Center City

center city 600×600

My friends and I were 15 that summer and we thought we had outgrown the suburban town where we lived. Center City, that seedy forbidden downtown core of Philadelphia, was as exotic to us as Baghdad. We were pulled there, the pull strong enough to pull a nail from a plank. In Center City, we could smoke. We could look at dirty magazines. In Center City, we did not blend in with every other 15-year old middle-class suburban kid in blue jeans and a madras shirt.

This day we were in Suburban Station, a junction of commuter rail lines buried beneath the office buildings of the Penn Center complex. The station was subterranean and even though trammeled by hordes of commuters at the busy times of the day, abandonment whistled in as soon as the trains loaded. The floors and walls were tiled, so dirty that the piss and graffiti didn’t show, so full of echoes that you were never alone.

We were waiting for a train to ride us back out to our suburban neighborhood. McArdle was with us. He was a year older than me and he made much of it, as if in that extra year the secrets of the universe had been given unto him. We were playing hide and seek and McCardle was it. He hid his eyes and counted. We scattered through the station like startled crows.

McCardle was really fast – much bigger and faster than me – so I raced down the main corridor to get distance and cover before he opened his eyes. Without looking, I turned hard right into a smaller corridor that ran at a right angle to the thoroughfare. I raced three or four strides before I realized it was a dead end.

I had made a huge mistake; there was no place to go. There were long-blackened underground store windows on the sides. The end was boarded off, as if it were under construction, though the wood was water-stained and ancient. There was no exit. And I had run too far into this corridor to turn around now and go out the way I had come in. McArdle would have finished counting and he’d be coming down the main straightaway from which this corridor departed; if I turned around I would run right into him. I had to hide. But this sawed-off corridor was bare. The only thing in it was a pile of broken cardboard and trash in the corner at the far end, snugged up against the boarded-up partition that closed off the space.

I thought I could hear McArdle coming down the main corridor; in moments he would reach the mouth of the corridor where I was dithering. I had no choice. I raced to the blocked-off back end. I headed straight to the pile of debris and, in one quick move, I jumped behind a large piece of cardboard that was propped up against the wall. I scooched down and with one hand pulled the box into the wall so I was almost completely teepee’d behind it.

I was breathing like a bear. My breath was so loud it hurt my head. And it smelled. Not just my breath; this whole hideaway stank. I tried to ignore it, but that was not easy. The smell was awful; I almost gagged.

I turned my head to see around. I was standing on a mound of tattered cloth and carpet remnants.  The smell rose up from below my feet in such powerful waves that it undulated in the dim air.

I forced myself to stay still.  Where was McArdle? Was he out there? He would see if I moved. But the smell was so nasty I couldn’t stay here.

What was making the smell? All of a sudden I had a terrible thought. Was it shit? Had someone shit back here in the corner? Had I jumped into a pile of shit? Oh God.

I looked down to check, but I couldn’t see much in the dimness. To let in more light, I gently changed the angle at which the cardboard box leaned against the wall. I couldn’t see any shit. Just the mound of carpet and rags and … oh my god, what the hell was that…? Hair?

I screeched. I jumped. I knocked over the cardboard, exposing the place where I was just standing.

My mouth was a hooked fish. I was gasping. It was…

I felt a hard slap on my back. “Gotchya, doofus! Yore it!” McCardle was already racing away from me, laughing and gloating.

I turned to him, my eyes as big as my wide-open mouth. I couldn’t say anything.

McArdle slowed down and then stopped. He walked back to me cautiously, sensing a trick.  “I said you are it, jackoff.”

I chin-pointed at the debris.

“Jeezus.” He said, “what the hell is that?”

With the box lying on the floor, you could see that there was a big dirty piece of carpet rolled up in a tube and someone was inside. Brown hair spilled out from the top of the tube and spread like a stain on the tile floor. The face was turned away from us, facing the wall, but you definitely tell that there was a man there.

“Jeezus. Is he dead?”

I was still bug-eyed in horror. I gasped, “I jumped right on him.”

McArdle said, “Jeezus, you jackoff.”

“He… didn’t even move.” I was shaking.

“Christ. You jumped on a dead guy? Why did you do that?”

I trembled. “What are we going to do?”

McCardle just shook his head. “Jeezus.”

“We gotta get someone. We gotta get help.”

“No helping that guy. He is way past helping.”

McArdle used the back of his heel to try to turn the body over but it was too heavy.

“Come on,” he said, “let’s get a good look.” He bent down and made to grab the carpet roll. “Come on dingus, help me.”

I didn’t want McArdle to touch the body.

“Don’t,” I said, “he’s covered with shit.”

McCardle jumped back. Then he looked at me with renewed disgust. “Christ, what a doofus. You jumped into a pile of shit with a dead body underneath. Nice work dingus. Really nice work.”

“I didn’t do it on purpose. It was a hiding spot.”

“Yeah, good choice. Come on. Let’s get out here.”

“No, we gotta get someone.”

“Are you crazy?”

‘We can’t just leave him; we gotta tell someone.”

“No way. We can’t get caught down here, asswipe. We are in Center City.”

“We can’t just walk away. There is a dead guy there.”

Dingus. They’ll probably think you killed him.”


“You jumped right on top of him and that probably did it.”

“Come on, I didn’t kill him.”

“Yeah that’s what you are saying but how do you know? We slip away and no one will ever know what you did. No one’ll be the wiser. But you go get the cops involved…” McArdle gave me that look I hated, that know-it-all-look.

“I was just hiding.”

“On a dead guy? Who’d believe that? Look, doofus, we gotta get out of here. And when we do, we can’t ever come back here again.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I could probably come back, but not you.”


“Yeah, they’ll be looking for you, dingleberry.”


“Yeah, you can’t ever come to Philadelphia again.”

I could feel tears rising but I wasn’t going to cry in front of McArdle.

I started out of the corridor, back into the more populated part of the station. McArdle was behind me saying something I couldn’t hear.

I turned around and looked back down the corridor. The debris was visible, but from this distance, any human presence was already too faint to mean anything. Just a garbage pile. Walking away would be so easy. McArdle was right. Just go.

But something wouldn’t let me. I didn’t care what McArdle said. I needed to find a cop.

I saw a guy in a gray uniform. I ran up to him and grabbed his arm.

“There’s a dead guy over there,” I said, pointing back to where I had come from.

The man – on closer inspection he was a train conductor, not a policeman – looked at me as if I was a small dog who’d grabbed his trouser. “Whaddaya say?”

I repeated myself and began pulling him back towards where I had found the body.

McArdle was slouching off to the side of the main corridor, pretending he didn’t know me, watching, but keeping himself aloof, waiting to see how this would play out.

The conductor shook my hand off his arm but he kept walking with me, “tell me again, tell me what you said.”

“I said, there is a dead guy.”

“Shit. That’s what I thought you said.” The conductor looked around the station like he wanted to find a grown-up too.

We came around the corridor into the section where the dead man was located. We were maybe 200 feet from the pile of trash. From there you couldn’t really see the body. I didn’t want to get any closer. “He’s right in there,” I said.

The conductor walked a few steps closer, enough to see what was there, but he didn’t make an upThe close-up inspection. He shook his head. “Fucking people.”

I looked behind me. McArdle had peeked his head into the mouth of the corridor. He was waving for me to get out of there. I started to back away. The conductor heard me and turned around, “wheredaya think you are going, kid?”

“I gotta get home.”

“Donchya go anywhere.”

But it was too late. I ran. I sprinted past McArdle. I sprinted down the long tiled corridor. I passed the subterranean stores. I sprinted past the stairways that lead from the tracks. I sprinted up a flight of marble steps that lead to the hot streets of Center City. I didn’t stop until I got to 20th Street.

I was exhausted from the run. My breath tumbled and heaved.

A couple of minutes passed before McArdle caught up. He was swearing and telling me I was a jackass; I should never have said a word. I should have listened to him. He went on and on, but I didn’t care. I had done my duty. I had found the conductor and brought him to the body. I had passed the dead guy back into the world of grown-ups. Now he was conductor’s dead guy, not mine.

Center City first Appeared in Narrative Magazine