Living in the Tunnels: Philadelphia

It’s not hard to imagine I work in space, or on the moon.

I get on the train at Norristown Transportation Center. In typical colonial town fashion, it’s several buildings someone built a parking garage next to. Portions of the station are as old as the battle of valley forge – the rail line it runs on goes straight into philly and used to go through Valley Forge Park itself. The train itself is insulated, not quite sound proof but they go out of their way to keep the outside noise out. The constant electrical hum of the engines and the ionized air ensures no sound nor smell gets in or out.

This is bad when the strange homeless guy in the corner keeps talking to himself.

From there it’s a ride through the best and worst parts of the city, including Miquon. River Road is one of the places I think it would be neat to live. Again, older than most of America – the properties range from mobile homes long since given up their mobility, haphazardly strung between stone houses which had thatched rooves. It’s not hard to imagine the stray cannonball across the water as the train meanders by. Boats are more common in their yards than cars. I get the impression many people here are actually professionals and young people – for all the boats, none of them fish.

Ivy Ridge comes next, it has an industrial complex built on an island. At some point to get here we pass the superfund site. It’s not clear to me what value they expect to get out of it. The trees come from home depot, it doesn’t give the impression of a professional operation. Someone is always out there feeding the geese. She wears a yellow slicker, even when it’s not raining. Ivy Ridge itself starts to feel lonesome, just a hint of inner city neglect. The people here are all college students smart enough to live off campus, just not sure where that should have been. The buildings tend to run on, all connected, even at strange angles thrown up around wagon paths paved over.

We pass through the northern part of the city. The express doesn’t stop at North Broad. It’s not a loss. It turns south, to Temple University. Temple was always known as a great place to get shot. I find it depressing the way Atlantic City is depressing, or what I would imagine Vegas is like. The Center City location would want to give it an air of importance, and to the people who go there to better the world, it is important to them. They go through class, they enjoy the splendor of the urban banality, they graduate, they move out. I can see a kids playground covered in graffiti and gangsign from the elevated tracks. No kids play there. The gang members can’t be bothered to actually paint over each others signs to renew the canvas – they simply cross out the sigils and write their own next to it. This goes on for miles of color, over every surface, over everything. The lonely horses ride their springs in the wind, their wooden mouths curse the paint they used to bless for making them so pretty.

The train arrives in the station. My tour has taken me 40 minutes and there’s barely any time left. Market East and the convention center come first. Reading Terminal Market sits in this sprawling complex. The walls of the station look a bit dated with the tile work but at the same time you can tell someone takes pride in their work. The tiles are meticulously clean. Anything which is sort of clean in the city is very clean, anything which actually looks bright and clean may we well be a surgical suite. I haven’t been here except to the mall. The mall is a great use of space – the middle is open and vaulted, which gives the impression it’s much larger than it is. The mall itself is another story, but it’s a neat mix of Gamestops and TMobile stores and street vendors who would look more comfortable selling you a leather jacket off their cart than operating in a retail space. It’s every mall in America, it’s every street cart in the Middle East. They share an easy companionship in their common chase of the almighty dollar. All that’s missing is the food, but food itself in Philly has been unsuccessfully domesticated. The Anthony Bourdains of Philly have given the food trucks more merit than the establishments. In a lot of ways, this is good. It keeps the thorny growth of the McDonalds and the fascism of the Burger King relegated to the suburbs.

I still eat there on weekends.

Suburban Station is next. True to it’s name, it’s spacious, open. It was built on the ashes (literally) of the Broad Street Station. The train area keeps it’s 1930s feel, but the art was lost at some point. You can still see fallout shelter signs in the tunnels sometimes when the train pauses for the switching and the lights hit the walls just right. Above that is the concourse, which ironically hosts Philly Pretzel factory and a Yoshi. There’s a tailor, he sells $1000 suits. Usually there’s buskers and flower stands down here. Getting out of the nucleus of the concourse leads to some well lit but barren tunnels. At some point I suppose it might be a mall, but the walls are covered over with bizarre, subterranean billboards. The only reason to walk through here is to avoid the surface. Everyone moves quickly. It’s nice when the weather is bad.

Above this lies Umbrella Corporation my job. You’ve seen the building in the tedious M. Night Shyamalan film Devil. It’s a bit bizarre to think about, but with a population of 10,000, it’s larger than most small towns. The concourse level has things people never could buy. Not because they don’t have enough money, but simply because fitting a 60″ plasma TV on a septa train simply isn’t feasible. However, it’s there. It’s for sale. You can buy it. It makes us look great. I have personally played enough playstation 3 on it to get bored looking at it. I go home and my 48″ TV pales in comparison, despite costing 20% of what the plasma did. The shops aren’t there to buy things, they’re there to show what you could buy. I imagine the cashiers are bored. The lobby itself puts on a killer show, it’s one of the things you can watch, but you never truly see until you’ve been there. Six floors above this is the first cafe, which looks down onto the lobby, through the art. The 15th floor has a sky lounge, three stories tall. The 43rd floor (almost 1000ft in the air) hosts Ralphs Cafe which is by itself two stories tall. Above that are the training and conference rooms. It’s almost better they’re up there to keep the distractions at bay, once you get over looking down at aircraft on approach to Philadelphia International Airport.

Of course, this is the rub – I am indoors the entire time. I’m never actually in Philly the same way astronauts were never on the moon. They can be there, but it’s always on the other side of the bubble. The train dumps us out indoors to the platform, the platform goes to the concourse, the concourse to the shops, the shops to the lobby and the lobby to my desk. The windows are thick enough they keep us from sound and weather. The lobby is loud enough we can’t hear the street.

I make it a point to go outside.