Only on the Main Line
As we drove away I turned down the backstreets of Chestnut Hill, the most exclusive neighborhood in the most traditional city in America. Philadelphia society had yet to recognize New York society because you could buy your way into it, or Washington society because they automatically accepted political stars.
Those outside Philadelphia thought that matrons on the Philadelphia Main Line set such strict standards. What they didn’t know was that those rules were set by a quiet, almost invisible but extremely powerful inner circle of families who inhabited the secluded droves of Chestnut Hill.
It was a tiny section of the city surrounded by the Wissahickon River on one side that provided a moat against the tribes of lower Philadelphia and City Line Avenue on the other side that provided protection from the aspiring middle class and upper middle classes of Montgomery County. Name, generational background, breeding, the prep schools, vacations, career--all determined where you were the proper stuff of Chestnut Hill. Letters of Introduction to allow you to live within its environs were still a standard practice in 1983.
Money was important, and there was certainly more old money there than anywhere else in America, but family name was more important. Its denizens realized that the rest of the country thought that the Philadelphia Main Line and the pretentiously named Society Hill were wax the bastion of Philadelphia Society, and they liked it that way.
The rules to gain entrance to its select portals were unknown to outsiders but well known it its insiders. Discretion was still the better part of valor here and family ruled your life. About the only way to escape was to move to Colorado or some other area that to its denizens was a foreign country, but if you intended to live in Chestnut Hill, you obeyed the rules as your parents and all your ancestors had done or you simply did not belong.
They shunned you as quickly as any Amish community, but in such a subtle way that it was evident to those shunned but could never result publicity--the seeking of which was the quickest way to be ostracized.
The wealth of Chestnut Hill was hidden wealth. Unlike the South or the West where the fortunes were clearly announced to everyone in loud clothes, fast and expensive cars and rule of baronial mansions, the wealth of Chestnut Hill was that it was to be understated.
You were as likely to see one of the old banking or insurance family magnates driving a beat a Chevrolet as you would a Texas millionaire driving a pink Cadillac. The inhabitants of Chestnut Hill had gained and held onto their fortunes for so many years that they’d realized the wisdom of hiding it from public view. Money has a tendency to attract attention, taxes, hangers-on and envy, and none of those were well received in the quiet living rooms of Chestnut Hill.
Even Germantown Avenue; the commercial heart of Chestnut Hill did not have a street sign or store sign that was clearly visible from more than five feet away. The idea was not to attract volumes of business, but to attract the right kind who would cause the business to be solvent for generation. The shops of Chestnut Hill did not operate on fiscal years, but decades. Ten generations of family owned businesses were not uncommon.
Chestnut Hill was to me what the Main Line was to Mike White--a Disney World where everything was possible, dreams were everyday reality here. I looked over at Colleen and she was as radiant as ever.
Her hair was longer and thicker than I remembered it. Her legs were longer and more slender. Her form was as delicate as a flower in the rain. She caught me looking at me and turned her eyes toward me.
For one brief moment, everything was right.
I went into a dream....
We were ensconced in an 18th century carriage house that had room enough for both of us and our two children, the happy products of our brief five year marriage. I looked up from my book and she was there preparing a meal.
The two children were in the yard playing house. I looked around me amazed that it had all come about--our engagement, marriage, the early years of struggle, the birth of our two children that now meant more to me than life the continual wonder and surprise of the family, its tenacity through even the most difficult of times, the miracle that was the birth of these children and the miracle of the promise of even more. For a brief moment in my tumultuous life I knew peace and contentment.
Those people that I saw on TV living the American Dream were all of a sudden me and I couldn’t believe the wonder of it all.
“Colleen ... I don’t know how to explain it. With you beside me and with the beauty of Chestnut Hill all around ... I had a deja vu or dream or something. I had a dream that we were happily married and ensconced in a very domestic scene in this neighborhood and I was at peace. We had two beautiful healthy children and were at peace. I don’t know how to convey it all to you. It was surreal.”
Her face became very sad.
“Oh, Brian...don’t do that to me. That talk today was hard enough. Don’t complicate it with your usual charm. Someday you’ll have all those things...let’s not talk about it. We agreed on a breather, remember?”
“Yeah. I’m sorry.”
We arrived at her parents’ house and prepared for the evening. I was sent for wine. That’s a harder task in Pennsylvania than anywhere else in the country, because in the Quaker State you are not free to examine and purchase your favorite beverage.
Here, it is almost a criminal act with your right to buy intoxicating liquids strictly guarded by the State. You must enter “State Store” where bored clerks stand behind bullet proof glass and hand you a listing of their stock. If you’re lucky. your particular brand is in stock. If not...tough. Soviet State Stores couldn’t be more impersonal.
As a result. Pennsylvanian’s have been purchasing liquor for decades as if they were doing something illegal. They approached the stores humbly and respectfully solicit the clerks aid, who lord over their State fiefdoms.
When I approach d the clerk about a bottle of Washington State wine, he laughed at me.
“Best you’ll do buddy is New York and California wines. A few German imports. Check
the list, and even then I can’t guarantee it’s in stock.”
He looked at me with total distain. His union job secure with his seniority, he saw no reason to be helpful. At the other side of the counter, an old wino was trying to get a few bottles out of the clerk with no success.
“You ain’t paid for your last bottle, yet. You still owe me a dime on that one.”
“Big deal. Big deal.” ’
He turned to another guy that was behind him.
“Gimme a dime, man. Gimme a dollar if you got it.”
“Man ... you best get out my face.”
The wino became belligerent.
“I get outta your face when you no longer a fool.”
“Who you callin a fool, fool!”
“You a fool. Your woman out there with that cab driver partyin’ and you’re in here bull shitten. That’s a fool.”
“Maybe I’ll mess your ugly wino face us so bad you look like a worse fool’n me. What chyou say, foul breath?”
He put his fist in the wino’s face. As he did, the door swung open and two of Philadelphia’s finest grabbed them and slammed them up against the wall. The clerks had pushed the police button under the counter. Apparently, this wasn’t the first time this had happened in the store.
“It’s under control folks. Just give us your orders and we’ll get you whatever you need.” the clerk announced as were several other police cars arrived and the wino and the fool were led away in handcuffs.”
I purchased my wine and drove down City Line Avenue back to Colleen’s. Beth and her date were pulling into the driveway at the same time and Beth came up and gave me a full kiss on the lips and a firm hug.
“Brian...I’m so glad to see you. How’s the Air Force treating you?”
“Impersonally, as usual.”
“You should get out of there. You don’t need that. Are you ready for this concert?”
“Yeah. I think I need it.”
“I know what you mean,” She winked at me.
We gathered everyone into Colleen’s Fiat and headed toward the Mann Center. We picked up a hitchhiker along the way and Beth decided to freak the guy out by speaking French to him. It turns out the guy was more fluent than she was.
The Main Line, where hitchhikers speak French.
Only on “The Main Line.”
We walked through the gate at the Mann Center and the guy asked for our tickets. Beth smiled at him and the guy laughed,
We set up a blanket on the grass and the sweet strains of Stravinsky paled through the air. We broke open the bottles or wine, poured, and Church Glorious and Victorious some cheese. Beth gave a piece to her date; and then turned toward me.
“Brian,..a piece of apple pie?”
I took it and looked around. All about were Philadelphians rich and poor alike laying as families or couples sipping wine and downing cheese.
Truly I was back in Philadelphia.
Colleen spoke to Beth’s date. a guy named Jim who was an electrical engineer working on the Space Shuttle and visiting for the weekend from Kennedy Space Center.
Beth and I kept up a pretty good dialogue through the concert and I became alarmed at the electricity that was building between the two of us with our respective dates present. The wine continued to flow and Beth made a suggestion at the end of the concert.
“Let’s go dancing!” She looked around at everyone.
“Oh. come on! It’ll be fun!”
Colleen was the first to speak. “Beth ... I’ve had a pounding headache through the entire concert. It’s got to be the wine. How about another night?”
I was in the mood to dance.
“Sounds good to me.”
“I’ll do whatever everyone else wants to do.” Jim said. “Or we can all go swim in my sister Julie’s Jacuzzi. How about that?”
“We’ll decide on the way,” I said and we packed and left.
At a Wawa we called Julie and she was asleep so it was decided that dancing was it. We pulled the car down to Carney’s on City Line Avenue. The place was empty except for a group that was “”laying solid rock n’ roll. We ordered drinks and took to the dance floor.
I had put on a US Ski Team shirt I bought for five bucks at a fund raiser that spring.
As I was dancing with Veronica a woman approached and said “Are you really on the US Ski Team?”
I put my finger over my lips in a gesture of silence. She took that as a sign that it must be true.
“Then you’ve got to use bee pollen. The Russian’s and the East German’s know how great it is for your stamina and so do most professional football players. Here’s some literature.”
She handed me a packet of information on the benefits of bee pollen for providing the cure for everything from cancer to impotency. As she did, Beth came over.
“What’s this?” She looked at the literature.
“It’s about bee pollen. Since he’s skiing in the Olympics he should know the advantages of it. I sell it to professional athletes all the time.”
“Doesn’t it make you more sexually alert, too?” Beth posed.
“It sure does.”
’The saleswoman smiled and winked slyly.
“Well then ... he doesn’t need it! From what I’ve heard he’s oversexed as it is.”
She winked at me.
“I hear he doesn’t need them, then. He won’t be buying.”
The drinks began to flow and soon Jim was dancing with Colleen and I was dancing with Beth. We took breaks at different times and Beth decided to approach me with her question.
“Brian...did you talk to Colleen today because she told me she was going to have a talk with you.” Her blue eyes drilled right into me.
“What do you think’!”
I rolled my eyes and shrugged my shoulders.
“You don’t have to say anything else. Colleen’s young.”
“She’s also very confused. It hurts me to see what she puts you through. I just don’t want to see you hurt. How much longer do you have in the Air Force?”
“A month at max. Until the paperwork is done is all I’m waiting on.”
“We’ll go sailing when you get out, OK? You deserve to go sailing after the bullshit they’ve put you through. My father has a yacht on the Chesapeake we can take out.”
“With Colleen, of course.”
As I was sitting there looking at Beth, it occurred to me how womanly she was. She had a figure that was meant to be a mother, strong and peaceful. Her skin was as soft as moss. It also occurred to me how easy it would be to get involved with her if this situation with Colleen didn’t improve.
When I’d questioned Colleen about that, she’d replied, “I’d give the two of you a month at max. You’d burn each other out. But you’re free to do whatever you want. We’re not engaged yet.”
Her words came back to me as Beth continued.
“I don’t understand these headaches either. She gets them all the time. Nobody can get that many headaches...”
Suddenly Jim and Veronica sat down.
“Boy, you two sure were dancing up a storm out there. You’re soaked Brian.”
“Yeah I know. I’ve been trying to find a napkin for the past half hour but this restaurant seems to be out of them.”
Beth excused herself and returned after a minute.
She handed me a napkin. A slow dance began and Colleen pulled me out to the dance floor. We spun about in a waltz. I felt distant and Colleen snuggled close. When we were finished we ordered a final round, drank them down, and left.
Out in the parking lot a 69 Chevy Supper Sport roared up and the band that had been playing inside all started to applaud us. The lead singer stuck her head out the window and said “We just want youse guys to know you made our night. You were great! Anytime you want to dance for us you’re welcome.”
She threw a kiss our way and the rest of the group smiled. I heard the muscle cars roar off into the night.
Colleen spoke to Jim and I spoke to Beth.
As I was asking Beth her future plans I overheard Jim and Colleen making plans to get together sometime in the future. We said our goodnights, as we dropped off Beth and Jim at Jim’s car and pulled out to Schuylkill Expressway, Colleen had to go down- town to so some medical insurance claims for her father. The tension was so thick on the Ex or-e s sway that you could have grabbed it right out of the air.
“Brian ... how would you like to say over my house tonight? That way we could take you into the city tomorrow when Joe and I come down here.”
“Forget it Colleen. For once I want to spend a night with my family. I want to remember who they are. I spend so much time at your house I forget who they are sometimes.”
“Brian...that’s not true. What’s bothering you? Why won’t you stay over my house?”
“Because I don’t want to.”
“You know Brian...that’s why it’ll never work. You have a way of making sure that you come first. What if I have an accident on the way home? The rational thing to do would be for you to stay at my house and I can drive you to your house tomorrow morning and you can get your things and I’ll take you to the station.”
“Maybe I don’t feel rational right now.”
My anger and frustration were about to peak.
“Brian...you’re so selfish sometimes. Do I matter at all? Do you even care about what happens to me?”
“Yeah...yeah...I do I Colleen. As hard a time as you may have believing that I do. But you piss me off! We could have had such a great life together and you’re going to throw it all away. And you wouldn’t even give it a chance to grow, that’s what concerned me more than anything.”
She began to cry.
“Do you think this is easy for me?”
“You can stop the tears right now because I’m not about to discuss with you if you’re going to cry. My brother Frank told me never to continue a discussion with a woman when she begins to cry because inevitably you end up losing and I think he’s right.”
“He’s also very insensitive. I can continue talking. Just because I’m crying doesn’t mean I can’t talk.”
“OK. I’ll talk then.”
We pulled onto Bethlehem Turnpike and I knew we were only a few minutes from my home.
“You know my innermost secrets and you’re getting to know my innermost secrets. I’ve become vulnerable and we’ve become real. Come off your dream clouds and become real. Colleen!”
She stared straight ahead.
“Brian...to tell you the truth I think I’m the one who has a more realistic picture of this relationship. I just see what’s going to happen and I’m not about to allow it to. We’ve got to maintain our distance before it gets too painful.”
“Nothing ventured, nothing lost eh? No pain, no gain.”
I turned into a Mobil station in Fort Washington that was still open at 4 in the morning. I jumped out and filled up her tank, The fat attendant who was eating Frito’s and watching the late movie. We got back on the road prove on in silence and parked in front of my house.
“Brian...I really do love you. I love you enough to be honest with you and tell you this isn’t going to work.”
She leaned over and began to kiss my neck.
I took her in my arms and the pain outweighed the fun.
“I’ve got to get going.”
I tried to leave but she held me back.
“How about a good night kiss, Ace?’” She wrapped around me and the electricity returned. Her face grew moist and we locked around each other. It was more than I could handle.
“Take care kid. It’s been a slice.”
I tried to disentangle her but she held me all the tighter.
“Let’s climb into the back seat. I haven’t been in a backseat in a long time.” She smiled, and I did as she asked.
She kissed me and threw her leg across my lap. We fell back and I looked up and the stars were blazing above her back car window. The stillness of the hour combined with the scent of her perfume and I was lost to her.
Before I could think, I said, “Colleen...I love you!”
“Brian ... I love you so much!”
We held each other desperately aware that this might be the last time we would embrace.
“Well...I’ve got to get up early.”
I got up, opened the driver’s door, kissed her full on the lips, and walked away.
“When you talk about this affair to your friends...and you will I’m sure...speak of me kindly.”
I turned to her.
“I will. Where’d you get that line?”
“It’s from...oh, it doesn’t matter anymore...”
She pulled the car away and I walked into my house in a daze.