It’s a summer night—warm and hazy, late August, cocktail of nostalgia, tranquility, and tipsy glee floating in on the breeze. Nobody quite feels like going home yet, so you and your friends seek out an after–dinner treat. You’re approaching the corner of 7th and Christian streets when you first catch sight of that familiar beacon of bright red, white, and green, jutting proudly into the pink sunset. You begin to salivate. You can practically taste the sweet, sultry mango flavor on your tongue, cold and crystalline and more refreshing than it has any right to be. It’s the taste of summer. It’s exactly what you need.
And then, as you round the bend, already fishing cash out of your wallet, you see it: the line. It must be an entire block long, snaking and weaving and spilling into the open street—young children and parents, elderly couples and packs of giddy middle schoolers, hipsters leaning on fixie bicycles, neighborhood moms out for a stroll. There appear to be just two girls working valiantly behind the old–school counter, scooping and making change, while an army of sweet–toothed, wide–eyed Philadelphians advances, each in giddy pursuit of their icy fix.
And guess what? You couldn’t be more pleased.
I can’t begin to catalog the number of balmy summer evenings I’ve spent in line for John’s Water Ice. What I can summarize, however, is how it’s felt every time. And while it would be easy, upon glimpsing the crowd, to drop the operation and run the opposite way, doing so would mean robbing yourself of a quintessential and irreplicable Philadelphia experience.
Whether it’s queuing up for a summer dessert, trying to enter a packed stadium, or grabbing a game–day meal, Philadelphians continually find ourselves lining up and crowding around for packed gatherings and buzzy hotspots, suggesting not simply resignation but a sustained willingness to voluntarily live out the annoying and inconvenient in the company of others. In an era that is both markedly post–pandemic and more online than ever, these situations of communal banality and solidarity–by–chance feel unexpectedly more important and quietly more profound, representing the core of what it means to live in a city.
Of course, the concept of less–than–ideal situations bringing groups together is nothing new. Popular media, from dystopians like The Hunger Games to childhood classics like Harry Potter to the novels of Lemony Snicket and TV shows of Shondaland, has understood and dissected this phenomenon extensively. We expect bonding among strangers to occur in times of stress, uncertainty, and tragedy. We understand the unspoken alliances and networks of connection that form when we endure alongside one another. The COVID–19 pandemic, in many instances, served as a prime example. Surviving the terrifying and strange and uncertain together, as we know, engenders unity.
But there exists far less representation of the ability of the mundane to build connection. Bonding in line or in a waiting room is much quieter and far less flashy than forming lifelong connections during a shelter–in–place event. But the fact that these collective holdups are voluntary, common, and most often found in the pursuit of fun and festivity makes them just as valuable. In a post–pandemic world that still frequently feels fractured, atomized, and divided, waiting in a long line simply because you’ve all decided that you’re up for it offers an easy, simple avenue for solidarity and outreach.
This is even true at Penn. We’ve all joked with strangers in line at Pret about long waits and bad prices. We speak the language of university–specific inside jokes about finance kids and loud construction and fraternity parties fluently. The brief, communal exhale offered by this kind of innocuous humor and conversational complaining plays a large role in connecting what can otherwise be an intense, overwhelming, and deeply divided school community.
However, what you get out of this communal happenstance at the city level is something different. It’s intimacy with strangers—not familiar faces from the 10:15 a.m. Locust Walk class change or possible club interviewers, but truly, definitionally, anyone. Crucial to this difference is, well, difference. The experience of waiting in line with a horde of unknowns is that of existing in the same place at the same time as people with whom you otherwise wouldn’t be and may never be again. Nobody planned this; the great cosmic mechanism simply aligned at this moment, on this gameday or this summer night, so that you and all of these people could be standing together, tapping your feet and making nonchalant conversation. The only unifier present is your shared location, your city, and your enthusiastic, shared desire to venture out into it.
This unique convergence of anonymity and intimacy, of far–flung difference and unspoken agreement, is what sets the communal happenings of a city apart from those of a specific organization or institution. Waiting for coffee with the other unlucky 8:30 a.m.–ers is its own kind of valuable experience; it’s certainly part of what I’m talking about here. But I would urge anyone to seek out the more random, fleeting sense of community found when lining up for a hip new activity or a local tradition, outside the boundaries of Penn’s campus.
It needn’t even be far—the collective jubilation felt in the line for glossy, candy–red apples at the Clark Park Farmers Market on the first real autumn Saturday, inhaling the cinnamon–sugar scent of fresh cider donuts and watching passersby point out favorite varieties, is indescribable. But just go somewhere you don’t have to be, somewhere that might not be quick or efficient or tailored to your routine, and see if it feels worth it: the weekly market at Headhouse Square, or the one that snakes around Rittenhouse, Angelo’s Pizza right before a Sunday Eagles game, for crowd–press conditions and cheesy goodness, the ridiculous, costume–filled race of jolly daredevils in homemade vehicles at the annual Kensington Derby, or the sidelines at the start of the Broad Street Run in the cold, wee hours of the morning.
Humanity has never been more online, with more frequency and in more areas of life. Amidst this avalanche of Internet–based interaction, it’s easy to confuse the impression of millions of people and the appearance of group conversation with genuine community. But the kind of frenetic, spectacle–focused discussion that happens online makes no room for the quiet, persistent solidarity of in–person gathering, the connection felt between strangers partaking in something normal and casual and recreational. Social media is a fractured, cacophonous, frequently dreadful, and terribly inadequate stand–in for the town square. You know what isn’t? The actual town square.
This month, the notoriously eccentric philosopher–poet behind Philadelphia cult favorite bagel spot Korshak Bagels, Philip Korshak, announced that the shop would be shuttering its doors for good. Known for incredibly long lines, epic sellouts, and the poetic ramblings of its bearded mastermind, Korshak opened during the pandemic, and standing around for hours at the corner of 10th and Morris streets quickly became a Philly pilgrimage and a ritual for many.
It wasn’t enough—the shop’s minuscule size and its owner’s commitment to worker compensation made Korshak, as Philadelphia Magazine put it, “doomed from the start.” But the extent to which community was found in its infamous lines, between total strangers simply joking and chatting and throwing their hands up at the slight ridiculousness of it all, should not be understated. As Korshak said of his shop’s final days in an Instagram reel this week, “I will not be able to make enough bagels tomorrow for everyone who wants bagels. Life is limited. And isn’t that lovely? Isn’t that great? That the present is the only thing that’s true, and even it is fleeting.”
His slogan? “We’re all in this together.”