Banner photo of Larry Eugene Meredith, Ronald Tipton and Patrick Flynn, 2017.

The good times are memories
In the drinking of elder men...

-- Larry E.
Time II

Saturday, October 30, 2010

O Philadelphia; My Philadelphia

(Note to Gigi:  I hope nothing I write about Philadelphia will discourage you from visiting. It is a wonderful city, one I have deep affection for, which is what most of this post is about. There is so much to see and do from a traipse through our nations founding in Old City to the vista from the marvelous Art Museum steps to the venues of Penn's Landing by the Delaware River to the exotica of South Street to the incredible Institutes of history and science such as the Franklin Institute to the tranquility of Boat House Row to the statuary in the Rodin to the culture of theaters and the Academy of Music and all the delicious restaurants in all their variety. Please visit!)

Readers, please go visit and spend a peaceful moment with a nice lady named Gigi at her "In the Throne Room" Blog. You can click here or on the Post title to get there.

The picture above was taken on Independence Mall in 1966 looking toward Independence Hall where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were signed. The city was named by its Quaker founders after one of the seven cities mentioned in Revelation. It was one of the only two the Lord did not have anything against, the other being Smyrna (which is a town here in Delaware, by the way). The name means Brotherly Love (Greek: philos = love; adelphos = brother). It is often called "The City of Brotherly Love", but is more affectionately known as Philly.

It has seen a lot of changes since William Penn bought the land from the Lenapes in 1681, since the Founding Fathers signed those two documents in 1776 and 1787 and since my photo was snapped in 1966. For instance, skirt lengths have changed several times since this photo was taken of my wife in an Old City Colonial Garden that same year. (In her outfit, she almost blends into the garden.)

Not all the changes have been been good. There have been two serious social phenomena lately. One is the sudden appearance of Flash Gangs. These are large groups of young people who suddenly appear anywhere at anytime, their gatherings coordinated through the use of social networks, such as MySpace and Twitter. Some, perhaps most, mean no harm. They do it just as youths have always done such things, just to see if they can, to have a laugh or to meet each other. But others, too many others, come to terrorize and harm. They bump and shove other pedestrians to the ground; some turn to vandalism and looting.

This has reached a point where my wife and I, and others we know, who use to be regular visitors to Philadelphia think twice now about going there to walk, shop or dine.

The other phenomena is even more disturbing for this involves grade school aged children , 11 and 12 year olds for instance (both boys and girls), playing a savage game called "Catch and Wreck". Aimed mainly at people they think are homeless, groups of preteens swoop upon them, knock them down to beat them with sticks or whatever is handy. Certainly, Philly has had its share of the homeless these last few decades, you sometimes step over them in the street or see them sleeping on the park benches, so these become easy prey, especially if elderly. (Photo on left is a homeless man sleeping near Carpenter Hall, 2006)

These things sadden me, for I have a long love affair with The City of Brotherly Love. But I suppose in a city with one and a half million people resident and another 4.3 million living in the immediate metropolitan area, the fifth largest in the country, one can expect some will practice decidedly unbrotherly behavior. However, the nature of the acts seems to be becoming more random and evil.

But enough of that. I want to write about my long tryst with Philly.

It goes back a long time, almost to my very beginning. My first memories are of Christmas visits. At some early age, my mother and grandmother began to take me on jaunts to see the Philly festivities of the holiday season. We lived in a town that had once been the halfway stopover for stages rolling between Philly and Lancaster. At the edge of our town was a milestone left from those times. It look every bit like an old white tombstone and carved upon it was, "35 Miles to P." Obviously such a thing made for a number of semi-gross jokes, but it meant there were 35 miles from our town to Philadelphia straight down the Old Lancaster Pike, Route 30, The Lincoln Highway.

We didn't go straight down the Old Lancaster Pike, however. It was an adventure getting there in the late 1940s - early 1950s. We caught a bus on what was called the Short Line and rode it to the county seat seven miles away. There we boarded a trolley that went along Rt. 3 into the edge of the city and the 69th Street Terminal.

In those days there would be a giant sliding board erected for the season fronting the terminal. It wasn't really a favorite of mine, for you had to climb a twisting staircase to the top and I was afraid of heights. Neither those particular trolleys or the slide exist anymore. Well, I know for a fact the trolleys disappeared on that line decades ago and I think the slide is gone. Anyway, at the terminal we would change to the Elevated-Subway Rail Line for the final leg into downtown Philadelphia, emerging from underground onto Market Street in front of the Old Wanamaker Department Store. Alas, Wanamaker's is also among the departed, although the store itself survives as a Macy's. 

John Wanamaker founded the store in 1861 and it was the first department store in the United States. It had a great inner court on the first floor with a center piece of a great eagle statue. At one time the the most familiar saying between friends was , "meet you at the eagle", and you always knew where to go. 

The grand court was rimmed by a mezzanine overlooking it from a half-story up. In 1959 I was attending an IBM Technical School in Philly and a fellow classmate and I, who had become friends, had went into Wanamaker's before we were to catch the train to his hometown in Jersey. We dawdled a bit too long and had to rush out to make our transportation, but we got lost. Thinking we were headed for the exit down to the train platforms below the store, we accidently ran into the the large and opulent Ladies Room upon the mezzanine, dashing through red faced to the screams of the patrons. 

The Grand Court was where we often started those Christmas visits of my boyhood. Among the cosmetic and perfume counters were fountains and at Christmas the waters danced in sparking colors to Christmas music. The show went on every half hour for about fifteen minutes and at some point a great board that hung above when depicted Frosty or Rudolph or the Nativity in animated lights.

A decade after I was married, Wanamaker's had a "Breakfast with Santa" each week. As far as I am concerned it was a Rip-off, part of the ever increasing commercialization of the holiday. It cost something like $12 for a child to eat with Santa and they weren't given much for that. Nonetheless, my wife worked there at the time (and she said those repeating Christmas shows all day use to drive her crazy since she worked a perfume counter in the Court) and she became a Holly Dolly. Yes, at Santa's breakfast he was accompanied by a bevy of beauties rather than elves. These were supposedly dolls who came to life. On those mornings my wife would ride the subway to work in her Holly Dolly makeup and Baby Doll nightgown costume, a special Christmas treat for the early morning commuters I am sure. My wife, a former model, at nearly six foot tall, had great legs (and yes, that is a mini-skirt she is wearing, the style of the times). 

After the fountain show at Wanamaker's, we would wander slowly down East Market Street, below the wreaths and silver bells and red ribbons hung upon the lampposts, gazing at mechanized displays through display windows. Oh, there is Tiny Tim upon Bob Cratchet's shoulders, or Scrooge cowering before a Spirit. Over there is a round, plump St. Nicholas filling a stocking or a clusters of busy elves building rocking horses in toy land.

Always in front of the Reading Railroad Terminal at Twelfth stood a vendor straight out of Dickens, a somewhat sooted figure with fingerless gloves roasting chestnuts in a large round pan, selling them by the bagful. I wasn't into chestnuts, but I'd probably get a Philly Soft Pretzel at a corner stand or perhaps a hot dog. 

We would hit each department store, all gone now, as we moved to tenth and ninth to the great Gamble's at eighth, where the Thanksgiving Parade ended and Santa Claus would ascend a long ladder upon the back of a fire truck several stories. He would pause and wave, then climb through an open window into his kingdom until Christmas Eve. We would eventually visit him there with our wish list.

But we had Lit Brothers to peruse and Strawbridge & Clothier. There were all these giant electric train displays, little engines sparking at the side and hissing steam from their stacks, on the S-gauge American Flyer two rail (like the real thing) tracks or the O and .027 gauge three rail Lionels. 

There was the Enchanted Village to enchant us and the Magic Lady to wave her wand in greeting, the crowds and smells and chimes and joy of childhood Christmas, ending in the grand finally at Gambles, waiting nervously in line to visit the Big Guy of the jolly laugh and the red suit.

But Christmas wasn't the only time this boy experienced the wonders of Philadelphia. Halfway around the year, six months later came my birthday and on my birthday we made that bus-trolley-elevated-subway trip again. This was my wish, the thing that always topped my birthday list. One year we might go back into history. We would take the tour of Independence Hall to see the neat little chamber of desks each with their quill pens and inkwells and then touch the Liberty Bell. The Bell was inside the Hall in those days and yes, back then they allowed you to touch it. In later years they moved it and today it sits in a glass enclosed shrine of its own.  You are no longer allowed to touch it since they found the many hands were wearing away its surface. Oh, it is so important we not lose our touch on freedom or rub away the surface of liberty itself.

We'd go to Carpenter Hall, to the Marine Museum, to Betsy Ross' house with the thirteen star flag flapping by its door. Once we even made the trek north to 7th and Spring garden Streets where Edgar Allan Poe had once lived. Not a big house and I suppose appropriately gloomy. His beloved young wife and cousin, Virginia Clemm and her mother lived with him along with their tortoise-shell tabby, Catterina. Poe was my inspiration to write poetry and stories and he wrote some of his most famous in Philadelphia, "The Gold-Bug" (the first I had ever read), "Tell-Tale Heart", "Pit and the Pendulum", "The Black Cat" and "The Fall of the House of Usher" among others. It is thought he began "The Raven" there. How could I not go there. I even had my own Poe-ish look in the 1970s when I too lived in Philly as a writer.

It wasn't just the Colonial and Revolutionary or literary history that drew me. It was the museums as well, the majestic Philadelphia Art Museum, looming above those steps later turned into the cliche of running up them to dance with waving arms by the "Rocky" movies. It seemed so vast and sacred with its high-ceiling rooms and echoing halls festooned with the brushstrokes of genius.  
On Logan Square, where the magnificent fountain that cooled the heated youth in summer stood, was the spooky Academy of Natural Science. I could gaze upon Caribou and Mandrills, safely stuffed and mounted behind glass or see the villages of the Lenape recreated or a skull of an Neanderthal. The greatest thrill was to stand beneath the gapping jaws of a bony Tyrannosaurus Rex, which I anticipated with almost as much glee as gazing at the wrapped bodies of long dead Egyptians at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. 

But the piece d'resistance was the Franklin Institute. Outside you were greeted by missiles and rocket ships, inside you were greeted by unlimited invention. There was a giant ball on a giant chain that hung the length of the stairwells swaying over compass points. There were mechanical devices and engineering marvels that you could actual touch and operate. It was like an amusement park for the imagination. It had everything. Eventually it even had a heart, a great big huge heart that actually beated that you could walk through, from ventricle to ventricle. How cool was that! (My wife was to work at the Franklin Institute many years later.)

Built into one side of the Institute was a round building, the Planetarium. You sat in seats that encircled an open floor. In the center of this arena was a great machine like something a mad scientist might use in the Saturday matinee serials at our local theater. It was black and resembled a giant ant reared up on its back legs. But when the place went total black, this ant whirled to life and on the domed ceiling above appear all the majesty of God's universe. Oh, the beauty of these projected night sky stories with their meteorite showers and flashing comets, with rising moons and exploding stars. How could you watch the precision march of the constellations or understand the necessity of distance and gravity that had to be exactly so between suns and planets to hold it all in place, yet still deny the existence of an intelligent Creator? I was in love with astronomy as much as the other sciences I adored as a boy, chemistry and entomology. I bought the museum's books on the stars and had my own backyard telescope. And while at the Institute you could go up to a shed like room at the very top and gaze through a great telescope into space. 

How could a boy not fall in love with the City of Brotherly Love with all these enticements and lures.  I couldn't help myself. I waited with biannual excitement for these trips that were made throughout my childhood years.  But I clasped the city to my breast even more in young adulthood and that is next time.

All photos by the author, except the American Flyer and Lionel ads.


Gigi said...

Oh Larry...I LOVED this post! And far from discouraging me from visiting Philly again (and again and again!) in the future, it just makes me love the City that much more! Thank you for sharing all your photos and memories - it was a fantastic trip!

We always stay right by Reading Terminal Market when we're there...just love that building and all the history. What a sad day when the trains left... :(

satire and theology said...

As a little boy my first memory of Philadelphia (as a Canadian) was of the Philadelphia Flyers. I could not pronounce Philadelphia properly and initially thought the winged wheel of the Detroit Red Wings was the Flyers logo.

I enjoyed New York (somewhat) and Washington and would probably like Philadelphia.

Larry, aka The Kid & The Old Goat said...


You named three of my favorite cities: Philadelphia, Washington and New York. My fourth favorite, although I hve only been there once and that before Katrine , is New Orleans.

What makes these cities my favorites, beside the things to do and see in them, is they are great walking cities and I am a great walker.


Greg said...

Hi, Larry. Just playing catch-up, here. I've never visited Philly, even when we lived in NY State. Definitely worth the trip, for the history alone.

Your recollections about how things used to be are always intriguing.