Bruce Buschel's first book, Walking Broad, published recently by Simon & Schuster, has an almost unbeatable premise. Not that it's so outrageously novel. Many other writers have wandered about cities — generally along major, world-famous thoroughfares — in search of the heart and soul of a particular urban terrain and its populace. In fact, this little trick was especially well done by British rock critic Nik Cohn in his The Heart of the World, where he walked the length of Broadway, dwelling on its present-day tawdriness and occasional glamour, while alternately chronicling a century-and-a-half's worth of Manhattan history.
Buschel has focused in on our very own Broad Street as his viaduct of choice — the subtitle of his book is Looking for the Heart of Brotherly Love; and while our great straight street may not be Broadway, it does have its own native charm. Moreover, a sizable chunk of illustrious history comes with it — some of it particularistic to Philadelphia and some that has great bearing on the nation as a whole.
The writer, a born-and-bred Philly guy, may be known to locals for his tenures at The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia magazine. He's also written for The New York Times Magazine, GQ, Rolling Stone, Premiere and Sport magazine, and has done work for the theater and made a few jazz-oriented films. Obviously, over the last few years, he's returned to his hometown for a good chunk of time, having first donned his most comfortable kicks while also making sure that a supply of reporter's notebooks was always close at hand.
The fact that Buschel was born on Broad Street — and that his mother worked there for a time at the Cadillac Club — qualifies him to set off on this journey, this quest of rediscovery, as does his considerable sense of humor and his well-developed flare for the absurd. As he notes in his "Preamble" before the book gets under way in earnest, when he was a young boy, "any move you made, or contemplated making, involved Broad Street — bus stops, restaurants, schools, pool halls, newsstands, record shops, hookers, hospitals, clothing stores, taprooms, movie theaters, or the subway that traveled beneath the concrete in a dark and parallel universe.
"Broad Street was 13 miles of enchantment that started in a quaint residen- tial area bordering the suburbs and ran through the squalor of North Philly to City Hall and along the theaters and hotels of Center City down to Little Italy — how we salivated for the exotic food and the exotic girls with high black hair and low resistance — and then to the river where Ben Franklin used to swim after summer constitutionals. As designed by William Penn, Broad Street was 113 feet wide from start to finish, wider than any street in London. The founder envisioned gentlemanly estates and Quaker tolerance, a town leaning toward utopia. Someone should have told him: things are rarely as grand as you imagine, and never work out the way you planned."
Buschel is, as that last sentence attests, a realist. Even before he takes his first real step, he undoes some long-held and long-cherished notions about Broad Street that Philadelphians have been peddling for decades. This major thoroughfare may run the length of the city, but it's not the longest straight street in America, as so many city-dwellers like to claim. That turns out to be located in Chicago, according to the author. And the Big Red B at the Cheltenham Avenue end "was neither family crest nor beacon of civic pride, but a neon logo for a car dealership, Broadway Chrysler Plymouth, so named to utilize the big red B inherited from Best Market, which had been bequeathed by the Baltimore Market a generation before."
And as Buschel makes clear at the outset, Broad Street was never his avenue of dreams, but rather, his "road of realities."
"[M]y father was pronounced dead on Broad Street; my mother was dumped on Broad Street after 25 years of hard labor when her photo finishing plant was sold to an international conglomerate; I flunked out of college on Broad Street, sold cameras on Broad Street, purchased drugs on Broad Street, wrote for a newspaper on Broad Street, touched JFK's left hand on Broad Street, stormed an Army tank to protest a war on Broad Street, said farewell to my first wife on Broad Street, met my second wife when she worked on Broad Street, and rode the Broad Street subway a thousand times, scared silly each and every trip.
"The transformation of Broad Street from mysteriously hallowed ground to site of existential drubbing was my Philadelphia education in a nutshell: things are rarely as grand as you imagine, and nothing works out the way you planned."
Memories and Sights: Unbeatable
Buschel breaks his voyage down Broad into digestible little bits. For example, the first leg of the journey takes him from Cheltenham Avenue to Chelten Avenue. Then he moves on to the area between Stenton Avenue and Champlost Street — and so on, until he makes it to the southern end. And each of these wide and numerous squares of concrete summon up memories (some of them very Jewish, by the way), as if these street divisions were hard, massive equivalents — the official Philly version — of Proust's madeleine dunked in fragrant tea. And as would be true of a Philadelphia equivalent of anything, they might be hard, painful — downright impossible — to swallow, but the memories and the insights are unbeatable.
Here is Buschel, for example, during his foray near Champlost Street, when he riffs a bit on the characteristics of Philadelphians. He says the citizens of the City of Brotherly Love are not polite people — candid and brusque, maybe, but being polite is just not a priority.
"Authenticity, not superiority," he writes, "is what Philadelphians take pride in. No razzle-dazzle for the tourists or the neighbors. It's a throwback city, like a primo Mitchell & Ness jersey; something nostalgic, something uplifting, something from a better time, when everything had meaning, when loyalty was extant, when the bottom line didn't always include a dollar sign. The Mummer's Parade — the annual New Year's Day celebration where 15,000 locals strut north on South Broad — remains the largest and weirdest unsponsored event in America. One hundred years plus. No corporations invited. No logos allowed. It ain't for the bucks, bub, it's for the tradition, and to honor all the tough guys who dress up like women, the guys who strum banjos and bang glockenspiels, who strut their stuff through the freezing winds, tacking their feathery headdresses and shouldering elaborately sequined costumes, transforming day laborers into cakewalking double-decker ice cream cones with neon sprinkles."
Walking Broad may be too site specific for anyone other than Philadelphians to truly love. But it's filled with wonderful comic bits and lots of vivid writing. Don't miss Buschel's take on Philly cops post-Frank Rizzo, how he lost his virginity on Broad Street, the powerful depiction of his father's premature death and just what happened during his tenure as a student at Girard College (he was a half-orphan, remember). But best of all may be his long-distance cell-phone conversations with his brother, as the two attempt to adjust their memories and piece together a credible rendition of the past — both their own and Philadelphia's.