Pilot’s Journal – Philly Summertime

Walt Whitman Bridge

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.

Pilot’s Journal – Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh - The Point

Pittsburgh – The Point

Saturday, August 27, 2011 – Pittsburgh, PA
We were supposed to overnight in Hartford, CT tonight but due to the approach of Hurricane Irene the powers-that-be concluded, rightly I think, that they would like to have their airplane far away from 75 mile per hour ground gusts. Consequently we repositioned our plane empty to Pittsburgh and had the good fortune to find that our usual hotel in PIT was booked up. That was good news because our company was forced to put us up at the Wyndam Grand, probably the best hotel in Pittsburgh, and right downtown on the point. We arrived about four in the afternoon after some small kerfuffle with the limo service.

I changed clothes and looked up some tourist information on the internet. I was disappointed to find that most of the museums, etc. I was interested in were already closed for the day or closing within minutes. So I ventured out around downtown to see what I could see. My first stop was the point park, otherwise known as the confluence. This is the point where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to form the Ohio. It is a beautiful park and all the more so for the human activity around me. Heinz Field, the home of the Pittsburgh Steelers stood directly across the Allegheny river from me and it was game night. A stream of people, literally thousands, was filing slowly and cheerfully out of downtown, through the park, and across the bridge to the stadium. It was a walk of perhaps two miles but everyone seemed in a good mood. There was no pushing or rowdiness and everyone seemed to be taking their time.

Since I was not going to the game I simply sat down along the cement parapet which runs along the river and watched small boats jockeying in the current to find anchorage abeam the stadium. I decided that some folks must come by boat to watch the game which struck me as a wonderful idea. I did not see any unoccupied boats, however, so I’m not sure whether one or two stayed to watch the boat while the others went to the game or if the boats were just there to get caught up in the general excitement of the evening. Periodically a large steamboat looking vessel laden with hundreds of people would round the point from the Monongahela and pull right up to the landing below the stadium. It was a gorgeous night with cool temps and a light breeze and, despite the nearby hurricane, not much cloud cover. I didn’t have this beautiful park to myself, but nearly so. Excepting the stream of humanity crossing the northeast corner of the park there were very few people along the promenade itself. I sat and soaked in the sights and the cool evening air and watched the sun go down.

It is an odd thing to be by oneself in a city which is not your own. You feel that you are somehow apart from the rest, yet, in a big city it seems to me that no one owns the city. A stranger in my small town is indeed a stranger and residents, though friendly, recognize his outsider status. But in a city as large as Pittsburgh nobody has a big enough share to claim posession. You can own a town like mine, but you can’t really own Pittsburgh.