A Day in Philly With Walking Twitter Star Neil King

Of all the colors of truth to seek — scientific, historical, religious, emotional, empirical, logical —  there’s nothing quite as satisfying something I’ll call Walking Truth. 

That’s the magic aggregation of story, relationship, exercise, smell, touch, and wonder you can experience by simply walking around talking to people and seeing stuff, listening, watching, reading, learning. 

My friend Neil King, a writer and former colleague at the Wall Street Journal, is in the midst of an experiment to seek the Walking Truth about colonial America. Over 25 days, he is springing slowly northward, from Washington, DC, to Manhattan, NYC. Here’s what he wrote in the first of his daily letters to friends, family and fans:

Why, you might ask? The idea started years ago as a joke and then slowly became an obsession. The more I looked at what route I might take, the more I realized that this patch of earth between those two points–which we strive at all times to cross as swiftly as possible by car, train or jet–was in many ways the core founding swath of the country. So why not arc up through it and savor it and see what it might offer?  This was all meant to happen a year ago, but a virus scotched that. The horrors of Covid and our long winter as shut-ins made yesterday’s departure all the more of a joy. And all the events since last March—need I repeat them?—made the moment all the riper to go take in the country and see what I could glean of her.

Because we recognize the essential magic of this adventure, at a time when we yearn to walk more and screen less, and are somewhat confused about what we’re doing as a country, and because Neil is one of the finest journalists of his generation, his slow stroll through the fast corridor, as he’s named it, has acquired a massive fan base on Twitter, and will become a book. 

On Sunday morning, I jumped a (slow) train from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia to spend a Monday with Neil. I came upon an invitation, but also because I was curious about this way of perceiving America, and wanted to think about why the journey had excited people so much. It was also another chapter in earnest conversations we carry on about storytelling, history, journalism, and our crisis of narrative. 

Here’s something people don’t understand about journalists. Even if they spend 95% of many workdays on their phone, making calls, Googling, and Tweeting, deep in the heart of each one is a desire for Walking Truth. There is nothing more satisfying that spending a couple days in a place, walking around talking to everybody, understanding, learning, figuring it out. I don’t think I could ever do a journalistic job that didn’t allow that. (That’s how I started reporting the Moundsville doc, now on PBS). That accounts, I think, for the buzz that animated Monday.

Neil is tall, and his lanky gait attracts attention. “You’re a working man,” a woman hanging out on the street offered to Neil as we headed out for the day. She must have perceived the mileage in his face and legs. Turning to me, she added, “him, he’s got that school teacher look.” We didn’t explain that journalists might throw bricks, but they don’t lay them.

In the morning, we toured Kensington, a neighborhood in lower northeast Philly beset by clashing forces of the opioid crisis and gentrification. Ken Milano is a local historian with six books to his name. He gave us a detailed, and gory blow-by-blow of so-called Nativist riots of 1844. This Protestant knocked on the door of the nun, and threw a brick in her face. This young Protestant was gunned down by a Catholic military and became a martyr. Conflicts that loomed large in the day and now forgotten. What they were fighting over, Ken explained, was the Bible. The Catholics objected to public schools using the King James, which was written plainly and didn’t carry any explainers. 

After lunch with Cara Schneider Bongiorno, a city tourism promoter, we visited the Mutter Museum, a medical museum that includes an assembly of oddities such as a slice of Einstein’s brain, a tumor from the jaw of President Grover Cleveland, and the world’s largest colon. (Upon his death at 29, the autopsy of the 19th century man it belonged to revealed 40 pounds of feces. You’re welcome.)

Philly newspaper legend Signe Wilkinson, the first female cartoonist to ever win a Pulitzer, picked us up in the afternoon. She pointed out the Tower of Truth, as the old Philadelphia Inquirer building is called. It’s now been sold to the city’s police force. It’s the struggles of the newspapers that we all worked for that have helped deliver America into this moment of amnesia we’re eager to repair.

We visited the Fair Hill Burial Ground, an urban mound studded with small gravestones where famous abolitionists and feminists from the 19th century are buried. It’s in a neighborhood bleeding from poverty, and the cemetery was once pillaged regularly, until Signe and a gang of volunteers muscled up care and money and politics and protected it with a sturdy fence, and turned it into something people respect. It’s a very special place, and worth a visit.

After dinner, we closed the evening lying on church benches with a half-dozen others, looking up at the sky through a rectangular hole in the ceiling, part of a 50-minute immersive experience called a Skyscape designed by artist James Turrell. There are only 80 in the entire world, and one of them is in this Quaker meeting house in Chestnut Hill. 

Through the rectangular space, the sky appeared to change colors as floodlights inside the room shuffled hues, a remarkable example of the relativist nature of all the colors you can see, just by walking around. 

John W. Miller

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