I sometimes walk this city at night when the street crowds simmer and disperse, and the evening air filters through to remedy the day. Walnut Street is my favorite as I pass shops dimmed for the night and restaurants alive with laughter and company. More often then not I find myself on a wayward path that extends past Spruce Street and circles about through Rittenhouse Square.
As the holidays approach, a Philadelphia tradition sets in hanging above the Square. I'm not even sure what the proper term is, but the Square is decorated with a thousand hanging lights that serve as a not-so-gentle reminder that the Holidays are once again upon us. After every Thanksgiving meal, the park gets illuminated in audacious colored bulbs that attempt to invoke some kind of sensation to a continuously unflappable city.
In a place that has seen it all, where diversity is a new food truck on the corner of 16th & Chestnut, the sense of spirit is so often missed. We walk the same streets day to night, passing the same shops and ordering the same lattes. Our biggest adventure is chancing on a new dry cleaners that offers a 10% discount.
I remember when I first arrived in this city. I was young, college bound, and spent way too many nights up late staring at the illuminated skyscrapers. A sense of wonder and fascination would descend on me then, as I felt the city alive with a discernable pulse and beat. Twilight, I called it. The city was glowing in its own twilight, and no amount of tacky holiday decorations was necessary to invoke the Philadelphia spirit.
When I'm up late nowadays, the only thought that crosses my mind is that "it’s well passed midnight". I'm lucky to even notice if Liberty One has changed its monthly colors. I've traded Twilight for Midnight, and it clearly wasn't a fair deal. As I share this phenomenon with friends, they all reach the same conclusion: the spirit of the city has been worn, in all shades and colors, and it’s so out of fashion that we've already recycled the catalogue.
So I wonder, how is it that the spirit of the city is so hard to find when the streets of Philadelphia are continuously evolving? Have we missed the sense of feeling in our day to day drudgery on our way to the newest Starbucks, or are we simply so accustomed to it all that the city offers no intrigue? Have we really traded Twilight for the newest club at midnight?
As I walk through Rittenhouse Square again, a hazelnut cappuccino warming my hands, my search for Twilight ensues. I look up to see Liberty One where it has always been, lit red and green this month, and try to recall the last time I felt twilight. I remembered a certain night not so long ago when the autumn leaves were crisp underfoot and no holiday decorations were hanging. My mind had been clear then - bills paid, projects finished, the weekend planned, and my apartment clean. I had been unencumbered by meaningless chores, and my eyes were open to the streets around me. I was able to see the pulse of the city as it moved through the night sky.
It was then that I realized that Twilight doesn't hide, we are simply to busy to notice. We move about our day to day tasks, waiting in another long line and rushing through the do-not-walk signs, all the while overlooking the spirit the city offers. It’s no wonder that a thousand tacky lights are required to stimulate even the simplest of sensations out of its citizens - the city is trying to get us to pay attention. When we learn to forget our daily tasks, or store them safely in our palm pilots and outlook calendars, we can see that the streets of Philadelphia are indeed alive.
Twilight, in this city, is simply a state of mind.
- December 9, 2004
I’ve often wondered how this city sleeps at night. A 2am curfew, except for a few seedy after-hours clubs, is hardly an appropriate time to call it a night. Its no surprise then at how many bad diners exist up and down Walnut street, and why they’re so populated at precisely 2:19am.
I’ve clocked this phenomenon on many occasions when my intoxicated friends have no where to go. Its always the same routine. We drink, we dance, and we leave with the expectations of night ever-lasting. We end up at the same diner, the Midtown IV at the corner of 18 th & Chestnut, and we usually get the same booth. I usually order the same thing; three glasses of water and a turkey club (something about the oil and bacon that helps to absorb the night’s impurities).
You may have seen me there on occasion, escorting chumps who would rather be anywhere else. Anywhere, that is, to distract them of their ever fickle youth and quantifiable dramas. Of course, I’ve indulged in such measures as well, and I’ve found such events to be beneficial in the advancement of the art of avoidance. Or is such avoidance life itself. Quite the conundrum as Ruth, our waitress for the night, who happens to be our waitress every night, brings us our late night plates.
I hear the banter of these late night talks criss-cross among my mates as they share war-stories and french fries. On the left there's one who's co-worker is coming on to her. Across from me is the other who finds her co-worker attractive. Diagnol sips but does not speak. As the minutes pass by and the food is consumed, sobriety rears its ugly head. We each begin to realize that night is not ever-lasting, that we will have to get up for some task the next day, and that our glorious avoidance is fading well into the night.
So in a city that insists on imposing curfews when its nearest neighbor (the-city-that-shall-not-be-named) lives and breathes avoidance, is it any wonder that the youth of Philadelphia would rather be anywhere but here? Simply put, why do we so often take the NJ transit to that city only to stay up till 6am and return home dead tired curled up on public transportation?
Sure we have our pride, we watch the Eagles play every sunday, but there is a distinct philosophy amongst the ill-avoided that something is amiss in this city. The nights are cut short too often, and the scriptures of the day-to-day drudgery are written ever too present. We may not be an island, but we've mastered the game of pretend. When faced with the reality of low paying jobs, exhuburant student loans, rent for an apartment that fits a futon, and three dollar cappuccinos, the city herself should offer another distraction, even if after 2am.
- November 8, 2004 3:54am