Thursday, July 21, 2016

Germantown spur

There was a plan for a Germantown spur off the Broad Street line that would take off from Erie Station in North Philly and run northwest under Germantown Ave. Germantown was once German Township, two words, a distant suburb where textile mills lined Wissahickon Creek. In the 19th century it was pulled into Philly by the railroad as the city pushed outward as if trying to escape itself.

Germantown is many histories of escape, of refuge and flight. There was a station on the Underground Railroad in the 1850s, right on Germantown Ave, known as the Johnson House. It still stands, now a museum.

Museum means “shrine of the muses,” an attempt at making a house of mind, a station for thinking. So it can’t work the way you want it to. A station wants you to stay, to stand like a steed in a stable.

“A museum is a curious graveyard of thinking,” wrote Amiri Baraka in his essay “Hunting is not those heads on the wall”.

In the 1790s, George Washington whose head is on the quarter and one-dollar bill escaped Philly’s yellow fever epidemic by hiding in Germantown, along with other rich people, 6 miles away from the city. Horses and boats took them there. Horses were status symbols.

Imagine the man on the one-dollar bill petting his favorite horse. This one’s my favorite, he says. Imagine him, with that one-dollar expression, naming his horse. This is Mary Ball, he says, I love her. Imagine the man on the one-dollar bill talking to his horse. It’s all right, baby, we’re almost there.

Money turns you into a cartoon, a rubber band that can be shot across the room, bounced into other forms. Time does this too. So does speed and the desire for speed—that you must be traffic to escape traffic. No one thinks of themselves as traffic, even while they’re in traffic.

As traffic, you’re part of your vehicle and part of everyone else’s. As you speed up, you embody the freedom you desire, escape itself, the pleasure of animation, wind blowing in your face, and you become more elastic, more fluid, like Tom or Jerry, like the Road Runner, like Wile E. Coyote, and you begin to feel more and more invincible. You fly on I-95 as pure spirit until traffic slows, and then slows, and then comes to a standstill, and you want to pull your hair out, because you’re a cartoon just like everyone else, in your private car, melting into the public roads, which will never be yours.

Fuck you and the horse you rode in on.

Fuck me and the Ford Focus I broke down in.

We gotta get out of this place
If it’s the last thing we ever do
We gotta get out of this place
Girl, there’s a better life for me and you

That's the Animals, 1965. Bruce Springsteen, “the Boss”, has said, “that’s every song I’ve ever written. That’s all of them. I’m not kidding, either. That’s ‘Born to Run’, ‘Born in the USA’.”

It’s a song born of working-class frustration. It’s not a song about overthrowing capitalism but of escaping it. It’s a song you turn up in traffic, where solidarity is impossible. You are stuck in the hellish city. Stuck in your job. Stuck in your body, slaving away just like your mother and father, just like your neighbor. Nothing but traffic. Animals in need of animation.

The words “animal” and “animation” share the word “anima”, which means “soul.” The Indo-European root, anə, means “to breathe.”

In the film noir Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), humans and cartoons co-exist. It’s the 1940s, and in contrast to the humans, cartoons are playful, imaginative beings—artists—who live more or less peacefully with one another in a completely animated part of Los Angeles called Toontown. They are also immortal unless erased by a special “dip.” All of Toontown is under threat of erasure because of a plot to build a freeway through it. To make it happen, Judge Doom has purchased LA’s public streetcar system in order to destroy it.

Judge Doom’s dream is our reality: “I see a place where people get on and off the freeway. On and off. All day, all night. Soon where Toontown once stood will be a string of gas stations, inexpensive motels, restaurants that serve rapidly-prepared food, tire salons, automobile dealerships, and wonderful, wonderful billboards reaching as far as the eye can see. My God, it’ll be beautiful.”

Fortunately, the good guys win. The human protagonist, detective Eddie Valiant, saves the animated protagonist, Roger Rabbit, and in doing so he helps save Toontown. He also regains his lost sense of humor and breaks his own depression. He gives Roger a big funny kiss and all the toons cheer as they’ve won collective ownership of Toontown. In the end, Valiant finds his anima. The movie, ultimately, is about fending off spiritual death. And implicit is a critique of Jim Crow-era racism—toons, who are drawings of animals, including people, are discriminated against, seen as less than human, and are segregated from humans, who believe they themselves are not-animals.

In real life, Judge Doom was General Motors, which along with Standard Oil, Firestone Tires, Mack, and Philips Petroleum, conspired to dismantle streetcar systems across the USA in the 1930s and 40s. They succeeded by using a front company called National City Lines. I learned this on 11th St. one day waiting for the 23 bus, which takes you to Germantown. The bus was late and the man next to me, who was complaining about SEPTA, started musing about the long-gone wonderful days of streetcars, how they ran up every street before we had buses. He told me to look up National City Lines. I did.

A hundred years ago, Philly had 550 miles of track and a fleet of 2,000 trolleys. Then came the rise of the car, which is an eraser. Then came the Great Depression. Then National City Lines: most trolley routes were converted to buses. And subway development slowed. Then came World War 2 and highways and suburbs, blockbusting and white flight.

In real life, Eddie Valiant and Roger Rabbit were people who drove cars, listening to Bruce Springsteen songs before Bruce Springsteen was born.

There were people in Germantown like Samuel West, my great-grandfather who made a living at the BUDD factory, which manufactured train and car bodies. His father, Thomas West, had drunk himself to death after the Great Depression sunk his textile mill and lightning killed his eldest son while he was working on the roof of their house. The rest of the family fought over the scraps and Samuel wanted nothing to do with it. He eloped with a poor girl from Scranton, moved to another neighborhood. He never talked to his siblings again.

For Samuel, love was an escape. His granddaughter, Dorothy, is my mother. She said Samuel loved his new family but was close-minded and racist. He told her once, whichever political party is in power, join that party—that way, you know someone’s got your back when things get bad. To him, all politicians were crooks. Their ideas didn’t matter. What mattered was self-preservation.

Having escaped, Samuel found himself preserved, happy with where he was, sitting on his small piece of land in North Philly, believing perhaps that he was his own boss, pretending perhaps not to be erasing anything. But the world began to swirl around him again, and he started to feel that he couldn’t move, that he was stuck. That he was stuck in a museum, and people were looking in but could not see him. And he began to panic.

Passyunk spur

There was a plan for a Passyunk spur off the Broad Street line in South Philly. It would run southwest under Passyunk Ave, all the way out, maybe, to Tinicum, the wildlife preserve at the edge of the city, home to freshwater tidal marsh, migratory birds, ducks, deer, fish, foxes and other small animals.

Before the wildlife was “preserved”, of course, all of South Philly was wild. Weccacoe, it was called by the Lenape. That’s supposed to mean “peaceful place.”

But this English word, “peace”, derives from the Latin pax, which means binding together (fastening) by treaty or agreement, as in pact. So “peace”, rooted in some idea of boundary and nation, unties my faith in the translation.

The past remains wild.

I hear the word “wild” in Stevie Nicks’ voice.

Don’t blame it on me
Blame it on my wild heart
she sings to me

Whose heart is not a wild heart, I wonder. And if you are not your heart, then what are you?

And who, afraid of violence, does not become violent?

I try to raise my hand. It trembles from the violence my body’s absorbed, the violence in my blood, the violence in my memory.

Everybody’s got a hungry heart
Bruce Springsteen sings
to everybody
in the stadium
at the end of
the line
it means nothing

An artist I know who made my own heart grow wilder told me once in a bar that her favorite love song is “Tougher than the Rest” by Bruce Springsteen, from his album Tunnel of Love.

Soon after, I stumbled on a Tunnel of Love cassette tape in a used record store. I played it in my car every day, to and from work, for several months, until it hurt too much. I replaced it with The Supremes’ Right On and played it every day, to and from work, until it hurt too much.

This isn’t about what could have been, but the past bores a hole in my heart, and I write into it, as if entering a tunnel.

The juke box plays, and people try to say what it means in the background.

I don’t know all that I know. I know lovers sometimes need restraining orders. I know the difference between inhibit and inhabit is very slim. Both derive from the Latin habēre—to hold, possess, have, handle.

There is no place like home.

When I hear “Weccacoe” I think first of Weccacoe Avenue, home to the Philadelphia Parking Authority at the bottom of the city, where they tow your car. It’s hard to get to if you don’t have a ride. It’s hard to get your car back. Why should we give it back to you, you piece of shit. You fucking animal.

OCF Realty recently named one of their condos “Weccacoe Flats.”

Like the parking authority, OCF is expert at fucking over the poor. They’re responsible for much of South Philly’s gentrification, especially in the black neighborhood Point Breeze.

There’s a corner store called Weccacoe on 4th St. in Queen Village. I’ve occasionally stopped there for a bottle of water on my way to South St.

Around the corner from the corner store is Weccacoe Playground. Under the playground is the Bethel Burying Ground, where 5,000 African Americans were laid to rest during the first half of the nineteenth century by the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The church remains as the oldest Black-owned church in the country, though the neighborhood was gentrified long ago.

The word “cemetery” derives from the Indo-European root kei-, which means bed, couch and also beloved, dear. The words city, civic, civil, cite, incite, excite and resuscitate derive from this same root.

Every word is a spur, an outgrowth, a departure. Language, like the city, is wild, even while it inhibits our freedom, our ability to make peace.

I think Weccacoe now means this: to make poor, or to systematically fuck the poor.

There is no peace.

Passyunk Avenue was once a footpath, I learned from Kevin Varrone’s book Passyunk Lost. I got lost in it. In my own neighborhood. Which I do not possess. Which no one does but the dead.

I know I can’t leave. I want to go inside this city I was born into, but I want somewhere other than cemetery.

A spur is the track of an animal. I try to follow.

Right now we’re heading into winter. I would like to speed thru it. I would like to be able to get out of bed in the morning and just do my job.

I want you. I want you. I want you, peaceful place.


Center City loop

-Looks like we just missed one.

-Yep. Miss it every night.

hold your horses

route 45 please
board at fire hydrant
under the shitty little birds
this must be you
coming from somewhere
how long’s it been
since you named a thing
after a general
this pile of croutons
general croutons
we have passed the jetsons
and look, don’t trip
the magic is not
olfactory
it’s not my riff
you’re smelling
it’s the church of itch
got your tongue
between wires
there’s a bite inside faith
like going to jury duty
we must repent
we must think again
like a pensive motherfucker
penser, i say
order in english
your big shit sandwich
for the neon coplover
in search of guitar
the shape of sound
blows horse shoes
in our direction
don’t mind the cobble stone
don’t mind the smoky job rot
pave over the track
all you want
the prison won’t come back
you gotta drive around it
you gotta drive around it
to see the heart balloon
float across the rooftops
and disappear toward
the delaware