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The Philadelphia Story

or

From Here To Eternity

or

Crosstown Traffic

 

Within a day or two after my father’s death I knew I would be called upon to say some words, give a speech, tell a story, embellish a memory; what have you. It was becoming clear that we; my sister, my brother and myself, would be required to have some sort of event to honor a man who was widely popular and dearly loved and admired by so many, but whose years long decline had sapped us of a certain amount of energy that did not appear to be readily at hand.

Still, good form dictates.

We are not a religious bunch and there was no thought among us of a service or burial beyond a vague idea of spreading his ashes across Barnegat Bay at some distance from the shore and also from the present.

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 I’m on the phone with my cousin, daughter to my father’s deceased sister. I can hear her waiting for me to pick up the thread she’s laying down. She’s waffling about; triangulating somewhere between asking, suggesting and prodding;

“Perhaps an opportunity for people to stand and recount memories”

My cousin is a traditionalist and she’s gently inquiring about a service. I knew it was important to her and by extension probably a lot of people because she was speaking very softly and very slowly. I know that trick. I speak like that to my teenagers when they need to be reminded, again, of something they already know, instead of shouting which is what I really want to do. I’ve tried shouting and frankly it doesn’t work any better than whispering but whispering is a lot less strenuous.

My siblings and I are not so very different from one another and in this instance we found ourselves in the all too familiar situation of being asked to conform to social norms while actively and obviously trying to dodge expectations.

However, like so many before us, we were overtaken by developments. We would be pressed to take up this set of social responsibilities while attending to the other, equally pressing responsibility of corralling the disorderly living situation our father had left behind. It would add a little extra twist of the knife to publically recount a memory, while privately sorting through the more earthly belongings of his underwear drawer, his refrigerator, his medical supplies and his collection of everyday objects.

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Choosing and delivering a story promised to be among the least pleasant of all the chores ahead of us and not only because there were so many stories, as befits the life of a 91 year old but because, at least for me, choosing involves a quiet mind and a sifting of memory, categorizing a hierarchy that demands review and judgment and a level of concentration that was guaranteed to dredge up strong feelings at a time when what was needed was a strong back.

And then there was the problem of where?

My sister, in a stroke of her usual genius put forward the idea of a plush cocktail party with hors-d’oeuvres in a private room at a swanky Philadelphia watering hole.

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My brother Dave (Davy I call him, Artie he calls me) and I were clearing out our father’s rented apartment, throwing Brooks Brothers clothing into trash bags for later sorting, carting out boxes of books and frame upon frame of artwork and all the furniture it takes to furnish a life.

Dave’s pickup was loaded, my mini-van was loaded and we exited the parking lot headed towards my father’s building; a large photographic studio on the other side of Center City Philadelphia officially dubbed Seymour Mednick Studio but, to my knowledge, never referred to as anything other than The Studio.

For those not familiar with the layout of Philadelphia, the center of Center City is the crossroads of Philadelphia’s two great streets; Market Street and Broad Street. Atop this intersection, like a permanent roadblock, sits the outrageously rococo edifice of City Hall. Local cabbies have been known to call it “A fine example of Spartan architecture.”

The thoughtful placement of City Hall squarely at the intersection of these twin Main Streets has essentially turned the heart of the city into a traffic circle minus the circle part: Not quite a square but certainly not a circle, I believe the proper name is a squircle. The reality surrounding an item or an idea that is neither wholly one thing nor wholly another is that the result usually encompasses the worst traits of both. This would be a corollary of Murphy’s Law. The placement of City Hall makes the center of Center City an island, unattainable except as a Mecca for the supplicant approaching on foot looking for anointment and a backroom deal after risking life and limb to cross the torrential traffic of the City Hall squircle.

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I was following behind Dave from the deceased’s rental apartment and as we started down the hill of 21st street headed south it was suddenly clear to me that I was driving the story that I would tell and that my brother’s truck was setting the course for the direction the story would take. It all opened before me in a way that some stories do; whole from the first word.

The only variable was – what route would Dave take to The Studio; mine, our father’s or some third route of his own. My brother is a pragmatist so predictably enough he took the same route I always take:

21st Street to Pine Street

Left on Pine Street to 11Th Street

Left on 11Th Street to Spruce Street

Left on Spruce Street to Camac Street

Left on Camac Street

Done

Easy. Obvious. No thought involved. 4 left turns.

Easier still because it skirts the snarl of traffic by staying to the periphery of the Center City vortex.

One might truthfully call it the path of least resistance:

 

Unless my father was in the car

 

Our way was not our father’s way.

After my father stopped driving I would drive him to The Studio, the center of his world from the mid 1970’s on. Initially I planned to take this same 4 square route. But as we drove down 21st St., crossing the Ben Franklin Parkway my father would growl, half panicked

“That’s NOT the way to go”

as if I had turned up a one way street heading into oncoming expressway traffic.

 

“Go left! GO LEFT !!!

 

My father’s route was as follows and you don’t need to know the map of Philadelphia to follow the genius of his thinking or what it said about the man.

From the beginning:

21st Street to the Ben Franklin Parkway

Left on the Parkway to Logan Square, which is a circle but never mind that

Around Logan Square

Continue on the Parkway until 16th Street where you will make a soft left onto Arch Street

A quick 1 block on Arch and a right onto 15th Street because after 15th Street, Arch Street changes direction and you really will be heading up a one way street into oncoming traffic.

Head south on North 15th Street and jog left to follow traffic around the City Hall squircle onto South Penn Square

Stay left on South Penn so you don’t get swept into the right fork onto South Broad Street but then a hard jog right, avoiding incoming northbound Broad Street traffic and slide onto Juniper Street which at this point is really just the rightmost dedicated lane of South Penn. Juniper Street here looks like it’s going to run directly through the doors of the old Wanamaker Building.

Juniper Street, basically an alley, now makes a hard 90 degree right turn, heading south past McGillin’s Olde Ale House.

Take Juniper Street to Locust Street

Left on Locust Street to 12th Street

Right on 12th Street to Spruce Street

Right on Spruce Street to Camac Street

Left on Camac Street and voila; if you haven’t hit someone or been side-swiped, there you are.

If you are not from here and you take this route, there is little chance you will arrive at all.

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Was my father’s route shorter in either time or distance? Possibly; but that was not the point. My old man was competitive. He wanted to circle the center; in the case of Philadelphia, the unattainable center, orbiting the pole star of City Hall. His route took him headlong into the snarling chaos at the center where he engaged the competition, jockeying for position with innate skill and the risk taker’s tool kit of speed and guile and an insider’s knowledge. He didn’t want to travel the outskirts where to win was to prove nothing. His whole life he had something to prove and in every endeavor, down to the last, he strove for excellence and he played to win

The Last Drop

I got to work early today. Like every work day for the last 30 years. I gave a moment to the sunrise; like every day. Same sun, same sky, same time, same same. All that familiarity but with a nod to the obvious; with an infinity of variables, including me, no two sunrises are exactly the same.

I went into a coffee shop in Philadelphia not long ago; The Last Drop. Flurries were falling lightly and melting on contact; the last snow of the season. Each crystal unrepeatable and every crystal on its way to becoming an anonymous speck of water.

The barista at The Last Drop is a solid first tier hipster. Tall and at home in his geeky glasses with the dark rectangular frames, a thrift shop vest and a nerdy look we used to call mebst.

I order a cappuccino, same as every time I go in there. I love cappuccino. The flavor and textures of course but equally I love all the choreographed motions; the tamping, the jamming, the swirling, the pouring; the reassuring repetitive motion of it all.

The hipster barista steams the milk and swirls it in the little frothing pitcher before making the final pour. He does this stuttering little flourish at the end of the pour that creates a sepia image of a flowering plant embedded in the cappuccino foam; his signature.

My wife and I were at a party the other night. We’re too young to be hippies and too old to be hipsters. The party was a celebration of life, as all parties are but the more so as it came in the wake of two deaths; the husband of an elderly woman and the husband of a young woman.

Afterwards my wife and I were talking about life and death and how each one is different and utterly unique even as it shares in its description all of the same elements.

A snowflake or a fingerprint; a signature, a sunrise or the image at the top of my cappuccino; each is an individual composed of that peculiar unknowable moment that is infinitely repeatable and eternally unfamiliar.