Philadelphia Metropolis


Sam the Squirrel of Rittenhouse Square

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Remember the tour Kay gives Jay of the MIB headquarters in Men in Black? He shows him this kitchen raided with aliens called "worm guys" - loud, obnoxious, short, thin aliens who drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and say things like "Abazaaawajay!" Zed, the leader of MIB, calls them "miserable little ingrates!!"

Idling in Rittenhouse Square one lovely afternoon seeking tranquility, I found human "worm guys" instead.

Homeless? Drunk? Vagabonds? They swapped cigarettes, water bottles, Gatorade bottles, Vitamin Waters, mixed the contents, and - less mysteriously - passed around one bottle in particular that never left its paper bag. They slouched around like a cross between hippies and cavemen. Of them there were five, and the facts were these: 1) long ponytail; plain clothes; fingerless worker's gloves and a wooden cross necklace; 2) high cheekbones; seemingly wise and spiritual in a Native American way; long, thick, gray matted hair; a neon green cross and rosary; and a CD player banded above his elbow; 3) silver earrings dangling at eight inches and a psychedelic t-shirt; 4) narrow spectacles; five feet tall and stout and only speaks in quiet, rapid mumbles; and 5) unusually normal-looking with sunglasses resting on his Phillies cap.

I expected this guy with a bicycle on the next bench to take notice, but nothing at all. He was the only one who paid no attention. How the "worm guys" socialized with one another was a nuisance, with raucous chatter and booming laughter, but how they socialized with others was just shocking.Squirrel Use This.jpg

People would glide right up and, after what appeared to be an engaging conversation, shake hands. Christians? Attempted AA? Unlike Bicycle Guy, I needed to find out.

Suddenly a baby squirrel appeared in the hands of the man with a mane. As if it were a kitten he guided it from hand to hand, providing a never-ending path for its fledgling claws. Then he steered it onto his shoulders and into his bushy hair. He passed it along to passersby (no one was alarmed).

My focus switched over to this Asian girl teaching a man how to block karate chops. She wore a plain outfit with hot pink flats and strings tied to various parts of her arms and legs, like misplaced bracelets and anklets. Before I knew it she joined the group (or rejoined), marveling over the baby squirrel and repeatedly making exclamations like "Dude!" and "Aw, man!" in place of normal conversation. She had the type of indiscernible personality where she engaged in everything but remembered nothing. She fit right in.

The vagabonds also associated with a few people lying nearby on a makeshift campsite of backpacks and gallons of water. The Asian girl and her karate partner accompanied the campers. Then Bicycle Guy joined them! Does everyone know each other?

Before I realized it the man in the Phillies cap was walking toward me. His hands were behind his back and he spoke to an unknown audience. He sat on my bench and faced me to reveal...the baby squirrel.

"Do you want to hold him?"

Words like RABIES and DISEASE flashed through my mind before I registered the fact that I had already said, "Yeah!!" He shook my hand, introducing the squirrel as Sam. The gray bushy-haired man joined Phillies Cap for the tale of Sam. This was the third day he had come down from his nest to hang out. I started piecing together facts for investigation - so, you guys are here all the time? - before realizing that I was holding one of the cutest creatures I had ever seen with the softest tail I had ever felt. I racked my brain for more questions of inquiry, but to no avail. One glance of Sam's puppy dog eyes and I thought of nothing else. The bushy man held Sam up to his mane, noting that Sam thinks of him as a cousin, while I thought, more like his nest. "Don't do that!" Phillies Cap shouted. "People won't be able to see him!" Phillies Cap posed Sam for a picture. I thanked him and he held Sam up to face me and told him to say "bye-bye to Melissa." I was too flattered for words. These strange creatures allowed me to befriend an animal I would have shied away from otherwise.

I watched as they tried to return Sam to his tree, but Sam climbed back down to them every time. So, the Nest held Sam out again for people to pet him. A woman dragged her child away saying "No, no" with a nervous laugh and another couple heard out Sam's tale but declined to touch. The Nest headed back toward his bench. I beamed at him knowingly and, seeing my smile, he said, "They don't understand." I shook my head in agreement. Somehow, even though I found out nothing more about them, I did understand.



 Melissa Metelits lives in Philadelphia and took the picture of Sam that accompanies this essay.


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