Being a college student means being part of a hive. We spend a lot of time living communally, forced to cohabitate with little to no sense of personal space, surrounded by classmates, roommates, hallmates and sometimes one-night bedmates. We eat in dining halls, study in libraries, party in frat houses and fall asleep in dorm rooms. Perhaps because it’s so uncommon, when we actually find ourselves completely and utterly alone, it feels wrong.
But it shouldn’t. It should feel like a gift, one that we give ourselves when we need it the most. When Penn the carnivorous monster replaces Penn the dream school, it’s time to get away.
Leaving Penn doesn’t have to mean following the overused adage “Explore the city!” deployed by well-meaning people ignorant of our burdensome workloads and limited means of transportation. It can be as easy as walking a mile, finding an empty bench, and claiming it as your own for ten minutes. Sometimes, that’s all you need.
Here are three benches, waiting for your company, your thoughts and the warmth of your butt. Have a seat.
Bench 1: Love Park
“You’re crying on a park bench.”
That was the exact interaction I had 45 minutes following hearing my grandfather had passed away. I got a voicemail after leaving class, and just walked until I was sitting on a Love Park bench. I didn’t plan it. I just found myself there. I cried so hard I threw up. I never did have the strongest constitution.
“I’m fine, I just want to be alone.”
Another person. I was grateful for the concern, really, but talking about it felt impossible. Being alone isn’t really about being alone. When I say I want to be alone it’s usually because I want to be so far outside of myself that I forget everything about my own life. I become invested in everything around me, every insignificant unimportant detail. He missed a button, she didn’t recycle that bottle, his shoe is coming untied.
I couldn’t be around people right then—my friends, my roommates, people who would have cared about me and helped me. Sometimes living in a big city like Philadelphia is taken for granted. You can disappear for a few hours without anyone really noticing or questioning where you’ve been. There will always be people around, but there’s comfort in crowded solitude.
“Why are you crying?”
“Please, I’m fine.”
It was this couple. They started arguing as they walked away from me.
“I told you we shouldn’t have bothered him,” he said.
“I was just trying to be polite.”
She sneezed. He didn’t say bless you.
It was such a small moment, but sitting on that bench was defining for my time at Penn. “Getting out of the Penn bubble” is such a cliché, but since that day, I try to venture off downtown alone at least every other week. It’s not about seeing the sights or finding new places. It’s about going somewhere, anywhere, where Penn isn’t constantly invading your life. Where classes and rush and clubs and planning BYOs aren’t incessant and consuming. And it’s about doing it by yourself so you can forget about all of that. Penn isn’t forever.
I sat on that bench for two hours. Eventually I got up and walked back to campus. I had a meeting. But it was nice to know that that bench would still be waiting for me when I wanted to come back and be alone. ‘Cause I’m fine. - Zacchiaus Mckee
You know that feeling of not knowing what to do with your hands? Being alone often comes with that feeling...but extended to the whole body. Thankfully, there are these things called books which solve the hands issue. They also do a lot more, like assuage or provoke angst, inspire, uplift, you know, that sort of thing.
“9 Stories” by J.D. Salinger
“Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace
“The Invention of Morel” by Adolfo Bioy Casares
“Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino
“The History of Love” by Nicole Krauss
“Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi
“The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster
“In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote
The real world isn’t like the cafeteria in “Mean Girls.” You don’t have to go sit in the bathroom with your lunch tray. Especially not in Philadelphia. We may not have nice taxi drivers or always sunny weather, but we do have tons of cool restaurants where it’s okay to sit by yourself and order a sandwich. Really, it’s okay.
Within four blocks of the dog park:
Fitler Dining Room (2201 Spruce St.)
Cafe Lutecia (2301 Lombard St.)
Mama Palma’s Gourmet Pizza (2229 Spruce St.)
Gavin’s Cafe (2536 Pine St.)
Within four blocks of Clark Park:
Milk and Honey (4435 Baltimore Ave.)
Gold Standard Cafe (4800 Baltimore Ave.)
Honest Tom’s (261 S. 44th St.)
Lil’ Pop Shop, (265 S. 44th St.)
Weekly Farmers’ Market (@ Clark Park on Thursdays)
Within four blocks of the LOVE Park:
Amuse (1421 Arch St.)
10 Arts Bistro (10 S. Broad St.)
Tir Na Nog (1600 Arch St.)
Con Murphy’s (1700 Benjamin Franklin Parkway)
The Cow and the Curd (@ LOVE Park)
Ask for a light. Even if you don’t smoke, this is the easiest way to start a conversation naturally without it feeling forced. Don’t worry, just don’t inhale.
Try to catch his or her eye. Okay, it might be hard to do this without appearing creepy, but if you accompany it with a smile, who knows? The worst that can happen is they don’t smile back.
Start with a compliment. “I like your watch” is a good one, and, who knows? It might be a family heirloom with a cool backstory.
If they have headphones on, ask what they’re listening to. You could be the Zooey Deschanel to their Joseph Gordon–Levitt. You make my dreams come true.
Bench 2: Clark Park
Last spring, after dropping off a disposable camera at the 43rd and Locust CVS (the only location that continues to develop them), I found myself removed from the center of campus with a full hour left before my next class. I was eager to flip through pictures from a series of hazy nights, but they wouldn’t be ready until that evening. I debated texting friends in a scramble to make hurried lunch plans, or heading to Williams an unnecessary forty minutes early, but I decided instead to grab lunch by myself at Honest Tom’s.
For one of few times I can pinpoint, I was neither with friends, in a meeting or immersed in some homework assignment during my lunch break. Committed to my overflowing burrito (a task requiring both hands), I barely even checked my phone to look busy or like I was waiting for a friend. I took in my surroundings, chuckling at a dog chasing his tail and some squirrels hustling about. It gave me a different sense of accomplishment than finishing a paper—it was a personal day. When I eventually made my way to class, walking down the idyllic Osage Avenue, I felt refreshed from my unexpected detour.
We boast on campus tours that we have an urban campus, but many fail to take advantage of the community directly surrounding Penn that gives it that distinction. We leave Van Pelt and Huntsman only to trudge to DRL, and rarely go the same distance for non–school work. Instead we obsess over schedules and midterms, and convince ourselves there’s no time for anything else. It may be controversial to say amidst the seasonal Penn porn that overwhelms our Instagram feeds, but our small campus can become repetitive and stifling (not to mention competitively stressful). Beyond 41st Street there are cafes, thrift shops, ample residential streets to discover that offer respite—if you can break away.
Surfacing from my own overwhelming stream of commitments allowed me to clear my head and for once, relax. It may sound simple, but when was the last time you saved some free time for yourself, sober, just to think? As soon as the weather becomes less unbearably cold and wintery I’ll be back for more afternoons in Clark Park...only 56 days until spring. - Nicole Malick
Fishtown: Take the Market–Frankford line eastbound from 40th Street to Girard station. Time: 32 minutes
Italian Market: Take the Market–Frankford line eastbound from 40th Street to 8th Street, then take the 47 bus southbound to Washington Avenue. Time: 35 minutes
Northern Liberties: Take the Market–Frankford line eastbound from 40th Street to the Spring Garden station. Time: 31 minutes
Manayunk: Take the Market–Frankford line eastbound to 15th Street, then take either the 27 or 32 bus to Manayunk. Time: 56 minutes
Logan Square: Take the trolley from 40th and Baltimore to 19th Street. Walk North for 10 minutes to Logan Square. Time: 19 minutes
Too embarrassed to be spotted at the Rave by yourself? These theaters in Philly usually offer smaller crowds and more independent films mixed in with the blockbuster hits. Pick one, buy some popcorn, and treat yo‘self.
Landmark Ritz East (125 S. 2nd St.)
Pearl Theatre at Avenue North (1600 N. Broad St.)
Landmark Ritz at the Bourse (400 Ranstead St.)
United Artists Riverview Plaza (1400 S. Christopher Columbus Blvd.)
Lighting – Lighting is the number one way to make yourself look better in a selfie. Ignore the harsh fluorescent lighting of SEPTA and opt for the natural lighting when you get off. And always avoid backlighting.
Camera – Never (seriously never) use the front camera on your phone. You might think it’d be easier to make yourself look how you want, but the lower resolution will just make you blurry.
Use the right angle – While the above shot may make you look like you’re on MySpace circa 2008, finding the right angle will always make your selfies more glamorous.
Use the background – Sure, a picture of your beautiful face is cool, but you know what’s better? A picture of your beautiful face with an awesome, interesting backdrop. Philly has some of the most beautiful places to make your selfie come alive.
Chose the right filter – Natch. Any appropriate filter will enhance whatever situation is going on.
Be yourself – It’s your selfie, do whatever you want as long as you love the way you look.
Bench 3: Schuylkill Dog Park
I got a dog because I was sick of college. I was sick of jungle juice and Friday nights, weird sleeping hours and the sound of high rise elevators. My favorite part of the morning was taking my fat, black sharpie and crossing the day off my Edward Hopper calendar. I would look at the picture of the month—August was Nighthawks—and wish I were there instead, smoking a cigarette out of a long, thin cigarette holder and breathing it out slowly into the dimly lit diner. Instead, I was drinking jungle juice.
The dog park in question is on the Center City side of the Schuylkill. It’s part of a larger park where Philadelphia schoolchildren run around and older kids play basketball under chain–link hoops. The first time we went was a Monday afternoon fall semester. I had skipped my only class of the day, for no reason other than apathy, and I was sick of seeing Jimmy Johns wrappers on the floor of my kitchen and hearing the ever–thumping bassline emanating through the thin walls from the frat next door. So Frodo and I walked to 25th and Spruce, past the community garden filled with flowers and herbs, and through the double gates of the dog park, where my companion was promptly relieved of his leash and released into the fray.
I, on the other hand, don’t have the same feelings for astroturf as my dog, so I sat down on an empty bench and watched him play. For the first time that semester, I found myself transported away from Penn. Women in sensible cold weather gear and bearded men with coffees in–hand stood around talking in soft, comfortable voices as their dogs ran around their legs and under benches, nipping at each other’s ears. Sitting there watching them, I felt as if I were just another person living in the city, and not a college student passing time in the school across the river.
A ratty, wet tennis ball rolled towards me, and I picked it up. I made eye contact with the panting Shiba Inu in front of me, and I threw it as hard as I could.
- Michelle Ma