South Street delight

Michael Venutolo-Mantovani

As we briskly trotted through one of the worst parts of Philadelphia, clutching onto our wallets and bags, the cool September air was cut by some awkward, incoherent chanting from maybe a few blocks south. So of course, at 3:30 a.m., we thought it would be a great idea to let the sound be our guide.

As we strolled around the corner of 9th and Morris in South Philly, our eyes said hello to our ears and we witnessed what was making this noise. About 75 people were gathered in some park that until then, I didn’t even know existed, screaming, dancing, running up and down, some swinging onto the street lights as if they were practicing for the local production of “West Side Story.”

An 80-year-old woman danced with four-year-old boys. It was exuberance; it was life at its finest. Three younger men sat in the middle, strumming guitars that shouted for new strings or a neck realignment. They played Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. They played old Temptations tunes, even a few Beatles covers. And while they whacked those guitars, screaming melodies, all the others made a symphonic chorus of completely raw talent. Built up around this music was a life unto itself.

Generations were breached and passions met somewhere in the middle, but when we broke this wall and entered this circle of life, we became part of their ecosystem … part of their establishment. We danced, sang and swayed with the breezes, not realizing we were in the slums at five o’clock in the morning. But it didn’t seem to phase us. They loved us.

Looking back on it, I realized that was quite possibly one of the most entertaining nights I’ve had all year. And trust me, I’ve had some good ones. But as we moved to the music, the joy overtook us. Now I’m not sure if this is a normal thing, however, if you ever happen to find yourself on a cool evening strolling through Philly with no apparent agenda, waltz into South Philadelphia and listen. You should hear it.