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New York to Pittsburgh in October – Philly and the Soul Train

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by Nicole Skeltys

A week and a half ago, we caught a bus from NYC Chinatown to Philadelphia. What happens is you buy your ticket from hawkers off East Broadway, then a person waving a flag yells something incomprehensible at you and you run after them down the street, looking for the right bus. The Chinese bus company operators don’t seem to follow any schedule in particular, and they don’t bother with niceties like having the name of the destination in the bus window. With luck, you mount the right coach, then after the bus driver ejects the people who are on the wrong coach, you are on your way. After 2 hours of driving through drab New Jersey semi-industrial ruralscapes and stopping at several truck-stops with the occasional ‘Haulin’ for Jesus’ stickered semi pulled into the corner, the Philadelphia skyline comes majestically into view. All this for only $10, the cheapest way to get to Philly by far.

Although New York was crammed, sweating, frantic, with all aspects of life being conducted at high speed and high volume, we never once felt threatened there. My sub-let was in the hispanic and black suburb of Bushwick, Brooklyn, which not so long ago had a reputation for “graffiti and burned cars”. But I got on and off the subway alone at night and felt safe. Up at the local laundromat, where T and I were the only white people sitting around watching our undies flip, we felt conspicuous but not ill at ease. (T speculated that the chilled atmosphere could have something to do with the pervasive smell of weed, which sometimes blew like a furnace up from the apartments below my sub-let, often accompanied by bellowing booty rap).

For sure, there are still terrible ghettos in NY, no-go zones. And we were told about roaming Dominican machete gangs who engage in random, psycho displays of macho violence. That was in groovy, increasingly gentrified Williamsburg, where Tanya was staying illegally in the 6th floor of a warehouse, in her ex-fiance’s writing studio. One of our fellow Byrdcliffe artist colonists told us how she had been mugged last year in Willamsburg, late at night.

But the most exotic displays of masculinity we saw in Williamsburg were the harmless Hassidic jews, who were everywhere walking at a smartish clip, dressed identically in their black overcoats, stiff white shirts and fuzzy top hats from under which flopped their cute religious ringlets. As we made our way down Diagonal Avenue, the sheer volume of these 19th century figures often made us feel like we had stumbled into a large movie set – a strange Dickension period drama, however, not a blood soaked reenactment of Mean Streets or Taxi Driver. We wandered all over Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens because Tanya got a sub-contracted job photographing suburbs for a guidebook designed for people who were considering moving to the Big Apple. We spent long days navigating subways, sometimes popping up in the middle of projects neighborhoods, then tramping up and down strange streets with all kinds of languages, smells and looks issuing from every open doorway. We often ended up feeling frazzled, slightly deafened, and plain exhausted. But we never felt scared.

But as soon as we stepped off the bus in Philly, we felt calculating eyes upon us. A guy rushed up, pulled our suitcases out from the bottom of the bus, then immediately hassled us for money. We staggered down the street with our suitcases, looking for the right subway entrance. Cars slowed, looked at us. When we asked a young woman for directions, she helped us out, but as she was walking away, she looked over her shoulder and said “Be careful. Particularly at night.” We finally got to the right train platform, walking past homeless people slumped against the escalators.

Hours later, we were sitting at a train platform in in the central suburb of Wissahickon, waiting for our couchsurfing host to pick us up as we had arranged before we left NY. The early afternoon light fell over the pleasant, slightly shabby Philly neighborhood. It was very, very quiet. The stillness more noticeable, perhaps, after our ears had spent several weeks blasted by the relentless, amplified cacophany of NYC. Still, it was a little on the eerie side. On the way to Wissahickon, we noticed that there were slow, empty streets, vacant lots. Very, very skinny multistory houses which had once been part of terrace rows, but which for some reason now stood alone, the houses on either side torn down, banks of grass now writhed between dwellings. As the train rattled past, it was like looking at multiple gap-toothed smiles.

Every 20 minutes or so, Tanya made a call to our would-be host, each one ringing out.

Eventually, in a Dr Livingstone spirit, I boldly set off up and around the hill to the left of the station, not quite sure what I was doing. There I found a small bar crammed with drunk men all craning at the TV screen. I walked in and asked the bartender for directions to the street where we were supposed to be staying. After a pause, he twisted his neck away from the TV, glared at me, told me he had no idea where Bourke St was, then turned back to the TV. I looked up at the screen. The Philadelphia Eagles were playing the San Francisco ’49ers.

Then it dawned on me. The whole of Philadelphia had stopped. Everyone, everywhere, was sitting around in bars, in their homes or in their buddy’s homes, glued to the TV, gunning for the Eagles. Imbibing vast quantities of the local Yuengling ale. There was no way our host, who was a self-professed sports nut, would tear himself away from this momentous event to pick us up. I trudged back down the hill to tell T the bad news. We swore quite a bit, then waited for another 40 minutes for the next train going back to downtown Philly.

But bad news turned into good news again. That night we fell asleep just north of the University district, in the cheapest non-hostel accommodation we could find, a bed and breakfast which called itself The Castle, for the good reason that the old stone building looked exactly like a kitsch version of medieval England, complete with turrets, bay windows and a ’70s Lowrey organ in the parlor. On the way there, we were conscious of being the only white people in the public trolley. This time, we felt on edge.

The next day, we wandered around downtown Philly, and the Northern Liberties ‘artists reclaiming a slum’ neighborhood. After a while, I said to T “This is a great town if you are black or gay, but we are neither”. It felt bad saying that, given I knew I owed Philadelphia a lot – after all, it had produced and named the super-lush, super-fly ’60s/ ’70s funk soul movement, which had provided the soundtrack to my dreamy hours spent as a small child rollerskating around suburban rinks. TSOP’s “The Sound of Philadelphia” had actually been the early sound of sub-tropical Brisbane for me. And later in life, I had, like thousands of other remixers, sampled string stabs and sweeps from disco hits like “The Hustle” which, although recorded by the Soul City Symphony in New York, was saturated in the satiny Philly sound. I used Philly-type samples to add retro, loungy, funky character to my electro doofs which would have been as pale and straight as I was without those stolen grooves.

Before I left Melbourne, I was told that Philly was now a hotspot for psychedelic folk, the subgenre that The Jilted Brides occupies. But we didn’t have enough time to do research into venues that might host our kinds of bands, and, after spending the next afternoon resting in a park by the Schuylkill river and lazily watching a drug deal take place in the bushes behind us, we were ready to leave. Our last night ended up being a very positive black experience, hanging out in the local African bar, talking to the bemused locals and stuffing ourselves with delicious, cheap Ethiopian stew wrapped in pancakes. But we still felt that Philly was not our town, despite the enormous attractiveness of its proximity to New York. I was pretty sure Philly wouldn’t miss us either.

The 5 hour train ride from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh through gentle Pennsylvania farm and woodlands was as pretty as we had been told to expect. Not long after we wobbled up from the passenger car into the bar/diner carriage for a round of beers, one of the Amtrak conductors plomped down firmly in the seat opposite ours and without any introductions whatsoever, started to tell us the history of Pennsylvania railways and the differences between the various contemporary trains that ran on the Philly/Pitt route. The latter points he illustrated by reaching into his uniform pocket and producing numerous scuffed photos of trains which he spread out over the table. T and I lent politely over the images and tried to follow what he was saying. In the opposite booth, an older black guy, spectacularly rigged out in linen kaftan and super-stylish rivulets of gold bling, grinned at our predicament. He later introduced himself as a Pittsburgh-based fashion designer. “Oh, you’re gonna love Pittsburgh” he said. “Its a great place to live. Believe me.”

We arrived In Pittsburgh late on a hazy Tuesday night. Scott picked us up in his parent’s Chevvy pick-up. He and Tanya had really hit it off when we first met at the Montana Artists’ Refuge in June. I filmed him striding towards T down the dimly lit platform, then the welcomes, the giggles and hugs. I kept filming as I crouched with the luggage in the back of the pick-up, on our way to Scott’s flat, moving the camera from the silhouettes of excited chatter, out the window to Pittsburgh flashing past. Even at night, I could tell the city was one of the most picturesque I had ever seen. We drove through a quilt of rolling hills, historic housing, lonely industrial spaces, all stitched through with parks and wooded areas. My view was often framed by moonlight glinting off the three rivers (the Allegheny, the Ohio and the Monongahela) that triangulated the heart of the city. Scott and T talked non-stop.

We arrived at Scott’s 2 bedroom apartment in the old inner working class suburb of Lawrenceville, and shook hands with Dan, his James Dean look-alike flatmate. We were bustled down the stairs. Our accommodation was a couple of camp beds in their basement. A week later, I was bordering on psychosis from lack of sleep, lack of light and cramped living conditions. But that first night felt like luxury, because the air was fresh, the neighborhood was quiet, and we didn’t feel scared or out of place at all. I slept soundly because I had a feeling I was going to like Pittsburgh, a lot. In fact I had a feeling, completely irrational given it was based on only an hours’ observation late a night, that I might just have found a new home.

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