Visiting Philadelphia: …very few answers

The first indication of the nature of my recent trip to Philadelphia was the absence of SD’s and my favorite server at the Westgate Pub my first night there (the night before a Thor-like thunderbolt short-circuited the air conditioning in my hotel room for four nights). As I detailed here, I shoehorned seeking answers to a series of questions arising from my “interrogating memory” project into this trip—and I hit investigative walls as early as Connecticut.

The day before I left Brookline, I sought help from a friend (let’s call him “ST”) who serves as an Assistant District Attorney (DA) in Philadelphia regarding sources of information on my maternal grandfather’s service with the Philadelphia Police Department and the fire that destroyed the original John Rhoads Company site in West Philadelphia; in the case of the fire, I could find nothing online. That same month, David Baugh, an archivist at the Philadelphia City Archives, told me he could not locate my grandfather’s “roster card,” meaning he could access no information about him.

As I settled at the counter of the Sherwood Diner to eat lunch on Thursday, August 9, 2018, I read an e-mail from ST which confirmed the Department’s inability to locate any information on Patrolman (later Detective) Samuel Joseph Kohn. Prior to 1960, such information was kept on cards, many of which have been misplaced (or outright lost) since then. This is consistent, unfortunately, with the experience of an investigative journalist friend who has decried Philadelphia’s lack of quality record-keeping more than once.

ST directed me to visit the Archives in person, but…they are in the process of moving locations and will not reopen until September 4, 2018. At least ST and I had a terrific time catching up over lunch here Tuesday afternoon.

**********

I began my investigation at Roosevelt Memorial Park, where my father is buried adjacent to his parents, sister, paternal aunt and uncle, and paternal aunt-by-marriage. Roosevelt is less than a five-minute drive from my sister’s residence, so I went there before I picked up Mindy Friday afternoon.

IMG_3823 (2).JPG

Beyond paying respects to these family members, I sought information about a relative named “Nathan Berger,” who died on August 14, 1944; what I particularly wanted was the Hebrew name of his father, which traditionally appears on the headstones of Jews (my father’s father’s Hebrew name, like mine, was Moshe—or Moses). “Nathan Berger” appears on a list of “Bergers / death dates” I compiled as a boy. Invaluable information on Ancestry.com allowed me to determine my relation to each of them (two great-grandparents, a great-great-uncle and aunt, three of the latter’s sons)—except Nathan. I had found a Nathan Berger who served in the Navy (Yeoman, 3rd class) during World War I with the same death date; his death was reported by a woman named Miriam, but it was not clear what her relationship to him was. While these precise relationships are not necessary for my book, they do reveal the Berger presence in West Philadelphia over the last century-plus was far larger than I realized. Plus, I dislike investigative loose ends.

In the main office at Roosevelt, a very helpful woman named Dawn told me the location of Nathan Berger’s (“He was 46 when he died”) gravestone. In that section, I immediately found this (NOV. 17 1900 – AUG. 3, 1999):

IMG_3829.JPG

Next to it was a light-brown indentation in the ground. I dug around for a few moments but could find nothing else. Nor could I find a gravestone for “Nathan Berger” anywhere else in that section. Back at the office, Dawn confirmed that “Miriam Berger” was “Nathan Berger’s” wife and their graves should be adjacent.

“Perhaps it sunk into the ground,” she offered, before promising to investigate for me (I need to follow up with her).

This new information enabled me to pin down the elusive Nathan Berger a bit more; I now suspect he and my grandfather were second cousins.

Progress is more often measured in inches than miles.

I then located this gravestone:

IMG_3831 (2).JPG

It is a curious fact that this seminal noir writer, a Philadelphia native, is buried (along with his brother and parents) a few hundred feet from my father—and both had the Hebrew names David Laib.

**********

The thunderstorms began that night and continued into early Saturday afternoon, threatening “cemetery day.” However, the skies cleared enough that I chanced a drive to Mt. Sharon Cemetery where Herman Modell, the attorney who arranged my adoption, is buried.

In no rush, I first drove by the office building where I saw my first psychologist (at 11, I ineffectually attempted suicide). I also visited nearby Paxon Hollow Country Club; once the White Marsh Country Club, Modell had served as club president multiple times between 1949 and 1962. Other than an impending wedding (the bride looked radiant), there was little of interest to see there (perhaps because, as I now read in my Chapter 5 draft, the White Marsh CC moved to Malvern in the mid-1960s).

Twenty or so minutes later, I turned onto Bishop Avenue from Baltimore Pike (after making a U-turn in a still-active Denny’s), passing a WAWA I frequented when I lived in the area in 2002-03.

Just bear with me while I share a memory of that WAWA.

At around 11:30 pm on the night of February 13, 2002, I was turning right onto Bishop Road from the WAWA parking lot when my 1995 Buick Century was struck from behind (right rear quarter panel) by a Pontiac. The Pontiac contained three young women, though the car’s owner was a passenger, not the driver. As we exchanged information, there appeared some urgency on the part of the car’s driver and owner that our insurance companies not be informed. During this exchange, the third young woman interjected this question to me:

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“No,” I replied.

I should have asked “Why do you want to know?” but I was more focused on the matter at hand.

Five days later, the four of us met at a nearby McDonald’s to sign an agreement that they would reimburse the cost of my repairs, which they ultimately did. In fact, the entire affair was remarkably civil.

I still have a copy of the signed agreement. As for the Buick—my then-stepfather acquired it for me (79,000 miles already on it) when I returned to Philadelphia in February 2001, and it gave up the ghost two days after I moved back to the Boston area in September 2005. Talk about perfect timing.

I remembered these incidents as I turned left off Bishop to East Springfield Road then drove the short distance to Mt. Sharon. This being Shabbat, the office was closed, so I faced the daunting prospect of finding a single grave among 20,000+. It was a muggy day with a steady drizzle falling.

And so I began systematically to walk up and down the rows of gravestones scanning the names as rapidly as I could. Up and down, up and down, up and down…at one point a curious deer stared briefly at me before wandering off. The ground was often uneven, meaning I had to watch my feet and the gravestones at the same time.

Some two-and-a-half-hours later, after having searched maybe one-third of the vast space, I was ready to call it a day when I turned around…and saw this:

IMG_3836

I was transfixed…and, despite never having met him, a little weepy. Exploring the nearby gravestones, I found those of his parents and sister, as well as 10 other persons with the surname Modell.

As I noted in my previous post, I spent nearly three hours searching for the gravestone of the man who arranged my adoption out of my genetic family while “forgetting” to seek out actual genetic relatives living in the area. While my therapist had a field day with this (after I brought it up myself), I ascribe no deeper meaning other than I have been investigating Modell for more than a year but I am still processing finally identifying my genetic mother. Plus, standing in a cemetery for a few moments (OK, 150 or so minutes) requires far less mental and emotional preparation than meeting a genetic relative for the first time.

Pulling out of Mt. Sharon, I attempted to drive the “back route” to my old Drexel Hill apartment, but I made a wrong turn (or three) somewhere. As I drove by the “car repair agreement” McDonalds, though, I realized that I was close to a direct route to here:

IMG_1959.JPG

Driving east on State Street, I crossed West Chester Pike in Upper Darby, intending to turn north to City Avenue (dividing line between Philadelphia and suburban Lower Merion Township). However, curiosity overtook my gnawing hunger as I realized that I was not that far from 4157-59 Lancaster Avenue—longtime home of the John Rhoads Company.

Parking on Lancaster Avenue, just northwest of 41st Street, I pulled out my iPhone and started taking photographs:

IMG_3848.JPG

IMG_3850

Finding a gap in the chain-link fencing, I explored the lot (empty since sometime between December 1976 and 1988—I will check city property records next):

IMG_3854

IMG_3858.JPG

As I walked back onto Lancaster Avenue, a reasonably-well-dressed African-American man (West Philadelphia is predominantly African-American) walked over to the western edge of the fencing and began to urinate.

That was my cue to drive to Dallesandro’s. There, as I awaited an excellent cheesesteak with provolone, mushrooms and pizza sauce (a combination I first invented at the long-defunct Boardwalk Pizza in Ardmore, PA in the spring of 1984), I chatted amiably with a young man from Philly and a young man from Somerville, MA (where I lived for 11+ years) about the need to “respect the line” that continually snakes out of Dallesandro’s.

**********

Sunday afternoon, after brunching in Collingswood, NJ here with my former work colleague JJ, I drove back over the Benjamin Franklin Bridge into Philadelphia. And, despite the blazing sun and heat, I decided to try my luck finding gravestones at historic Har Nebo Cemetery (opened 1890).

Other than my great-grandfather David Louis Berger and his wife Ida (Rugowitz), I did not know who else was buried there…making the search that much more daunting. It did not help that the first thing I noticed when I turned into Har Nebo shortly after 2 pm was a sign informing me the gates close at 4:30 pm.

And, of course, after about an hour of walking up and down the even-more-treacherous rows between gravestones (many of which had toppled over), I could no longer ignore the fact that I REALLY HAD TO PEE.

Answering nature’s call required driving back to the Roosevelt Boulevard, the main artery of Northeast Philadelphia. The first gas station I tried did not have a public restroom, and I was directed around the Oxford Road traffic circle to a combination gas station/Dunkin Donuts—which also had no public restroom. However, the two bored young ladies behind the Dunkin counter (one with admirably-blue hair) took pity and provided me the “secret” rest room key.

That was as successful as the afternoon was, as two fruitless sweaty hours exploring Har Nebo revealed a number of “Berger” and “Rugowitz” and “Caesar” (paternal grandmother’s maiden name) gravestones, but no great-grandparents. Looking through the photos I took just now, however, I discovered two of the names on the “Bergers  / death dates” list, so that is something.

After a delicious supper of spinach salad (my body was craving greens) and salmon here, I made arrangements to meet a high school friend for drinks (let’s call him “OW”). As we caught up over Chianti (me) and bourbon (him) here, I mentioned my discovery my father had allegedly hired Eddie “Psycho” Klayman to set fire to the John Rhoads Company.

OW wryly repeated “Eddie Klayman” before telling me that he used to babysit his children on Long Beach Island, NJ, less than an hour’s drive north of Atlantic City. I thought he was pulling my leg until he added he knew that Klayman was a front man for the Philadelphia mob, buying properties in his name for them. He added that his late wife Bernice (Kligman) was the “fattest woman I ever saw” and unhappy to boot.

Once again, the world really is that small.

**********

Monday was when I began to investigate in earnest—which is how I found myself sitting in the main Philadelphia branch of Santander Bank (1500 Market Street, directly southwest of City Hall), just past noon.

The young man I queried about my mother’s old safety deposit box keys tried to be helpful, but he was at a total loss. He called someone else about them, but she was equally flummoxed. About all they could tell me was that after 10 years of non-payment, boxes are drilled open and the contents sent…somewhere. I thanked him, gave him my card and asked him to contact me if he learned anything. I have not heard back from him.

After that, I walked around City Hall to the Masonic Temple.

Which, I learned, is closed on Mondays.

Had there been an appropriate wall, I may well have banged my head against it.

Realizing, however, that I was only two blocks west of the must-visit Reading Terminal Market, I walked there to have lunch at the Down Home Diner.

Thus fortified, I decided to walk here (I took this photograph as part of a text message to our avid-reader eldest daughter):

IMG_3871.JPG

My friend ST, the Assistant DA, had suggested that I explore their newspaper archives for information about the John Rhoads fire: while Newspapers.com appears to have every issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News for the relevant time period (March 29, 1972 to October 31, 1974) they do not have, say, the Philadelphia Bulletin (defunct since January 1982, its slogan used to be “Nearly everybody reads the Bulletin”).

In the newspaper archives room on the second floor, I was greeted by a row of modern-looking (if anachronistic) microfilm readers. It quickly became apparent I would have to skim each individual issue of the Bulletin over a 30-month span; two hours after I began, I had not even reviewed every issue from September 1974, so I called it a day.

Well, not entirely, because as I walked the 11 blocks to the parking garage at 15th and Sansom, I decided to drive to the Philadelphia Fire Department (PFD) Administration Building at 240 Spring Garden Street. Happily, I made the drive to arrive there well before 5 pm.

Just inside the grim gray building, I was greeted by three imposing, albeit friendly, men in navy firefighter’s uniforms. One of them was seated behind a small desk, and he asked me what I wanted. I explained that I sought information on a fire that had taken place in West Philadelphia in the early 1970s. After a brief conversation between the three men (implying I may as well have been asking about the 1770s), I was told that as of such-and-such a date, PFD records were stored in Room 168 of City Hall.

Yes, the same City Hall I had circled some three hours earlier.

I thanked them, walked up Spring Garden Street to my parked car, and drove out of the city towards my hotel. Hungry, I stopped here for a veggie stromboli; it was delicious, but not nearly as delicious as I remembered it being in the early 2000s.

Had it been open, I would also have walked a few blocks east on Lancaster Avenue to Gold Million Records—especially had I known its husband-and-wife owners, Harold Gold and Max I. Million, would announce the closing of this Main Line institution a few days later. When I was in high school, the store was called Plastic Fantastic, and its Bryn Mawr location was a haven for music buffs like me (I still have records I purchased there). It was also the playground of two of the most beautiful and gentle Afghan hounds you will ever see. One afternoon, I stood at the counter seeking to make my purchase with a personal check, which the cashier was hesitant to accept; standing just behind the cashier, with his back to us, was Mr. Gold. Overhearing the cashier’s and my conversation, Mr. Gold turned slowly around, pointed to me, and said, “He’s OK.”

Thank you, Mr. Gold (and Ms. Million) for slaking the musical thirst of generations of Philadelphia-area music fans.

**********

At around 2:20 pm the next day (Tuesday, April 14, 2018), after lunch with ST, I entered the interior court of Philadelphia’s imposing City Hall.

Philadelphia City Hall

After traversing one incorrect hallway, I located Room 168: Police/Fire Records Unit…

…which closes at 2 pm daily.

Unwilling to concede defeat, I entered the room across the hall (most likely Room 156: Records). There, a helpful young man behind a clear partition told me he did not believe the PFD kept records that far back then wrote down a phone number to call BEFORE returning to City Hall. This was terrific advice, actually, given how much I was paying to park in Center City.

Leaving City Hall, I walked across East Penn Street then turned north to N. Broad Street where—huzzah!—the Masonic Temple was open to the public.

Masonic Ticket

Walking into the Library, I saw an older woman sitting at a desk just outside what looked like the Librarian’s office; the sign on her desk read “Cathy Giaimo, Assistant Librarian.” The inner office was empty. I asked Ms. Giaimo where I could find Glenys Waldman (the Librarian with whom I had been corresponding by e-mail through November 2017—with an unanswered follow-up e-mail in March 2018).

“Oh, she retired a few months ago.”

At this point, I was ready to scream at the universe, “ENOUGH ALREADY!!” but I instead thanked her and decided to investigate the inner office.

And here I caught a break.

While I wanted to thank Ms. Waldman in person for her amiable and carefully-researched responses to my questions, I also wanted to know just how many Masonic Lodges Philadelphia housed—and what their relative memberships were—in 1925, 1938 and 1957 (when my great-uncle Jules, Modell and my father, respectively, were initiated). Scanning the bookshelves, I noticed a series of annual “Abstract of the Proceedings” volumes. Pulling out the one for 1938, I was thrilled to discover a table listing every Masonic Lodge in Pennsylvania, along with its city and membership for that year and the preceding one.

By 5 pm, I had taken relevant iPhone photographs of all relevant pages in the 1925, 1938 and 1957 annuals. I also photographed a few dozen pages in this historic publication:

1946 Lafayette Lodge

Here is a photograph I found of the 1943 Worshipful Master of LaFayette Lodge No. 71:

IMG_3934 (2).JPG

Soon after, my friend SD met me outside, where I took these photographs for our history-loving daughters.

IMG_3950.JPG

The Bond

After dining at Reading Terminal Market (of COURSE I had another mushroom-provolone-pizza steak), we drove here.

IMG_3954.JPG

The listless Philadelphia Phillies may have lost 2-1 to the otherworldly Boston Red Sox, but it was still a blast being in my “home” ballpark for the first time since 2014 (also with SD, plus one other friend).

**********

SD had a good suggestion for where I might obtain information about the fire that destroyed the downstairs playroom of my childhood house in Havertown, PA in, I surmise, March or April 1973: the Haverford Township Administration Building. That is where I drove after checking out of my hotel the following morning.

At the window of what I took to be the police and fire records department, I told a man about my age what I was seeking. Just behind me, two uniformed male officers were questioning a middle-aged woman seated on a vinyl-topped bench about what sounded like ongoing physical abuse by a man she knew (“Do you have somewhere you can go, ma’am?”).

“A fire in Havertown in 1973?”

“Yes.”

He turned to confer quietly with some women in the office behind him, then turned back to ask:

“Did anybody die?”

“No.”

“Yeah, sorry, we would not have a record of that here.”

“Oh, OK. Thank you.”

I walked by the woman and the officers, up the stairs and out to my car. Driving over to City Avenue I made the decision NOT to go back to City Hall, Room 168. Instead, I pulled into the parking lot of what used to be a terrific bowling alley (Center Lanes, if memory serves), a short walk from where I saw Manhattan with my father in 1979.

There, I called the number I had been given the day before. In response to my query, I was directed to call the Fire Marshal’s office (which, I just learned, is located in the PFD Administration Building I had visited two days earlier. Oy.). A harassed-sounding woman named Michelle listened to my request, clarified my return phone number and promised to get back to me. Much to my (delighted) surprise, she left me a voice mail the next day—she could find no record of a fire at 4157 Lancaster Avenue during that time period.

Thus do the emotions of a researcher rise and fall.

I then made one last stop—back to Har Nebo Cemetery (making sure to find a restroom first). I was somehow not surprised the office sign said “Closed.” On a whim, however, I rang the doorbell—and was immediately buzzed in.

Behind a low wooden counter, a balding man sat at a computer amidst a blizzard of paper. When I explained that I was searching for my great-grandparents, he said:

“Must be something in the air, because you are the second person today looking for relatives” then described that previous conversation in detail.

At first he could not find a “David Berger” who died in 1919, but he did find him under “Louis Berger.”

He scanned his screen a moment then exclaimed, “He was shot!”

While this was not news to me, I was fascinated it was part of the official burial record. I then told him the story—which I refrain from sharing here (I have to leave at least one untold tale for my book).

A few moments later (and with gratitude to Richard Levy), I was standing here:

IMG_3956

I had forgotten my widowed great-grandmother had married Benjamin Leopold in 1933, at the age of 63, making it all the more touching she was buried next to her first husband.

After photographing a few nearby gravestones containing familiar surnames, I returned to the office to ask Mr. Levy if he could locate other “Berger” gravestones of a similar generation. I withdrew the question after learning there were, I believe, 67 of them. At least I learned my great-grandfather’s father’s Hebrew name was Shmuel Mayer.

Baby steps—and I will be better prepared next time.

I also learned that the Vernon Diner makes an excellent spanakopita, though their cherry pie is meh.

Oh, and if you merge onto the Massachusetts Turnpike heading eastbound at night, you should take advantage of the Charlton rest area, because you never know when two lanes will be closed between Worcester and I-495 when OHMYGODIHAVETOPEERIGHTNOW.

At 11:35 pm that night (having answered nature’s call just in the nick of time), after driving 1,246.4 miles in just over six-and-a-half days, I pulled into our new driveway.

Until next time…

Visiting Philadelphia: Restaurants and Rituals

My preferred driving route to Philadelphia from Boston has evolved over the last 30+ years.

My first route was simply an extension of departing from New Haven, CT in the mid-1980s, so I became used to taking I-95 south directly through New York City via the Cross Bronx Expressway; after crossing the George Washington (GW) Bridge, I would take the New Jersey Turnpike to Exit 6—Pennsylvania Turnpike then from there to Route 1 south. After moving to Boston (OK, Somerville) in August 1989, I simply took I-95 all the way south from Boston, through Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York to the New Jersey Turnpike.

A few years later, a roommate convinced me it was faster to take the Massachusetts Turnpike (known locally as “The Pike”) west to I-84, take I-84 south/west to Hartford, CT, take I-91 south to New Haven…and so forth.

In the late 1990s, I got into the habit of leaving Somerville in the evening, allowing me to miss most of the insane New York City traffic that can clog the Cross Bronx Expressway for hours. In fact, I often drove from the Connecticut border to the GW Bridge in around 30 minutes (my record was 22 minutes).

When I returned to Boston (OK, Waltham) in September 2005, I continued to use this route, though now I was departing earlier in the day, meaning I could no longer avoid New York City traffic. But, even after my wife Nell tried to convince me to use the Tappan Zee Bridge route, I stubbornly clung to the Cross Bronx Expressway—until 3:47 pm on May 28, 2013:

IMG_0267

Sitting powerless on the Cross Bronx Expressway, I read this sign as “you really do not want to know how long it will take to drive the handful of miles to the GW Bridge.” If memory serves, it took well over two hours (closer to three?) to crawl from the Connecticut border to the GW Bridge.

Enough was enough, and I learned the Tappan Zee Bridge route. For me that still meant taking I-95 west from New Haven, but now I would take Exit 17, very nearly the halfway point of the roughly 340 mile journey, and have a late lunch at the Sherwood Diner.

From there, I would take Route 1 a mile or so east to Route 136 north, then another mile or so north to Route 15, also known as the Merritt Parkway. Follow that west into New York to I-287, over the Tappan Zee Bridge to the Garden State Parkway, then to the New Jersey Turnpike.

The fastest I ever drove from the Boston area to the Philadelphia area was in August 2005—leaving Cambridge, MA at around 9 pm, I drove non-stop for five hours and 15 minutes, arriving in King of Prussia, PA at around 2:15 am.

It pays to be a night owl at times.

At the other extreme, it has taken me more than 10 hours to make this drive; inevitably, traffic congestion and/or construction delays will occur at least once along this densely-populated urban corridor.

So, when I departed from our new apartment in Brookline, MA at 10:35 am on the morning of August 9, 2018, bound for the superb Hyatt House hotel in King of Prussia, I assumed I would not arrive until 6 pm, at the earliest. I was thus perfectly content to arrive at 6:30 pm, eight hours after I departed (including stopping at the Sherwood for nearly an hour).

**********

My reasons for going to Philadelphia have also evolved over time. For years, I was literally returning home to visit family. My mother may have changed addresses, but she was still there, along with her own mother, two first cousins and my severely-retarded older sister Mindy.

I also had a number of very close friends there, including the first and second people I ever cited here (a Yale friend I will call “SD” and a former work colleague I will call “JJ”).

The “family” reasons began to disappear, however, when my mother died in March 2004. Three years later, my grandmother died. Within the next 10 years, my first cousins moved to California and Florida, and my uncle finally sold the house in Bala Cynwyd where I lived for parts of 7th and 8th grades.

Excluding a newly-discovered second cousin, that leaves only my sister Mindy, whose legal guardian I am, and who remains at the Woodhaven campus of Merakey Education and Autism (formerly Northeastern Health Servivces [NHS]) more than four decades after she entered there in December 1974. Thus, a primary purpose for traveling to Philadelphia at least once a year is to visit my sister. What this actually entails is the following:

I arrive in King of Prussia Thursday evening. Upon awaking on Friday, I call the staff in Mindy’s unit to let her know I will arrive around 4 pm that day, and to please have her showered and dressed. As a rule, I then drive the 15 or so minutes to the excellent Minella’s Diner for breakfast; this trip, however, I chose to save money by stopping at the 24-hour Wegmans in King of Prussia late Thursday night to buy cereal, their superlative fresh-squeezed orange juice, non-fat milk and blueberries to eat for breakfast each morning (the Hyatt House actually supplies four sets of bowls, flatware, glasses and mugs in each room).

On the way to Woodhaven, I stop at the WAWA on Route 1, just north of the Philadelphia/Bucks County line, for four tuna salad sandwiches (JUST tuna salad), two bottles of water, a bag of hard pretzels, and a package of Tastykake chocolate cup cakes (because, you know, nobody bakes a cake as tasty as a Tastykake). I also fill up my gas tank.

WAWA is a Philadelphia-area institution, so much so that Tina Fey references it in this brilliant pre-2018-Super-Bowl Saturday Night Live sketch. Almost as a rite of passage, I worked at this WAWA in the summer of 1985 (just after my freshman year at Yale); my only complaints about the gig were the revolting “deli wipes” (removing all of the meats from the deli counter in order to wash it), missing the Philadelphia half of Live Aid because I had to work that night, and cutting my hand on the deli slicer (it was my own fault, as I was not paying attention as I rushed to finish my 10-hour shift).

Visiting Mindy is pure ritual. I sign her out at the main office, she gets her evening medications (a process helped by being mixed into a chocolate Ensure), and we get into my car. This particular trip, she spit out about half of her Ensure, so she needed another clean shirt. In the process, she used the bathroom and required a new pair of pants. Watching this unfold, I really cannot thank the staff in her unit enough for all the work they do. In fact, with the switch to Merakey from NHS, every staff member seemed happier and friendlier; though I was briefly flummoxed by the new security regimen (this, despite the Woodhaven campus being only a few hundred feet from the Pennsylvania National Guard Armory).

Once we are buckled into my car, I turn on a carefully-selected playlist that always begins with the original 1964 cast recording of Fiddler on the Roof; this year, I followed that with a long selection of songs by Stevie Wonder, Chicago and Elton John. Throughout her life, the way to calm Mindy (especially prior to her current psychotropic regimen—talk about “Miracle of Miracles”) has been to drive her in the car while listening to the radio; my love of meandering drives with their own soundtrack likely stems from this.

Pulling out of the Woodhaven parking lot, I follow a pre-set course, one my mother and I worked out before she died; at some point in the drive, Mindy will ask for “sandwich” or “tuna fish,” which is my cue to extract a sandwich (and plenty of napkins) for Mindy to eat—and then another and perhaps another.

We begin by turning right onto Southampton Road, following that to Academy Road and turning left, following that to Knights Road and turning left, and following that to Street Road and turning right. This dead ends on State Road, which we follow north through Bristol—detouring briefly through this townhouse complex on the Delaware River my mother especially liked—to the end of Bordertown Road. Turn left onto New Ford Mill Road then meander over to Tyburn Road, where we turn right and cross Business Route 1 to Woolston Drive. Turn right, then left onto Makefield Road. This we follow until it dead ends at the Yardley-Morrisville Road. Turn left, drive through scenic Yardley; a number of road name changes later, the road dead ends on Route 32. Turn left and drive the few miles along the beautiful road into the charming borough of New Hope (where, I just learned from SD, one of my favorite singers lives).

Once in New Hope, we sometimes traverse this wicked cool bridge to Lambertville, NJ just because it is there. Either way, we then take the very short Route 179 to Route 202. More scenic driving south on Route 202 takes us to our one stop—Buckingham Pizza.

It is not that the food there is exceptional (though their pizza slices are certainly tasty), it is that they are incredibly patient with Mindy. We enter, use the bathroom (washing her hands afterward is…fun), then sit at a table. Bear in mind, Mindy is NOT patient. I order two cheese slices (cut down the middle for easier consumption) and a diet Coke with no ice for her; I usually get two slices, one pepperoni and one mushroom, while treating myself to a caffeinated soda—or maybe cream.

The slices arrive quickly, we eat, wash up and leave—the entire process takes maybe 20 minutes. And I avoid what happened one of the first times I took Mindy out myself, back in the summer of 2006. We stopped at a Chinese restaurant and ordered food. She had a few spoonfuls of Won-Ton soup, but they were too hot for her. Finally growing impatient at waiting for the rest of our meal, she tipped the table over, spilling soup everywhere…and I mean everywhere.

Ouch.

Lesson learned.

When we leave Buckingham Pizza, it is around 6:30, and I generally keep her out until 7:45, so we meander south on Route 202 to Route 263 south, and from there to Route 63 East. The latter brings us back to the Roosevelt Boulevard, less than a mile south of the Woodhaven campus. By 8 pm, Mindy is signed back in, she has gone to her room, and I have cleaned the detritus of our drive out of the car into a giant dumpster literally marked “VILE.”

And I climb back behind the wheel to have my “goodnight” call with our daughters, who, if it is summertime, are safely ensconced on Martha’s Vineyard.

**********

As I noted, I habitually drive to Philadelphia on Thursday; I usually stay four nights—I am very much a creature of (evolving) habit. However, because SD suggested we attend the Red Sox-Phillies game at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday, August 14, I stayed two additional nights.

I always drive to Philadelphia on Thursday because of another ritual. My friend SD (who grew up in New England, where I now live, and now lives with his family in Havertown, where I was raised—criss-cross, though minus the morbidity) and I visit The Westgate Pub, where we are very friendly with an excellent female bartender there. Indeed, even though she is just a few years younger than us, she always calls us “her boys.” The food is not bad either.

Alas, when SD and I entered the Westgate on the evening of Thursday, August 9, our friend was not working; I still do not know if she was on vacation or no longer works there. We quickly ate something then drove to the far livelier McShea’s Pub in nearby Narberth. If, in fact, our friend no longer works at the Westgate, this will almost certainly be our new my-first-evening-in-town hangout.

Once I drop SD safely home, I meander back to King of Prussia, usually driving by pre-college landmarks—my childhood home, other friends’ houses, and so forth—and stopping at a WAWA for bottles of water (pronounced “wootder,” yo) and other travel staples. On this last trip, I also stopped for dessert at Minella’s, where I sat at the spacious counter and ate barely half of the largest chocolate éclair I had ever seen, along with multiple cups of decaffeinated coffee (black). The same older gentleman who worked the cash register when I was a regular patron in the early 2000s was still there; he remembered me, though a bit vaguely,

And, yes, that was the fourth restaurant I visited that day.

There is one more ritual to describe before turning to what made this trip interesting—and ultimately frustrating.

Once I drop off Mindy and finish saying good night to my wife and daughters, I drive the 25 or so miles west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the hotel. I shower and change before getting back in the car again (there is a reason that I drove a total of 1,246.4 miles in six-and-a-half days this last trip).

I stay in King of Prussia in part because it is familiar, having lived there from February 2003 to September 2005, but also because it is located at the confluence of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Schuylkill Expressway (occasionally known locally as the “sure kill”) and Routes 23, 202 and 422. In sum, King of Prussia is a short drive from everywhere.

Following Route 23 west from King of Prussia takes you through magnificent Valley Forge National Historical Park, where the deer (if not the antelope) play. Driving though at night, a short distance before the intersection with Route 252, the line of trees to your right clears and across Route 422 you see the stunning St. Gabriel’s Hall lit up in the distance (this is the best I can do for a photograph—you will have to use your imagination). Honestly, that view is one of my favorite reasons for staying near Valley Forge—though it was not until I searched for a link on Google that I realized what powerful work they do there.

Driving along Route 23, I pass through Phoenixville until I reach the intersection with Route 113 North—where the terrific Vale-Rio Diner used to be. Turning north, I loop around some crazy curves into hip downtown Phoenixville. There, you have to turn left and drive over the Schuylkill River to stay on Route 113—and then you have to carefully track the turns through the densely-populated blue-collar residential streets to remain on Route 113. Eventually, the road becomes more rural—and I ultimately choose to take 2nd Avenue west into Royersford rather than follow Route 113 north into Collegeville. When 2nd Avenue dead ends onto Main Street, I turn right, following Main Street through Royersford over Route 422, where it becomes Township Line Road.

It is here that I first begin to look to my left to find the cooling towers of the Limerick (nuclear) Generating Station—because seeing those lit-up massive towers billowing steam at night from miles away is almost intolerably creepy.

Limerick cooling towers

About a mile after crossing Route 422—all the while straining to see the cooling towers without veering off the road—I turn left onto W. Ridge Pike. A pleasant mile or so later, past Waltz Golf Farm, I turn left into the spacious parking lot of the terrific Limerick Diner (owned by the same people as Minella’s, as well as the Llanerch Diner, made famous in the 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook).

If you ever eat there, keep an eye out for Rob—and tip him well if he is your waiter. He is a good man with a fascinating life story. And if the sticky buns are fresh, treat yourself to one (lightly grilled with butter)—you will not regret it.

Having a quiet meal at the Limerick Diner (despite the epically-awful karaoke singing that usually emanates from the pub section on Friday nights—though this time there was none, because the owner had neglected to renew their liquor license some months earlier), chatting with Rob, represents the end of the ritual leg of the journey (Sherwood, Westgate, Minella’s, Mindy)—and the start of the “come what may” leg.

Leaving the Limerick Diner, I take a slightly different route back to the Hyatt—following W. Ridge Pike past bucolic Ursinus College to Route 29. Turning right takes me to Route 422, which I follow to Route 23 and the Hyatt.

There I get into bed to prepare for the next leg.

To be continued…

Moving serendipity

The moving van arrives Tuesday morning.

Friday afternoon (yesterday as I write this) we finally drove two packed cars to the storage unit we rented when we relocated my mother-in-law to the Boston area five years ago (the stuff one can accumulate over more than four decades in a three-story Georgetown brownstone is mind-boggling). Our eldest daughter—let’s call her “Jenny”—rode with me, while our youngest daughter—let’s call her “Laura”—rode with my wife Nell.

The trip served multiple purposes. One was to clear space for the rapidly increasing piles of taped-shut cardboard boxes continually rearranging themselves in our apartment in a persistent game of Whack-a-mole. We also wanted to assess the dimensions of multiple sets of well-constructed wooden bookcases.

A third purpose became apparent once we started rummaging through the haphazardly stacked piles of boxes.

When we moved into our soon-to-be-vacated apartment nearly 11 years ago, Nell and I were disinclined to share a bedroom (primarily out of long-ingrained habit). Thus, she occupied the upstairs bedroom, and I the downstairs bedroom. Jenny’s arrival, however, followed less than two years later by Laura, necessitated increased creativity with our space. For a few years, the baby girls slept comfortably in the large walk-in closet downstairs. Once that became untenable, the girls moved into the downstairs bedroom, where they sleep as I type this, and my wife and I began to share a bedroom.

The purchase of a luxurious king-size bed—and my surgery for a deviated septum and other sinus-related irregularities—greatly eased the transition. The walk-in closet became my office. But the accompanying reorganization mandated a significant purge of my ever-increasing library.

In the ensuing seven years, I had forgotten what happened to all of those books. There had been a vague plan to sell them, though the memory sort of ends there. Well, no, it had also gotten mixed up with the massive cleaning I performed some months ago of the shared hallway leading to the door into the backyard, a storage limbo for long-departed tenants. I had placed a number of boxes of abandoned books by the blue recycling bins in the alleyway which runs behind our building; they disappeared within days.

So, imagine my delight when I discovered four boxes of books toward the rear of the storage unit (sadly, there was no time machine). Watching Jenny effortlessly clamber over them reminded me of playing on the pyramid-stacked rolls of used carpeting in my father’s store when I was a boy.

Laura was not there because she wanted to visit her grandmother–and because she was not feeling well. Curiously, as Jenny and I loaded Nell’s car earlier that day, I threw out some stuff and moved a green plastic newspaper sleeve (aka “dookie bag”) onto the seat. While Nell and Laura were driving, Laura became queasy…and there was no way Nell could pull over in time (nor did she have anything to capture the impending outburst). Luckily, the green “dookie bag” was there next to her, and it efficiently served the same purpose as one of these.

Happily, a quiet air-conditioned afternoon sipping a Coke with “grandee” made all the difference. Later, when we were all home again, Jenny asked Nell if Laura had used the green dookie bag that “Daddy had left on the seat.”

**********

Back in the storage unit, meanwhile, I decided to remove the four boxes of books to donate them.

When I had performed a more recent purge of my own accumulated odds and ends (all that paper!), I had filled the equivalent of seven canvas bags with books for disposal. Last Monday, Jenny and I took them to the excellent Brookline Booksmith for sale; their book buyer selected the equivalent of one canvas bag for purchase. Hey, $35 in store credit is better than nothing.

But there still remained the equivalent of six canvas bags of books for disposal.  While the internet offered few palatable options, I finally settled upon a small Waltham non-profit called More Than Words, hitherto unknown to me.

I drove there the following day—and they could not have made the donation process any easier. A staff member offered to help unload my car (I politely declined as I have been enjoying the “workout”) then carefully unpacked my bags so I could reuse them. A small iPad was set up for creating a tax-donation receipt (perhaps unwisely, I did not use it). As I was walking out, I spied a pristine copy of the first full-length work of detective fiction I ever read (excluding the episodic adventures of Encyclopedia Brown)—and key part of the “detective fiction” chapter in the book I am (in fits and starts) writing.

Tower Treasure.JPG

At only $4.95 (what More Than Words charges for every hardback book), it was a steal.

Wait, did I say “seven” canvas bags of books?

Sorry, I neglected the five bags of books that have been living in our garage for years. THEY got taken to More Than Words Wednesday; this time Jenny and Laura came with me. They love Mexican food (especially Jenny, who would happily eat burritos every meal), and I promised them we could have supper at a nearby Margarita’s.

After donating our books, the girls and I spent a few minutes browsing their selections. Jenny did not find anything, though Laura found a beautiful book of sea stories. I found a book for myself and a $3 copy of the best high school film (with no disrespect to John Hughes) ever: Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

We then piled back into my car and pulled left onto one-way Felton Street. I quickly turned right, then right again onto Charles Street, intending to loop around to Moody Street and Margarita’s. But we immediately drove by a charming hole-in-the-wall restaurant called Taqueria Mexico. Changing plans on the fly, we parked and went inside the Zagat’s-rated restaurant.

Need I say the food was excellent (particularly given the relatively low cost)?

**********

Back in the storage unit…when I loaded the four boxes of books from the storage unit into my car, I naturally assumed I would visit More Than Words for the third time in four days. On a lark, Jenny and I turned left out of the storage unit parking lot instead of right. This briefly looped us through some lovely residential areas back onto Route 3A, albeit a bit further north.

Literally as I turned onto Route 3A, however, I spotted this large used book store. Pulling into the parking lot, I saw they accepted donations. Most of the contents of four boxes placed carefully into their donation bin later (I opted to keep maybe 10 of them), I had a 15% in-store discount chit. Jenny, meanwhile, had found a couple of gifts for the ailing Laura (including this) plus the Pseudonymous Bosch book (Write This Book) she had been seeking.

All because we turned left instead of right.

**********

We were hungry when we left the used bookstore, so I kept my eyes open for somewhere good to eat. Rejecting a Mexican restaurant (I was not in the mood), I talked Jenny into stopping at a venerable (if vanishing) New England chain: Bickford’s.

The low number of patrons (she has seen Restaurant: Impossible) made her dubious, but she was quickly won over by the presence of clam chowder (New England, of course–though I confess to loving Manhattan as well) on the menu, which proved quite delicious (as was the rest of our meals). After bemoaning the decline of Denny’s in my last post, this was a welcome surprise.

While we sat there, I played the voicemail—from an unfamiliar Cambridge number—on my iPhone. It was a very nice lady from Gentle Giant calling to confirm our movers were scheduled to arrive between 8:00 and 8:30 am, Monday, July 30.

Wait…WHAT?!?

Had I really forgotten the movers were arriving Monday morning instead of Tuesday morning?

Yes…yes I had.

Words fail.

To be honest, Monday morning would be perfectly fine…except I had already obtained the required moving truck parking permits for both ends of the move—with date and day of the week indelibly written on them.

And wouldn’t you know it, the Town of Brookline Transportation Department closes at 12:30 pm on Friday (it was now nearly 3 pm).

But this being that sort of day, when the nice lady from Gentle Giant returned my voicemail she told me that there was no problem switching the date of our move from Monday to Tuesday.

Calling her a “lifesaver,” as I did, does not even come close.

**********

As a reward for what was proving a magical day, I decided to meander over to a terrific bakery in Belmont I had discovered quite by chance five years earlier, snapping this photograph in lieu of a mental note.

Ohlins Bakery

Turning left from Trapelo Road, however, we saw nought but an empty storefront; I now know why.

Disappointed, we kept driving. A little further east, I turned right onto Grove Street toward Mt. Auburn Street. Just after crossing Mt. Auburn, a police officer was standing in the road directing traffic out of the Tufts Health Plan parking lot. Rather than go straight, I randomly turned right onto Calvin Road, little more than a back alley.

After almost immediately turning right, and realizing we were literally around the corner from where Laura practices gymnastics, the Danish Pastry House was right in front of us. I do not expect our box of assorted scrumptious baked goods to last 24 hours.

Jenny and I arrived home with our treasures (including more empty boxes, our new currency) a little before 5 pm. I took a quick shower and settled down in my office to catch up on mail and my regular websites. Ironically, the first post I read also dealt with selling books to a used book store.

I also checked to see if my Philadelphia Phillies (who hold a shocking 2.5 game lead in the National League East as I type this—fivethirtyeight.com now gives them a 54% chance to win their division) had made any trades with the July 31 non-waiver deadline looming. No sooner had I read that they were not likely to make a major move, I saw that they had just acquired former All-Star shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera for a AA pitcher named Franklyn Kilome.

Is it any wonder that when the Phillies fell behind 5-2 to the Cincinnati Reds, I figured they would rally to win?

Alas, every magic show must come to an end; they lost 6-4.

Until next time…

NOIR CITY 16: A photographic epilogue

In this follow-up to the chronicling of my recent trip to NOIR CITY 16 in San Francisco, I take considerable artistic license with photographs of San Francisco. To read the entire series, please start here (or with this related, more analytic post).

It is an open question whether I would have grown so inordinately fond of this film festival if it were held anywhere but San Francisco, a city I loved long before I attended NOIR CITY 12 in 2014.

In my recent nine-part travelogue I focused primarily on my sojourn in NOIR CITY 16 (January 26 – February 4, 2018). As a result I elided San Francisco locales I visited during prior festivals but not this year.

I will redress that oversight in two parts. First, I will describe specific places not mentioned in the NOIR CITY 16 posts. Second, I will present quasi-artistic photographs of streets and buildings, with a brief digression on the street-facing fire escapes endemic to San Francisco. I then conclude with a haunting question.

Part I: Specific Sites

Following an early-morning flight from Boston that deposited me in San Francisco at 12:30 pm (all times PST) on Friday, January 24, 2014—leaving me so sleepy I watched my brand new, monogrammed suitcase and valet bag ride around the luggage carousel many times before a helpful airport worker pointed them out to me–I met my friend PH at the Prescott Hotel.

The Prescott was the “official” hotel of NOIR CITY (that honor has gone to the Hotel Rex since 2016), and they greeted me in style:

IMG_0725

IMG_0722

I quickly made myself comfortable…

Prescott TV

…in this small…

IMG_0797

…albeit unusually decorated room (this painting in the bathroom enthralled me).

IMG_0934.JPG

Sir Francis Drake Hotel. PH and I walked the one-and-a-half blocks east on Post to this storied boutique hotel (one block north on Powell from Union Square), where PH’s friend worked in its diverse bars and restaurants.

We found her tending the quiet main lobby bar.

As we sat, drank (unwise given my exhaustion level) and ate surprisingly-unappetizing flatbread pizza, this imposing model of Drake watched over us.

IMG_0723

The hotel did achieve culinary redemption when PH and I ate at the superb Scala’s Bistro my last night there (Monday, February 3, 2014); PH’s friend waited on us with amiable grace.

Aquatic Park/Ghirardelli Square. On Sunday, January 26, 2014, I took my first meandering walk through Nob Hill and Russian Hill. Here, I look south on Kearny at Vallejo…

IMG_0746.JPG

…before looking west on Vallejo.

IMG_0747.JPG

Here I look north on Mason at Grant…

IMG_0751.JPG

…then climbed Lombard Street before arriving in Aquatic Park and Ghirardelli Square.

Sometime before 3 pm, I wandered into the Winery Collective, located in the nautical-themed Argonaut Hotel, in response to a very full bladder.

The rest rooms were located in the connecting lobby of the Argonaut. Returning to the winery, where I had deposited by stuff, I started a long conversation with the charismatic African-American oenophile working behind the counter.

She did require much persuasion for me to sample these wines:

IMG_0758

My view as I sipped:

IMG_0760

You cannot go to San Francisco and not order a sourdough soup bowl. I took this photograph some 20 minutes later, in the Blue Mermaid Restaurant, located in the lobby of the Argonaut.

IMG_0761.JPG

It was a chilly, foggy day—which made the view of the Golden Gate Bridge from Aquatic Park even more dramatic

 I actually explored the park—and Ghirardelli Square—when I returned in 2015.

IMG_1567.JPG

IMG_1564.JPG

IMG_1565.JPG

 IMG_1566.JPG

This park serves as one end of the Powell & Hyde cable car route. After my wine and soup, I waited a long time to board a cable car to return to the Prescott. In fact, I ended up running so late that I needed to take a taxi to the Castro Theatre, arriving just in time to enjoy two films noir from Japan—Yoidore Tenshi (Drunken Angel) and Nora Inu (Stray Dog)—both directed by the legendary Akira Kurosawa.

Unique Sweets. My wife Nell and I started regularly watching Food Network and Cooking Channel in the early 2010s. An early Cooking Channel favorite was Unique Sweets.

The third episode from Season 4 (“San Fran Sweet Treats”) highlighted three desert-themed restaurants: Craftsman and Wolves, Dandelion Chocolate and The Ice Cream Bar. Originally airing December 1, 2013, I re-watched it OnDemand before leaving for San Francisco.

On the morning of Monday, January 27, 2014, I set off in search of the first two, conveniently located next to each other on Valencia Street.

IMG_0763.JPG

Yes, that is sipping caramel.

IMG_0764.JPG

The aromas in Dandelion Chocolate are so enticing they blur your vision.

IMG_0765.JPG

IMG_0766.JPG

IMG_0767.JPG

I still have that gray fleece.

IMG_0768.JPG

As for the Ice Cream Bar, just bear with me.

PH lives near Haight-Ashbury, so on the afternoon of Friday, January 31, 2014, we toured this iconic  neighborhood.

I had been hearing (and seeing) a great deal of Bettie Page vintage clothiers, so we stopped in.

IMG_0856.JPG

IMG_0858.JPG

IMG_0861.JPG

IMG_0863.JPG

After lunch at Crepes on Cole, where I took this photograph for our vegetable-chomping younger daughter…

IMG_0865.JPG

…we traveled back in time to this vintage ice cream/soda fountain.

IMG_0864.JPG

IMG_0867.JPG

IMG_0866.JPG

IMG_0868.JPG

John’s Grill. Towards the end of The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett writes:

Spade went to the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company’s station in Powell Street and called Davenport 2020. “Emergency Hospital, please….Hello, there’s a girl in suite twelve C at the Alexandria Hotel who has been drugged….Yes, you’d better send somebody to take a look at her….This is Mr. Hooper of the Alexandria.”

He put the receiver on its prong and laughed. He called another number and said: “Hello, Frank. This is Sam Spade….Can you let me have a car with a driver who’ll keep his mouth shut?….To go down the peninsula right away….Just a couple of hours….Right. Have him pick me up at John’s, Ellis Street, as soon as he can make it.”

He called another number—his office’s—held the receiver to his ear for a little while without saying anything, and replaced it on its hook.

He went to John’s Grill, asked the waiter to hurry his order of chops, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes, ate hurriedly, and was smoking a cigarette with his coffee when a thick-set youngish man with a plaid cap set askew above pale eyes and a tough cheery face came into the Grill and to this table.

“All set, Mr. Spade. She’s full of gas and rearing to go.”

“Swell.” Spade emptied his cup and went out with the thick-set man.

I first visited John’s Grill in November 2003, while in San Francisco for a scientific conference—and of course I ordered “Sam Spade’s Lamb Chops.”

On the evening of Monday, January 27, 2014, I returned.

IMG_0774.JPG

IMG_0776.JPG

IMG_0777.JPG

IMG_0781.JPG

This is the actual prop used in the iconic 1941 film noir.

Actual Maltese Falcon prop at John's Grill, SF Jan 2014.JPG

Almost one year later (Thursday, January 15, 2015), I returned; the novelty had worn off, though.

IMG_1502.JPG

The Ferry Building (on The Embarcadero). PH and I caught a ferry to Sausalito from here on the morning of Tuesday, January 28, 2014.

IMG_0786.JPG

IMG_0787.JPG

Sears Fine Food. Lured by the neon sign and its apparent historic importance, I stopped in here for a snack on the late afternoon of Monday, February 3, 2014 (my last day in NOIR CITY 12).

IMG_0931.JPG

IMG_0928.JPG

IMG_0930.JPG

The place was not exactly hopping.

IMG_0929.JPG

As someone who has watched many episodes of Restaurant: Impossible, that made me nervous. I do not recall what I ordered, but it was nothing special.

Part 2: No Particular Place To Go.

Arresting buildings and interesting views. From 2014, in no particular order, we begin with this vista in Haight-Ashbury…

IMG_0849.JPG

…before moving to these gorgeous “noir” buildings on Powell between O’Farrell and Ellis.

IMG_0922.JPG

IMG_0923.JPG

Here the street-facing fire escapes are plainly visible.

IMG_0921.JPG

Fire escapes are often a visual focal point in films noir. Like Venetian blinds, prison bars and slatted stairwells, they allow light to be broken into jagged shards, mimicking German expressionists.

But these fire escapes were often in the rear of apartment buildings, allowing private ingress and egress (did nobody lock their windows between 1941 and 1959?), perhaps to frame a detective for murder (e.g.¸ The Dark Corner) or simply as part of daily life (e.g., Rear Window). Or a young boy could sleep on them, inadvertently witnessing a murder, as in The Window.

Our Brookline neighborhood’s rabbit warren of alleys, paths and stairways is littered with rear fire escapes—and I love their metallic glint in the muted glow of street lamps and safety lights at night.

But having them front and center the way they are in San Francisco is such a visual contrast to how they are typically seen (or, to be precise, not seen) that they fascinate me.

Here is my 2018 photograph of the Rex, cropped to emphasize its street-facing fire escape:

Rex fire escape

One final shot from 2014, looking up from Powell and Ellis.

IMG_0924.JPG

From 2015, again in no particular order, we have this building looming over Chinatown at the intersection of Grant and California.

IMG_1576.JPG

This is the Transamerica Pyramid as seen from Kearny, just south of Pacific.

IMG_1539.JPG

It is a long descent to Alcatraz from the corner of Green and Taylor.

IMG_1562.JPG

Looking toward the Bay Bridge from Broadway and Taylor.

IMG_1546.JPG

Looking up on Taylor from Ina Coolbirth Park, between Vallejo and Green.

IMG_1561.JPG

I was smitten with this vintage trolley on 17th Street, just around the corner from the Castro.

IMG_1637.JPG

Here are additional vistas from 2018.

The Bay Bridge seen from Vallejo, between Mason and Taylor.

IMG_3375.JPG

Looking northeast from Vallejo and Taylor:

IMG_3378.JPG

Looking south on Mason from Washington.

IMG_3385.JPG

This alley off Stockton, between Post and Bush, caught my eye…

IMG_3579.JPG

…as did this view looking east on Geary from Powell, at the southern edge of Union Square.

IMG_3587.JPG

Daughter-inspired. I took these first two photographs by Dragon’s Gate, at Grant and Bush.

IMG_0740.JPG

IMG_0741.JPG

This now-defunct store on Powell seemed intended for our highly-imaginative younger daughter.

IMG_0770.JPG

From 2015, we have this storefront on Grant, between Bush and Sutter.

 IMG_1507.JPG

 I took this photograph in 2017 for our athletic bookworm eldest daughter.

IMG_2972 (2).JPG

Noir-tistry. I achieved these John-Alton-inspired effects by setting “Light” and “Color” to -100 and “Clarity” to 100.

IMG_0850.jpg

IMG_3395.jpg

Look—another street-facing fire escape.

IMG_3564.jpg

 IMG_3640

Oddities. I took this photograph at 535 Valencia, just north of Craftsman and Wolves/ Dandelion Chocolate, in 2014. As far as I know, my mother never made sushi…or mixed particularly interesting drinks.

IMG_0769.JPG

One final question (unanswered since 2015): What did John do to deserve this fate—and in what “one way” will it happen?

IMG_1535.JPG

Until next time…

Two distinct restaurants. Two different conversations. One unanswered question.

I spent many nights in the liberated summer between high school graduation and enrolling at Yale taking long solo drives, exploring outer suburban Philadelphia. One night, meandering along Route 23, I saw this at the intersection with Route 113N in Phoenixville:

pd35981453_8ab3ec6c23_z

My idea of heaven was, and remains, a 24-hour diner, though less so when the sun is shining.

65_big

Nineteen years later, I moved to King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, a 30-45 minute drive northwest of Center City Philadelphia and home to one of the world’s largest shopping malls. Given the proximity of King of Prussia to Phoenixville, the Vale Rio Diner soon became a favorite late-night haunt[1].

The 20-or-so minute drive to the Vale Rio took me through beautiful Valley Forge National Historic Park. Before entering Valley Forge, I would drive by the King of Prussia Mall and the Valley Forge Casino Tower. Upon leaving Valley Forge, I would drive by the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, what was then called the National Christian Conference Center and the local chapter of the Boy Scouts of America.

Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, I understood that I was living in between the Democratic, majority-minority city of Philadelphia and some of the most white rural/small town conservative parts of the state. Delaware and Montgomery Counties were Republican-dominated, to be sure, but it was a very moderate, northeastern brand of Republican.

Driving to the Vale Rio was thus literally crossing from one political and cultural milieu to its near-polar opposite.

**********

Just bear with me while I present polling data regarding American attitudes toward guns.

In April 2017, a CBS News Poll asked 1,214 adults, “In general, do you think laws covering the sale of guns should be made more strict, less strict, or kept as they are now?” Overall, a majority—54%—answered “more strict,” 33% answered “kept as they are” and 11% answered “less strict.”

Look more closely, however, and you see an unsettling partisan divide. While 73% of Democrats—and 51% of Independents—wanted more strict gun sale laws, only 38% of Republicans did. In fact, a plurality of Republicans (44%) wanted gun sale laws kept as they are now. And while few respondents wanted less strict gun sale laws, Republicans (16%) were three times more likely than Democrats (5%) to hold that position.

CBS News has asked a version of this question, and provided partisan breakdowns, since February 2013, a few months after the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  While specific percentages have ebbed and flowed, the pattern is constant: a large majority of Democrats, and a bare majority of Independents, favor more strict gun sale laws, while Republicans generally prefer to keep the laws as they are. Squint a bit, and you might see Republicans shifting toward more strict gun sale laws, a trend worth watching.

This partisan divide appears, often by wider margins, on similar questions:

  • Safer with more guns or fewer guns?
    • Most Republicans say “More guns”
    • Most Democrats say “Fewer guns”
    • Independents evenly split
  • Banning assault weapons?
    • Most Republicans say “No”
    • Most Democrats say “Yes”
    • Independents evenly split
  • Stricter gun laws (without specifying “sales”)
    • More Republicans say “Oppose”
    • Even more Democrats say “Support”
    • Independents lean towards “Support”
  • Opinion of the National Rifle Association (NRA), of those with opinion
    • Most Republicans say “Favorable”
    • Most Democrats say “Unfavorable” (with higher % not sure)
    • Independents evenly split
  • Own a gun (self or in household)?
    • Most Republicans say “Yes”
    • Most Democrats say “No”
    • Independents lean slightly “Yes”
  • More worried you/someone you know will be victim of gun violence or terrorist attack?
    • Republicans lean slightly “Terrorist attack”
    • Most Democrats say “Gun violence”
    • More Independents say “Gun violence”
  • Allowing more teachers/school officials to carry guns in schools
    • More Republicans say “Yes”
    • Even more Democrats say “No”
    • More Independents say “Yes”
  • Which do you agree with more as way to prevent mass shootings, better gun regulation or more people carrying guns
    • More Republicans say “More people carrying guns”
    • Most Democrats say “Better gun regulation”
    • More Independents say “Better gun regulation”
  • What more important: to protect the right of Americans to own guns, or to control gun ownership?
    • More Republicans say “Protect gun ownership rights”
    • Most Democrats say “Control gun ownership”
    • Independents evenly split

Still, just when you are about to throw up your hands and say gun policy divisions are unbridgeable, you find two gun-related policies supported by AT LEAST 73% of each partisan group:

  1. Requiring background checks for all gun buyers
  2. Opposing gun sales to persons on terrorist watch (“no-fly”) lists

Plus, at least 79% of surveyed Americans want to prevent convicted felons and persons with mental health problems from purchasing guns. And while partisan breakdowns were not provided for these polls, mathematically, majorities of each partisan group would have to support this policy[2].

**********

I would generally drive to the Vale Rio late on a weekend night, park myself at the counter with my book or magazine and enjoy a meal or a snack (I am a sucker for a heated slice of cherry pie with chocolate ice cream). The decaffeinated coffee occasionally left something to be desired, but there was always plenty of it.

One quiet night, probably in late 2003 or early 2004, the young man working the counter and I got to talking. That is the great thing about diner (or any restaurant, really) counters: they are highly conducive to starting conversations with total strangers. At least, that has generally been my experience.

This waiter was in his mid-to-late-20s. His slender frame, dirty blonde hair and scraggly beard made him resemble a Da Vinci painting of Jesus. He was soft-spoken and instinctually polite. He had recently lived in Florida, although he was local, having grown up a little further west, near French Creek State Park, where he still loved to hunt. I do not recall discussing his post-high-school education.

In other words, he was a product of the white conservative rural/small town culture I described earlier. I don’t recall discussing our respective partisan affiliations, but I would not be surprised if he had voted for Republican Donald Trump in 2016. I was, and remain, a liberal Democrat, as much a product of my urban-raised Jewish parents (and Ivy League schools) as of my moderate-Republican suburban neighborhoods.

During one idle chat, the conversation somehow turned to guns.

And a funny thing happened in that diner, on the border between the urban and rural areas of the state.

We simply talked to each other.

We must have been discussing the notion of banning handguns from crossing large city lines, because he said something to the (paraphrased) effect of:

I collect guns, legally. But what if one night I drive through Philadelphia[3] on my way home from a gun show with my newly-purchased guns in my trunk? Simply by crossing that city line, even with no intention of doing anything with those guns in the city, I would be in violation of the law.

That stopped me in my tracks.

I had never really thought about the legitimate transport of guns by individual, responsible collectors and owners before, probably because I never saw any guns in my suburban milieu.

But then I observed that gun control activists don’t want to take everyone’s guns away from them. They…we…are simply trying to reduce urban gun violence (mass shootings and domestic terrorism were not as prevalent then). You may not be contributing to this violence, but other bad actors do bring guns into the city, perpetuating gun violence. And they need to be stopped.

That stopped him in his tracks.

My sense was that he had never really looked past his stereotype of Philadelphia-as-Gotham long enough to consider the people who live (and die) there.

There was probably more, but here is the point: the suburban liberal public health advocate for gun control got to see gun rights through the eyes of a responsible gun collector and hunter, while the rural conservative gun collector and hunter got to see gun control through the eyes of a suburban liberal public health advocate.

Fancy that.

**********

My wife and I will celebrate our ten-year wedding anniversary this October. Marriage, I have discovered, involves a series of lessons in communication and understanding.

One such lesson is that my wife cannot hear anything I say in a voice raised in anger or frustration or sheer excitement. The volume drowns out the substance.

This lesson applies also to my daughters, especially my younger daughter. When Daddy yells, the message is lost.

I should have known better, but I grew up with a loud and boisterous extended family (although, I cannot now remember my father raising his voice very often, if at all). Shouting was simply the easiest way to be heard in the passionate, talking-over-each-other mode of communication we utilized.

Whether any of us actually HEARD each other remains an open question.

**********

About a year after I met and befriended this waiter, he left the Vale Rio; I have no idea where he is now. In the fall of 2005, I returned to Boston, though I still visited Philadelphia a few times a year.

It became my habit to drive out to the Vale Rio during my stay, if I could.

One night in August 2008, I did just that. I drove through Valley Forge National Historic Park, past Route 252, past the Freedoms Foundation and the National Christian Conference Center and the Boy Scouts headquarters, past the waterfall, past Route 29, past the Phoenixville Hospital and the Phoenixville Morris Cemetery, around and down the bend in the road as it approaches the intersection with Route 113 north, and I saw…

…a brand new Walgreens where the Vale Rio had been.

“Heartbroken” does not begin to cover my reaction.

**********

The town of Brookline, Massachusetts, just east of Boston, gave 84.9% of its vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

Suffice to say that Brookline sees itself as a progressive enclave.

Situated on Harvard Street, in Brookline’s Coolidge Corner, the “Hub of Brookline,” is a terrific, family-friendly (albeit with a delectable house pinot noir) restaurant called Zaftigs. Zaftigs is a short walk from Beals Street, where you will find the house where President John F. Kennedy was born.  More recently, I have seen President Kennedy’s grandnephew, current Democratic Congressman Joe Kennedy III (MA-4), holding meetings in a quiet back booth at Zaftigs. I introduced myself once and found him to be approachable, earnest and utterly likeable.

I have spent countless hours sitting at the counter at Zaftigs, eating and chatting amiably with the remarkably friendly wait staff.

One morning in the fall of 2016 I listened (there are only seven or eight chairs at the counter) as another regular discussed the impending presidential election with a waiter. While both loathed Trump, they reserved a particularly bitter opprobrium for Ms. Clinton.

This being Brookline, however, their contempt was coming from the LEFT. As I understood it, they felt that her husband, former president Bill Clinton, had betrayed progressive principles by governing too much from the center, and Ms. Clinton was no better. They were particularly incensed at the paid speeches she had given to Goldman Sachs, believing this made her a pawn of Wall Street.

Despite my own complicated feelings about Ms. Clinton (I voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Massachusetts Democratic presidential primary, then voted for Ms. Clinton in the general election), I gently came to her defense, arguing that she was clearly the better choice if you wanted to advance any sort of progressive agenda: the classic “half a loaf is better than no loaf” argument.

I also pointed out that Trump posed such a clear and present threat to the nation’s existence that he needed to be stopped, full stop.

No, came the forceful response (again, I paraphrase), what good are principles if you don’t stick to them, if you simply abandon them for political expedience. I don’t like Trump, and I don’t like Clinton, and I refuse to vote for either of them.

Sure, I argued back, annoyed by his arrogant self-righteousness, you have to start with principles, but there also has to be some give and take. It only occurred to me later to argue that if we all followed his “position-absolutist” argument, nothing would ever get accomplished.

Eventually, the conversation fizzled out, and we each returned to my food and whatever we had brought to read.

The exasperating irony is that we probably agreed with each other—and with Ms. Clinton—on the vast majority of “principles.”

**********

The polling data cited above reveals that with, few exceptions (background checks; keeping guns from suspected terrorists, convicted felons and those with mental illness), Democrats, Republicans and Independents see the same world through different lenses, preventing collective action that protects responsible gun owners AND dramatically reduces gun violence.

At the same time, my own views on gun ownership are subtly shifting. One result of my strong interest in the gangsterism resulting from Prohibition is a deep fascination with the Thompson submachine gun, also known as the tommy gun, the Chicago typewriter and the chopper. Periodically, I half-jokingly ask my wife if she will get me one for my birthday or some other worthy occasion. Her response is always a firm “no.”

Also, my maternal grandfather served as a Philadelphia police officer[4], eventually rising to Detective, for 20+ years. My aunt still has his service revolver (his badge sadly went missing after his death in 1978). It is sweet irony that I, a staunch gun control advocate, would love to inherit that service revolver someday.

**********

The Vale Rio Diner no longer sits at the intersection of Route 23 and Route 113N, while Zaftigs just celebrated its 40th anniversary.

Two very different encounters in those two very different eateries leave me with this question: When do you stick to deeply-held principles, and when do you set them aside to advance the common good?

The answer may something to do with lowering your voice, listening to other points of view and questioning your own certainty.

Until I find the answer, I have this treasure to sustain me.

IMG_3114 (2)

IMG_3115 (2)

Until next time…

Photographs of Valerio Diner taken from

https://www.bing.com/images/search?view=detailV2&ccid=SPCXSWsn&id=74A575D1FD4989A6EB2FA9E141DDE40D0418237D&thid=OIP.SPCXSWsnhQp9Ehwp_rwNFAEsB4&q=vale+rio+diner&simid=607985951386700322&selectedIndex=13&ajaxhist=0
Source: https://www.bing.com/images/search?view=detailV2&ccid=NP76TyhP&id=2DCBC7BB3CA5955AAEF7E257CC35C0E8FE03C54F&thid=OIP.NP76TyhPX8nTviWbuP2V5gEsDh&q=vale+rio+diner&simid=608014091991057299&selectedIndex=7&ajaxhist=0

[1] I would be remiss if I did not give a shout out to the superb Minella’s Diner (Wayne, Pennsylvania) and the charmingly-anachronistic (Friday night karaoke!) Limerick Diner (Limerick, Pennsylvania).

[2] Nonetheless, one of the few major pieces of legislation passed by this Congress (February 28, 2017) overturned an Obama Administration regulation preventing certain mentally ill people from purchasing guns. Public opinion is not always the force we presume it to be.

[3] The disdain in his voice when he drawled “Philadelphia” spoke volumes.

[4] Late in his career, my grandfather was partnered with a rookie police officer named Frank Rizzo, whom he despised. Rizzo would go on to serve as a highly controversial and racially-divisive Philadelphia Police Commissioner (1967-1972) and Mayor (1972-1980).