August 27, 2021: Philadelphia
by Elaine Zickler
Yesterday, walking in the city, nearly breathless in the heat, I was observing the way passing gusts of eucalyptus, ginkgo, dog shit, geraniums, and box, and cold urine drafting up from the subway entrance took on palpable qualities of chilliness, nausea, heat, and disgust as they seemed to reconstitute in the humid air, enter into my body, and merge with my sweat. This was always my sense of the city, that I inhaled it and perspired it, that it became mingled with my body odors and clung to my clothing. The city was the hard feeling of it under my feet, and the sound of it, polyphonic, and the sights of it, kaleidoscopic, now random, now patterned, always colorful. I never walk in the city in order to make friends, although every encounter, for the most part, is a friendly one in the city. I am an old woman now, and the city has been ravaged even more than I have been, by death and sickness, by neglect and violent desperation, so I have the sudden realization that it has always been the city itself I have loved, the city itself that has been my friend. I could walk there in the singularity and privacy of my own form, among others just like me, going somewhere or nowhere but needing to be there in the city and walking, and feel, at the end of the day, that I had been with an old friend and had caught up with all her changes and reassured myself that she was still there and that at any time we could pick up where we had left off. And now, suddenly, I see it as fragile and mortal as myself, not eternal, but finite.
The brownstone where Dr. Epstein has his rheumatology practice is redolent of the old Institute of the Pennsylvania Hospital at Forty-Ninth Street, a place where psychoanalysis had a home until the late 1980s: the high ceilings, the moldings and plaster details, the wide staircases, the hidden bathrooms, the assorted art and photographs on the walls, the warren of transomed offices carved out of a nineteenth-century mansion, and elevators that require faith. Dr. Epstein is my age, a hands-on doctor who writes notes in a little notebook, alongside the de rigueur computer on his desk. The bookshelves behind him hold, along with textbooks, a half dozen or more bottles of Coke. He points at my thin-soled leather sandals and says I should be wearing walking sneakers. Never, I think. He feels my knees for heat and my thumb joints for swelling and pain, moves my arms at the elbows and the shoulders, rationalizes my elevated blood pressure, minimizes my hip pain of last week, and asks the infusion nurse to draw my blood so I can be on my way.
She is a thirtysomething woman with a nest of green hair sticking up around her head, masses of tattoos on her arms, and serious, intelligent eyes behind her glasses. She is highly skilled, and I feel nothing at all when she inserts the fine pediatric needle. She asks me if I have plans for the weekend in order to distract me, and I say, “No, do you?”
“Not really,” she says.
“It’s hard to make plans,” I say. “Even for simple things like going to the movies in the city.”
“I miss that, too,” she says. “But I’m also beginning to enjoy just being at home.”
“Yes,” I say. “It’s not all bad, especially if you have some beauty outside the windows as we do. We’re very fortunate, I know. ”
“You’re all done, love,” she says.
“Thank you,” I say. “You’re very good.”
I leave feeling better. When I get to the glass front doors of Dr. Epstein’s brownstone, a young, solidly built bald Black man wearing some kind of uniform shirt is coming through, and as he pushes past me, he says, “I’m sorry,” as if he had noticed me too late to halt his forward motion through the door.
“No sorry,” I say. “No need to be sorry.”
As I am walking west on Pine Street, a voice behind me says, “Excuse me miss, can I get by,” and I move to the right as a tall, rangy young white man, also bald, likely gay, strides by me with a boxer on a leash.
When he is in front of me, I say, “If you had been on a bicycle, you could have said, ‘Passing on your left.’”
He laughs and says, “Yes, thank you.”
The streets are sad but not in the way I felt their sadness as romantic, as the price of my freedom as a teenager, college student, and young mother. Then, when I was poor, the shops were rich and enticing. Now that I am old and richer, if not rich, all the shop windows are empty or filled with poor merchandise or services that speak to some moment that has passed or will soon pass. Varieties of Eastern body therapies and pet products. The Pine Street antique stores seem to have vanished overnight, as no one wants anything with provenance; it has all been devalued and trashed in one generation. Just as well. Still. The bridal shop windows have mock-ups of basic styles in cheap fabrics, so that one’s fantasies are stripped down to muslin or polyester. Many restaurants have closed between Ninth and Seventeenth Streets. Sansom Street was slightly better, but Joseph Fox Bookshop seemed barer and hotter, depending on inadequate and overtaxed air-conditioning in this relentless August heat; the shelves seemed barer as well, as foot traffic hadn’t returned in force, and I suspect they couldn’t survive another fall and winter without it. Judy was running back and forth with big sunglasses on inside, thinner than ever, harried and distracted, unable to chat with me, only to ask if I needed help as I stood there eyeing the various shelves of books as if for the first time. It had been a year and a half since I had been there last. “No,” I said. “I’m just trying to be normal.” But I didn’t feel normal. My eyes raced across the spines, unable to decipher or recognize most of the titles or authors, such was my mania at being there. I picked out two more volumes to add to the two I was picking up on order; these would be added to a shelf of perhaps twenty-five unread books, what I called my pension fund.
Outside the shop, two women are laughing at themselves, licking ice cream cones from Ben & Jerry’s next door, melting fast in the heat. “We picked the hottest day,” one says to me apologetically.
“But that’s the day you want it the most, isn’t it?” I say as I walk on to the train stop.
Whatever it was I used to get from taking a walk in this city, I didn’t get yesterday. The rush of other people, other lives, of liveliness has dwindled to practically nothing. The things on offer in the shops held no interest for me, both because I am past the stage or age of acquisition and because they were not interesting in themselves, as objects of beauty or curiosity or art. I didn’t see one beautiful piece of furniture, or sculpture, or a lovely dress in some gorgeous fabric. It seems my life had been filled with gorgeous fabrics until they all disappeared and we all now dress in drab pajamas and sackcloth. Does a beautiful Italian wool even make sense in this climate? Late summer had been a prelude to fall, had been a time of richly colored wools in aubergine, chestnut, and garnet, of the smell of new Italian leather shoes and bags, arrayed on half a floor of Wanamaker’s. Fine soft suede. Brass buckles and eyelets. Tweeds and plaids. Elegant long coats in camel hair and cashmere. An afternoon of fantasy and longing for free, or for the affordable price of one beautiful thing, a gift to myself on my birthday.
It is December of 1978, my thirtieth birthday, and I am meeting my husband for lunch upstairs. The store is decorated and lit for Christmas, the noontime organ recital has just ended in the great hall. I am feeling old, that I have crossed the Rubicon of my generation. The handsome, well-dressed man two aisles over, shopping for a woman in the middle of the day, watches me run my hands up the shank of a beautiful Italian boot. Someone whispers, sotto voce, into my left ear, “If you let me put them on you, I’ll buy them for you.”
I turn to face a very old man, stooped over, in a fine black overcoat and hat. I am shocked, flattered, and amused all at once. “Thank you, no,” I say. And as he walks away, I feel cruel and foolish and sorry.
- Elaine Zickler received a PhD in English literature from Bryn Mawr College, specializing in seventeenth-century English literature and critical theory. Her dissertation was on the writings of Donne and Freud, tracing the history of Freud’s thinking to the practice of moral theology. She has organized international conferences on children’s literature and psychoanalysis and has taught courses in women’s literature, gender and sexuality, French theory, and Laplanche at the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia, where she is a member and on faculty. She has a private practice in Moorestown, NJ.
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