AT THE CORNER OF BROAD AND CHESTNUT, a couple is looking up at the street sign, and then at each other, and then back at the street sign and then back at each other. Bewildered, they look around the intersection until one turns to the other and asks, “What the hell happened to 14th Street?”
“This is it,” I interject. "This is 14th Street."
"This is Broad Street," says the missus.
"Broad Street is 14th Street," I say.
They remain bewildered.
"Starting at the Delaware River," I say, "the streets go from Front to 13 and then comes Broad and then the streets continue, 15 through 25."
"And then what?" she asks.
"Then the Schuylkill River."
"That's it? That's midtown?" she asks.
"We call it center city. It's 10 blocks by 25 blocks. Cozy, huh?"
The middle American middle age tourists cross 14th Street in the middle of of the white lines.
I find myself standing in front of a newsstand. My grandfather worked at one of the newsstands in midtown. I'm not sure which. My grandfather didn't sell newspapers or cigarettes. He wrote numbers. A newsstand was a good place to write numbers because people passed by every day and money changed hands without suspicion and the winning numbers were right there in the newspaper, the last three digits of a racetrack's handle. That's the only part of the paper my grandfather could read, the numbers. His stated profession, for the purpose of family discussions and government welfare, was house painter.
I met him six or seven times, at holiday dinners, at my Bar Mitzvah. He smoked and coughed and wore baggy brown suits with yellowed pinstripes. He didn't have many teeth or much hair. You'd think he would have shaved for such occasions. He was quiet during the meals, no matter how festively argumentative they were.
My mother said he was a stupid man with nothing to say.
My Uncle Joe would say it is better to keep quiet and let people think you are stupid than open your mouth and prove it.
My grandfather's name was Joseph Goldstein. He was an immigrant from Russia. He had three daughters and one son. During the Great Depression, he hit the road looking for work and trying to bring home some bacon. The family did not adhere to Jewish culinary laws. After a year or so, he was officially marked down as abandoning his family, a branding that was held against him until the day he died. When he did return to Philadelphia with no bacon, he sold apples on a street corner. He must have grown accustomed to street corners. From apples to numbers in one lifetime.
My cousin Bobb--that's right, three b's, he's an artist, worked with Warhol, invented multi-media--recently told me that any time he did poorly on a test in high school, his father would admonish him: "You want to grow up to be like Joe Goldstein? Get to work!"
Everything else I know about my grandfather I know from my mother. She hated him and blamed him for everything traumatic in her life except the death of my father. The responsibility for that capital crime was reserved for me.
That's all I know about my grandfather. I don't know what Russian shetl he left or why he married my grandmother or why he left her. She died before I was born. I never asked my grandfather anything personal, so I don't know what he dreamed about before arriving in America or how he ended up running numbers in Philadelphia. When it comes to family matters, I am a coward. Maybe I inherited that gene from him. I don't investigate my roots or do any research. I don't ask, they don't tell.
I do call my brother on the cell.
"Which newsstand did grandpop work at?" I ask.
"He worked at a newsstand?" he asks back.
"When he ran numbers," I say.
"He ran numbers?"
"Are you kidding?"
"No," says my brother. "I've never heard this before."
"What do you think your grandfather did?"
"He sold balloons on Broad Street," he says.
"At the Thanksgiving Day Parade and Mummers."
"That's two days a year."
"It left him a lot of time for the track," says my brother.
"He played the ponies?" I ask.
"I spent a day with him at Liberty Bell."
"He took you to the track?"
"I met him there, by accident. He knew everyone, so I figured that's what he did."
"How did he do at the track?" I ask.
"Did you learn anything about him?" I ask.
"Sure. He never bet quinellas."
"Do you remember hearing that he was a house painter?" I ask.
"That's sounds familiar," says my brother. "Two coats, one day?"
"That was Mel Brooks describing Hitler."
"Oh. I knew someone from Germany was a house painter."
"Your grandfather was from Russia."
"Do you remember our other grandfather?" I ask.
"We had another grandfather?"
"I'll talk to you later," I say.
AN ASIAN COUPLE--don't ask what country, please--asks for directions to the Avenue of the Arts.
"This is the Avenue of the Arts," I say.
"This not Broad Street?" asks the Asian husband.
"Yes, it's Broad Street and Avenue of the Arts at the same time, until it's just Broad Street again and not Avenue of the Arts any more."
"Ah," he says.
"Are you looking for something special?" I ask.
"Gamble and Huff studio. Sound of Philadelphia," he says.
"It's two blocks that way," I say, pointing south. "Right across the street from the Academy of Music."
"Across from Academy of Music. Ah. Thank you so much."
That propinquity sums up the scene: The Sound of Philadelphia across from the Academy of Music; Gamble, Huff & Bell staring down Stokowski, Ormandy and Muti; the hits of the 1970s wafting across the street and the century to the first opera hall in America, circa 1857.
Gamble and Huff wrote or produced 170 gold or platinum soul records with smoky horns, percussive strings, pulsating basslines, a pre-disco beat or super slow grind ballads. You know their songs.
As the Asian couple walks away, I wonder what songs they danced to when they were young? TSOP by MFSB? Maybe they karioked on their honeymoon, "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" or "The Love I Lost" by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. I'd love to sit down with them and talk music. I bet they know this is where Coltrane loved supreme, where Philly Joe Jones jonesed, where Chubby Checker twisted, where the Delfonics la-la-la'd, where Hall felt his Oates, where Todd Rundgren still says "Hello, It's Me", where Bruce became the Boss, where the Roots took hold, where Pink started her party and where G Love and Special Sauce serenade the same congested freeway, I-76, made famous in "Expressway To Your Heart" by the Soul Survivors over 30 years before.
It's nice to see tourists, period.
AT THE TURN OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, Philadullphia was not at the top of many destination lists. It was a defunct town of too many blue laws and blue-blooded attorneys, of broken bells and rampant crime. Nightlife was an oxymoron. The restaurant renaissance was confidential; you couldn't find in Zagat's or a tragic Pete Dexter novel or a biting Joe Queenan essay. The cobblestone streets were cold or hazardous or both and led directly to the Betsy Ross House. Who wanted to visit the Betsy Ross House?
Even Chinatown was a cheat--two blocks long, three blocks wide, and a couple dead ducks hanging in a window. Philadelphia was in a dysfunctional funk. Desperate immigrants eschewed it like a border checkpoint.
If not for work or fun, why schlep to Stupidelphia?
Then something happened. The date was the event: 9/11. Catastrophe changes everything, and as callous or ghoulish as it might sound, Philadelphia benefited enormously from the national tragedy. No one planned it that way, it just happened. Explosions to the north and the south and the west left Philadelphia unscathed, fairly glowing. All dangerousness was drained. It was out of harm's way. Al Qaeda turned Tioga toughs into teddy bears. The unintended consequence of being an insignificant city (or plum lucky) was the transformation of Philly into a sanctuary. The taint was suddenly the place to be, cuz. T'aint this target, t'aint that target, it's just the taint, the quaint taint, fortuitously floating under terrorist radar, conveniently located between two major bull's-eyes. Philadelphia was finally seen by Americans for what it had been along: close enough to anywhere, far enough from everywhere.
Comparisons to New York that had plagued the city for so long were suddenly turned upside down. Next to the gored Goliath, Philly was sweet David. Visiting Philadelphia became an oddly patriotic act. Tourism rose from 6.3 million people in 2000 to 8.3 million in 2004. More people saw the Liberty Bell last year than Yosemite National Park. Ground zero remained too raw, too anxiety-provoking, an unmarked grave, a chasm in the American psyche. In the months and years after 9/11, every time a politician uttered the words “democracy” or “liberty”--most often referring to Iraq, which had its own particular visitation spike—they were subliminally advertising Philadelphia, the birthplace of that democracy, the cradle of that liberty. Every time the president stammered something about the “Constitution” in connection with the Patriot Act or tortured prisoners or Supreme Court nominees, it was a plug for Philadelphia, home of that Constitution.
Traipsing through historic Olde City was part of the national therapy. Regardless of cuisine, Philly restaurants were serving up comfort food. Cheesesteaks tasted like Norman Rockwell paintings. Betsy Ross was the girl across the aisle in elementary school. Citizens went straight from Carpenter's Hall to Home Depot. Mad props for tradition.
America was down so low that Philly looked like up. It had been reborn by being overlooked. And not just by terrorists, but by stateside disasters, natural and otherwise. No New Orleans floods, no LA earthquakes, no Texas border fights, no Chicago wind, no St. Helens volcanos, no Vegas debauchery, no Detroit crime, no AC casinos, no New England rains, no Florida hurricanes, no NYC prices, no DC scandals, and no Republicans in charge of anything. Spared by Allah and Mother Nature and Providence, Philly looked like the safest big city in America. The capital of the state of grace.
Tourists, business travelers, and parents who chaperoned their kids to Penn or Bryn Mawr or Moore College of Art, would return to Anywhere, USA, and tell their friends and neighbors, “We just spent a weekend in Philadelphia. No, really. And it was a nice place. Lots of restaurants. Adorable brownstones and art galleries and cute cobblestone streets. The Art Museum in the evening, with the lights reflecting on the river, it was as dreamy as anything in Paris or Prague. We stayed at a lovely hotel on Rittenhouse Square. And nothing was expensive. Imagine--Philadelphia."
When they turned on NPR, they heard “From the WHYY studios in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross and this is Fresh Air...” What followed were interviews with Philip Roth or Lynne Cheney or Keith Jarrett so sophisticated and empathic that Gross provided a sonic harbor in a sea of noise. Fresh Air aired every day, twice a day, and its adult attributes were subliminally grafted onto their city of origin. Radio Free Philadelphia, a beacon of civility and humor. (Didn't Garrison Keillor change your perception of Minnesota? Okay, Keillor plus Prince?) Philadelphia is mentioned at the top, middle, and end of every show. Multiply six times a day by 450 stations and you see how Terry Gross became the city's best ambassador since Ben Franklin, who, like Gross, was born elsewhere. (Boston and Syracuse, respectively.) Even her musical interludes were interesting. Why not? She's married to Francis Davis, a home-grown jazz historian, critic for the Atlantic Monthly, and author of "Bebop and Nothingness: Jazz and Pop at the End of the Century."
College kids with fresh diplomas figured out old factories made cool lofts, vacant lots made great gardens, urban decay had its bright side--small price tags. The brain drain was halted. When artists from all over the country rolled into town, everything went from fucked up to fixer-upper. This was the last affordable metropolis on the East Coast with all the amenities, diverse population, first-rate food, clubs, bands, other artists, pro teams, and an city-sanctioned gayborhood (from Broad to 11th, from Chestnut to Pine).
Filthydelphia morphed into Illadelphi aka Funkadelphia aka P-Delphia aka Chilladelphia. Yo, maybe Philly wasn't half as bad as Philadelphians said it was.