The Big B was at least five stories high, ruby by day, aglow at night, so you could see it from miles away, bright and jaunty, right there at the very beginning of the longest straight street in the world.
That’s my first memory of Broad Street — the Big B limned in some fancy font against the city sky. My mother told me the Big B stood for our family initial, and I wanted to believe her so I almost did, until I replaced her fantasy with my own: It was a one-letter announcement, a red-letter celebration of the street itself, that unavoidable thoroughfare, for if you lived in Logan, any move you made involved Broad Street. Half a century ago, it was the way in and the way out, a thrilling strip of clubs, restaurants, girls, bus stops, subway stations, pool halls, girls, clothing stores, taprooms, girls, and movies — three theaters on three consecutive blocks.
Then came the end credits to my childhood. Turns out the longest straight street is in Chicago, and the fancy red B was neither family crest nor beacon of civic pride, but an advertisement for a car dealership, Broadway Chrysler Plymouth, so named to utilize the B inherited from Best Market, which had been inherited from Baltimore Market a generation before. Those truths were, in a nutshell, the start of a Philadelphia education: Things are rarely as grand as you imagined, and nothing works out the way you planned.
Despite that, I am walking Broad Street, from start to bloody finish, from Cheltenham Avenue to Delaware River. It is something I’ve always wanted to do, and now that I’ve been absent from Philadelphia for 25 years, it seems a good way to get reacquainted with the hometown, the homeboys, and some subterranean homesick blues. (The actual subway shall be avoided at all cost.) In the open polluted air, I will perambulate the 13-mile, 113-foot-wide thoroughfare first laid out by William Penn’s surveyor, Thomas Holme. Today, as it was 300 years ago, whenever your sense of direction falters, when you lose your way home, you need only find Broad Street.