Fantasy square-off: Philly vs. its image

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Frauke Zeller (left) and David Smith, in Nova Scotia, prepare their hitchBOT for its journey that ended in controversy in Philadelphia. PAUL DARROW / Reuters

In a fair fight, who do you think would win, Pope Francis or William Penn? True, this would be an unlikely matchup considering that both are world-renowned men of peace and one of them has been dead for almost 300 years.

But that didn't stop Muhammad Ali from squaring off with Rocky Marciano in a fantasy championship TV bout in 1970, when an NCR 315 computer determined the winner (Rocky) based on past performances by both then-undefeated boxers.

The computer's ruling in that imaginary fight sparked decades of debate among boxing aficionados. One could imagine a similar visceral reaction among Philadelphia-area Quakers and Catholics in the event of a bout between "Il Papa" and "The Proprietor."

Could you imagine how popular this once-in-a-lifetime spectacle would be? Security would be a nightmare. The Secret Service would close all tunnels and bridges, from the George Washington to the Inner Harbor, in the event of Super Fight Uno: "Thee or Me: There Can Be Only One."

And just to show that there are no hard feelings, the epic bout could be refereed by "Hitchy" the hitchBOT.

It's been a week of smackdown headlines for the City of Brotherly Love. "HitchBOT, the hitchhiking robot, gets beheaded in Philadelphia," read an online report. "Video captured by Philadelphia surveillance camera thought to show hitchhiking Canadian robot's death," read another.

It was all a hoax, of course. A fabricated nothing of a story that arrived conveniently on a slow-news weekend. Once it went viral on the Internet, there was no stopping it from becoming the latest variation of a vaudeville-era Philadelphia joke: "Trash my city - please!"

It's all so familiar. And I must admit, I've laughed at some of the headlines over the years, such as this one from the San Francisco Examiner: "Whale Sees Philadelphia, Dies." Back in the '80s, a small whale swam up the Delaware River past Center City. Attempts by marine animal authorities to gently turn it back to the ocean failed, and it was later found dead.

Somehow little nuggets like these become part of a city's image around the world, more memorable than major news events. I'll wager that more people in America have heard about Philadelphia football fans throwing snowballs at Santa Claus at Franklin Field 47 years ago than have heard of the 1985 MOVE confrontation in West Philadelphia or the deadly Amtrak passenger train derailment in Frankford three months ago.

But the death of hitchBOT was a fabrication, a non-crime, that stunk of cheesy setup from the start. The one source who reported the "attack" and took a selfie with the robot was the last to see it whole and the first to find it in pieces. Then he tweeted, "Thanks Philly!! You freaking Killed @hitchBOT. I'm so mad right now."

Days later he tweeted, "Of course, Killadelphia killed the robot." There's a word for guys like that. Schmuck leaps to mind, but evil dork might be more accurate. And the story of hard-hearted Philadelphians attacking an innocent robot played to the native negativity of former Philadelphians who abandoned the city years ago.

These are people who celebrate every civic embarrassment, every brutal crime, every municipal failure as a way to make themselves feel good. Look up the 2008 BBC documentary by journalist Louis Theroux called Law and Disorder in Philadelphia. It is a devastating and accurate look at North Philadelphia seven years ago as seen by a foreign journalist.

I recognized all the neighborhoods, but it looked like a different city. Throughout, Philadelphia cops are the heroes, the smartest people on the screen. Yet everyone hates them. The video opens with a man with a gun being spotted by police and then chased on foot. He tries to pull the gun from his jacket, but police tackle and handcuff him first.

Afterward, Theroux asked a cop what would have happened if the man had gotten the gun free. "He would have been shot," the cop said. "By me." Theroux suggests that the man was, in fact, lucky he hadn't gotten the gun out, and should be relieved.

"You mean he should be relieved that he didn't get it out and isn't dead yet?" a police sergeant said. "Absolutely. Absolutely."


Clark DeLeon writes regularly for Currents. deleonc88@aol.com