July 26 – Philadelphia, PA
I don’t know why, but Philadelphia always inspires my imagination. It may be the history the place is steeped in. It may be the reputation of the city as a cultural crucible. Heck, they have a bridge named after Walt Whitman- something interesting has to happen when you are there! I almost expect to see Ben Franklin or maybe Bruce Springsteen walking down the street toward me.
I am not a frequent visitor of big cities. I live in the country. I probably visit Chicago a few times a year. On my trips I often stay in hotels on the outskirts of cities like Atlanta, Washington, and Denver. But in Philly I get the chance to stay right downtown on Market Street and walk around, soaking in the city. Today I woke up late (1700 show time) and went for a walk in mid-morning. I walked the equivalent of 3 miles, just turning right here and left there, with no particular agenda. Doubtless my impressions of the city would seem trite, especially to one who lives his life here. My wide-eyed descriptions of the “huge buildin’s and all them people” would generate laughs from locals. But, in my own defense, I have always believed in the value of seeing old things with new eyes. The people who work every day in downtown Philly cannot see it anymore with the sense of awe and mystery that I do. Nor can I anymore see some of the beauty inherent in the place where I live. Someone from the city could visit our farm and recognize a subtle majesty in the row upon row of corn and the rolling hills. I still appreciate these but can no longer see them with new eyes.
Walking around Philly, to a rural boy, is a full sensory experience. There are sounds, smells, and sights impossible in the country. There are “big buildin’s” and, my goodness, there are people. I walk down the bustling sidewalks and I feel strangely dissociated from my own body as a wave of humanity folds around me like water in a stream. The heat is intense and enveloping. After a while the shouts, honks, and sirens fade into a persistent background hum, like the constant drumming of waves on the shore when you visit the beach.
It is absolutely impossible to guess what you may see next. A brass band? Yes! In front of a newly-opened, storefront McDonalds, a door swings open and out marches a man carrying and playing a sousaphone, followed by a trumpet, trombone, and incongruously, a man strumming a banjo, all dressed in dazzling red and green sequins. The proprietress of a fortune-telling and palm-reading shop is arguing with her landlord about the rent right in the middle of the sidewalk (didn’t she know the landlord was coming?). What’s that smell? A mix of sauerkraut and fresh baked bread (does krautbread exist? Probably here.) A well- endowed woman passes in a bright yellow t-shirt with black letters splayed across her ample, bra-less chest, the wording – IF YOU CAN READ THIS YOU ARE TOO CLOSE.
I stop for a Coke at a food court in one of the office towers and share a table with a harried looking middle-aged man in a rumpled suit and tie wearing a clean, white panama hat. Throughout his meal he pecks away at a tablet computer with a pencil-like stylus and fumbles from time to time through a stack of stapled files each headed “Application for Easement” or something like that. I conclude that he isn’t going to speak to me at all when he suddenly looks up, in what I take to be a sense of obligation, and says, without looking over at me, and in a strangely loud voice, “How hot is it outside?” I say “pretty hot” to which he responds nothing for about 3 minutes, then “It was really hot yesterday.” I allow that it probably was and we each resume our silence for the remainder of the meal. I think of the famous supposed rudeness of city people, then remember that I have had numerous similar conversations with farmers in our area.
I walk some more and pass a young couple paused at a street corner, looking around. The boy, about 20, is unexceptional, if fairly handsome. The girl, though, is one of the most attractive young women in my experience. The thing that distinguishes her most, however, is that she has two of the largest, most ungainly-looking, hearing aids I have ever seen. These are of the old style, flesh-colored crescents which wrap around the outside of the ear with a long loop of rubber tubing going into the ear canal. I figure they predate solid state electronics and may be heirlooms from pre-transistor days. They look like something a elderly man might have worn, but surely not a beautiful young women with otherwise trendy attire.
I am exhausted. I have been up the steps of the art museum, perhaps not with Rocky’s enthusiasm. I have seen the Liberty Bell. I have eaten in Chinatown and seen frogs and turtles in aquaria along the wall; not pets, by the way. Sweaty and feeling washed out I trudge back toward my air conditioned hotel room. As I turn the last corner I pass a heavy-set lady in what appears to be an ill-fitting nightgown. She gives me a broad smile and winks at me as I pass.