Fishtown (As Seen Through Max’s Eyes)

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)

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A Big Apple Day

Is New York City the apple of my eye? Well, once it was. I spent who knows how many hundreds (thousands?) of hours in one or another of its five boroughs while growing up on Long Island. And after moving to Philadelphia in the mid 1970s, to start what became a 34-year career in government work, I made pretty frequent trips to NYC, 10 or 15 each year. I was pulled there magnetically by its museums, architecture, music clubs, gracious and spacious parks, and streets just made for strolling and girl-watching. Nobody needs me to tell them that the Big Apple is one of the coolest kids on the planet. It has been for, what . . . at least 100 years?

But, for one reason or another, those Philly-to-NYC visits became less and less common when the early 1990s rolled around, petering out to a mere one every few years. Incredibly, New York City, with which I’d had the cuddliest of relationships, faded gently from my mind. “New York, wait for me! You’ve meant the world to me! I’ll be back semi-regularly, I promise. Hell, you’re only 100 miles away,” is what I should have felt and said. But I didn’t. Man, if you’d have told me before then that such ever would become the case, I’d have had you committed.

This, then, is where Dave, one of my greatest pals, enters the story that you’re reading. He, like me, used to be a Long Islander. We became friends there in high school, during the Middle Ages. And he used to love NYC. These days, though, the city’s hustle and bustle does a superb job of frazzling Dave’s nerves. He ain’t in love with NYC anymore.

Still, Dave, who took up residence on the West Coast 40 years ago, visits New York now and then, despite the jittery situation with his nerves. I guess he’s a masochist. And one of those now-and-then occasions occurred recently. “Yeah, I’ll see you there,” I told Dave when he informed me of his impending eastward trip. Thus, two Saturdays ago I headed north from my home in the Philly burbs to hang out with Dave for half a day in the greatest of the famed metropolis’ five boroughs. Manhattan.

We met where 42nd Street and Broadway colorfully come together. In other words, at the bottom end of Times Square. And for the next four hours we graced various neighborhoods, and Central Park, with our dynamic presences. Though on the cusp of age 70, we strode the streets like the titans we vaguely once were. And vaguely still are. Gorgeous girls couldn’t keep their eyes off of us the other day. Isn’t that right, Dave?

“Damn straight, Neil,” Dave just told me. “Damn f**king straight! Even though it could be that our 20/80 visual acuity distorted our view of things just a little bit.”

Speak for yourself, Dave. I know what I know.

Here’s how we spent our time together: We shot the breeze vigorously, catching up on each other’s doings. And we walked and walked and walked while shooting that breeze. And when we got tired of walking we sat on boulders in Central Park, and a little after that on chairs in a snazzy restaurant near the park’s southwestern corner.

What’s more, we didn’t have any interest in taking in any famous sights, though we saw some anyway (such as Carnegie Hall, Columbus Circle and horse-drawn carriages in Central Park). You can’t not see them in this history lesson of a city. To repeat, then, what’s already been said: Yapping, wandering, eating and girl-watching proved to be the items on our agenda.

The time flew by, as sometimes it does, and around 3:30 PM Dave and I said our goodbyes. He needed to go back to his hotel and start getting ready for the wedding that had brought him to NYC in the first place. One of his friend’s daughters was about to get hitched.

But my bus wouldn’t be leaving for an hour and a half. I had time to kill. And what better way to do that than to stroll along some of the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, the Garment District and Times Square. Those nifty sections of the city run into each other, and would keep me close to the Port Authority bus terminal, from which my Philadelphia-bound ride was scheduled to depart.

Which brings us to the final topic I want to talk about. To wit, photos. I didn’t take any while with Dave, except for a couple of selfies of him and me. Why? Man, if there’s one thing I’ve learned since starting this blog, it’s that obsessive photograph-snapping can interfere one whole lot with enjoying the time you’re spending with people you like. Besides, who the hell would want to see a picture of the roast beef sandwich that Dave tore into at the snazzy restaurant, or of the boulder we sat upon in Central Park? Oh, you would, would you? It figures.

All I can say is that it seems that you’ve come to the right place anyway. Because after Dave and I went our separate ways my picture-taking mode kicked into high gear. And the pix that I shot over the subsequent hour are the ones you’ve been looking at on this page. New York City is a lot of things. One of which is photogenic. So, even a clod like me can’t help but come away with some nice shots.

Thanks for reading and viewing. Till next time . . .

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Look Up, Young Man!

When the phone rang at 8:15 AM on Wednesday of last week I reached for my blood pressure pills and popped not one, but two. Ordinarily that’s a big no-no. But somehow I knew who was calling. And since said individual has the talents to launch my diastolic and systolic readings halfway to the Moon, a medicinal overload was a necessity. On the fourth ring I picked up.

“Good morning, Edgar,” I said to Edgar Reewright, my blog’s editor. “It’s always a pleasure.”

“Cut the small talk, Neil,” Edgar said, “and let’s get down to business. Neil, I know you. Right now, I’m more than certain, you’re at the dining room table with a cup of coffee and a buttered, toasted bagel and your vial of blood pressure pills in front of you. And you’re doing your damnedest, without much success as usual, to solve The Philadelphia Inquirer’s crossword puzzle.”

I gulped. Heavily.

“I’m fed up with having to remind you of your responsibilities,” Edgar continued. “The five or six people who look at your blog — your wife, your criminal defense attorney, your proctologist’s mistress and a couple of others that I haven’t been able to identify — have come to expect one stab at an article from you each week. And my gut feeling is that you’re planning to let them down, that you’re all set to take a week off. Neil, this is unacceptable. There are dozens of stories out there waiting to be written. Get off your unbalanced ass and start working.”

Holy crap, not only is Edgar annoying, he also was correct. And so, after politely ending my conversation with him, I gathered myself and my thoughts together, pondered this and pondered that, and eventually came up with a story idea. Look Up, Young Man! would be its title. And central Philadelphia would be where I would attempt to make it blossom.

Thus in early afternoon I boarded a Philadelphia-bound train in the suburbs, arriving in the fair city’s central section an hour later.

“Look up, Neil,” my parents used to say to me when I was a kid walking along with my eyes aimed downward. I must have been suffering from a lack of confidence in those days, reluctant to meet the world head on. Not that I’m bubbling over with confidence all these many decades later. Anyway, I don’t stare at the ground anymore when I’m strolling around. I look straight ahead or side to side.

But upward? Well, like anybody, I do some of that. But consistently for a couple of hours or more? Nah, I couldn’t recall ever doing that in my life. It’s not exactly a world-class notion, but it had appealed to me when it jumped into my mind a few hours earlier. I liked its simplicity, its openendedness. Who knew where or what it would lead to?

Pow! Moments after exiting the train station and stepping onto Market Street I gaped at what to me is one of the iconic outdoor sculptures in Philadelphia. It’s a giant replica of an electric guitar, and it rotates, as if on a spit, 15 feet above the ground at the corner of 12th and Market Streets. It’s hard not to notice this symbol of the Hard Rock Café, which is housed within one of the classic stone buildings that once belonged to the long-defunct Reading Railroad.

But I wanted to look higher than 15 feet. So I crossed to the south side of Market Street and, lifting my eyes to the skies, took in the first of five or six incredibly tall construction cranes that I’d come across during the afternoon. As I usually do when staring at one of these amazing machines, I wondered how in the world it stays balanced and how in the world anybody is able to manipulate its movements so precisely. Good thing it’s not me at the controls.

I was off to a good start. And one block later the good start continued when a sweet juxtaposition caught my eye. Philadelphia is famed for the several thousands of murals painted on the sides of buildings, and a great one adorns the lower reaches of a 16-or-so story office building near the corner of 13th and Market Streets. The mural is titled The Tree Of Knowledge. A ladder, a good item to have if you’re planning to pluck some information and wisdom from a tree, comprises a major part of the composition. I sidled up nice and close to the wall and looked up. The office building’s windows took on a new aspect, flowing gently in streams towards the heavens. And the ladder? It led the way to the levels above. I was tempted to climb it and see what happened.

Forty-five minutes later another mural, Reach High And You Will Go Far, crossed my path where 20th and Arch Streets meet. It too is a beauty, painted on the side of a three-story structure. Only a fool would argue with its message. I couldn’t get up close and personal to it though, as I had with The Tree Of Knowledge, because it is fenced-in. But I remembered to look up. And what I saw behind the mural, one block to its east,  was a giant tower, the under-construction Comcast Technology Center, that will top out at over 1,100 feet when completed next year. It is destined to become Philadelphia’s tallest building by about 150 feet. Reaching high, for sure.

All told I spent two and a half hours roaming the streets, covering several miles-worth of territory. I spent much of the time in the areas where the city’s skyscrapers are most concentrated, and also walked along many blocks whose buildings are of normal size. My eyes darted here, there and everywhere, but I kept my mantra — look up! — firmly in the front of my mind. The patterns up above formed by contrasting buildings, the wonderful reflections of sky and surrounding edifices in way-up-there glass sheathings and windows, the loving details carved into stone not far above ground level in stately three-story homes . . . all of these made me smile.

I admired the words etched above the entranceway to The Alison Building, a calmly regal structure that faces one of the city’s finest parks, Rittenhouse Square. On an ordinary day, with my eyes looking straight ahead, I wouldn’t have noticed them. “He that soweth bountifully shall reap bountifully” they read. Hmmm, sounds like something that Benjamin Franklin might have said, I guessed. Incorrectly, of course. The phrase comes from the Christian Bible. Ben, though, probably knew and liked the statement, one you definitely can’t argue with.

My stroll ended alongside Philadelphia’s City Hall, an impossibly ornate hulk smack dab in the center of town. This monolith took around 30 years to build, finally opening for business in 1901. I’ve never been able to decide whether I like its exterior design or not. Some days I do, some days I don’t. It depends on how receptive to over-the-top decoration my mood is. As I approached City Hall from the south I naturally had to look at its highest point. Namely, the hat sitting atop the giant statue of William Penn, who more or less was Pennsylvania’s and Philadelphia’s founder in the late 1600s. That hat rests 548 feet above the ground, which made City Hall the tallest building in the city until 1987, when the first of Philadelphia’s now-numerous sleek, modern skyscrapers was erected.

Well, it almost was time to call it a day. I made my way to a subway station and rode a sub into South Philadelphia, an enormous area filled mostly with row houses. There I met two of my bestest pals, Mike and Jeff, for dinner at a pub. The hours of looking up had ended. Beers and some grub were the next things on the agenda.

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Across The Bridge And Back

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.

That’s Philadelphia

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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Spring 2017 Revisited

What were the odds that I’d be writing about spring for the second time in three weeks? Well, if you had asked me that question even one week ago I’d have said “slim, very slim.” But it turns out the odds were 100%, because here I am penning another paean to the greenest of seasons.

To begin, there I was on the afternoon of April 24, denting, as usual, my favorite of the living room sofa’s three cushions. Such a comfortable spot it is. In fact, when I expire I’d like a memorial plaque to be placed on that cushion. It should read as follows: Neil Scheinin certainly made quite an impression. Here’s proof: He sat for so many hours on this sofa, the sensuous shape of his buttocks is forever recorded directly below. May Neil’s rear end, and his other parts, rest in peace.

Once in a while, however, I do rise from my throne to meet and greet the outside world. And once in a while said excursions involve taking a pretty good look at what passes for nature in my home territory. To wit, the wondrously paved-over, built-upon lands of suburban Philadelphia. My first investigation of Spring 2017’s unfolding, which took place on April 11 (click here to read it), was less than a smash. Few maples and oaks and their brethren had sprouted much, if any, new greenery. And blossoms on flowering trees and bushes were in short supply too. Two days later, though, driving around my region, I’d noticed that things were getting better, that spring was starting to look more like spring. It was a call to action.

But I’m not a man of action. I waited a week and a half, until April 24 rolled around, before once again making my way into the wilderness. As with my previous springtime stroll I would be a seeker of colors other than green. Hell, I’m cool with green, but there’s just so damn much of it out there. Enough’s enough, don’t you think? What’s more, variety’s the spice of life. And I’d throw in another cliché if I could think of one. No, it was pale whites and pinks and soothing shades of violet and rocking reds and yellows that I was charged up to smile at. Hey, by now those hues would be popping out riotously, wouldn’t they?

Hopping off the couch and into my car, I headed to a neighborhood I was slightly familiar with in a nearby township. I parked on a leafy street studded with good-looking houses and began my walk. It was 3:00 PM.

Eureka! I struck pay dirt! I strolled along many blocks admiring the views. Dogwood trees and azalea and lilac bushes, all aflower, glowed serenely on nearly every property. Beautiful flower beds — hey man, dig those snazzy, crazy tulips! — wowed like flashy jewels. I was in heaven. Or thereabouts.

What’s more, the air was cool and comfortable, a light breeze tousling my Apollo-like tresses. And it was okay by me that the sky was overcast, as the clouds were not unhappy nor threatening. In other words I was amidst perfect walking conditions. No need to have slathered on sunscreen (I hadn’t). No chance I’d be shvitzing like a pig by the time my travels ended.

Clearly, I was in a very good mood. Things were going my way. Although I was a mere mile and a half from my home, the sights were far better than those in my own township. These homeowners not only were with it, they were into it, putting a whole lot of time, effort and bucks into creating fine outdoor canvases. Now I know where to head to decompress, other than the emergency room, when my blood pressure starts pushing 230/130.

My journey was a quiet one, decibel-wise, except for the manic dog barking its head off in a yard. Of course, that’s one too many, especially if you’re an unfortunate soul living within 150 feet of that animal and its owner(s). Other than that, everything was peaceful. None of the cars passing by hit their horns. And the only other sounds of note that I met, besides the voices of the people walking on the streets, were those of something I hadn’t encountered in a pretty long time — the whirs of a bicycle bearing down on me from behind. Deftly I stepped off the sidewalk, moving onto a front lawn, and watched a nine-or-so-year-old whiz by on his two-wheeler. “Thank you!” he yelled to me. Holy crap, I really must have been in heaven, that place of the heart and mind where I’m certain it’s a prerequisite for children to have the finest of manners. “You’re welcome!” I shouted in return.

At 4:00 PM I returned to my car. I hadn’t felt so chipper in weeks. I’ve got to get out more in the suburban version of the great outdoors.

 

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Spring Is In The Air: A Search For Colors

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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To The Beach!

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.

The Outer Cape's sand cliff-backed ocean coastline.
The Outer Cape’s sand cliff-backed ocean coastline.

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.

A view from Nauset Beach.
A view from Nauset Beach.

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.

Nauset Beach. October 2016.
Nauset Beach. October 2016.

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.

img_1088img_1089Everyone 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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I Was Late For The Springtime Party

“You’re shvitzing like a pig,” my wife Sandy observed last week when I strode into the house after one of my highly infrequent walks around the neighborhood. Incredibly, I hadn’t realized how excellently the sweat was pouring off of me. Call me Mr. Observant. As I unbuttoned and took off my sopping shirt I thought to myself that I’d have inserted the word f**king before the word pig if it had been me commenting in Sandy’s place. She’s a lot more refined than I am.

The only flowering tree that I came across.
The only flowering tree that I came across.

Amazingly, the stroll around my little corner of the Philadelphia burbs was my first since last December, a nighttime excursion I undertook to gaze upon Christmas lights. I wrote a story about that adventure, and if you’re interested in reading it you should click right here. Last week’s stroll was different. With my trusty iPhone in hand I hit the streets for an hour in late morning, looking for pretty flowers to admire and photograph. Particularly those on trees and shrubbery. The sun was beating down rippingly as I left the house, the temperature already about 85° F, and the humidity was formidable. But I was late for the party. Turns out that virtually all of the flowering trees, and most of the flowering bushes, already had dropped their glitter.

Greens, man, greens.
Greens, man, greens.
Greens, man, greens.
Greens, man, greens.

What, then, did I see?  Greens, man, greens. I walked past hundreds of houses, all with nicely-trimmed lawns, and past thousands of trees, and the expanses of shades of greens made my eyes stand at attention. But I was on a quest for colors other than those, and needless to say they were there to be spotted. True, I didn’t find a single azalea still in glorious bloom. But rhododendrons, yes, and quite a few other bushes I won’t go out on a limb and try to identify, as I ain’t exactly John Bartram or John Muir. And though 99.999% of dogwoods and other flowering varieties of tall barky objects had not a remaining petal hanging on their branches, I discovered one cute tree still dressed in white.

“Yo, Nature Boy,” I heard someone shout at me two seconds ago. “What about planted flowers? Or was Nature Boy not seeking them?” Well, I’ve got an answer: I sought and I found. But something I never had realized before about my neighborhood is that there is no glut of those beauties. I saw a lot of nice ones, sure — roses and don’t ask me what else, because, as I already mentioned, I ain’t exactly . . . Yet many homes had no flowers in beds or windowboxes at all. Maybe I should report my area to The Philadelphia Horticultural Society. Or to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. Yeah, that’s what I should do.

Still, my walk was a good one. As I said in my Christmas lights story, I need to get out into my neighborhood, beyond my block, more than I do. There’s plenty to look at, if you force yourself to really look, even though my suburban development, like all suburban developments, isn’t on anyone’s bucket list of places to visit. And, importantly, there’s no dog crap to step on, as the dog owners around here are well-trained in picking up after. One thing for certain is that next spring I’m going to wander a few weeks earlier in the season. The neighborhood’s flowering trees and bushes fully were ablaze from mid-April through mid-May. Regrettably, my views of them mostly were from a moving car, and that’s no way to experience the world if foot power is an option. I’ve set myself a reminder.

In conclusion, I’m going to give a big shoutout, as the half-assed expression goes, to my newest best friend: my iPhone. It took some pretty nice pictures the other day. I offer up a selection of the colorful sights. By the way, if you click on any photo, a larger image will open. And one last thing: Don’t be shy about adding your comments, or about sharing this article with others.

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Walking Through Philadelphia With Colors On My Mind

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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