A tad more than four years ago I was inspired to pen a piece for this publication that revolved around beautifully decorated motor vehicles. Pen it I did (click here), not expecting to return to the subject matter multiple times. However, as fate would have it, return I did. Yup, there’s no denying that I get kicks from seeking out and writing about art on wheels.
In each of the previous installments of this ongoing tale, I discovered most of my victims in the suburbs of Philadelphia. That was a matter of convenience, because I’m a suburbanite. However, for the current installment I decided to say “f*ck, no!” to the burbs and say “f*ck, yes!” to the City Of Brotherly Love itself. As a result, on the 16th of August I climbed aboard a train that took me from my little town to the city that I know better than any other.
As summer days go, it was a good one. The temperature was not oppressively hot. More important, the partly cloudy skies were blocking the Sun a good deal, which was absolutely A-OK with me. “And why is that?” you ask. Well, it’s because I instantly begin to sweat my aged ass off when I’m under an unobstructed summer sun!
Arriving in Philadelphia at 10:30 AM, I spent three hours, interrupted by a lunch break, striding along many of its central section’s innumerable blocks. When I began the scouting expedition I wasn’t confident that I’d spot enough good-looking vehicles to illustrate this story adequately. The trucks/vans/buses gods must have been sitting on my shoulders, though, because vehicles of interest entered my field of vision right from the get-go.
The first one I saw came in the form of a Peter Pan interstate bus, which was in the loading area of a bus terminal one block away from the train station that I had exited only minutes earlier. It’s a winner, futuristic in design and hues, and pretty much the epitome of confidence and cool. There’s no doubt in my mind that this bus is not to be messed with. Woe to whomever might even consider the idea.
Then, a minute after taking Peter Pan’s portrait I turned onto Arch Street, where a lovely Rosenberger’s food truck was zipping along. With no time to waste, I pointed my phone’s camera, pressed the button and hoped for the best. Happily, the picture came out clear instead of blurry.
I was on a roll. It continued on 12th Street not long after the Rosenberger’s encounter. There, two impossible-not-to-notice Philadelphia tour buses were parked a few feet apart from one another. Those vehicles are as explosively colorful as just about anything within Philadelphia’s borders. Man, it would be an honor to ride around town, seeing the sights, in either of them.
All in all, I snapped pictures of 15 motor vehicles during my trek. There were a few others I’d have liked to photograph, but they were on the move and eluded me. This page contains the portraits of nine of the fifteen.
The most invigorating aspect of my Philadelphia expedition was its by-chance nature. Shit yeah, it felt good to kick off the shackles of my structured and regimented life for a while and simply move from here to there, as loose as a goose, letting happen whatever might happen. I had no idea in advance where any decorative vehicles might be. And they sure as hell had no idea where I might be. Basically, I was on a very unpredictable treasure hunt without a treasure map in hand.
I was, of course, damn well pleased to locate as many eye-catchers as I did. The final vehicle that posed for me was a snazzy Dynatech van. After that I searched in vain for 20 minutes, and then began to run out of gas. The time had arrived to think about seating myself on a train that would bring me back to my little town.
Philadelphia has made my day so many times over the years (I lived in Philly for about 30 years before heading to the burbs in 2005). Once again it hadn’t disappointed.
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It was appropriate that my pal Mike and I, with my wife Sandy, recently went together to a cinema in the Philadelphia suburbs to see the excellent documentary Apollo 11. I mean, a few months short of 50 years ago Mike and I took a road trip through parts of New England and Canada soon after our college graduations, a trip during which the Apollo 11 mission was very much on our minds and before our eyes.
Mike suggested the journey to me in Roslyn, the Long Island town where we grew up and still lived (Long Island is near New York City). There, in a pizzeria, we bumped into each other after being out of touch during our college days. “Sure, let’s do it,” I said, because, clueless and planless when it came to life’s bigger pictures, there was nothing on my agenda, socially or work-wise, to interfere.
And so, a couple of weeks later off we went in Mike’s bright red Ford Mustang convertible. We had a blast, happily taking in the gorgeous landscapes and seascapes that we encountered. And, as the Mustang racked up the miles, time after time we sang along to Bad Moon Rising, The Israelite, and Spinning Wheel, songs that were glued into heavy rotation on radio stations everywhere that summer.
When July 16, 1969 arrived, somewhere in the province of Quebec we watched Apollo 11 begin its journey. Five days later, at another Quebec location that’s faded from memory, we, along with just about everyone else in the world, saw Neil Armstrong and, some minutes later, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin step out of their lunar module, becoming the first homo sapiens to set foot on the lunar surface. While they did their thing, Michael Collins remained in orbit around the Moon in a command module, awaiting his mates’ return.
Yeah, it’s pretty cool that, half a century later, those two former Long Island boys live a mere 15 miles apart from one another in the Philadelphia burbs, are still tight, and in one another’s company got to think about and talk about their glorious Moon-enhanced road trip from the distant past.
Apollo 11 isn’t your typical documentary. There are no reminiscences by Aldrin and Collins, the mission’s surviving astronauts, nor commentary by other talking heads. What we have here, aside from a few newly-made graphics that demonstrate some of the expedition’s technical aspects, are video and film clips and photographs shot during the mission’s duration by earthbound NASA camera operators (NASA is the American space agency), by cameras attached to the command module and to the lunar module, and by the astronauts themselves. And there’s earlier footage, from 1962, of a speech by John F. Kennedy in which he explains why he thinks that the USA must, and will, go to the Moon.
Todd Douglas Miller, the film’s editor and director, did a hell of a job selecting and piecing together the oceanic amount of material at his disposal. Want to feel as though you’re climbing aboard a rocket, then blasting off, and then cruising along on your way to our cousin in the sky? Not to mention inching around gingerly on the Moon’s granular top layer? Right, who doesn’t? Which is why catching Apollo 11 is a good idea.
I thought that one sequence alone was worth the price of admission. The footage, filmed from the command module, shows the lunar module on its way back from the Moon. The LM’s aim was to dock with the command module which, after jettisoning the LM, would transport the three space travelers the rest of the way back home. A softie, watching the Armstrong-and-Aldrin-inhabited craft draw nearer and nearer to Collins’ vehicle made me go limp with wonder. With the stark and stoic Moon as its backdrop, those hard-to-believe images are more dramatic and beautiful than any ever created for a sci-fi flick.
In all, six space missions placed men on the Moon, the last one in 1972. After a while, I think that people became kind of blasé about them though. Lunar overkill, if you will. Still, the accomplishments were undeniably remarkable. But were they necessary? I lean toward the nay side on that. We’re an inquisitive species, and our brains are big, so we always need to push the envelope, investigating and exploring our asses off. It’s what we do and always have done. Hey, it’s human nature.
And I guess that’s fine where Planet Earth is concerned. But is there really any point to traipsing around elsewhere? Hell, it’s not as if we learned the secrets of the universe by going to the Moon. And we sure as shit won’t learn them by visiting or establishing colonies on Mars, goals that are on the drawing boards for several nations and at least one private company. What’s more, people are people. Meaning, we’re highly emotional creatures with more than our share of less-than-stellar instincts. If Mars were colonized by earthlings, it wouldn’t take long before frustrations, hurt feelings and greediness morphed into feuds and armed conflicts (“Hasta la vista, motherf*cker!” I can hear one good ol’ boy saying to another, 100 years from now. “There ain’t enough room on this miserable red planet for the two of us. Which of these roomy craters do you want to be buried in?”). Can there be any doubt?
None of which is to say that I’m not an admirer of the heavens near and far. I am, and in a pretty big way. I love sitting outside on a clear night, staring up at the Moon, the stars, the planets. A little while ago, taking a break from writing this story, I grabbed a look at the night sky (it’s 10:30 PM on March 27 as I type. Publication date remains up in the air, however). It was magnificent. But, wouldn’t you know? The Moon wasn’t in sight. A tad of googling revealed that it won’t rise till almost 2 AM, by which time I’ll have been snoring away for over an hour. As usual, the universe didn’t consult with me when drawing up its schedule.
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Last week’s Wednesday evening found me in central Philadelphia, wandering its streets on assignment for the publication you’re now gazing at with loving eyes. I walked for several miles, zigzagging within the area bounded by Cherry, Spruce, 9th and 19th Streets, all the while giving my fingers plenty of exercise as I snapped picture after picture of illuminated signs. For that was my mission: To capture images of glowing signs, in much of their variety and in all of their glory, under darkened skies.
The train that I boarded in my suburban town delivered me to Jefferson Station, at 11th and Market Streets, at about 7:30 PM. Not much more than a handful of minutes later, night began to emerge. Only a block north of the station I strode into the city’s compact and enticing Chinatown section. There I took my first photo of the evening. And then another and then another . . . Hey, one of these days I might devote an entire essay to Chinatown. It’s worthy, very much so. But I had miles to go before I slept, or something or other like that, so I gave Chinatown a nice looking-over and then made my way to other parts of town.
The temperature had peaked at around 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35°C) during the day, but was six or seven degrees lower during my mighty walk. Not too bad temperature-wise. Still, conditions weren’t all that great, what with Amazon jungle-like humidity hanging around. Yo, I was sweating like a f*cking pig. But manly man that I am, I motored on uncomplainingly, though if my wife Sandy had been with me I’d probably have been whining to her like a major wuss.
Anyway, the walk pleased me a lot. Not long into it I realized that I was having grand fun. After all, I love to wander. And I love looking at the sights, including cute girls, quite a few of whom passed before my eyes. In fact, loads of people, cute or not, were on the streets with me, engaging in the sorts of activities that humans are prone to engage in: strolling around; checking each other out; heading to or from work; schmoozing with their pals on street corners or at sidewalk restaurant tables; popping in and out of stores and bars. Not surprising, because Philadelphia has got what it takes. It’s big, it’s fascinating, there’s a ton to see and do any time of day. Yup, I could gush some more about the city that I know better than any other in the good ol’ USA, but that previous sentence will do for now.
What I forgot to mention is that I also love to snap photos with my iPhone’s camera. And there were countless opportunities to snap away, so full of lit-up signs is much of The City Of Brotherly Love at night. I pretty easily could have added 150 more to the 53 shots I took, but I limited myself to scenes that rang my bell in a just-so sort of way. And I’ve scattered some of my output, obviously, throughout this essay.
My adventure ended at 9:50 PM, when I went to Suburban Station to catch a train that would transport me to my little town. Fifty minutes earlier though, the night had taken an unexpected turn, an excellent turn that was outside the realm of my assignment’s mission. For heading north on 15th Street, near the corner of Spruce, I spotted a sign that I’ve seen many times over the years. The sign proudly proclaims the existence of a bar that, during the 1980s, I frequented aplenty. McGlinchey’s is its name, and smoky air is part of its game. Yes, Philadelphia has had a no-smoking law in place since 2006, but certain establishments have applied for and been granted exemptions from the clean-air policy. They qualify because only a tiny percentage of their revenues comes from food. McGlinchey’s gobbled up an exemption. Thus it continues to smell almost as bad as a men’s locker room. But it could be worse. I mean, what if the joint smelled almost as bad as a ladies‘ locker room?
Just kidding! Just kidding!
I hadn’t been inside McGlinchey’s for about 30 years, largely because I gave up smoking in the mid-1980s, after which I became less and less keen about cigarette fumes. But the opportunity to revisit a former haunt seemed too ripe to pass up the other night. And so I entered.
Had McGlinchey’s changed? Well, the lights were really dim, unlike the much higher wattage that I recall from the 1980s. And the beer selection was much improved, heavy on the quality sorts of ales that have entered the marketplace in enormous numbers since 1995 or so. But basically you’d have to say that McG’s is, as it was in the era when I dropped by consistently, a dive bar. Hazy, smelly air is all a bar needs to nab that honor. McGlinchey’s contains that variety of air in spades.
I ordered a draft beer, Fuller’s London Pride, a delicious brown ale that came to Philadelphia all the way from, duh, London. It went down my gullet very nicely, thank you. In the middle of my third or fourth sip I snapped out of a second-hand-smoke-induced stupor when I noticed that music was projecting clearly and loudly from speakers above my head. The song was a great one, an obscure number about love and disillusionment. It shot straight to my emotional core. In a million years I’d not have expected Ruby And Carlos, by James McMurtry, to be in McGlinchey’s jukebox.
But I was totally floored by what happened after the final strains of Ruby And Carlos dissolved into the dank air. That’s because the rousing and inspiring Fisherman’s Blues, by The Waterboys, came on. I had to restrain myself from singing aloud. So I mumbled the lyrics quietly to myself as I pulled on my beer. Smoke or not, I was in the right place at the right time. Music heaven, so to speak.
Well, the jukebox went silent after Fisherman’s Blues. I finished my Fuller’s and went back on the streets to do my photographing thing for a while longer. The last shot I took, of the intense red, white and blue of Republic Bank’s signs, is one of my favorites of the night. Soon afterwards, the Warminster line’s 10:05 PM train pulled into Suburban Station. I climbed aboard, my assignment over. I’d had yet another sterling outing in Philadelphia, one that detoured in a direction that I’d never have anticipated.
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(It’s possible that the McMurtry and Waterboys songs that I’ve included won’t play for you. That’s because YouTube has licensing rules that sometimes block music or videos from opening, depending upon where on our planet you reside. If that’s the case in your nation, then you might want to search YouTube (or other sources) to find versions that will work. You won’t be sorry.)
I’m back! Not that I was gone for long. I wasn’t. I was on the road, for only a handful of days, with the Tingling Brothers Traveling Circus, with whom, on a whim, I’d taken a job as an apprentice elephant-dung shoveler. But the elephants ran into visa problems, what with Trump’s new, stringent guidelines, and had to be shipped back to India. End of job.
I apologize for not writing a story last week, and I totally understand the frustrations that my editor Edgar Reewright expressed in the piece that he posted concerning my absence (click here). Seeing that he’s not well-endowed (financially-speaking), he badly missed the paycheck that I neglected to issue to him. I’ve rectified my wrong. Edgar now is back on the books and once again is as happy as a poorly-adjusted, angry middle-aged guy might be expected to be.
With circus life behind me, for today’s sermon I shall turn my attention to the post-Tingling visit that our nephews (20-something Jesse and 30-something Max) paid to me and my wife Sandy. They were with us for a number of days, and we did so many enjoyable things together I’d have to write a 20,000-word opus to cover them. I’m not up to that, being very much low on gas. The circus gig took a lot out of me, you see. I had no idea how heavy elephant crap is. So, in order not to interfere with my current regimen of napping and thumb-twiddling, I’ll focus on merely one highlight — the time that Max and I spent in Philadelphia’s Fishtown section the day before he returned to his home in Texas. Jesse had, by then, gone back to his abode in the Big Apple. And Sandy sat out the Fishtown adventure. “Have fun, boys,” she told us. “I’m staying put. Did I mention that George Clooney will be stopping by the house this afternoon to show me how to operate that needlessly complicated Nespresso coffee- brewing machine he peddles on the boob tube?” She hadn’t.
But, f*ck Clooney. Fishtown was calling, and Max and I headed its way, arriving there around 12:30 in the PM. We wandered for close to two hours, checking out this, that and the other thing, and had a low-key kind of blast. Not everyone, I’ve discovered over the years, is into open-ended strolling such as this, which is why my meanderings often are done by my lonesome. But Max is. Which proves, I’d say, that sometimes a great mind (Max’s) and a middling one think alike.
Fishtown, for sure, isn’t a knock-your-socks-off kind of neighborhood, but it has its charms. Unlike downtown Philadelphia, which is only two miles away, there are no tall buildings or crowds of workers and tourists to gaze at. But I’m a sucker for narrow, twisting streets and for houses, churches and factories that went up between the mid-1800s and early 1900s, and for calm, gracious neighborhood parks. Fishtown’s got plenty of those items. Not to mention a supply of new housing and restaurants and taverns and music venues to accommodate the millennials who discovered Fishtown earlier this century and have been changing it for the better. But none of the newer stuff is overdone, at least not yet, which is why you don’t see all that many people on Fishtown’s streets in the afternoon. The neighborhood hasn’t lost its small-town feel, and that’s a good thing.
We began our expedition at the corner of Frankford and Girard Avenues, in front of Johnny Brenda’s, the tavern cum rock music club that set Fishtown’s rebirth in motion after Brenda’s opened in 2003. At that corner I had a brainstorm. I asked Max if he’d like to use my iPhone to take photos of whatever caught his eye as we made our way around the neighborhood. And that, if he did, I’d use some of them to illustrate a story I’d write about our day together. “Great idea,” he said, ripping the phone out of my hand. I’m going to sue him for bruising my pinky. Little had I known that Max is a photo-taking fiend. He, with his pix-snapping right index finger in tow, bopped through Fishtown happily and giddily. Dozens and dozens of shots were added to the phone’s memory that afternoon.
I culled through the images a few days later. What you see, then, on this page is Fishtown as Max saw it. He peered at lots of things, big and small, and framed them well in his photos. Store signs, well-aged streets, new home construction, a house one side of which is covered with an astonishing mass of ivy, . . .
Max was drawn to hip color arrangements, to the nifty contrasts formed by buildings near to one another, and to the unexpected. And he asked me to make sure I included the selfie he snapped of us and Homer Simpson outside a store on Frankford Avenue. I don’t look all that good in said picture, but what the hell. Candid photography is where it’s sometimes at.
When Max next visits us, he and I probably will scout out another section of Philadelphia that’s off the touristy trail. Maybe an area that I, who despite having lived in or near Philadelphia for 40+ years of my adult life, barely know. Such as Port Richmond or Kensington. It’ll be fun. And, no doubt, will be documented by he and I.
(Photos by Max Scheinin. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window)
When you’re comparing physical challenges, walking across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, in both directions, ain’t exactly on a par with scaling Mount Everest. Or bungee jumping off the rim of the Grand Canyon. Or even playing a round of golf, for crying out loud, assuming you’re walking (instead of riding) the course and hauling around your bag of clubs on your very own shoulders. But in my little world, tackling the BFB is challenging enough. Well, maybe it’s not all that challenging. But it’s certainly different. And I knocked it off my do-it-already list last week. That list now has only 897 items on it. If I am reincarnated enough times I’ll get to most of them. Unless, that is, I come back over and over again as a sloth. Which, if it happens, wouldn’t surprise me.
Walking the bridge was an idea that appealed to me the moment I heard about it, which was a few months ago on a late-night local television show. “Yeah,” I thought to myself, “that’s right up my alley. I’ll get some fresh air. I’ll see some sights from a new perspective. And it’s something, I suppose, that not all that many people do. I’m ready to go!” But I ended up waiting till winter said goodbye and pleasing temperatures arrived. When the 3rd of May rolled around, with its expected high of 65°F, I hopped aboard a train that took me from my suburban town into downtown Philadelphia. I arrived in the city in the early afternoon.
The Ben Franklin Bridge, a massive and profoundly complex structure, as suspension bridges by nature are, opened for business in 1926. It spans the Delaware River, in effect eliminating that watery divide between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The bridge’s bases are in Philadelphia and Camden, cities occupying territory in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, respectively. To reach the bridge’s pedestrian walkway (the bridge has walkways along its northern and southern lengths, but only the southern one currently is open), I passed Christ Church Burial Ground, at the corner of 5th and Arch Streets, where none other than Mr. Franklin himself is laid to rest. And then, 100 feet later, I strolled past the hulking United States Mint. Philadelphia is full of unexpected, wacky juxtapositions like that, which is one reason I like the city so much.
Half a block north of the mint I began my bridge adventure, for it is there that elevated lanes, for humans with motorized vehicles and for those without, start their ascent. Those lanes are segregated, though the walk sure would be highly intriguing, not to mention truly challenging, if they weren’t. I might run that notion past Philadelphia’s and Camden’s mayors. I’d never noticed the walkway before, despite having been in its vicinity half a million times over the years. It is there plain as day.
First thing I realized was that I should have worn more than a light shirt beneath my light jacket, because the winds were blowing pretty damn good, chilling my semi-ancient bones to a degree I wasn’t thrilled with. The second thing I realized was that within a matter of seconds I was 15 or more feet above ground. I looked to my right and watched a construction crew clearing the ground for what will eventually hold a fancy condo or rental complex. Who’d want to live beside a bridge’s entrance ramps is beyond me, but lots of things are beyond me.
At this point I had the equivalent of eight or so blocks-worth of walkway to navigate before reaching the Delaware River’s western shoreline. The views were wonderful. I looked down upon 3rd Street, 2nd Street, Front Street and others, all of which I’m very familiar with and which were part of Philadelphia’s heart in its colonial days. Those are beautiful and quaint arteries, as many colonial era buildings remain there. But from high up I wasn’t paying attention to any specific structures. What grabbed me were the wild patterns, the crazy quilt formed by building sides and rooftops and signage in this non-high-rise section of the city.
By the time I reached the water’s edge I was 140 or thereabouts feet above both ground and water. The Delaware is about half a mile wide here. I watched a ship heading south on the river and, if I had been wearing one, would have held onto my hat as the winds did their thing. And I looked out at Camden, a depressed city that is trying to bounce back. It’ll be years, maybe never, before Camden is invited to any C-list, let alone A-list, parties.
On I trod, crossing the river and entering the area above Camden’s lands. Despite the winds I was enjoying the trek. Patches of blue played peekaboo with the clouds and it felt good to give my legs a very good stretch.
I stopped to admire the sights many times during the journey, to smell the roses as those wiser than me say, but between those moments of quasi-bliss I maintained a pretty brisk walking pace. Cars and trucks by the shitloads whizzed by in their delegated lanes 20 feet below the pedestrian walkway, but not a lot of humans shared space with me on the avenue I’d chosen. During the hour and a half that I spent on the bridge I encountered no more than 30 people. Like me, most of them were lone wolves out for a stroll or perhaps on their way to work or to home. A few cyclists passed me, as did half a dozen joggers. And I saw two couples enjoying the day with their leashed dogs. For the most part, though, I had the bridge to myself. It was a fine place in which to space out a bit, to tune into good frequencies, to haul out that sense of adventure that I don’t want lying dormant for extended periods of time.
On the eastward leg of the journey I stopped just a bit short of the stairway that brings one down to Camden’s soils and asphalt. There I turned around and started back to where I had entered the walkway in Philadelphia, a mile and a half away. Much to my amazement, a bicyclist surprised me on the middle of the bridge. He was a scraggly-haired, middle-aged guy. He slowed down beside me. “Can you help me out?” he asked. “I need some money to get the train to Doylestown.” Doylestown? Was he really planning to board a train, with his bike, going to Doylestown, which is 30 miles from where we were? It hardly mattered. I figured it wasn’t a great idea to piss off someone on the middle of a bridge, what with nobody else within eyesight or earshot. I reached into my back pocket and pulled out my coins. “Here’s all the change I have,” I said. “It’ll help you a little.” He thanked me and went on his way.
Can’t say I’ve been hit up before by a panhandler on a bridge. Then again, I haven’t walked upon many bridges in my life. Maybe panhandlers are common sights on spans with heavy pedestrian traffic, such as the Brooklyn Bridge. Anyway, before too long I reached the BFB’s western terminus. I’d had a fine time. On to the train station I headed to catch a ride back home.
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For the last seven years I’ve had a Tuesday morning volunteer gig at a suburban Philadelphia hospital’s medical office building. There, I man the information desk from eight o’clock till noon, helping people locate their doctors’ offices, the cleverly hidden restrooms, and ATMs so that they can pay to get out of the cash-only parking garage behind the building. Incredible to me, it seems to be de rigueur for lots of folks these days to carry nary a dollar on their persons. Plastic rules, except at the parking garage. Wouldn’t you know it, though? . . . there isn’t an ATM in the garage or the medical building. So, off on a two-block trek to the closest ATM the short-on-cash folks depart.
I was at my post last Tuesday, the 11th of April. Looking through the lobby windows I could tell that the Sun was blazing away deliriously. My iPhone said that the high for the day would be 83°F. Yeah man, that sounded fine to me, a non-Sun-worshipping guy who normally isn’t thrilled when the thermometer climbs above 74 degrees. But after all the rains we’d had in recent weeks I was psyched for a bright, overly-warm spring day.
I wasn’t alone in that feeling. Inside the medical building two humans of the male variety were taking their cues from our winged friends that undoubtedly were chirping away merrily outside. I heard one of the patients singing freely and loudly as he entered the elevator, on his way to get checked out in an upper-level doctor’s office. And I heard another whistling a happy tune as he exited the building through the main door 20 feet from the information desk. His doctor must have given him a good report. Good golly, Miss Molly, there and then I decided to have a look that afternoon at how spring was shaping up in my neck of the woods. I would be in search of colors.
I was possibly, even probably, wrong, but for a couple of weeks I’d been thinking that spring was taking its good old time unfolding in the Philadelphia region. I could have sworn that in most years, for instance, masses of forsythia were showing off their yellows by early April and that flowering trees were ablaze aplenty. But I’d noticed not too much activity so far in 2017 during my drives through the burbs, though I hadn’t really been paying strict attention to the situation for the last four or five days. “Let’s see if things are starting to get more colorful out there,” I said to myself. “I’m ready to be impressed.”
And so I spent an hour and a half in early afternoon wandering, on foot, in three of my town’s neighborhoods, including my own. These are modest areas filled with no-nonsense homes from the last century’s early and middle sections. Things are neat and tidy here, but usually not exactly eye-grabbing. But when cherry and dogwood trees and azaleas and rhododendrons and all the rest open their floodgates, watch out! The streets then, for me anyway, rise above snooziness. Charm and loveliness take over.
Alas, I’m here to report that not much out of the ordinary was happening color-wise on April 11. Bummer, indeed. In fact, many streets hadn’t escaped from their leafless winter doldrums, though here and there some trees were beginning to sprout delicate, new leafage. As expected, there were plenty of greens to be seen — lawn grasses and evergreen trees. And there was no shortage of browns, obviously, what with tree trunks all over the place. But soft colors that make you ooh and ah, and vivid colors that go pow? Well, some cherry trees were in bloom, and a smallish number of azalea bushes were festooned with flowers tinted in strong lavender, and a far-less-than-I-expected quantity of forsythia were unfurling their yellows, and . . . that was about it. There even was a shortage of revved-up flower beds.
And yet I strolled in a contented mood. I don’t go out for walks anywhere near often enough, so the excursion put some purpose into my footsteps. I investigated block after block, taking pictures, neck craned and eyes darting everywhere in quest of color. I was surprised by how few people I passed, other than four dog walkers. Where was everybody? “Yo, genius,” a little voice inside my head muttered, “half the people are either at work or in school. And most of the others probably are at the mall, at Macy’s. Macy’s is having an incredible two-hour sale on underwear: Buy one and get six free. Genius, you’ve been wearing the same briefs for the last 15 years. Raggedy doesn’t begin to describe them. Do your balls a favor and head to Macy’s now.”
Thus, I hurried to my car, snapping the last of my photos. Macy’s, not Nature’s hues, called! Maybe in a future article I’ll report on the degree of shopping success I encountered at the mall. The world, I know, anxiously awaits that information. In any case, I’ll wind up these proceedings by saying that I hope you have enjoyed the photographs that I’ve placed on this page. Though my springtime adventure wasn’t a 10 (hell, it was more like a 4), I managed to document some decently lovely and colorful vegetative sights. Next year, perhaps, I’ll improve my timing and write a piece about spring in all its glory.
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Regular readers of this publication (there are at least three or four of you, which is a hefty increase from the one or two who were tuning in a year ago) might be sick of hearing me extol Cape Cod. You know what? Sue me. I traipse through life under numerous aliases, so you’ll never track me down.
This, then, is another story revolving around The Cape, a locale that I and my wife Sandy most favor. We find Cape Cod to carry a pretty perfect combination of attributes and personality traits. Overall it is scenically beautiful, which is why we spend much time outdoors, way more than we do back home. And, if you know where to go, you’ll find expansive and mostly undeveloped shoreline and forested and sand dune areas that are far beyond beautiful. Awe-inspiring and majestic are words I’d use to describe those sections, especially the Outer Cape’s long stretches of sand cliff-backed ocean coastline and crazily huge dunes. What’s more, Cape Cod is nicely doused with cute villages, good art galleries and museums, small theater companies and plenty of cinemas and restaurants. All of this is right up my and Sandy’s alleys. We’re at ease, wowed and highly entertained on Cape Cod.
We were on Cape Cod for a spell earlier this month, based in a somewhat secluded part of Orleans, one of The Cape’s 15 townships. The Atlantic Ocean, which paws at and sometimes pounds CC’s eastern border, was near our rented house. Ditto for the endless extent of sands that goes hand-in-hand with the ocean. In other words, double duh, the beach. I’ve racked up many miles of hiking and strolling on Orleans’ share of the ocean beach over the years, and also on the portions within the boundaries of other Cape townships such as Wellfleet and Truro.
Normally when I’m out on Cape Cod’s sands (be they beside the ocean or Cape Cod Bay or Nantucket Sound) or poking around in its forests and marshlands, I don’t particularly like seeing or being aware of fellow humans. Sandy excluded, I hasten to add. That’s because I’m a misanthrope and also because my delicate psychological relationship with Mother Nature is easily disturbed. Not to mention my delicate psychological relationship with myself. Luckily for me, normally Sandy and I don’t come in contact with many others on our expeditions. In summer, when Cape Cod swarms with frolickers, that wouldn’t be the case. But the hordes of humanity significantly diminish in the off-season, which is when Sandy and I do our Cape thing.
Our first full day on Cape Cod this month was the Friday of Columbus Day weekend. A good way to inaugurate our latest Cape trip, we decided, would be to head to Nauset Beach, a part of Orleans’ coastline that has been tamed a
bit in its central section so that people can get their beach fixes. There’s the mandatory big parking area, the restrooms and showers, a seafood stand. And not much else, actually, besides trillions of grains of sand and trillions of gallons of H2O and millions of blades of beach grasses. No boardwalk, no amusements. Which pleases me. And no sand cliffs, which doesn’t, Nauset Beach being a tad south of the Outer Cape.
In the summer Nauset Beach is congested. Otherwise, usually not. On the Friday in question Sandy and I were surprised, but shouldn’t have been, to see quite a few vehicles in the parking lot. And quite a few people, hardly a mob but maybe 125 or so, scattered around Nauset Beach’s miles-long length. Hey, why not? Columbus Day weekend is a Cape draw. And the day was perfect. Mild, sunny, a light breeze coming off the waters. And, much to my amazement, I was glad to be among those folks. It happens sometimes.
Everyone was calm and quiet. Small brigades of my brethren were cemented into beach chairs, staring trancelike at the ocean waves. Others practiced multitasking. Sandy and me, for instance. We walked the sands, gazing downward at human footprints and canine pawprints, upward at the clear blue sky and outward at the eight to ten foot waves rolling relentlessly to shore. During our journey we came across beaucoup people out for a jaunt with their canine friends. Two couples led dogs almost as large as they were. Perhaps the creatures were ponies. I’m not sure. Wait, on second thought they definitely were dogs. I heard them bark, not neigh.
What is it about sand, sky and indescribably massive bodies of water that attract people like ants drawn to carelessly disposed and half-eaten Slim Jims? A few hours after leaving Nauset Beach that question came to me and, predictably, I had no bright answers. It’s quite the phenomenon, though, a natural part of human behavior as far as I can tell. Maybe it has something to do with our links to our fishy ancestors who eons ago inhabited Planet Earth’s liquid stuff. Whatever, I love staring out at Cape Cod’s waters and scampering on its shorelines. I can’t keep away. Invisible forces from within and without bring me there. It amazes me that I used to have no clue that this innate attraction was lurking inside me waiting to bloom. I found out only when Sandy and I hit The Cape for the first time in 1998.
After an hour and a half of beach-meandering we headed back to our car to retrieve our picnic lunch. A gourmet meal of yogurt, grapes, pretzels and seltzer awaited us. We ate it at one of the tables outside the seafood stand and then drove off for some sightseeing in the historic core of Orleans village. The first adventure of our Cape Cod 2016 sojourn was in the books.
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We went, we saw, we had a very swell time overall, and then we came home. The end.
There’s something to be said for conciseness, don’t you agree? And maybe if I were more courageous than I am I’d write not another word beyond the 18 contained in the two masterful sentences above. But my fingers, God help them, are itching to type, so I’ll bag that idea for now. In fact, I’m going to try and bite off more than I normally can handle, by turning my wife Sandy’s and my recent visit to Paris and Amsterdam into a three-part blogging extravaganza. I’ve noted before on these pages that I have trouble enough producing one-parters. Wish me luck.
Let’s begin. In many ways I’m a lucky individual. And I don’t take my good fortune for granted. Throughout my adult life, for instance, I’ve done a fair amount of traveling. In the earlier of those years I somehow wandered far and wide with not much more than a few bucks in my pockets. During the last three decades they have been more fully filled with cash (and plastic). Regardless of my financial situation, though, I’ve never ceased to be amazed that I’m able to leave the home environment and rev my motor in other parts of the world. And for my money you can’t do a whole lot better than to frolic in Paris and Amsterdam. Great cities both. Beautiful cities both. And Sandy’s and my week-and-a-half-long sojourn there earlier this month came with a special bonus. Namely, we spent most of the expedition with our très magnifique pals Alan and Martine.
Martine and Alan live in Paris. Have a lovely home in the city’s heart. And they not only put up with us, they put us up. I guess they like us because, after four days of that, they hopped aboard an Amsterdam-bound train with Sandy and me. The four of us spent several days bopping around that canal-laced city until the scheduled time arrived for the Parisians to return home. Alan! Martine! Don’t abandon us! We’ll be lost without you! But Sandy and I showed ’em. Yeah, maybe we stumbled and fumbled a bit, but we sure as shootin’ had three more Amsterdam days heavily sprinkled with fun. Amsterdam, I miss you. A lot.
Now, Sandy and I had been to Paris before. We’d seen most of the must-sees and plenty of the less-noticed sights too, such as the building in which Vincent van Gogh crashed with his brother Theo for two years in the 1880s. This time around we decided to let things flow organically, whatever that means. And to try and spend lots of time just strolling around, taking in the views and vibes in as unpressured a manner as we could. Sure, we couldn’t resist going to a couple of museums (The Orangerie, The Marmottan Monet), and we had a sweet dinner in a quintessentially Parisian eatery (Le Petit Colbert), the type that natives frequent. But walking is what we did the most of. Miles and miles of it. All over central Paris, on both sides of the Seine. And beyond. The entire time, indoors and out, Martine and Alan accompanied us. They are expert tour guides and really, really good sports.
What can I say about Paris that hasn’t already been said? Nothing much, pardner. But that won’t stop me. I mean, I’ve got blog stories to create. First, if you haven’t been and have the means, you should go. As everyone knows, Paris’ appeal isn’t simply its gorgeousness . . . the city is intriguing too. Streets come together at odd angles, a wonderful idea. Many sidewalks are narrow, an example of quaintness of which I approve. And seemingly every block has alluring buildings you’d like to live in, bistros whose tables are just made for sipping espressos beside, and perfect, little shops loaded with foods better than you’re likely to find at home. The pastries, the breads, the cheeses. Did somebody say breads? I live in suburban Philadelphia, and I know of only one place within five miles of my house where I can buy a crusty, flavorful rustic loaf of bread. Yo, when’s the next flight back? I need to be around people who know how to bake the staff of life.
And there’s a soul-satisfying uniformity in scale and color to much of Paris that I’d forgotten about. Most of Gay Paree’s buildings are from the 1700s and 1800s and about seven levels high and made from beige-colored limestone. Talk about a charming and serenity-inducing look. I couldn’t get enough of it. I wallowed in its aura.
It would be a mistake for me to end my brief Parisian recap without mentioning the big guns for which the city is famed. For starters: The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Seine, the unreally-huge Louvre Museum. To first-time visitors I’d say you’d do well to examine them thoroughly, though, to be honest, you easily could live without stepping foot within the Louvre.
A snap of the fingers later, Sandy and I and our friends found ourselves in Amsterdam. I’d been there about 30 years ago, though my pigeon-like brain has forgotten many details of the experience. Sandy never had been. I’ve got to tell you, this is a place where I’d be happy and content as a clam to live. And the fact that there wouldn’t be a language problem is a plus, as Amsterdammers speak English in addition to their native tongue. I kept looking around and exclaiming to myself and to whomever else in the party was nearby: “I love this city.”
What’s not to love? Amsterdam looks great. Most of the houses, many of which overlook canals, are cozy and cute and entertainingly gabled. Generally they stand five levels above ground and are constructed of bricks. And they are not new, the majority having been erected between 1500 and 1900. I like being in places that look pretty much the same as they did hundred of years ago. And the canals? Man, they crisscross the city gently yet semi-riotously. And their prettiness can not be exaggerated. As in Paris, the four of us walked and walked and walked. Very happily. And when we got tired of walking we climbed aboard Amsterdam’s trams, which make navigating the city a breeze.
Amsterdam is relatively compact, meaning that you can make it to pretty much anywhere on foot, though some treks might take you an hour and a half. There aren’t a ton of cars on the streets, and that’s because Amsterdammers are bicycle-crazed. Practically everyone owns a bike and uses it to get around. I’d heard about the bicycle scenario, and it was a gas witnessing it. Bicycles, bicycles everywhere, loads in operation, many more attached to bike racks, bridge railings, trees, you name it. You gotta watch out where you’re going or you might get smacked by a bike. One evening, Martine received a double dose of near-trouble. It’s easy to become distracted by the loveliness surrounding you in Amsterdam, and that’s what happened to her. Stepping off the sidewalk into the narrow street bordering a canal, she nearly got clipped by a car. Half a minute later, at the same spot, a bicyclist almost broadsided her. But I’m giving the wrong impression. Back to Amsterdam’s magnetic powers.
The Fearsome Foursome hit some of the famed sites together (Anne Frank House, Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum) and took a groovy canal boat tour of the city. And after Alan and Martine hightailed it back to Paris, Sandy and I poked around neighborhoods and other spots, such as the city’s botanical gardens and zoo and the Stedelijk Museum, an astonishingly good modern art repository. Then, before we knew it, the time approached for us to head to the airport and return home. But I can’t wind things up without mentioning two subjects: marijuana and prostitutes. Amsterdam is famed for both, as cannabis use and prostitution are legal, within boundaries, in this enlightened and welcoming city. And they undoubtedly help make for an atmosphere real attractive to millennials (residents and visitors alike), who fill Amsterdam’s streets in uncountable numbers.
Now, seeing the prostitutes was kind of cool. They have set up shop on a smallish enclave of blocks in what’s known as the Red Light District, which my group toured on a Sunday afternoon. Barely dressed, the ladies stood in full view behind ground level doors and windows in what I assume used to be normal residences. My eyes, and those of my companions, were popping. Needless to say, I didn’t come close to indulging.
But marijuana was another story. Me, I haven’t had a toke in about 30 years. And boy was I tempted to resume the habit temporarily. After dinner on the day we arrived, Alan and I strode into one of the town’s numerous marijuana parlors, all of which, for reasons I don’t know, are called, incongruously, coffee shops. Alan strictly was an observer. The place looked like a Greenwich Village beatnik hangout. Lights were low, tables were small and occupied, and the air was filled with second-hand marijuana smoke. Inhaling deeply, I started to feel a bit of a buzz. I walked to the counter and sized up what’s what. Gazing at a menu, I saw that various strains of grass were available. The least potent varieties were described as strong. The most powerful were guaranteed to get you incredibly high. Prices for one ounce ranged, I think, from 10 to 15 euros. Not too expensive at all. One of the two girls behind the counter suggested to me that getting stoned after years of abstinence would be a terrific idea. I looked at Alan and pondered the situation. I breathed in the second-hand smoke hungrily. My buzz got slightly stronger. In the end, though, nerd that I am, I chickened out.
To be continued, if the stars align themselves properly.
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I woke up one weekday morning not long ago with visions of Philadelphia swirling in my mind and beckoning me. Amorphous visions, but colorful. I hadn’t done much city exploration in awhile. Hadn’t taken a long and leisurely stroll anywhere in awhile. What’s more, the weather prediction was highly favorable: warm, sunny and breezy. A walk was in order. And so, a few hours later in my suburban Philadelphia home, I closed my eyes, clicked my heels together three times and thought beautiful thoughts about the City Of Brotherly Love. Next thing I knew I was standing at the corner of 2nd and South Streets, part of a funky area not far from the Philadelphia waterfront and some of the city’s oldest residential blocks. Let the adventure begin.
The hike took nearly four hours. I trod, often guided by whimsy, on many blocks within the rectangle formed by 2nd, Bainbridge, Broad and Arch Streets. At the start I didn’t have much of an idea of what my route would be. But this much I knew: I wanted to stretch the ol’ legs, inhale Philadelphia’s quasi-clean air and feel the wind caressing my thinning hair. And this too I knew: I wasn’t in the mood to check out any historical or touristy sites, or anything with the connotation of trendy attached to it, all of which Philadelphia is loaded with. But it wasn’t to be an aimless ramble. No way. When I landed at 2nd and South Streets, I had in mind a theme for the day, inspired by the colorful visions from earlier in the morning. I was going to look for sharp and snazzy outdoor color displays produced by the hands of man, not by nature. It was a modest quest, probably kind of a dumb one. But hey, I’m that kind of guy.
Things got off to a slow start. I looked all around the 2nd and South Streets vicinity and the only colorful things I could find were Fez Restaurant’s facade and a happy, yellow ghoul, dressed in red, outside Las Bugambilias, a Mexican eatery. Still, I figured that the South Street corridor — not as happening a part of town as once it was, but hanging in there fairly well — offered a decent chance to come across more than that. And I was right.
At 3rd and South I said to myself, “Wow, look at that mural.” It was painted on the side of the out-of-business and mourned Mako’s Retired Surfers Bar And Grill. A guy on a surfboard, a girl leaning against a fat-tire car, all done in sweet pastel hues. Lovely. And didst my eyes deceive me? Directly across the street from the former Mako’s was another mural, this one depicting the torso of a fiddle-playing, electric-haired madman inside yellow and black concentric rings. None other than Philadelphia native Larry Fine, one of The Three Stooges. Yeah, man, now we were getting somewhere.
A little while ago I alluded to the fact that I’m no genius. Proof? I shouldn’t have been surprised to see the murals at 3rd and South, because I’d seen them before, though not in recent years. What’s more, I somehow also had forgotten that Philadelphia is the outdoor mural capitol of the world, thanks to Mural Arts Program, a public/private organization born in 1984. Incredibly, over 3,000 MAP- created works grace Philadelphia. No doubt, Mural Arts Program is one of the good guys. It aims to beautify all neighborhoods (from dilapidated to swank), to employ many folks in need of work and encouragement, and to inspire the general population. Big goals, all reached as far as I can tell.
Well, I haven’t been able to determine if MAP was behind the painting on Mako’s side wall. But Larry Fine wouldn’t be overlooking South Street were it not for MAP, nor would two other murals that I later saw on my trek be in existence. Of those, the first I came to is attached to Engine Company 11, a firehouse at 6th and South Streets. It’s a magnificently imposing creation titled Mapping Courage. It honors W.E.B. Du Bois, the Black scholar and leader, and the firehouse itself, which for years was manned only by African Americans. The mural is beautifully designed, shining in browns and ambers that allow its few bright colors to pulsate.
An hour later, on Pine Street near 13th, I stumbled upon the mural known as Spring. Yowza, this one stunned me too. Look at those soft whites and butterscotch shades of the flowering foliage. How totally cool it was that real trees, in bloom, nearly were melting into the painted surface.
You know, somewhere in the middle of my expedition I realized something that never had dawned on me before. Namely, despite the murals that gas things up on certain blocks, most of Philadelphia’s residential streets, beautiful and architecturally rich as many are, sure appear tame when it comes to color. This ain’t exactly a news flash to the oceans of people more observant than I, but it’s true. And it’s largely because of bricks, bricks, bricks, the quintessential and earth-toned building blocks of Philadelphia. Bricks are sturdy, bricks are quaint, bricks have been with us humans for thousands of years. But man, I can understand how someone might decide that a brick-dominated landscape needs to be jazzed up. Someone named Isaiah Zagar, for example.
Soon after my walk began, a few minutes after I metaphorically tipped my hat to the Mako’s and Larry Fine murals, I started to come upon some unusually decorated homes, first on Leithgow Street, just off of South. And then on many other blocks near or on South. I had never seen these exterior wall decorations before, hadn’t known about them. They were something else, kaleidoscopic, multi-colored mosaics made from pieces of tile and glass. The design similarities got me wondering if one person had done all the work. I had a vague knowledge of mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar. I knew that he lived in the area and that he had established something called Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. Were these freewheeling creations his? A bit later I learned that the answer was yes, and that he had begun adorning buildings quite a few years ago.
I suppose that Zagar obtained the permissions of homeowners before going wild on their domiciles. Or maybe he didn’t. Whatever. Unembellished bricks (and other stones), goodbye! Colors and designs up the wazoo, hello! Zagar’s mosaics put me in mind of native art from South America and Africa, of children’s art, of what cave paintings from 20,000 years ago might have resembled if their creators had been high on pot. Anthropomorphic faces and figures abound. Psychedelic cellular shapes look determined to escape their confines. Words like dance and celebrate and dream are embedded in the mosaics. Zagar is a positive thinker, a lover of life and, I assume, one hip cat.
Zagar’s greatest creation is Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, a multi-level indoor and outdoor mosaic extravaganza, an arts center and a head trip that has become a go-to attraction for tourists and locals. He began work on it in 1994 in what then were abandoned lots, and endured some legal battles years later with the lots’ owners. In the end, creativity and social justice prevailed. PMG, an incorporated non-profit, opened to the public around 10 years ago. It’s at 1020 South Street. I caught a few peeks of PMG, grabbed a brochure from the admission desk and confirmed there that Zagar is the guilty party behind the glorification of the South Street corridor. But I didn’t want to interrupt my hike by entering the Magic Gardens. I’ll get back there some day and will drop my report within this blog. For now, this travelogue will end with photos of some of Zagar’s handiworks. If you click on any of them, or on any other photo in this article, a larger image will open.