September 16, 2008

Reading Terminal: A Piece of Heaven

I round the corner in downtown Philadelphia to the sight two young men.  Their blunt bowl-like haircuts, black slacks, and light colored plain shirts tell announce who they are.  These Amish men are building a small building in the street, quickly working up a frame as people watch.  Beyond, a row of small pens housing a cow, a donkey, some miniature horses and a sheep come into view.  There are horses pulling wooden wagons full of tourists and children around the block surrounding Reading Terminal.  The normal hustle and bustle of this place is magnified by the fact that it's Saturday, and that this weekend happens to be the annual Pennsylvania Dutch Festival at the market.  Their livelihood, so often so far removed from the city, is on display on this busy Philadelphia sidewalk.

The first Saturday of my August visit to New Jersey, I took the train from West Trenton in to Philadelphia to meet my cousin for a day and night in the city.  We did the same kind of thing at Christmastime with my sister, and hopefully it will become a regular tradition for our visits.  I always take the train to Market Street and then we meet up at the station or somewhere in the near vicinity.  Since we'd decided to have lunch at the Reading Terminal Market and my cousin was running late, I decided to walk around the market by myself for a few minutes.

I wish that there was some way to transport every one of you to the market so you could see it for yourself.  I wish there was a way for me to feel I could accurately describe the wonder and amazement that never seems to fail, no matter how many times I've been there over the years.

Entering the terminal may bring anxiety or overwhelm for some.  I know what to expect, and somehow the atmosphere of the place overrides my dislike of being in crowded places filled with impatient people.  Perhaps the people are more patient here, subdued by the wonder that surrounds them.  I feel pure joy and wonder as I immerse myself in this world of food, culture, art and knicknacks.  You could live for months on the fresh vegetables and meat, whole fish on display with listings of prices for head removal and gutting.  Glistening spiraled piles of tender looking sausages, stacks of perfectly sliced bacon, everything else from liver to scrapple here for the taking.  Moving down one stall, rows of fresh eggs are packed and handed over proudly and carefully by a young girl in Amish bonnet, recently layed and waiting to be your omlette or cake.  Move again and come to breads piled high and mouthwatering, crusty and soft, rolls and loafs, sweet breads and ryes.  Colorful vegetables in all shades laid out before you - thousands of possible combinations just waiting to become your dinner.  Move again and your mouth waters at the smell of meat gilling, teriyaki, greek, cheesesteaks and sausages.

And the sweets... oh, the sweets.  Who could wait to go home and bake when confronted by the cornucopia of fresh donus, fried and glazed or powdered before your eyes?  Enormous strawberry shortcakes and pies with the talles, pointiest, most beautiful meringue you will ever see.  The smell of caramel sticky bun glace entices your nose and leads you to the feet of displays of decadence.  Move to your right and meet a giant tray of rainbow frosted and sprinkled cupcakes.  Turn around and see row upon row of chococolate covered pretzels, truffles, licorice and non-pareiles.  I can barely contain myself, but walk away with only two truffles and a small box of six chocolate covered pretzels.  The next morning, we will share one of the delicious donuts for breakfast.

Above the din, there is no chance to hear a cell phone ring.  You can wander the rows of food, and here and there wander into a newsstand, a shop selling imported art - statuettes and weaving.  You can slip under the entranceway into a spice shop and this weekend you can browse beautiful handmade Amish quilts and woodwork.  They have a beautiful carved wooden toy train that I almost give in and buy for Sam, but eventually decide not to.  You are stranded in this oasis.  And if you're like me, you may never want to leave.

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