I was alone on the train which swayed back and forth and rata-tat-tated over bridges. Just me. Not my mother and father. Not with my brother and sisters. I went alone to visit my grandmother. I was good. I didn’t talk to anyone on the train. I just watched out the window as the trees and cliffs slid by, my eyes following the lines of different layers of rock, some going up, some going straight and some curving up, over, and down. We passed the art museum on the river and then, underground, and we were at Penn Station.
Grandma mushed me into her broad body with her hug, then she picked up my suitcase and we walked. And walked. Oak. Chestnut. Spruce Street. Along came the Spruce Street trolley, cling-clanging its bell, sparks flying above where the trolley’s metal rod touched the electric wire.
My grandmother lived in an apartment in West Philadelphia, not far from the site of the farm she grew up on. I’ve seen pictures of it – a house in the middle of farmland. No longer. Philadelphia grew and grew and swallowed her farm. I loved visiting her apartment. The oriental rugs glowed on the floor and all the cabinets held treasures.
No sooner had we unpacked, than out we went again. This time by bus to the Robin Hood Dell to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra. (It seems that nobody in our family in Philadelphia drives a car.) The orchestra had concerts all summer long at the Dell, and tonight was the night. And we had tickets.
I just wish she would simply take her place in the general seating, but no. Not Grandma. “Do you know who I AM?” she accosted the poor college student collecting tickets. (Every time. Every time we go, she does this.) “I am Marion Corbin and I started these concerts.” The poor guy didn’t know what to do about this. I, on the other hand, wanted to either hide behind her, or pretend I was with someone else.
“I see that the Mayor’s seats aren’t taken tonight,” she said, pointing over to a fenced off area. “You can put us there. Just call up to the main office. They know who I am.”
By this time, I was ready for a hole to open up and swallow me. But I just stood there with a frozen smile. (at least I thought I was smiling, I have no idea.) And, yes, we sat in the mayor’s seats that night.
After the concert, we boarded the city bus again, making our way slowly through the nighttime traffic. It was brightly lit inside, dark outside. We really couldn’t see much out the windows.
Something broke a bus window and flew into the bus. A bottle? I saw an empty Coke bottle rolling down the aisle of the bus.
More crashes. Sounds of rocks or more pop bottles hitting the sides of the bus. Angry yelling.
“Everyone down,” the bus driver shouted. “Get away from the windows and Get DOWN.” He began driving faster. We slid to the gritty floor. The bus swayed and we bumped our heads against the seats.
“What’s happening?” I asked grandma.
“This is a negro area of town,” she said. “They saw a bus with white people on it and that set them off.”
I never understood why.