Going To Philadelphia by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

I

Every intelligent New Yorker should be compelled, once in so often, to run over to Philadelphia and spend a few days quietly and observantly prowling.

Any lover of America is poor indeed unless he has savoured and meditated the delicious contrast of these two cities, separated by so few miles and yet by a whole world of philosophy and metaphysics. But he is a mere tyro of the two who has only made the voyage by the P.R.R. The correct way to go is by the Reading, which makes none of those annoying intermediate stops at Newark, Trenton, and so on, none of that long detour through West Philadelphia, starts you off with a ferry ride and a background of imperial campaniles and lilac-hazed cliffs and summits in the superb morning light. And the Reading route, also, takes you through a green Shakespearean land of beauty, oddly different from the flat scrubby plains traversed by the Pennsy. Consider, if you will, the hills of the idyllic Huntington Valley as you near Philadelphia; or the little white town of Hopewell, N.J., with its pointing church spire. We have often been struck by the fact that the foreign traveller between New York and Washington on the P.R.R. must think America the most flat, dreary, and uninteresting countryside in the world. Whereas if he would go from Jersey City by the joint Reading-Central New Jersey-B.&O.; route, how different he would find it. No, we are not a Reading stockholder.

We went over to Philly, after having been unfaithful to her for too many months. Now we have had from time to time, most menacing letters from indignant clients, protesting that we have been unfaithful to all the tenets and duties of a Manhattan journalist because we have with indecent candour confessed an affection for both Brooklyn and Philadelphia. We lay our cards on the table. We can’t help it. Philadelphia was the first large city we ever knew, and how she speaks to us! And there’s a queer thing about Philadelphia, hardly believable to the New Yorker who has never conned her with an understanding eye. You emerge from the Reading Terminal (or, if you will, from Broad Street Station) with just a little superbness of mood, just a tinge of worldly disdain, as feeling yourself fresh from the grandeur of Manhattan and showing perhaps (you fondly dream) some pride of metropolitan bearing. Very well. Within half an hour you will be apologizing for New York. In their quiet, serene, contented way those happy Philadelphians will be making you a little shame-faced of the bustling madness of our heaven-touching Babel. Of course, your secret adoration of Manhattan, the greatest wild poem ever begotten by the heart of man, is not readily transmissible. You will stammer something of what it means to climb upward from the subway on a spring morning and see that golden figure over Fulton Street spreading its shining wings above the new day. And they will smile gently, that knowing, amiable Philadelphia smile.

We were false to our credo in that we went via the P.R.R., but we were compensated by a man who was just behind us at the ticket window. He asked for a ticket to Asbury Park. “Single, or return?” asked the clerk. “I don’t believe I’ll ever come back,” he said, but with so unconsciously droll an accent that the ticket seller screamed with mirth.

There was something very thrilling in strolling again along Chestnut Street, watching all those delightful people who are so unconscious of their characteristic qualities. New York has outgrown that stage entirely: New Yorkers are conscious of being New Yorkers, but Philadelphians are Philadelphians without knowing it; and hence their unique delightfulness to the observer. Nothing seemed to us at all changed–except that the trolleys have raised their fare from five cents to seven. The Liberty Toggery Shop down on Chestnut Street was still “Going Out of Business,” just as it was a couple of years ago. Philip Warner, the famous book salesman at Leary’s Old Book Store, was out having lunch, as usual. The first book our eye fell upon was “The Experiences of an Irish R.M.,” which we had hunted in vain in these parts. The only other book that caught our eye particularly was a copy of “Patrins,” by Louise Guiney, which we saw a lady carrying on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.

But perhaps New York exerts its own fascination upon Philadelphians, too. For when we returned we selfishly persuaded a friend of ours to ride with us on the train so that we might imbibe some of his ripe orotund philosophy, which we had long been deprived of. He is a merciless Celt, and all the way over he preached us a cogent sermon on our shortcomings and backslidings. Faithful are the wounds of a friend, and it was nice to know that there was still someone who cared enough for us to give us a sound cursing. Between times, while we were catching breath, he expatiated upon the fact that New York is death and damnation to the soul; but when we got to Manhattan Transfer he suddenly abandoned his intended plan of there catching the next train back to the land of Penn. A curious light began to gleam in his mild eyes; he settled his hat firmly upon his head and strode out into the Penn Station. “I think I’ll go out and look round a bit,” he said. We wonder whether he has gone back yet?

II

The other day we had a chance to go to Philadelphia in the right way–by the Reading, the P. and R., the Peaceful and Rapid. As one of our missions in life is to persuade New York and Philadelphia to love one another, we will tell you about it.

Ah, the jolly old Reading! Take the 10 o’clock ferry from Liberty Street, and as the Plainfield kicks herself away from the slip with a churning of cream and silver, study Manhattan’s profile in the downpour of morning sun. That winged figure on the Tel and Tel Building (the loveliest thing in New York, we insist) is like a huge and queerly erect golden butterfly perched momently in the blue. The 10:12 train from Jersey City we call the Max Beerbohm Special because there are Seven Men in the smoker. No, the Reading is never crowded. (Two more men did get on at Elizabeth.) You can make yourself comfortable, put your coat, hat, and pipecleaners on one seat, your books, papers, and matches on another. Here is the stout conductor whom we used to know so well by sight, with his gold insignia. He has forgotten that we once travelled with him regularly, and very likely he wonders why we beam so cheerfully. We flash down the Bayonne peninsula, with a glimpse of the harbour, Staten Island in the distance, a schooner lying at anchor. Then we cross Newark Bay, pure opaline in a clear, pale blue light. H.G. Dwight is the only other chap who really enjoys Newark Bay the way it deserves to be. He wrote a fine poem about it once.

But we had one great disappointment. For an hour or so we read a rubbishy novel, thinking to ourself that when the Max Beerbohm Express reached that lovely Huntington Valley neighbourhood, we would lay down the book and study the scenery, which we know by heart. When we came to the Neshaminy, that blithe little green river, we were all ready to be thrilled. And then the train swung away to the left along the cut-off to Wayne Junction and we missed our bright Arcadia. We had wanted to see again the little cottage at Meadowbrook (so like the hunting lodge in the forest in “The Prisoner of Zenda”) which a suasive real-estate man once tried to rent to us. (Philadelphia realtors are no less ingenious than the New York species.) We wanted to see again the old barn, rebuilt by an artist, at Bethayres, which he also tried to rent to us. We wanted to see again the queer “desirable residence” (near the gas tanks at Marathon) which he did rent us. But we had to content ourself with the scenery along the cut-off, which is pleasant enough in its way–there is a brown-green brook along a valley where a buggy was crawling down a lane among willow trees in a wealth of sunlight. And the dandelions are all out in those parts. Yes, it was a lovely morning. We found ourself pierced by the kind of mysterious placid melancholy that we only enjoy to the full in a Reading smoker, when, for some unknown reason, hymn tunes come humming into our head and we are alarmed to notice ourself falling in love with humanity as a whole.

We could write a whole newspaper page about travelling to Philly on the Reading. Consider those little back gardens near Wayne Junction, how delightfully clean, neat, domestic, demure. Compare entering New York toward the Grand Central, down that narrow frowning alleyway of apartment house backs, with imprisoned children leaning from barred windows. But as you spin toward Wayne Junction you see acres and acres of trim little houses, each with a bright patch of turf. Here is a woman in a blue dress and white cap, busily belabouring a rug on the grass. The bank of the cutting by Wayne Junction is thick with a tangle of rosebushes which will presently be in blossom; we know them well. Spring Garden Street: if you know where to look you can catch a blink of Edgar Allan Poe’s little house. Through a jumble of queer old brick chimneys and dormers, and here we are at the Reading Terminal, with its familiar bitter smell of coal gas.

Of course we stop to have a look at the engine, one of those splendid Reading locos with the three great driving wheels. Splendid things, the big Reading locos; when they halt they pant so cheerfully and noisily, like huge dogs, much louder than any other engines. We always expect to see an enormous red tongue running in and out over the cowcatcher. Vast thick pants, as the poet said in “Khubla Khan.” We can’t remember if he wore them, or breathed them, but there it is in the poem; look it up. Reading engineers, too, always give us a sense of security. They have gray hair, cropped very close. They have a benign look, rather like Walt Whitman if he were shaved. We wrote a poem about one of them once, Tom Hartzell, who used to take the 5:12 express out of Jersey City.

Philadelphia, incidentally, is the only large city where the Dime Museum business still flourishes. For the first thing we see on leaving the Terminal is that the old Bingham Hotel is now The World’s Museum, given over to Ursa the Bear Girl and similar excitements. But where is the beautiful girl with slick dark hair who used to be at the Reading terminal news-stand?

How much more we could tell you about travelling on the Reading! We would like to tell you about the queer assortment of books we brought back with us. (There were twelve men in the smoker, coming home.) We could tell how we tried to buy, without being observed, a magazine which we will call Foamy Fiction, in order to see what the new editor (a friend of ours) is printing. Also, we always buy a volume of Gissing when we go to Philly, and this time we found “In the Year of Jubilee” in the shop of Jerry Cullen, the delightful bookseller who used to be so redheaded, but is getting over it now in the most logical way. We could tell you about the lovely old whitewashed stone farmhouses (with barns painted red on behalf of Schenk’s Mandrake Pills) and about the famous curve near Roelofs, so called because the soup rolls off the table in the dining car when they take the curve at full speed; and about Bound Brook, which has a prodigious dump of tin cans that catches the setting sunlight—-

It makes us sad to think that a hundred years hence people will be travelling along that road and never know how much we loved it. They will be doing so to-morrow, too; but it seems more mournful to think about the people a hundred years hence.

When we got back to Jersey City, and stood on the front end of the ferryboat, Manhattan was piling up all her jewels into the cold green dusk. There were a few stars, just about as many as there are passengers in a Reading smoker. There was one big star directly over Brooklyn, and another that seemed to be just above Plainfield. We pondered, as the ferry slid toward its hutch at Liberty Street, that there were no stars above Manhattan. Just at that moment–five minutes after seven–the pinnacle of the Woolworth blossomed a ruby red. New York makes her own.

III

You never know when an adventure is going to begin. But on a train is a good place to lie in wait for them. So we sat down in the smoker of the 10 A.M. Eastern Standard Time P.R.R. express to Philadelphia, in a receptive mood.

At Manhattan Transfer the brakeman went through the train, crying in a loud, clear, emphatic barytone: “Next stop for this train is North Philadelphia!”

We sat comfortably, and in that mood of secretly exhilarated mental activity which is induced by riding on a fast train. We were looking over the June Atlantic. We smiled gently to ourself at that unconscious breath of New England hauteur expressed in the publisher’s announcement, “The edition of the Atlantic is carefully restricted.” Then, meditating also on the admirable sense and skill with which the magazine is edited, and getting deep into William Archer’s magnificent article “The Great Stupidity” (which we hope all our clients will read) we became aware of outcries of anguish and suffering in the aisle near by.

At Manhattan Transfer a stout little man with a fine domy forehead and a derby hat tilted rather far aft had entered the smoker. He suddenly learned that the train did not stop at Newark. He uttered lamentation, and attacked the brakeman with grievous protest. “I heard you say, This train stops at Newark and Philadelphia,” he insisted. His cigar revolved wildly in the corner of his mouth; crystal beads burst out upon the opulent curve of his forehead. “I’ve got to meet a man in Newark and sell him a bill of goods.”

The brakeman was gentle but firm. “Here’s the conductor,” he said. “You’ll have to talk to him.”

Now this is a tribute of admiration and respect to that conductor. He came along the aisle punching tickets, holding his record slip gracefully folded round the middle finger of his punch hand, as conductors do. Like all experienced conductors he was alert, watchful, ready for any kind of human guile and stupidity, but courteous the while. The man bound for Newark ran to him and began his harangue. The frustrated merchant was angry and felt himself a man with a grievance. His voice rose in shrill tones, he waved his hands.

Then began a scene that was delightful to watch. The conductor was magnificently tactful. He ought to have been an ambassador (in fact, he reminded us of one ambassador, for his trim and slender figure, his tawny, drooping moustache, the gentle and serene tact of his bearing, were very like Mr. Henry van Dyke). He allowed the protestant to exhaust himself with reproaches, and then he began an affectionate little sermon, tender, sympathetic, but firm.

“I thought this train stopped at Newark,” the fat man kept on saying.

“You mustn’t think, you must know,” said the conductor, gazing shrewdly at him above the rims of his demi-lune spectacles. “Now, why did you get on a train without making sure where it stopped? You heard the brakeman say: ‘Newark and Philadelphia’? No; he said ‘North Philadelphia.’ Yes, I know you were in a hurry, but that wasn’t our fault, was it? Now, let me tell you something: I’ve been working for this company for twenty-five years….”

Unhappily the noise of the train prevented us from hearing the remark that followed. We were remembering a Chinese translation that we made once. It went something like this:

A SUSPICIOUS NATURE

Whenever I travel
I ask at least three train-men
If this is the right train
For where I am going,
Even then
I hardly believe them.

But as we watched the two, the conductor gently convincing the irate passenger that he would have to abide by his mistake, and the truculent fat man gradually realizing that he was hopelessly in the wrong, a new aspect subtly came over the dialogue. We saw the stout man wither and droop. We thought he was going to die. His hat slid farther and farther upward on his dewy brow. His hands fluttered. His cigar, grievously chewed, trembled in its corner of his mouth. His fine dark eyes filled with tears.

The conductor, you see, was explaining that he would have to pay the fare to North Philadelphia and then take the first train back from there to Newark.

We feared, for a few minutes, that it really would be a case for a chirurgeon, with cupping and leeching and smelling salts. Our rotund friend was in a bad way. His heart, plainly, was broken. From his right-hand trouser emerged a green roll. With delicate speed and tact the conductor hastened this tragic part of the performance. His silver punch flashed in his hand as he made change, issued a cash slip, and noted the name and address of the victim, for some possible future restitution, we surmised, or perhaps only as a generous anaesthetic.

The stout man sat down a few seats in front of us and we studied his back. We have never seen a more convincing display of chagrin. With a sombre introspective stare he gazed glassily before him. We never saw any one show less enthusiasm for the scenery. The train flashed busily along through the level green meadows, which blended exactly with the green plush of the seats, but our friend was lost in a gruesome trance. Even his cigar (long since gone out) was still, save for an occasional quiver.

The conductor came to our seat, looking, good man, faintly stern and sad, like a good parent who has had, regretfully, to chastise an erring urchin.

“Well,” we said, “the next time that chap gets on a train he’ll take care to find out where it stops.”

The conductor smiled, but a humane, understanding smile. “I try to be fair with ’em,” he said.

“I think you were a wonder,” we said.

By the time we reached North Philadelphia the soothing hand of Time had exerted some of its consolation. The stout man wore a faintly sheepish smile as he rose to escape. The brakeman was in the vestibule. He, younger than the conductor, was no less kind, but we would hazard that he is not quite as resigned to mortal error and distress. He spoke genially, but there was a note of honest rebuke in his farewell.

“The next time you get on a train,” he said, “watch your stop.”