I went out after class tonight with some of my classmates, drank 3/4 of a beer and now feel intensely, immensely exhausted. It’s in part because we workshopped a piece of mine in class tonight. No matter how relaxed I try to make myself, I always am unnervingly tense when people start talking about something I’ve written and cared about.
So I’m going to give you a little taste of the piece from tonight. It does still need work, but I really came to find moments of pleasure in how I described certain things, so I don’t feel uncomfortable about sharing it. And if you’re wondering how I know so much about what Philadelphia was like before I was born, I readily admit that I called my mom to interrogate her repeatedly while I was writing this.
Sara walked through the dim arching passageway of City Hall, squinting into the brightness of Broad Street. She crossed over four lanes, hopscotching as the traffic patterns demanded, winding up on the west side of the street.
At Broad and Chestnut, she stopped to look up at the Wachovia building a block down and across the way. Her grandfather Philip had his law practice in the north tower of the building, when it was still the Fidelity Building, and she often slowed when she was near to remember the stories and think about a man who had died 13 years before she was born.
The family had lived in Elkins Park, a suburb of Philly ten miles due north of the city. Every morning Philip would drive to the station near their house and take the train downtown. The conductor would stick his head out of the car and yell “Hel-kins Park” as it pulled into the station, slighting the bucolic name of the neighborhood. It rankled Philip a little, as he had chosen this area for his children to grow up in partly because its name carried such different meaning than the one in which he had spent his own childhood.
Fishtown. The name implied a great stench, and during the summers it lived up to its title. The heat would viciously cook the backyard privies and trash heaps, reminding you that you were living side by side with your own refuse. It became olfactory white noise, present but possible to ignore. Although Philip was relieved to have escaped that place, there were ways in which he had never left it behind.
Philip was in all ways devoted to the friends he still had from his old neighborhood and often got together with them to play canasta and crack jokes in Yiddish. Sara’s mother, Sue, hated it when they met at her house, because they would roll up the sleeves of their white button-down shirts, revealing ropy veined arms that flexed and released as they moved their cigarettes from ashtray to mouth. They would pinch her cheeks and cackle “Shana Punim.” She couldn’t understand what was so funny about the same old stories told half in English and half in a language that sounded made up.
Philip was his own boss and so always rode the 9:10 am train into the city, missing the crush of rush hour. He would nod silently in greeting to Stan Rosen and Sammy Kind as he boarded, neighbors from down the block. He’d settle into the slightly rough horsehair covered bench seat, sliding all the way into the window to make room for later passengers. He’d neatly fold the Philadelphia Inquirer into quarters so that the unwieldy pages of the broadsheet wouldn’t bother his neighbors.
Other than the clattering of the train hurtling over the tracks, the ride was silent. You’d hear the quiet rustle of newsprint being folded or the gentle flip of a glossy magazine page. Arrivals at the neighborhood stations that led to Center City would be punctuated by a conductor’s shout and for a minute the car would be filled with movement and the smell of wet wool. The soporific nature of the car would soon claim the consciousness of the new riders and they would succumb to the pre-established culture of rattling quiet.
Thirty-five minutes later, the train would pull into the old Reading Terminal, a station that closed in 1985 to make room for the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Unlike most cities in the eighties, Philadelphia actually preserved the shell of the old station and turned it into the entrance hall of the Center. Market East, a modern station a block away, where the walls are tiled in bright squares of primary colors and the escalators are frequently broken, replaced it.
Reading Terminal smelled dark and damp, and on the days when Philip had to wait for a delayed train, he briefly wondered if just a few more minutes in that underground cavern could cause mold spores to grow behind his ears. When a train was coming into the station, its arrival would be announced by the squealing of wheels on metal tracks, and the air would fill with a metallic scent, as microscopic bits of rail and brake cleaved from the solids and misted into the air.
When the conductor yelled “Rha-heading Terminal, last stop,” Philip would adjust his grey fedora and half stand, waiting until his seatmate stepped out into the aisle before he proceeded. When Philip was clear of the seat, he would tuck the folded newspaper under his arm, shake the wrinkles from his lined overcoat and smooth the tails of his scarf so that they made an x on his chest. On painfully cold days he would leave the brimmed hat at home and wear the shearling-lined leather hat with earflaps that always made his fashionable wife cringe.
On the days when Philip didn’t have to meet with clients, he would walk the block from his office to Horn and Hardart’s automat. It was a large room filled with wooden chairs and enamel topped tables. Two walls were lined with banks of little glass doors, making it resemble the rows of mailboxes in a post office. Signs with Art Deco lettering indicated where to find sandwiches, cups of soup, hot dishes and dessert.
The automat smelled of an elementary school cafeteria. Reheated canned vegetables, Salisbury steak and chicken potpie did daily battle for aromatic dominance.
Occasionally, during the summer months, the company would get a good price on bluefish and the smell of that dark, oily flesh would hang in the air. If you tilted your head just right, you’d also be able to pick out the scent of coffee, cooking gently in the big urns.