There’s nothing to it, really. No agenda, no mission, no checklist — nothing but the serendipity SEPTA might bring you riding it where it goes. At least that’s been my approach to the Independence Pass project, both in 2009 and five years later, Friday the 13th of June, 2014.
My connect-the-dots approach to travel was this time accommodated a little better by SEPTA’s weekday schedule; unfortunately, one of the only two dots I had this time around was unavailable. Fox Chase Farm, the other actual working farm (after WB Saul in Roxborough) in this fifth largest city in the country, does not keep regular hours for the public, and I couldn’t reach anyone to make an appointment. Their web site’s contact form, in which I explained the Independence Pass project and the desire to visit and perhaps pet a horse, wouldn’t let me submit my request because “phillyskyline.com” kept being flagged as gibberish. Well harrumph, Fox Chase Farm!
My desire to see Fox Chase Farm came out of my regular commute. Living in Mt Airy, I travel into Center City on the Chestnut Hill West train, formerly the R8 Chestnut Hill West. The other end of the line was, and for the most part still is, the R8 Fox Chase. I still don’t get why SEPTA did away with the R# system; it was easy to use, people were used to it, and what was the point of changing it anyway? I don’t reckon Sean Agnew would have ever made it to North Korea with Dennis Rodman if he’d established “Paoli/Thorndale Productions” …
Anyway, my other dot was Norristown. Somehow, I’d never been there, despite it being more accessible by SEPTA than even by car. I’d planned on taking the R6 there, but I read the SEPTA app on my phone wrong—again. I have Market East saved as one of my favorites, so in looking up the Norristown schedule there at 30th Street, I thought I had 5 minutes to make the train when I actually had 0. Oops. To the el I went, with a transfer at 69th Street to the Route 100 interurban, the Norristown High Speed Line. During the layover, I took a quick jaunt to catch the spectacular McClatchy Building’s terra cotta bathed in sunlight—just as Upper Darby High’s Class of 2014 let out of the Tower Theatre, where they’d just celebrated their graduation—exactly 20 years minus a day since I walked across Tyrone High’s Class of ’94 stage.
To hear Main Liners describe it, I pictured Norristown as some Camden-like ghost town of desperation—MontCo’s sickman, as Dougherty described Chester to DelCo. Instead, I found a slightly gritty river town whose Transportation Center, connecting regional rail, high speed line, and bus routes, even had room for the Schuylkill River bike trail—as well as one gargantuan garage.
Knowing absolutely nothing about Norristown, everything I encountered was a surprise: the 10-story late modern buildings across from the County Courthouse. The inexplicable 9/11 Memorial made of a steel beam from Ground Zero. The girth of the tuna hoagie at the Court Order Grille, whose slogan is “you’ve been served” and whose walls were covered in autographed 5x7s and framed ticket stubs—of Huey Lewis & the News, Andrew Dice Clay, Johnny Cash. There are even a number of photos with the same man who appears to have toured with Winger posing with the likes of Jerry Seinfeld. I asked the waitress who the longhair was in all the pictures, and she pointed, “that’s the shorthair who’s on the line in the back.” I’d hoped to meet Jay Kowal, the Grille’s owner and former Valley Forge Music Fair security guard, after I finished my hoagie (which was delicious and cost under $7, including a soda and chips), but the place was packed. I dig your place, Jay—next time.
From there, I ambled through Norristown to kill another hour until the next R6 train, stumbling on Napoleon LeBrun’s old Montgomery County Prison (built 1851), which made it easy to picture Moyamensing Prison in place of the Acme that replaced it at Passyunk and Reed in South Philly. Moyamensing Prison’s design came from Thomas Ustick Walter—who LeBrun beat out to design the MontCo Courthouse, across the street from the Prison.
Riding the regional rail back toward town, I quickly discovered just how close the train hugs the Schuylkill River. The R6 rides like our own mini-Adirondack up the Hudson Valley, only instead of the Tappan Zee and Hyde Park, it’s the Blue Route and Conshohocken.
After passing through Manayunk, I hopped off at Wissahickon Station, a place I thought fitting both to have a look at the Wissahickon Transportation Center, which has such incredible potential, and to get out onto a trail in my personal year of the Wissahickon. On the way there, I noticed an alley across Ridge Avenue from the station platform that appeared to snake along the top of the ridge above Main Street. On the wall retaining Ridge Ave appeared a giant graffiti tag “GEEZ” that I stopped to photograph. That’s when the bald man with the goatee came barreling down the narrow alley I previously didn’t know existed in his Subaru, stopping to ask me what I was photographing.
Relating the above paragraph to him, he replied, “well I think it looks like shit.”
I said, “that’s cool, beauty’s in the eye of the beholder and all.”
He said, “well where I’m from, beauty’s in the eye of the beer holder … and I’m thirsty!” (Seriously. He said this.) “If you want to take pictures of something nice, come with me and I’ll show you a new park.”
“Beg your pardon?” I asked him, thinking he must be referring to the new Venice Island Park.
“It’s a new park, right along the tracks—people are gonna love it. C’mon, hop in!”
“Uhhh, no thanks, I actually have to go … this way,” I said, gesturing toward anywhere else that I couldn’t get to fast enough.
“Well I’m not gay or nothin’, and I’m not gonna twist your arm,” he finally said before peeling out.
After a quick stop for a cold water at
Tommy Gunn’s Deke’s BBQ—the worst possible land use for a site adjacent to what ought to be a comprehensive gateway connecting Wissahickon Park, Kelly Drive, the Schuylkill River bike trail, and the Wissahickon Transit Center (both bus and train)—I headed into the woods.
Hiking the mile or so up the 100 Steps and past Kelpius’ Cave, I scrambled up and across the Henry Avenue Bridge, catching the 32 bus at Philadelphia University right before the rain came. During the ride through East Falls, North Philly, Brewerytown, and Fairmount, I dicked around on my phone as one does these scatterbrained days. Pulling my nose out of stupid Instagram and Facebook for a second, I saw the dramatic, darkening sky against the shiny brand new Symbiosis sculpture by Roxy Paine and had to get out to see it. Pressing my luck, I ran up the stairs of the Art Museum like some fictional dimwit (I was wearing Chucks) to see the charcoal clouds draped behind the familiar skyline. That was when the sky really opened up.
After waiting out a fast, furious shower, I hopped on the first bus I saw (again the 32), heading for South Broad Street and a visit to my pal Conor. After trading stories—his of Paris and Monaco, mine of Norristown and Upper Darby—I had an hour and a half to ride a little more SEPTA, so I went straight downstairs to the Subway. Had the Special come and it was 2008, I would have headed down to Citizens Bank Park to survey the bustling scene. Instead, it’s 2014, year of the dismal Phillies and the shell of a team Ruben Amaro has decimated, and there were just as many Cubs fans on the Walnut-Locust platform as there were Phils fans. I caught the local instead. Thanks, Rube.
Something compelled me to get off at Ellsworth-Federal, and I’m glad that happened because 1, I’d never really noticed the handsome (if grimy) terra cotta details in the station’s concourse and exits, and 2, I was hungry again. That Huey Lewis hoagie was ages ago and I couldn’t wait another hour to meet back up with the guys. I knew damn well Phỡ 75 was right around the corner. I ordered a small brisket phỡ (no tripe for this guy—I know) and they brought me a large (but still only charged me for the small). Needing a wheelbarrow to leave, I caught the 23 bus north to Market Street, and with about eight minutes to quittin’ time, bypassed 11th Street Station for that at Juniper, where I could squeeze in one more of SEPTA’s many modes of transportation: the green line, the Subway-Surface Trolley.
Walking in to 30th Street Station at 7:02pm, I was pleased to see Weinik and Dougherty already seated at the pseudo-alfresco table I’d reserved for us, beers in hand. When Ives arrived moments later, we clinked our glasses, shared our stories, and promised to do it again in 2019—when the Independence Pass will be but one option on SEPTA’s New Payment Technology. (Probably.)
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