Colleen McPhillips, our Australian friend, wanted to see the "old corners," of Philadelphia, so I convinced her to ditch the walking tour she'd threatened to book, and put to use the shelf of odd tomes I keep about this town. Eighteen years, and I'd never been to Elfreth's Alley. Good record, I figured.
This was yesterday, one day after a long weekend of heavy tourism, and the streets were quiet, but still humming, as if a trolley had just rumbled by. As our guide we packed an out-of print book by Paul Hogarth, the British illustrator who taught at the Philadelphia College of Art in the late '60s.
It's called "Walking Tours of Old Philadelphia" and it begins with an essay by E. Digby Baltzell on the greatest generation of American statesmen and leaders who walked these streets, between the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the departure of John and Abigail Adams - "individuals in the same mold as the heroes of Periclean Athens, Cicero's Rome or Elizabethan London."
But we weren't looking to walk in the footsteps of Washington, Jefferson, Madison & Co. We wanted coffee.
Our route was more inspired by Christopher Morley than Ben Franklin. "I am a confirmed saunterer," the old Evening Public Ledger columnist wrote before sauntering off to the Big Apple. "I love to be set down haphazard among unknown byways; to saunter with open eyes, watching the moods and humors of men, the shapes of their dwellings, the criss-cross of their streets."
Petit 4 Pastry Studio on Third Street is as buttery a beginning as I could imagine, and so La Colombe in a proper cup and apple and lemon tarts followed, as Prince sang and the air conditioner hummed. It was as hot outside as that famous summer of 1776. For a girl from the Outback, Colleen knows a few things about cities, having lived in Canberra, D.C., Brussels, Berlin and now Beijing. She knew a few things about Philadelphia, in fact. "Well, the Declaration and the Constitution to start," she started, then dropped that she knew what a Philadelphia lawyer was, and could talk about Louis Kahn. She was just getting going.
Well-caffeinated, we went north on the shady side of 4th Street to Loxley Court at Arch Street, and slipped past the iron gate into what Hogarth called "an intriguing backwater" of restored 18th C houses. In No. 2 lived Benj. Loxely, a carpenter who worked on Independence Hall. Did Ben get his notorious kite key here? Debatable. Tucked around back was the coolest courtyard of the day, a good 10 degrees more pleasant than on the sidewalk.
We kept cool-seeking, soon ducking into the Big Jar bookstore. It is always dangerous to enter a bookstore with an empty backpack. As music from Nepal played, Coleen picked up Oliver Sack's book on migraines for my headachy son and I spotted a collection of Barry Farrell, the late journalist. Learning of our lazy day, proprietor Patrick paged through our guide book, pointing out that Hogarth had illustrated Graham Greene's world. He then pointed us toward a tiny Colonial garden just north of Walnut Street between 3rd and 4th Streets.
The town's singular primacy in print followed as we passed plaques marking where the Declaration of Independence and Common Sense and the English-language Bible were first turned out.
This travelogue will skip ahead here, our fingers as tired as were our feet. We wound along Spruce, then Pine, then sought out the tiny jewels - Quince, Irving, Camac - before Top Tomato and Capogiro replenished. Border's yielded Sin City graphic novels for the family and Laura Nyro's "Gonna Take a Miracle" marvel with Labelle for myself. After all, it, too, was made in Philadelphia.