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. It was the sun and the moon for kiddie navigators. 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. It was the mainest of main drags. 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 knowledge, 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 find Broad Street. It remains the most reliable, steadfast, unswerving landmark in Philly life.
The northernmost house on North Broad is 7206. It is the Leaps 'n' Bounds daycare center. That there will be at least 15 more daycare centers along Broad Street tells us more and more mothers are working, and therefore more and more children are working harder and harder at being children.
The last time I saw my mother was on Broad Street. It was after midnight while placing amulets into the folds of her coffin, omitting her beloved Pall Malls based on the fervent prayer that she was going to a no-smoking zone.
“This is not my mother,” I said, and backed away from the spruce casket. The guards at Goldsteins' Rosenberg's Raphael-Sacks Funeral Home had allowed me some final private time with the woman who had given me life, had taught me the joys of reading, writing and scotch-and-soda, had sent me to Girard College when I was seven, had policed my psyche for 50 years like an occupying army promising liberation. I didn't recognize her.
Gazing down on a Madame Tussaud facsimile of my mother created, indelibly, regrettably, an image I struggle to erase almost daily. Stopping at Goldsteins' won't help. I opt for Levine's. Every Jew has to make that choice when contemplating the beginning of Broad Street and the end of life.
“People choose funeral directors according to their family history, their experience, their comfort level,” says Joe Levine, of Joseph Levine & Son. “We are a community of roots. Philadelphians live here, die here, have a need to be memorialized here so their families can visit. Cremations are rare. You'll find more in Denver and San Francisco.”
Of the approximately 15 funeral homes on Broad Street, the two for Jews are geographic and spiritual neighbors. Aside from the trend toward graveside ceremonies, little has changed since Levine's moved here in 1956 from a different Broad Street address. Why Broad?
“Broad Street gives us visibility. Like they say in real estate, location, location, location.” And isn't the Levine family in the real estate business? Whenever a cemetery opens, it sells any number of plots to funeral homes so that, in the event of poor planning, the funeral director can, on the spot, resell a place to spend eternity. A couple years ago, Levine bought the farm — a whole Solomon Memorial Park, in Frazer. It was a golden business opportunity, says Levine. Dislocation, dislocation, dislocation.
I call my brother: “Let's corner the market on cemetery plots.” He doesn't like that concept. He asks for another. I look up and see Halal Bilal Steak-and-Take Drive-Thru, a clean well-lighted fast-food joint for Muslims at 6501 North Broad. I suggest we franchise Halal Bilals throughout the Third World, starting in Iraq and Iran, the I-and-I of the Axis of Evil. Either my cell loses its connection or my brother hangs up. It is only 6:30 a.m. in Santa Monica. I am left holding the phone, so I talk to the owner of Halal Bilal, Hassan, another man who thinks about death and dying all the time.
“I go to a farm in Virginia every week,” he says with exuberance, “and I find the animals I want, and I have to pacify them, rub their heads, get friendly with them before they get slaughtered or they be tough meat. If they get tense, if I have to chase him around, I just let them go. Cows, lamb, no difference. When the animal is calm, I say a prayer in Arabic — in the name of Allah — and slit the animal's throat, and then I have 15 seconds to get the animal into the slaughterhouse before he wakes up and causes all kinds of trouble. A cow can be as strong as, as strong as … “
“Yes. A bull! The slit just knocks them out for a little bit. The slaughterhouse does the rest and I bring them back to Broad Street and the butcher breaks them down and we have the freshest, cleanest meat you can find anywhere.”
Bilal was the constant companion of the Prophet Muhammad and suffered hellish torture by infidels to prove his fealty. “Halal” means “lawful” in Arabic. Hassan's most popular dish is his fish fried rice; he goes through 7,500 pounds of whiting a week. The fish arrive dead.
“Muslims have a duty to eat here. It may cost a little more, but they understand that. Our steak sandwiches are clean. Our fish fresh. Muslims are not supposed to walk by a Bilal.”
So how come business doesn't look so hot, Hassan?
Atop the Oaklane Diner's roof at 66th is a sign that sings WELCOME TO PHILADELPHIA. So I stop for a cup of coffee and the news. Making news are Larry Bowa, union unrest, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Stein, Eagle madness, Ed Rendell, Jerry Blavat, Dick Vermeil, Arlen Specter, Lynne Abraham, and the resignation of the Cardinal Dougherty athletic director, who allegedly used racist epithets. Is this the Twilight Zone? A quarter of a century, and nothing has changed. It's comforting; it's disconcerting. It's why you left; it's why you are back today.
Tom Ferrick Jr. has a column in the Inquirer. He was my editor at the Temple News sometime in the last century. Today, his column is about walking Broad Street to work. I should stop by and see ol' Tom Ferrick when I get downtown, talk about the passage of time and walking Broad. That he hasn't traveled very far is no surprise; that's the Philadelphia dance of life — a straight path. Like a line dance at a Blavat hop. Philadelphians are the least likely city folk to move away from their hometown, the littlest big city in America: Natives are addicted to its food, its music, its language, its sports, its relaxed position between NYC and D.C., its gorgeous yin-yang disharmony of Brotherly Love and Boobird Hatred.
Just outside the diner, a black-and-tan squirrel is schlepping a drumstick to the parking lot. He climbs a fence and finds a comfortable spot in which to eat his lunch and ignore me. He is seated next to a familiar green sign:
LEW BLUM TOWING
1130 N 40th St.
222-5628 $150/$15 a day storage
I ask Lew Blum how many cars he tows each day.
“I can't tell you that. That's the key to my whole business.”
How many signs do you have around the city?
“I can't tell you that, either. Then my competitors will know.”
How many competitors do you have?
“Too many. You know who tows the most? The Parking Authority. A hundred cars a day, easy. And you know why? They don't play fair. They put up signs about six inches wide, and you can't see them. The private tow guys have to put up signs three feet by three feet. Hey, let me have teeny-weeny signs and I'll tow 100 cars a day, too.”
How many vehicles do you tow a day?
“You already asked me that. Is this a trick?”
How many employees do you have?
“I have enough drivers, towers and salespeople to get the job done.”
“How do you think I get business? I go to a Rite Aid and say, 'Let me put up a sign and I'll take care of your parking lot, keep it clean, keep it legit.' Just yesterday, a woman parks at KFC and goes in and eats her chicken and then decides to go shopping down the street. No good, lady. We tow her. She says she was in the KFC. Sure. We have patrols who count the parking-lot cars and then go in and count the customers. We go to the manager. If there are 10 cars and only seven customers, we tow three. Oh, you were in the bathroom, lady? Bullshit! We sent a woman into the ladies' room and a man into the men's room, and you weren't there. Try another story, lady.”
How many cars do you tow a day?
“Towing again? Just say seven to 10 cars a day. That sounds good.”
How many signs do you have around town?
“Signs again? Just say 5,000 to 7,000 signs in Philadelphia. That sounds good.”
Why did the officer cross Champlost Street? To get to the Dunkin' Donuts, wisely situated right across the street. On the other two corners are a Wendy's and a Blockbuster Video. The Blockbuster smells lemony/minty/aerosol-y/toxic.
“What movie do you rent most?” I ask.
“Dunno. Whacha wan' here, man?” snarls the counter dude.
I want Blockbuster to vanish and real movie houses to return. Okay, dude? I used to walk to the Logan, the Rockland and the Broad. Now there are no movie theaters on Broad Street. None. Near this spot was the Lane, a modest theater where I saw black-and-white films with subtitles and angry English soccer players and horny long-distance runners and doomed interracial couples, grainy movies that illuminated the dark absurdities of the hopelessly human condition. I miss those movies. You got anything like that on DVD? I didn't think so.
I keep walking. Approaching Olney, I stop at the Earl Sheib Paint and Body Shop. The manager's name is Vijay Chintaman. He speaks with a Hindi accent.
When I ask if a paint job is till $29.95, he laughs with a Hindi accent. “Oh, that was such a long time ago.” I am not certain his accent is Hindi. It could be Pakistani or Sikh or Bangli or Farsi or any number of nationalities and/or religions. I am too embarrassed to ask. “The basic is now $199.95,” Vijay Chintaman says. “Two coats and a one-year warranty against fading and peeling. The best deal is $499 — you get three coats and a six-year warranty. Free estimates for bodywork. If you drop off your car in the morning, you can pick it up that evening.”
Vijay Chintaman, a gracious fellow, devoid of malice, invites questions. I ask about his accent. Born in Guyana, he moved to America in 1978 and listened to Earl Sheib commercials on the radio his very first night. He recites the ad copy verbatim. He moved to Bucks County in 1986 and raised a lovely family. He likes Philadelphia. He likes his work. His wife had her car painted here. His son, too. As for his own vehicle, he points to a brand-new Infiniti SUV and says, “My truck is fine. May I take a look at your car?”
I explain that I don't have a car, that I am walking Broad Street. He doesn't quite understand the walking part. He reaches under the desk and pulls out a special coupon that gets me half off the usual $399 for the 100 percent acrylic-urethane Euro-Paint™ Lab Tested … Infrared Quartz Finish Dryer … Hand & Machine Sanding for Adhesion — with a three-year Limited Warranty.
As I leave, Vijay Chintaman asks me where I have come from.
“Why do you ask, because I have no car?”
“No, because you have no accent,” says the Guyanese-American. “No Philadelphia accent.”
I am not going into Einstein Medical Center for many reasons, chief among them that my father was pronounced dead in that very place after a heart attack after work one night at the post office after four years in the war after malaria in Africa after buying a new home on North 10th Street. He left my mother with two sons, ages three years and six weeks, respectively. My mother put down my baby brother and picked up a bottle of scotch for a couple years. Then she worked at Perfect Photo for 27 years, at 4747 North Broad. Things didn't work out the way she had planned.
It is a mild day, and the streets around the hospital at Old York Road are the most populated I've seen, with people wearing green scrubs, blue scrubs, colorful dashikis, black chadors, brown burkas, Iverson jerseys, Eagles caps, black boots, short skirts, butterfly tattoos, rainbow hair, and it used to be so easy to tell the ho's from the honor-roll girls. No mo'.
The uppercase message at the entrance is: WEAPONS ARE PROHIBITED … FOR ADMISSION, APPLY AT THE FRONT DESK. A uniformed guard wants to know if you have any questions.
“Is this Girls High or Gitmo?” you ask.
The guard chaperones you to the principal's office. You've taken similar walks before. On the outer office wall are posted the Top 10 Safety Tips. Number 8 is: “Avoid bringing large sums of money to school.” They have to tell smart girls this? Number 10 states flatly: “Students are not allowed to leave campus during the school day … to purchase lunch or for any other reason. … “
Too bad. Right down the street, they could load up on curried goat or braised oxtail at the Golden Krust Bakery and Grill, where all “Reggaefest Combos” come with rice, peas and a Pepsi. But these girls are not allowed to leave campus under any conditions. Whew. Glad I'm not a kid anymore. The world has sure changed, what with … wait a minute. I couldn't leave campus either, at Girard, not with a 10-foot-high stone wall and the NAACP marching at the front gate — no Negroes allowed — and gangs of toughs waiting for us to hop the wall so they could hop us. Hell, I couldn't travel from one room to another without a pink pass signed by a teacher or housemaster. But I regress. Back to the present. Basta!
Arline Amoroso learned her Italian growing up in South Philly. Now she is teaching advanced Italian to a class of eight girls: one Asian, two African-Americans, three Caucasians, and two girls of mixed and indecipherable origins. Halfway through class, Ms. Amoroso shushes a girl who has been chattering constantly. The girl yells back, “You shush!”
“Quante persone ci sono nella tua famiglia?” asks Ms. Amoroso.
“Cento,” answers the girl.
“Quante persone ci sono nella tua famiglia?” repeats Ms. Amoroso slowly.
“Cent-o,” repeats the girl slowly.
“Cento means a hundred!” shouts another student.
“I know that,” snaps the ace student. “I got a big family, yo!”
“Mamma mia,” says the teacher.
At Duncannon Avenue, Our Lady of Hope Roman Catholic Church holds mass at 10:30 every Sunday in Spanish. I wish I remembered my second language.
The street sign at Wingohocking is missing the first O. On this Indian summer-like day, Chief Wingohocking is turning over in his grave. (Are there sacred burial grounds in Philadelphia?) The chief asked his friend James Logan — who, at 27, ran the colony when his friend, William Penn, returned to England in 1701 — to exchange names as a token of mutual respect. Crafty Logan declined, knowing it was bad for business, but promised that the lovely stream winding through his property would forever bear the chief's name. Wingohocking Creek now flows beneath Belfield Avenue, buried since the early 20th century in a city sewer.
Is that what we have done to our Indian roots? Name a single tribe that lived in Philadelphia. Neither can I. Even research proves unsatisfying. Leni-Lenape comes up frequently on Google, but the tribe's name was changed to the Delaware Indians. There is mention of Mingoes and Wyandots and Nanticoke, but these names are not part of our lingo, or our culture, and few native Philadelphians relate to Native Americans.
There are around 4,000 Native Americans currently living in Philadelphia.
“Schuylkill” does not mean “traffic jam” in Leni-Lenape.
Hanging from a railroad bridge above Tioga is a banner with an important announcement: TEMPLE UNIVERSITY — 1 3/4 MILES AHEAD. It is more for your central nervous system than your cartological concerns, for you are entering the heart of darkness, the North Philly of squalid buildings and vacant eyes, and the mere mention of Temple University is meant to pacify. Temple is the light at the end of Desolation Row.
“You will miss the three C's,” my brother had warned.
“Three C's?” asked I.
“Cops, cabs and Caucasians,” he said. My brother lives in Los Angeles. He should know better. In our salad days, we used to cruise Broad Street to pick up inexpensive tomatoes — hothouse, farm-ripened and heirloom. They would negotiate the price at the car window and then wait for you to open the door; even for ladies of the night, you had to be the gentleman. It was always interracial, and the better for it. Have things changed that much? Should I worry? Broad Street has always been a green zone, where free passage is permitted, where you are shielded by the light of day and the steady traffic, on foot, by wheel, and the unwritten law of the street. Oly-oly-in-free. Daytime Broad Street belongs to everyone because everyone is just passing through, on their way to elsewhere, to school, to hospital, to work, to a check-cashing joint. Make a sharp right or a left, wander east or west off the broad street, and you have entered a different zone, someone else's neighborhood, and it ain't Mr. Rogers's. You are suddenly in Morocco or Tikrit, in Detroit or Corleone. The 'hood rules. And there are 'hoods within 'hoods within 'hoods, like Russian nesting dolls. Self-appointed sentinels are on the lookout for any foreigner, who may be a cop, a thief, a bill collector, a real estate vulture, a drug dealer, a drug user, a cockholder wooing someone's daughter or sister or brother or mother, or a freaky familial combo package. Trespassers beware. North and South.
For now, approaching Allegheny Avenue, I enjoy the sun and keep my stride wide and my mouth shut. Nothing feels menacing. I've hit the upper reaches of Temple U. Either in stone, steel or symbol, the Scarlet T serves as a ubiquitous hex. Temple brings tens of thousands of worker bees to this street every day, students and secretaries, undergrads, interns and internists, a dental school here, a law school there. If Broad Street is the spine of the city, then Temple is the marrow, producing enough red and white cells to keep the urban plight at life-support levels.
A chubby black dude is hanging out under an awning in front of a group of stores. He is wearing a black baseball cap and sunglasses. As I pass, I hear, “Socks. Six pair for five dollars.” I'm set with socks, so I walk on by. Halfway down the block, I stop. Maybe it's not socks he's selling, maybe that's just a code for some other contraband, something more exotic. I go back.
“Nice socks. Where they from?”
“Heaven,” says the vendor.
“Heaven? How did they get here?” I ask.
“I am blessed, brother.”
“How much money do these blessings bring you each day?”
“Oh, you want to talk money.”
“Do you make a living selling socks on Broad Street?”
“People don't need socks, brother. We both know that. People need a spiritual encounter. A psychological encounter. Something to lift them up. I provide that. You have to see beyond what is seeable. You've read Deepak Chopra, right?”
“In Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, he deals with quantum physics and how the physical is false. I'm not stuck in the material world like George W. Bush.”
“I thought Bush was a spiritual man.”
“Bush is a dirt man. Born and raised looking at dirt, trying to find what's under that dirt. Bush and Cheney. Dirt men. In Texas, people have oil and people have guns. They see a few John Wayne movies, and the whole world's in trouble.”
The vendor laughs. I ask him his name.
“I'm writing an article, and I thought … “
“Don't think that. Don't tell people what I know.”
“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, my brother. Teach someone a little bit of truth and he can become another Father Divine, who set up shop right here on Broad Street, at the Divine Lorraine, and he had people worship him like he was God himself. You tell the wrong people some secrets of the universe, and if they have a large ego, a sick ego, only trouble will come of it.”
“How do you know so much?”
“An inner voice. I was sitting in a movie theater when I was 24 years old, and a voice came to me and told me: 'Consciousness begets consciousness; consciousness comes from consciousness; and consciousness is God.' That's all I needed to hear. The rest was up to me.”
“What was the movie?”
He gives me a look. What imbecile would ask that? I shut up and buy the socks. Six pair for five dollars. White Excell Cushion Athletic Tube Socks. All cotton. I feel light. I continue my walk.
At Broad and Allegheny is another McDonald's. And a McPlayground. It is the first outdoor area designated for children I have seen. It's all primary colors and plastic, twisty slides and monkey bars. Inside, the burger business is brisk. The frying fat smells good. The giveaways are gaudy. What chance does a kid have?
Between Rush and Somerset, Jackie Robinson steals home on the side of a three-story building, his cap flying and Yogi Berra astride. The mural is alive, and you half expect Berra to hoot and holler at some umpire on the backside of the building. But yo, what is Jackie Robinson doing here on Broad Street? This ain't Brooklyn. This ain't Flatbush Avenue. Doesn't Philadelphia have its own Jackie? Or Willie or Campy or Monte? No.
Only a few blocks north is a plaque commemorating the Baker Bowl, where the Phillies played for 51 years without a black player, before moving to Shibe Park (later Connie Mack Stadium), where they played for another 20 years before an African-American appeared in a Phillies uniform. You won't find a mural of him, and you probably don't know his name. That was the whole idea. John Kennedy was a 31-year-old journeyman when he pinch-hit for Solly Hemus, and then appeared in four more games, had zero hits and zero impact and that's how the Phillies liked it. They were the last team in the National League to integrate, and they went kicking and screaming in 1957. Not until Dick Allen arrived at third base in 1964 did the Phillies enter the modern era.
Maybe the colossal collapse of '64 — the most catastrophic in sports history — was karmic payback. Baseball gods were saying, “You can't put one great Negro at third base and win the pennant. You kept your city waiting for a long time, and it's not that easy. We will put you six-and-a-half games ahead in the pennant race with 12 games to play and excite the city beyond measure, and then have Chico Ruiz steal home with Frank Robinson at the plate and you will sink lower than a snake in a rut by the side of the road, and in that way, we will tinker with the psyches of a few generations of Philadelphians and teach a town that things don't always work out the way you plan.”
The Uptown is dark. Smokey Robinson, the Jackson Five and the Supremes are but frozen portraits painted by school kids, not even professionals, next to the unlit box office. The Uptown is silent. A vast mausoleum between Susquehanna and Dauphin. The first show I ever saw here featured Major Lance, Mary Wells and the Vibrations, and “introduced” the Supremes. Our seats were good enough that we could tell, my AEPi frat brothers and me, that Mary Wilson was sexier than skinny-minny Diana. We were the Jitterbugs, the White Negro Wannabes, sensing something truer and hipper, both stylistically and spiritually, in black America; devoid of flimflam, no existential dilemma — here are your cards, now play them. Russell Simmons is not the first to transport ghetto fashion to the white masses, only the first to confess to amassing a fortune from it.
Presently, an adolescent kid waits for a bus with his mother at Cecil B. Moore. He wears a gray work jacket that says STATE PROPERTY 18153, as if already in jail or preparing his mama for that sad fate. What a fashion statement! Is it a parody and a protest, the way anti-war hippies wore military gear, or an acceptance of prison as a rite of passage for young black males? One out of four African-American men will spend time in prison. Created a couple years ago by Beanie Sigel, for Rocawear, this is the ultimate Fuck Y'All Jacket: I am going to D-Block and you can't stop me. Not you nor my teachers nor grammatical jiveass Bill Cosby. I'm going down. This is how I'll look. Dig it?
“Come on, James,” says his mother, “the bus is here.”
“Yes, Mama,” says the kid, and they board the C bus, heading south.
I have walked six miles. My quads ache, and my feet hurt inside my New Balance cross-trainers. When I recall that thousands run 10 miles down Broad Street every year, I yell at my barking dogs, and they whimper. I put on a new pair of socks. Arriving at the heart of Temple University Main Campus, I wonder, “Where is the Temple University Main Campus?” Where are the flowers? The homecoming queens? Where are the students engaged in Socratic discussions or wordless group sex? You can't believe that 24,279 students are learning somewhere behind these facades, this hodgepodge of buildings, architectures old and new juxtaposed with the very old and very new, held together by nothing except Broad Street. Across Broad hangs a large banner announcing the phone number for tickets to Temple football games: 215-204-5040. It is an easy number to forget. The switchboard will not be jammed. The football program has been in a “rebuilding mode” since Kennedy's Camelot. You cannot stink in public for this long without people wondering why an institution of higher learning cannot solve basic problems apparently solved by LSU and Miami and Wisconsin and a host of big-city schools in cold-weather locales. ESPN viewers voted Temple the second worst team in America. Why not? It has had no winning seasons since 1990 and only two since 1980, and they were modest at best. Temple football was excommunicated from the Big East last year and perhaps will be from the continental United States next year.
Last October, Temple lost to Bowling Green State by the score of 70-16. Seventy points! More than a point a minute! To Bowling Green State!
In the end, Temple University is like a great big lovable state-sponsored hooker: cheap, easy to get into, offering any avenue of study you desire. All you have to do is give up football and enjoy eating meals from trucks. If Allen Ginsberg were a student here, he might be enraged enough to ululate a poem thusly:
I saw the best bodies of my generation destroyed by
the Big East, pride stripped naked,
dragging themselves off the field at dusk
looking for an angry goalpost,
helmeted hip-hopsters churning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the defensive dynamo in the X's and O's,
who pass-rushed blitz-eyed and high stared up
into the stands of Lincoln superboxes,
saw darkness of backfield flats floating across the tips
of fingers concentrating on interception,
who bared their brawn to Heaven above the subway and
saw JoePa's angels staggering over goal lines illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant winning records,
hallucinating Syracuse and Pitt and long-bomb strategies
among the euphemism of cherry-and-white war,
who were expelled from the academic conference for lazy &
lopsided obscene scores on the Saturday afternoon skull,
who cowered in unlockered rooms in jockstraps,
burning their scholarships in wastebaskets and listening
to the razzmatazz through the wall …
Blocking dummies! Mad generation! Down on
the last quarter of Time!
Real holy laughter in the huddle! They saw it all!
The gang tackles! The holy fumbles! They bade farewell!
They jumped offsides! To solitude! Waving!
Yelling at zebras! Carrying flowers! Into the street!
That broad broad street!
At Broad and Girard, the physical world falls away and I wait for the Number 15 trolley that took little Brucie back to school on weekend evenings, the short timorous ride west to Corinthian Avenue, and then the walk to the stone gatehouse of Girard College to check in with the guard before wending his way back to the dormitories at Banker Hall or Merchant Hall or Mariner Hall, so yclept to memorialize the three professions of the school's founder, Stephen Girard, once the richest man in America, director of the Second Bank of the United States and financier of the War of 1812. Brucie entered Girard College, for orphan boys or those with a dead father, when he was seven. He lived there until he graduated at 16. Then he went to college. He had more sex in his first year at Girard than he did at Temple University.
I have not been back to any reunions, and I don't answer alumni requests. I miss the boys I grew up with, and think of them often. I just don't go back. Today will be no different.
Broad and Girard has a McDonald's Drive Thru connected to an Amoco station. Write your own gas jokes. This is no laughing matter.
Obesity among kids ages six to11 has tripled in the past 30 years.
Obesity among adults has also gone haywire. If things continue like this, every third grown-up will explode in the year 2047.
There are three types of chains spreading through North Philly — fast food, pharmacies and gas stations. Eventually, someone will get smart and merge them: While your tank is filling up, someone will deliver a Happy Meal consisting of two burgers, two antacids, a large fries, Lipitor, a large diet soda to wash it all down.
The next block, from Poplar to Parrish, is totally gone. Don't ask where. Just gone. Flattened like Fallujah. Only there were no insurgents or freedom fighters here. Only Philadelphians.
Of the 10 check-cashing joints on Broad Street, three of the biggest are owned by United. “We are more secure than any bank,” says Big Jim Higgins, director of marketing for United Financial Services. “We have bullet-resistant glass, mantraps, alarms, and some things I cannot tell you.” There are some things Big Jim is anxious to talk about, since his business has what they call PR problems. Critics tend to see check-cashers as predators of the poor — they sell you your own money, and they don't help you save, build credit or buy a house.
“We buy a check after assessing the risk, and then we front the money,” explains Big Jim. “And then we have to collect the value of the check we purchased.” Let's break it down. The money they just “fronted” you is the money you have already worked for and paid taxes on. United rarely accepts personal checks — bad risk — and keeps its bounce rate down to one-10th of one percent. While United has other services, like money orders, money wiring, paying bills, phone cards, 85 percent of its revenue comes from cashing checks, and 85 percent of those are payroll checks. Some risk.
Big Jim Higgins likes to point out that his stores are open later than banks, and provide instant money. “Our clientele has unsophisticated needs. They are transient people in service-related fields — waitress, janitor, hotel maid, gas-station attendant. Most of them have bank accounts. Most even have checking accounts, but they don't have the money to cover their paycheck or the time to wait for the check to clear.”
In fact, around 10 percent of all American households have no bank account.
United takes one to two percent, depending on the instant risk assessment. The average, says Big Jim, is 1.8 percent (or $24.3 million for United last year). Business has doubled in the past decade. There are 23 United outlets in Philly, and more on the way. Broad Street is good, but Conshohocken is better. “This is not a ghetto business,” Big Jim says. That's why 7-Eleven and Wal-Mart have joined the game.
You know you are getting near Center City when you see a jogger. At Mt. Vernon Street, you see a jogger. The jogger has a dalmatian. See Spot jog. Spot doesn't dig jogging. It prevents him from chasing rats and real estate speculators. EB Realty is converting this city block into modern apartments. One of EB's strategies is to include ample parking, even when near Center City; Philadelphians love their cars. Another EB Realty trademark is signature names that are simultaneously hip and historic: Marine Club, Cigar Factory Condos, Divine Lorraine.
What will 640 North Broad be called?
“No name yet,” says a South Philly boy with a world-class moniker: Anura Karthik Vivekananthan. “Kar” is VP of EB R&D. He knows this property once housed Mulford Pharmaceuticals, which, back in 1925, produced a diphtheria serum that traveled from 640 North Broad Street to Seattle, Washington, by rail and then to the train's last stop, Nenana, Alaska. After small planes were ruled out because 40 degrees below would kill the anti-toxins, 20 drivers (Russian, Irish, Norwegian, Indian) and 100 huskies were hooked up to dogsleds that traversed nearly 700 miles from Nenana to Nome and saved who-knows-how-many lives. As Eskimos had no immunity to white man's disease, diphtheria could wipe out whole villages. That rescue journey is commemorated every year with the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (“Iditarod” means either “clean water” or “distant place,” depending on your source.)
Why not name this new complex the Iditarod Apartments?
“Oh no,” says Kar. “Some dog lovers hate the Iditarod, consider it cruel to the animals, and we wouldn't want to offend dog lovers.”
Will you allow dogs at 640 North Broad?
“Oh no. No dogs allowed.”
There is a large construction site next to the Inquirer Building, the stately white edifice at 400 North Broad that speaks to character rather than adventure, as reflected in the staid newspaper produced therein. I stop at the Inky to see Tom Ferrick Jr. I don't really want to see Tom Ferrick Jr. Nothing personal. I just dislike reunions.
I don't go to CSN&Y concerts, or C&N concerts, or Y concerts. I don't need reunions to trigger melancholia. I don't need reminders that the future will never be as good as the past. I knew that the moment my sons left home. The future will be filled with frustration and a fading tennis game and Republicans and health problems and a less-than-grand finale at Goldsteins' Rosenberg's Raphael-Sacks.
Does ol' Tom Ferrick Jr. really need me to tell him that things don't always turn out the way you planned?
The guard in the lobby at 400 North Broad dials Ferrick's private number. It's his voicemail. Relieved, I leave a warm message.
As I approach City Hall in late afternoon, so do a hundred angry workers, four television camera crews, two hovering helicopters, and horses with police on their backs. District Council 33 is pissed off. The blue-collar wing of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees just heard that District Council 47, the uppity white-collar wing, has made a deal with the city after discovering a “secret” $2.8 million in its health-care fund. Foul! So the members of 33 are singing songs and carrying signs, marching right where Mummers get judged and win prizes.
I join the marchers. Who can resist? Of all the sounds in the world, men's voices raised in unison and determination is perhaps the most stirring. Add female voices and honking car horns and spinning helicopter blades, and you have yourself a fine urban symphony. Parents should hustle their children to City Hall to see a lesson in democracy far more rousing than the Act One climax of Les Mis. And cheaper. And you leave not only humming the tune, but remembering the lyrics:
“We are the union, the mighty mighty union, everywhere we go, people want to know, who we are, so we tell them. We are the union, the mighty mighty union … “
All this takes place right under the eyes and ears of the 37-foot replica of Billy Penn built by Alexander Milne Calder, father of sculptor Alexander Stirling Calder, and grandfather of Alexander “Sandy” Calder, famed for his mobiles (so named by Marcel Duchamp). Is it possible that Sandy got the seed of the idea for metal moving in the air from staring up at Grandpa's most famous statue? After all, little Sandy had his own studio by age 10, and was making sculptures at age 11. And from the west side of town, against a blue sky, William Penn appears to have a long, thin erection, slightly downturned, pointing toward North Philly, delicate enough to get blown in the wind. Did Penn's penis give rise to the first mobile?
At the corner of Broad and Chestnut, two tourists look up at the street sign, and then at each other, and then back at the street sign, and then back at each other. Bewildered, they look around the intersection until one turns to the other and snorts, “What the hell happened to 14th Street?”
“This is it,” I interject. They remain bewildered. “This is 14th Street,” I explain. They just shake their heads at the numerical lunacy.
“Can you help out?” asks a toothless man with his hand out. I put a dollar in it.
“I need two dollars,” he says. “Chicken wings cost two dollars.”
We discuss nutrition for a minute. I do most of the discussing. He is just hungry. His luck is down, his cost of living is up. Two dollars it is. Why shouldn't panhandlers ask for a raise? Inflation takes its toll on everyone. I wonder if the bellhop in front of the Park Hyatt gets the same tips he did five years ago, 10 years ago, maybe 20.
“If you have the time,” I say, “I'd like to talk about gratuities.”
“You need Tolstoy,” says the bellhop.
“I prefer talking to someone who works here.”
“Tolstoy,” he insists. “He's the bellman. Around the corner.”
Indeed. Joe Tolstoy stands sentry at the main door in Chancellor Court. He is tall and upright and apparently a ranking member of the Hyatt Brigade, in a white uniform with three gold stripes on the sleeve and a proper military hat. He is not gregarious. Seems he would sooner give you money than talk about it.
“Pulling up to such an elegant hotel puts pressure on people, and they usually do the right thing,” he says. “A dollar a bag is standard. A dollar per person for hailing a cab is also standard. It hasn't changed in a long time, but no one is telling the world that bellmen need more money. To be honest, gratuities are not on my mind when doing my job. I've been around long enough to know that if I provide each guest with outstanding service, at the end of the shift, my day will have been worthwhile, both in terms of satisfaction and finance.”
The nuns who taught Tolstoy at Cardinal Dougherty should be proud.
“A fortunate man doesn't necessarily have to make a fortune,” says Tolstoy, and pardons himself to greet a silver Mercedes-Benz. Tolstoy has only read the short stories of his namesake, but he carries on the literary tradition in his own way: Tolstoy is a screenwriter. Since graduating from Temple, he has written four screenplays. The last one is a parochial variation on Last Tango in Paris, using a hotel room instead of an apartment. Tolstoy will not let me read his screenplays. I give him a tip anyway: Get your screenplays out of the computer and into the world.
Philadelphians are paralyzed by an inferiority complex longer than Broad Street itself. A mammoth effort is required to escape the not-ready-for-prime-time attitude that sucks at your heels like quicksand, stuck on the turnpike somewhere between N.Y. and D.C. You either get out of Philly when you're young and full of spit, or you spend the rest of your life wondering how the upper half lives. Hollywood is a million miles away from Chancellor Court.
Owned by EB Realty, located at Broad and Washington, the Marine Club housed real Marines during WWII. Now it caters to yuppies and lawyers and students from the Rock School, kids from all over the world who live on one floor and keep the rumor mill a-churnin'. No surprise. That's why they call it rock 'n' roll! Let's go across the street to the Rock School and find Jack Black.
No Jack in the lobby, just decorous parents who hold small hypoallergenic dogs or large mocha latte decafs. They dream that their little ones, enrolled in the after-school program, will one day earn their way upstairs, where all the action is: barres, mirrors, skylights, a real live Russian woman pianist, and Chris Fleming, the teacher with the potbelly and earring, who watches 24 girls and nine boys go through their balletic paces, their piques and chaines, then claps his hands, takes a deep breath and says delightedly, “Terrible!”
Wait a minute. Isn't this the Rock School? Where are the Cobain wannabes and Jagger knockoffs? They are where? At the School of Rock? The what? Paul Green's School of Rock, on Race Street, just off Broad. Paul Green really has a chain of schools that try to teach kids to rock 'n' roll. But this is not that — this is the Rock School. And how did we stumble upon this ballet factory? Because philanthropy and ego do not always make rational dance partners. Milton Rock needed his Rock name on all his Rock gifts, and he was, unfortunately, not named Terpsichore or Balanchine. Temple University has a plush 300-seat theater where music of every variety is performed — string, keyboard, jazz, new music, opera and choral — everything but rock. The theater is called Rock Hall. The same illogic applies to the Rock School. It's a complex story best left to accountants, but the short version had the PA Ballet finding it difficult to pay its rent and Dr. Milton Rock, who had plenty of cash to throw around, buying the building and combining the school and ballet company in a grand fiscal pas de deux.
A non-ballet person might be taken with the two dozen female students in pink and black, limbering up as if in a Capezio commercial directed by Eddie Degas. Black leg warmers over pink stockings, pink leg warmers over black stockings with seams, pink skirts, black shorts, shorter shorts, unitards with long sleeves and short sleeves and no sleeves at all; body tights and leotards, and one leopard-skin leotard. Why are these schoolgirls wearing makeup?
After a complicated step is taught to the best students in the school, which means some of the best in the world, the teacher watches the students do their axles and leaps and asks, “Are you all drunk?” Chris Fleming seems perpetually annoyed about something. By all accounts, he is an excellent teacher and choreographer, having earned his tights at the NYC Ballet. He is also hands-on. In these days of missteps and misdeeds, it is risky to be known as a hands-on teacher, but there is no way around it. Chris Fleming touches every student he speaks to. He pushes, pulls, twists, turns, yanks and nudges. At one point, he walks to the large picture window and just stares.
What he sees on the northeast corner of Broad and Washington is a lot of nothing. A huge and valuable lot of nothing at the entrance to the Avenue of the Arts that is owned by members of the Holt family. Around five acres in search of a business. Leo Holt likes to look at his lot and “watch the value rise.” Mr. Holt has been pushed, pulled, twisted, turned, yanked and nudged by greengrocers, residential developers, commercial do-gooders and ethnic entrepreneurs. He's sitting back and watching the value rise.
There was a movie studio and recording facility blueprinted for the spot by Will Smith and his brother Harry, but that fell through. Once a year, the Cirque du Soleil appears on the empty lot. That's it. Once a year.
“The city deserves the right enterprise in that spot,” says Leo Holt. “I am in no hurry. I just sit back and watch the values explode.”
Some people wish the four Beacons would explode, too. They are 42-foot-high metal and glass pylons on each corner of Broad and Washington, welcoming folks to the Avenue of the Arts. They resemble very tall and very rigid cotton candy, twinkling in the sun and lit from within at night. The person who dislikes them most is the artist who created them.
“My experience was so nasty, so hideous, I can't look at those pieces. I lost all taste for that area.” Ray King worked on the Beacons in 1994. And 1995. And 1996. And hopes to never see them again.
After he won a tough contest, King, already famous for his light works, got down to work. Around the same time, the city's engineering department got to work too, planting the concrete footings 40 feet deep. On all four corners. In the wrong places. Ramps for the disabled would run smack into the sculptures, and wheelchairs would be sent reeling back into the street whence they came. Lawyers and ugliness would surely ensue. So what happened?
Lawyers and ugliness ensued. While different factions did legal battle, there was dirt on the four corners. For years. Stumps. Disabled art.
“I lost $50,000 of my own,” says Ray King about the half-million-dollar project. “It almost sent me into bankruptcy. I chased the city around for the last payment before I would install it. It choked my studio for four years. It was the most heinous experience of my artistic life. Right now, I am working on projects in England, Italy, Taiwan, California and Florida, so I have nothing against public art or municipal funding — only Philadelphia.”
Finally, just in time for the millennium, with help from Ed Rendell, the Beacons went up. The reviews were mixed. They are not things you fall in love with right off the bat. Or maybe ever.
At night, they make the street safe. The homeless sleep on the smooth surfaces of the marble bases.
Sometimes, the homeless walk over to the Broad Street Diner at Ellsworth. It has been open 24 hours a day for 35 years. New to the menu are the buffalo burgers ($4.45 with cheese) from the Northfork Bison Ranch, which guarantees no chemicals, hormones, steroids or animal by-products; the meat is lower in fat, calories and cholesterol than beef, pork and chicken. Sounds healthy. Sounds like the Plains Indians would not have been decimated by their diet. I order scrapple, and scrambled eggs, home fries, toast, butter and coffee. I will not be buffaloed by advertisements or scientific studies. My platter arrives with a slice of orange, a sprig of parsley, fluffy eggs, and scrapple, delicious and so hot that it burns the skin off my rapacious tongue. I am looking directly at a female cop in the next booth as blood drips out of my mouth and onto my paper placemat. The officer is uneasy.
“Sliding into third at age 43 wasn't so smart,” says an ad on the diner's paper placemat. “Getting fixed up at Methodist Hospital was. Call 1-800-JEFF-NOW.” JEFF-NOW? Oh. I get it. It's the Thomas Jefferson Methodist Mercy St. Agnes Medical Center. Hospitals are merging faster than funeral homes or banks, and far more ecumenically. This strange conglomerate pairs a fourth-century teenage virgin martyr with a 19th-century Unitarian president who had an affair with his teenage slave. I pick up my cell phone to call 1-800-JEFF-NOW. The cop watches without subterfuge. I have a message on my cell. The message is from my brother. He wants to know if I made it through North Philly unscathed and if I have, would I please pick him up a secondhand black Swedish poncho at I. Goldberg. I call back and leave him a message: The good news is that I am bleeding only from my mouth whilst under the surveillance of a peace officer. The bad news is that I. Goldberg has moved, and I don't know where. And Mom is still dead. Things don't usually work out the way you planned.
Walking through South Philly is somehow disappointing. It lacks the pulse you remember, the finger-snapping, the girls' high hair and the guys' hesitation strut. Homogeneity has struck. Gone is the rumble-tumble old-world ebullience. Even the mural at Wharton Street is deflating. Frank Sinatra looks like a cross between Benny Krass and Oscar Levant. Four stories high (which Frank occasionally was), surrounded by fans (which Frank usually was), Sinatra croons to admirers of all colors; one couple near the second floor is fainting.
The dirty little secret of the Great Mural Renaissance is that people and businesses buy this art, sponsor this art: Frank was paid for by Jack Daniel's (Frank's favorite beverage), Jerry Blavat, Comcast, the Daily News, and Frederick's of (not Hollywood but) restaurant fame. This is written on the wall. In fine print.
The window lettering may say TARELLI'S TAILORS, but the shop near Morris Street is just Rocco. Rocco and his suits. He charges $550 for the average suit nowadays. Used to make 15 a week, then down to 10, and now half that many. Sure, he could do a fitting and mail the parts to be sewn together in Costa Rica, but that would be un-American to Rocco.
“I give the parts to my old friends who work at home. I pay them decent money. Outsourcing has changed the name of the game. There is no money in popular-priced suits. The Gap, Men's Wearhouse, Joseph A. Bank — they utilize foreign labor. Asia, Latin America, anywhere they can. I am a dying breed.”
The phone rings. It's Italy. The upstairs tenant spends half the year in the old country, in Sicily, and is returning soon. He needs something turned on in his apartment.
Rocco has spent 31 of his 69 years at this address. He has four sons. “They wear suits, they don't make them. Two are lawyers, one's a doctor, and one businessman. Let me tell you something about sons. If you make them independent, you won't see them very often. If you keep them dependent, they won't be happy. Some choices in this life, huh?”
Sadness fills the store of empty suits.
“I've been doing this for 58 years. I often wonder how my life would have turned out if I had gone to school after my father died. I was very young, but my older brother wanted me around, so he taught me the business. Otherwise, I would have gone to live at this school in North Philadelphia. It's called Girard College. Ever hear of it?”
I stop by the Thomas Jefferson Methodist Mercy St. Agnes Medical Center of Continuing Care to take a leak. I cannot find the bathrooms.
Someone escorts me. Everyone is very nice. I inquire about renting a room for the night. They don't take me seriously.
For dinner, I go to the Oriental Chinese Restaurant at Broad and Moore. All the patrons are Asian. This is a good sign. I order fried brown rice. They don't take me seriously. This is a bad sign. I order General Tso's chicken. I hope he doesn't miss it. That's what I say to the waiter. He doesn't laugh, either.
Across the street, evening services have begun at the Abundant Life Chinese Mennonite Church. The church is one long room decorated as plainly as the Chinese restaurant. There are 50 comfortable red chairs, almost-matching vermilion drapes, white walls and small windows. Pastor Truong Tu delivers his sermon in Chinese to eight Asian women and one African-American male as two little boys run around and toss thick Chinese hymnals in the direction of the Occidental stranger in the back. Eventually, Pastor Truong Tu turns on the CD player, and everyone sings along with prerecorded hymns. Then the women peel off into three groups. After some silence, one woman in each group starts to pray, loudly, asking for heavenly guidance and forgiveness, in Chinese, in English, in Chinglish. Ten, 15 minutes. Then it's around the horn. Each woman in each cluster speaks fervently, personally, overlapping like a Robert Altman movie, like Mennonites at their first meetings in Philadelphia hundreds of years ago.
“Mennonite? We not Mennonite,” says Grace Dich, when prayers end. “They help us with money, so we say we Mennonite. We not Mennonite. Mennonite don' like jewelry or modern world. We not Mennonite.”
These are, make no mistake, very conservative Christian folks. Grace's father was a minister in the old country. Soon, they will march on Washington to rally for traditional marriages between men and women. Where are the men? Where men should be — working.
“One out of five people in world Chinese,” says Grace, the spokesperson. “We have over one billion people. We don't stay in Chinatown no more. We move to South Philly when housing affordable. North Philadelphia, too. We coming more and more.”
An oceanic smile. Her friends giggle. Almost five percent of the city's population is Asian, or 70,000 people, according to the last census. Many of the newly arrived have landed in Olney or South Philly, coming from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos — countries we napalmed to smithereens before and during the Nixon years, openly and secretly.
After the service, you walk alone into the South Philly night, thinking about Chinese women whose families migrated to Vietnam to escape the Japanese during WWII who now pray to Jesus Christ on comfortable red chairs in a plain room on an ordinary Wednesday night on Broad Street in Philadelphia. The sky is small and low. The statue of William Penn, the Quaker, shines inordinately bright.
Near Broad and Shunk, next to Superior Physical Therapy Inc., is the U.S. Army Recruiting Office. You can spot it by its distinctive black and yellow logo. Black and yellow? Is this the Pittsburgh Steelers' front office? What happened to camouflage and olive green? The soldiers in Iraq wear sand-colored Star Wars outfits. Imagine combing the back streets of Tikrit in black and yellow bumblebee costumes.
“I believe those are just colors for advertising,” says Sergeant First Class Christifaun Moore. “If you want more information, you have to contact PAO.”
Sergeant Moore has the most pleasant way of not answering questions. Lots of them. She keeps deflecting me to PAO.
Finally, I crack. “What is 'PAO?' Prisoner of what?”
Public affairs office, she explains. Captain Lydia Weatherspoon heads the local PAO. We start over.
“The station on South Broad Street is a small station. Not much action. And the black and yellow is strictly for advertising. No relation to Army colors at all. Anything else?”
Captain Lydia Weatherspoon is all business.
“Army of One? The intention was to say, 'You are a soldier, you count, and the sum is no greater than its parts.' Army of One means teamwork, but people misunderstand it and think it's the opposite. It might be confusing.”
“Are you meeting your quotas?”
“We have to beat the streets to get recruits in Philadelphia. We have a big challenge here. I would say the public school system is not on a par with other areas. Talking to my colleagues and counterparts across the country, Philly schools, overall, are just not that good. Army applicants have to pass a written test before taking the physical or moral tests, and Philadelphia is challenged. A much lower percentage gets past that first hurdle. It's an eighth-grade-level test for math and English. And lots of high-school graduates from Philadelphia are having trouble passing the Army test.”
My math must be bad. Kids graduate 12th grade and fail an eighth-grade Army test? Being a good citizen, I suggest to Captain Lydia Weatherspoon that perhaps she is administering the wrong test. The Army needs fighters, not nerds. I tell her that in Philadelphia a lot of kids are killed by other kids. A total of 28 were killed in 2003, 34 in 2004, more than half by firearms. That's pretty good shooting. Captain Weatherspoon doesn't laugh, either.
Behind the counter, an attractive woman with high blond hair and an extra unbuttoned button on her blouse looks up and asks, “What can I get ya, honey?”
You like being called honey.
“Chicken cheesesteak, please, with the works.”
“Is that all, sweetie?” You like being called sweetie.
You sit down in the Talk of the Town, a hole-in-the-wall hoagie joint near the stadia named for banks and right under the Route 76 overpass to a bridge named for a poet who wrote songs of himself. On the radio is “Hello It's Me.” You miss Philly music, and Philly foods, and Philly women speaking Philly smack. You wonder why you left and if you should return. It feels so comforting, so regressive, so dualistic.
“Chicken cheese with the works!” You hop to attention.
“Here you go, sweetheart.” You like being called sweetheart.
You begin to flirt with the idea that it's somewhat personal until you hear blondie address the next guy in line, a huge, slobbering truck driver: “What'll it be, sweetie?”
Your sandwich suddenly goes limp and doesn't taste as good as it might have. You feel better about having moved to New York so many years ago. Heroes are okay.
The old Navy Yard looks more like a business park than anything else. It’d be a great place to teach a kid how to drive a car; more planes pass overhead, to and from the nearby airport, than cars do on the ground. Somebody will turn these 1,200 acres into a gated community soon enough. On the water, close to Center City.
I sit at the dock of the river, at the end of my walk, watching the dark water run slowly and thinking of Ben Franklin. He loved this river, swam here for relaxation, perhaps invented swim fins right here. He liked to walk. He walked across New Jersey on his way to Philly when he was 17, and then took a boat across the Delaware. If the Quakers gave us whatever tolerance we possess, Ben Franklin gave us nearly everything else: literacy, humor, a journalistic tradition, an entrepreneurial spirit, a scientific curiosity, a taste for lager, an active libido, and a good part of the Declaration of Independence. He would have welcomed the Internet and owned part of Comcast today. Except he died a long while ago, on April 17th, the same time and on the same day I was born, about a century and a half apart.
A harmonious human multitude — that’s what Franklin was called by his great biographer, Carl Van Doren, and what I have just walked through. Philadelphians from Guyana and China and India, first-generation and fifth-generation Philadelphians, pioneers and dying breeds, with accents from 5,000 miles away and from 5th and Shunk. Cities are an extension of the people who build them and occupy them and make them click. I need not move back, nor fret about doing so. Philadelphia courses through my body as surely as Broad Street runs through the heart of Philadelphia.
The walk was so energizing, so calming, that come tomorrow morning, I’ll head back in the other direction, cover the same 13 miles of 14th Street, this time stopping to see Joe Frazier’s gym and the Wilma Theatre and a buddy at the Inquirer and maybe stop by my mother’s old apartment building, say hello to her friends.
The cell phone rings. My brother wants to know if I made it through North Philly unscathed, and if I have, would I please pick him up a secondhand black Swedish poncho at I. Goldberg.
“The bad news is that I. Goldberg has moved.”
“Moved? Damn. What’s the good news?” he asks.
“Nothing ever goes the way you planned. Sometimes, it works out better.”
“Wanna split a Lee’s Hoagie Supreme?”
“Naw. I want a whole one for myself.”