It began, bit by bit, over the last week or two. At Little League baseball games. On the walk to school. On a surprisingly difficult and time-consuming drive out of Center City at rush hour.
Everywhere you went, it seemed, people and cars were suddenly all around. So many that you might be forgiven, after 14 months of coronavirus quarantine, for finding it a peculiar, or even unsettling, sight. People hugging each other again; pulling down masks to flaunt smiles unseen since March 2020; thrilled, relieved, and coming out of the woodwork after expanded vaccination eligibility finally delivered extraordinary COVID-19 disease protection to adults of all ages in and around Philadelphia.
The awakening is here. Our emergence from an unnatural state of estrangement from each other. A new beginning after a pandemic that nearly crushed our region and the globe with death, destruction, and the dehumanizing mandate of social isolation in the name of saving human lives.
Imagine a chrysalis taking wing after 14 long, lonely months in a cocoon. Then imagine thousands of thousands doing so at the exact same time in the exact same place. That is what this looks like — a technicolor explosion of human movement. A symphony of sound and relief. A sensory overload that feels both familiar and utterly magical from downtown into suburbia.
A startlingly long commute from Philly’s historic district out to Montgomery County during afternoon rush hour a few days ago was jarring. It felt like 50 spellbinding minutes. A long grind through thick, secondary-road traffic.
For more than a year, it was given that you could dart from town in 25 minutes flat. One of the few gifts of quarantine. But on this day at 4:10 p.m., an iPhone navigation app warned to stay off the Schuylkill and brace for a long ride out of town.
Just like the old days.
The Benjamin Franklin Parkway was bumper-to-bumper. The recommended merge onto Kelly Drive looked like a lot outside Citizens Bank Park after a concert. Outside the Discovery Center in Strawberry Mansion were visitors walking toward its bird sanctuary and reservoir. A wide-open corner of Fairmount Park a bit farther away was full of golfers driving balls hard into the distance. Below the Girard Avenue bridge, rowers up and down the Schuylkill were visible as a crisp sun reflected on the river like a strobe.
Scene after scene felt like a dreamscape. Wobbly and wondrous. As though Rip Van Winkle was processing a long absence from a once-familiar world.
A lit cigarette, enjoyed by an unmasked man crouched on a sidewalk as I neared him on foot at Suburban Square in Ardmore, brought giddy delight to my unshielded nose.
Who knew that a Marlboro Red — or whatever it was — could smell sweet as jasmine?
In a small boutique at that same shopping center Thursday, a woman in a mask caught my attention as she peered at jewelry with her best friend from childhood. The dynamic duo, 74 years old, could not contain their enthusiasm.
“It just feels good to be in a store,” Jessica Kahn of Abington told Susan Roseman of Havertown as I stood a few feet away, drawn to the sounds of their unbridled jubilation. “When was the last time that I browsed?”
The pair were friends from a long time ago in West Philadelphia.
“Since elementary school!” Roseman said after I pulled the chatty pair aside for an interview. “Gompers!”
At that exact moment Twitter was ablaze with news that will bring out more hordes in the weeks ahead. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that fully vaccinated people would no longer have to wear masks inside in most instances.
“I’m starting to feel like I have parts of my life back that I had not had,” said Kahn, a former Chestnut Hill College professor. Although she was vaccinated in February, her trip to Ardmore was her first determined foray into aimless indoor browsing.
“We’re going to have people over for dinner next week. Two of our friends and their two little girls over our house for dinner,” Kahn added. “Just like it was a normal time.”
This is a confusing, if also beautiful, moment.
The last year has brought much trauma into people’s lives. The forced isolation has taken a toll on psyches. A mental fog hovers over many of us, as do fears that even with many Americans getting vaccinated, resistance by many others means that danger still lurks among us.
As we rush back into the familiar, we are diving into an unknown. Just how changed are we — and in what ways, perhaps permanently — by what we have just gone through? Far too many of us were not just cocooned; we were in trenches engaged in day-to-day combat against grief, loss, sickness, unemployment, or overwork.
While answers to that cannot yet be had, let us at least delight in the promise of this new dawn. Because it is bursting, at least right now and before our very eyes, with extraordinary color.