Have you ever entered a place where you thought, "This is it. The center of the universe"? One of the first times I ever had this feeling was when I walked into Via Bicycle Shop, in Philly, back when it was on Pine St. To say that they sold used bicycles is to do the place a disservice. They sold magic vintage bicycles, from every decade of the 20th century. The proprietor, Mike, sported a handlebar mustache, and in every conceivable Center City parade rode a turn-of-20th-century bike with huge metals wheels. Naturally, he wore knickers.
Whenever I was in that shop, buying my red Schwinn from the late 1960s, or getting it fixed, I felt like I was part of something great. I was living in the center of my life, and the people who worked there were where they were meant to be. I soaked in the atmosphere, that smell of old metal and bike grease, and admired the elegant forms of the bicycles hanging from the ceiling and parked in rows. Thick fenders, fancy lights, unwieldy baskets, bikes with sidecars or three or four wheels, tandems, styles of all eras in one place-- a monument to innovation, creativity, and sometimes folly.
You have to discover these places by accident. That's one of the criteria. And they are rarely located in suburbs. One day years ago I was waiting for the clothes to dry at the laundromat six blocks from my apartment. (I only did my laundry every three weeks.) Bored and hungry, I wandered next door into what looked like a sandwich shop. It was no sandwich shop. It was the Jewish deli to end all your searching. A Jewish deli bursting with personality and the aroma of pastrami baking. Penn students, faculty and locals would wait in line for up to one hour for a heaping, juicy sandwich from this place. The two brothers who ran it, who have both since died, told creaky old jokes that started with "Did you hear the one about . . ." and passed out free slices of meat and cheese to their willingly captive audience.
This serendipity happens less to me now, maybe because I don't live in the city, which means I'm not wandering around on foot, not vulnerable to miracles. So once in a while I take the train to the city to "do some shopping." My current center of the universe is Reading Terminal Market. I went there last week on the train, and really did do Christmas shopping. I got a funky piece of kitchenware that I can't describe here because of Christmas secrecy, beeswax candles from the Amish beeswax shop, five lbs. of turkey thighs for a batch of chili ($2.59 a lb.!), ancho chili powder, and coffee from Old City Coffee (Balzac Blend, my favorite). And I met my hubby for lunch at 12th St. Cantina.
Above and beyond all that good stuff, I experienced the buzz of the place, where white, black, young, old, wealthy and not, all come together to shop, meet, and to absorb the sights and sounds. It's a place to come in from the cold, or to have your shoes shined. You can buy a fresh goose or a bag of pig's knuckles. You can find African jewelry and almost any cookbook in print. Not to mention the truest of Italian cannoli or the freshest, most buttery hot pretzels ever. Or, of course, the cheap, abundant, fresh flowers/fish/produce of every description.
Most of all, when you're at the Reading Terminal Market, you know that you are present in your own life, all your senses alive. And here you celebrate the richness of the world with perfect strangers. It's a distilled version of the city itself, the essence of its life, hope, and energy.
May you find your center of the universe this season.