Of Time and the City

The past and future beneath the surface


in Features • Illustrated by Camille Velasquez


History begins at ground level, with footsteps.

Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life

It was midday, lunchtime. I was working near Sixth and Market Streets in Philadelphia. Every so often the explorer in me asserts itself and I have to set out for parts unknown. This particular day, it was going to be a short tour north of Market and up one of the numbered streets. I seem to remember it as Fourth or Fifth Street but time has blurred that detail. Nor do I remember quite how far up that street I walked, though I have the vague notion that it wasn’t farther up than Girard Avenue, which would make it a mile or so. Although I had often driven north of Market, sitting behind the steering wheel of a car is no way to experience a city. In William Penn’s grid, cars and people come at you from the left and right at every intersection. You either pay attention to the road and protect yourself and the public or take in the surroundings and risk becoming a traffic statistic. With no appetite for the latter, I took to the sidewalks.

Having worked in Philly for many years, I was accustomed to what I’ll call the “peculiarities” that often confront a walker in the city, from Mummers parades to architectural masterpieces squeezed out of sight by age-old bandbox buildings to stone steps from colonial times that lead down to what was once the river’s edge along Water Street in Old City. One of the things you learn quickly when you set out on foot is that sights you’ve known your entire life take on an altogether different appearance, both literally and figuratively, depending on the circumstances, such as the time of day or night or perspective. For instance, office buildings and high-rise condos. While many of them have presented the same bland facade to the passing world for decades, generations even, they often reveal a completely different face when you go around to the back of them where the essentials of daily life are laid bare: a forest of wires, cables and plastic tubing that keep the buildings “alive,” the delivery docks that are the entry points for the myriad of products that serve the inhabitants, the Damon Runyan-esque characters that inhabit that shadowy world of oversized cardboard boxes, huge trash bins, and cramped alleyways.

Imagine a church bell clanging you awake from a warm bed on a cold rainy Monday morning at six a.m. and that same bell on a bright Saturday morning in May when the birds are singing. The first is an alarm from hell, the second the music of the angels. Or the monotony of a street of rowhouses that bludgeons your architectural sense into oblivion most days, yet on another day becomes a block-long stage where you envision countless human dramas playing out behind the solid curtain of those red brick walls. In many ways, the city is both fixed in time yet impermanent, ephemeral, fleeting. To an extent, it’s the creation of those who use it and make it what it is.

I remember that length of Fourth or Fifth Street that I walked as a mixture of eating places, variety stores, groceries, and other commercial enterprises. I remember that it was around noontime and that the sidewalk was busy with people, some most likely on their lunch hour from one of those businesses and headed toward some local eatery, others shopping, others just enjoying the midday sunshine.

As I made my way north, taking in the look and feel of the neighborhood, I happened to glance left down what seemed to be a very narrow side street intersecting the middle of the block. At the end, I saw a slice of ground that, from my vantage point, appeared to be a cemetery. I had seen and walked through countless cemeteries, some for funerals, some to admire for their beauty and some to deplore the sad condition of their neglect, and I had encountered them both on the outskirts and within the confines of the city itself. But this one struck me as particularly odd. I walked down the street that was so narrow that had I stretched out my arms, I could almost have touched the walls on either side and came to the edge of the cemetery.

I searched for a name but could find none. It wasn’t large, 25 yards square at best. The overwhelming impression was of a very old and uncared-for graveyard. My first thought was that it might have been the private cemetery of some prominent family whose bloodline had long since dried up, although it seemed a bit large even for that. Many of the headstones, in pieces on the ground or leaning at odd angles, attested to the neglect they had endured. The once sharply incised inscriptions on most of them had been sanded into indecipherability by time and weather. I was able to pick out a few birth dates in the early 19th-century and death dates in the same century and an occasional name. As I scanned the stones, most in various stages of disappearing behind the uncut grass and weeds, I could find nothing to indicate that any of the marked graves were of historical note. What struck me most about this neglected plot of ground was the contrast between its utter loneliness in the midst of a bustling street no more than 100 feet away.

Lying beneath those fragmented pieces of marble and concrete were bodies who at one time had meant something to other people. Fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, soldiers killed in battle and brought back to lie in the earth from which they had come, and babies who died without ever knowing the world into which they were born, were lying here like dead seeds never to sprout again. Now 40, 80, 100 years later, they lay silent and forgotten, probably no one alive who ever knew them, no one they might have spoken with or laughed or cried or argued with. The contrast between what they used to be and the forgotten dust they were now was stark and unsettling, especially amid the hubbub of the street filled with people busy with their own needs and desires so close by. The only movement here was the occasional fast-food wrapper or yellowed page of old newspaper scuttling by, stopping only when it smacked against the broken headstones that were all that was left to mark the spent lives beneath them. Here was the confluence of time and eternity staring me in the face, the clearest demonstration that change, if not the only reality, was certainly one to be reckoned with.

I turned away from the cemetery and retraced my path back down the street toward Market. As I turned the corner and looked up, the first thing I saw was the clock in City Hall Tower. It was a familiar sight. I had grown up beneath that clock, worked on the 34th floor of a building close enough to see it three times larger than it looked from the street, and seen it in daylight and in nighttime when it was bigger and brighter than a full moon. Before the ubiquity of computers and cell phones where time is instantly available at almost any place on earth no matter where you are, the clock in City Hall was the unofficial keeper of time for Philadelphians. If you wanted to know what time it was and were within one mile or so of unobstructed view of the clock, you looked up, and there it was, 362 feet above Broad and Market Streets in a disk 26 feet in diameter, three feet wider than the face of Big Ben in London, according to the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

The 150 incandescent light bulbs that illuminated the clock were originally bright white. By the 1940s, the plate glass of the clock faces was yellowed by sulfurous coal smoke, producing the now-iconic amber glow of the City Hall clock. In 1963, the city officially changed the cleaned bulbs to a tinted yellow color, creating the most recognizable fixture of the Philadelphia skyline.

That was the clock to me as a child. By the time I had reached adulthood, it had become something altogether different. Yes, its most obvious and functional purpose was still to be the largest and most recognizable timepiece in Philadelphia, a mission it fulfilled admirably. But now it was something more. Looming over the city as it does, it became a giant, all-seeing eye — four eyes, really, in that there were four faces to it, one each looking up and down Broad Street and one looking east-west from the Delaware to the Schuylkill Rivers. And this huge yellow eye looked down on the city watching everything that happened beneath it. If you threw an empty candy wrapper on the street, the eye saw you. If you were in the process of committing a crime, the eye saw what you did and where you did it. Lovers walking arm-in-arm down Broad Street at midnight, thinking themselves wrapped in the blessed anonymity of darkness, in reality, walked in full view of the prurient gaze of this leering eye. Maybe I had subconsciously connected it with the eye that sits atop the pyramid on the back of the dollar bill, thought by some to represent the Eye of Providence (God’s eye) watching over humanity. Or maybe it was the malevolent eye of George Orwell’s Big Brother keeping tabs on every move I made. Maybe yes to one or both, maybe no to both.

I only knew the clock wasn’t just a timepiece anymore but had become a symbol of the movement of life itself, the undeniable proof that nothing stays the same and that change is inevitable. The clock measured not only the minutes and hours of each day it measured life too. My mind jumped back to the cemetery I had just left. Even though most if not all of the people lying in that graveyard had lived and breathed long before the City Hall tower and clock were built, they were now linked in the skein of time. They were proof of the clock’s inexorable movement from second to second, minute to minute, marking not just the changes of life but its march even to the very end. The words of my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Meyers, that I had never forgotten, now came rushing back to me with renewed strength. Whenever she saw anyone in the classroom not doing the work she had assigned us, she would call out the recalcitrant student in a soft measured voice that I never once heard raised to a shout and tell him or her to look up at the clock on the wall over the blackboard. Then she would quote the time it was at that moment, the day and the year, and say that that time, day and year, once gone, could never be reclaimed, impressing on us the importance of using each moment we were given. “You’ll never have this moment again in your whole life,” she’d say. “Do you really want to waste it?”

In the 1960 film The Time Machine, Rod Taylor plays inventor George Wells, who invents a time machine and travels thousands of years into the future to discover the shocking fate of the human race. At the film’s end, he escapes back to his own time, 1900, but quickly returns to the future with three books he has taken from his library to help rebuild the broken world he had just escaped. When his friend, David Filby (played by Alan Young of TV’s Mr. Ed fame) is asked by Wells’s housekeeper if he thinks Wells will ever return, Filby speaks the film’s final words: “One cannot choose but wonder. You see, he has all the time in the world.”

“All the time in the world.” From my vantage point as a teenager, I was completely comfortable with that statement. Had I been more prescient I would have questioned it, especially at those moments when I was watching an old movie on television with my parents and my father would say “it’s so sad to watch a film where most of the people in it — people I grew up watching — are dead.” Little could I have imagined that I’d be saying the same thing today, when I watch a television show or movie with actors that I watched as a teenager and who are now gone.

Throughout history, philosophers, scientists, and theologians — Plato, Einstein, and St. Augustine, for instance — have written about the nature of time with insight and perception that far transcends any ability of mine to judge. What I do know is what my eyes and reason show me, that change happens constantly and that what was is, at some point, no more. The evidence of that process is, paradoxically, the utter stillness of a cemetery where change itself comes to die, people whose lives are now only moving images on a piece of film, or the reality of a moist green leaf that withers into a dried parchment-like object crackling beneath the feet of busy passers-by. •


John Capista is a reader who loves to write and a writer who loves to read. He reads, writes, and resides in Drexel Hill, PA.