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Walking Broad Looking for the Heart of Brotherly Love Bruce Buschel Simon & Schuster: 224 pp., $23

August 05, 2007|Paul Wilner | Paul Wilner is a Bay Area writer who specializes in the arts and popular culture.

IT'S a not entirely unfamiliar story. Veteran journalist Bruce Buschel set out to come to terms with his roots by deciding to walk the entire length of Philadelphia's Broad Street -- "thirteen miles of enchantment that started in a quaint residential area bordering the suburbs and ran through the squalor of North Philly to City Hall and along the theaters and hotels of Center City down to Little Italy

and then to the river where Ben Franklin used to swim after summer constitutionals."

Along the way, he buttonholes the salesmen at Gordon's Furniture, the proprietor of the Halal Bilal Steak-and-Take Drive-Thru ("a clean well-lighted fast food joint for Muslims"), a Park Hyatt bellhop who wants to make it as a home-grown screenwriter ("M. Night Shyamalan did it," Buschel is assured) and, more to the point, the good folks at Levine's Funeral Home.

The last is an apposite visit, because a good portion of his journey is aimed at trying to make peace with the memory of his mother, who worked at the Cadillac Club, a long-gone Broad Street after-hours spot, and who had once blamed him for his father's early death, which took place when the author was just 3 years old. "I bugged her about the whereabouts of my father and she blew her cork and yelled, 'He's dead! He's dead and you killed him!' " Buschel writes, with emotions recollected in no particular tranquillity. "That's what I remember. How could I forget? I have tried. I have paid people to help me try. What she meant

was that he was going to school by day and working at night and the pressure of having two children and a new mortgage and a princess wife was all too much for a man already weakened by war and malaria and the loss of two brothers. He was thirty-four."

Suffice it to say that Buschel, who cultivates a cranky, Larry Davidesque persona as he recounts his wanderings, does not find closure with the ghosts of his past.

"Walking Broad" includes a digression -- which could well have been a separate memoir -- into his sexual abuse as a young student at Girard College, whose founder, an arms dealer who struck it rich financing the War of 1812, left his money to the boarding school on the condition that it provide for "poor white male orphans, of legitimate birth and good character between the ages of six and ten."

His experience there leads to an epistolary dispute with a former staff psychologist of the school, who writes an (unpublished) letter to the editor of Philadelphia magazine objecting to a story Buschel wrote about the experience, a story with the memorable lead: "I had more sex my first year at Girard College than I did my first year at Temple University."

While Buschel's not quite in the league of such fast-tracking former and current Philadelphia writers as Pete Dexter, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez and "Friday Night Lights" author Buzz Bissinger, he comes by his schadenfreude honestly and it's of a piece with the analysis of his hometown.

"How well Philadelphians know they reside in the former business center, former manufacturing hub, former music factory, former boxing haven, former seaport, former this, and former that. Their city is the I-95 rest stop between NYC and DC, the nation's current capitals of culture and politics, commerce and clout . . . .

"You trying living in a punch line without wanting to punch someone."

Buschel takes solace from his town's Rodney Dangerfield status in phone calls with his younger brother, a recovering alcoholic who moved to Santa Monica after stints at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and the Betty Ford clinic, and who likes the idea of selling Muslim fast food to rich Arabs in Hollywood, wondering: "Can I call the place Abu Grub?"

Pardon the pun, but the problem with "Walking Broad" is that it seems inexorably cheesy.

It may be unfair to use a writer's own words against him, and Buschel seems like just the kind of guy who would fume about it, but the questions he raises at the beginning of "Walking Broad" are apropos.

"I suppose I am searching for something. I don't know what . . . . I am wondering if this trek is the worst idea I ever concocted, if I am selling Philadelphia (or me) to a world (or me) not very interested in Philadelphia (or me)."

Well, not quite. Buschel is an amusing companion who successfully avoids the folksy lovability of, say, Studs Terkel. But ultimately, "Walking Broad" is not so much a coherent whole as a series of entertaining pit stops. Then again, as he might say, so is Philadelphia.

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