"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Travelogue 2: Berlin vs Philadelphia


Streets of Philadelphia
I was bruised and battered, I couldn't tell what I felt.
I was unrecognizable to myself.
I saw my reflection in a window, I didn't know my own face.
Oh brother are you gonna leave me wastin' away
On the Streets of Philadelphia.

I walked the avenue, 'til my legs felt like stone,
I heard the voices of friends vanished and gone,
At night I could hear the blood in my veins,
Black and whispering as the rain,
On the Streets of Philadelphia.

Ain't no angel gonna greet me.
It's just you and I my friend.
My clothes don't fit me no more,
I walked a thousand miles
Just to slip this skin.

The night has fallen, I'm lyin' awake,
I can feel myself fading away,
So receive me brother with your faithless kiss,
Or will we leave each other alone like this
On the Streets of Philadelphia

Bruce Springsteen


Philadelphia: City of Brotherly Love
Sometimes I think that I know
What love's all about
And when I see the light
I know I'll be all right.

I've got my friends in the world,
I had my friends
When we were boys and girls
And the secrets came unfurled.

City of brotherly love
Place I call home
Don't turn your back on me
I don't want to be alone
Love lasts forever.

Someone is talking to me,
Calling my name
Tell me I'm not to blame
I won't be ashamed of love.

City of brotherly love.
Brotherly love.

Sometimes I think that I know
What love's all about
And when I see the light
I know I'll be all right.

Neil Young


The Streets of Philadelphia. City of Brotherly Love. As a city - dweller in downtown Philadelphia, my favorite urban activity was walking -- three or four miles in one direction, then three or four miles back -- admiring countless lovely green spaces and remarkable architectural details along the way. I swear I would discover new features every time, no matter how often I walked the same streets. When Gerry and I visited Berlin in 1993, we met a number of former University of Pennsylvania students, who seemed unaccountably disdainful of our fair city and the years they spent there before moving on to greener pastures in and around Europe.

I had hoped to share in their recollections of life in Philadelphia; but, strangely to me, they all seemed to draw one big blank. They had little to no knowledge of West Philly / University City, where I lived from 1993 - 2001 and where the University of Pennsylvania campus and my first Philadelphia house were located.

And they were even less familiar with downtown / Center City / Society Hill, where all the history happened and where I lived from 2001 - 2004.

Instead, their short - sighted experience was apparently bounded by the one or two buildings on campus where they attended class and whatever nearby apartment complex they had lived in at the time and some supermarket out in the suburbs where they would drive miles and miles away to get their groceries. What a wasted opportunity to shop local! They don't know what they missed by not enjoying the place while they lived there. A historical city like Philadelphia has so much to offer if you will just open your eyes! Some of the areas -- and I don't mean out-of-the-way places, but little gems and neighborhoods that are right in front of your eyes wherever you find yourself -- are truly as lovely as anything you'd see in Paris or Berlin. That was my thought on a good day.

Other days could be more frustrating. Philadelphia could never -- nor can West Lafayette, Indiana, for that matter -- measure up to the pedestrian - friendliness of Berlin (see previous post). One disheartening morning, I was out for a walk, right through the heart of downtown, when I heard a truck driver yell out of his window at a car driver, "Go, you f---ing idiot! Go!" Of course, everyone on the whole block could hear him. How can you have peace in your head with rudeness like that filling the air? All I could think was, why didn't I take my walk down another street? Not to mention that it was clear for all to see why the car was not proceeding yet, even though the light was green: because the driver was yielding to a pedestrian who not only had the same green light but also just so happened to have the right of way. I would have done the same thing had I been the unfortunate pedestrian or the picked on car driver. But more often than not the car drivers were just like that truck driver -- so impatient and filled with completely wrongful certainty even when breaking a clearly posted law. It wasn't always easy to accept the reality that the very same human density that made the city so exciting and wonderful could also what make it ugly and stressful. On a bad day, that unfortunate dichotomy just choked me up and made me want to go to another city or maybe another planet where life is nicer. [Come to think of it, even here in Indiana, without any human density, we have been honked at (and worse) just for slowing down to turn into our very own driveway.] So where is that nicer place?

Could it be Berlin? I must say that it was easy to imagine myself living there, something I've never felt in London and didn't feel in Paris. My friend Cate knew how to lighten my mood with her humorous yet wise perspective: "Trust me: rude people are everywhere. It's a fallen world. Your experience was just unlucky timing; even though we have no control over it, timing is everything. Why, even in Berlin, you were probably standing next to someone yelling obscenities in German, but you mistakenly thought they were saying, 'Hey, beautiful American woman, you are lovely in manner of Goddess on Grecian Urn.' Seriously, the only response to drivers like that is for someone to yell back, 'Awww, get a life.' "

On one of my early summer walks a dozen years ago, I approached a Center City corner and recognized Ed Rendell (Mayor of Philadelphia, 1992 - 2000; Governor of Pennsylvania, 2003 - 2011) standing a few steps out into the street, looking rather distracted and apparently waiting for his ride. I was also astonished to see there on the opposite corner a confused old man wearing two pair of pants, one of them down around his ankles, the other pair up where they should be -- thankfully. He was muttering and struggling to pull the outer trousers either up or down; who can tell. I thought, now here before me is some kind of parable or allegory of what life in the city can do for a man: the best result, the cream of the crop, power and education and benevolence and vision; or the ultimate disenfranchisement and marginalization and sickness, mental and physical. Two members of the body of Christ? It was a puzzling, disturbing sight to see. In a second or two, Ed's driver pulled up, and Ed jumped into the front seat of a big black car and away they went. The poor old smelly guy continued muttering, apparently oblivious to all around him. And I strode purposefully on my way to the bookstore or wherever I was headed.

My simultaneous brush with greatness and despair, over in fewer than thirty seconds. I had somewhat hoped to make eye - contact with the future governor and say, "Good morning, Sir" and signal my support of his campaign, but there was no time to catch his eye without shouting out. Cate and I had experienced a less conflicted encounter with our good Mayor one sunny day the previous fall just as we were finishing lunch at our favorite little French sidewalk cafe near Fitler Square:

After lunch, we decided to walk around the block before heading on our way, and as we came back around to the front of the restaurant, there was Mayor Rendell, taking a seat just a couple of tables away from where we ourselves had been sitting. Now, in this instance, I don't think that it would have been inappropriate to call out and wave hello (we were standing across the street from him), but we were just too shy. There he was, pulling his sunscreen out of his pocket and rubbing it into his forehead so that he wouldn't get a sunburn while sitting outside for his lunch. Isn't that just a slice of life?

When I saw him the following year, on the busy corner in Center City, I had to wonder what his thoughts were as he jumped into the car. Maybe he was just worried about getting somewhere on time. Was he as oblivious of the confused street man as the street man was of him? Or did Rendell see the poor citizen of his City and say a silent prayer? Does Rendell have a solution for this problem? Is there a solution? Is it a problem? Or just something that looks problematic to those who consider themselves to be more fortunate? What did Jesus say about this kind of thing? What would Jesus do? What could Rendell do? And how about me? Would I find it as cool to make eye contact with the street man as to wave hello to Mr. Rendell?

Next Fortnightly Post
Saturday, June 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

An Old Street of Philadelphia


  1. Concerning population density: http://grist.org/cities/why-liberals-like-walkability-more-than-conservatives/

  2. A posthumous comment from my friend and professor Herman P. Wilson (September 29, 1924 - May 10, 2013). A couple of summers ago, Herman -- whom you've seen mentioned many times on my blogs, and who was always willing to jump into the conversation and help me refine my prose and my outlook -- wrote about life in the city:

    I dislike moving. My last move from the Plaza in Kansas City to Foxwood Springs was a momentous and challenging occasion . . . from an apartment where I had lived for 20 years, located in my favorite spot in KC, to the Independent Living Wing of a Senior Living Community in Raymore (a suburb of KC). The transition required much downsizing -- many books donated to KC Public Library and many pieces of furniture to a charitable organization. All these changes required an adjustment to a new way of living. I've made those adjustments, but I will always miss my beloved Plaza, the joy of walking to many destinations, the diversity of people on or near the Plaza, and my favorite restaurant. Now I return to the Plaza on occasion; when I make that return, I feel that I am "home again."

    The major adjustment was to living with people who are all in my age (86) bracket or older. All my professional life was spent in working with young people -- a profession I loved -- and I seriously miss that youthful excitement. Now, by choice, I eat alone in the dining room because I refuse to have lunch or dinner with people who bore me -- people whose conversation usually focuses on one or both of the following: their past or their physical aches and pains. They have little excitement in their present life and no anticipation of excitement in their future life. Sad, sad, sad. I am determined to continue living with the excitement of my present and the anticipated excitement of my future. Thus, all is well with me: I remain happy, satisfied, and content.

    July 14 at 3:39pm ~ 2011 or 2012 ~