I can't get the catchphrase right. Dining Under the Stars? With the Stars? Both might be faithfully applied to this first Wednesday in the eighth season of al fresco Media. Cars off the street. Tables in them. Girls parading, heads on swivel, the rise of fragrant steam, and the hieroglyphics of pastel chalk art between the 102-year-old trolley tracks of State Street.
It is threatening to rain. Sometimes it does. The 3,000 partygoers shrug it off, attend to their silverware, which is the color of the sky. There's Nooddi Thai Chef on the east end. All-natural Berry Fresh Café on the west. Asian, Farm to Table, Spanish, Mexican, Italian, American, French-infused, Indian, and much of everything else on the menus of the some two dozen open-air restaurants in between.
In the open window of Stephen's on State, a saxophone is playing. In the street, a mother dances with her son. It might be New Orleans in February or Venice in September. But this is the county seat of Delaware County, home of one of the country's most prized courthouses, site of an armory turned Trader Joe's, locale extraordinaire of a "chateuesque" style bank, and one of a number of neighborhoods recently graced by the Philadelphia Museum of Art's InsideOut program, which brings "high-quality replicas" of museum treasures into the communities at large.
It runs the gamut here. It is refreshingly diverse. The socioeconomics work, the style pleases, and here in the crowd, wearing clay-colored shoes, mud-splattered jeans, and a red shirt that has seen its fair share of spontaneity, is the local "creek to table" potter and sculptor who, years ago, added the prospect of artful play to these al fresco events.
The kids know him by name - Bob Deane. They patter after him as he arrives, calling out for chunks of the 150 pounds of dark clay he's dug out of the earth and squeezed into bags. On tables set up outside the "cool objects" gift shop, Earth & State, Deane sets down the challenge du jour - a crenellated castle and the slither of a dragon with a massive tail.
Deane apportions the clay and gets sticky high fives. The children get to work. While Deane rolls an even longer tail for his mythical being, the children build teapots, alphabets, tepees, bowls, even a nest for what must be a large and quite predatory bird. They ask for advice, tell their jokes, obey the rules that Deane and his partner in street art, Drew Arata, Earth & State proprietor, mete out. No throwing the clay. No eating it.
Parents stop by. High-heeled girls in white dresses take their turn. Behind Deane and Arata, in Earth & State, Deane's pottery is on display - mugs and plates and dishes and bowls that are famously tactile and perennially popular. Deane sells hundreds of clay pieces through Earth & State each year. He teaches the craft at Wallingford's Community Arts Center, the Main Line Art Center, and the Wayne Art Center. He can be found at festivals and will soon be celebrating, at Wallingford, 50 years of life and 25 years of clay in a highly anticipated retrospective.
But it is this clay time on State Street under and with the stars that "roots" Deane, he says, "to the collective we." Making art with others removes the veil. It breaks down walls. It is a dialogue that carries with it the ease of the authentic.
"I have a great fear of being trapped in conversations with people I don't know about things that don't much matter," says Deane. "That does not happen here. When I'm out on the street on these Wednesday nights, I'm not just observing the world going by. I'm part of what is happening. I'm home."
While Arata oversees the goings on at the clay table, Deane, my husband, and I walk State Street. Deane is talking about how the place has evolved and emerged. How restaurants are expanding, how Trader Joe's has thickened the crowd, how once, as a 25-year-old guy who didn't yet know what he'd make of his life, he pressed his face against the glass in a Media store called Whatchamacallit and found the beginning of his adult life.
"They sold tie-dye T-shirts," he says. "I knew something about tie-dye. The guy saw me out there looking in, and soon I had a job in this town."
He hasn't left. He doubts he will. There is an aliveness to him that needs this place, just as this place needs him. He trails dust and he trails starlight, too. And the town beyond him glimmers.
Bob Deane's life and work will be celebrated from Sept. 13 to Oct. 16 at Wallingford's Community Arts Center. Dining Under the Stars starts at 5 p.m. Wednesdays from May through September.
Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of 20 books; her collection of Inquirer stories, "Love: A Philadelphia Affair" (Temple University Press), will be released in September. She blogs regularly at www.beth-kephart.blogspot.com.