Two Hours In Philly: Art On Wheels, Part Nine

Writing is a mysterious enterprise, to be sure. Story ideas, characters, themes and other writerly considerations often emerge unexpectedly from neighborhoods of the mind that you barely know about. I find that to be enchanting, to tell you the truth, because the unanticipated, if of the right sort, is nothing but a good thing, no?

Along those lines, little has surprised me more, blog-wise, than the birth of Art On Wheels. Intrepid soul that I occasionally am, I said yes to the proposition when one fateful day in 2017 a from-out-of-the-blue idea — to scour my region for attractively-decorated vehicles and to report on them — came to me. It’s an oddball activity alright, but, as it turns out, has suited me just fine, as I’m into art and also into wandering around while looking at things. So, here we are at edition number nine of the series. Who’d have thunk it? Live and f*cking learn!

For the first seven Art On Wheels stories I did 90% of the wandering via my car and 10% via my feet. I located my victims in the suburbs of Philadelphia, for the most part in loading docks, strip malls and large parking areas. But for part eight of the series, and for this ninth story, I changed my approach: I explored strictly on foot, which is my preferred mode of travel, and, ditching the burbs, opted to see what I would see on the congested streets of Philadelphia.

Not being one who enjoys freezing his ass off or getting soaked to the frigging bone, I selected a sunny and mild day, the 11th of April, for my expedition. Off I went that morning, boarding a choo-choo that transported me from my little town to The City Of Brotherly Love, where I spent two hours pounding the pavement in the Old City section and two neighborhoods to its north — Northern Liberties and Olde Kensington. All three areas indeed are pretty old: Some of the buildings went up during the 1700s and loads date from the 1800s. The 20th and 21st centuries are well-represented too, including present-day creations . . . these neighborhoods have been undergoing a new-housing boom.

But I wasn’t in Philly to concentrate on the structures that cover its soil. As focused as a hungry tiger, and moving briskly along the blocks, I scanned my surroundings carefully for wheeled constructions whose bright colors and/or stylish designs couldn’t be dismissed. I found about a dozen, fewer than I was hoping for, but enough to make my day. The portraits of six of them illustrate this page. Almost needless to say, though, more than one of the fine specimens frustrated the photographer inside of me, as they were in motion when I spotted them. “Stop, you bastard!” I nearly yelled at each of those. But they wouldn’t have obeyed even if I had opened my mouth. Alas, by the time I got my phone’s camera in position to try and immortalize them, they were too damn far away. That’s the way it goes in the big city.

I’ve examined carefully not only the photos I took on the 11th, but my opinions about them too. Initially I’d have said that the Sweetwater Brewing Company truck (above) is untoppable. You don’t run across such attention to detail and such a majestic array of colors too often, do you?

Driver’s side of graffiti truck.
Passenger side of graffiti truck.

However, since then I’ve revised my evaluation. Maybe it’s because I’m in a free-wheeling mood. Maybe it’s because I have the late artists Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler, abstractionists of a high order, on my mind. Whatever the reasons, I now am awarding the gold medal to the truck, painted deliciously with graffiti, that sat on a narrow Olde Kensington street. Its driver’s side is a testament to the power of black on white. The passenger side of the canvas, partially obscured by hand trucks and wood pallets, keeps the black on white motif going, and also explodes with controlled bursts of gold and burgundy. Does this truck belong to one of the construction workers who was hammering away very nearby? Whatever the case, its owner should be proud.

That’s it for now, boys and girls. I’d be glad to hear your thoughts about the works of art on display in this story. Till next time!

Flowering Trees Were Calling Me: A Stroll Through Chestnut Hill

On April 9 of this our present year, I went out in search of signs of spring, which was damn well taking its time in arriving. Though I didn’t come up empty-handed, the cupboard indeed was awfully bare. Naturally, having donned the hat of writer a few years ago, I wrote about the expedition, publishing the story six days later.

In the interim, however, nature began bubbling halfway decently in my region. To wit, two or three days after the 9th I began to spot some flowering trees in bloom. Finally! Spring was coming out from behind the curtains.

Now, I had no particular plans to place a second springtime-related opus into the ethers of cyberspace in 2018. Believe me, more than enough of those bad boys are already up there. But it turns out that I couldn’t resist. Last week’s Monday clinched the decision for me. Conditions-wise the day was ideal. The skies were so blue, my knees went weak looking at them. The temperature was 68°F (20°C), one of my favorite numbers on the dial because it meant that if a stroll around town would cause me to break a sweat, the sweat would flow only minimally. Ergo, a stroll was in order. But where to? I hadn’t been in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia for a while. It’s a large, beautiful area, countrified and quaint and pretty hip. A village unto itself in effect, Chestnut Hill is almost always a good place to pass your time in.

Callery pear tree

At about 2:00 PM I jumped into my trusty 2001 Honda Civic. Eight miles later I was in Chestnut Hill. I was psyched for the impending walk. And I knew what my focus would be, photographically anyway. While enjoying the pleasures of the day I, for no brilliant reason, would take pictures mostly of flowering trees.

Saucer magnolia tree

I spent an hour and a half in Chestnut Hill, walking along all nice and relaxed. Everything was quite peaceful. I heard but one barking dog, unlike in my suburban nook where barks are as common as dandelions. And though lots of cars were on the roads, not a one of their drivers honked within my range of hearing during my excursion. I don’t know, maybe Chestnut Hill is a magnet for good quality canines and humans.

Getting back to spring, it didn’t take long for me to conclude that it had a long way to go. I mean, 90% of the non-flowering deciduous trees (maples, oaks, whatever) had no leaves on them whatsoever, though the budding process was under way.

But the flowering trees were another story. Though there weren’t as many of them as I’d have liked to see (and I assume that all members of the flowering varieties were in fact blooming), there were enough. And I took a good look at every one I passed. Who can resist gentle creations aglow in creamy whites, pretty pinks and other reddish shades? Not me.

Cherry trees on W. Southampton Ave., looking west
Cherry trees on W. Southampton Ave., looking east

One block in particular was a wonderland of sorts. I speak of W. Southampton Avenue. I was heading downhill on Germantown Avenue, the steeply sloped main drag filled with clothing boutiques and restaurants and other shops, when a marvelous mass of white blossoms caught my eye. They were attached to a series of cherry trees that occupy a good bit of W. Southampton, a residential block. I crossed Germantown Avenue and dove into the milky white scene. From Germantown Avenue I hadn’t noticed it, what with my strong case of myopia, but a petal storm was going on. Dropping from the trees in big numbers, petals were floating through the air rhapsodically. Man, it was beautiful. I was all set to lay myself down on the sidewalk and go blissful. But then I remembered that I’m not so good at going blissful. Shit, I knew I should have enrolled in a Zen Buddhism program years ago! You live and you learn. Sometimes.

Well, I snapped some pictures of W. Southampton, hoping like crazy that I’d capture some mid-air petals. If you look closely at the photos that I’ve included you’ll see a few. They and their siblings were a sight.

Saucer magnolia tree

Ah, the mystery of petals. Towards the end of my walk I found myself ambling along a stretch of sidewalk covered with pink ones. They had fallen from a saucer magnolia tree, which nevertheless was still grandly laden with flowers. The next day, at home, I gave a bit of thought to those and the other petals that I’d encountered in Chestnut Hill. So many already were off their trees, even though the trees had been in blossom for less, probably, than two weeks. Seems a shame that the great flowering-tree show comes and goes as quickly as it does. If its design had been left up to me, I’d have commanded that it last for two months or more. A magnificent extravaganza, it’s worthy of that, without question.

Not long after stepping through the carpet of magnolia petals, I found myself back on the block where I’d parked my old Civic. I liked the way my car looked, demure and cute despite the large blotches on its trunk and roof, as it waited patiently for me in front of a small, adorable cherry tree. The tree’s bone-white blossoms contrasted righteously with the Honda’s deep green paint. A photograph of the scene cried out to be taken. A few minutes later I got into the Honda and made my way back to the burbs. A flowery excursion had come to its end.

P.S. I’m indebted to Karen Flick, landscape manager at Philadelphia’s Awbury Arboretum. I’m a nincompoop when it comes to flora. I sent some of my photos to her, and she identified the trees for me.

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