
I see you
Suzy Johnson, 55, Fitler Square: “Couple of years ago I worked in an indie bookstore [Shakespeare & Co.], around the time of the big Women’s March. A woman came in and asked if we had Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad; we did. I took her to the shelf and handed it to her. We looked at each other knowingly and got too choked up to speak.”
Kate Distasio, 46, West Orange, N.J. (formerly of Fishtown): “Several years ago I worked in Center City and the offices I worked in were on the top floor of a building with an atrium and ponds in the middle. There was a woman who came in once a week to take care of the ponds and plants in the office. At one point I had taken off several weeks because my mom fell ill and passed away. As an only child I had to be the one to take care of her and everything after she passed. I think it was my first week back to work. I was leaving the office for the day when the kind plant lady stopped me and gave me a bouquet of flowers. She said that they were left over and thought I would like them. I thanked her and quickly went to my car and bawled my eyes out!! I was so sad and depressed at that point. The thought of someone I barely knew giving me flowers out of nowhere lifted my spirits so much. Over 13 years later, I still think of her kind gesture and try to remember that you never know what other people are going through.”
Monique Olmo, 39, South Philly: “I remember going through a difficult time in my life. I decided to take up running and was a slow starter. I’d power walk, then try to jog a block. There were times where I tried to convince myself to quit. But no matter where I went to run, there was always at least one person that would say, ‘You got this!’ or ‘You go, girl!’ or just give a smile and a thumbs up. Philly believed in me when I had forgotten to believe in myself. So every year for the last six years I have run the Broad Street Run not only for myself but for the city that has always had my back. 🖤Philly!”
Christopher McDougall, 58, of Hawaii (previously of Fairmount): While running the Philadelphia Marathon “I once met a cook who came straight from his shift and spontaneously ran next to me for 12 miles while shouting ‘Who Let the Dogs Out?’”
Chrissie Bonnes, 53, Minneapolis (formerly of Northeast Philly): “Finished the Broad Street Run and hauled my tired self up the stairs from the subway in Center City. Homeless guy says, ‘Didja ’complish it?’ Me: ‘Pardon?’ Him (enunciating): ‘Did you accomplish it?’ Me, showing him my medal: ‘Yeah.’ Him: ‘That’s what it’s about!’”
Kennedy Rose, 22, Old City: “My friend and I were having trouble parallel parking a minivan in South Philly (the power steering failed and we have weak arms). A guy on his stoop asked if we needed help — he did it in a few seconds, high-fived us, and wished us a Happy New Year.”
Matt Allen, 34, East Passyunk: “A bus was trying to get down [Ninth Street] but had almost no space due to road construction and the bus slowed down. I walked into the middle of the street to help guide the bus when two strangers from both sides of the street walked down the street pushing in mirrors.”
Anthony Gibson, 35, Old City: “One day my car wouldn’t start because my battery had died. I had the front hood open and a cabdriver pulled up next to me. He didn’t speak much English but he realized my battery was dead. He immediately went to his trunk, got jumper cables and got my car started right away. I shook his hand and thanked him. I tried to give him a 20 dollar bill, but he wouldn’t take it. He just smiled and put his hand on his heart and nodded. He got back in his cab and drove away. I’ll never forget him.”
Jessica W., 30, South Philly: “My first winter in Philly — almost seven years ago now — I came down very suddenly with a fever and chills while working at my relatively new job. I was sent home from work early and hopped on the 57 bus home. About two-thirds of the way through my route, I got very ill and, mortified, went to throw up in my purse because I didn’t know what else to do. An older woman leapt out of her seat, held my hair back and gently rubbed my back. Somehow she also managed to redirect me from my purse to a plastic bag she’d found. I went from never feeling more ashamed to never feeling so cared for in an instant. Have always wished I could thank whoever that bus angel is.”
Aaron Weems, 42, Wayne: “Walking near City Hall for work in the winter with ice piled up and on the sidewalk. Walking past the bus shelter, slip on the ice, arms and legs flailing to keep my balance, but manage not to fall. The entire line of people waiting for the bus burst into applause.”
Random acts of joy
Heidi Cannon, 29, West Philly: “I was walking through Center City when I saw an older man holding massive bright red balloons. I told him I liked them and he went on to say that day was 40 years sober for him and how he is so blessed. I told him that, at the time, I had two years and was so proud of him. He immediately offered me a balloon but I told him to keep them since he earned it. He told me he’d keep me in his prayers and went on his way.”
MaryBeth Haslam, Mayfair: “My neighbor sneaks over and plants things in my garden!!! I just had bare dirt. She said she did it because I was nice to them, and we’re all the same, all human.”
Jessica Burghaus Anderson, 32, Queen Village: “One of the times I served on a jury there was a lull in the jury room while waiting for further instructions. We were all tired and restless. While sitting there, a fellow jury member asked, ‘Have you heard this new song from Pharrell?’ She proceeded to play ‘Happy’ (this was before they took your phones) and we all listened, silently, to the song in its entirety. It was such an odd but much-needed moment, with strangers from all over the city taking in the music together before returning to the case.”
Tony Azzaro, 30, Fairmount: “Down in LOVE Park one summer evening and a man had set out his own telescope. He knew Jupiter was visible, and was showing anyone going by who was interested. So joyful and at peace.”
Jennifer Louise, 34, South Philly: “I used to work at a restoration shop at 33rd and Lehigh. One day, while driving home from work, I was listening to some hip-hop with the windows down. I got to a red light and after a few seconds I heard some yelling. Turned my music down to listen better, and it ended up being a large group hanging out dancing and hollering at the music I was playing. I had only been living in Philly for six months at that point. Everyone told me I was crazy for moving there and then taking a job in that neighborhood, but in the two years I worked there, I never felt unsafe. I’ll never forget how connected to the city I felt after that.”
Nimisha Ladva, Wynnewood: “I was telling a story at a WHYY event about how it took 18 years, an arrest, a court case, and the love of strangers for me to become a U.S. citizen. On my way out, a security guard who heard me, stops me and says, ‘I’m glad you’re home.’ We shook hands with wet eyes.”
Raina Douris, 34, Fitler Square: “I moved to Philly in October, nervous and alone. One day I was walking on 18th in the rain and a lady came up behind me. I thought she was trying to get by. Instead, she offered to share her umbrella and we walked three blocks together chatting about our lives. I love Philly.”
Randy Reitz, 50, West Oak Lane: “I was a young man working in Center City. In those days I wore glasses with a red tint because I worked on computers and green screen was a thing. One day I was walking around and I saw a young woman standing on Broad Street looking around and appearing to be lost. I approached and asked if she needed help. She explained that she was a new student at the Art Institute and she was visiting the area before the semester to get familiar. She was looking for Reading Terminal Market and asked if I could give her directions. I said, ‘I’m actually headed that way to the train station, I’ll walk with you and show you the way.’ Over the next few blocks we discussed her art plans and places to visit in Philly. At the corner of 12th & Market, I pointed her in the right direction and we parted ways. About a year later, I was downtown again, and I was approached by a young woman who asked, ‘Do you remember helping a freshman art student find Reading Terminal?’ I did and it was she. She said, ‘I wanted to thank you for helping me feel welcome in the city. I tell my friends about the kind man in the rose-colored glasses who helped me find my way.’”
Stephanie Riley, 38, Ardmore (formerly of West Philly): “52nd & Chestnut. Stopped at a red light with another pedestrian. We said hello. He said, ‘You live around here?’ Me: ‘Yeah, a few blocks away.’ Him: ‘How you like the hood?’ Me: ‘It’s good!’ Him: ‘Yeah, the hood IS good.’ And we both continued walking.”
Love is all around
Lauren Vidas, 40, South Philly: “I stopped into Dirty Frank’s to use the ATM before a date and everyone was like, ‘Aren’t you staying for a beer?’ And when I explained that I was running off to pick up my date, I got an epic pep talk from a group of strangers about how great I looked and how my date was so lucky.”
Stefanie Groff, Media: “In 2011, my then-boyfriend was rehearsing his marriage proposal to me with my best friend in front of the Clothespin statue so they could set up a camera to film the real thing. The crowd that had gathered burst into applause when he got down on one knee. He let them know this was a ‘practice’ and the real thing was happening in a half hour or so. So many people stuck around to watch!! When I said yes, the crowd cheered for us. I felt so lucky to live in a city like Philly.”
Kait Mahaney, 27, Haddonfield: “We boarded the train to head home after a long afternoon of day drinking. Hours spent in the sun at the beer garden and the Phillies game left us slightly hazy and inebriated. Amidst the chaos of the train station and lost in conversation, we did not seem to notice that we had gleefully hopped on the wrong train. Laughing as we gathered ourselves, we asked a fellow passenger what direction we were headed. The man a seat over smiled and gestured, ‘Oh to be young and in love.’ And for a second, it felt as if he knew us. In a seemingly unfortunate situation he painted a beautiful portrait of what had just occurred. We were buzzing, without a care. He then became our guide leading us to his favorite coffee shop in Rittenhouse. As we took our detour, we were thankful that our journey led us to some damn good coffee and a pleasant Philadelphian. We think of him from time to time, trying to see ourselves the way he did. And reminding us to be grateful — to be young and in love.”
I’ve got you
Ruchi Gupta, 33, West Philadelphia: “Once I was walking home from the now-defunct Capogiro on 13th Street and some guys were following, harassing me, and a woman and her boyfriend joined me to walk with me and pretend we were friends. It was so nice and unexpected and when we parted ways she said, ‘Stay safe, baby.’”
Jennifer Raphael, 50, Graduate Hospital: “I was walking out of the Walnut/Broad Wawa. A man was upskirting me and I didn’t see. A woman behind him smacked the phone out of his hand and shouted, ‘OH NO YOU DON’T,’ and it smashed to the ground. Then she stomped on it like it was a cockroach.”
Food for the soul
Christine Knapp, 41, Passyunk Square: “The day I bought my house, we wanted to go out to dinner to celebrate at Tre Scalini. Forgot it was BYOB. The owner drove us to the wine and spirits shop and told us the specials on the way.”
Stephanie Nickerson, 27, East Falls: “When I was a hospice social worker, I had a patient who LOVED water ice (only thing she wanted to eat). I used to bring her one every time I saw her. When the Rita’s [on Rhawn Street] heard about what I was doing, they arranged for delivery of a tub of water ice once a week for free until she passed. It gave her a lot of joy.”
Katherine Panchal, 33, East Kensington: “I’m a flight attendant. After finishing a trip to Europe, I sat on the train next to an old man. He spotted a bunch of Mars candy bars sticking out of my purse. He asked me where I got them and told me how much he loved them. I gave him all four. He in return opened his wallet and insisted I take a special $2 bill for good luck. It was a such a wholesome interaction on the train.”
Joe M., 52, West Chester: “Had too much to drink one night. Wasn’t in shape to drive home. Homeless guy asked if I had some change. We ended up having multiple cheesesteaks over a few hours at Jim’s.”
Lauren Alloway, 31, South Philly: “I moved to Philly six years ago and while my parents helped me move from D.C. to Philly during the weekend, they couldn’t hang around for my birthday, during the upcoming week. I went to Di Bruno Bros. to get some food and buy myself a birthday cake. When I picked out a cake in the display case, the young boy behind the counter asked what name I should have written on the cake. I told him no one’s name because it was for me. He took the cake and went straight in the line, and then paid for it! He said no one should ever pay for their own birthday cake. I never got his name, but it not only made my birthday, it was a huge welcome to this city. I tell everyone this happy moment I had.”
The power of positive strangers
Venise Whitaker, 45, Fishtown: “While shopping in a thrift store at age 15, a man approached me saying, ‘I remember you from the Get Set Program (similar to pre-K) and I know you will accomplish big things. Never forget where you came from.’ He was a bus driver from the Frankford neighborhood. Twenty-five years later and I still remember.”
Christina Kristofic, 38, of Croydon: “The day I interviewed at the Tribune, I took SEPTA to North Philly and switched to the Broad Street Line. When I got off the train at North Philly, I must have looked confused because I didn’t know where to go. This nice, older lady named Donna asked if I needed help and showed me the way. Then, when my Independence Pass wouldn’t swipe at the turnstiles at the entrance to the subway, she told me to squeeze in really close to her so I could go through with her. We sat together on the train and chatted until she got off at her stop somewhere north of City Hall. And she said, ‘I pray you get that job,’ before she got off the train. On my way home on the train, a young guy with sunglasses with orange lenses sat next to me. We chatted a bit. I told him I was just coming from a job interview and I had been laid off a month before. And he said, ‘Being laid off is terrible. I pray you get that job. I really do.’ I got an offer the next day.”
Katherine Fritz, 34, South Philly: “I worked a sh— job at a Halloween store at 24. A customer learned I was an aspiring costume designer. Turns out she worked in fashion and they were clearing the sample room. She drove to my apartment with hundreds of dollars’ worth of free buttons and notions. It was gobsmackingly generous and a huge asset when I started my early career. I still am a working costume designer and I still have some of those buttons left! I would be so happy if by some miracle that woman saw this article.”
Teresa Hinke, 57, Mount Laurel: “While celebrating the Super Bowl win near City Hall, strangers were willingly sharing beers and bottles of vodka to toast the team’s win. A night I will never forget. Love my city.”
Josephine Russo, 33, Bella Vista: “About a month after the Eagles won the Super Bowl, I was walking down Broad Street having an insecure day when someone on the other side of the street caught my eye and yelled, ‘How does it feel to be a champion?’ at me.