The sun had not yet risen when Apurv Gaurav arrived at the chained Berks Street El station.
"A strike?" asked the 29-year-old Comcast software engineer, throwing up his palms, unaware that SEPTA workers had walked out hours earlier, grinding the city's subway, trolley, and bus service to a halt.
"Get in," I said.
I spent Tuesday morning chauffeuring frustrated commuters to their jobs, classes, and doctor's appointments. Yes, I wanted to help. But I also wanted to use the massive gridlock accompanying a paralyzing transit strike as an excuse to chat up people about their commutes, Philly, their lives. Meet folks.
Apurv rode shotgun. More stranded commuters joined us.
"Sure," said Jun Kang, a dermatology resident at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
"Thanks," said Zach Bunda, heading to an exam needed for his new nursing job at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
"Please," said Jon Weary, an Art Museum worker with a bum shoulder on the way to a doctor.
No, thank you, said one woman, eyeing our filling Mazda.
Red Hot Chili Peppers played on WXPN as we headed into traffic. Sitting on the border between the fast-gentrifying neighborhoods of Fishtown and Old Kensington, the Berks station has experienced the largest ridership increase of any El stop in the last decade, according to SEPTA data.
My first passengers of the day were mostly new to their neighborhoods. They were all in their late 20s. They love the new restaurants, the bars, the vibe, if not the rising rents and some of the commercialization. They can walk most places, and SEPTA's so convenient. Most days anyway.
"Left please," said Jun at Sixth and Fairmount, anxious now, late for a patient.
Arch Street was a still life. Apurv passed the time talking about customer surveys. Zach was going to University City, 29 blocks away, so I asked him if this would be a good time to try out an Indego bike.
Jon fretted over his shoulder. He has been in Philly the longest, 11 years. He had ridden out all the change in the city. He studied fine art at Temple and now works in the packing and transportation department of the museum, hefting artworks and driving a box truck. A job he can't do without pain since a bike crash a few weeks ago.
Maybe it was time for a career change, a new city, an adventure, he said with a sigh as I pulled up to Hahnemann University Hospital, where his MRI awaited. He'd have to find his way home, he said.
Around 8:30 a.m., the scene outside the Snyder Avenue station was turning tense when I pulled up. Work shuttles were running late. Commuters who didn't know about the strike were realizing they'd be late for their jobs.
"Where are the buses?" a man screamed.
Emily Gowen was running late for her job as a grant manager at the nonprofit Mayor's Fund for Philadelphia. Krissy - no last name, she asked - had jury duty. Amanda Barbadora, a junior at Drexel studying game design and development, was between her dog-sitting job and mythology class.
Stuck on Broad, we talked about the new construction in the city, how you know you missed out on a neighborhood once someone gives it a name.
We're Philadelphians, Emily said, so we gripe. But still, she said, there's so much to be excited about.
She's 28, and was raised in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood. Back then, used needles littered her neighborhood. Now, Emily can't afford a home on the street she grew up on. She and her fiance are renting in East Passyunk and are planning on building their future here.
"I think the more you commit yourself to a place, a city, the better off that place becomes," she said.
Amanda, who is 20 and from Pittsburgh, admired the old buildings around City Hall. She doesn't get off Drexel's campus much; there's just no time between game-design labs and her coffee-shop job. She wants to develop video games for sick children, kids stuck in hospitals. She wants to build worlds for them to explore. For kids who cannot walk, she wants to make characters that can fly.
She is helping pay her tuition. She pays her rent. She expects to leave college with more than $100,000 in debt, she said as we pulled up to Drexel. She'd have to find a way back to that dog-sitting job.
The morning rush hour was over by the time I pulled up to the El stop at 52nd and Market.
Charles Hall, who is 56, leaned against a garbage can, blowing on his coffee. A janitor, he had worked the late shift at Hope's Cookies in King of Prussia. When he saw the news of the strike Tuesday morning, he drove his Nissan a few blocks from his house to moonlight as a hack, to make a few bucks. His one-year wedding anniversary is Wednesday. He'd like to take Dorothy for a seafood-and-steak dinner.
He told a story about his years of addiction and odd jobs, his prison time for burglary. He's been clean seven years now, he said. He's earned a certificate in peer counseling, he said, but can only find a job at the cookie warehouse.
"I'm not blaming anyone," he said. "I made my bed. I got to lay in it. I have to work for what I want."