Image: City Safari: Mental illness is all too real in Philadelphia

A Rake’s Progress. 

“Learning to Use Pepper Spray,” is an idea for an opera that I have in my head. I like to imagine it as a modern urban epic on stage at Opera Philadelphia. The stage set would be Center City streets, or a Market-Frankford Line El station like Spring Garden.

Act One: A large man in a crowded city WAWA makes his way about the store. The man has a chip on his shoulder. He hates the world. As the large bodied man circles a sandwich display counter, he imagines that a smaller man, besides checking out the sandwiches, has bumped into him. The large man, ready for a fight, now sticks close to the sandwich bar, making it difficult for the smaller man to squeeze by him. The smaller man’s arm does touch a part of the big man’s body during the ordeal.

The big man explodes. “The next time you bump me, I’m gonna knock you out!”   The smaller man looks up, surprised. “I didn’t know I bumped you,” he says.


“I’m gonna knock you out,” the large man says again. A security guard motions to the smaller man to let the incident go because, you know, the big man is obviously…crazy.   


Mental illness, it seems, is alive and well in Center City. It’s also thriving in the various neighborhoods and among the homeless population. 2020 saw the spiral growth of this phenomenon with COVID, lockdowns and the George Floyd riots. Inspect the area around 13th and Chestnut Streets or go to any of the SEPTA stations on Market Street and you’ll see a city in decline.


Our little opera would have to include another incident, this one at the Spring Garden Market-Frankford station where a passenger waits for the Girard station bound train while a lone individual sitting on a bench a good distance away begins making odd bodily movements, fidgeting and jerking in a troubled manner.

The Girard station passenger, an avid sky watcher, is taking in the views of Northern Liberties when suddenly the man on the bench gestures to him.  The man on the bench then gets up and walks towards the passenger. 


“You looking at me?” the man says angrily. “You looking at me?”


The passenger says that he is waiting for a train and that everything is okay. “Sir,” he reassures the man, “Nobody was looking at you.” The bench man looks as if he is about to deliver a punch. “Get off this station,” he threatens.   


Throwing a punch on a train platform is dangerous for many reasons. By the same token, blasting the crazy man with pepper spray would certainly have done the trick but who would want to go through the drama that might follow?  (Luckily for the passenger, a train came and he was able to board it without the mentally ill man following him.)


A highlight of the opera: A man walking along Chestnut Street near Macy’s. The man passes a fellow with a very large portable radio strapped to his shoulders. The sight is so unusual the man glances at the man carrying the radio but that’s all it takes. The radio man is now following him in a confrontational way. The radio man suddenly turns on the man and unleashes a violence-laden mantra, like a pit bull eager to tear into flesh. Should radio man be pepper sprayed? Might that avoid a knock down punch?


Radio man is not pepper sprayed, but only because the other man is a gentleman who has come to accept the fact that the best way to deal with insane people is to take the high road. Let the crazy person have the final say.


The big question remains: Why is this sort of behavior becoming more and more common in the city?


Violence—or the threat of violence-- has always been Philadelphia’s second cousin. From the John S. Knight Rittenhouse Square murder, to the Center City jogger killing in November of 1995, true crime stories could fill every shelf most of the shelves in the Parkway library.


One crime that has always stayed with me is the July 2009 killing of David Sale, 22, from Lansdale, Pennsylvania. Sale was out celebrating with friends at McFadden’s bar in the Phillies ballpark when his group ran into a group from Fishtown.


By the end of the evening, David Sale was dead. The three Fishtown assailants —Charles Bowers, James Groves and Francis Kirchner-- (allegedly) beat to death 22 year-old Lansdale-native, David Sale, over spilled beer.


A life was lost but you’d never know it when reading the sentences of the three men. NBC News reported that Kirchner, 30, was sentenced to consecutive terms totaling nine to 18 years. Bowers, 37, got consecutive terms totaling five to 10 years. Groves, 48, was sentenced to concurrent terms of two to four years. The Sales family was devastated. They did not feel that justice was done for their son.

Psychologists have a lot of theories about why some men are violent. Violence can stem from a dysfunctional, abuse-filled childhood. It can stem from anger from unfulfilled personal desires (that which we seek to repress builds up stem, eventually producing a “volcano”). Violence can occur when lives are perceived as meaningless, when life itself is thought to be worth little. Nihilism may have its place in existentialist philosophy, but it rarely translates well to troubled individuals for whom life then becomes just as meaningless for everyone.


Group dynamics, when mixed with alcohol, can have different effects. It’s unlikely that ten women having Martinis at a Union League luncheon will get into a barroom brawl, though their breeding might instigate conversational warfare should there be a breakdown in communications. Ditto for Knights of Columbus members who decide to share a brew at a local pub, and then get into an argument. Chances are the end result of that ‘fight’ would be a slammed drink on the bar, and a quick “disciplined” exit.

In movies there are many examples of bar room scenes in which a drink is thrown in someone’s face, and then a handkerchief offered to clean it up. Woman in those films might even blow smoke in a man’s face and get away with slapping him two or three times before they walk out the door. Only in gangster films and western melodramas do we have examples of what happened in McFadden’s sports bar. 

The testosterone-filled, crowded sports bar must be the direct descendent of the rowdy, western bar where cowboys used to shoot one another on the spot.


Sports bars are like little Roman coliseums: the wild laughter and good times always seem to skirt the edges of violence. Sports bars are places where one nasty drunk in the group can influence the pack. Group drunks can turn into sloppy, dangerous affairs at the flip of a coin because the individual antics of one can cajole, encourage and otherwise instigate collective stupidities.


This is what happened at McFadden’s bar, where police reported large numbers of people from “both sides” rumbling outside in small groups.


But things have gotten worse in the city since the 2009 McFadden’s tragedy. Mentally ill people who go out looking for adverse encounters in a predatory way (so they can act out) seems to be the new urban disease.


That’s why I no longer snicker or laugh at people when they tell me to “Be safe” as I make my way about the city.


The mental illness pandemic is all too real.

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