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Philly’s Washington Square

As a kid, I stopped in at my grandparents’ house at 704 Pine St. about twice a month. Besides the pleasant family re-connection, there were usually practical reasons for my going there. My grandmother was resourceful at picking up grocery items we couldn’t find in our part of West Philly. “Downtown,” as I referred to it then, was a more fertile hunting ground, what with the expansive Italian market that dominated a long strip of Ninth St. and the kosher delis, whose smoked meat aromas made trips to Fourth St. a visit to olfactory heaven. Sometimes I’d accompany my grandmother on her forays, but generally, I was the designated transporter of bounty back to 5340 Chestnut St., where we lived. I genuinely enjoyed those times with my grandparents, largely, I’m sure, because they doted on me and seemed fascinated with goings-on in my life.

These visits generally followed a ritualistic pattern. Walking to 704 from the subway stop, I stopped to examine watches in windows along Jewelers’ Row. I’d do my mental math: how long would I have to save my weekly two-dollar allowance to get that particular one? The answer made me laugh. Besides, if I wanted to know the time, why wouldn’t a plain old Bulova or Gruen do the job? My consumer skills were developing.

And always on the way home, I stopped at Washington Square. For me, there was something magnetic about this bucolic block that punctuated a thriving business area. Although I didn’t fully comprehend its attraction, I enjoyed the tranquility, the recess it provided from obligations like doing my homework or weeding the lawn or picking up the Evening Bulletin and the Inquirer every day on separate trips to Shorty’s newsstand at 52nd and Chestnut. And while I hadn’t reached double digits in age yet, I already appreciated what nature laid out for me. Plopped for maybe ten minutes on a wooden bench, I’d follow meanderings of waddling pigeons and ever-exploring squirrels. In the fall, I’d be captivated by seasonal color changes and begin reluctantly to anticipate the snow that would soon shorten my time there. That square block of existence was my domain and I always reveled in it, the hasty slogs through winter slush notwithstanding. As I understood winter’s inevitability, I knew that spring would soon refresh what gave me so much pleasure.

Recalling those idyllic days always manages to refresh the lore of that special place. Recently, without conscious planning, I found myself back in Washington Square. Having moved back to the city not long before, Elaine and I planned to celebrate our anniversary at a restaurant that was, by happy coincidence, across from the Square. When I realized that, I hoped its magic would still be perceptible but, pessimist that I am, worried about its durability. Does magic have an expiration date? Testing that possibility, when Elaine and I arrived at the Square, we sat on one of those reliable wooden benches, and I tried to describe to her and to myself feelings released by my return.

During that long separation, I reconnected with the Square only when it was mentioned in a publication for something like a raucous political demonstration. I hated that kind of association, but always, its mere mention propelled me back to my domain, to its lasting impact on me. In exploring the past, I free-associated about reactions our current visit had sparked but never, really, to my complete satisfaction. That past and its effects deserved descriptive depth that language, with all its assets, could never completely satisfy. Elaine’s responses, though, perceptive as always, convinced me she understood the essence of my re-created world.

Shortly before we left for the restaurant, I opened myself to indications of newness in the Square. For one thing, there were imaginative “baby conveyers,” or, as I once called them, baby carriages. Those of my early days were Model T’s compared to these lavish vehicles. I wouldn’t have been surprised if, inside these advanced versions, there’d been racks of beverages and snacks doled out occasionally by wheeling attendants.

Then there were the dogs, real ones, not the occasional flop-eared mutts of old. These were leashed and aloof, seemingly pre-occupied with thoughts of Westminster as they were marched through the Square by their owners. I understand how dog-dependent society has become; still, I was astonished by their number. And because they encroached on the sovereignty of my pigeons and squirrels, it took a few minutes for me to concede their right to be there.

After a lingering look-around, we strolled slowly to the restaurant. We enjoyed a delightful anniversary dinner, our surroundings adding meaning to reminiscences about our wondrous saga.


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