I had no reason to walk, but I walked nonetheless.
I walked west along the south side of Lancaster Avenue, part of storied U.S. Route 30, which traverses the continent from Atlantic City, N.J., to Astoria, Ore. Route 30 throughout Pennsylvania is also part of historic Lincoln Highway, the first automobile road across the United States. As it happens, Lincoln Highway, the nation’s first memorial to its 16th president, celebrates its centennial this year.
Anyway, I had no intentions of taking a historical tour today. I was bound from the Breslin compound in Berwyn to the Starbucks in Paoli. My joints creaked with the associated aches and pains of ever-deepening middle age. I tried, with little success, to shake the fog from my brain. My mind, having a mind of its own, found its way into a dark hole.
As I hit the eastern fringe of Paoli, my hometown, I wrestled with bleak thoughts of failure and hopelessness. I assume these ephemeral discontents plague most sentient beings every now and then. My reverie was temporarily broken by the sound of the Septa R5 blowing its horn on its way out of the Paoli station. The gleaming silver train gathered speed as it crossed the bridge over PA 252, and I slipped into morbid fantasy.
I wondered how easy it might be, and how much time it might take, to jog across Lancaster Avenue’s four lanes, hurdle the concrete median and clamber up onto the steel tracks in time to get disemboweled by the Philly local.
I figured such an exit, however pathetic, would be more proper and decent than hurling myself in front of a passing car. I’d hate for some stranger to have my grisly death on his or her mind forever (Which reminds me of a great, old blues line: She wants you to kill me just so you’ll have it on your mind*). The train, well, getting obliterated by a newfangled iron horse just seems more impersonal.
So I looked west along Route 30, then east. God forbid this suicide mission of the mind get derailed by a speeding Escalade. The train took a while to get up to speed, allowing my Anna Karenina goes to Paoli inner drama extended play.
Eventually, the train passed on its way east, and I got onto other thoughts. Please be assured this is no cry for help. The morose daydream was merely a conduit carrying me back to my dad. As I walked by Paoli Beverage, where he bought his cigarettes in his latter years, I thought of the famous Einstein quote my friend Peter is so fond of repeating, something about the past and present being nothing more than a persistent illusion.
I prefer Faulkner’s famous line: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The passing commuter train had delivered me to the past’s shadowy doorstep.
My dad took that same train to work in Center City Philadelphia every morning for more than a quarter century. And I know how much he hated it. God he hated it.
He got on in Paoli and stepped off the train at Suburban Station. He walked four or five blocks to his office at 15th and Walnut. He worked as a stock broker at Butcher & Singer, a bedrock Philadephia firm which dated to 1910. An upscale steak restaurant of the same name occupies the building at 1500 Walnut today.
The life of a stock broker was more or less bequeathed to him by his father, the insufferable Charles Wallingford. I think my grandfather was a trader at Janney Montgomery Scott, another historic Philly firm. They called him “Cholly Wally,” and he always claimed that he “wrote the book.” My mom, now 83, still recoils at the mention of his name.
My old man worked at Butcher until it was no more. That was in 1988, when Wheat, First Securities acquired control in some shady deal or other. Wheat shipped him off to die in Richmond, Va. He went by himself. It must’ve been terrifying.
After three-plus decades working a job he couldn’t stand to support his family, he was on his own, exiled to unfamiliar territory with no one to accompany him.
And time swept right past him, as it does to all of us.
I’ll turn 50 next week. He turned 50 in May of 1978, when I was 15. I was selfish little snot, all hormones and insecurities. I was wrapping up my freshman year in high school.
As the train disappeared behind me, on toward Daylesford and Devon, Wayne and Wynnewood, I thought of all the experiences we’d shared by then.
He had been my Little League coach, my Sunday School teacher. When I got into basketball, he made sure I had a hoop to shoot at in the driveway. He was a soft touch, and I usually got what I wanted.
He was still 50 when he gave in to my begging and pleading and took me to the Palestra in West Philadelphia one Saturday afternoon in January to watch the Penn Quakers, my favorite basketball team, take on Sleepy Floyd and the fearsome Georgetown Hoyas.
It was Jan. 20, 1979, four days after my 16th birthday – which must have been a significant factor in my dad’s aquiescence. I’m sure the last thing he wanted to do on his day off was take the train to the goddamned city. But he did.
I don’t remember too much about that day, other than it was a hell of a game. The venerable basketball barn was packed to the rafters and rocking, 9,000 lunatics screaming and squirming down the stretch as each play left the outcome still in doubt. Georgetown, which had been ranked 10th in that week’s Associated Press poll, rallied in the final minute and escaped with a 78-76 win.
What I remember most vividly is a making an ass out of myself. We were seated behind one of the baskets. When a call in the lane right in front of us went against the home team, I lost my mind, left my seat and screamed the following righteous oath at the official who had blown his whistle: “You suck!”
Remember, this was 1979. The Simpsons were more than a decade away. You just didn’t say “you suck” in front of your father.
My dad was horrified. His eyes glowed hot. I could see how much he regretted his decision to come here. It’s a wonder he didn’t send me reeling back into my seat with a backhand to the jaw. He just wasn’t that kind of guy.
He did invite me to sit down and shut the hell up. And he promised we’d depart immediately if I repeated the atrocity. I think he swore he’d never take me to another game at the Palestra.
To this day I wonder why we weren’t closer. I worry over it from time to time. Perhaps it is some defect in me, rather than him. I’ll turn 60 when Max is 15. How foolish will he think me then? I do these sad mental calculations all the time.
I feel like I’m running uphill in a vanishing dreamscape, trying to patch up the bridge to my father before I lose my son.
My dad, he had his problems. He came home from work on the afternoon train and set about erasing the memory of the day. He entered through the kitchen door and trudged back to the bedroom he shared with my mom. He pulled off his tie, peeled off the suit and found his way into casual clothes. Then he retraced his steps to the kitchen, poured himself a graper, which in his hands was a tumbler filled with vodka and ice with a trace of grape juice for coloring.
I didn’t even know they were called grapers until he died and one of his friends enlightened me at the funeral. In any case, he drank grapers and smoked Kents while twilight settled over the kitchen and the evening melted away. He said little. He must’ve thought a lot.
He was good guy, through and through. Everyone remembers him as a nice man.
He was never violent, always supportive. In April he will be dead six years, and I have yet to make sense of our relationship.
I shambled past the CVS pharmacy, which was home to the old Atlantic & Pacific (A&P) supermarket when I was a kid. Then I tiptoed across 252. There’s a Boston Market on the southwest corner of 252 and 30. The location has hosted a revolving door of fast-food chains as far back as I can remember. I’m not sure, but I think it originally was Gino’s, the chain of hamburger joints founded by Baltimore Colts legends Gino Marchetti and Alan Ameche. Since then it’s been too many places to recall, including anachronistic names like Hot Shoppes and Roy Rogers.
Now I walked the sidewalk adjacent to Paoli Shopping Center, which was the hub of a burgeoning suburb when I was a kid. There was a camera shop here where I bought 45 rpm records. Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods, Paper Lace, even Donny Osmond. Pretty embarrassing stuff, all in all.
Nearby is Paoli Florist, where my dad worked for a time as a delivery driver after reaching his breaking point and coming home from Richmond.
The best job I ever had was right there in the shopping center. In December of 1994, after the West Chester Paper had gone bust in November, I worked as Santa Claus in a portable hut positioned outside the Paoli Hardware. I read Othello in the down times and waited for Peter to show up with the inevitable pill bottle full of bourbon. A little shot for Old Saint Nick.
One of my favorite Christmas memories: He had gone into the hardware store, and his mother was looking for him. She was ready to leave, and she couldn’t find him. Poor, suffering Mary Lou Canale looked at me as I stood outside the Santa hut, all done up in red suit and white beard, and screamed, “Where the hell is Peter?”
I was 31 that Christmas. There would be plenty of time to learn about my father and close the gap in our relationship. A little more than a year earlier, when I landed the West Chester Paper job, a cub reporter at age 30, making the grand total of $15,000 per annum, I happily told him the news.
He had one question:
“Are you delivering it?”
I always took this as a straight inquiry. Now I wonder if he was just fucking with me. I like to think he was. One time I asked him what he would like to have been, if he’d had his druthers, and he said he would’ve been a sports writer.
Twisted little irony. I got to be, at least for a while, what my dad had always dreamed of being. And in the end, I didn’t like it much more than he liked taking the train to Philadelphia every day to sell stocks and bonds.
Funny thing, life.
Here’s a song for my old man. It’s John Prine, one of America’s preeminent songwriters, doing a cover of his old buddy Steve Goodman’s gem, “My Old Man.” My buddy Peter used to play the song every now and then, and it used to make me cry, even before my dad died.
* Well, I bollixed that up completely, it seems. I got the pronouns wrong. And I thought it must be an old blues line, though I knew I first heard it in a David Bromberg song. As he’s a walking, picking and singing encyclopedia of folk music, I just figured it as an old line. It sounds at least as old as Kokomo Arnold or Blind Lemon Jefferson. But Google fails to return anything linking it to the traditional lexicon of the blues. The song also includes the line “When I ask for water, she brings me gasoline,” which dates to at least Howlin’ Wolf. So here’s Bromberg, who calls out fiddle player Tom Hosmer in a variation on the “She wants you to kill me” line in his “Jugband Song” from a 1972 concert at Syracuse: