It was a week into refurbishing of the 5th and Market Street station of the Blue Line, also known as the Frankford El. The El runs above ground for most of its route, but in Center City, the downtown section of Philadelphia, it runs underground. 5th Street Station was the jumping off point for Independence Mall, the Liberty Bell, and Constitution Center. This made it one of the busiest stops for tourists coming to Philadelphia. It was also the closest stop to where I worked.
I worked in the Curtis Building at 6th and Walnut Street. Once the home of the publisher of Jack and Jill and the Saturday Evening Post, it now housed offices, upscale bars, and expensive condos. I would have had to work three jobs to afford the cheapest condo. I lived much farther north, in Holmesburg, where the rents were much lower. It was a short walk across the Liberty Bell plaza to the El stop which could take me close to where I lived.
Signs had been up for a few weeks warning of a “Deep Cleansing” of the underground station. It certainly needed one. Despite the red, white and blue silhouettes of Independence Hall on the walls, it was a dismal place. It had the usual smell of urine associated with all El stops, along with the typical herds of rats, mice, and various six legged creatures. It was not clear why there was a sudden desire to clean. There was a rumor a high profile politician had complained. I doubted that was the cause. Politicians were not known to ride the El. There was a rumor reporters had uncovered a massive bedbug infestation. That sounded more plausible. Bad publicity can get results.
During my daily trips I had seen the red, white and blue placards come down, and the spraying of some kind of foam on walls, ceiling and support beams. Cinder blocks were exposed. Pieces of paint and other materials hung from steel beams and the cinder block walls like peeling dead skin. I wondered why the station had not been closed during the cleansing. Whatever made the walls and metal peel could not be good for human lungs. I considered using a different station a few blocks away until the project was done, but that would have cost me at least 15 minutes more travel time each day. The thought of spending more time on my commute was enough to keep me using the 5th Street station. I would try to hold my breath.
As I said before, it was a week into the “deep cleansing.” I was waiting on the platform for a train to take me home. The station was darker during the construction. A gloomy place had become gloomier. I missed the red, white and blue walls. They had brightened things up a bit. I stared into the tunnel looking for lights from the next train. I saw movement. One or two objects fluttering. They were large and reddish brown.
“Butterflies”, I thought. “Now that’s pretty fucking amazing. I’m standing here thinking how lousy this place is with the poor lighting, the chemicals, the weird smells, and the sense of decay, when along comes some butterflies. One of God’s miracles. Some nature, the nice kind, underground at 5th Street.”
I stood and watched and smiled to myself, until the butterflies landed on a wooden board covering a construction area. As soon as the wings were folded, I knew I had been wrong. Cockroaches. A pair of them. Each as big as my index finger. Not God’s miracle. God or the devil’s joke on me.
I vowed to get on and off at the 8th Street station starting in the morning.
But I didn’t. 15 minutes was still 15 minutes.
And butterflies are free to fly.
Just don’t look at them too closely.