“Money Will Fall from the Sky, Like the Movies”: A SEPTA Strike Diary

“They’re not going to strike. It will never happen.”

This was the sentiment that ricocheted through the bustling streets of Philadelphia last weekend. On Monday, October 31st as many prepped to partake in the celebration of Halloween and go out into the streets, another problem lingered in the horizon. The threat of the TWU Local 234 strike with SEPTA became a certainty on midnight that night. With that jolting information, many were forced to scramble and find the way they would get to work, get their kids to school, and keep their sanity in the process. Among the people lunged in the turmoil with no foreseeable end was me. In the past few days I have seen a society on the edge of panic, dismay, and anger. I have also seen people come together in great collaboration, extended friendship, and a surging unity that reflects the character of the city. Here’s a running diary the most entertaining and shocking day during the strike:

Day 1:

6:30am: I have to be in Center City by 9am, so it seemed intelligent to get to get to my Regional Rail station extremely early. I was out there ready to get on the 6:48am train.

7:30am: There was no 6:48 train, no 7:12 train, and an elderly woman taps me to say “What time do the bars open?” I reply “not early enough”, and she began to slowly slink down the station’s steps in search of breakfast and her bed. It’s freezing out.

8:15am: There are still no trains so I text my boss saying I would be late. I looked around the chilly station. I saw a sea of new faces and people who look defeated by the hours of waiting. I check how much an Uber or Lyft would cost to get downtown. “$22, that’s ridiculous but it also saves me from being stuck in the cold and my phone dying.” I say aloud to the growing crowd of strangers, “Does anybody want to share and Uber downtown?” I didn’t get one reply of “yes”. Many of the people there believed that because they had waited so long a train was coming soon. At this point, we hadn’t seen one train swipe by us going the opposite direction and I knew any train that came would be crammed with people waiting at previous stations. I pulled out my phone, ordered an Uber, and told the hopeful and waiting crowd good luck

8:25am: My Uber driver is a lively older woman named Anita who informs me that she just got off of work an hour ago. She seemed extremely excited about the strike and told me she made $80 off two trips already. “This strike is a blessing. Money will fall from the sky today like the movies… Like that movie Paid In Full”. She told me I was a fool to believe they wouldn’t strike and proceeded to curse the whole thing to hell. Once we reached I-76 we became a small link in a chain of cars tightly assembled in traffic.

9:30am: I finally make it to work and Center City isn’t its usual busy self. The Uber was only $17, a small mercy. The streets are virtually empty and there are no buses. I walk into work to find some people have elected to not come in because of the fallout of the strike. My coworkers and I exchange stories of our trek in.

5:00pm: Walking out of my building I check the SEPTA site and open Trainview. The current status of most trains are beyond and hour. I walk outside and everything is a confusing disaster. I see shuttle buses in front of the city’s municipal building and go into Suburban Station.

5:10pm: There was a room in my high school known as “The Wrestling Room.” When you walked past it, it smelled of hot and muggy sweat to a point that the stench of it flavored your tongue. That’s what walking into Suburban Station felt like, steamed stink. The lines for each Regional Rail align every hall of the building, people are restless and upset. It seemed obvious that nobody was leaving anytime soon.

5:30pm: I take off my jacket. “I’m f—ing (expletive) tired of this sh-t!” (expletive) pierces the room. I see a man start to swing his arms frantically. The police surround him and pin him the ground and panic becomes contagious. I say to the person I’m on the phone with, “Yeah this isn’t for me.” I dart out the doors with no way of knowing how I’m getting home.

5:45pm: I’m staring at the shuttle bus line. I’ve been staring for 15 minutes because I learned that the same Uber ride I took this morning now cost $68.70. I think about walking, images of Forrest Gump appear in my mind. I called everyone I could think of and exhausted every possibility.  The shuttles are labeled “North Broad, South Broad, Market East, and Market West.” I decide I’ll just try to get on the shuttle and see what happens.

6:00pm: A woman and her young child are turned away from the shuttle. It’s apparently only for city workers. I avoid eye contact with the people in charge and just act like I belong because at this point I’m out of options.

6:15pm: The buses are loading and as I get closer to the front I see police officers on the bus with a checklist. I calmly get on the bus. I’m asked where I work and after I respond a look of confusion spreads across the cop’s face. I point to the building where I work, and as the cop turns to look at it, I walk to the back of the bus and sit down. The move is a success since there were dozens of impatient people behind me. I give out a sigh of relief knowing that I just caught a break.

7:00pm: The bus has run into traffic several times, caught in a net of the rush hour purge from the city. I try to place where we are going and when I should get off. I see a woman pushing a stroller crying as we ride through the packed streets. The idea when I got on the bus was to just get out of the muck of long Regional Rail lines and downtown traffic. Now, I was free of it and no idea how to get home.

7:15pm: I’ve stayed on the bus too long and the same cop keeps looking at me at each stop along the route. I check my maps app and look up. The cop continues to stare. I frantically yell, “You know what I missed my stop. I’ll get out.”

7:16pm: I’m on the side of the road in the dark. I check Uber and the price to get to my destination isn’t as terrible as before.

7:18pm: The Uber picks me up and my driver tells me how great his day was. He told me he had made $200 after 3 rides since 5pm. Haggard, exhausted, and depleted I let out a surprising laugh and say, “I guess it’s like money fell from the sky huh?”

8:00pm: I get home and like so many others in the city, I feel unprepared to do it all again the next day.

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