October 22, 2006

Strangers Have Left on Longer Trains Before

As Morgan led me down the stairs toward the train platform, both of us being elbowed by impatient, thuggish commuters, my hand went to my chest, where my heart was hammering wildly.

      "Don’t worry," she said when she saw this. "If anything happens, I know CPR."

      "Really?" I asked.


      That we were actually going to make the train was astonishing, given the previous fifteen minutes. We’d jumped off the subway at 35th and Broadway, run to Penn Station, barreled our way through the station to the ticket window, and found ourselves at the end of a long line of people who, like us, had about seven minutes to catch the 1:05 to Philly.

      I’d already given up, figuring we’d just catch the next one an hour later. But then the line began moving.

      Just as we were darting for an open ticket window, a man with an expensive haircut and a three-piece suit ducked to the front of the line and raised his hand.

      "Ladies and gentlemen!" he announced to the people still sweating in line, "my train leaves in ten minutes and it’s very important that I—"

      Before he could finish his sentence, he was drowned out by the angry voices of regular proles with regular haircuts, who’d been waiting patiently in line.

      "Me too!" a woman shouted at him. "Join the club!"

      We left the scene behind us before it degenerated into cheap mob violence.

      "Can we still make the 1:05, do you think?" I asked the ticket clerk. She didn’t say yes or no, just began whipping through the process and a moment later we were dashing for the gate, tickets in hand.

      I hadn’t been to Philly in almost fifteen years. Well, I’d been to Philly a few times since I moved away, but I’d never had a chance to really see what had become of it in that time. Those other trips had involved being zipped here or there in a friend’s car, always with something specific to do. And while Morgan and I were heading there with a specific purpose in mind, an event I was supposed to be part of, we’d also have plenty of time to ourselves to just wander around. I was finally going to get a chance to personally show her where I used to live, the streets I used to walk. Thing was, I had no idea what to expect. I’d seen my Brooklyn neighborhood change so much over the past fifteen or so years, lord knows what had become of Philly. I’d heard stories.

      In my mind, I still knew Philly like the back of my hand. When we got off the train at 30th Street Station, I was stupidly convinced the city would remain just as I’d left it. Station looked the same, after all, even if a few of the vendors were different.

      It was a cloudy day, and there was a chill breeze. The hotel was close enough to the train station that we could hoof it, and along the way I could get the tour started.

      Walking across the Schuylkill River on Market, I pointed to the spot where I saw the cops using a long hook to pull the naked and bloated body of a drowned retarded man out of the water.

      A few blocks later, I was tickled beyond comprehension to see that The Forum, an old fashioned porno theater, was still open for business, its marquee still promising new movies every Tuesday and Friday.

      (Time was they’d actually announce the titles of the films on the marquee, providing me no end of entertainment—but a city ordinance put an end to that shortly before I moved.)

      The adult bookstore which used to be next door to the theater was gone, but Hoagie City was still there.

      We turned north on 17th Street, and things suddenly became much less familiar. This wasn’t too disconcerting, though, as I didn’t spend too much time north of Market when I lived there. It was mostly office buildings and high-end apartment complexes, so there wasn’t much reason for me to be there.

      Our hotel was at 17th and Race, about five blocks north of Market, and I should’ve taken it as a sign that none of our friends who’d been living in town all this time had any idea there was a hotel there.

      After checking in, we decided to head back out and get a bite to eat.

      Now, the Philly I knew in the late-80s was a tense, filthy, violent city—which is a big reason why I loved it the way I did. I lived just off the corner of 21st and Chestnut, and back then, for all the garbage and crime, Chestnut Street remained a lively haven of interesting little shops and restaurants. Delis, diners, indie bookstores, movie theaters—even a place just a few blocks away that sold artificial limbs. You couldn’t walk ten feet in any direction without hitting a hoagie shop, and the only chain operations that I remember were the Rite Aids and a Payless shoe store. Sure, a lot of buildings were burned out, and some were still burning—but that was okay. It was an interesting place to be.

      "So where are we going?" Morgan asked as we left the hotel.

      "We’re just going to pop down here to Chestnut and head east," I told her, pointing. "We’ll find something lickety-split—you just leave it to me." We were both awfully hungry, and I guess I wasn’t thinking too straight.

      So we walked down to Chestnut and turned left.

      All right, so there wasn’t anyplace to eat on that block—just a bunch of banks, boutiques and a wig store.

      The next block was pretty much the same. And the one after that.

      It was all so clean. The sidewalks looked polished. There were no pigeons pecking at puddles of vomit. And every block was starting to look the same as every other. Every business we passed was some sort of nationwide chain. What restaurants we did see were all hoity-toity, and those that weren’t were boarded up. Where had all the hoagies and cheesesteaks gone?.

      It wasn’t Dresden anymore, it was Emerald City—and I don’t mean that in a good way.

      I began to sweat a little bit. "Just one more block," I said, "then if we don’t find anything, we’ll cut down to Walnut."

      Well, the next block was the same, too, so we cut south to Walnut and began heading back the way we’d come, only to find much of the same. Banks, boutiques, chains.

      I didn’t recognize anything.

      Well, I recognized things, but only because they were the same goddamn businesses you’ll find in any other goddamn town.

      Of course maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. Only later did I remember that around the time I moved away, half the places along Chestnut had been shut down and boarded up, and there was a lot of muttering in the papers and on the street about an evil developer who was buying up everything, jacking the rents up to Jesus, and waiting for the big corporations to come knocking. Just like everyplace else.

      Looks like it worked out for him, too. I had so wanted to be able to show Morgan what this earlier life of mine had been like—the bars where I used to drink, the theaters where someone was shot during every screening. Now all I could show her was one more clone of the East Village, and more evidence that we’re all fucked. It wasn’t "culture shock" so much as it was "culture ennui."

      Then we turned up a side street, and suddenly I did recognize something—a print shop. A crummy little print shop that had always been there. And further up the street was a hearing aid store (I always used to make the same joke whenever I passed that place). And an ancient tavern I remembered. And, finally, a diner. An expensive diner, mind you—and not one I remembered—but a bright place where we could get a damn burger and a beer.

      As we sat there, Morgan watched the people passing by outside. She told me that they seemed comfortable in their natural freakishness. For all the fancy-fancy around them, they hadn’t succumbed to the almost panicked obsession with fashion and attitude you’ll find everywhere you go in New York. And perhaps as another symptom of that, she noticed, there were very few people on cell phones—and with rare exception, those people who were on cell phones stepped off to the side of the sidewalk, allowing others to pass without walking in the street.

      Maybe the food and the beer helped, or maybe just taking that frustrated random turn helped—or maybe it was just where we were—but in our wanderings after that, I began recognizing more places. Places you’d never expect to have survived, given all that had changed around them. But there, in and amongst the sushi bars and nail salons was the Whodunit? bookstore, and the Colney Deli, where I used to buy my beer. The Midtown IV, an ancient diner that once threatened to put a contract out on me, was still there. Little Pete’s was still there, too, though they’d apparently lost their liquor license again. That seemed to happen every six months or so. Maybe some things don’t change.

      We turned the corner again on 21st Street, and there was my old building. They’d patched up the front, it looked like, and fixed the steps. It looked a hell of a lot nicer than it had when I lived there. It was a shithole then (which, again, was part of the reason why I loved it—that and location).

      The shops across the street were different, but at least of the same nature—a greengrocer, a hair salon. It was almost as if there was a tiny pocket surrounding my old apartment where time hadn’t passed.

      "Looks like someone’s been sleeping in the basement entrance," Morgan said, pointing at the steps leading down from the sidewalk.

      "Wouldn’t surprise me," I said. "They used to kick in the front door and sleep in the hallway."

      In the end, no, I wasn’t really all that surprised by what I found in Philadelphia. How could I be? It’s such an old story. Disappointed, though, certainly. There used to be such life there. Angry, hostile life, maybe, life with a switchblade in its sock, but life nevertheless. Apart from a tiny pocket here, a tiny pocket there, cities just aren’t places for people anymore. And if you need proof of this, just try and find a deli in Center City Philadelphia that’ll sell you a six pack at midnight.

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