Yesterday I took a train ride to Philadelphia, alone. This was something I’d been wanting to do for a long time, to see the Mutter Museum, a famous collection of freaks and medical oddities located at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Since the kids were at my husband’s house for the weekend, the time was at hand. So next thing I knew, I was on a perfect train ride, gloomy day, large Dunkin’ Donuts coffee in hand, The Cure on the mp3 player, staring wistfully out the window and taking videos of nondescript trees flicking poetically by, and random photos of the most abandoned, decayed industrial tri-state landscapes I could see. I swear that “17 Seconds” was made for looking out the window of a train on gloomy days.
I have a larger than usual appetite for strange and unknown landscapes. I love weird dramatic places, gloomy oceans or deserts. I loved the Navajo reservation in Arizona, Utah, with it’s thunderstorms, dark purple skies and jagged cliffs. Times Square is nice, but it’s been in too many postcards. Please don’t drag me to a tropical island with the requisite palm tree and azure sea. Yawn.
Lately, I have been obsessed with abandoned and dilapidated buildings and industrial surroundings. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw the scenery of Northern Philadelphia. Wow. It is made of miles and miles of strange narrow little row houses. Each “house” is just an individually colored slice of a large building covering many blocks. Each unit is very narrow, giving the entire building an organic formless look where a variety of designs and colors extend out over a common facade. I wonder if these houses were all built at the same time or over longer periods?
A native Californian, the first time I saw row houses was in San Francisco, the stereotypical rows that you see in every postcard. I thought they were cute and fell in love with the city that seemed so different from the sprawl I was used to. Row houses always reminded me of the early 20th century, something out of Steinbeck or Edward Hopper, the early urbanization of America, street cars and produce stands and porches, etc. Everybody is living close together and everything is just right out there on the street. You aren’t hidden in a row house, as you are in an anonymous high-rise apartment or a spread out suburb.
I guess it’s not so surprising that my life has ended up in a row house. I travelled the upwardly mobile path from cheap college apartment (but oh, what a college place – a beautiful brick courtyard walk-up in Hyde Park, Chicago), to a concrete 1970’s “ejerlejlighed ” (condo) in Denmark, to large suburban house with my husband and family in New Jersey – 4 floors, 2.5 baths, a huge backyard, patio, swing set, but alas no porch and never a neighbor to be seen. All was calm and stillness in the suburbs. When I separated from my husband and that big place I moved into a row house.
So here I am, in my first floor apartment in my little row house. It’s a luxury row – detached. Each little pitched roof house has a three foot sidewalk going to the backyard. I’ve got a porch where I sometimes sit drinking tea or drawing pictures of the row houses across the street. There are neighbors all around and they all sit on their porches too. The kids say hi when they ride by on their scooters. You can hear music. Tonight I saw a young couple kissing on the porch across the street. The families are mostly from Oaxaca. There are also college students. Nobody is rich, but I guess people in row houses rarely are. But this row house in perfect for me right now. It’s going to be hard to leave.