The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine
A Broad swath of discontent
The ‘ruthless and cold’ story of Philadelphia
PHILADELPHIA – It’s the simple ideas that get you in trouble.
Bruce Buschel, an author and Philadelphia native, figured he’d walk the 21 km. length of Broad Street in two days, then write a book about it.
Along the way, he’d commune with ghosts from his past, meet some new people, and better understand the place that forged him.
The result, Walking Broad: Looking for the Heart of Brotherly Love, is an honest, furious, funny meditation on Philly life – an autobiographical travelogue, with pain.
When you wander through the thicket of memory, beware of what jumps out at you.
“I don’t believe in closure,” Buschel said the other day, sitting in his old Temple University haunt, the Owl’s Nest Pizza, on North Broad Street. He paraphrases Philip Roth to drive home the point: “People will tell you, ‘This too shall pass.’ The proper response is, ‘Nothing ever passes.’
“I was warmed by the depth, vividness and honesty of my memories during the walk. I don’t mean they pleased me. I don’t think any rich childhood is happy. It’s a mix.”
At 60, dressed in jeans, a black shirt and jacket, and looking distinctive with a white mustache, Buschel is not what you’d call a happy man. Few good writers are.
“I’m kind of an angry person – a Philadelphian,” he says. “And I wanted to be a Philadelphian in the book. So, anger is not avoided.”
No, it’s not. For nearly the length of Buschel’s book and walk, the city is skewered, its shortcomings mixing in volatile combination with tumultuous events in the author’s tough life.
“Rather than the avenue of dreams,” Buschel writes, “Broad Street turned out to be my road of realities: my father was pronounced dead on Broad Street; my mother was dumped on Broad Street after 25 years of hard labor when her photo-finishing plant was sold to an international conglomerate; I flunked out of college on Broad Street, sold cameras on Broad Street, purchased drugs on Broad Street... and rode the Broad Street subway a thousand times, scared silly each and every trip.”
Sent at age seven to live at Girard College when it served as a boarding school for “fatherless white boys,” Buschel says he was sexually abused by the students and beaten by the staff.
He had a loving but difficult relationship with his mother, whose attempted suicide he thwarted, and whose sexual diaries he discovered and contemplated mailing to family members. He barely knew his father, who died when Buschel
was young. His grandfather ran numbers from a Broad Street newsstand. And Buschel had a predilection for engaging hookers near Temple, when he had the cash.
Buschel’s relationship with Philadelphia was trying and strained, to say the least. THROUGHOUT THE book, Buschel explores what he calls Philadelphians’ deep sense of inferiority. It’s not exactly an original notion, but Buschel rides it to new levels of eloquence.
“How well Philadelphians know they reside in the former business center, former manufacturing hub, former music factory... former this, and former that. Their city is the I-95 rest stop between NYC and DC... Little in the last half of the last century has done anything to warm Philadelphians to the Fates, and vice versa.
“You try living in a punch line without wanting to punch someone.”
New York, in particular, rankles Philadelphians, Buschel maintains. He likens the big town to a superior big brother who “composes short stories like Salinger, show tunes like Sondheim... then plays softball like Mickey Mantle and rushes home to cook Sunday dinner like Mama Leone. Forget about it. You live in a long cold shadow and always feel inferior.”
Now, it’s a good bet that most Philadelphians do not share Buschel’s sense of subordinacy. No one would be capable of getting out of bed to run the city if they did.
Still, he’s entitled to his opinions, ornery as they are. And, toward the end of Buschel’s book, even he begins to lighten up. Having left Philly for New York City (where else?) and Long Island 30 years ago, he’s glad to see improvements in his hometown.
“There seems to be a nice, new feel,” he says, sipping a Coke as the Owl’s Nest undergoes renovations. “Nowadays, Center City is a cool place and has human proportion. It’s not the pain in the butt New York City can be.”
At work on a novel, with a screenplay potentially in development and a few films on jazz to his credit, Buschel co-created the musical Eli’s Comin’, based on the late Laura Nyro’s music. He’s also starting a Long Island restaurant and is doing a documentary on fantasy baseball.
After the initial two-day sojourn, it took Buschel a year to write Walking Broad. On at least one count, the work succeeds: “I didn’t want it to be an Oprah book,” all warm and runny and redemptive.
“I wanted it to be ruthless and cold about personal and profound things.”
That it is. And it’s a good bet that Oprah won’t be calling.