I knew I’d venture out of corona isolation for a column eventually.
I just didn’t predict I’d be packing a bullhorn. (But more on that later.)
Sometime around March, I got a call from Partners for Civic Pride about a ceremony to honor people who embody the founding principles depicted on our city flag: peace, hope, justice, and prosperity.
Turns out, most of the awards were going to people I had written about.
Parkway Center City Middle College students Frank Gillis-Corbitt, Jaden Burnett, and Quadir Gamble, who last year organized a basketball tournament for peace between students and police officers.
And Azir Harris and Zach Bookbinder, teens who became fast friends after Bookbinder read about Harris’ being shot and paralyzed in 2018 and organized a fund-raising basketball tournament for him.
(Also honored was Ryshee Shaw, who led a gun-violence protest at 13. An honorary award went to philanthropist Chase Lenfest.)
The awards were supposed to be presented during a celebration in March, but when the coronavirus shut down the city, that plan and subsequent ones to reschedule had to be nixed.
And then two months into our national isolation, organizers had an idea: They’d take the award ceremony to the awardees in a socially distant “Philly Flag Express”— a roomy limo that enabled organizers to socially distance while presenting the awards to mostly masked recipients in their own neighborhoods.
When Partners for Civic Pride cofounder Brenda Exon, a.k.a. Philly Pride Lady, filled me in, I thought it was a lovely gesture. This group of Philadelphians deserves the extra effort.
But it wasn’t until she started schooling me on the Philadelphia flag — yes, we have one; it was the first city flag in America — that I decided to break my semi-militant adherence to corona protocol.
Our city flag includes the motto Philadelphia Maneto, which Exon told me means “Let Brotherly Love Continue.” If ever we needed a reminder of that, I thought, it was during a pandemic that has separated us from our communities. Humans aren’t built for isolation. Philadelphians even less so.
By the end of the day Thursday, the Philly Flag Express made stops in just about every part of the city.
But first stop was West Philly for Victoria Wylie.
I waited in my car for the festivities to begin and watched neighbors quizzically peek out of their doors and windows.
Was something bad happening? I heard one neighbor ask.
When another neighbor learned that someone on the street was getting an award, and she passed it on, an exhale reverberated down the street.
As trumpeter Tony Smith started playing the theme to Rocky, a switch flipped: Suspicions quickly turned to joy. Neighbors stood on their stoops to watch, and take photos. For a few moments, the quiet emptiness of a world under the coronavirus was lifted.
“It worked out better that we had to rethink how we give these awards,” Exon said. “It’s wonderful to come into your neighborhood and let your neighbors see the wonderful neighbors they have.”
But it wasn’t just their joy that I felt.
Of all the challenges during the pandemic, the one I’ve struggled with most is the loss of face-to-face interactions with people in neighborhoods all over the city. The serendipitous connections made from an impulsive decision to walk down one street instead of another. Or as it happened on Thursday, from looking up from my phone to see two young siblings in face masks — that were mostly worn correctly — performing their special “mask dance.” (And yes, it was every bit as adorable as it sounds.)
From the safety of my car, I joined neighbors in congratulating Wylie. I lowered my face mask, grabbed the bullhorn I’d packed along with my notebook, pen, and hand sanitizer, and whooped it up as loud as I could.
It was ridiculous, and ridiculously fun.
And for the first time in a long time, it was easier to believe that as much and as quickly as the world around us is changing, some things that count have not.
Brotherly love continues.