Few pleasures for me exceed that of reading or writing while on a train. And everyone knows my peculiar and immoderate love of all forms of public transportation. For this reason, rather than drive into downtown Philadelphia today, I parked at a suburban station northeast of the city and took the train in. From Bristol, in lower Bucks County to downtown is about 45 minutes. But the ride closely recapitulates the daily commute I made for a year from Yardley (directly across the Delaware from Trenton) during my second year of grad school. Those daily meditative rides were the highlight of an otherwise beastly year.
The frequent flashing of Amtrak express trains zooming past on the center rails. The dilapidated strata of rowhouses like a cretaceous hillside after an earthquake, in tones of sepia and burgundy and dull tin, with organic splashes of graffiti on most smooth surfaces, like crushed dinosaurs. And rampant green summer vegetation poking and thrusting in every conceivable place, tropically exuberant but temporary, my seasonal knowledge reassures me.
And people and cars, yelling and thumping their urban rhythms respectively, on each corner, lounging and strolling and gazing and chatting. The city as universe.
I got off at 30th Street station. I'd deliberately not studied at map of the area – I'd been absent for 10 years – I'd find my way.
Kinesthetic memory is strange, miraculous thing. Well, I'm not sure that what happened was, technically speaking, kinesthetic memory, but, it was something programmed at a seemingly subconscious level. Without thought I wended through the station, down from the commuter platform, through the congested Amtrak lounge, out onto Market Street. To the left, squatting between the highrises just beyond the unseen Skookle River (OK, that's Schuylkill to you purists, but I so love the way it's pronounced), is the City Hall. But I turn right, down Market. On autopilot, I find my way two blocks west to 32nd, cut diagonally across the Drexel University campus, cross Walnut at 34th and angle in front of the prison-esque Van Pelt library of the U of Penn, and then up the tree shrouded Locust walk through the heart of the campus, to emerge at the western end at 40th looking for that coffee shop where I did, probably, 70% of the actual work for my Master's degree. It's gone.
But this subconscious movement had placed me there unerringly: 40th and Locust – though I hadn't recalled the address or even it's exact relation to campus. That's what 2 years of pedestrian navigation of a fairly stable space can do for your body's memories, I guess. But coffee was out of the question – some Mexican upscale restaurant inhabits the corner now. I was very sad.
So I kept west on Locust and then zigzagged down to 43rd. Where I lived, that first year in Philly, before Michelle joined me here. At first, walking westward from campus, I worried the whole area had gentrified beyond recognition over the last decade, but, abruptly at 42nd, the ghetto kicked in, just as I remembered it. 43rd at Baltimore is still that wonderful edgy space between student slum and REAL slum. And there, on the northwest corner, the cheesesteak and pizza joint I used to go to.
How could I resist? I went inside – I don't think the menu has even changed. I mean, not in content, not even physically – aged red plastic above the counter, yellow letters. The place doesn't seem to be run by the same family though – I have vague recollections that before it was run by a Caribbean or East Indian family. Now it appears to be run by a very large and diverse African American family, every single one of whom were squeezed behind the counter. They couldn't move around back there, so they just passed boxes of pizza over each other's heads and argued among themselves from where each stood.
I ordered a cheesesteak with sweet and hot peppers, just like I used to, and got some iced tea. I watched some horrible movie on the TV with some men who had quart bottles of Budweiser and looked tired. The TV was a flat screen, now, I noticed. I guess some things change. The trolleys clanged and whirred past on Baltimore Ave. outside the window.
I finished and walked out to the little park on the southwest side of the intersection. I remembered bring Bernie here, as a kitten, on a leash – she'd actually done pretty well on a leash as a kitten. But then I made the mistake of taking her while on a leash to see the vet at the U of Penn veterinary clinics – at around Spruce and 40th. From then on, she behave around the leash about the way one would expect a normal cat to do. It was at the U of Penn vet that Bernie lost touch with her feminine side.
So I walked back to campus, and found a different coffee shop on the north side, and contemplated my visit with the past. And, incidentally, wrapped up an essay for the application for the Korean teaching job I'm pursuing, and emailed that off.