Sunday, April 03, 2005

The Philli Phoamer

"Foamer" is a word used to describe transit buffs. The idea being that said people get so exciting about transit that they start foaming at the mouth. I don't know why I'd know this word.

I was in Philadelphia this weekend for an ethnography conference at University of Pennsylvania (it was great, by the way).

Philadelphia has never held much appeal to me. Even back at my days living in Princeton, New Jersey, I never saw the need to head towards Philli when New York was the same distance away in the opposite direction.

But I have been to Philli a few times, and I'm sure there's much to explore. It reminds me a Baltimore all grown up as a big city: unique neighborhoods, row-homes, history, urban decay, and ghetto. Too much of the latter.

And the Philidelphia transit system has always been very intriguing. How many cities in America have a streetcar system? Much less trolleys, subways, trackless trolleys (though these seem to have been permanently "temporarily" replaced by standard busses). And then there are great monikers such as "elevated-subway" and "subway-surface" (kind of like Chicago's L when it's a subway, I suppose, but nobody calls it the subway-L). Plus there are commuter railways, the wonderful PATCO Speedline, and Amtrak.

To get to the conference, I walked from 30th Street Station, about 15 or 20 minutes. Going back, I didn't really want to do the same walk with my suitcase, and there were trolleys to take! So I headed down into the underground trolley station and paid my $2 cash fair as I got on the trolley. Then I enjoyed the brief underground run from 36th St to 30th St.

But because I had left enough time to walk, and got to 30th Steet so quickly, I had about 45 minutes before my train. So I was still in the station, staring at the transit map (as I am want to do), wondering if there is somewhere interesting to go in a brief amount of time.

A voice addressed me: "I'm just heading to work and I saw you staring at the map and I was wondering if I could help you at all."

I looked up and saw a older geeky-looking glasses-wearing 50-year-old white man in a discount suit. I couldn't help but think of my brother in 20 years, you know, if the whole Amsterdam thing doesn't work out.

Mr. Helpful matter-of-factly added, "I know a lot about the system." I smiled slowly and thought, "I bet you do." (And just what work are you headed to at noon on Sunday the requires a friendly demeanor and a cheap suit?)

I saw both the beauty of this situation and the pressure of time. No punches would be pulled: "Why yes, I do have a question. I'm catching a train here but I'm here a bit early. Do any of these lines go above ground? I'd just like to do some sightseeing. No reason, just to ride something, but I don't have much time. Does the Blue Line, I mean the Market Street Line, go above ground?" I don't know what the line is called, but I got a good feeling that Philli don't use no colors.

He said, "The Market-Frankford Line goes above ground at 39th Street. It runs every 10 minutes on Sunday. You could take that to 69th Street. It takes 12 minutes. The 69th Street terminal was build in 1907 and has trains on three levels. You could walk around there and then come back. But you'll have to pay again."

I'm not making this up. And yes, I checked, the date is correct.

"That sounds great. I don't care about the money. It's just two dollars"

"I have an extra token. I have a SEPTA pass [of course], but I still have an extra token from when I didn't have the pass. You can buy it from me for $1.30, or whatever you have. There's no need to pay $2. You can buy 10 packs and they're... a lot cheaper [I think here he caught himself foaming]."

Tokens cost $1.30 each, but you can't buy just one. He reached in his jacket pocket and pulled out an envelope filled with spare change and at least one SEPTA token. I bought it from him for $1.25, as I didn't have more change. It was very nice of him to take a loss on the transaction.

He continued, "Coming back from 69th Street, trains leave every 10 minutes on the 10 minutes. I live there; that's where I come from." But why do I have the feeling he could have told me the information from the other direction as well?

Now I didn't have much time. I shook his hand and thanked him. Very sincerely, I might add. Off I went down to the platform level.

The subway came quickly, and as it pulled in, I ran to the front car. I saw that this line has a "lucky seat"! That's a term Pep coined for the front seat of the Chicago L. The sideways seat with the forward view. Lucky because you have to be lucky to get it. It's the best seat and almost always filled.

You get a great diver's 270-degree view of everything! When Papou used to take Andrew and me to Chicago to visit his friends and play "the machines" [pinball], we had a system where we alternate who got to sit in the front seat every 7 stops. Not 5 or 10, mind you, but seven. I think that seat is why I love trains. Now, as far as I know, only the Philli subway and the PATCO Speedline still have a lucky seat. sigh.

I was heading Westbound on the 12:30 local. A four-car train... The weather was drizzly and cold, overcast...

During rush hours, I think, they have an A/B split-stop system like Chicago used to have. Back in the old days. My train to NYC was leaving at 1:18.

West Philli is ghetto. Beautiful old rowhomes. Many vacant and abandoned. But they are much more ornate than the rowhomes in Baltimore. And there was some sign of redevelopment: refurbished building with proper "for rent" signs. The elevated-subway stations were old and beautiful.

The passengers getting on were all black. But some riders where white, connecting, I assume, to the suburban lines at 69th St. The subway, by the way, has the same annoying Chicago "safety" system where a beep forces the engineer to brake for no reason other than to avoid tripping an automatic stop whenever the overly-cautious speed limit is exceeded for the briefest of moments. This results in a herky-jerky ride and repeated full-stops despite a clear track and green signals.

The 69th Street Terminal was just as described. Three other lines leave from 69th Street: the "Highspeed" Norristown route and two local trolleys. Writing this, I learned that when delivery of the current cars on the Norristown route was delayed, they had to buy some old L cars from Chicago to run on the Norristown route! I miss those old L cars. Oh, I'm foaming again.

Anyway, I had no time to linger. It was 12:48 and the 12:50 would get me back in plenty of time to catch my train. So turned right around, dropped my token in the turnstile, and got back to 30th Street Station with just enough to buy a nice lunch for the train of fried chicken with cornbread and sides of collard greens and macaroni and cheese.

Thank you, Philli Phoamer! May your rails be smooth and trains run express.

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