--Los Angeles Times
--East Hampton Star
“I love and hate Philadelphia more than any place I know, which is the basis of a meaningful relationship, I suppose,” Bruce Buschel writes. “I don’t love it because I lived here. I love it because it lives in me.”
That sentiment propelled Mr. Buschel to return to the city of his youth to walk the 13 miles of its Broad Street, taking the measure of everything and everyone in his path. Why Broad? No avenue of dreams, he says, it’s his road of realities. His father, who worked the graveyard shift at the post office, dropped dead there at 34. It’s where he flunked out of college and sold cameras and bought drugs. He worked for a newspaper there, took leave of his first wife there, met his second.
Walking Broad is at once a travelogue, a city history, and a revelation of a man’s interior life. If you know Philly, you get the thrill of recognition and assent. If you don’t, it’s simply enlightening. Either way, your guide is perhaps the greatest barstool companion you never had, garrulous and glib, witty and wise, unafraid to annoy with persistent questions some of the unhappiest people on earth, be they furniture salesmen or funeral parlor directors toughing out changing neighborhoods and ways of life.
Mr. Buschel is at his best when writing about his wrecked family. His mother is conjured as a muumuu-wearing urban oddball. She berated her son, blamed him for his father’s death, sent him off at age 7 to be educated in a Dickensian hellhole. In ill health years later, when she tried to overdose on Restoril, her suicide note was concerned with keeping oily-haired nurses off her living room sofa. She woke up the next day.
Walking Broad is punctuated throughout with phone calls Mr. Buschel makes to his brother in California. They hash out family history and talk over new troubles. His brother has had drug problems and is going through a rough patch with his woman. Still, he comes on the line like a redeemer, and the banter is so quick and seamless you almost question its veracity. Then again, these are Philly boys. You know, like the talking head Chris Matthews or the shouting head Jim Cramer (both named in these pages, of course).
The exchanges are blended into the narrative’s rich farrago so smoothly that you might be a third of the way through before you connect them to the book’s subtitle: “Looking for the Heart of Brotherly Love.”
Mr. Buschel is bemused by the unchanged cast of characters — pols like Arlen Spector, a former district attorney, have been on the scene for decades. He remembers Mayor John Street when he was new to the city council after having put himself through law school by selling hot dogs curbside.
Along the way he finds the expected — an abandoned clothing factory — and the unexpected — the Halal Bilal Steak-and-Take Drive-Thru, “a fast-food joint for Muslims.” He has a spiritual encounter with a street vendor peddling tube socks and ponders the mysteries of the helplessly urbanized Temple U., where students get their meals from greasy food trucks. He explores Philadelphia’s legendary futility in sports and recounts an interview with the great third baseman Mike Schmidt, who was driven half nuts by the Phillies’ hard-bitten fans. (When the first recipient of a hand transplant in America threw out the ceremonial first pitch one year and the ball rolled to home plate, he was booed. “Sure, booing the poor kid may have been in poor taste,” Mr. Buschel writes, “but so poor that it was funny. Just because you get a new hand doesn’t mean you get a big hand from Philly fans.”)
Mr. Buschel calls Philly the Taint — ’tain’t the Big Apple, ’tain’t the nation’s capital, is rather an overgrown no wheresville in between — and attributes the city’s unique psychology to this fact. He quotes a convict, who calls its denizens the most warped he has seen, and cites therapists who have been challenged by treating a people pleased with their own misery.
As he walks the street in his black Mephistos, his reminiscences are as clear-eyed as his present-day assessments. He is brutally frank about the abuse and sexual experiences of his time at the all-boys Girard College preparatory school, for instance. “Sentimentality is for squares,” he writes, “but you can’t suppress the past.”
It's a not entirely unfamiliar story. Veteran journalist Bruce
Buschel set out to come to terms with his roots by deciding to walk
the entire length of Philadelphia's Broad Street...Along the way, he
buttonholes the salesmen at Gordon's Furniture, the proprietor of the
Halal Bilal Steak-and-Take Drive-Thru ("a clean well-lighted fast
food joint for Muslims"), a Park Hyatt bellhop who wants to make it
as a home-grown screenwriter ("M. Night Shyamalan did it," Buschel is
assured) and, more to the point, the good folks at Levine's Funeral
The last is an apposite visit, because a good portion of his journey
is aimed at trying to make peace with the memory of his mother, who
worked at the Cadillac Club, a long-gone Broad Street after-hours
spot, and who had once blamed him for his father's early death, which
took place when the author was just 3 years old. "I bugged her about
the whereabouts of my father and she blew her cork and yelled, 'He's
dead! He's dead and you killed him!' " Buschel writes, with emotions
recollected in no particular tranquillity. "That's what I remember.
How could I forget? I have tried. I have paid people to help me try.
What she meant was that he was going to school by day and working at
night and the pressure of having two children and a new mortgage and
a princess wife was all too much for a man already weakened by war
and malaria and the loss of two brothers. He was thirty-four."
Suffice it to say that Buschel, who cultivates a cranky, Larry
Davidesque persona as he recounts his wanderings, does not find
closure with the ghosts of his past. Walking Broad includes a digression -- which could well have been a
separate memoir -- into his sexual abuse as a young student at Girard
College, whose founder, an arms dealer who struck it rich financing
the War of 1812, left his money to the boarding school on the
condition that it provide for "poor white male orphans, of legitimate
birth and good character between the ages of six and ten."
His experience there leads to an epistolary dispute with a former
staff psychologist of the school, who writes an (unpublished) letter
to the editor of Philadelphia magazine objecting to a story Buschel
wrote about the experience, a story with the memorable lead: "I had
more sex my first year at Girard College than I did my first year at
It may be unfair to use a writer's own words against him, and Buschel
seems like just the kind of guy who would fume about it, but the
questions he raises at the beginning of Walking Broad are apropos.
"I suppose I am searching for something. I don't know what . . . . I
am wondering if this trek is the worst idea I ever concocted, if I am
selling Philadelphia (or me) to a world (or me) not very interested
in Philadelphia (or me)."
Well, not quite. Buschel is an amusing companion who successfully
avoids the folksy lovability of, say, Studs Terkel. But ultimately, Walking Broad is not so much a coherent whole as a series of
entertaining pit stops. Then again, as he might say, so is Philadelphia.
A BROAD SWATH OF DISCONTENT
It's the simple ideas that get you in trouble.
Bruce Buschel, an author and Philadelphia native, figured he'd walk
the 13-mile length of Broad Street in two days, then write a book
about it. Along the way, he'd commune with ghosts from his past,
meet some new people, and better understand the place that forged
him. The result, "Walking Broad," is an honest, furious, funny
meditation on Philly life - an autobiographical travelogue, with pain.
"I don't believe in closure," Buschel said the other day, sitting in
his old Temple University haunt, the Owl's Nest Pizza, on North Broad
Street. "People will tell you, 'This too shall pass.' Nothing ever
passes. I was warmed by the depth, vividness and honesty of my
memories during the walk. I don't mean they pleased me. I don't
think any rich childhood is purely happy. It's always a mix."
At 60, dressed in jeans, a black shirt and jacket, and looking
distinctive with a white mustache, Buschel is not what you'd call a
contented man. Few good writers are.
"I'm kind of an angry person - a Philadelphian," he says. "And I
wanted to be a Philadelphian in the book. So, anger is not avoided."
No, it's not. For nearly the length of Buschel's book and walk, the
city is skewered, its shortcomings mixing in volatile combination
with tumultuous events in the author's tough life.
"Rather than the avenue of dreams," Buschel writes, "Broad Street
turned out to be my road of realities: my father was pronounced dead
on Broad Street; my mother was dumped on Broad Street after twenty-
five years of hard labor when her photo finishing plant was sold to
an international conglomerate; I flunked out of college on Broad
Street, sold cameras on Broad Street, purchased drugs on Broad
Street . . . and rode the Broad Street subway a thousand times,
scared silly each and every trip."
Sent at age 7 to live at Girard College when it served as a boarding
school for "fatherless white boys," Buschel says, with a laugh, that
the school was so upside down that he was sexually abused by the
students and beat up by the staff.
He had a loving but difficult relationship with his mother, whose
attempted suicide he thwarted, and whose sexual diaries he discovered
and contemplated mailing to family members. He barely knew his
father, who died when Buschel was young. His grandfather ran numbers
from a Broad Street newsstand. And Buschel had a predilection for
engaging hookers near Temple, when he had the cash. Buschel's relationship with Philadelphia was trying and strained, to
say the least.
Throughout the book, Buschel explores what he calls Philadelphians'
deep sense of inferiority. It's not exactly an original notion, but
Buschel rides it to new levels of eloquence.
"How well Philadelphians know they reside in the former business
center, former manufacturing hub, former music factory . . . former
this, and former that. Their city is the I-95 rest stop between NYC
and DC . . . Little in the last half of the last century has done
anything to warm Philadelphians to the Fates, and vice versa.
"You try living in a punch line without wanting to punch someone."
New York, in particular, rankles Philadelphians, Buschel maintains.
He likens the big town to a superior big brother who "composes short
stories like Salinger, show tunes like Sondheim, and canvases like
Jean Michel Basquiet . . . then plays softball like Mickey Mantle and
rushes home to cook Sunday dinner like Mario Batali. fuggedaboutit."
Now, it's a good bet that most Philadelphians do not share Buschel's
sense of subordinacy. No one would be capable of getting out of bed
to run the city if they did. Still, he's entitled to his opinions,
ornery as they are.
"I didn't want too write an Oprah book, all warm and runny and
redemptive. I tried to be honest about the city, ruthless about my
personal history and kind toward everyone else."
It's a good bet that Oprah won't be calling.
First of all, he's spry. Broad Street is 13 miles long, and Buschel
walked every bit of it, from Cheltenham Avenue to the Navy Yard. And
he's the genial (pushy?) sort who can talk to anyone—a halal butcher,
a meditative sock salesman, the gatekeeper at a blood bank.
He approaches each interviewee with humor and the right amount of
Interviews with quirky Philadelphia characters aren't unexpected in a
book subtitled "Looking for the Heart of Brotherly Love." Nor are
evocative descriptions of the urban landscape. What does surprise
about Buschel's chronicle is its complexity and elegance. His walk
down Broad serves a larger psychic purpose.
As he ambles (and does the Mummers strut, it should be noted),
Buschel recalls his childhood—not romantically, but in anguished
passages about growing up in a home for fatherless boys. He grapples
with his troubled relationship with his mother as he tries to
reconcile his enduring connection to a city that rarely loves him back.
The autobiographical material could've been cloying, but Buschel's
boyhood misery, I'm sorry to say, served him well as the engine for
this book. His memories are catalyzed by city landmarks—something
that happens to all of us. You see a CVS where a movie theater used
to be and it's impossible not to contemplate your own deficiencies along
with the city's.
Some of Buschel's observations made me laugh out loud:
"Philadelphians have thin skin and deep insecurities; they are
skeptical by nature and zetetic by training … It's not a simple
matter of the glass half empty: Philadelphians question the size of
the glass and the quality of the liquid."
I also liked this: "The Garden State is a double espresso in the
afternoon for Philadelphians. Every misbegotten city needs a state to
look down on."
Buschel breezily contemplates—in writing, recipe and song—unions,
Temple University, hoagies, public art, childhood obesity, Stephen A.
Smith, Bacons pere and fils, independent filmmaking, religion,
songwriting, the Olympics and lots of Philadelphia history. To
continue the urban-journey metaphor (though departing from the
straight-street one), you never know what's around the corner in
The melancholy sub-theme is that things don't always work out as you
plan—whether you're Bruce Buschel or William Penn. As Buschel
concedes, the plan to find oneself by walking Broad Street can be
"baby boomer perdition or Walt Whitman rapture." I tore through Walking
Broad and laughed at almost every page. That I was pissed off when I
put it down is a testament to how rich it is.
"Broad Street" is almost unknown in Western cities, but it is a common street name in the eastern United States. In the book, Buschel takes a 13-mile walk down the boulevard, from "the squalor of North Philly to City Hall," and takes in the statue of William Penn. As he walks, he talks to people — the tailor on the corner, the Chinese Mennonite pastor, the Jewish funeral director and the Muslim restaurateur, and an Asian immigrant who runs a gas station and has been transformed into a Philadelphian.
"He could have arrived here last week or last generation. Small matter. He is a Philadelphian now. As far from sanguine as it gets. High blood pressure and an aggressively defensive posture are required, looking for an ace up every sleeve, a scam down every pant leg, and then secretly feeling guilty for such hypervigilance, yet more than willing to mete out maledictions to cover miscalculations. Cracking wise is a green card, fulmination a passport."
The author believes the natives are not polite — they are "brusque," brief, fast talkers and fast thinkers ("think Chris Matthews"). They're "not curmudgeons, but fully capable of kind acts and charitable deeds." They are authentic, not superior.
There is lots of dialogue here as the author recounts conversations he has with fellow Philadelphians. It is a down-to-earth approach that might work well for a number of other American cities. For Philadelphia, it makes it seem more approachable but less historic.
“This painfully honest and blunt memoir reveals how Buschel's love-hate relationship with the city is inextricably connected to his painful Broad Street youth: the death of his father when Buschel was three, his troubled relationship with his hard-working and hard-drinking mother and the abuse he suffered after being sent at age seven to a city boarding school for orphans.
After living in New York for 25 years, writer Buschel returned to his native Philadelphia to explore the city from the perspective of a place of “enchantment” from his youth: Broad Street, a 13-mile stretch starting near the northern suburbs and running through “the squalor of North Philly to City Hall and along the theaters and hotels of Center City down to Little Italy.” Block by block, mile by mile, Buschel explores how the street—and by extension the city itself—has changed since his youth, presenting fascinating glimpses of current Broad Street residents in action, such as the owner of a fast-food joint that serves Halal hoagies and cheesesteaks. But Buschel also argues that nothing has really changed about the city's soul: to be a Philadelphian is to be “perpetually mildly depressed and almost happy to be so,” which affects everything from the city's politics (“a steady diet of civic shame and invective”) to sports fans "who love to complain”).”