While spitting in public happens all over the world, the unpleasant custom has always been a special problem in Philadelphia.
When Charles Dickens visited Philadelphia in 1842 during his American tour (during which he visited cities like Boston, Baltimore, Washington, and Louisville), he noticed something odd: Philadelphians have a tendency to spit on the sidewalk. This fact did not endear Dickens to the city, especially after his criticism that the city, although "handsome," was "distractingly regular."
"After walking about it for an hour or two," Dickens wrote in "American Notes," "I felt I would have given the world for a crooked street."
Dickens also could not understand why Philadelphians at that time were mystified with his penchant for physical exercise. Dickens, after all, was known to walk at least six miles a day. This was considered "freakish" by Philadelphians in 1842.
If Dickens were to return to the city in 2013, he'd find the topography changed but he'd still encounter hordes of public spitters. Today's spitters are mostly men, most are young. Some who spit do so in groups who use spitting as a form of posturing, a tactic to make them appear "stronger" than they really are. I'm sure that Dickens would be aware of the symbolic nature of spitting -- spitting as an act of purging, or even as an act to rid oneself of a bad feeling or some kind of fear.
Spitting might be okay if you have a sudden pleghmy cough and are on the verge of choking to death. By all means, spit if your life is in danger, but how many spitters fall into this category?
What strikes me as most mysterious is why Dickens didn't see much public spitting in any of the other cities he visited.
What is it about Philadelphia that makes so many men want to crank up their throat engines and shoot protoplasmic projectiles high into the air? Could it be Philadelphia's hard core identification with sports, such as baseball? Well, Boston is every inch the sports town that Philadelphia is, but the public spitting problem there doesn't seem to be as epidemic as it is here.
This of course leads me to another question: why do baseball players feel the need to spit when tennis players, golf players, and even basketball players seem to avoid the bad habit? Tennis and basketball are no less stressful than baseball, but can you imagine watching a tennis match on a court filled with pleghm?
Public spitting does have some cultural roots: If Dickens were to go to China, he'd be appalled because the spitters there number in the millions. In fact, public spitting is such a problem in China that when the 2008 Olympic Games were held in Beijing, city officials hired former U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz to help the city in its anti-spitting campaign. Spitz was paid $5,000 to appear in commercials and ads advising residents not to spit.
I've never been to London, so I can't tell you whether Londoners spit. I can tell you that people do not spit in Scandinavia. I also never saw it in Rome or Paris but maybe I wasn't looking hard enough. Growing up in Chester County, Pennsylvania, the only public spitters were old farmers who chewed tobacco or boys from the wrong side of the tracks marking out their territory like peeing dogs or bears scratching their butts against trees.
Okay, I confess, I once had a friend who was a compulsive public spitter. The man was my mentor when I was in my twenties, and I cannot speak about him now (he is deceased) without feeling a great deal of affection. He was a former priest, a learned and educated man, which made his spitting like a longshoreman all the more perplexing.
"Why do you spit?" I asked him once. "Does your mouth produce that much salvia? Please, tell me. I've never known a smart person to spit in public."
I don't remember what he told me, but now when I think about it, his spitting may have had something to do with what we were discussing at the time: Ronald Reagan's America. It is quite plausible that my friend was punctuating his comments with a symbolic act of contempt.
Politics will do it every time.