By the time they were gathered in one place, minutes before the great earthquake ripped Philadelphia in two right down Broad Street, before the Orange Line commuters became the first to see Old City circa ten thousand B.C., they had gathered into gangs, gathered into bands, gathered on either side of Broad leading to City Hall where William Penn’s bronze likeness faced northeast in mute reproach.
The collection of groups who came to fight for or against women’s rights was an enviable portrait of diversity, the kind Fortune 100 companies hire overpriced consultants to achieve, the kind which necessitate new HR positions to infuse the corporate body with the full range of political views, genders, religions, and races, complete with training programs and revamped hiring practices, a new vernacular, new ways to think and new rules of engagement, newly minted laws governing employee cubicle hangings communicated with glossy one-pagers and shushed elevator pitches, all distributed and adjudicated with email campaigns and PDF links, with Twitter accounts infixed with “we care” and Facebook pages replete with content that would neither offend nor inform anyone. With a large breath, the city took them all in and exhaled a foul air of sweet-smelling intentions.
Each group came of their own volition and for their own reasons. In the center of Broad were gathered the Mummers divisions. The Fancy Brigades were there to prove that not only LGBT supporters could dress like women and look fabulous, the String Bands loved playing banjos to any crowd of more than three, and the Comics still had not realized that the term “the one percent” also described people who weren’t scared shitless by clowns.
Runners were there, corporate types, the true one percent, and one percent wannabes in running gear made of polyester, nylon, and Lycra, shirts with Raglan sleeves and breathable socks with shoes of EVA and carbon rubber. Some wondered why they were there, and most settled on the idea that they saw a large crowd and mistakenly thought it was the Broad Street Run.
The street toughs were there, the dirt bike gangs and ATV riders who wanted to show off their new tricks and cranial lacerations; Neo-Nazis like the Keystone Zipperheads, who were tired of being judged by their choice to shave their heads and wear Nazi regalia; the Philadelphia chapter of the KKK who wanted to show that, unlike the Skinheads, they cared about women’s rights, pointing out that the Klan had been created to protect Southern women; and the South Philly palookas who had wrenched the Rocky statue from its base and dragged it from the Art Museum down the Ben Franklin Parkway to get it away from “all those artsy fruitcakes.”
The Pussy Protestors were there of course — they had been there from the beginning — the term, the moniker, meant to represent all feminists within the City of Brotherly Love. They varied in agenda and militancy, from those who wanted to simply end catcalling, to those who wanted to castrate all men with broken whiskey bottles. G.A.S.H. was of the latter type, and they took the Union League stairs before scaling the stone pillars to the balcony from where they challenged all the “cigar-deep-throating, bourbon-sucking pansies” within the structure to come out and fight like girls. On the sidewalk in front of the Union League, a gray-haired septuagenarian with a megaphone admonished the women, saying they were setting feminism back fifty years at least.
Added to this were the satiated foodies, the standardized patients, the inspiration-seeking playwrights, Once Upon a Nation thespians, hackathon dweebs, rubberneckers, and enough disgruntled Eagles fans to curdle your Nestle Quik.
The reporters from all the local news stations were there, but without the traffic girls themselves. They were nowhere to be seen as the masses called for them and divided themselves into their respective cults, chanting polemics, expressing songs of unrelenting love and waving banners that expressed gauche yearnings for their goddesses of fertility, beauty, war, and casual fucking, their proof in the pudding for their imagined barbarians at the gate. The banners held their symbols, all stylized Roman letters: “O” for Oya from Channel 26, “A” for Araceli from Channel 34, “B” for Becky from Channel 5, and “U” for Eustacia. Amid the discordant roar she appeared, Man’s original sin, the original goddess, the one from Channel 2 News.
Eustacia appeared atop William Penn’s hat, fresh from the kill having smitten the three other traffic girls; she stood in a flowing gown of crimson-speckled white that unraveled by a thread the wind pulled toward New Jersey. Her hair came loose from the two braids that hung down the sides of her face and onto her breasts; the humid gale whipped it into a frenzy of celestial annihilation — the collision of galaxies, the violence that caused creation — and haloed the face that had haunted the men of Philadelphia for six months and twenty-two days.
No one knew her origins. Some said she was trans-oceanic, the dreamers said she was from Atlantis, and the idiots said she was born from Jersey sea foam. The educated along the Avenue of the Arts believed she descended from the Danish coastline raiders described by Shakespeare but abandoned the romantic notion for lack of physical proof. Most say she never smiled, but that the promise of one could cause any man to throw away his life as he would on gambling or booze. The only thing on which they could all agree was her purpose. She was sent to punish men. She was sent to punish men with their own vices and virtues. She made them discard their reason, debased them and reduced them to animal cravings the least of which was lust. The most pious of them turned pagan, the most faithful were stripped of their convictions, leaving their wives no recourse but to send huffy emails to the general managers of the news stations.
At the first tremor, all looked toward the top of City Hall. Those with binoculars — and there were many — saw her naked for that one and only time, and it convulsed them with the longing for the unreachable. She held up the severed heads of her foes by their hair extensions and threw them down onto the mob, leaving the followers of each dead traffic girl to fight each other for possession of the trophy.
So distracted was the mob by the goddess that they did not react when the Broad Street asphalt buckled and split, as it opened with a hiss of superheated steam, the precursor to the detonation of one hundred million cubic feet of shale gas that had always been underfoot.
The Fancy Brigades were the first to fall in and were cooked to the bone while still looking fabulous. The String Bands treated the abys to Oh Dem Golden Slippers with banjo strings echoing crisp and sharp through the ebbing light of the bottomless chasm. The Broad Street runners followed soon after because their heads were down as they read their Fitbits, but not before being ravaged by the knobby tires of the dirt bike gangs and ATV riders who popped wheelies with legs spread eagle and arms akimbo as they rode joyfully to their doom.
The Skinheads attacked the Klan for being uppity. The Pussy Protestors went scroat-huntin’ with salad tongs and glass shards. All fell into the primordial canyon including random Millenials who might have survived had they been able to peel their eyes from their phones. City Hall sank into the ground, its mass of limestone, marble, and granite too much for the fluidized bed of its foundation. It went straight down, but Eustacia did not follow. What happened next pushes the limits of credulity and is documented only because every survivor swore it was true. By the time Billy Penn’s hat had vanished from sight, Eustacia, in all her naked glory, rose up and up into the sky and streaked across it trailing stardust.
By the end of it, Philadelphia lay smoldering like its sister Centralia, with a supply of fuel that burned until all who witnessed the disaster were long dead. The only ones left to describe events were the Comics, who looked as melancholy and misunderstood as before.
Accounts varied widely in detail, but that’s what happens in fearful times. Everyone saw it differently, each saw only what they wanted to see, nothing was learned, and no one could care, and everyone wrote their own version of the strange and terrible saga of the Traffic Girl Wars.