The calender change from August to September was accompanied with a
temperate reprieve from the hottest summer I can remember. Global
warming ? My own dissipation under the weakening influence of air
conditioning? Dunno, but the machine's been running continuously since June. I'm afraid to open the bill. Now we've come to my favorite time of year for my favorite activity in one of my favorite places; coffee in Rittenhouse Square. I parked the sleek black leopard behind the gallery in the spot by the jewelery designer next door's Range Rover. As I rummaged in thetrunk I fondly reflected on his tight fitting T-shirts, always printed with intricate patterns andgraphics which emphasized the firm hills and valleys of his musculartorso like the contour lines on a topographical map. I lamented that his landscape would be largely under wraps 'till spring. I walked the alley through the dust of several major renovations underway. The economy must indeed be thriving for those who can afford to spend a million dollars for an 18' wide row house needing total renovation, including all systems, PLUS a historically approved facade restoration. I'm fortunate though, that they'll need pictures to fill the restored plaster walls, and that if they buy enough of them, I get a fat Christmas bonus. I pass the beggar who wears a green nylon parka in every season, stationed by the door of the WaWa, and we have our usual conversation: he asks for change, I say "sorry man" and shrug. I think that we are as unseen and anonymous to him as he and his peers are to us. We are simply units to be processed, like grapes to pick or windows to wash, never really seen. I'm feeling flush so bypass the not all that bad and inexpensive Wa Wa brew for the single source varietal java at Tuscany Cafe, on the corner overlooking the square. I order a large (I refuse to call it a "grande") coffee, anointed it with a dribble of half and half, then headed out, jaywalking across Locust Street and into the park.
I skirted the arced limestone bench and its bronze baby goat statue focus. This four legged kid's horns and back are worn to a mirror polish by the affections of the two legged variety, who are herded here daily by moms and nannies. I continue along past the eastern row of benches facing the swath of plantings which divides the main path into the park. At the eastern edge of the center plaza, I hopped up on a marble bench and then planted myself on the limestone pier behind it. I sat cross legged facing the central gazebo and oblong rectangular basin. The pool is filled by a spitting grotesque mask, who faces the backside of a small verdigris Leda, with swan under one arm. Both meet the gaze of a life size bronze lion guarding the boxwood and perennial parterre on the opposite side. The rippling water reflected an intensely blue sky peppered with tiny puffs of fluffy white clouds. I unzipped my brown messenger bag, the one with the large hole burned into several layers by a bar table candle. It cost me ten dollars and I believe it to be the best bag I've ever owned; no longer available of course. I wished again that I'd bought a spare. From it I extracted a shiny black crackle glazed mug and a half eaten chocolate chip scone. The scone was from Whole Foods bakery the previous night, the mug simply appeared one morning, just in time to serve as proxy replacement for the recently shattered dark caramel brown porcelain one, deeply treasured for coordinating so perfectly with the car's burl wood dash. I should have gotten a couple of extra ones of those as well. I poured the mug half full and watched the sunlight form tiny sparkling star like reflections in the swirling eddy, then looked up to survey the crowd.
Rittenhouse square is one Center City Philadelphia's five original public squares, centerpieces of William Penn's "greene country towne". It's by far the most popular and urbane, in the Paris sidewalk or Roman piazza sense. It's always filled with activity. Smart shops line the ground level on across the street on the north side, and on the east, restaurants and cafes spill out of wide open casement windows onto the sidewalk. even in the early morning hours after the bars close folks walk up and down the brick paths and stretch out on wood benches under the glowing cast iron lamp standards. When the city expanded westward from its Delaware river beginnings, wealth migrated away from the density and increasing squalor of "Olde City" to this side of town, making the square and surrounding district the city's "best address" by the start of the Civil War. It still is.
The view fom the apartments above is of a diagonal grid of pavementsglimpsed through a canopy of mature oaks and maples. It started as a grazing commons and gradually evoled into a propper urban park. The current of several versions is a 1920's neoclassical design of urn capped piers and promenade defining limestone baulastrades like the one where I'd stationed myself. Around me were ordered and regular flower beds edged with painted iron lattice and evergreen hedges. In addition to the shiny goat, Leda and her friend, and the lion, a further menagerie of 19th century academic bronzes and smooth stone mid 20th century carved animals surveyed their territories from the elevated vantage of other pedestals or glimpsed through the leafy cover of lairs tucked in the foliage.
On the honed granite lip of the pool and on the stone benches between trees poking through circular openings in the fan shaped patterns of Belgian block pavers, folks sat quietly contemplating the rippling water or watching the passers by. A small group of Well dressed Chinese women chattered away. Tiny sturdy Mexican laborers ate out of brown bags while lounging in the shade alongside a woman and man with a baby, who passed her back and fourth while taking turn at bocce. Animated skinny kids with long hair and hakeysacks hopped about across from sullen skinny kids with mohawks and skateboards, united in their distain for the skinny kids with haircuts patterned after television's "the O.C." who ceaselessly consulted their cell phones and PDAs. Pale and grey old folks, some with nurse attendants, some accompanied only by plastic bags of hoardings, rocked away the afternoon. Across the open lawn sweeping down to the iron spear fence where the restaurant workers had shackled a convoy of bicycles, a patchwork of brightly colored beach towels formed tiny islands of lurid color on the deep green. Local couples shared their charcuterie dejuner with tiny manicured dogs clipped like miniature topiaries, and numbers of gym bodied young single men scanned the promenaders for generous older gentlemen to pay for their lunches, or to scope out the other contenders for someone to snack on later. On the stage not yet removed from the free summer concert series, a young would be Martha Graham swirled her Mexican tablecloth skirt to a bongo beat; all jazz hands and kinetic little lemon sized tits. She stabbed her feet, shod asertively in scarlet red thickly heeled pumps, into the plywood surface in a convolution of Flemenco, The Solid Gold Dancers, and Sandy Dennis'interpretive dance from "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf"with immense conviction. Her boy friend acompanyist, his nappy white boy dreadlocks wrapped in a scarf and standing straight up like a bunch of rubber banded asparagus, swayed along with her, always keeping one eye on their cardboard donations box.
Looking up above us, my eyes followed the rising and falling silouettes of the collection of 20th century luxury apartment
buildings which walls the square. It's broken in spots by the few surviving italianate row houses, french limestone chateau and granite palazzi which themselves replaced the plain and regular speculator built red brick row houses first built here. I've seen pictures. The buildings are a chronological catalog of the midrise architectural aspirations of the urban well to do over the course of the 20th century: Beaux Arts, NeoColonial, Mediteranian. Art deco, 50's and 60's egg crate modernism, 70's concrete minimalism, 80's and 90's marble maximalism. I've been in most of the towers. Sometimes in jeans and a t-shirt delivering and installing, sometimes smartly dressed in the guise of Art Consultant or Interior Designer, and sometimes dragged by fancy friends to cocktail parties where attractive caterer's staff served trays of drinks and horsdouvres prepared in unseen kitchens and butler's pantries. The door and desk men (ALWAYS men) are street level sentinals at the tower bases. Their warmth and smiles are instantly adjusted by an automatic internal rheostats which respond to your appearance, and signals the manner of your reception and processing. The objects you carry, briefcase or bucket, portfolio or toolbox, further determines where you'll wait, how long, and which elevator will ultimately carry you to the upper floors. If you're allowed at all. They enforce the rules of exclusion and privledge maintained in the towers.
Down on the ground though, the class, race, and ecconomic stratification which categorizes Philly life generally and the Rittenhouse area particularly, vanishes in the leafy environs of the square itself. It doesnt matter if your name is engraved on the bench back brass plaque as a "Friend of Rittenhouse Square" or if you sleep on one of them at night. Maids and matrons, custodians and C.E.O., here in this most egalitarian of places, all jockey for welcoming shade in summertime and warming pools of sunshine in the cooler months. I drained my coffee, stuck the mug back in and zipped the bag. I balled up the last crumbs of the scone in it's plastic wraping and actually made my free-throw shot at the circular steel slat trash recepticle. I walked into the afternoon sun and toward the stage with my hands jammed in my shorts pockets, pausing there to extracted a crumpled bill. The bongo dancer stomped her finale, synching her boyfriends crescendo. As I dropped my dollar in the box, they completed the piece on a "stomp-stomp-THWACK!", and the crowd filled the abrupt silence with enthusiastic applause.