Dec 18, 2006

Bicycles, Blintzes and Beeswax

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.


Lucy T said...

Bikes and the Reading Terminal Market in the same blog! Can't beat that. At time like this, reading your descriptive writing is akin to "finding the center of my universe." Lucy

Anjali said...

Great post. And I LOVE 12th Cantina.

Anonymous said...

What a lovely, vivid post. Thanks for a nice bit of prose during baby naptime.

Anonymous said...

I have never been there, but one of these days I have to get there!!! It sounds like just my kind of place. I love to shop where there is one of everything. I've been to the Italian market, and that is fun, but this is a new must on my list. Sounds like something I could do with MIL!!!

Scrivener said...

Merry Christmas to you, Lauren, and to your family!

BOSSY said...

In 1991 Bossy purchased a "vintage" three-speed bike from Via Bicycle - on Pine street of course. It was olive greenish, algae lake-ish, with a black and white seat and red plastic hand grips. Total cost = $200. This was back in an era when it was nearly impossible to find a new bike for this much money.

The price did include a kid seat on the back - remember the black metal kid seats with absolutely no padding or hope for accident survival? The handlebar (oh, i get it) mustached guy threw that in for free to sweeten the deal despite the fact that Bossy's husband was standing slightly off to the side emphatically offering parallel suggestions along the lines of, "You sure you don't want that new 20-speed bike from Two Guys? - the one that costs $130 and comes with a warranty?"

The Handlebar mustached guy threw in a bike basket and a bell and the deal was sealed.

For the next decade Bossy stubbornly motored herself and her vulnerable son around the streets of Center City on that bike - and grew the myth of its vintage-ness by referring to it as her "Ireland bike" - as in the bikes that cute redheads ride around the bedrizzled knolls of County Cork. Thus Bossy defended her Ireland bike even though Bossy's husband reminded her that no one in Ireland would dare pay $200 for a really used bike of indeterminate color.

Bossy now rides around on something called a "hybrid" which must be short for "Oh My Gah This Seat Kills!" But she often pines for her Ireland Bike which she hauled to the curb a decade ago for the benefit of the first passerby with a romantic imagination.

But occasionally while walking her small neighborhood Bossy often thinks she spies her Vintage Bike inside someone else's mussy garage. Until she realizes: That's not a vintage bike, that's just old.

Lilian said...

Oh, this post is lovely. I had lunch at Reading Terminal Market everyday of the MLA. Good to know about the Cantina. We hardly ever have time or the money to go look for good places to eat in center city, so we could use some suggestions.

I love places like the market and would certainly enjoy the bicycle shop. Finding the center of the universe -- what a beautiful idea, what a great way to describe one's feelings in special moments when everything seems to converge. I just love reading your writing!