Philadelphia's Suburban Station is not a nice place. It is a necessary evil. Because I regularly travel by train, I have to walk through it to get to work and I have to walk through it to get home. I try to spend as little time as possible in Suburban Station. In the mornings, I exit my train and hasten my step to get to street level as quickly as I can. When I leave work in the evenings, I hurry through the slow-moving crowds to board my train just as it pulls up to the platform.
Suburban Station is huge. At street level, there's a massive 21-story art-deco office building. Below is an underground network of winding walkways stretching for blocks. There are many businesses throughout the station, ranging from "Mom and Pop" variety stores to several outlets of national fast-food chains. Suburban Station is home to a handful of transient street musicians, diligently working their musical instrument of choice while a cup (or sometimes their instrument's open case) beckons a small donation. There's also an unwashed handful of just plain transients. On most days, the station is permeated by a mixture of smells: old cooking oil, sweat, piss, liquor, sewage and mold. It's an unpleasant odor, as you can imagine, and one you don't want to be subjected to for any length of time (hence my hastened gait). It the summer, it's worse as the heat adds to its potency. No, in the winter, it's worse, as the cold adds a sort of preservative aspect. It's just bad all year 'round.
Which is why I was surprised last Friday.
On Friday, I got off the train and rushed up the platform stairs to the main station. SEPTA, the overseeing body that operates Philadelphia public transportation, has decorated the station for the winter holidays. Garland is draped from support columns. Small areas between benches are sectioned off with plastic fencing surrounding a blanket of fake snow and a couple of sparsely-decorated artificial trees. It's a nice attempt at "festive," but it's still Suburban Station and it still smells like shit. Making my way to the nearest exit and the promise of fresher air, I passed a typical family — Mom, Dad and little Billy and Suzy. They were happy, dressed in brightly colored winter wear and clutching paper shopping bags stuffed with a morning's worth of Christmas purchases. They were posing, as a family, in front of one of SEPTA's holiday displays, carefully positioning themselves midway between a fake white tree decorated with purple glass balls and a fake blue tree with similar decor, except green instead of purple. Little Billy and Little Suzy grinned and mugged as Mom and Dad hugged and leaned in close. A woman adjusting a camera stood a few feet in front of them. The family beamed as the camera's flash fired and the memory of their magical Suburban Station Christmas was instantly preserved forever in 16.0 megapixels. They continued to smile and laugh as they gathered together and peered at the camera to preview the photo.
And it seemed as though they didn't even notice the smell.