The View from the Philadelphia Streets
On a night dripping cold rain on the streets of Philadelphia, I retire to our Holiday Inn Express on Walnut Street in the central city and ponder pictures. The kids, who are no longer kids, rest like eclairs side by side on the bed, consulting their respective iPhone universes. My wife, asleep already. It is minutes from midnight. I look at my pictures, toning and transforming them until I am done with them.
When I cannot figure out my life, or don’t wish to try, I turn to pictures. This is soothing, as if capturing a single resonant moment in the frozen amber of a photograph will somehow explain life to itself. At the least, it is a way to stop dashing forward all the time, in expectation of a next, better moment. I have deliberately left my better, expensive camera at home for this Spring Break dash — speaking of them — to Philadelphia and New York. The iPhone has a decent camera if the light is right and you don’t move too fast. Plus, it is small and light and can be hidden away, all qualities I seek when walking the bigger cities of the world. Plus, there is an unstudied snapshot quality to iPhone photos. You don’t work them as much as when you are hauling serious glass around. You just shoot and later see what you’ve got. I even like the blown-out quality of the over- or under-exposure, pushing tones in the iPhoto editor, this way and that.
I am not sure what I am looking for, just that I am looking. Perhaps that is enough. Perhaps that is all. I have spent many a night on the dark streets of cities, looking. As I walk ahead or behind or beside of my family through Philadelphia, on the way to study the Liberty Bell’s fissure or to eat a hundred-dollar lunch at the Buddakan restaurant, I try and tally them. New York, L.A., Chicago, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Dublin. London, Paris, Rome, Venice and Milan. Where else? Places I have gone to find things, places I have been lost. Cities are wonderful places to get lost in. Yet they are horrible places to be when you are lost. But I found my way back from being lost in some of these cities. I sit beside my grown children, who’ve been delighted so far by their dip into their mother’s hometown, being good sports about long walks in cold rain and four-to-a-hotel-room lodging. We encounter at Buddakan a giant golden Buddha and I snap a photo of it. Gleaming golden Buddhas helped me find my way back home from the darkest nights on the back streets of great cities, glinting bronze through the temple windows. All is not lost. All was not ever lost.
As we pass through the streets, the bums and vagrants, the winos and lost souls, petition for dollars and change. A thin black guy sings to himself, grinning broadly as he jingles a plastic cup full of change at us. I pass another man in a wheelchair, one leg chopped off in some long-ago trauma. “Spare a dollar?” he says. I put that rictus grin on the face, the one we reserve for these encounters, staring straight ahead, muttering, “Sorry…” Then, I pass the one-legged wheelchair man again, on our way back from our hundred-dollar lunch. I am twenty feet past him, headed toward the glass atrium of the Liberty Bell. The usual din and welter of thoughts and recriminations, analysis and banalities fill my head. A hundred dollars. Philadelphia. What does ‘Buddhakan’ mean? How is my friend’s broken-leg cat doing? Are my kids going to evade big sorrow and loss? Gosh, it’s nippy … I swivel, unzip the wallet from my leather jacket. Walk back. Hand the one-legged guy a dollar. His rheumy red eyes study mine for a moment. He is tired, I can tell. Perhaps drunk already at 1 p.m. “God bless ya,” he says. I never turn down a blessing. My conscience is not assuaged. You cannot buy that blessing for a dollar after a hundred-dollar lunch. But perhaps he will buy himself a coffee against the cold.
There comes a time in the night when we turn the camera on ourselves, this being a self-recording, self-referential age. I have only recently learned there is a word for this smart-phone tsunami of self-absorbed photography: the selfie. I snap a selfie against the night streets of Philly. I admit, I will shoot a score of selfies, two score, and dispatch 39 of them to the trash bin, before I find one I can even bear. I don’t even much like this one, except that it’s kind of gritty in the big city, full of cold puddles and hot steam this mid-March night. What are we aiming for in our selfies? Here I am, still alive, and excuse me as I fade the photo’s definition and crank the contrast so the twin ruts of over-worry and consternation etched into my forehead by five decades don’t show so much. No, really, I just wanted it to look more like a watercolor on this watery night.
Via the oracle of the iPhone, my lovely 18-year-old daughter finds a Willy Wonka-come-to-life emporium of chocolate near our hotel. After an Italian dinner at the Walnut Street Supper Club, where the waitstaff kept popping onto stage to sing show tunes, we find the way to chocolate town. The sandwich board sign to Max Brenner’s place announces ‘Very Much Chocolate this way.’ This about sums up what we seek when being pursued by melancholia or the familiar demons of daily life, pitchforking us in the bum. This being a city, I wait a moment, iPhone at the ready, to snap a human passing by the sign. It is a man, muttering to himself, forehead creased with worries, staring off into the rain. Inside, I sip a salted caramel hot chocolate. My son is soon waylaid by a frothy chocolate milkshake in a big glass with sidecars of flavored syrups. My daughter splits a chocolate fondue with my wife, who burns her flaming marshmallow over the sterno stove, then dunks it into a choice of dark chocolate, white chocolate and toffee dips. Strawberries and bananas follow. On the way home, a squall of wind turns one of the umbrellas inside out.
P.S.: I just started up an Instagram account, where more shots of this trip may be glimpsed. Search for ‘douglastheeye’
+ + +
~ The Busy Machines That Click and Hum
~ Pictures From a Life
~ Last Man in the Woods
~ Insomnia Album: Pictures for the Pre-Wee Hours
~ Poems Without a Book
~ Six Variations on a Curve in the Road
~ Some Days, Nothing Will Do
~ Still Life with Lines, Leaf and Water
~ Excruciating Pain Report
~ I Got Nuts, Beef, Candy
~ Blue Rooms