When a million fans of the pope descend on Philadelphia this weekend, how can the rest of us make them feel welcome? I have some ideas.
People who know their way around don’t usually look up. They walk in automatic mode, ignoring their surroundings. But if you see someone in Center City or any tourist area, scrutinizing a cellphone or map and street sign simultaneously, you’ll know they are lost. You have an excellent opportunity to ask, “Can I help you find something?”
You’ll receive a range of responses, including:
“No, thank you. I’m just waiting for my brother-in-law. He’s always late.”
“No, I’m waiting for Uber.”
“Yes! Where have you been all my life?”
Usually, you can help. If not, at least you can identify a turquoise-jacketed Center City District employee, who knows all, sees all, and carries a two-way radio. If you can point a visitor to the Italian, Irish or Israeli restaurant she’s hankering for, you win a new friend — for yourself and for the city. Locate a bathroom, permanent or portable, and you may be a candidate for sainthood.
Even though the Art Museum will close all weekend, and Independence Hall will be shuttered on Saturday, you can still recommend the Reading Terminal Market, which, by the way, will stay open late. Just offer to help
I’ve done this hundreds of times in the 15 years I have lived in Center City, and I am always glad I do. I ask where people come from, and I get everything from Bangor to Bangkok. Some just live in the Greater Northeast but never venture south of Lehigh Avenue.
Because of a simple “Can I help?” I have dined in Chinatown with four young French musicians, invited an Italian couple to dinner in my apartment, and walked a mile out of my way to be with some strangers who were just plain fun.
If a visitor needs a location that is not a straight, direct route, you can point in the general direction, through buildings, before recommending which streets to take and where to turn. Offer to mark their maps, sketch your own, or write down street names. When appropriate, when any parallel street would suffice, ask about their preferences before choosing a route.
Suggest Spruce or Locust for more residential views, for instance, Walnut or Chestnut for commercial. As often as possible, I send people through City Hall courtyard, recently reopened. I recommend murals, a Philadelphia attraction of which I am extremely proud.
While you’re offering assistance, of course, do not hesitate to smile. Smiles break down barriers between strangers, even if people share no language. I know neither Cantonese nor Corsican nor Czech, but I can smile and shrug a lack of competence. That still leaves a good feeling about one Philadelphian who tried to help.
Whether you are as extroverted as I or a committed silent solo, try reaching out during the papal weekend. You might meet interesting people, and you will certainly help the image of your city.