If you’re lucky, memory lane keeps getting longer, so the walk back in time allows for lingering along the way. And it includes an ever-widening landscape, especially if — like me — you’ve been at all peripatetic.
This past week I’ve been retracing my steps as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Our class entered in ‘68 and graduated in ’72, bridging the gap between decades. At first, I was reluctant to go to the reunion: long plane flight, interminable waiting in lines, the indignity of airport body scans and walking in stocking feet. Then there’s the question of whether your bag will fit in the overhead bin and, by-the-by, what will it cost you and can you even lift it that high? Add delectable pretzels for lunch. Crying babies in the row just behind you…
Oh wait — do I sound like a grumpy old person who might as well stay home? Sorry about that. In fact, for the first time — ever in my life, I think — once I took my first step toward Philly from a friend’s porch in the pre-dawn hours of Seattle, I stopped worrying and just said to myself, “You know what? It’s probably all going to work out.” I had even forgotten to get online at the crack of dawn the day before my 5:35 a.m. flight to get in the “A” group for Southwest Airlines seating. Group “C” would just have to do.
And, yes, everything did go swimmingly. First, I found out that because I’m an old fogey I’d be getting free public transportation all over town. Then the minute I stepped onto the platform out of the train that takes you from the airport to downtown, one kind soul said, “Can I help you?” and then, “Welcome back to Penn.” Tears welled in my eyes, surprising even me.
Yup, I was back in the City of Brotherly Love; the place our U.S. Constitution was signed on Sept. 17, 1787; the cheese steak capital of the world; and the home of Penn’s Fighting Quakers. (“Fighting” Quakers? — the anomaly was pointed out to us by Nick Spitzer, New Orleans radio host of American Routes, “noted cultural multi-hyphenate” folklorist-scholar and Penn classmate.) As it turned out, nearly 200 of us had gathered for our 45th reunion. This does not count all the other students, families, and folks arriving for alumni weekend and graduation.
My main question was, “How did this happen?” — this zipping by of four decades? The city has changed; and the campus has surely changed, grown like a sedate brick fungus into what used to be the West Philly slums. And us, what has happened to us during this time? (A lot can take place in 45 years; lives can come together, unfolding beautifully, or they can unravel in a gnarly, frowzy mess.)
That’s a question some of us tried to answer in a panel emceed by Nick. Present for the exploration were David Henry Bradley, National Book Award and PEN/Faulkner winner, and author of South Street and The Chaneysville Incident; Ira Harkavy, Associate Vice-President and Founding Director of the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, and early campus rabble-rouser; Episcopalian minister and environmentalist Jane Tanaskovic Brady; and me.
As we began speaking, common themes evolved. We’d all started from somewhere else — a couple of us from unlikely small towns. At least two of the five of us would not have been at Penn at all without significant financial help. Some arrived more finished as people, with a more sophisticated sense of who they were or at least who they wanted to be in the world, especially politically. A couple of us felt strongly connected to the natural environment. We talked about spirituality. Commitment to serving the community. Underlying it all was the sense that despite our diversity or, more likely, because of it, we were all in this together. We’d been given a rigorous intellectual foundation — even the “jocks” in the group admitted this — that we’d individually tailored to our purposes.
Some of us looked our age. Some of us were unrecognizable. Some seemed not to have changed at all. Life had worked its magic: while we thought we were masters of our fate, day by day time was shaping us. Overall, we’d done good, we’d made it through.
One of the highlights for me — I’m sorry to admit my shallowness — was discovering that my favorite deli, Koch’s, was still going strong (kochsdeli.com). The Koch family started this classic just two years before I arrived on campus. Son Bobby, the guy we always teased behind the counter, and his parents are all dead now, but Rachamim “Rami” Shabbat and his assistant Ezra are holding down the pastrami slicer.
Thick chocolate milkshakes! Hot Reubens piled high! Yuge dill pickles! Hoagies with no equal. All appeared in profusion. And yet, when the line dwindled, Rami and I talked. “Kids these days, they want it now,” he said. As if to illustrate two faxes came in, specifying delivery, one from only a block away.
In the “good old days” one stood in a line snaking out the door with cash in hand and waited, silently salivating, watching blondies, tuna hoagies, and enormous double-deckers go by. On this trip, I ate there three times and on my last day, the parent of a current student got to talking with me, “I was telling my son about Koch’s in the day and about waiting in line, sometimes for an hour or longer, especially on weekends, and he said, ‘Why would you wait in line?’” We both cracked up. “I tried to explain,” she said, “pre-cell phone, pre-Internet, pre-fax, pre-credit card… and lots of time to talk to your friends.”
The world is different now. Little did the new Penn grads walking around campus know that I was lost in the smells, the places and the times past. The Vietnam War was full-blown and horrific. Cambodia had been bombed. We’d just had our first Earth Day. The threat of bulldozers in West Philly was imminent, and community economic development was only a gleam in someone’s eye. So — what has changed again? Aren’t we still fighting the same battles.
On the other hand, I’ve changed. I know who I am and how to contribute my talents to the world. I’m happier. Nothing will ever be definitively fixed — humans are too flawed for that. But we made it here, 2017, some of us anyway, with our values intact. We can still congratulate each other for that.