Sunday, Jan. 27 – They’ve robbed the rails of all their poetry.
I suppose the poetry of the railroads died long ago. Poetry is forever gasping for air. It is the province of creeping old age to gaze backward with a tsk-tsking critique of the present. I suppose it’s mostly rubbish, misty-eyed nostalgia for lost youth cloaked in claptrap.
That said, all abooaard! We’re off to the city to visit with Becky’s brother Tim, his wife Pearl, and Max’s cousin Elodie. We’re riding on the Orange Juice Local from Devon to Suburban Station in Center City. What once was the legendary Paoli Local is now the prosaic SEPTA R5 Line.
Whoops. Check that. Another part of the lexicon slipped into anachronism while I was out. Now they call it the Paoli/Thorndale Line, though the digital display at Suburban Station lists the westbound destination as Malvern, one stop west of Paoli.
Whatever they’re calling it, however they’re selling it, it’s good to be on board.
Because baby, it’s cold outside.
Time to get with the times.
If you think the “Sunshine Express” exterior garish, you’d love the inside. It’s sunburst orange from stem to stern and awash in Tropicana slogans. Tropicana to the left of me. Tropicana to the right. Tropicana hurts my eyes, it’s so damn bright. Somewhere, Anita Bryant is a pulpy, agitated mess.
Me? I’m craving vitamin C. I want to grab a mini bottle of 100 percent pure squeezed Florida Sunshine. I want to hydrate my smile. I want know what it feels like to be a morning person. Today. I’m singing those mean, old Orange Juice Blues, and I probably will be all day.
I find the shrink-wrapped, orange-clad money grab the least disconcerting development of the 21st century railroad experience. I’m a little surprised it took SEPTA so long to get with the program and latch onto some easy money, though it’s been a century or so since the railroads were known for their forward thinking.
And confidentially, I’ve always loved orange. My first ten-speed bike was orange. My favorite sports team wore orange. My favorite drink was not orange juice, alas.
It was orange soda.
All my childhood summers melt into a single memory: An orange Fanta drops with a reassuring metallic clunk into the exit chute of a vending machine outside our room at a motel along the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Inside on the television, a beleaguered President Richard Nixon shuffles a stack of white paper and announces his resignation.
I step aboard car 729, as usual armed with maximum ignorance. The wonderful thing about ignorance is you’re likely to learn something new at any moment. I learn we’re aboard a Silverliner V, one of the new breed of sleek commuter cars which finally debuted in the fall of 2010 after years of delay. SEPTA ordered 120 of these cars from Hyundai Rotem in South Korea, for the price of $274 million. I guess, to steal a phrase from James McMurtry, we can’t make ‘em here anymore.
The new Silverliner class is slowly replacing worn-out warhorses that have been rolling over these rails for a half-century, dating to the fading glory of the fabled Pennsylvania Railroad. Once upon a time, the mighty Pennsy was Philadelphia. Railroad executives and their industrial cronies built the leafy testament to old-money excess that is the Main Line. From A.J. Cassatt to Stuart T. Saunders, Pennsy titans sequestered themselves in the sylvan havens of Haverford and Bryn Mawr, Radnor and Rosement. They erected opulent mansions in homage to their own genius, and lived far from the taint of the hoi polloi.
Used to be your trip along the stolid Main Line to the big city was fraught with discomfort and inconvenience. The trains ran late. Sometimes they broke down mid-route. Heaters and air conditioners worked irregularly, if at all. Railroad executives, after all, were not in the habit of commuting like commoners.
Saunders presided over the mammoth 1968 merger with the New York Central, at the time the largest corporate marriage in U.S. history, and the subsequent ruin of the entire operation less than than three years later. He preferred to travel from his Ardmore mansion (purchased in 1963 for $195,000 – or roughly $1.5 million in 2011 dollars) to Center City in his chauffeured limousine, one of 10 the Penn Central had on reserve for its executives.
“I always had four or five briefcases,” he told authors Joseph Daughen and Peter Binzen in the wake of the Penn Central collapse. “How the hell could I get on a Paoli local with all that?”
Now trains run like clockwork. And that’s not all that’s different.
Used to be a conductor announced the upcoming stop with the brio of old Dave Zinkoff, the virtuoso public-address announcer who delighted crowds at 76ers games.
“Vill-Ah-Nooovva! Next stop, Villanova!”
On the Orange Juice Local, upcoming stations are announced by bloodless digital voices and displayed on video screens posted at the car’s four corners. Between destination updates, you’re favored with a revolving sequence of silent advertisements. One for Villanova’s basketball game against Syracuse at Wells Fargo Center (formerly Wachovia Center, former First Union (FU!) Center, formerly Core States Center and, last and sadly least, formerly Spectrum II) keeps catching my eye.
I’m no longer a copy editor, yet I can’t help but note the contest promoted in this ad took place yesterday, Jan. 26, 2013. (The Main Line Wildcats – the Villanova station is tucked neatly between Radnor and Rosemont – upset third-ranked Syracuse in overtime.) One by one, sober-eyed Villanova players glower at me with adolescent machismo, and I wonder how difficult it could be to program the ads to expire once the event date has passed.
Other spots include pitches for the Roberts Proton Therapy Center (Bad news: You have cancer; Good news: Well … come see us. We’ll talk), Independence Blue Cross (We’re “Changing the Game” by improving care and lowering consumer costs!) and Prudential Savings Bank (Wherein I realize, amid our own foreclosure debacle, that a 30-year adjustable-rate mortgage now stands an excellent chance of outliving me).
I am, however, intrigued by the Charleston-dancing flappers and barrel-bashing cops promoting a Prohibition exhibit at Philadelphia’s Constitution Center. I can get with that.
Next stop is Bryn Mawr, the digitized voice advises. Next stop is Bryn Mawr, the display screen reminds. It’s antiseptic, not to mention downright inhuman.
I am hardly the first traveler to succumb to the questionable wiles of railroad nostalgia hereabouts. The Paoli Local’s greatest chronicler and most ardent admirer was Christopher Morley.
“Nothing was so holy as the Local to Paoli,” Morley wrote in “Elegy in a Railroad Station,” his paean to Broad Street Station that appeared in the Oct. 2, 1954, edition of the Saturday Review.
Morley was born in 1890, right here in Bryn Mawr (Welsh for “Big Hill). How much did he love the “caravan of youth” that was the Paoli local? “When I die,” he wrote, “you will find the words PAOLI LOCAL indelibled on my heart.”
He named the male protagonist in his most famous novel, “Kitty Foyle,” Wynnewood Strafford. (Wynnewood and Strafford are both stops on the Paoli/Thorndale Line.) Ginger Rogers, by the way, won the best actress Oscar for her performance in the title role in the 1940 film adaptation.
Next stop: Haverford. A portly conductor strolls the aisle collecting fares and doling out tickets. He no longer gets the singular perk of announcing the next stop in the dramatic tones of yesteryear. Soon enough, he won’t get to collect fares. And if Paul Ryan and the Boyz n the House (talk about gangstas!) get their way, he might not even collect unemployment.
The Orwellian-sounding NPT (New Payment Technology) system is due to arrive at your local rail depot next year. Paper tickets and tokens will go the way of typewriters and trolleys, supplanted by “contactless” plastic cards bearing computer chips. Contactless. Now there’s a word oozing futuristic horror. Me? I’m waiting on contactless sex.
“The new fare system,” SEPTA’s website promises, “will be phased in over a period of three years, following the award of a contract to a third party vendor.”
Nice. The future will arrive once a vendor can be found to exploit it with suitable irresponsibility, preferably without any accountability whatsoever.
Morley, newspaperman and novelist, poet and essayist, was valedictorian of Haverford College, class of 1910. His father Frank was a celebrated math professor at Haverford and Johns Hopkins. Christopher Morley suffered a stroke in 1951, and died in 1957. These were his last words to friends, as published in New York newspapers (per Wikipedia):
Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to continually be part of unanimity.
Where’s he been all my life?
His love letter to Broad Street Station was published the year after the sprawling gothic wonder had been demolished.
I repeat your glory, Broad Street Station!
The proper shrine, the true Main Line,
Of Immortality the Intimation;
Such offsteam blowing;
Such bells, and hells of coming and going,
Suburban cowcatchers’ dainty snouts,
Beautiful barytone All abooaard shouts,
Drive wheels and firebox glowing,
Nothing was so holy as the local to Paoli
(15 and 45) when we were youngalive
For Wynnewood, Ardmore, Haverford, Bryn Mawr
Or anywhere along the P.R.R.
Then as child, boy, student, family man,
We were too self-occupied to scan
That gigantic arch of joys and pains
When trains were really trains.
Why is it we’re so oblivious till it gets late?
On a trivial note, I was surprised the other day whilst paging through a provincial newspaper to realize both private Haverford School, right on Lancaster Avenue in the heart of the Main Line, and public Haverford High School (in Havertown) share the nickname “Fords.” As does Haverford College, for that matter.
Another thing that somehow escaped my noticed when I was a kid is how close, geographically speaking, Haverford is to Havertown. My mom graduated from Haverford High. Less than four miles separate the schools.
I note this because my mother grew up less than five miles from Haverford School. I grew up 12 miles from Haverford in Paoli, the nominal terminus of the Main Line. I would’ve been gobsmacked if you had told me my grandparents lived closer to the true Main Line than we did.
That’s because culturally and demographically, Haverford and Havertown are leagues apart. Haverford is blueblood, Havertown blue-collar. Haverford, for the most part, is in Lower Merion Township, the fifth-richest township in America, according to its Wikipedia page. Even if that figure is a little off, you get the idea. Folks bleed green out here.
In Haverford, 27 percent of the people make at least $150,000 year, compared to 7 percent in Havertown. At the beginning of January, the average listing price for home in Haverford was $974,000. In Havertown, $320,000. Just saying, as the kids say.
Haverford represents the quintessence of the Main Line. Cassatt’s “Cheswold” estate was here. James McCrea, who succeeded Cassatt as Pennsylvania Railroad president, lived humbly in his own Haverford mansion, Ballyweather.
The Merion Cricket Club is here. Also nearby is Merion Golf Club, which will host the 2013 U.S. Open Golf Championship. It will be the fifth go-round for Merion.
Speaking of Merion, the Philadelphia Main Line was the epicenter of WASP clubbiness. From here, railroad executives sent their sons to private boarding schools, then to the Ivy League, and finally Harvard Business School. When they were old enough to join the club of Proper Philadelphians, they had dozens of exclusive ones to choose from. The Union League, Rittenhouse Club, Radnor Hunt, Rabbit, Colonial Society of Pennsylvania were just a few.
The oldest and most exclusive is the Philadelphia Club. You might have more money than Croesus, or Walter Annenberg, but you’d still have a devil of a time getting into the right club if you lacked the proper background.
Next stop, Wynnewood. The new trains have updated heating and cooling systems, too, and nice, big windows. And they’re oh-so quiet. The R5 used to rumble over the rails with a timeless clackety-clack. They’d bounce and wobble, jangle and jostle. Now the ride is smooth as a Mercedes on the Autobahn. At least that’s the impoverished analogy that popped into my mind.
The loss of clackety-clack, my father-in-law explains to me, is because the rails are now welded into a seamless unit, instead of being bolted together at regular intervals.
I gaze out the window and come upon one more startling realization. It seems creosote-soaked wood is no longer the favored building material for railroad ties. Concrete ties underlay this stretch of rail. Just utilitarian gray concrete. Gone is the carcinogenic poetry and the addictive smell of creosote.
In Narberth, a stately line of bare trees fret a piercing blue sky. Even the scenery looks terribly cold.
Next stop Merion. The row of Tudor houses north of the tracks signal we are almost out of the Main Line.
Next stop Overbrook.
O-ver brook! We are in Philly now.
Overbrook, home of Wilt Chamberlain, the immortal Dipper. It wasn’t always so. Before William Penn and company arrived in the latter part of the 17th century, this was a wooded, stream-lined elysium, home to the Lenni Lenape Indians.
Then it was converted to productive farmland by Welsh immigrants. In the late 19th century, the streams were buried underground and merged into the city sewers, and Overbrook was developed as a planned residential area.
Nowadays, Overbrook is justly known for its basketball bloodlines. In addition to Wilt the Stilt, Overbrook also produced Walt Hazzard, Hal Lear, Wali Jones and Wayne Hightower. And more.
Becky’s dad, Tom Breslin, remembers Hightower and Chamberlain strolling the streets of West Philadelphia when he was a kid.
Tom grew up hereabouts and attended St. Thomas More. He likes to tell the story of the time he saw Chamberlain, complete with entourage, at a fair at Saint Rose of Lima school. He was playing a game wherein the trick was tossing nickels into shallow saucers or plates. If yours stayed in, you got to keep the plate.
“They were too shallow,” Tom says. “They’d just bounce out. He’d just lean over and drop them straight in.”
I recently learned this mnemonic device: Old Maids Never Wed And Have Babies, which helps you recall the Main Line stops of Overbrook, Merion, Narberth, Wynnewood, Ardmore, Haverford and Bryn Mawr. This was Morley’s Main Line, what he was talking about when he described the Paoli local as “an excursion into Arcadia.” I wonder if he ever made it as far west as Paoli.
I recall the R5 line east of Overbrook as a distressing panorama of urban decay. Even that seems improved-upon now.
The Orange Juice Local does a little of the old shimmy she wobble as it rolls into 30th Street Station. West Philadelphia. University City.
I still got those Orange Juice Blues. They’re digging into my soul. This is where you’d get off to go to the Palestra, one of the country’s most venerable and atmospheric basketball barns. I’ve always been a sucker for the Palestra and Big 5 hoops, but mostly now that’s just a hollow memory, too.
The Orange Juice Blues. Richard Manuel. Dead. Rick Danko. Dead. Levon Helm. Dead. They’re all gone now.
Ah nostalgia. If things seem better in the past, they seem so primarily because you were young then. Now you’re old, and the future is disappearing like a runaway train. You reach 50, and it starts to dawn on you that the people who were this age when you were young are mostly dead now. When the clock revolves again, you’ll be with them, wherever it is you go when you’re gone.
Thirtieth Street is also where you’d get off if you had the dubious fortune to be visiting the Roberts Proton Therapy Center inside the Leonard Abramson Cancer Center inside the Ruth and Raymond Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine inside the institution of higher learning formerly known as the University of Pennyslvania. Enough said about the trillion-dollar octopus that is that Cancer Industrial Complex.
From here we cruise underground to Suburban Station. We are here.
I will sing no elegy to Suburban Station. My outstanding memory of this place is of bathroom stalls which had long ago lost their doors. There was no hiding here. The doors, they have them now.
There’ll be no elegy, but I’m not above a tawdry limerick:
I remember the old days at Suburban Station
When I’d enter the men’s room with great trepidation.
For the wide-open stalls
Would expose my poor balls
While I sat on the throne in abject consternation.