Days of Something

Philadelphia is a great city, but there’s nothing special about it in the winter. It becomes winter just like every place else becomes the winter: slowly, and then all at once. My first winter in the city was also the first winter I’d spent anywhere without a car. During the summer I had learned to get around by riding my bike and walking, and was just getting pretty good at it when the gradual winter hit all of a sudden. It was cold and it was windy, but didn’t snow for the first few months, and then one day, a day that I also happened to have off work, the sky opened up and dumped down about eight inches. It was a very different experience than my previous winters elsewhere, where you might go outside and walk around, do some shoveling, maybe go see a few of the local landmarks covered in the fluffy cliches. In a densely packed urban area that stretches out for miles and miles in any direction, and where local landmarks are a dime a dozen but breathtaking beauty might be a little scarce, I wasn’t sure exactly what to do with myself, other than sit on my couch and watch Netflix. Eventually I decided to just bundle up, put on some heavy shoes (since I never really am in the habit of keeping boots around) and venture out into the snow and see what happened. I started walking through the streets of my South Philly neighborhood, unplowed, unshoveled, the houses squished up against each other like sandwich bread, snow building up in the trashy pedestrian alleys between them, choking the tops of open the trash cans, pawprints sometimes the only sign anyone had been down a sidewalk.  And I kept walking and walking, taking note how it was different than my previous experience, and also ways in which it was similar, compare and contrast, compare and contrast, that is essentially how I Live every moment of my life. One experience must always be similar or different from previous ones; otherwise, how do you measure anything?  Eventually the neighborhood started to change as I kept walking, buildings got farther apart, the roads got wider, the streets were starting to be plowed, cars started moving around, the city seemed to wake up. I started passing people on the 1975051_10203223839982559_754980658_nstreet and there was an air of conviviality, of shared experience. Everyone was saying hello, commenting on the snow, and it wasn’t just what people were saying, but the attitude, the feeling, like we were all finally together, not that we were undergoing any major hardship, but just that the presence of something so different, something so sudden, almost held us together like a web. Connection.  Eventually I realized I was closer to Independence Mall, which is the cluster of extremely significant historical sites in the city, than I was to home, so I just kept on walking. I arrived behind Independence Hall probably an hour and a half after leaving my house, still trudging through almost a foot of snow, surprised to see that there were a few people milling around, but only a few, much less than the hundreds and hundreds that crammed into this park in the summer months. I circled the building, taking note of what the roof looked like covered in snow, imagining it would have looked the same to George Washington or Thomas Jefferson when it snowed in the late 1700s. I crossed Chestnut Street, which is directly in front of Independence Hall, my feet not quite hitting the cobblestones, but still feeling the unevenness of the walk, as the snow impacted into the cracks around the cobblestones, as it surely has done to other foot travelers for centuries. I trudged across the open space in front of Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell to my left, taking note that it was still open, the Park Service still there and operating, but I didn’t see a soul in line to see the famed bell. I kept on going, heading towards the visitor center, with its bright glass interiors, newly built restrooms, shiny gift shop and concession stand. I often used to stop at the visitor center in the summer, as I was riding my bike around the city, for its quick and easy access to a restroom and bottled water.  As I swung open the heavy glass and stainless steel doors, it was clear to me that everyone inside the visitor center was surprised to see me, not because of anything about me, but simply because I was a human being. I was literally the only non-employee in this entire visitor center. It’s amazing what snow does to history tourism. Despite the fact that it was winter and snowing, I was sweating greatly, and was glad of the opportunity to take my coat off, breathe a little bit, stomp the snow out of every crease and crevice. I was thirsty and hungry, as I didn’t leave the house with the intention to walk halfway across the city, so I went straight to the concession stand, got me a bottle of water, a hot coffee, and some sort of breakfast sandwich.  I sat alone in the bright, metal cafeteria, my belly growing content as I fed it.  I took note that outside, it had begun snowing again, and heavier this time.  It was quiet in the visitor center.  I was far from home.

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This day started very early. I woke up around 4am not knowing what I was going to do with the day, but knowing that I wanted to wake up early enough to have a really thorough day, if you know what I mean. I was living by myself in Erie Pennsylvania, in an apartment, one bedroom, on the second level of an old house that was nearing dilapidation, but still teetering on the edge of respectability. It was smack-dab in the middle of summer, and waking up at 4am, the whole apartment was already laden with a heat, an oppressive second floor apartment kind of heat; a thin layer of sweat somehow on everything you looked at. I rolled out of bed, made myself a latte on my proudly-acquired home espresso machine, and set about pondering what to do with such a lengthy, summery kind of day all to myself.  I took a long, overly hot shower while the local morning news played on the television which I had crammed into my tiny bathroom. I stayed in the shower for the whole newscast, mind mostly blank. After the shower, while air drying mostly to cool off, I randomly selected a DVD from my bloated collection, and came up with “The 40 Year Old Virgin”, a movie that I don’t know how it ended up in my collection and no longer resides there, but at the time, a mindless comedy seemed just the ticket. I laid on my couch and let the Steve Carell comedy wash over me. Having gotten up so early that an immense amount of day still laid stretched out before me, even after my lengthy ablutions. What to do? Living by one’s self for so long, and so far from everyone you know, turns days and 31316_1458245861882_8379455_nmornings into quiet studies of one’s inner mechanics, and if you linger too long without plans, your cogs and belts begin to make a lot of noise. Suddenly it hit me: Niagara Falls. I’d been living relatively close to Niagara Falls for almost a year at this point, and it was always something bouncing around the periphery of what I wanted to do, but I never quite made it there, never quite made that my actual plan. Almost the moment that it struck me, I bounded off the couch, went to my computer to MapQuest the directions, threw on some clothes and some essentials into a backpack, and I was out the door.  I don’t remember much about the drive, although certainly there had to be a drive. It was close but not incredibly close, probably something like an hour and 15 minutes. A decent trip, but then again, much closer than almost anyone else in the world lives to such landmark. I remember having trouble figuring out where to park when I got close to it, the town itself surrounding it not exactly being incredibly helpful with instructions.  Finally I did get my car parked, and walked across a large grassy mall, the sound of the falls quite distinct, just like you expect the sound of Niagara Falls to be: thunderous, droning, like a white noise that comes from within.  I remember hearing the falls, I remember a large grassy area you had to walk across to get to it, but I don’t remember actually arriving at the falls.  In fact, the order of what I did that day and the specifics of how I did it, are lost in the labyrinth of my brain. I did the touristy things, I rode the boat, I walked up and down the path alongside the falls, I wore the poncho they provide you. I took selfies on the boat, all by myself, surrounded by revelers and families and church groups. After doing the requisite attractions, I found myself walking around the grounds, reading the historical markers, interpreting the interpretive maps. I noticed that there was a small landmass called Goat Island, out of the middle of the river, one of the features that gives the Falls that look, where it is divided occasionally, not one big solid Falls. It was accessible quite easily via a pedestrian bridge across the river, so I went out there, reading the Wikipedia entry on my phone as I went, the long and somewhat interesting history of the island, its ownership and various names. I arrived on the island to find a sweltering patch of grass, the heat dense with liquid, the roar of the falls now like a white noise outside myself, like a curtain descending. The island itself was no larger than a small park, and trees lined the northern edge, so that one couldn’t actually see the land fall away at the end.  I had the island entirely to myself. Of course the only thing to do on an island like that is to walk toward the edge. Walking through the grass I was assaulted by bugs everywhere, insects nipping at my legs, bouncing off my knees like miniature Kamikazes. The closer and closer I got to the river, the more amazed I was that there were no protections of any kind in place. One expects to find some sort of railing here, some warning signs, maybe even Park Rangers or something. But no, the island just walks right up to the river, and right up to the falls, anyone with dark designs would be in no way dissuaded.  The design of the island makes it

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A photo I took from Goat Island that day.

challenging to walk right up to the falls, but instead it is very easy to sit at a clearing about twenty yards away from the actual precipice. I took my backpack off and sat in the grass, and looked out across the Niagara River, just beginning to get a real good head of steam up, just beginning to get its little whitecaps and wavelets, the water not knowing it was about to fly.  The heat washed over me, the insect buzzing began to mesh with the white noise of the falls, it all became a hot buzzing constant, I laid my head on the grass and sunk in, sunk down into the dirt, I was so far from home, and for a moment, I had no idea where I was, or maybe even who I was.

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“Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your hometown
Waiting for something or someone to show you the way.

Tired of lying in the sunshine, staying home to watch the rain.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find, ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run. You missed the starting gun!”

‘Time’, by Pink Floyd

One Response to “Days of Something”

  1. “…commenting on the snow, and it wasn’t just what people were saying, but the attitude, the feeling, like we were all finally together, not that we were undergoing any major hardship, but just that the presence of something so different, something so sudden, almost held us together like a web. Connection.” Yes, this is an extraordinary phenomenon. This is the experience I get walking on the beach after sunset, when it just becomes dark. Amazing. Like you and everyone you pass are all sharing a special moment. Great read.

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