A City Notebook (Philadelphia) by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

It would be hard to find a more lovely spot in the flush of a summer sunset than Wister Woods. Old residents of the neighbourhood say that the trees are not what they were fifteen and twenty years ago; the chestnuts have died off; even some of the tall tulip-poplars are a little bald at the top, and one was recently felled by a gale. But still that quiet plateau stands in a serene hush, flooded with rich orange glow on a warm evening. The hollyhocks in the back gardens of Rubicam Street are scarlet and Swiss-cheese-coloured and black; and looking across the railroad ravine one sees crypts and aisles of green as though in the heart of some cathedral of the great woods.

Belfield Avenue, which bends through the valley in a curve of warm thick yellow dust, will some day be boulevarded into a spick-and-span highway for motors. But now it lies little trafficked, and one might prefer to have it so, for in the stillness of the evening the birds are eloquent. The thrushes of Wister Woods, which have been immortalized by T. A. Daly in perhaps the loveliest poem ever written in Philadelphia, flute and whistle their tantalizing note, while the song sparrow echoes them with his confident, challenging call. Down behind the dusty sumac shrubbery lies the little blue-green cottage said to have been used by Benjamin West as a studio. In a meadow beside the road two cows were grazing in the blue shadow of overhanging woodland.

Over the road leans a flat outcrop of stone, known locally as “The Bum’s Rock.” An antique philosopher of those parts assured the wayfarer that it is named for a romantic vagabond who perished there by the explosion of a can of Bohemian goulash which he was heating over a small fire of sticks; but one doubts the tale. Our own conjecture is that it is named for Jacob Boehm, the oldtime brewer of Germantown, who predicted in his chronicles that the world would come to an end in July, 1919. From his point of view he was not so far wrong.

Above Boehm’s Rock, in a grassy level among the trees, a merry little circle of young ladies was sitting round a picnic supper. The twilight grew darker and fireflies began to twinkle. In the steep curve of the Cinder and Bloodshot (between Fisher’s and Wister stations) a cheerful train rumbled, with its engine running backward just like a country local. Its bright shaft of light wavered among the tall tree trunks. One would not imagine that it was less than six miles to the City Hall.

* * * * *

A quarter to one A. M., and a hot, silent night. As one walks up Chestnut Street a distant roaring is heard, which rapidly grows louder. The sound has a note of terrifying menace. Then, careering down the almost deserted highway, comes a huge water-tank, throbbing like an airplane. A creamy sheet of water, shot out at high pressure, floods the street on each side, dashing up on the pavements. A knot of belated revellers in front of the Adelphia Hotel, standing in mid-street, to discuss ways and means of getting home, skip nimbly to one side, the ladies lifting up their dresses with shrill squeaks of alarm as the water splashes round them. Pedestrians plodding quietly up the street cower fearfully against the buildings, while a fine mist envelops them.

After the tank comes, more leisurely, a squad of brooms. The street is dripping, every sewer opening clucks and gurgles with the falling water. There is something unbelievably humorous in the way that roaring Niagara of water dashes madly down the silent street. There is a note of irony in it, too, for the depressed enthusiasts who have been sitting all evening in a restaurant over lemonade and ginger ale. Perhaps the chauffeur is a prohibitionist gone mad.

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* * * * *

While eating half a dozen doughnuts in a Broad Street lunchroom at one o’clock in the morning, we mused happily about our friends all tucked away in bed, sound asleep. There is one in particular on whom we thought with serene pleasure. It was charming to think of that delightful, argumentative, contradictory, volatile person, his active mind stilled in the admirable reticence of slumber. He, so endlessly speculatory, so full of imaginative enthusiasms and riotous intuitions and troubled zeals concerning humanity, lost in a beneficent swoon of unconsciousness! We could not just say why, but we broke into chuckles to think of him lying there, not denying any of our statements, absolutely and positively saying nothing. To have one’s friends asleep now and then is very refreshing.

* * * * *

Off Walnut Street, below Fifth, and just east of the window where that perfectly lovely damsel sits operating an adding machine–why is it, by the way, that the girls who run adding machines are always so marvellously fair? Is there some secret virtue in the process of adding that makes one lovely? We feel sure that a subtracting engine would not have that subtle beautifying effect–just below Fifth Street, we started to say, there runs a little alley called (we believe) De Silver Court. It is a sombre little channel between high walls and barred windows, but it is a retreat we recommend highly to hay fever sufferers. For in one of the buildings adjoining there seems to be a warehouse of some company that makes an “aromatic disinfector.” Wandering in there by chance, we stood delighted at the sweet medicinal savour that was wafted on the air. It had a most cheering effect upon our emunctory woes, and we lingered so long, in a meditative and healing ecstasy, that young women immured in the basement of the aromatic warehouse began to peer upward from the barred windows of their basement and squeak with astonished and nervous mirth. We blew a loud salute and moved away.

* * * * *

We entered a lunchroom on Broad Street for our favourite breakfast of coffee and a pair of crullers. It was strangely early and only a few of the flat-arm chairs were occupied. After dispatching the rations we carefully filled our pipe. With us we had a copy of an agreeable book, “The Calamities and Quarrels of Authors.” It occurred to us that here, in the brisk serenity of the morning, would be a charming opportunity for a five-minute smoke and five pages of reading before attacking the ardours and endurances of the day. Lovingly we applied the match to the fuel. We began to read:

Of all the sorrows in which the female character may participate,
there are few more affecting than those of an authoress—-

A stern, white-coated official came over to us and tapped us on the shoulder.

“There’s a sign behind you,” he said.

We looked, guiltily, and saw:

POSITIVELY
NO SMOKING

The cocoateria on Eighth Street closes at one A. M. Between twelve-thirty and closing time it is full of busy eaters, mostly the night shift from the Chestnut Street newspaper offices and printing and engraving firms in the neighbourhood. Ham and eggs blossom merrily. The white-coated waiters move in swift, stern circuit. Griddle cakes bake with amazing swiftness toward the stroke of one. Little dishes of baked beans stand hot and ready in the steam-chest. The waiter punches your check as he brings your frankfurters and coffee. He adds another perforation when you get your ice cream. Then he comes back and punches it again.

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“Here,” you cry, “let it alone and stop bullying it!”

“Sorry, brother,” he says. “I forgot that peach cream was fifteen cents.”

One o’clock. They lock the door and turn out the little gas jet where smokers light up. As the tables empty the chairs are stacked up on top. And if it is a clear warm evening the customers smoke a final weed along the Chestnut Street doorsteps, talking together in a cheery undertone.

* * * * *

No man has ever started upon a new cheque-book without a few sourly solemn thoughts.

In the humble waters of finance wherein we paddle we find that a book of fifty cheques lasts us about four months, allowing for two or three duds when we start to make out a foil payable to bearer (self) and decide to renounce that worthy ambition and make it out to the gas company instead.

It occurs to us that if Bunyan had been writing “Pilgrim’s Progress” nowadays instead of making Christian encounter lions in the path he would have substituted gas meters, particularly the quarter-in-the-slot kind that one finds in a seaside cottage. However—-

Four months is quite a long time. It may be weak of us, but we can never resist wondering as we survey that flock of empty cheques just what adventures our bank account is going to undergo during that period, and whether our customary technique of being aloof with the receiving teller and genial and commentary with the paying ditto is the right one. We always believe in keeping a paying teller in a cheerful frame of mind. We would never admit to him that we think it is going to rain. We say, rather, “Well, it may blow over,” and try not to surmise how many hundreds there are in the pile at his elbow. Probably we think the explanation for the really bizarre architecture of our bank is to keep depositors’ attention from the money. Unquestionably Walt Whitman’s tomb over in Harleigh–Walt’s vault–was copied from our bank.

The cheques in our book are blue. We have always regretted this. If we had known it beforehand perhaps we would have inflicted our problems upon another bank. Because there are so many more interesting colours for cheques, tints upon which the ink shows up in a more imposing manner. A pale pink or cream-coloured cheque for $2.74 looks much more exciting than a blue cheque for $25. We have known gray, pink, white, brown, green, and salmon-coloured cheques. A friend of ours once showed us one that was a bright orange, but refused to let us handle it. But yellow is the colour that appeals to us most strongly. When we were very young and away from home our monthly allowance, the amount of which we shall not state, but it cost us less effort than any money we ever received since, came to us by way of pale primrose-coloured cheques. For, after all, there are no cheques like those one used to get from one’s father. We hope the Urchin will think so some day.

* * * * *

We like to pay homage to the true artist in all lines. At the corner of Market and Marshall streets–between Sixth and Seventh–the collar-clasp orator has his rostrum, and it seems to us that his method of harangue has the quality of genuine art. He does not bawl or try to terrify or bully his audience into purchase as do the auctioneers of the “pawnbrokers’ outlets.” How gently, how winningly, how sweetly he pleads the merits of his little collar clasp! And there is shrewd imagination in his attention-catching device, which is a small boy dressed in black, wearing a white hood of cheesecloth that hides his face. This peculiar silent figure, with a touch of mystery about it, serves to keep the crowd wondering until the oration begins.

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With a smile, with infinite ingratiation and gentle persuasion, our friend exhibits the merits of his device which does away with the traditional collar-button. His art is to make the collar-button seem a piteous, almost a tragic thing. His eyes swim with unshed tears as he describes the discomfort of the man whose collar, fastened by the customary button, cannot be given greater freedom on a hot, muggy day. He shows, by exhibition on his own person, the exquisite relief afforded by the adjustable collar clasp. “When the day grows cool,” he says, “when you begin to enjoy yourself and want your collar tighter, you just loosen the clasp, slide the tabs closer together, and there you are. And no picking at your tie to get the knot undone. Now, how many of you men have spoiled an expensive tie by picking at it? Your fingers come in contact with the fibres of the silk and the first thing you know the tie is soiled. This little clasp”–and he casts a beam of affection upon it–“saves your tie, it saves your collar, and it saves your patience.” A note of yearning pathos comes into his agreeable voice, and he holds out a handful of the old-fashioned collar-buttons. “You men are wearing the same buttons your great-grandfathers wore. Don’t you want to get out of collar slavery? Don’t you want to quit working your face all out of shape struggling with a collar-button? Now as this is a manufacturing demonstration—-“

* * * * *

On a warm evening nothing is more pleasant than a ride on the front platform of the Market Street L, with the front door open. As the train leaves Sixty-ninth Street it dips down the Millbourne bend and the cool, damp smell of the Cobb’s Creek meadows gushes through the car. Then the track straightens out for a long run toward the City Hall. Roaring over the tree tops, with the lights of movies and shops glowing up from below, a warm typhoon makes one lean against it to keep one’s footing. The airy stations are lined by girls in light summer dresses, attended by their swains. The groan of the wheels underfoot causes a curious tickling in the soles of the feet as one stands on the steel platform.

This groan rises to a shrill scream as the train gathers speed between stations, gradually diminishing to a reluctant grumble as the cars come to a stop. In the distance, in a peacock-blue sky, the double gleam of the City Hall tower shines against the night. Down on the left is the hiss and clang of West Philadelphia station, with the long, dim, amber glow of the platform and belated commuters pacing about. Then the smoky dive across the Schuylkill and the bellow of the subway.

* * * * *

From time to time humanity is forced to revise its customary notions in the interests of truth. This is always painful.

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It is an old fetich that the week-end in summer is a time for riotous enjoyment, of goodly cheer and mirthful solace. A careful examination of human beings during this hebdomadal period of carnival leads us to question the doctrine.

When we watch the horrors of discomfort and vexation endured by simple-hearted citizens in pursuit of a light-hearted Saturday and Sunday, we often wonder how it is that humanity will so gleefully inflict upon itself sufferings which, if they were imposed by some taskmaster, would be called atrocious.

We observe, for instance, women and children standing sweltering in the aisles of trains during a two-hour run to the seashore. We observe the number of drownings, motor accidents, murders, and suicides that take place during the Saturday to Monday period. We observe families loaded down with small children, who might have been happy and reasonably cool at home, struggling desperately to get away for a day in the country, rising at 5 A. M., standing in line at the station, fanning themselves with blasphemy, and weary before they start. We observe them chased home by thunderstorms or colic, dazed and blistered with sunburn, or groaning with a surfeit of ice cream cones.

It is a lamentable fact (and the truth is almost always lamentable, and hotly denied) that for the hard-working majority the week-end is a curse rather than a blessing. The saddest fact in human annals is that most people are never so happy as when they are hard at work. The time may come when criminals will be condemned, not to the chair, but to twenty successive week-ends spent standing in the aisles of crowded excursion trains.

* * * * *

Strolling downtown to a well-known home of fish dinners, it is appetizing to pass along the curve of Dock Street in the coolness of the evening. The clean, lively odours of vegetables and fruit are strong on the air. Under the broad awnings of the commission merchants and produce dealers the stock is piled up in neat and engaging piles ready to be carted away at dawn. Under the glow of pale arcs and gas lamps the colours of the scene are vivid. Great baskets of eggplant shine like huge grapes, a polished port wine colour; green and scarlet peppers catch points of light; a flat pinkish colour gleams on carrots. Each species seems to have an ordered pattern of its own. Potatoes are ranged in a pyramid; watermelons in long rows; white and yellow onions are heaped in sacks. The sweet musk of cantaloupes is the scent that overbreathes all others. Then, down nearer to the waterfront, comes the strong, damp fishy whiff of oysters. To stroll among these gleaming piles of victuals, to watch the various colours where the lamps pour a pale silver and yellow on cairns and pyramids of vegetables, is to gather a lusty appetite and attack the first oyster stew of the season with a stout heart.

It being a very humid day, we stopped to compliment the curly-headed sandwich man at Ninth and Market on his decollete corsage, which he wears in the Walt Whitman manner. “Wish we could get away with it the way you do,” we said, admiringly. He looked at us with the patience of one inured to bourgeois comment. “It’s got to be tried,” said he, “like everything else.”

* * * * *

We stopped by the Weather Man’s little illuminated booth at Ninth and Chestnut about 10 o’clock in the evening. We were scrutinizing his pretty coloured pictures, wondering how soon the rain would determine, when a slender young man appeared out of the gloom, said “I’m sorry to have to do this,” switched off the light, and pulled down the rolling front of the booth. It was the Weather Man himself.

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We were greatly elated to meet this mythical sage and walked down the street a little way with him. In order to cheer him up, we complimented him on the artistic charm of his little booth, with its glow of golden light shining on the coloured map and the bright loops and curves of crayon. We told him how almost at any time in the evening groups of people can be seen admiring his stall, but his sensitive heart was gloomy.

“Most of them don’t understand it,” he said, morosely. “The women are the worst. I’ve gone there in the evening and found them studying the map eagerly. Hopefully, I would creep up behind to hear their comments. One will say, ‘Yes, that’s where my husband came from,’ or ‘I spent last summer over there,’ pointing to some place on the map. They seem to think it’s put there for them to study geography.”

We tried to sympathize with the broken-hearted scientist, but his spirit had been crushed by a long series of woes.

“The other evening,” said he, “I saw a couple of girls gazing at the map, and they looked so intelligent I really was charmed. Apparently they were discussing an area of low pressure that was moving down from the Great Lakes, and I lent an ear. Imagine my chagrin when one of them said: ‘You see the colour of that chalk line? I’m going to make my next knitted vestee just like that.’ And the other one said: ‘I think the whole colour scheme is adorable. I’m going to use it as a pattern for my new camouflage bathing-suit.’”

“Thank goodness,” cried the miserable Weather Man: “I have another map like that down at the Bourse, and the brokers really give it some intelligent attention.”

We went on our way sadly, thinking how many sorrows there are in the world. It is grievous to think of the poor Weather Man, lurking with beating pulses in the neighbourhood of Ninth and Chestnut in the hope of finding someone who understands his painstaking display. The next time you are standing in front of his booth do say something about the Oceanic High in the South Atlantic or the dangerous Aleutian Low or the anticyclonic condition prevailing in the Alleghenies. He might overhear you, and it would do his mournful heart good.

* * * * *

It was eight o’clock, a cool drizzling night. Chestnut Street was gray with a dull, pearly, opaque twilight. In the little portico east of Independence Hall the gas lamp under the ceiling cast a soft pink glow on the brick columns.

Independence Square was a sea of tremulous, dripping boughs. The quaint heptahedral lamps threw splashed shimmers of topaz colour across the laky pavement. “Golden lamps in a green night,” as Marvell says, twinkled through the stir and moisture of the evening.

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