Philadelphia Metropolis


The Perambulation Rhapsody

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By Jacob Lambert

On a warm, slushy day the other week, I ran the errands that had mounted over the past days of snowbound hermitude.  There were stops at the library, the bank, and the vet. If I had time, I'd hit the post office and the supermarket, pick up the new Invincible.  It was a daunting run, but I was up to the task.

Over the years, I've learned to map these trips as meticulously as Vasco Da Gama, writing my list geographically, making the thing coherent, hitting my marks in order.  And like Ghost Dog himself, I had developed my own patchwork code: go to the mailbox early, so as not to forget; stop for heavier items toward the end; drop clothes at the cleaner's on the way, grab the previous order on the return.  Whenever possible, cut through a park.  My errand-running has become scientific, practically German in its efficiency.

Despite the seeming banality of these trips, I've never viewed them as chores.  One reason is that I simply enjoy walking; it is, after all, how we were designed to get around--and Philadelphia's layout rewards that design. A recent New Yorker review of Dubai's Burj Khalifa skyscraper called Dubai "a city that has grown with utter hostility to the idea of the street.  The main commercial thoroughfare... is a twelve-lane highway."  In five days there, the only pedestrians the writer observed were "on the promenade outside the Dubai Mall." 

Philadelphia doesn't have that problem; this city went up in an era of humbler scale.  Three hundred years after Penn's original grid, we still benefit from its modesty, the streets drawing us out.  Former Penn sociologist Elijah Anderson labeled Reading Terminal Market a "cosmopolitan canopy," a place where people of all backgrounds can mingle without the "pervasive wariness" of the streets.  And that it is.  But getting to know an area on foot can mitigate such wariness.  Seeing the same people again and again--the old woman who stares from her steps; the guy with the bucket and squeegee; the workers leaning with their cigarettes--can bring Anderson's civility as surely as the Terminal's stalls.  It just takes time. Street vertical.jpg             

Another reason to walk is more subtle, something I've only recently become aware of: the unconscious crafting of the routes themselves.  After nine years of living here, I'm coming to understand that in the repetition of my walks, the decisions I've made--right turn here, left turn there--have served to create something.  After months and years of refinement, our favored routes become our own quiet possessions, both abstract and concrete, personal and public.  With patience, they become signatures.  An artistically-minded person crafts her routes to include a mural or an odd house; a no-bullshit old-timer walks straight to the store and back, barely looking around. A child totters forth like a wino, searching for something shiny.  The way we go from place to place defines us as clearly as anything else. 

It may seem peculiar to discuss, say, a quick trip to Express Mart as if it were a hike through Yosemite Valley.  But our routes are more than the shortest distance to get to a bottle of milk or a library book; they are how we choose to experience our city, small attempts to carve out some temporary ideal.  My path to the dentist is different from that which I took two years ago; two years from now, I'll probably go another way.  For one reason or another--too many cars, not enough trees, a Greenpeace volunteer--the scenery always changes.

This may be a part of why I don't enjoy riding a bike in the city, and is definitely a part of why I can't stand driving here.  Certainly, you can devise your own paths on a bicycle or in a Honda, but the comforting routine of the walk--stepping down off the same curb, seeing the same dangling sneakers, the same passing faces--somehow doesn't translate.  This has less to do with machinery than with speed: when you're moving at thirty miles an hour, you're going too quickly to claim ownership of your course.  You're one more blur, rushing for an open spot.

On that most recent errand-run, I passed the small things that have become reassuring in their familiarity: the rusting "Little Bambino Town Watch" sign on Montrose Street, the bright-white church statue, the delicatessen window.  Between my scheduled stops, I saw the house that my wife and I nearly bought three years ago--narrow and cramped, with a rat-plagued kitchen in the basement (she couldn't see the charm).  I succumbed to the junky allure of a thrift shop, regretting it almost immediately.  I watched a small boy howling to his mother, wracked by some minor injustice.  And then I was home, my route imperceptibly solidified, my tiny presence in the life of the city proven, though to no one in particular. 


Jacob Lambert is a writer and graphic artist who lives in South Philadelphia.




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