I walked the avenue till my legs felt like stone
I heard the voices of friends vanished and gone
At night I could hear the blood in my veins
Black and whispering as the rain
On the streets of Philadelphia.
This past weekend I did something I hadn’t done in thirty years: I took the train to Philadelphia.
The occasion for my excursion was an editorial board meeting for a national medical journal. Such meetings are held twice a year. Six months ago I flew out to San Diego for the previous one. This time round I took the train.
Friday morning I boarded a two-car commuter rail just north of Hartford, rode it to New Haven, and connected with the northeast regional to Philadelphia. In thirty years I had forgotten that trains in the northeast corridor pass through rough stretches of country—past litter strewn ravines, boarded up brick buildings, scrap yards filled with piles of junked cars, graveyards populated by the dead.
Those of us on the train—the living—sit by the windows and watch graffiti covered walls stream by or read the morning paper, listen to an iPod shuffle or text message a friend. Occasionally we rise to our feet and stagger down the central aisle to the john before picking up a coffee or a bottle of water in the café car and return to our seats.
I arrived at 30th Street station in Philadelphia that afternoon and walked thirteen blocks to the Westin Hotel on 17th Street and checked in. The remainder of the afternoon I spent exploring the city on foot. I sauntered down Chestnut Street to Independence Hall, glimpsed the Liberty Bell through the massive window, paused at the memorial in Washington Square and picked up Walnut Street on the return leg. Near Jefferson Hospital I cut up to Chestnut again and stopped at a medical bookstore to browse the titles.
My first medical mentor had attended Jefferson Medical College in the 1960s. Shortly after I got to know him in the late 1970s, he developed Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
I in turn took my medical studies at Hahnemann at Vine and Broad Streets, where I cemented a life-long friendship with another student who now practices family medicine in Arizona. At the time we both roomed on north 15th Street, although he and his wife later took another apartment ten blocks south near Spruce. My wife and I sublet from them when they were out of town for a month that second summer.
I exited the bookstore with my hands thrust deep into the pockets of my trench coat. It had started to rain; the wind was whipping up in cold wet gusts. I passed by two musicians huddled in a stone archway playing a Michael Jackson tune on their saxophones. I’ll be there, one horn soothed reassuringly, while shortly afterward its companion echoed the same soulful sentiment. I tightened the collar of my trench coat against the wind and pulled the brim of my cap down tight.
That evening I met up with my fellow editorial board members for dinner at Upstares & Sotto Varalli on South Broad. The remainder of the weekend flew by: an all day meeting in the Director’s Room at the hotel on Saturday, dinner at the Raw sushi bar on Sansom Street, a late evening demitasse of melted chocolate at the Naked Chocolate Café on Walnut.
Back in my room on the 14th floor of the hotel I stood at the window and looked down on the gleaming streets of the city. I thought about the man I had seen slumped over a makeshift cardboard sign on which was scrawled one word: “Hungry.” A tangled mass of black hair emanated from the back of his stocking cap, his coat was marred with grease stains, his ankles showed white between the tattered cuffs of his trousers and the tops of his dirty sneakers. When I dropped a few coins into the plastic bowl in his lap, he barely stirred. In thirty years the streets of Philadelphia haven’t changed much.
The cabbie I hired Sunday morning chatted in Arabic on his cell phone all the way down JFK Boulevard to 30th Street station. I tipped him a dollar and stepped out onto the wet pavement in the early morning darkness.
As we gathered at Gate 3 to make our descent to the waiting train, I noticed a young couple standing off to the side, holding hands with their foreheads touching. There are always young couples standing on station platforms, it seems; huddled together, oblivious to the rest of humanity.
Shortly after pulling out of the station we passed over the Schuylkill River. I caught a glimpse of the macadam path that runs along the bank by the boat houses. Another good friend and I attempted the Philadelphia marathon there when we were undergraduate students. I logged 18 miles before I cramped up from dehydration and dropped out of the race. Some things in life you never complete.
My mentor finally succumbed to his lymphoma this past year. I still correspond regularly with my doctor friend in Arizona. Once a year we get together for an afternoon saunter through another Pennsylvania town and catch up on our lives—far from the streets of Philadelphia.