Philadelphia – Brief Verbal Snapshots of Our Visit

Here are some of my impressions of our Philadelphia trip. This is a work in progress.

Upon arriving in Philly on Amtrak, the gorgeous station made for a dramatic welcome to the city. The warmly-colored marble extended far upward in an enormous art deco style main room with long, vertical line motifs. I reflected upon how New York had allowed the original, beautiful Penn Station to be demolished, to be replaced with the crummy one they have today, and how nice it was that Philly had not let a similar thing happen.

To get to our vacation apartment, we took the trolley, which is still a thriving mode of transportation there. It was hard to get started – the station employee was remarkably unhelpful. We tried to buy tokens, but were rebuffed due to not having exact change. The employee referred us to the change machine, which ate several bills. She told us to try the other machine, which after several tries, accepted our money. We asked for a refund, and was told to write to some address, and we left in disgust, realizing it wasn’t worth our trouble. Fortunately, if you know where to buy them, you can purchase weekly passes for subway, trolley, and bus service, and by buying these, we removed the need to deal with these superfluous employees.

Incredibly, Mayor Nutter of Philadelphia has decided to close eleven libraries to help close budget gaps. Poorer neighborhoods, which stand to lose the most from removal of educational resources, would be particularly hard-hit. The public has expressed outrage, and courts have blocked this plan for the time being. Of all the things to cut, libraries?? Well, I guess they’re not good campaign contributors, and aren’t owed any political favors. Fire departments are also on the chopping block. I’ve also been reading about how Nutter is targeting these instead of collecting on millions that the city is owed in taxes by various entities. Bravo!

I can suggest to Mayor Nutter that one place he can save money is by simply closing these booths in the subway. Maybe this would get back a million in salaries or so. People using the subway can get along quite well with weekly passes, token machines, and maps. Maybe these employees were important at one time, but obviously not anymore. I can’t imagine why they are there at all, unless they are part of some entrenched union. SEPTA is the name of the city’s trolley/subway/bus system. There are signs in the subways that say “SEPTA: Serious About Change”. Yeah, so serious that you jolly well better have exact change. If they can’t get rid of them, I want that job – I’ll bet there would be decent pay, bennies, 100% job security, and time to read some really big novels I’ve been putting off.

The trolleys there are a peculiar hybrid of trolley, subway, and bus. Getting on one is much like entering a bus. They do travel on tracks on the street via electric cables above them, but they also go underground with the subways. Because the tracks are right in the street and not separated from where the cars go, there are no typical train switches. Different lines share tracks, so when a switch must be made, the driver actually stops the train, gets out, and uses a huge metal bar to make the switch. Wild!

Fortunately, we had a much better experience with those SEPTA employees who were driving the trolleys and buses. They were almost all friendly and helpful. They’re not only pleasant, but worth keeping, as they’re actually necessary. I try to make a point of greeting and thanking drivers, even if only briefly. I see that they are doing a hard job, and are not particularly well-treated by many riders. Some drivers will not respond if you do this, but I found that Philly drivers nearly always will utter a kind word. This contrasted with the riders (of all forms of public transportation), who seem mostly pretty grim and unfriendly, which appears to be the big city norm anywhere. Sort of miserable and determined to be that way. Still, this was not enough to discourage us from taking public transporation all over, it was so handy, which is a big contrast with Syracuse, whose public transportation is very spotty.

I wondered if Philly were really the City of Brotherly Love. And I think it largely is, relative to other cities, trolley riders notwithstanding. When we were fumbling around with our maps, people would come right up to us and offer help. At restaurants, diners, stores, and counters everywhere, we enjoyed fun conversations with strangers.

This reminded me of a trip to Connecticut, where we had found that people were unusually friendly. I had been so delighted that, on a lark, I had written some anecdotes about it in an email to the governor of Connecticut. The gist of my letter was along the lines of how, as a hardened New Yorker, I was puzzled by so many people being friendly to me for no apparent reason, and how as a result I would offer to become their tourism spokesman. The slogan could have been “I’m from New York, but forget New York, vacation in Connecticut where the nice people are!” The governor evidently did not see it, but I was pleasantly surprised to receive an enthusiastic email reply from Lieutenant Governor Jodi Rell, who has since become governor. She said the story had made her day. This was all fantastic, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I cynically thought that it must be because of the affluence in the area causing everyone to be more relaxed and chummy. But our amiable experience in Philly did not seem to happen for that reason, and this was heartening. The friendliness crossed ethnic and economic boundaries.

I appreciate going to unusually friendly places, because although there are plenty of friendly people in Syracuse, I would not describe the Syracuse area as especially friendly overall. There are plenty of next-door neighbors who completely ignore each other, and lots of people who work together in the same building, see the same people every day, but will not greet or speak to each other at all, sometimes even after being introduced. To me, a simple nod or “hello” isn’t such a huge deal, but to many, it is, and the bar of friendship is often high. Or maybe I just smell bad.

Speaking of friendly, we went to a Brazilian music show for New Year’s Eve. We had a very tasty Brazilian buffet meal, and then the music began. The group, Alo Brasil, was a full ensemble with drums big and small, hand percussion, keyboards, singers, bass, and as a bonus, some dancers with the BIG carnaval outfits. Hot hot hot!!! The audience was clearly enjoying it, but were mostly Americans, and thus a little reserved. 😉 So the dancers came out into the audience to try to get things going. No takers at first, but they made their way over to us, and of course we got up and shook our junk. Then one of them asked me, “what part of Brazil are you from?”, which made my day.

On New Year’s Day we went to the world-class Philadelphia Museum with our friends who had just moved to Philly from Syracuse. I especially enjoyed the large number of Cezannes, lots of hot impressionist work with Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas, Pisarro, etc. Cubist Picasso and his buddy Braque, and other Picasso periods. A full amazing room of Marcel Duchamp. Some Van Goghs, some Dalís. And that’s just a sampling of what I especially liked. There are phenomenal Renaissance and Baroque paintings, Rodin sculptures (maybe stealing a bit of thunder from the big Rodin Museum right down the street, which has the biggest collection outside of Paris), and for the macho man in your life, a huge room of suits of armor, weapons, and armaments. And that describes maybe 10% of what they have.

And now from the sublime to the, uh, slightly less sublime? If you’ve seen the movie Rocky, you will recall that during the big training scenes, Rocky runs up the steps of the Philly museum and does a symbolic victory dance. So obviously, we had to do it. It was a glorious sunny and very cold day. First, we made some questionable poses for photos with the Rocky statue near the bottom of the stairs. Fortunately, he did not respond, possibly due to the cold. Then on to the stairs. Our friends had arranged to meet us at the museum, and we thought we saw them way up at the top. So I raced up the stairs, skipping as many steps as I could, and jumped around at the top. Our friends, in fact, weren’t there yet, and the people at the top just quietly ignored me, probably hoping I would just go away. My wife reached the top just after me, and then I went back to the bottom and did the run a second time for more photo ops. We had a great time being complete tourist dorks. Philly natives do this themselves. It happens pretty much every day, and they have invented a verb for it – “Rockying” up the stairs.

The neighborhoods in Philadelphia are extremely varied, almost like entirely different towns. Often, this is excellent – a new experience and style around every corner. It has its sobering moments, too. Like many cities, a neighborhood may suddenly change for the worse as you walk along. We found that the subway station nearest our place was in a pretty awful neighborhood. Yet I think I saw a police car outside the station keeping an eye on things, and after we walked through three or four distressed blocks, we abruptly entered a beautiful, quite affluent area. In the end we eventually decided to avoid that station and use the next one, which made for a somewhat longer walk home but in a considerably better area. It can’t be denied that along with the incredibly nice areas all over Philly, there are many grim, poverty-stricken neighborhoods. You know it’s bad when barbed wire is common enough to almost become a decorative motif, in contrast to the many expensive, gorgeous neighborhoods around Center City.

On the trolley that we normally took home, there were times when all the remaining white folks (including the two of us) got off the bus all at once. It looked funny and somewhat ridiculous, but got me thinking about the racial divide.

I like how short the city is. True, there are skyscrapers in the middle of Center City, and many dramatic buildings, but instead of an entire city of huge buildings, you have residential housing stock all over, much of it gorgeous. Duplexes are the indigenous style, and they are nearly everywhere. Their variety and beauty was very impressive. Though huge buildings can be exciting, there’s something to be said for a city where the neighborhoods aren’t go gigantic that they seem to be beyond human scale.

Any overview of Philly would be remiss without mentioning the outstanding variety of cuisines available. Most of what we I have to say about it can be found in Philly posts in Chus on Chow. You can get food from almost any country imaginable, which is our idea of a good time.

– to be continued –

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