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Philadelphia stories

November 21, 2011

Heading out to meet my friend, I stop at the concierge desk to ask for directions to the subway.

“Where are you going?”

“Second and Market.”

“Let’s see, are you going to an art gallery? No a bookstore? A music store?”

I smile at his attempt to size me up. “An art gallery.”

“You don’t want to take the subway. Take a cab. It’s only a couple of dollars more and you don’t have to wait so long.”

So I took a cab.

“It’s very cold today. It’s good you take a cab,” said my driver, as we drove east from the hotel toward the river.

“I’m from Chicago. This isn’t very cold for me.”

“Chicago?” he said. “I never been there.”

I smiled at his Polish accent and studied his lined face. He looked like he could be from Chicago. “It’s a good place. You should go.”

“Do all the women in Chicago look like you?”

I laugh. “No, not exactly like me. We’ve got all kinds in Chicago.”

“Well, that’s why I no go. If all the women look like you, I go.”

I’m not sure what to do with this compliment. If he were a younger man, I might be a little offended. But he looks old enough to be my grandfather. I am looking out the window trying to get my bearings, trying to recognize the city I lived in more than twenty years ago.

“You know what it is?”

“What?” I say, not really remembering what we were talking about.

“You not cold because you hot woman. Get it?”

I laugh. There doesn’t seem to be anything else to do. But I haven’t heard talk like this in a long time. And today I have a bad cold and conjunctivitis. I am feeling the very farthest thing from hot. I’ll take what I can get.
I tell him I’m going to 2nd and Market. When we’re nearly there, he asks for the address and I tell him.

“You should have told me that before! I would have dropped you right in front.”

“That’s okay. I’m a little early. I’d like to walk a little. Just get me as close as you can.”

He pulled over blocking the bus who leaned on his horn behind him. My driver ignored him and gave me directions.
“Now you get out, you cross at light and you go left. It’s about halfway down the block.”

“Thank you. May I have a receipt please?

“For you, anything.”

* * * * *

In the evening, L drives me to the airport, for which I am very grateful, because at this point, I’m really not feeling very well. We hug at the curb and I go inside. There are two gates for American Airlines. There is nobody in line. The gate agents are chatting around one of the desks. I walk up and check my bag.

“Is it always this quiet here?” I ask. I’ve never seen an airport this empty.

“A lot of the time. There were more people earlier.”

“I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“We aim to please.”

She handed over my receipt and told me to take the bag over to the TSA station. I walk over, but I can’t find an entrance. The agents are chatting. One notices me wandering around and comes over to open a gate I hadn’t notice. He looks at my ticket.

“Are you ready for the interrogation?” he asks as he labels my bag.

I raise an eyebrow. “Hit me.”

“Do you have any film in the bag?”


“Any illegal substances? Has anyone else had this bag out of your possession?”


“Are you from Chicago?”


“Then there’s just one more question.”


“Tell me what this means: Bartman.”

At first I shook my head. And then it dawned on me. “Wait, he’s the guy who… the Cubs…” I ran out of vocabulary but mimed catching a baseball.

“Good. That’s right. “

“Phew. That was tough. I’m a Sox fan.”

“I was going to guess that! The other day I asked a guy from Chicago that question and he said he knows the family.”

“I feel bad for that guy. He’s never going to live that down. Everyone still remembers his name.”

“Steve Bartman. Have a good trip Ms. Spy.”

“Thanks. Have a good evening.”

* * * * *

My plane was full of incognito ethnomusicologists. Those who sat next to each other chatted softly, but the rest of us, who’d just spent the weekend prowling the same hotel halls, wore our cloaks of invisibility. I could probably have used a cone of silence too, because by the time I got on the plane I was a one-woman coughing chorus. And today I’ve been stuck in bed, without even the benefit of bad tv to keep me company — the receiver is broken and the cable company is not coming until tomorrow. So instead, to the extent that my swollen eyes will allow, I’ve been on a Jeffrey Eugenides bender, plowing through The Marriage Plot and well into The Virgin Suicides. I haven’t read fiction in I don’t know how long. Maybe not since I started my job back in July. It feels a little illicit and definitely fun.

I can’t decide how I feel about Eugenides. I really liked Middlesex. I loved the beginning of The Marriage Plot, but I thought it lost steam about two thirds of the way through, when two out of the three main characters started to bore me and I began to feel that the author and I had vastly different interpretations of the motivations of one of them. Sometime while I was in the middle of The Marriage Plot, I read something about the soundtrack to the film of The Virgin Suicides, which I’d forgotten was also by Eugenides. I put it on Spotify while I was working and was taken in by one of the tracks that had narration, presumably from the book. And so now I’m investigating the lives and deaths of the Lisbon girls. I reserve judgment as it’s early yet, but I predict that this may turn out to be my favorite of the three novels of his that I’ve read. Eugenides’ characters never stick with me. They don’t seem fully fleshed out. But his themes frequently resonate with me and I love the way he works with time in telling his stories, moving backward and forward in a way that makes perfect sense but, if you stop to think about it, is actually pretty complicated. He’s also an excellent deployer of details. He’s a visual writer. He sketches the atmosphere of scenes in broad strokes and then fills in an amazing amount of detail about some small thing that you might not have noticed, but which turns out to be important or which reveals a small transformative universe inside it. He’s one of those writers that makes me think about the writing without being overly showy.

* * * * *

While I was gone, I got one of those generic spam comments that talks about how your blog contains really useful info. This one, however, had an enigmatic additional sentence in the middle of it: “I’ll watch out for Brussels.” I found this oddly comforting, on behalf of the Belgians. It’s nice to know that Brussels is taken care of. Perhaps, in the spirit of world citizenship, I should keep an eye on Bruges.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. November 21, 2011 8:27 am

    I’ll keep an ear out for Lessines, where Magritte was born. Maybe I’ll try The Virgin Suicides next. I wasn’t a big fan of Middlesex, although found it interesting.

  2. November 21, 2011 8:40 am

    Now I can’t get this song out of my head:

  3. freshhell permalink
    November 21, 2011 9:23 am

    I’m getting those same spam messages as well but I hadn’t read closely enough to see a hidden message. Maybe I’ll read them all the way through before deleting.

    I’ve only read Middlesex which I liked. I’ve read very on-the-fence reviews of The Marriage Plot but I think I’ll check it out of the library and read it eventually anyway.

  4. Cranky permalink
    November 21, 2011 9:29 am

    The Amazing Race is in Brussels now. Non sequitur, anyone?

  5. November 21, 2011 9:55 am

    Claudia, I think part of the reason I liked it is that it was a college experience I recognized –it was a few years earlier and a few miles east, but otherwise there was much to find familiar. I found the first part hard to put down, but I kind of pushed myself through the last part. I felt like he didn’t have quite enough to say. And while the ending was perfect and satisfying, I think there was more to slog through in the last third of the book than was strictly necessary. But I am loving The Virgin Suicides. It’s got that lovely first novel quality where you feel the author poured his heart and soul into it. I actually dreamed about it last night (although keep in mind I’m hopped up on cold medicine).

  6. November 21, 2011 10:07 am

    this is so funny, i have a friend from church who is also a musicologist and must have been at that same conference.

  7. November 21, 2011 10:11 am

    It’s a relatively small community, Jen. Maybe we even know each other!

  8. eleanorio permalink
    November 21, 2011 11:43 am

    Brussels the city or Brussels the sprout? I loved this entry, but I hope you’re feeling better soon.

  9. November 21, 2011 12:36 pm

    I have mixed feelings about Eugenides, too. I want to like him, and then I partly like him, and then it just doesn’t stick, or there’s not enough there or something. I’m going to read the marriage plot because it sounds pretty much like I was there. In fact, I think I really was there.

    Feel better —

  10. November 21, 2011 8:17 pm

    Cranky, I think it’s a sign! Eleanorio, I was assuming city, since no sprouts were mentioned. Readersguide, yes, I think that you were. And maybe that’s enough to carry you through.

  11. November 23, 2011 10:49 am

    I like the idea that it was a sprout. They’re good for Thanksgiving, after all.

    Hope you’re feeling better.

  12. drgeek permalink
    November 27, 2011 3:23 pm

    The Belgians have effectively dismantled their national government by refusing to deal with a political impasse that blocks all work… so maybe someone needs to keep an eye on Brussels.

    At the same time, is there a way to send Ron Paul there? It seems like it might be his natural habitat.

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