I am here with my brother, Tim, who is busy showing his whimsical art at an enormous civic-center show. I take a break to have an adventure in a town I know little about.
The Mario Lanza Institute and Museum, I learn, is listed as a tourist attraction by Triple-A and, of course, this is the natural place I want to visit first if I ever get to Philadelphia.
This kind of attraction appeals to me most…the dusty little out-of-the-way corners of the nation that are ignored by crowds waiting to get into the Benjamin Franklin Institute or who drive 90 miles to see the home of Edgar Allan Poe. Besides, my mother is a longtime fan of Lanza, so I think it will be a great gesture to bring her a souvenir or two from the Institute.
The Angolan cab driver has no idea how to get me to the Mario Lanza Institute and Museum, so we have to stop several places—at my expense—to ask various uninformed and usually indifferent citizens for directions. We finally find a woman, standing in front of a theatre, whose child has actually attended the music school and who thus provides directions for me—certainly not directions for the cab driver, who has no idea where anything is and whose wife was trying to get through nursing school so he won’t have to spend the rest of his life driving through a city he fears (“No cabdriver wants to drive after 5 o’clock in this town.”).
So, after scrunching up our shoulders to make it through the narrow streets, I at last tell the lost driver to just let me out. He does, and I find myself in an alien land—shabby, overcrowded and oversqueezed buildings, trash in the streets and loiterers eyeing passersby with thirsty curiosity.
Just can’t figure out where I am, so I enter a teeming neighborhood laundry to ask the Chinese owner for directions. He can’t understand anything I say, and the hangers-out in the establishment are beginning to crowd uncomfortably close to me, the bearded London-Fog-overcoated bald guy who just doesn’t seem to come from these parts. One rather large, sullen man looms over me, staring.
From behind, someone taps me roughly on the shoulder. I freeze, hoping the contact is accidental. The tapping continues, and I turn to find the smiling face of a woman who speaks English and actually knows where the Mario Lanza Institute is.
Just a block away, behind high metal fences, stands an aged building with high ceilings and run-down plaster-walled offices. Inside, even though I call ahead to make sure the Museum is open, nobody can tell me how to get upstairs to see the Museum (“The elevator can be operated only by key–and you’ll have to talk to the people in the office.”). The people in the office are tied up with personal phone calls, so I stick my head into a side office, interrupting the casual chatter of two denizens, who send me back to the desk I’ve just come from.
”Here, I’ll let you on the elevator with my key,” a grizzled, limping elderly man smiles. He leads me down a narrow hallway to a stale-smelling tiny elevator and sends me on my way, alone and claustrophobic, to the floor where I might find Mario Lanza’s scraps and pieces, if I am lucky.
Once the door clangs open, I am inside another narrow corridor which leads eventually to a high-ceilinged dimly-lit hallway on the walls of which Mario Lanza himself PR-grins himself silly for visitors and photographers around the world.
There are yellowed newspaper clippings, a framed letter to Mario from Jack Warner, another from Sammy Cahn, a Mario Lanza dinner jacket with the faint yellowing you associate with rental outfits (his arms were incredibly short, it seems), various audiocassette tapes comparing Lanza to Caruso, tabloid papers reporting on the annual Mario Lanza Festival, dingy scrapbooks and press-clipping binders available for Lanzaphile research, a sample copy of a book about Lanza (“We’re out of these, so we can’t sell this copy,” the bored clerk who staffs the Institute says.) and various fan club materials on the cracked-plaster walls of one small room.
And that is it.
The Mario Lanza Institute and Museum is about to close in the middle of the afternoon, and I am the third and final person to sign the guest book this day. I purchase a cassette for my Mother, pick up a few freebie photocopies and pamphlets for her, and make my way downstairs to the main door, dodging young musicians and their parents.
Outside in the cold winter air, I cannot find a cab, but two tourists do stop to ask me for directions. I wander toward what is called the Italian Market, smelling wonderful cooked-sausage and pasta fragrances, and trying to look as if I know what I am doing in this strange and unclean neighborhood, trying to look as if I can handle myself.
Finally, a cabdriver idling his GM car in front of a small store says he will take me back to the Philadelphia Civic Center as soon as his mate is through shopping. His wife, a petite and polite woman, chats with me a bit as we drive through the incredibly narrow streets of another planet and head toward someplace I can call familiar in this best and worst of all possible cities where once a tenor spent some time making fans of people who are beginning now to forget both him and the hopefulness that once welled from within his lungs…a hopefulness that thrilled my mom and a million other moms whose lives in the late-1940′s and early-50′s were so much harder but so much purer then
©2015 A.D. by Jim Reed

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