Piano music from the Italian bakery; opera twirling in the alley lined by red-white drapery, drooping like kindly eyelids. Plastic pallets, emptied of apple and zucchini and heirloom tomato, rest til tomorrow. A quarter-mile off, a neon sign calls for Geno’s Cheesesteak—world famous!—while in the dusty park, a girl just old enough to walk nudges a ball with hesitant feet.
I read the signs attentively, clutching at orientation. 3rd St South. Earp Street. Passyunk Ave.
A grandfather holds his grandson’s hand, walking at the pace of his tale. Young men provoke the engines of their dirtbikes again and again in a sonorous peacock’s display. Giant ants crawl towards the rafters of a sordid shop front, while around the corner, flowers line tended doorways like trapped coral reefs. I pass through a thousand conversations, their themes bound by our shared conventions of time—of months, and days, and cycles of living.
I enter a store that beckons with exotic verdancy and discover a chameleon grasping at furled leaves. His eyes take me in with juddering, angular movements. A bearded dragon follows my face with obsidian eyes. A frog of brilliant, impossible, numinous blue perches at the back of the tank, content in stillness, as the bassline thrums through the store’s speakers. I wonder what they see when they look at me. I wonder if they can ever hear themselves thinking.
Back out, around the corner. I pass a dunkin donuts cup filled with yellow urine, complete with lid and straw, sitting on someone’s breakfast table. After lingering in curious revulsion, I turn my attention back to the gardens: the gardens of ceramic and stone and mirror, of marsh grass and zinnia and sunflower, of fabric and stitch pattern.
Everywhere, seen and unseen, is the work of human hands, for the city is always under creation, and always on display. It costs something for those who need the right to say, I own this, but the truth is it never belonged to them, no more than it belongs to me, the walker, who walks on and past and feels no need to grasp, or purchase, or possess.
I wind around the block and turn back. Everything looks entirely different coming the other way, though the map begins to weave itself into coherence, a hue placed here, the shape of a corner there, and there, the square lined with benches where resting bodies watch gushing water.
My thoughts are now brief flares set off by some stimulus: a color, a flower, a question, like who made this mosaic, and why? Why do we put out mums in the fall?
Why do men and women drink beer til they can barely stand, served by men in overalls and buxom women pretending to represent a country they’ve never been to? Actors, actresses, all of them, in character and put on stage for me, the single member of the audience, or so it strikes me, as I weave among them, knowing I don’t need to interact. For I am a visitor to their moment and I will slip past as soon as it does.
Though I’m in Philadelphia it occurs I’m also in London, Amsterdam, New York, and Paris—for humans recombine the same raw materials of living with common function and unique character. Every city, an exquisite handmade creation. Every painted brick, every lettered coffee-shop sign, every whiff of raw halibut and damp grass.
When the racket of man becomes too much, I turn off South street, away from the woman in her rococo metal heels and the man who shouts “hoi” as he rides his bicycle too close behind me and then takes off into the vacant road on only his back tire, a performance intended for unspecified audience. The sky is spilling with ink, and suddenly I can hear the swallows overhead.
Do we own the city, or does it own us? Is this illusion of ownership, this noble lie, a necessary trick? Without it, would we have this patchwork of care and tended beds and locked gates and voter registration forms stuck beneath door knockers, and drawings of rainbows pressed up against the glass?
As I walk, my thoughts run along grid of the streets, structured into movements swelling from discord to harmony, andante to lente. A girl lingers by the bush where a cicada plays his dusk sonata, she asks her mother what is it, what is it, what is it, is it a snake? But the mother doesn’t answer, for her gaze is far off on the bridge where the train clatters over as though pushed by the hand of some enormous benevolent toddler, and the river lies still as it moves and within it swim the beavers with wood before their noses and the cormorants who have oiled their feathers in the sunlight of the day.
Night falls now. The bats take the sky from the swallows. Windows switch on with yellow light, and the morning glories twist their cheeks shut. Though I feel the hunger in my belly and the thirst in my throat, I take the long way home, wondering whether I’ve learned the city’s lesson: to care as if it is yours, but walk as if it isn’t.