Thursday, 16 November 2006
By Richard Carreño
Philadelphia: -- What is it about Philadelphians and rain?. Yes,rain. Even as the city wrings itself out from one of the soggiest Novembers on record, Philadelphians continue what seemingly is the local -- and inscrutable -- tradition of dodging between the raindrops.
That's the reason, I reckon, that, on any given (rainy) day in Center City, you see so few sporting raincoats and umbrellas. Slickers? Nowhere to be seen. Galoshes -- remember them? -- not on your life.
Like most attempts to thwart Mother Nature's intent, staying dry while it's pouring cats and dogs -- and sheets of wind-swept rain -- is always a losing proposition. But don't tell that to the Center City office workers, deliverymen, and young people I observed in the course of my informal survey.
It's almost, it seems, a local aversion to rain protection: Bare-headed women, complaining about the rain-induced frizzies, with thin-soled designer-shoes -- surely soaked through. Others -- men and women -- making feeble, tentative attempts at shielding themselves from a dousing by wearing baseball caps and hoodies. Sometimes, both.
My favorite Philadelphia raingear, bar none, is the ubiquitous black plastic bag that doubles as a poncho as the soaking gets serious -- and unavoidable even to the most die-hard Center City rain dancer.
One would expect, as well, that Center City streets, as in other major city downtowns, would be clogged with jousting umbrellas, the most obvious of rain protection. One would be wrong.
Drenched Philadelphians, it seems, even have curious notions about umbrellas. At least, those few who actually use them.
In fact, based on my survey in and around Market Street West, only about half of pedestrians on a recent rainy day were carrying any kind of sheltering device, including an opened newspaper. This didn't mean that brolly-touting pedestrians were necessarily dry, though.
About 50 percent of umbrella users, I figured, were in fact seeking shelter under devices about the size of a standard dinner plate. I saw one man and his daughter pathetically -- and unsuccessfully -- attempting to deflect the rain with the young girl's tiny children's umbrella. Still others clutched pea-sized cheapies, ones I suppose from a Dollar Store. Their utility ad longevity were summed up neatly by day's end when trash bins were packed with their skeletal remains.
The converse to small umbrellas are humongous ones, increasingly clogging parts of the street-scape. Like doorways. Like subway stairways. These so-called golf umbrellas are like walking Super Domes. Almost always they're sported by young male business types. Presumably size matters -- even when it comes to umbrellas.
A smaller version of ultra-sized umbrellas is the doormen's model, which I sussed out at a couple of Center City hotels. This standard was as scarce as the doormen who, presumably, were charged with protecting hotel guests from recent inclemencies.
Philadelphia umbrellas aren't only about size, though. Color counts, too. Many are highlighted by pastels or by two- and three-tones. Free umbrellas -- those given away by banks and non-profits -- also seem to proliferate among the unfurled few. Worse are designer-branded umbrellas. Not many, to be sure. Faux Burberry brollies seem to be the norm.
And, finally, what's up with those two-tiered umbrellas that seemed concentrated among pedestrians in and around Market and 15th Street? Bankers, maybe? The flapped-umbrellas are supposed to be wind resistant, I'm told. Yeah, sure.
Funny thing about Philadelphia. It's a city steeped in tradition and that honors tradition. Up to a point. When it shines.
For now, time-honored raingear appears to have gone missing.
There was a recent past here when any self-respecting Philadelphia Main-Liner (in the Leave It to Beaver and Richardson Dilworth-era) wore the official garb, including a single- or double-breasted gabardine raincoat; sturdy, brogue-styled leather shoes; a trilby fedora and carried, yes, a conventional black umbrella no more than about four-feet in diameter. The look, at least apropos the umbrella's design, featured a wood shaft and a metal rib cage, hasn't changed much, if at all, from Victorian times when umbrellas were first popularized by London swells.
More recently, however, -- at least in Philadelphia and at least since the advent of baseball caps, hoodies and plastic bags -- stormy weather has been raining on Philadelphia's 'parade.'