In Center City, if you cross paths with someone
as you walk in one direction, you are likely to meet them again
going the other way, on your return. It's that kind of place.
O.K., so I walk through Center City with my husband Lee and our
good friend, Larry, each relatively new to the city, having spent
only the last thirty or forty years here. It is the week of the
Republican convention. You can tell this from the red, white,
and blue buntings that hang outside the grocery store, the locksmith's,
and even in the window of the local dog-grooming establishment.
You can tell from the men who might be astronauts swimming championship
lengths through "my" little four-foot-deep pool at the
hotel where the big Bush is staying. And there are mini-Mummers'
parades stopping afternoon traffic and guests (read, delegates)
have to show their room keys at the door to get into their hotels.
Tonight, Lee remarks that the streets are cleaner
than we have ever seen them. We have just left our favorite restaurant.
It is not part of the Restaurant Revolution, for which Philadelphia
thinks it is famous, just a good neighborhood standby. We continue
to call it Chun Hing, but its name, after a kitchen fire and redo,
is now Grand Canal, though it's still Chinese rather than Venetian.
The restaurant is almost empty, as always. Hopefully it can hold
on until the new Performing Arts Center across the street is finished.
Tonight Larry jokes that when they see us at the door, the chef
and waiter say to each other, "Get ready, the customers are
coming." We know this is not entirely accurate because sometimes
we see take-out customers. A sign up front says, "Bathroom
reserved for take-out and eat-in customers." Do take-out
customers go to the bathroom? They do tonight and I decide the
ones we see, kind of disheveled and ordering fifteen egg rolls
at a pop, must be protesters.
After dinner we walk by the Performing Arts Center,
which was stalled for a while when high steel girders began to
drop in the wind. Construction continues now, and at the Broad
Street side is some public art, a ticker-tape video display that
reads appropriately like a fortune cookie. We walk a block in
each direction, making an L, and get to the Doubletree
Hotel, where the street is blocked off from cars and deserted,
except for a squad of police with plastic riot helmets pulled
down over their faces, looking as fierce and anonymous as they
did in Chicago in '68. Behind the line of police a few people
wait to cross the street. The subway entrances are closed off,
except for exiting police, as if the whole force were just commuting
Every few minutes a half-nude guy with long hair
streaks down Broad Street on a bike. Broad is probably
the Indian word for "14th," since it's the one exception
in the number grid the city is built on. And here and there street
signs now optimistically call it Avenue of the Arts. We
are all suddenly stunned, for it's become clear that tonight it's
not our street, our city. Larry says it's the boardwalk in Atlantic
City. It has that midway quality, street theater, déjà
vu performance art. Like the time in the '60s Judith Malina
and the Living Theater were marched nude down this very street
in handcuffs. Now a troop of rollerbladers coast down leaning
forward, making some kind of political statement maybe, not clearly
Right or Left.
Everything looks familiar yet unrecognizable.
We begin walking north on sidewalks noticeably empty even for
a weeknight in Philadelphia. It goes through my mind there might
be a bomb scare, so there's an edge to being out of the house.
On Locust Street, outside the Academy of Music, stands a little
clot of people, most with ear-pieces or walkie-talkies, plainclothes
folks. Then we pass the Bellevue, which after running out of other
hotel names, is called, again, the Bellevue. A busload of Asian
tourists packs up and leaves quickly, except for one or two with
big cameras who can't resist a last, parting shot.
On to the Union League, that elitist structure
with its brownstone exterior, raised entrance, and colonnading
stairs that distance it from the street and the common gaze. Predictably,
it has reasserted itself as the bastion of local conservative
activity this week. What's unpredictable is the red, white, and
blue neon insignia over the door, an easy stand-in for the Warner
Brothers logo that introduces Mickey Mouse cartoons. Other writing,
on the side of the building, reads Mug Yuppies! There are
police here in anticipation of protesters (not in sight at the
moment, although the next day costumed fife-and-drum players will
be stationed at the top of the steps as sign-carrying protesters
circulate at street level).
Something's happening on Chestnut Street, though.
We can see down the one block to 15th where a crowd is gathering.
But we won't leave Broad until we show Larry the new Ritz-Carlton,
late the classy, domed bank building where several friends have
had their safety-deposit boxes riffled in the turnover. Lee and
I have been inside; it mostly looks like a bank that serves drinks.
Outside, hotel security men and women, in the white T-shirts and
black pants of the hospitality industry, mill around with their
ear-pieces. More police are coming up from the closed-off subway
exit because we've reached City Hall; if anyone wanted to make
a point, this would be the place.
And here we are, getting somewhere: smoke and
hordes, a line of police at the corner, a squad of police on bikes,
then a thin stream of demonstrators with signs: FREE MUMIA.
NO DEATH PENALTY. CORPORATIONS LIE! Here I wish I had time
to make my own sign in answer, an incredulous NO! How straggly
a group of individuals is, especially in comparison to the police
cavalry that has just arrived. It takes only a dozen people on
horseback to block this large street. I see them through the eyes
of my ancestors on the Pale. Men on horses loom as an L.A.
Times reporter in front of us in a good-looking suit scribbles
away. The standing cops shove up against the demonstrators and
make a line from the subway entrance to the curb. What are they
trying to block, the street entrance? Just then, the adrenaline,
or testosterone, kicks in. Lee MUST get past. He argues with a
cop, and I imagine a nightstick connecting with his head. In fact,
I imagine a cop knocking him to the ground, the way they are swatting
at the demonstrators edging past.
Then Larry catches up with Lee. I'm behind, ready
to go back the way I came. But the cops let them through and I
follow. It amazes me how a show of force can turn the obedient
citizen into a troublemaker. I think of Latin-American dictatorships,
or any country with a history of oppression. You stop trusting
laws and law-keepers when you can't walk down the street of your
choice. The TV news shows a raid on puppetmakers in a West Philly
warehouse. The puppetmakers are dressed like '60s flower children,
girls in long, Indian folksinger skirts. Some laugh. "Hey,
we're making puppets, not bombs!" one says into the mike.
The street behind the horses stands empty. A block
north the bulk of the protest, a big crowd, fills the intersection
north of City Hall, contained by more police. Then the mounted
police wheel and thunder down 15th Street to Chestnut to form
their line. Horseshit lines the swept streets. I suggest that
we cross to where it smells better. There's smoke or tear gas,
thick air I remember from long-ago rallies. It brings back DC
in the war, Guatemala in newsreels, Greece at the time of the
revolution. A newspaper kiosk at the corner reminds me of the
one overturned onto the crowd a few feet from where I stood in
downtown Athens in '64. Larry says his friend Bonnie spent six
days living at the Athens airport then.
At some point we must pass between the horses
to get by. What large beasts they are, especially under riders
with guns. I fear I'll annoy them and they'll rear and kick, so
I'm very cautious. At the corner a rare college student, not a
protester but a convention volunteer, happily gives us his viewpoint:
demonstrators threw acid in a cop's face, others broke cops' legs
and knees with pipes. Later on the news amends these weapons to
detergent and bamboo sticks. Anyhow, he tells us to be careful
and hands out the convention newsletter.
We follow a trail of overturned dumpsters down
15th Street. Something's going on behind the Union League on Sansom
(pronounced Sampson for no particular reason by native
Philadelphians, but differentiating them from interlopers). Rubberneckers
crowd the sidewalks. We join them. The police seem to harass demonstrators
without detaining them. But we turn the corner onto Walnut and
confront chaos: crowds running and smoke (although we're not sure
if it's coming from burning trash or Susanna Foo's; this is restaurant
row). Stretch limos, other cars flat on the street, tires slashed,
keyed from engine to trunk. Nice, though, how people in the crowd
join chauffeurs and car owners to change tires. On the sidewalks
people line up to see as if they were at a parade or block party.
But there's a note of panic too, like a block party on acid.
A young woman in a red T-shirt busily takes notes.
She smiles. She speaks with a French accent and tells us she writes
for a Geneva newspaper. Then we all stare across the street. We
see Georges Perrier, celebrity chef, gesticulating, deep in the
crowd outside Le Bec Fin (four stars), still wearing a kitchen
towel around his neck. Lee pulls the Swiss reporter over and introduces
them. Never one to say no to the press, Georges of course
talks to her, especially since she speaks French. Larry and I
follow to see what's up. A girl and boy sit outside the restaurant
handcuffed, in police custody. They stole a camera, someone says.
They slashed a tire. No one's sure. The girl, a pretty, quiet-looking
blond, could be a Bryn Mawr student, the boy is dark, good-looking.
They're not Georges's customers; since they're in shorts, they
couldn't have passed his dress code. The girl's nose and cheeks
are pink. She cries. I don't blame her, with those bruisers of
cops breathing down their necks. We feel an element of community
punishment here, like being put in stocks. A little civic righteousness.
A shopkeeper pulls down shutters, locks up, and
turns to us. "There hasn't been so much commotion around
here since Georges caught his hand in the slicing machine."
We go on to the corner of 17th, a block from Rittenhouse
Square where the NRA has just held a dinner dance for the delegates.
A thin blonde stands at the corner in a party dress and sneakers,
the apparent dress code for departing ball guests. She swings
a flare, which seems a little improvisational. "This way
to Zanzibar," she calls, and I almost believe it. But I see
she's only guiding fellow delegates, as they swarm out of the
park, to the jazz club at the Bellevue, Zanzibar Blue, for a nightcap.