I went looking for the mass of undecideds last week in West Philadelphia.

Nearly one in three black voters hasn't picked a mayoral candidate, one polling company found last month - a lack of commitment that's risen since December. Jim Lee, president of Susquehanna Polling & Research, says those numbers suggest African American voters are not so fired up this election.

There was nothing undecided about what I found.

"Ain't No Stopping Us Now" blasted out of the loudspeakers at 40th and Market as Chaka Fattah workers papered commuters with fliers and the candidate pumped hands.

John Russ, 60, watched the mayoral contender from inside his newsstand and said he understood why many would be undecided about the five Democrats running. "They all have the same message: 'Stop the killing.' "

That fear has the Vietnam vet feeling nostalgic for Frank Rizzo. Russ mentions the name with a half-laugh, aware it still passes bitterly from the lips of some people of color.

"People want that certainty. The feeling you can go to bed at night and not worry about someone snatching your car. Not having a bullet hit you on the street. So they want the man who is best able to stop this."

At first for Russ, that man was Fattah. Now it's Michael Nutter.

"Fattah is popular - but a lot of time he's in D.C," said Russ, of Southwest Philadelphia. "Michael Nutter is right here. Put his daughter in public schools. He didn't opt out."

Points of contention

That's when the Tom Knox bandwagon arrived: Two burly black men bought cookies, and pronounced themselves done with Mayor Street.

"I'm tired of a black man running this city down," said one, Quincy Scott, 42, also from Southwest Philadelphia. "It's time for a change."

That got Russ' attention.

"Y'all work for Knox?"

"No," replied Curt Burgess, 46 and a friend of Scott's from Word Tabernacle Baptist Church, "I like [Knox] because he brought himself up. He grew up in the projects. Lost a brother to a drug overdose. I'm a former addict. Brother Knox will get in there, and he won't be a puppet."

The street-corner talking started running a little hotter, voices rising, fingers pointing as they delved into race and corruption. Then the men found something to agree on.

They recalled how in the late 1960s and early 1970s gangs controlled the streets until parents took a stand. Why, Russ asked, when people witness a crime, are fathers afraid to let their daughters testify? Where are the police? he asked. Where are their informants? The community?

"The criminals have literally taken over," he said. "People don't trust the police to protect them. We need someone who'll make us feel safe."

To which his two customers said, decidedly, Amen.

Olden days

Five blocks down Market Street, in the building where

American Bandstand

was born, Cindy Williams and Cathy Santos sat at a round table under a balloon, awaiting the start of a forum for City Council candidates.

"I think Tom Knox is going to win," Santos said confidently.

"I think Michael Nutter is going to win," Williams replied. She wasn't about to name her candidate, but she says she's made up her mind.

They sat with a half-dozen other voters, complaining about how little say politicians gave them in deciding to bring casinos to Philadelphia. The subject quickly veered back to what I'd heard at 40th and Market.

They were longing for a return to a civil society.

"We had clubs, charm school, church, day camp, week camp, month camp. We did not have all this time to get into mischief," said Williams, 49, who works for an organization that tries to calm family conflict. "Our parents stood up and made sure our streets were safe. They made sure the government spent the money on us."

A woman complained that politicians weren't accountable any more.

"No," Williams replied. "We don't hold them accountable."

I went looking for indifference. Instead I found people wanting change so bad it hurts.