I've been hearing strange voices for almost 30 years. I hear them under a full moon in the quick of a winter night and during the longest days of summer. These voices beckon me to join them. I am powerless to resist.
Which is all well and good because these voices and the people who make them were a big reason we moved to West Philadelphia in 1985. That and the soothing sight and sound of the No. 13 trolley rolling up and down the gleaming steel tracks on Chester Avenue.
We live just a few doors off 45th Street, on the uphill slope overlooking Clark Park, a magical place with a '60s love-power vibe surrounded by 1890s Victorian architecture. Imagine a Currier and Ives postcard depicting a peaceable kingdom inhabited by humans of every possible age, color, and national origin.
Clark Park is also infested with college students, whose buoyant shouts and cheers can be heard at 2 a.m. after a fresh snowfall covers the popular sledding hills surrounding a natural bowl that was once a pond formed by Mill Creek near where it empties into the Schuylkill.
In nice weather the bowl becomes a grass-carpeted amphitheater for open-air plays by William Shakespeare, or summer solstice rock festivals with names like "Feast of the Drooling Love Dog," or, occasionally, a performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra. In nasty, cold weather the sirens' call of strange beckoning voices is usually absent. But last Sunday was a revelation. Around 10 o'clock that morning I heard strange joyful voices from the bowl despite the drenching rain.
The voices were urgent and unfamiliar. Cheers, followed by groans, followed by shouted military-sounding commands in some private code.
"Snitch is on the pitch!" I heard people shout. Then a single authoritarian voice bellowed, "Take a knee. Heads down! Eyes closed! Snitch release!" What was this?! A murder-witness execution squad?
"Ready?" came the shouted order. I cringed in anticipation of the next two words. But instead of "Aim! Fire!" the voice ordered, "Brooms up!"
I hurried out the front door and down to the park. From the lip of the bowl, I looked down on the indescribable.
There, in the two-inch deep puddles, were two opposing forces dressed in mud-caked uniforms and chasing each other while riding on brooms. I had happened upon a foul-weather quidditch match, resembling a scene out of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Of course, this wasn't Hogwarts rivals Gryffindor and Slytherin actually flying on their brooms. Instead, the players ran around the muddy pitch clutching their earthbound brooms like kindergartners rushing to the boys' room to take an urgent pee. No wizards or witches, just muggles (non-magical college students) playing a made-up contact sport that didn't exist a decade ago.
Each side has seven players: three chasers, two beaters, a keeper, and a seeker. Chasers try to score by throwing a quaffle through one of three hoops, at varying heights, at either end of the field. Keepers are the goalies. Beaters whack opposing players with a bludger. The seekers spend the game searching for the coveted golden ball with wings called the snitch.
"Everyone who plays is a Harry Potter geek," said Erin Heintzelman, a 21-year-old psychology major at Temple, who was standing on the sidelines when I ventured closer to the action. She's a multisport athlete (lacrosse, basketball, tennis, track, baseball, softball) who fell in love with quidditch at first sight last fall.
Quidditch itself is multisport. It has elements of rugby, lacrosse, basketball, water polo, dodgeball, and capture the flag - with players using one hand to clutch the broom between their legs and the other to play.
Erin plays for a Philadelphia club called Honey Badgers. But college teams in the Clark Park tournament included Penn, Swarthmore, Villanova, and unlikely powerhouse Lock Haven University.
Lock Haven beat Swarthmore in the final, 90-0. The prize? "Not like the Stanley Cup," said Lock Haven's team founder and president, Jonyull Kosinski. "It's a trophy with a witch riding a broom holding a jack-o'-lantern. I guess that was the only thing they could find."
Quidditch was embraced as a club sport at Lock Haven two years ago, and the university even subsidizes it, paying for the team's custom-made Nimbus 2500 broomsticks, the Air Jordans of quidditch sweepware.
"We're going to be in the World Cup next year," Kosinski promised. Yes, there is a Quidditch World Cup. In fact, on this Final Four weekend of March Madness the International Quidditch Association World Cup VII is being played among 80 teams in North Myrtle Beach, S.C.
No doubt the winning keeper, chaser, or seeker will cry after victory, "I'm going to Hogwarts World!"
Or better yet, Clark Park.