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Riding reality on SEPTA, without anyone masturbating

A bus ride puts disturbing photos and videos in perspective.

Photograph of a man on a Septa bus who exposed himself to passengers. Photo taken from the Facebook page called People of Septa.
Photograph of a man on a Septa bus who exposed himself to passengers. Photo taken from the Facebook page called People of Septa.Read more

I BOARDED the SEPTA Route 23 bus yesterday morning expecting a freak show.

Judging by the photos and videos posted on People of SEPTA and similar voyeuristic online sites, I awaited the ill-clothed masses, the nodding addicts and the midmorning masturbators. A Temple University doctoral student captured an especially brazen whack job (pun intended) on video Friday morning when the man sitting next to her on the same bus route I took a few days later began to masturbate.

That video went viral, and will make for some compelling evidence when cops pick up the perv. But besides being obviously disgusting, I found the video oddly inspiring.

It was a bold - some might say risky - move for this young woman to whip out (last pun, I promise) her phone and film the guy while he tried to turn the tables on her.

"Are you serious right now?" he asks. "Why wouldn't you just say something?"

"Does someone need to tell you not to touch yourself in public on a bus?" the woman replies as she continues filming and he continues . . . you know.

Go on, girl. I was also impressed by how fellow passengers, who confronted him as he was shamed off the bus, had her back.

"It was inspiring, for sure," Rochelle Keyhan said. Keyhan is the director of HollabackPHILLY, an international movement to stop street harassment. In April, the organization unveiled a transit ad campaign in subway cars, subway platforms and bus shelters across the city to encourage people to step up against harassment.

"This is exactly what our campaign this year is about, a call to action so people will stop ignoring what they see and show support to people who are being harassed," Keyhan said. "It's never easy being the first person to initiate action. But hopefully every person who intervened this time will feel even more empowered to step up next time."

That would be great. But while I know lots of people get a kick out of these photos and videos, there's something seriously screwed up about all these people behaving badly, if not always criminally, on Philadelphia's public transportation.

Besides nodding addicts, tragic wardrobe malfunctions and mystery liquids, there was the disturbing March video of the young girl on the SEPTA Route 66 bus trying to keep her apparently extremely impaired mother from passing out. Police and the state Department of Human Services stepped in after the video was posted by someone who didn't call police.

And this month, someone filmed a man seemingly shooting up on the Route 14 bus. The woman who shot the video told NBC10 that she didn't call police because she didn't want to snitch.

SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel III said the supportive reaction of fellow passengers to the woman who confronted the masturbator made him hopeful. "Maybe it's a sign we're moving away from the Philly Shrug," he said. But he remains frustrated by how often people press record rather than 9-1-1.

"That's really concerning to me," he said. "I love that people have phones. But I would love to get 10 9-1-1 calls instead of seeing 10 pictures a week later."

As for those shaming sites, Nestel isn't a fan. They are free to post whatever they want, he said. But they strike him as more than a little mean-spirited and inaccurate. ("Exploitative," was how SEPTA spokeswoman Jerria Williams put it.)

"I think our riders are a reflection of society in general," Nestel said. "Most are not drug-addicted poor parents who don't have clothes that fit right."

They certainly weren't on the Route 23 bus I took yesterday morning - which isn't to say there weren't a fair share of, um, characters onboard. But then what would Philly be without those?

There was a woman with an ill-fitting shirt slumped over in her seat who elicited lots of stares from fellow passengers who seemed more worried that she'd choke on her lollipop than if she was on drugs. And there was the guy who dragged a huge blue recycling bin behind him like luggage through the narrow aisle. Upon finding a seat he announced that his nickname was "El Wino."

But there were no exposed wankers. Most people were just trying to get home or to work, including a young mom in scrubs clasping her daughter's "Angry Birds" backpack in one hand and a thick book titled Juggling in the other.

By the sound of the snippets of conversation I picked up on my hourlong commute into Center City, juggling was what most on that bus were doing: health issues and lack of insurance. Criminal records and job searches. School, jobs and child care.

But you wouldn't get any of that from those depressing or disturbing photos and videos so many love to post and gawk at. That kind of reality doesn't go viral. It's just true.

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel