We are hurtling westward from Atlantic City in the pre-dawn. The fog renders the inky blackness more mysterious than it has a right to. Ghostly clusters of deer feeding in the median and the ditch appear briefly in the dim headlights of our tiny rental. We are speeding toward the river, and Pennsylvania.
By all rights, I should be sleeping soundly. I want to, but I’m at the wheel. Karen is catching a 6 a.m. flight and mine isn’t until 5 in the afternoon, by design. I am going to spend at least the morning in Philadelphia.
The airport is already busy as dawn breaks, and it’s unseasonably warm as I head back toward the city. I want to drive around the city center in the luxury of no commuter traffic and get my bearings. My short list has two items: caffeine and the Liberty Bell.
Philadelphia’s layout is easy to grasp and there are many signs pointing the way to historical attractions. Still, I roll to a stop at the intersection closest to the Bell itself without knowing. It’s encased in a low, angular building the length of a long block, unseen from the street. A state trooper-like sort with a sidearm appears on the sidewalk to my left. He gives me, the only car in sight, more than a once over. I feel the need to keep moving.
Now I’m heading south toward the district called Society Hill on my map. I’m passing tiny, pre-revolutionary streets the size of alleys. The sunlight dapples on the pavement through a surprising number of trees. Doorways have shiny knockers and windows are adorned with boxes of flowers. It could be a morning two hundred and fifty years ago.
I slowly drive the streets in rows, like traveling the aisles in a grocery. This time, delectable treats and tempting wares are architectural festoons with 18th century sensibilities: pediments and wavy glass, brass and wooden louvers, the hint of a lace curtain. I turn northward again, giddy as a gastronome, my sugar high the sweetness of living history.
Across from the Betsy Ross house on Arch Street, I find a Starbucks just opened, coyly designed with equal parts disguise and homage to its historical building. I find a parking spot a half block down and spot a Pug’s morning constitutional two car lengths ahead. Fastidiously waiting on its pajama-clad owner of the baggie’d hand, it gives me a baleful look. No matter. It’s morning in Philadephia and I’ve now got a place to be.
I take a window seat with my chai tea to watch the neighborhood awaken. Determined suits are emerging and heading to work and prams are pushed by mothers in cotton skirts and sandals. Great Danes, Labradors and other surprisingly large beasts appear on leash, ambling past. I’m a voyeur, set up with a netbook as a decoy. I sip and look, thinking everyone appears surprisingly relaxed for a Monday. Perhaps it’s the sun. Or perhaps it’s the unseasonable heat of the day to come.
Still only 7:30 a.m. I decide to walkabout myself. The front door to the tiny Betsy Ross house is practically on the street. It doesn’t seem large enough to have held the flag inside. I realize the house is part of an enclave forming around a garden behind a picket fence. It’s too early by far for a properly-guided visit, though, so I walk on.
This is a neighborhood of shops and small businesses. There are newer buildings of condos in floors above, but scale and vintage has been acknowledged and honored when construction is actually new. Warehouses and machine sheds are down alleyways, and side streets of more modest dwellings of brick, stone and wood. I walk through the middle of a block past workmen’s vans and an air compressor’s whoosh. There’s a charming mix of gentrification, trendy, and everyday regular.
I spy an ancient hardware store, alas not open, and several showrooms “to the trade only” with fabrics, wood furniture, and fixtures. I pass a woman unlocking her business door between a pair of musty-looking windows in a rickety wood facade. The tableau of dusty papers and boxes looks as if it were undisturbed for at least 50 years. She is using a skeleton key.
It’s time to move my car. I have no change, needed for the meter after 8 a.m. Traffic is still light enough to pull out without waiting, and I turn left toward the city center.
I imagine I am heading south on bricks and cobbles trod by household names. This morning they are traveled by ordinary patriots, like you and me.