12 June 09: INDEPENDENCE PASS
by R Bradley Maule
As the person who organized the Septa Independence Pass project, I wanted to be clear with Steve, Steve and Chris that there were no restrictions, no destinations and
no goals other than that each of the four be completely free and unbound in his travels, and we'd meet back nine hours later -- a full day's shift -- and compare
notes. I had no philosophical purpose for my own trip, nor much of a geographic strategy. Maybe this was where I went wrong.
I spent a noticeable amount of Saturday waiting, cursing Septa, consulting isepta.org, and eventually changing directions. Not that it was Septa's fault; their
schedules are pretty clearly marked. A person with a plan could lay out a full day's itinerary and stick to it without much margin for error. I am not that person.
When I'm traveling at length by myself, I take a connect-the-dots approach, marking out a handful of stops, and however I get there in between . . . well, the journey
is the proverbial journey. That doesn't work too well when a regional rail system that runs once an hour on the weekend is a major part of an albeit very loose game
Nevertheless, like the others, I registered a pretty decent experience across a pretty decent swath of the Southeastern Pennsylvania region that Septa covers. The
disparity I came across wasn't
as flagrant as Steve Weinik's ride on the 23 bus, but it's hard not to notice how different listening to a tired man coming home from the late shift mack on a stripper
at a bus stop in Juniata Park (I know she was a stripper because they were discussing the etiquette of tips and singles) is from a stroll from the Main Line's precious
R5 across Villanova University's campus on alumni weekend.
But there they are, the places that Septa will take you.
I started my day at Market East Station, where I asked the ticket seller how well the unlimited-ride Independence Passes were selling, thinking they would be as
popular as those in New York and Washington. She said, "slowly," and that the eight-ride Convenience Passes were a better seller, because "people who buy these don't
need the regional rail." True that, neither NYC's nor DC's day passes afford rides on the LIRR or MARC.
I boarded the Market-Frankford el at 11th Street and headed for Erie-Torresdale, on the east side of which I recently saw a rickety metal bridge over the Northeast
Corridor's main trunk. I wanted to check it out, as it appeared to be a pedestrian-only link between Juniata Park, Frankford and Bridesburg, three pretty different
neighborhoods, on the map as Wheatsheaf Lane. When I got to the footbridge, I found it was fenced off. I asked a lady who appeared to be spearheading a block cleanup if it
was always fenced off and she said, "it's not fenced off." I pointed over to the fence and she said, "now when the hell did they put that up!"
Walking back up Pike Street to Erie Avenue, where I intended to catch the 56 bus across the trolley right-of-way that's still there, I scratched my head at the sight
of a rubber toy cockroach. They make toy cockroaches? And people buy them for their kids in Frankford?
After about 20 minutes of shifting my weight between my feet at the 56's bus stop, I saw the 3 bus at the stoplight under the el. The marquee read '33rd & Cecil B
Moore'. Laurel Hill Cemetery was one of the checks on my list of potential visits, and 33rd & Cecil B wasn't too far down the road, so I gave up on the 56 and
boarded the 3. What a long . . . slow . . . bus. Where the el flies between stations directly overhead, the 3 bus follows its route on Kensington Avenue and Front
Street below -- Kensington Avenue and Front Street with their traffic and five-point stoplight intersections. By the time I'd gotten to Broad Street, I'd had enough of
the 3 and got out to breathe a little fresh air at Temple.
By this point, it was noon, and I was willing to forego Laurel Hill to get out to the suburbs to see some places and Septa cars I'd never seen. The R6 goes to
Norristown, which I hear has a nice courthouse for Montgomery County with a weird 9/11 memorial, and the Route 100 goes from there to Villanova, where the R5 will take
you to Overbrook, which has the 10 trolley back into West Philly. OK, let's do that. So I took the Broad Street subway two stops north to its North Philadelphia
station, which is between Amtrak's boarded up North Philadelphia station (which is still served by Septa) and the former North Broad Street Station, a greek revival
temple designed by Horace Trumbauer and built by the Reading Company in 1928 that's now a low rent office building. The North Broad regional rail station behind it is
an unceremonious, empty platform where every train passes through but only two stop. After 20 minutes, watching two trains fly by, and confirming with isepta that I'd be
sitting on that platform for 40 minutes, I opted to head back upstairs to Lehigh Avenue, where the westbound 54 bus would take me to Laurel Hill after all.
In the nineteen Lehigh blocks between Broad and 33rd, I talked with an aspiring photographer about my equipment and day on Septa, I heard a guy talking loudly in his
cell phone, "he's going to kill that bitch! You gotta talk to him, you gotta talk to him," and at a stoplight near the former Shibe Park, I saw a maybe 23 year old
woman wearing clothes showcasing her knockout body, which a man further up the bus noticed too. As the bus pulled away, he ran to the window near me at the back of the
bus. Now out of view, he turned to me and said, "oh man I'm sorry, did I block your view? I just had to get me some seconds!"
At 33rd & Lehigh, I got off and walked toward the entrance of the cemetery. Starving by now, the Marketplace at East Falls was a godsend. Crossing Ridge Avenue on foot
to get to it was not. Finally across Ridge (which has no stoplights between Hunting Park and Allegheny, so traffic moves fast) and across the parking lot that greets
you, I found Monalisa's Fine Mediterranean Cuisine. Mona, a Lebanese retiree who "does this for fun", emphasized that nothing here was fried, not even the falafel, and
that I simply must try the baked chicken shawerma. So I did.
I walked that delicious sandwich off across the 78 acre spread for the dead, the National Historic Landmark on a Schuylkill River bluff that's the final resting place
for many a famous Philadelphian -- Biddle and Baldwin, Disston and Deringer, General George Meade and Captain Frank Furness. At Laurel Hill's entrance, Harry Kalas'
family had graciously left a guestbook for his fans and visitors of the cemetery to pay their last respects; at his burial place, a temporary headstone had an etched
version of Harry in the booth, and a six foot wooden P painted Phillies red marked his grave.
In East Falls, I thought I'd try the R6 to Norristown again . . . only to have isepta tell me that I'd be waiting another 45 minutes. Damn it! I noticed instead that
an inbound R6 would be arriving in 10 minutes, and that an R5 heading to Villanova was leaving 30th Street 10 minutes after the R6 arrived. Getting close to 4 o'clock,
the R6 was packed with Manayunkers on their way to Center City. The two 30-somethings behind me were talking golf and their brushes with Tiger Woods.
After the switch at 30th Street Station, I stretched out on the seat, my audio intake alternating between Wilco's new album and the elderly couple behind me talking
about the Art Museum as the sights of the Main Line rolled by. As I exited at Villanova, a young child squealed with excitement when Amtrak whizzed by, his father
clearly having brought him here to see this. The campus was surprisingly bustling; turns out it was alumni reunion weekend, and the campus was a practical open house
to a visitor like myself -- St Thomas of Villanova Catholic Church, Dougherty Hall, the Final Four Wildcats' home Pavilion. I just missed the free beer at the Class of
I headed over to the Route 100, the interurban I'd intended to catch in Norristown. Now, I was heading into Upper Darby's 69th Street Terminal. Only thing was,
the thing had to stop to pick me up. It's a train platform -- I figure the train will stop there. After ten minutes of standing in the sun, one zipped right on by.
Rafael, an Upper Darby kid on his way home from work, asked me if I'd pushed the button. What button? The button that makes the train stop. Oh. You need a button to
make the train stop? Duh! I'm a Route 100 noob, I had no idea it was a push-button route, nor had I ever heard of push-button transit. Rafael pushed it for me, and ten
minutes later we watched an express car that wasn't going to stop anyway fly by. A good 35 minutes of soaking up rays later, one finally stopped for us.
By the time I got to 69th Street, it was almost time to get back to Market East to meet the others, but with the sun shining now, I wanted to grab a shot of the Tower
Theatre. Passing through the vibrant crowd, I saw a group of white Baptist evangelists preaching to an Arab man and a black couple, a mixed, raggedy couple smoking a
joint in a cubbie on Ludlow, a group of younger white kids hoping to catch a glimpse of the Decemberists at their tour bus, and the regular black, white, korean and
latino shoppers of the district.
Back on the el, I had one last stop to make, at 56th Street, to get a shot of the late day skyline rising distantly above the elevated tracks. Boarding the next
inbound train, I heard a voice say "hey, that's the wrong car." Well look who it is, Steve Ives, on his way back to Market East. He was on his own last run, to
Penn's Landing to photograph the bus loop. I left the el at 30th Street and switched to the first inbound trolley, just to add one more route to my day's
résumé. At the end of the line, Juniper Street, I was ready for a beer.
And back at Field House pub, directly across the street from Septa's 1234 Market headquarters, about 40 steps from the Starbucks where we'd all started our journeys
right upstairs from the el and Market East Station, Steve Ives, Steve Weinik, Chris Dougherty and I did have a beer.
Thanks for riding with us this week.
CLICK HERE TO LAUNCH PHOTOS.
There are 40 photos, 7M in total size, so please just give the page a moment to load.
R Bradley Maule
For more of RBM's work, please visit his web site, phillyskyline.com.
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SPECIAL THANKS TO: Steve Ives, Steve Weinik and Chris Dougherty. Also to isepta for the killer site, and even to Septa
for the extremely convenient One Day Independence Pass.
The Independence Pass series is archived HERE.