On Tuesday, Dec. 14, just weeks shy of my 40th birthday, I ended up in the emergency room. I started the day at the Department of Motor Vehicles, which is a place for earbuds, those substitute friends that insulate me from other Philadelphians.
When the clerk called my number, he looked through and around me while reciting the photo instructions. At first, I assumed he hated his job. Only later did I consider that his stare may be borne of frustrated attempts to communicate with people through their headphones. I removed them.
When my new license was ready, he made eye contact for the first time and offered a wish, or maybe a prayer, that God would bless me.
Once I left the office, I biked toward an appointment in West Philadelphia. I had passed the Art Museum, climbed the arc of the Spring Garden bridge, and passed over the Schuylkill when it happened: With no prior sound of horn or brakes, I was struck from behind by a car moving at what eyewitnesses told me looked like at least 30 miles an hour.
After an eternal moment in the air, I landed on my back and raised my head just enough to see a white, low-riding hatchback speed away and eventually disappear across the bridge into Mantua. I was bloody and numb but quickly realized that I was not going to die of vehicular manslaughter.
Last year was not the deadliest in Philadelphia’s history because of traffic deaths. The city’s record number of homicides is overwhelmingly because of gun violence. But in 2020, our streets saw a nearly 90% increase in traffic deaths compared with recent years, this with fewer cars on the road during the pandemic.
Hear me: I don’t know the suffering of those who have lost loved ones on our streets. Neither have I experienced a permanent disability during our most violent year, as others have. Still, on that bridge, I woke to a painful reality that they already knew: We are not all equally threatened, but each Philadelphian’s life is fragile.
On that Tuesday, many Philadelphians left a lasting impression on me. I didn’t get the name of the motor vehicles clerk who blessed me just before my life was spared. Neither did I get the names of the other emergency room patients, though our common helplessness formed a sort of kinship. I am grateful to the doctors and nurses of Pennsylvania Hospital who discharged me after a few X-rays to tend to an impossible volume of incoming patients, but again, I don’t recall their names. But there are two names that I will never forget.
Immediately after the impact, a witness named Larry parked his car to block other traffic and likely saved my life. When the ambulance was slow to arrive, a woman named Katie helped me up, drove me to the hospital, and passed me off to my wife, who four days later threw a surprise party for my 40th birthday. She had been planning it for months, and I just about missed it. But I didn’t, because of Larry, Katie, and other ordinarily heroic Philadelphians.
In Dark Night of the Soul, St. John teaches that none of us love as we ought. We are loved into loving through an uncomfortable process — a “dark night” — by which God purges our selfish instincts to make room for love, like a fire refining gold by removing impurities.
Philadelphia’s people have often been God’s refining instruments, although many of us — myself included — usually block up our ears to ignore their very existence.
The Rev. John Alexander is a writer and pastor of Liberti Church of the River Wards in the East Kensington section of Philadelphia.