Tag Archives: Main Line

The Ghosts of Thriftness Past

It is said that you can’t go there again. That once you change and the world around you changes, that you cannot return – even to your home away from home.

Thrift ShopAs I was growing up, my mother and I used to frequent thrift shops. I can’t remember how we got started, but once we discovered their treasure trove-ness, we were goners. First it was clothing. So what if it was pre-worn? The money we were saving! And, face it, those whose clothing we were reclaiming obviously only wore things once before discarding them. Objects came next, and, depending on which shop and who the donations came from, well, their discards were always higher quality than what we could purchase brand new. The same could be said for furniture, although that was more my own interest than mom’s, since I was the one setting up house.

It was too early to be called recycling, but whatever we were doing, we enjoyed being the beneficiaries of an economic class system. Our world opened up and was enhanced by others’ wherewithal and their convenient top-bracket tax write-offs. My various apartments and, finally, house were filled with other people’s castoffs. I think, along the way, I developed an aversion to new, always aware that I could get better value in old.

My artwork took on elements that were used, and, eventually, my art was built entirely from found objects. A big piece of what I did was to hunt for the raw materials. Every place I lived, I learned the thrift-shop lay of the land. And, on vacations, too, I was going to parts of cities unknown to most visitors – to explore what the second-hand stores had to offer. When I settled in a section of Philadelphia with my own studio, my weekly routine was to scour the thrift shops for items of interest. For about 15 years, I made the trek of approximately 50 miles round trip out to the Main Line thrift stores. Many of them were owned and operated by the big hospitals in the city proper. But what caused them to be located in the older, wealthy suburbs was Machiavellian: the monied denizens of these communities had good stuff to donate to these shops; also, many of the volunteers who ran the stores were often married to the doctors who worked at the hospitals they were working to raise money for, and these very same volunteers lived conveniently near the shops.

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If you are at all familiar with Main Line Philadelphia from “The Philadelphia Story,” the residents were originally blue-blooded, off the Mayflower, Junior League/country-club types. Appropriate as the name might first seem, the derivation of Main Line really has to do with the Pennsylvania Railroad line that was built to serve the communities of large estates that were like the Newport, R.I., of the Mid-Atlantic. As you might imagine, wealth was still prevalent in the latter half of the 20th century – and I picked over its bones. I would go to the towns with the names that are still stops on the commuter trains: Paoli, Berwyn, Wayne, Bryn Mawr, Villanova, Haverford, Ardmore. Kind of like the Hamptons without the beach. The amazing thing is that nearly every town had a thrift shop, some more than one. A bank, movie theater, hardware store, thrift shop – some as close as just a couple of miles apart.

I look around my house and I can remember which items came from which shops. I hauled a lot of stuff out of those amazingly well-stocked stores. But there is a point when enough is enough. Or maybe, enough is too much. My regular route ended sometime in the late 1990s. The funny thing is, that at this point I probably have owned some of the furnishings longer than the original owners had them. I still value them, despite having paid very little for them.

So, this week, for whatever reason, I took the tour again. I guess I was looking for something, but mostly, I was just looking: at my past, at what would be out there if I was starting anew, at the old haunts. It would be a kind of reunion. These days, I search on Craigslist. I am reminded by this of how technology has altered many things, but in this sense, hunting. It brings to mind the difference between browsing and searching. I think I am a browser at heart, since it is the thrill of serendipity that gives the process so much placeness. Searching and then finding what you were seeking out is satisfying, but not thrilling.

Pennywise

So I made the circuit and found it disappointing. The shops are emptier of interesting, or even nice, stuff. Yes, that could be a difference of the generation that is unloading its stuff now as opposed to the previous one. Or it could be that the idea of thrift shops is a dated one when you can search online. Probably fewer donations are made these days. And the wealth level, even on the Main Line, could be lower now – diluted by other classes wanting to live in among. Also, now there are consignment furniture outlets that are drawing the goods away from these shops – allowing the nouveau riche to get something for their discards. The true blue bloods understood charity. Plus, the volunteers working now are possibly the originals, the same women who were there 20-30 years ago. In fact, one shop had a huge banner across its storefront that read, “Looking for Volunteers.” Again, the world has changed.

It is sad to see meaningful markers of your life reduced to ghosts. These hospital thrift shops are diminished now, but they once filled both my home and heart.

Nearly New

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Come On and Take a Free Ride

Sometimes when our transit system gets bogged down and people are made to wait for an unreasonable length of time, the vehicle that shows up next has a no-charge policy. This courtesy, or apology, is expressed by the driver folding up a transfer ticket and shoving it halfway into the token slot. Such an act is not only a way of blocking payment but, in another sense, it is a tiny white flag displayed at the front of the bus – a sign of surrender to the angry waiting mobs, briefcases and lunch bags in hand. I think it is nice; a way of asking forgiveness and giving a free ride to the bus-weary.

Whenever this gesture occurs, as it did recently, I am reminded of the massive transit strike that embattled SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) about 14 years ago. It lasted more than 40 days (like the flood) and it stranded people, strained relationships across the entire political spectrum and stained the reputation of regional transit, which people were annoyed with from the get-go. It was a pivotal moment for everyone, mostly for SEPTA. When mediation finally ended the stand-off, SEPTA offered free rides on the entire system for a couple of days.

This was nothing to sneeze at. Let’s take a look at the possibilities: regional rail, elevated line, subway, trolleys, a high-speed rail line, trackless trolleys, buses and jitneys. SEPTA is one of just two U.S. transit companies that provide all of the five major transit conveyances, the other is Boston’s MBTA. SEPTA’s reach is within five counties in Pennsylvania and it connects to two neighbor-states.

We decided to take advantage of the opportunity but had only one day to explore and chose to go to a place we had never been before, a far-flung town to the west: West Chester, Pa. It is about thirty miles from Philadelphia and only nine miles from the Delaware state line. We wanted to ride as many different vehicles through usually rate-changing zones as we could, experiencing new territories that we would have no other reason to explore. We mapped out our route and as Peter Pan might announce, “Away we go!”

Our first leg was on a familiar bus route that took us a couple of miles to a transfer-station stop, one of several hubs where buses and sometimes trains unite. There, we boarded a number 124 bus headed for the King of Prussia Mall, a 30-minute ride on expressway, county roads and a state route which deposited us behind the behemoth mall at its transit center – basically, a parking lot turn-around – to await our next leg. This was a totally unexpected jitney-style bus, number 92, the type you get shuttled about in when you pick up/drop off a rental car at an airport. Being in the city, the only time you see buses this small is when they belong to private residential towers or retirement homes. It felt like a private coach and we had a nice conversation with the driver.

Let’s just say, at this point, that there can be a big difference between drivers of city transit and drivers of suburban transit, in terms of chattiness. I am always friendly with city transit employees, but many people are not. And, since the city drivers need full concentration to maneuver through relentless traffic, they will likely not pay much attention to the throngs on their buses. But put a driver out in the sticks with a small bus and very few passengers and, suddenly, you have a new best friend or, rather, a country store on wheels. It can be refreshing or annoying depending on your state of mind. At least it was different, and it was experience we were seeking.

The mini-bus took us to our destination in about an hour’s time, we walked and explored the foreign territory and then, when ready, we hopped back on the next shuttle bus for our return. But this time we went only as far as the town of Paoli, about midway through the bus route. This landed us at the regional rail station and we hopped a train, riding through the renowned Main Line – famous for the horsey set of bluebloods that settled as landowners, the rail lines having been built to service them and to create new housing.

We stayed on the train, passing through all the communities – Villanova, Bryn Mawr, Haverford, each with its own college or university – and continuing through into the outer rings of city neighborhoods, each successive one shrinking in terms of its open space. Although, at some point, the open space started to reappear in the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods where houses had been removed like bad teeth or had burned to the ground. After twenty-some miles and about 50 minutes, we disembarked in downtown Philadelphia and spent some time there before catching our last leg, our bus home, landing us one block from our house.

If someone else had wanted to sample all the different track-based possibilities, that would have been fun to organize. But the fact is, we have used almost all of them many times and for many purposes. This wasn’t exactly PeeWee’s Big Adventure, but it was another taste of public transportation. This self-designed day trip took us to new places and allowed us to see old places from different angles. There is, for me, excitement in finding my way without a car, using a miraculous infrastructure of systems – the placeness of public conveyance. It’s what we did the first time we all visited Europe and found the self-satisfaction of wayfinding. Either there or here, there is exhilaration in reading maps and schedules and traveling your way through them. Discovery is part of the deal.

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Filed under Culture, Life, Musings, Philly-centric, Random