Up the fire escape to Albrecht

In the late summer of 1964-65, I moved, for the first time in my life, into a solo apartment. At Penn, I’d lived with my parents, at Stanford in WW II Navy barracks rechristened “dorm” with walls so thin you could be awakened by a sneeze three chambers down, then short-term apartments back in Philly, then the House (oh, much more about the House, later on). 

The solo apartment was on the third floor of a row house at the corner of 37th and Chestnut Sts. in West Philly, since replaced by almost featureless Penn grad dorms. Here, I was again no more than a mile from Powelton Village, where I’d grown up since age eight.

This was my Tolkien summer. I’d picked up the books early on, before they came out in paper, and walked the streets with The Hobbit hanging from my beltloop by a monstrous rubber band.

Since the building was on the corner, it had a loping fire escape that exited in a side area along 37th. I didn’t like the main entrance on Chestnut, which led through a vestibule (ridiculous word) and up a gloomy stairway. So my official ingress was up the fire escape, leading to the small concrete back porch with a single French door opening onto my bedroom/living room (this may be what the English call a bed-sit – I’ve never quite pictured one).

I ripped off the tattered screening that enclosed the porch. Above the railing between the head of the stairs and the door, I mounted a rough-framed self-portrait of Albrecht Durer – the one where he does himself up to look like Christ (though with an oddly lopsided mouth). I shone a small spotlight on it when I went out at night so Al was there to greet me when I rolled home.

The place had, at times, a magical aura. The day I moved in I set my turntable on the floor and put on Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, Helma Elsner on harpsichord. Never before or since has any single record sounded so fulfilling.

The apartment soon became home to the Gluttons Club. Joe from Tennessee and Dave were regulars; a few others drifted in an out. Dave was a Goldwaterite with a remarkable sense of humor for a rightist. We’d cook up fatty delights, eat until we moaned, toss the bones off the porch into the trash cans below, then lie in piles reading comic books.

Across 37th stood a gothic Presbyterian Church (complete with small cloister), since converted into a theater. We’d compete to see how far up the roof we could toss a penny from my window, which was open even in winter because of an excess of heat delivered by the thumping radiator. I’d often spend a quarter hour out on the porch looking down at its beautiful, peaceful architecture that seemed wonderfully removed from people. But back inside, alone, watching the sun set slowly behind the stern rigdeline of its roof often pushed me into deep despair. Another day gone, irretrievable.

The kitchen housed a 1917 Roper gas stove, white and green enamel, that rode proudly on three-foot legs. It had an early ignition system that I’ve never seen elsewhere: You pressed a round brass button on the front, between the burner knobs, and foot-long spears of flame shot out of a central pilot light toward each burner. It never failed.

The bathroom was strange – I’m not sure what function it may have had in its youth: long, narrow, high, with multi-paned windows near the ceiling between it and the kitchen. Its main redeeming feature (a feature that could redeem a whirlpool in Hell) was a clawfoot bathtub. Ahhhh. For some reason I painted the woodwork a deep slate blue. Mistake: The room hovered and glowered at me whenever I bathed and made it plain that it wanted to be left alone. 

That bathtub, however, was home to my introduction to Russian liturgical music. Nonesuch Records in those days put out an astonishing range of world music – cheap too, albums usually a buck each. In a little downtown record shop I picked up Balinese gamelan, music from the Bahamas, Japanese koto and other then-oddities that became some of my all-time favorites. 

I had no idea what to expect from Russian Orthodox music when I slipped it on the turntable and started my bath. Solid, thrumming harmonies. Ahhhh. I was attacking my upper back when suddenly the turntable went berserk. The speed slowed and the pitch dropped to a rumble like the death agonies of a mammoth.

It took me a couple minutes to realize that this was one of the famous Russian basses. The voice is deeper than a well, and as resonant; mournful, rocks complaining of their captivity. Michael Trubetzkoi sings the Epistle to the Romans with God’s own admonition, rising a full octave in half tones yet still ending a meter and half beneath your feet.

I’ve seldom had such an instructive bath.

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