My Philadelphia By Nathan Spunda
not so long ago you did your first toddling steps when was the moment that you crossed the wide ocean to a new chapter unknown? Amanda Spunda-Eisinger
For my family, whose support I will always remember.
It was already dark outside when I arrived in Washington. In the distance I saw the much dreaded customs. Nervously, I collected my documents and checked if everything was in order. As much as I hated the customs procedure, I was well aware that it was something that had to be done. The line, which counted no more than five, perhaps six people, moved quicker than I anticipated and before I knew it, I was face to face with the person who had complete control over my near future. I took a deep breath, made eye contact and handed over my documents. The customs employee, Rodriguez, as his name tag said, glanced over my papers and casually hummed a tune. Everything seemed to be in order. Relieved I turned my head and saw a new herd of people approaching, hoping to be approved. I tucked my documents, which were all stamped, away and was on my way to the gate where my flight to Philadelphia awaited me. I arrived at the gate, which seemed old-fashioned with its poor lighting and old, dark green carpet, two hours before departure. I looked around and other than a few filled up seats, the area was completely empty. Not thinking too much of it, I made myself comfortable on one of the dusty chairs and reached in my washed-up messenger bag for Gerard Reve’s “De Avonden,” a classic in Dutch literature. It describes 10 days in the life of Frits van Egteren, a 23-year-old office employee, in the years directly after World War II. I couldn’t help but to compare myself to Frits; perhaps a fictional character, perhaps based on someone close to Reve? Perhaps even Reve himself? Here was I, Nathan, 20-years-old and in a nearly empty terminal in Washington, and Frits, a few years older and in Amsterdam, was on the pages right in front me. Reve described the life of Frits in the smallest detail and painted a beautiful image of Frits’ state of mind. All of a sudden it hit me. Was I really ready to leave the Netherlands behind me? Was I really ready to call a place home that I didn’t even know?
A cold female voice coming from the airport speakers violently snapped me out of my reverie. I concentrated on her voice and turned my head to the speakers on the ceiling, but still struggled to understand her. Luckily the message was repeated so I caught it the second time around. “Mechanical issues…flight to Philadelphia delayed…until further notice.” Great. I looked at the scattered passengers waiting at the same gate. Nobody seemed to care. Time passed and the promised “further notice” seemed to be forgotten. Not that I cared, on the contrary, Reve’s prose was all that occupied my mind. It wasn’t until moments before the actual departure time, that the cold female voice returned. This time her message was clear and definite. “Mechanical issues…flight to Philadelphia cancelled.” Cancelled? What? It took me a few moments to fully grasp what that message exactly entailed, but I soon understood that I would be spending the night in Washington. My quiet fellow passengers suddenly came to life and the terminal went from complete silence to sheer chaos. Everyone grabbed their belongings, left their seats and rushed to the United Airways desk, where a young lady peacefully awaited the incoming herd of complaints. Myself, still struck by the fact that the flight was cancelled, observed the situation from my dusty chair and wondered how such a small crowd was able to cause such a stir. I tucked Reve’s magnum opus away, wrestled myself out of the chair and made my way towards the United Airways employee who was bravely dealing with my fellow passengers. As I was approaching the desk, which was close to the seating area, I saw the angry herd disappearing just as quickly as it appeared. My eyes followed the dispersing crowd trying to see if they were headed to a differ-
ent gate, but after a few feet the group separated and everyone went their own way. I looked around and the silence returned, this time though, I was the only passenger left. A feeling of desolateness came over me. I turned my head to the desk, where a hand gesture demanded me to come closer. “How may I help you, Sir?” Without saying a word, I reached in my bag for my passport and boarding pass. “Just the passport is fine, Sir.” “We’re not flying to Philadelphia tonight. I’m sorry, Sir. I can get you on a flight via New York at 10 o’clock tomorrow morning. Is that fine?” I painted a map of America in my head and quickly realized that a transfer in New York wouldn’t make sense. “Wait, via New York? But…” “Yes, Sir. I’m sorry, but I can’t book you on a straight flight to Philadelphia until tomorrow evening. The 10 o’clock flight is the best option I can offer you.” “Sure, the 10 o’clock flight is fine.” She quickly typed something on the computer, printed out my new boarding pass and handed back my passport. With a pen she circled the boarding time and gate on my boarding pass, gave me a $10 voucher for food and before I processed all the information, she excused herself. I stared at the documents, trying to figure out what exactly happened. A few minutes passed, and my eyes trailed off to my
watch. It was close to midnight and I was the only soul left in the terminal. Not a sound, not a person, absolutely nothing. I walked over to the large windows, looking for a sign of life. But all I saw was darkness, complete darkness. Not sure what to do, I started walking, walking until I found someone, something…anything. An hour passed, empty terminal after empty terminal passed, but still nobody. Could it be that I was the only one there? Just as I wanted to give up on my quest, I saw a young woman carrying a child. As she was slowly coming closer, I noticed that she looked Asian. The boy, who was wearing a bright yellow raincoat, was sound asleep. Was she Chinese? South Korean perhaps? Should I ask her something? What if she doesn’t speak English? So many things crossed my mind. As she passed, I looked at her trying to establish some sort of contact. But she seemed to be in her own world, her mind occupied with something. She gave me nothing, nothing at all. The encounter I was looking for didn’t happen, but I was satisfied, satisfied that I found someone…something. I was getting tired and desperately needed some sleep. In my mind I went back to all the places I’d been in the last hour. My memory recalled endless escalators, closed shops and uncomfortable chairs, but no sofas, lounge chairs, or anything else where I was able to get some sleep. I looked at the dark green carpet and immediately knew that I had no better option. I pulled my messenger bag over my head and used it as a pillow. My cardigan, thin as it was, had to keep me warm and I relied on Reve to take me back to Frits van Egteren’s world until I fell asleep. In the distance I heard a zooming sound. I couldn’t quite place it. All I knew was that the sound was multiplying itself, rapidly. What was going on? I tried to force myself back to sleep, or was
I still sleeping? A split second later my consciousness kicked in and the magical moment between sleeping and being awake was gone. I opened my eyes, looked around and for a brief moment it seemed as if I woke up in a Salvador Dali painting. Everywhere I looked I saw these men wearing weird suites and white rubber gloves that went all the way up to their elbows. They were operating machines that looked like mechanical elephants. Who were they and what were they doing? Suddenly, one of the gigantic machines stopped right next to me. The driver, who was skinny and had long, thin blonde hair, walked up to me and in broken English he told me to leave. I noticed that he was missing one of his teeth, which frightened me for some reason. I wanted to ask him why he demanded me to leave, but instead I just gave him a nod. There was something about his appearance and attitude that made me feel uncomfortable. I reached for my belongings and gave him a second nod. Confused I looked at him, seeking for some sort of reaction, explanation. But all he gave me was a nod back. He turned around, started his machine and that was that.
spot close to the window. The sun was rising and the light came right through the windows, straight into the seating area. It was a beautiful sight. I looked at my watch and saw that there were still a few hours left before departure. I knew that there was only one thing to do. I grabbed “De Avonden” and escaped reality once more. It was four years ago when I first set foot in this city, a city I’d only seen on television before and a city I’d never imagined to call home. Coming from a provincial town in the southern part of the Netherlands, it took me some time to adjust to the metropolitan way of living. As the years passed, I found myself drawn to the urban culture of the city. Why? I’m not sure. Perhaps it was because I’d never seen anything like it before. Was it curiosity? Genuine interest? All I know is that it intrigued me, and I wanted to know its story. And just as I shared a small part of my story, everyone who I portrayed in this book has a story of their own.
Nathan Spunda, Philadelphia. It started to get light outside and the airport slowly came to live. Shops were opening up, I saw some yawning passengers here and there, but most importantly, the feeling of loneliness was gone. For some strange reason I was part of the morning routine I witnessed. I no longer felt excluded; on the contrary, I knew that I belonged there, at that very moment in time. I reached in my bag for my boarding pass, checked where I needed to be and headed over to my gate. The gate, which was still nearly empty, seemed much more modern than the rest of the airport. The dark green carpet was replaced by white tiles, the dusty chairs made room for designer chairs and the steel details everywhere made it seem as if I just stepped into some sort of futuristic concept room. I looked for a seat and after walking around for a few minutes, I settled on a
The Philadelphia skyline as seen from a construction site in North Philadelphia. Girard Avenue and 2nd. Street.
Mural of the American flag on an old warehouse. The 6000-square-foot flag faces Interstate 95 and commemorates the tragic events of 9/11. Front and Noble Streets.
View of West Philadelphia. Lancaster and Landsdowne Avenues.
City Hall. With close to 700 rooms, City Hall is the largest municipal building in America. Broad and Walnut Streets.
A man reads inside the #10 trolley. The #10 is one of eight still active routes in the city and runs from Center City to West Philadelphia. Wyalusing and Lancaster Avenues.
A boy rides the subway. The Broad Street Line connects the city from North to South, whereas the Market-Frankford Line runs from East to West. City Hall station.
Cecil B. Moore subway station alongside the Broad Street Line. Broad Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue.
Temple Universityâ€™s train station. The station, which opened in 1993, was part of a railroad rebuilding project in North Philadelphia. Berks and 10th. Streets.
Temple University student Brandon Reynolds on the way to Templeâ€™s campus. Ridge Avenue.
Scene at a bus stop. The city counts close to 150 different bus routes, serving thousands of destinations throughout the region. Broad Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue.
Street scene. Oxford and 16th. Streets.
Street scene. Spring Garden and 2nd. Streets.
Pick-up basketball game. Berks and 16th. Streets
A group of kids leave Baker Playground. The playground is home to many afterschool programs for children from the West Philadelphia area. Landsdowne Avenue and 55th. Street.
A young boy poses for the camera at Baker Playground. Landsdowne Avenue and 55th. Street.
Children line up for a photograph at Baker Playground. Landsdowne Avenue and 55th. Street.
Scene during a basketball pick-up game. Berks and 16th. Streets.
Spectators at a pick-up basketball game at Conestoga Community Playground. Peach and 53rd. Streets.
A man walks by the Divine Lorraine Hotel. Constrcuted in 1892, the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a site significant in terms of both architectural and civil rights history. What once served as a luxurious apartment complex, is now a vacant building in a dilapidated state. Broad Street and Fairmount Avenue.
Kelle, owner of the barbershop Kut Rite, at work. Spring Garden and Percy Streets.
Street scene. Girard Avenue and Front Street.
Corner store. Diamond and 17th. Streets.
Street scene. Diamond and 16th. Streets.
Outdoor flea market. Everyday, people from all over the city, drop off items they no longer use. The items, ranging from boardgames to furniture, sell for a few dollars. Wyalusing and Lancaster Avenues.
Derrick â€œJerseyâ€? Butler. Ever since he was a little child, Jersey had the dream of becoming a trackstar. Berks and 16th. Streets.
Lakinah is the owner of Lady Virtueâ€™s Boudoir, a store that sells clothing, jewelry and accessories for women. Stewart and 57th. Streets.
Dick Jardine waits for the #15 trolley. As a child, Dick had aspirations to become a singer. Girard Avenue and 7th. Street.
Jose Marrero. Recently, Jose, who works as a nightwatch in an apartment complex, finished his first book. The book, a collaboration with Bonita L. Hicks, is a guide on how to raise your children. Broad and Jefferson Streets.
Gilbert Fuller stands inside Fullerâ€™s Shoe Shine Parlor. For over fifty years, Mister Fuller has been the owner of the shop. Germantown Avenue. 38
Jonathan Hampton poses for the camera. Jonathan, a student at Overbrook High School, wants to become a NFL player. Master and 52nd. Streets.
Leroy Brown grew up in North Philadelphia, but moved to Harrisburg in 1998. Germantown and Lehigh Avenues.
Miss Fulton sits at the dining table in her West Philadelphia home. Being a pastor for years, she believes that many youngsters these days disrespect their elders and do not live with Christ. Master and 56th. Street.
Sunday service at Mount Olive Holy Temple. In 2009, the church celebrated its 90th. anniversary. Broad and Jefferson Streets.
Two boys pose for the camera after a Sunday service at the Bible Way Baptist Church. Bible Wayâ€™s mission is to expand beyond the walls of the church and bring Christianity to the streets of West Philadelphia. Master and 51st. Streets.
College party. Girard Avenue and 15th. Street.
Scene at Pub Webb, a popular bar among both local Philadelphians and college students. Cecil B. Moore Avenue and 16th. Street.
Street scene in Chinatown. Starting in the 1960â€™s, portions of Chinatown were destroyed during construction of the Independence Mall and the Vine Street Expressway. Arch and 10th. Streets.
View of one of many restaurants in Chinatown. Other than Chinese restaurants, one can also find Vietnamese, Burmese and Thai restaurants in the area. Cuthbert and 11th. Streets.
View of the Chinese Christian Church. The church was established in 1946 and has services in Mandarin, Cantonese and English. Spring and 10th. Streets.
Street scene in Chinatown. Race and 10th. Streets.
Graffiti. Nectarine and 13th. Streets.
Construction site. Diamond and 18th. Streets.
Auto Insurance company. Broad and Poplar Streets.
Interior of a laundromat. Oxford and Carlisle Streets.
When Nathan asked me to write an afterword, I was honored and slightly surprised at the same time. Where shall I begin to describe Nathan and this particular season in his life spend in America, since too many memories pop- up and pass my mind, while thinking about his request. My earliest memory about the “American dream” goes back to the time when Nathan was 4-years-old. Sitting around the dining table at his grandmother’s house with two of his cousins (the eldest 8 and the younger one 5-years-old) the part of “going to America when we are grown up” was their favorite. Nathan could barely look over the edge of the table; being so little he had to sit with folded knees on the chair. In those days the eldest cousin had the ambition of becoming an architect. She used to draw impressive buildings and luxurious houses. “These are the houses we will build when we are in America,” she said proudly and full of excitement. “I’m the architect and they are my assistants,” pointing at Nathan and her other younger cousin, followed by two little heads nodding in agreement. Throughout the years, at family gatherings or Sunday afternoons at grandmother’s house, drawing paper and crayons were fetched at some point, and the same conversation between the cousins started all over again. There were some adjustments here and there as the years went by, but their fantasy, imagination, fun and adventurous dreams remained. Finally it was Nathan who set foot on American ground at the age of 19; a young boy, unaware of what lied ahead of him, totally inexperienced and totally blank. How difficult it must have been for him to cope with the new situation of being separated from his family for the first time, since he was and still is a family-man. Lees McRae College situated in Banner Elk- North Carolina, was his first acquaintance with the American culture and life abroad. During his stay, he had to deal with all kinds of situations: some were good, others bad and tough and then there were the unexpected ones, causing a lot of stress and insecurity. Despite the moments of joy, fun, relief and hope guiding him through difficult times, Banner Elk wasn’t the right place for him to be. It was Philadelphia that brought a significant change in his life, especially after making the decision to study Photojournalism. Daring, because he never was interested in photography before. In fact, the first time he held a camera in his hands was during Summer holiday in
Portugal 2007. For that occasion I bought him a small digital camera, so he could take snapshots. But to my surprise his photos showed more capacity than the average amateur. He turned out to be a natural talent. There was something about his attitude, his sharp eagle-eye sense of detail and atmosphere that made me encourage him to develop his talent, which he did right after the holiday. The following fall semester at Temple University he changed course. From that moment on Nathan and his camera were inseparable. He had entered a complete new world, the one of photography and it was a beginning of a fascinating journey. Through the eye of the camera he portrayed Philadelphia; an illustrative story of a lively and thrilling city with so many interesting faces, which he documented in an honest and sensitive way; two important keywords of Nathan’s work. Who could have imagined that Philadelphia would become a second home for Nathan. A city of possibilities and chances within a season of treasures enriching his life. Therefore, a word of thanks to his teachers, tennis coach, lifetime friends, the people he portrayed and everyone who contributed in any supportive way, is appropriate. Nathan once said: “I came to America as a tennis player and will leave as a photographer, funny how things go”. Indeed it is…. From his grandmother’s dining table in the Netherlands to the skyline of Philadelphia seems ages ago. And now, at this point he is ready and eager to explore new horizons as a passionate photographer. Being Nathan’s mother I sincerely can say: Thank you son, for your hard work and effort to bring out the best in you, meanwhile staying true to yourself. Thank you for sharing your talent. Amanda Spunda-Eisinger
Self-portrait at my grandmotherâ€™s. Venlo, the Netherlands.