“I’ll go to Hell fer ya –
Or Philadelphia –
Any Old Place With You.”
– Lorenz Hart. (music: Richard Rodgers)
The Voyage Out
I’ve put off going to the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, for years, distracted by tales of how difficult it was to reach. These tales were exaggerations. On a chilly morning, last Thursday, I woke at dawn, raced to Allen Street, caught the Chinatown bus to Philly ($10), was there in two hours, got the 44 bus to Ardmore on Market Street (two blocks from my arrival point), and was at the gate of the Barnes Foundation in forty minutes. The trip can also be made (for those without cars) by New Jersey Transit to Trenton, then SEPTA (the Philadelphia subway, which goes as far as Trenton) to Merion, a little more than half an hour from the Barnes. You have no excuses.
Well, you have: There may be no more Barnes at the Barnes, a fact that upsets the neighbors (signs protesting the move line the street); the whole caboodle may be transferred into the city. I had no comment on this before I saw the place; now that I have, I think moving it or changing it would be a great shame. It is unique. It was designed to be unique by Albert C. Barnes, millionaire, art collector and didact, and it is. Out here in the (relative) boonies, he has us in his power: only certain numbers may enter, at certain times, and it isn’t made too convenient to stay: no café near the premises. The artifacts are arranged as he directed they be arranged, following no rules clear to anyone else, bewildering even the docents, and they make the effects that he wished them to make. When much of the collection was displayed in the Philadelphia Museum some years ago, it didn’t have half the impact it has in situ – there were crowds, there were too many hideous Renoirs all lumped together, there was Jerry Garcia in the next aisle (I was impressed) – it was just another museum show. I wouldn’t go again. I’d go to the Barnes again – if I could. (Four of the eighteen galleries are closing on the first of the year; the rest remain open and very worth seeing.)
I knew it would be a good day because I won my point. I took a cab to Allen Street and Canal (though I could have walked to West Fourth and taken the B or D to a nearby subway) and the driver’s name was Jose Chavez. My game is to look at the name (and the photo) of the cabbie and guess what country the driver is from. If I get it right on the first guess, I get a point. More than one guess: no points. Jose Chavez could be from any one of forty countries (including the U.S.), but I considered the current makeup of New York: most Latinos here are Puerto Rican, Mexican, Colombian or Dominican. I guessed Dominican Republic – yessss! (Not quite so impressed with myself as the time the guy was from Mali, and I got that on the first guess!)
My reservation at the Barnes was for 1p.m. They will not admit you without a reservation. The hard part is scheduling one’s arrival precisely when you don’t know how much time buses, trains, subways will take. And it was quite cold, below freezing and windy. Nothing was predictable.
There are rival Chinatown buses available. I had chosen Apex, but their office at 11 Allen Street was closed. Happily, I remembered 28 Allen, across the street and just up the block, was the address of Eastern Bus Lines. $10 one way, $20 round trip. The 9a.m. bus was comfortable and half empty. En route home, I had a choice between 5p.m. and 6p.m., and suspected there would be fewer commuters on the former. There weren’t half a dozen people on the vehicle, and they dropped me in TriBeCa, eight blocks from my door. But that is to anticipate….
The Reading Market under the old and glorious terminal of the Reading Railway (pay owner four times throw of dice; if unowned you may buy it from the Bank) reminded me of the Granville Island Market in Vancouver, and happily I couldn’t eat many goodies due to wheat allergy … but the corned beef (mustard but no bread for me) was ace, and there was (alas) a used book store run by a gentle black man who sold me a glossy picture book of Central Asian architecture and told me just where to find the bus to Merion. Good esoteric-religious-magical collection, too.
The bus to Merion cost two dollars, and they took bills, as most bus lines outside New York do. (Please note, MTA.) Forty minutes (SEPTA would have been twelve). Guy behind me on a cell phone, in a passion: “They stopped me, and for what? A busted tail light? Who can see if the tail light is on when you’re driving? And I had the registration right there in the car, but not my insurance card because I was in a hurry this morning, and it’s cold and I got damn-all done in town today … so they impounded the car … that will be towing fees … and I have to see a judge to get it back, so there will be court fees … I mean, I had my license … they just don’t like to see a black man driving a Lexus, that’s all it is … probably be two days before I can get it back … and they’ll charge me for storing the car! It’s because the city is broke. The town is flat broke. They are nickel-and-diming us….” He sounded ready to fire a gun to begin with, but twenty minutes of rant cooled him down. I had hoped to nap, but it’s as well he kept me awake, as the driver did not call out my stop, and missed it by four blocks. An attractive house across the way, encircled by wrought iron porch in the form of vines and bunches of grapes, named Rose Hill, I think.
Down the road, noticing the little “The Barnes belongs in Merion” signs, and a billboard on one fence, giving out flyers with names you can write or email to protest the removal of the collection. “Why build another Barnes? We’ve got the real one right here!” I took copies of the handouts, and will write. You can find out about all this at www.friendsofthebarnes.com.
See Post 2, The Visit, for my account of the Barnes itself.