The City of Brotherly Love

Okay so I’m in Center City Philadelphia walking south on S.18th street. I’ve only just moved here after 35 years in NYC. It is very hot, very humid and very bright under the August sun.

I’d gone to lunch, arm in arm, with my 87 year old, 92 pound, intensely forgetful mother. We always travel arm in arm; partly for her stability but also because it’s kind of our thing.

My father’s very long glide path to his finale had prioritized his care and, at least from my own perspective, we are making up for time lost to our own relationship and her developing needs.

After lunch I’d taken her to the tailor to have a fitting for pants that she’s having made and then returned her safely to her apartment for her afternoon rest. 

Now I’m heading back to The Studio, formerly my father’s photography business and now my new residence.

Ordinarily I would turn east on Spruce Street because that is the shortest distance to The Studio but there is less shade and more mental illness on Spruce. I don’t know that there’s a connection there but I don’t know that there isn’t either.

I decide to go the extra block south to Pine Street; it’s quieter, it’s prettier, there is far less commercial activity and the older trees provide better shade.

I make the turn onto Pine and as I’m walking along at the casual pace suggested by the heat, a tall lean 20 something black guy on roller blades passes me on the sidewalk going in the opposite direction and moving at a pretty good clip. He’s smiling and sweating and deep into whatever groove he’s cultivating. He appears to be delivering a small pizza. 

The sidewalk is rough, unevenly laid brick, typical of residential streets in this colonial era city, but he is graceful and navigates it beautifully. His hair is multicolored but predominantly a bright acid yellow. He is topless with mid-length NBA basketball shorts, probably the Sixers but I’m sidestepping him so I miss that detail.

The sidewalk is narrow and his left skate is in danger of hitting the brick edge on a slightly raised tree pit. I cringe in anticipation of a fall but it effects him not at all. The wheel kisses the brick lightly as it rolls up and over and then he is gone.

I continue down Pine doing what a lot of other Philadelphians seem to be doing these days; scanning tree, ground and stoop looking for Spotted lanternflies, a recently arrived invasive and destructive species. Killing them is an activity that all Philadelphians appear to be united around.

Crushing a Spotted lanternfly is rarely successful on the first attempt. They are very fast but their flight path is equally short and they seem to tire easily. A few tries usually accomplishes the deed. The pursuit itself involves stamping and chasing and more stamping and no small amount of laughing and in that way the whole thing shares a lot in common with The Hokey Pokey. And in truth, it also represents one of life’s rare occasions in which to take unbound pleasure in slaughtering one of god’s creatures. Little wonder it’s such a popular diversion.

I walk and look, my predatory search for invasive species giving way to my A.D.D. and thence to the incremental details of life’s great pageant; taking note of a newly dead infant squirrel and the collection of masculine souvenirs littering an interesting barbershop window along with…….

What is this ?!?

It cannot be !!!

Under an old Sycamore, obscured by the deep shade and splayed out like a dead bird against the dark red fractured brick sidewalk is a bulging ziplock sandwich bag.

I lean over to look more closely and see that it is a bag of buds. I don’t need to smell it to know that it is strong but I do anyway.

It is very strong.

I look around. There is little foot traffic but there is some. I consider the options; leave it in hopes that it’s owner comes looking before someone else grabs it; take it into protective custody; possibly pass it along to a friend and I’m not sure what else but surely something.

In my mind I do the numbers and I’m now rewriting my understanding of the skater and I’m 75% sure he’s delivering more than pizza. Maybe 80%.

I don’t smoke so this bag has no value to me but it does have value to somebody. Somebody is going to miss it. The dramatic possibilities compound around worst case scenarios. Finally I decide to pocket the bag because there is drama surrounding it and I want to see what happens.

I look back up Pine Street in the direction the skater was heading. I wait for a few minutes to see if he returns but he does not. Either my instincts are wrong or he hasn’t figured it out yet. I’m holding out for door #2. I continue on my way home, turning occasionally to check and scoring a single kill of a Spotted lanternfly.

I come to Broad Street. It is a wide boulevard and a natural dividing line. If nothing happens now it feels like the story will end right here.

The light is against me so I turn around one last time and there he is, a long block behind. He’s skating more slowly and my estimation of the situation goes up to 100%.

He’s about a half block away when I point directly at him. As soon as he makes eye contact with me I wave him over. He’s still about 30’ away when I smile broadly and say:

“you lose something ?”

His face and body instantly reflect this sudden change to good fortune.

“yeah and I need it back.”

He does a sort of pirouette around me as I reach into my pocket and seamlessly make the handoff and he’s away without ever having stopped.

Between the expanding distance and the noise of traffic I barely hear him as he calls back:

“love you bro.”

What I know

Hey Drew,

They say the first rule of writing is to write what you know.

I guess you can see where I’m heading with this.

Writing about what we know is a challenge because what is it that we really know? And just because we know it now doesn’t mean that our entire knowledge of the universe won’t be overthrown in 5 minutes because of some sub-atomic particle that, according to an expert team of international widget tweakers, changes everything we know about the universe. Now don’t get me wrong, I love widgets as much as the next……..widget lover but to say that I am out of my depth gives the barest nod to the deep well of my ignorance. I want to know about widgets! I long to be part of the big idea even if it means having just enough understanding to hold over the heads of the guys at work.

But of the universe what do I really know? I know that the universe has billions and billions of stars because Carl Sagan told me so and Carl Sagan would never ever lie to me about a thing like that. I guess that effectively covers it.

Ok so maybe I don’t really know that much about the universe. You know it’s all hear-say anyway. It’s not like I have personal experience that I can lean back on. It shames me to admit this but I have had nothing to do with the Superconducting Super Collider on any level. I didn’t design it. I didn’t build it. I don’t push the buttons. I don’t interpret data. I don’t sweep the floors and empty the trash at night. There. I’ve said it. Ok, so maybe I should be sticking a little closer to home.

I think it’s safe to say that the things I know about the universe are the same things I know about our galaxy and the 8 previously 9 planets of our solar system, Pluto now being considered a Planetary Body or Dwarf Planet or Trans-Neptunian Mass as opposed to a planet. I know that to be a new fact and I agree with it but I haven’t a clue why. Probably I agree with this new nomenclature because the fact that someone is out there giving this a lot of thought is comforting and I don’t think their efforts should go unacknowledged.

The earth, I know some very specific things about because I have first hand knowledge. It seems that even personal experience is subject to doubt and believe me when I say I am the first to doubt myself but I am firm in my convictions about these few things.

I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt that you cannot dig a hole to China with a spoon. Even a soup spoon. How do I know this? First hand experience. I tried it. And not just once either. As a kid, going on the advice of my parents and reassured that China was on the other side of the world I relocated my ass to the back yard and began digging.

Every child is an egomaniac and because this is so, there is a moment in every child’s life when the dagger slips into the soap bubble. Every child is forced to say “I am much smaller than the world.” “It really isn’t a small world after all. It’s me. I am small. The world is gigantic; just fucking huge.” Or words to that effect.

And then the short sharp shock of sure knowledge.

“The world is separate from me.” “Separate!” It is the pivotal moment between self centered and self conscious. That was my moment. I doubt I made that hole a foot deep.

To my own credit I must say that anyone else would have left it at that but no, not me. Once I became an artist I decided that digging a hole to China was a thing worth trying again and documenting. So you see not only did I do the original experiment but I was able to recreate my experimental results. And I have pictures, documentary evidence in the scientific parlance. Back to my parents back yard. This time I used a shovel. Turns out to be a glorified soup spoon but I knew that when I started. I got about 6 feet down before I started bringing up civil war era garbage, mostly thick glass bottles.

Bumstead’s Worm Syrup ••• One Bottle Has Killed One Hundred Worms •••

Children Cry For More •••Just Try It.

My parents house was built on a landfill. This I know.

I repeated this experiment on the beach at Long Beach Island, New Jersey. If you dig a hole at the beach you hit water. This I know.

I did it behind a security fence in a mid-block, empty building lot in New York City on 29th Street between Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue across from that beautiful little church, The Church of the Transfiguration, better known as “The Little Church Around the Corner.” Trespassing attracts cops. This I know.

And finally, I worked on a building foundation at 161st and Broadway several years ago. We hit bedrock at about 55 feet below broadway and then the hoe rams, the big jackhammer attachment on the excavator, chopped out the base and corners all nicey nice before we poured the slab. It took months. I’m told that from my childhood home in the suburbs of Philadelphia to Cowpai, China is 7900 miles. I didn’t take that measurement myself but I believe it to be true within a small +/- factor of error until someone with a pocket protector states differently. All of these first hand experiences effectively have me convinced that I know you cannot dig a hole to China.

I’m sure I know other things about the earth but it’s all the stuff that everyone else knows so writing about it is a losing proposition.

So that reduces matters quite a bit further to what I like to call local knowledge. Things that you know because of intimate familiarity. There was a period of time, in fact a long period of time, when the only thing I would order at a restaurant was a hamburger, french fries and a milkshake. The restaurant of choice was The Hot Shoppes, first brainchild of J. Willard Marriott, of hotel fame. It was a place with a large eat-in dining area surrounded by a drive-up eat through your car window perimeter. The girls didn’t wear roller-skates but I do recall there was a lot of orange and white in the uniform. I’m sure they all smelled like melted Creamsicles.

Everything they served at the Hot Shoppes was comfort food and Oh it was good. The savory, the sweet, a mild crunch, the fat and salt. The cool moist acidity of the tomato. The cold clean wet crispness of iceberg lettuce. Whoof, is it getting warm in here? It was all taste and what they now call mouth appeal. Texture, slipperiness, resistance, the sight, the sound of it being “masticated”, in short everything about the food except the flavor and nutritional values. Not so long ago I was reading a book called Visual Illusions by Matthew Luckiesh, copy write 1922, that explained to me that a pretty long time previous to him it was discovered that “the sensation of taste is subjective; it is in us, not in the body tasted.” A little morbid in its formality but the meaning is clear. The taste is in the taster, not the food. A bit counterintuitive but that gives it the ring of authority. So now what is it that I really know? That the meal was tasty? That I am tasty? What I know seems to be colored by the same kinds of things that effect mouth appeal.

I know that vampires are scary even though one of the things I think I do know is that there are no such thing as vampires. So if they’re scary it must be that vampires are like food. The vampire is in the taster. You thought the vampire was tasting you but no. It is you tasting the vampire tasting you that you are tasting. Well, that certainly adds clarity doesn’t it.

I know that candy is bad but Chocolate, chocolate is food. I thought I liked chocolate. Now it turns out there is a flora of some kind, bubbling away in the gut, that flourishes on chocolate. And when it doesn’t get chocolate it gets stressed and sends out an urge. So where is the free will in this calculation? Where am I? It turns out that what I know is complicated not only by the question of knowing but by the question of what constitutes I.

So it seems that what I know is subject to change. In short, the truth, which is only another way of saying my truth, is subject to change. That’s fine. I’m good with that but it means that there is no fundamental truth. What we know is only that which we believe.

If you believe in the tooth fairy or god, what is the difference? These are your truths. I don’t believe in god. Not even a little bit. I believe in the need for god but that is an entirely different question. My financial advisor says there is no profit in atheism. A nice pun, yes? His point is that if you are right, there is no gain and if you are wrong the losses are big. I dispute the lack of gain. I believe atheism is a positive influence in my life, actions and thinking. He thinks the possibility of hell is worth considering. Recently he said to me, “Listen. Eternity is a really really long time. Take it from me, I’m married, I know”. I persist because there is no other way for me. I am a product of The Age of Enlightenment. There is no turning back.

So what is it that I do know? A few important things.

I know my mommy loves me.

I know that to err is human and that to forgive is human too.

I know that seeing is misleading; illusions are legion.

As a corollary:

I know that the camera always lies.

I know that the bigger they are, the more it hurts when they hit you.

I know that when a boss tells you that you have a great future with the company it’s time to look for a new job.

I know that like seeks like and opposites attract and that this is not contradictory.

I know that it’s not possible to learn from other’s mistakes.

I know that life is, in fact, a dress rehearsal. The actual performance was cancelled because the entire audience is on stage.

I know that money can buy happiness if you know where to shop.

I know the best laid plans don’t go astray. That’s what makes them the best laid plans.

I know there was a time that I would go down to the Reading Railroad tracks and put down a penny for the commuter train to flatten. I know there was a time that I would not hesitate to break into an old empty house and run around inside and generally make myself at home. I know that the world is packed with stupid people and every year there are more of them, but that may have something to do with my proximity to Staten Island. I know that raising kids is harder than everyone makes it out to be. I know that shouting is a tool and sometimes the only tool that will do the job.

I know that there are two kinds of people. The kind that think there are two kinds of people and the ones who don’t think there are two kinds of people.

I know that when the automated, voice activated, routing system, help line says “thank you” it doesn’t really mean it.

I know that one size does not fit all except in the case of M&Ms which could not be larger or smaller without upsetting the balance of crunch to squish.