Allium and I went into the city the other night, as we do a lot lately, with bento boxes packed for dinner and folding chairs stowed in the trunk of the car. Behind the museum there’s a small rise topped with a pavilion; we carried our gear up the hill and set up camp in the shade. It was a warm evening — 85 degrees or so — but a strong breeze came up over the river as the sun began to set, and we were quite comfortable.
Beneath us was the old Waterworks, refurbished and now converted into a restaurant. The main building resembles an enormous and unimaginative wedding cake, plopped down on a table, for safety’s sake, away from the celebration. It’s meant to look elegant, and almost succeeds, except for its dull proportions, and the fact that we can see the garbage bins and stacks of delivery skids tossed off to the side.
Across the way we can see traffic backing up in both directions, in and out of the city, but it’s of no concern to us (at least at this moment). An ancient overpass is directly across from us; it’s one of several in this area that features beautiful brick arches. Trains go by across the top; we’ve been on those trains, and there’s nothing romantic about them, but you couldn’t prove it from where we sit tonight. Even though I know better, a fond wanderlust steals over me as I watch the trains move slowly across the bridge.
Below us flows the fetid Schuylkill River, beautiful in the waning sunlight. We can’t smell it from our perch, though. Once we finish our meal, Allium brews ginger tea in the thermos he secretly brought and ginger scents the air around us. The tea and our relative solitude remind Allium of Taiga — whose work we are about to see again — and Allium feels at one with the greenery that surrounds us and the river. In previous visits, we’ve seen several paintings of small dwellings set on mountains whose rice paper walls have been pushed aside; with the shoji screens out of view, the definition between structure and landscape is lost. As night falls and we relax, our open domed pedestal seems similarly organic.
I feel this, as Allium does, but my mind is elsewhere, too. I’m watching the pathways that zigzag down the hill, and I’m thinking of Orson Welles in The Third Man. It’s the scene when he’s up in a defunct carousel car with Joseph Cotton. He opens the cab door dangerously, and they regard the pedestrians below.
Tell me [he says]. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?
But that’s for another post.
I turn away from the infrequent joggers and the dolled up diners — the dots — far below and gaze lovingly on my favorite feature of this stretch of the river. In keeping with the classical theme of the museum (or vice versa), someone has constructed what looks an open-air storage facility, based on the facade of the Pantheon. It’s on the near bank, just to the right of us, and it brings to my mind Marcus Didius Falco and his misadventures by the banks of the river Tiber. I can imagine the barques unloading, the urns of oil and grain stacked up.
The faux temple should feel out of place next to the grimy river, the automobile congestion, and the dirty trains, but it suits nevertheless, probably only because of its proximity to the museum. The museum is the only beautiful thing you see as you come into Philadelphia from the east — the only beautiful thing you see coming into Philadelphia from any direction.
Final photo from vergo1220 at flickr; all others mine
Update 7/29/07: Waterworks Redux