“Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike / They’ve all come to look for America” – Simon & Garfunkel, “America”
Between January 11 and March 19 this year I went to four major U.S. cities– Seattle, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, D.C.– two of which I’d never visited before, all for varying purposes. I didn’t write about any of them at the time but I wanted to write about them now.
They were all different, but they were all cold.
This is their story.
Everything was blue. All my photos turned out that way, anyway.
This was my third time in Seattle so it was a bit like a homecoming. But unlike the last two times—in a May and a June, respectively—it was damned cold. Dirty lumps of snow sat in the gutters and on the edges of parking lots. Staying with our friend Micah, who lives between downtown and Capitol Hill, we took several cold face-stinging walks to our numerous local destinations, up the hill and down the hill, from the International District to the original Starbuck’s. My coat saw a lot of action this winter.
The cold made the visibility crystal clear, and Seattle’s relatively new skyscrapers are made of glass, so they reflected the blue sky just swimmingly. We saw blue trees, the blue of the bay from the Athenian Inn. Even the air coming out of our mouths was blue-ish, visible as it was from the low temperature.
All the better to enjoy two of my favorite activities: going to bookstores and sitting in coffee shops, which seem particularly suited to Seattle anyway. Elliott Bay Book Company, in its new Capitol Hill location (formerly it occupied a historic building in Pioneer Square), was big and pleasant but not so impressive as I’d hoped. Left Bank Books in Pike’s Place was leftist and creaky and musty—it had a sun-drenched corner by the second-story window where one who was not on a whirlwind weekend trip could probably spend a very pleasant hour. Victrola Coffee in Capitol Hill was just satisfactory (and painfully hipster), while local chain Top Pot Doughnuts made a mean latte and stashed old hardcovers in its walls, including a turn-of-the-century Gilbert & Sullivan lyric book.
On our last night there Paul bought a fresh salmon from Pike’s Place and prepared it in Micah’s apartment. We stuffed ourselves with fish, and also Pocky and mochi from Asian super-grocer Uwajimaya, and watched “Black Adder.”
Seattle. Fresh fish, hot coffee, and what must be a citywide love of books. My kind of place.
Philadelphia is old. It deals in being old. A lot of cities do, I suppose—but coming straight from California, this self-conscious oldness is especially noticeable.
One of the first things I noticed about Philadelphia, when I first visited three years ago, was how dark brown everyone’s hair was. Other things that made an impression: the unprepossessing attitude of Hymie’s Jewish deli in the suburb of Merion; the immigrant-via-working-class vibe of South Philly and the resulting passive-aggressive culture war (namely, the blue collar nativist sticker slogans in the windows of famous cheesesteak purveyor Geno’s); the way the train man yells, “Haverford!” as we pull through the various tiny townships outside the city, without really using the R’s; the Pennsylvania Dutch presence (and their wonderful pies); the fact that Dunkin’ Donuts outnumber Starbucks (true of many places East of the Mississippi?)—apparently people buy coffee at DD, not just donuts.
Philly feels feisty. Like it knows it’s not as big as New York, or as cultured as Boston, or as powerful as DC. You can walk across it in a few hours. It has plenty of poverty and (like most places) a race problem. But it tries to make up for it with a fierce identity composed in part of red brick, graveyards, Ben Franklins, and bonneted historical reenactors.
Besides the Philadelphia Orchestra concert at Kimmel Hall that was our ostensible trip purpose, we also visited the glorified medical curio cabinet that is the Mütter Museum, walked around the Old City amidst snow flurries (is the snow falling up or down??), squeezed between falling, yellowing books at the Book Trader, were confused by a pop-up art installation slash eyeglasses shop called Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (bought a $10 T-shirt), re-visited the legendary pastrami and egg cream soda at Hymie’s, and paid an obligatory visit inside Independence Hall. (There was history there.) Oldness, evidently, abounded. Also, like last time, we found ourselves inside Reading Market, the train terminal turned open floor plan full of flower booths, food grocers, and lunch spots, at least five times in two days. That Amish food, it beckons.
Pulling out of O’Hare on the way to downtown Chicago, on the Blue Line, a man sits in front of me, his peach scalp inches from my face. Around it, straw-like mouse brown hair in a circular crown that only serves to emphasize his baldness. Plus, a combover. “Welcome to the Midwest?” I think.
Chicago felt big. Noisy. Brown. Tacky. Alive. But I found quiet spaces. There was a gentle, magical moment, in the midst of the St. Patrick’s madness, when tiny spots of snow whirled down from the sky and stuck to my wool glove.
Speaking of. It was St. Patrick’s Day when I visited. The downtown population disproportionately consisted of drunk college kids festooned in bright green. They poured onto my train car. They yelled and milled about in large groups and bumped into you on the sidewalk. Because of them, or at least the Parade, the Bean was closed. I ducked into the Art Institute during the actual parade and, for that duration, it was like night and day (or silence and noise, as it were).
But as I put half-hours and blocks between myself and the festivities, the city quieted down considerably, and it was like any weekend day in the financial district. Streets were empty. Restaurants were closed. I didn’t get to eat any deep-dish pizza or Polish sausages. I walked along the (green-ish) River. “Where’s Union Station?” a teenage girl asked me. I pointed vaguely. “That way.” The architecture was amazing. Maybe this could be my city.
I thought I’d hate it, or at least be criminally bored. What’s so great about old white monuments, solitary, cold national symbols desperately imitating the buildings of a dead civilization?
It was also neither fall, when I hear the city goes aflame in red and orange, nor quite spring, when the cherry blossoms from Japan burst across the Mall (a few poked their petals out while I was there). But winter in D.C.—alone, on the Mall—as it turns out, was one of the most beautiful places I can remember being.
With several hours to kill between my plane landing and my prospective student dinner, I took the Metro to the National Mall and took myself on a photographic walking tour. It was cloudy. It was cold, but not as cold as Chicago (or Seattle). Even though it was also St. Patrick’s Day, it was tranquil. A Reston girl and her mother were dressing in traditional Irish clothes in the public restroom I visited, in preparation for the parade. Families waved little flags at the procession.
After an hour or so in the National Gallery—whose paintings now blur indistinguishably with those I saw at the Art Institute, the day before, with the exception of some of the fairy tale pre-Raphaelites— I asked a nearby dad to take my picture in front of the Monument, then made a big, slow lap past the White House, the Jefferson Memorial, the WWII Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial. I set my iPod to Thomas Newman’s ethereal “Angels in America” score because, I don’t know, it felt appropriate. The sobriety, the bare branches, the mild gray-blue of the Reflecting Pool, the open, manicured feel of the green public space, all felt so unashamedly civilized, and so melancholy, and so implicated in both great and terrible things. I was joyously ambivalent about the landscape’s entire enterprise. It was practically spiritual. An open air cathedral.
If they were colors, Seattle would be blue, Philadelphia would be red, Chicago would be brown-gray, DC would be gray-white. All beautiful in their own ways. Each a unique snowflake (and I saw snowflakes in each one). Next up, a road trip from Silicon Valley to Urbana Champaign in August. Stay tuned.