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He kept quiet as I searched on Google, sitting alone with two steaming cups of coffee in front of me. It didn’t take me too long to figure out the details. I am quoting now from the site I landed.
The Beginning of International House
“In 1908, the Reverend A. Waldo Stevenson was walking through the Penn campus and ran into a group of Chinese students. He spoke with them and was astonished that he was, apparently, the first American to befriend them. Taken aback and intrigued, the Reverend and his wife began to invite foreign students from Philadelphia colleges into their apartment every Friday night and entertain them. He continued to do this for many years, even after 1910, when the Christian Association of the University of Pennsylvania was presented with the issue and consequently decided to take it on, under persuasion from Edward Cope Wood. In the 1911-1912 academic year, Stevenson became the Foreign Mission Secretary of the Christian Association, and by the next year was devoting all of his time to the foreign students at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Not many years later, the Christian Association, with suggestions from Stevenson and Wood bought the property at 3905 Spruce St. from the Potts family. In an article from The Register dated June 25th, probably from 1917, it was stated that Mr. Potts (who was also a member of the Board of Trustees at the University of Pennsylvania) had originally bought the property for $100,000, but he was "so impressed with the idea that he sold the old mansion… for $20,000." On New Year's Day, 1918, 3905 Spruce Street officially opened its doors under the sponsorship of the Christian Association as a Home for Foreign Students, which came to be known as the International Students' House and Stevenson became its first director.
“The building at 3905 Spruce Street was to have a lounge on the first floor as well as a reading room, a dining room and fifteen living rooms on the upper floors. Although the location contained no living facilities, it did provide a number of services to foreign students in Philadelphia, predominantly those at the Penn campus, if for no other reason than its location. There were counseling and information services for a host of problems foreign students might encounter, including language, financial, health and diet, immigration and technical problems as well as maladjustment to living in the United States. It was also used for recreation and leisure, as lounges had radio, phonograph and television facilities and there were game and reception rooms. The International Students' House also provided for programs including forums, debates, lectures, panels and planned trips and outings as well as weekend activities such as dances, films and game nights. Also, for the next thirty-three years, the International Students' House would be sponsored by the Christian Association of the University of Pennsylvania, as well as weekend activities such as dances, films and game nights. Also, for the next thirty-three years, the International Students' House would be sponsored by the Christian Association of the University of Pennsylvania.
“In 1925, Elmer T. Thomspon replaced the Rev. A. Waldo Stevenson as the Director of International Students' House. Programs at the International Students' House, as documented in the International Students House News, continued without much change until around 1940. Although there were some struggles in the time of the Great Depression, apparently, the "sheer determination and courage of Dr. Elmer T. Thompson, the director, and his wife" allowed the House to continue its purpose. Giles L. Zimmerman, who would later become the first President of International House after it moved its location to the Whittier Hotel, gave information on the House in the decade from 1940 to 1950 ...”
By the time I had read so far, it was clear to me that he had never lived in the old International House at 3905 Spruce Street, for it had no residential facilities. However, since the words International Students’ House found a space under his photograph in the Year Book, he was clearly a regular visitor there. And it must have been the Spruce Street International House that he went to, since things hadn’t changed till 1940 at least and he was gone back to India by the end of 1935.
Did the Spruce Street building exist anymore? Google showed how it looked way back in 1917.
I sat up straight in my chair, the coffees growing cold, but my excitement defying the air-conditioned comfort of the restaurant. And I felt a breathing down my neck quite distinctly now. He was peeping over my shoulder, probably sitting on the bald head of the gentleman occupying the table behind mine.
“Let’s rush, shall we,” he said, bubbling with excitement. “They could demolish this building before we arrive and that will be the end of the chase. Come, quick.”
I mumbled to him, “You might well be right you know. It need not be there anymore. But let me check.” I activated the GPS on the tab and found the directions to 3905 Spruce Street. “OK, I think I know the way now. Let’s start off.” At my signal, he appeared to jump off the bald pate he was occupying and joined me outside the restaurant in the scorching heat.
We were standing once again near the crossing of 37th Street and Chestnut Street, where the modern International House stared in arrogant disdain at the sedate old Church. Not all was lost. Nothing is lost forever. One simply needs to believe. I knew that the past lay mingled with the present here and one merely needed to look around carefully enough.
I stood there thinking.
“What are you waiting for? Let’s hurry he said. I saw the photograph of my International House on your funny machine. Mr. Googly did speak to you. I was watching closely.”
I did not respond as I continued to stand at the corner in silence. His restlessness increased every second. He was literally jumping I sensed.
“Hey, what’s gone wrong with you? Aren’t we going?” the impatience was mounting.
“We’ll go, but you must learn your manners first.”
“What do you mean? I did nothing at all. I have been waiting patiently all this time as you continued with your mysterious conversation with Mr. Googly. I was merely ogling. What’s wrong in ogling at Googly? Not a woman, is she?” He was wailing now.
“Look, first of all, Google is the name, not Googly. Second, I am almost sure that you were sitting on somebody’s head. Is that a polite thing to do?”
“What could I do? How would I be able to see what you were doing on your stupid machine if I were not watching you from behind? And there was no space between your seat and the one he occupied! Where could I sit? Besides, it didn’t hurt him. He didn’t even know.”
He had a point. Nonetheless, I pursued with my remonstration. “The fact that a person doesn’t know should not make it permissible to sleep with his wife.”
“What kind of logic is this,” he seemed clearly offended now. “Whose wife did I sleep with? I simply sat on someone’s head. The fact that he had no hair made it a comfortable seat of course. It's not as though I sat on his wife’s head, leave alone her bed! You are totally unreasonable. You are merely trying to find and excuse for giving up the search.”
I remained quiet for a long moment and then said, “Anyway, I have warned you. Let’s proceed.”
Then we literally sprinted westward along 37th Street, crossed Walnut Street, finally hitting Spruce Street! “Turn right,” the GPS told me and I followed the advice till I had crossed 38th and 39th. And then Voila! Before I knew the address, I saw the building. I gaped at it open mouthed. I viewed it from the right and then again crossed back to where I was and viewed things from the left. Just to make sure that it was the same building as the Google photograph. No there could be no doubt at all. This was the very property the Potts family owned since 1876 and then sold off to the University.
I came closer to the building now to view the details. It was no longer the International Students’ House for sure. It was instead the University of Pennsylvania Press. I walked up the stairs leading to the front door. Things were written clearly enough.
This was the door then that my father knocked on most of his days as a student in the university.
“Can you recognize this?” I asked.
No answer once again. Disgusting, I thought. He has done this for a third time in a row. Where’s he disappeared, I deceived myself, knowing only too well that he had never appeared in the first place. I waited for a full half an hour and then began to walk away from the building.
“Where are you going,” I heard him ask breathlessly.
“Good question,” said I. “And where had you gone, may I know?”
“Why, I was inside our International House. Looking around. They have changed things, but the air from the past kept me company. It was cozy, very cozy.”
“No doubt. But have you any idea how hot it is outside? You don’t seem to care for others at all!”
I think I had been able to make my point, for he fell silent as was his wont. Then he sighed heavily. “How many people in the world care for me, son?”
“Oh, all right dad,” I placated him. “Don’t take it to heart. Just remember that living people are sensitive to weather fluctuations.”
“The dead are sensitive too. They are sensitive to the insensitivity of the universe.”
I didn’t reply and began to walk towards 40th. Street. That’s where the school was, I knew. I was surprised how close we were to the school. Within a few minutes we reached the intersection of Spruce Street and 40th Street.
Gone with the Wind
On our way, I asked him if he had ever lived in the International House we had just visited. He didn't respond and I asked again.
“Did you live there at all?”
“I don’t know,” he replied gloomily. “But I used to come here everyday. The friends would get together. We had great fun.”
Where did he live though? That question still remained unanswered. But I had memories of a photograph from my childhood days, of a small room containing hardly any furniture other than a made up single bed and a night table next to it. On the table stood an antique phone set. My father often mentioned having lived in that room as a student. He used to refer to a landlady as well. I was not sure that we would be able to locate that room. I had probably come to the end of the trail. There was no way I could discover the actual residence anymore, the one where he lay on his lonely bed worrying about exam scores. Or dreamt about a future that was yet to arrive. No way, no way at all. Once again, I recalled that I was fully cognizant of the life he had lived since then. But not he, when he walked these streets.
I had reached the crossing of Spruce Street and 40th. Street now and the School of Dentistry stood there. It was the Thomas W. Evans Museum and Dental Institute, or the building the Student's Office would be referring to as the Evans Building. I went closer to the arched door in front of it. The arch itself lay below a calligraphic inscription that must have lived since 1915 at least, making it the oldest building in the complex comprising the school.
All this excited him all over again.
“Let’s get in. This is the door to the school.” But I saw a notice that said entry into the school premises through this door was forbidden. A new building, it said, had come up on 40th Street, the Robert Schattner Centre, and one needed to enter the School of Dentistry through this new structure.
(The Shattner Building Entrance) (The old school viewed from Shattner)
I began to follow the sign, when he rushed back at me.
“Where on earth are you going? Won’t you go inside the building?”
“That's precisely what I am doing. You need to use the Shattner Centre.”
“What’s Shattner Centre? Never heard of it? You are crazy! I just used the door I always did in the past. I went in and then you were not there. So I had to rush back and search you out. Who do you think I am? Sherlock Holmes?” And then, after a minute or two of silence, he added kindly, “Come with me, I will show you the way this time. It’s my alma mater. I am more familiar with these surroundings than you.” He was quite thrilled that we had arrived there.
I listened to him patiently.
“Yes, I do want to visit your school. Why else would I have come all the way? But I can’t pass through a closed wooden door, the way you can you know?”
“Oh, you can’t can you?” Understanding seemed to have dawned. “It should have occurred to me,” he admitted. “But it sounds so stupid. It’s like coming into your own house through a backdoor. I am not a thief am I?”
“I guess you are right. But I can’t help you. I can’t walk through a closed door. Someday perhaps I shall be able to, but not yet!”
“Alright,” he sighed. “I can see that I have to compromise.”
There being no other alternative left, we took the Shattner entrance and began to look around. I was not familiar with the place. Nor was he! Finding the Students’ Affairs Office seemed to be the best strategy. There was a small kiosk selling fast food and drinks. I asked the boy at the counter. He looked uncertain, but suggested that I walk up one floor and ask again. He added that if the Office wasn’t there, then he had no idea where to look next.
Just then a young woman was passing by. She looked like a student and I decided to ask her. This time I found success. She simply pointed to the very door next to which I was standing. I walked in and found to my delight Ms. Susan Schwartz sitting in her office. It was she who had sent me the email that had helped me come so far!
I introduced myself to this lady and she smiled back, hiding any suspicion that she might have entertained about the sanity of my mind. We exchanged pleasantries and she offered to show me around. I agreed happily.
But he wasn’t happy at all, not by any stretch of imagination. I heard him scorn. “What does she know? Did she study here? I can guide you better than she!”
“Look, things have changed,” said I. “They have changed enormously since your days. Even the door to the building doesn’t work anymore.”
“Oh yeeesss,” he sniffled. I can’t make you enter the building the way I was used to!”
I turned to Ms. Schwartz. “Is the Spruce Street door closed for good? I am sure my dad used that entrance during his days. I wonder if I could walk in through that door.” I made it sound like a request, however mad.
She was kind. She produced a magnetic card and used it to open the closed door. I followed her through the door out into the street, feeling his presence right behind. We stood there watching the imposing wooden door and the inscription above it.
Through the door I could see a stairway leading to the upper floor inside the building.
“Shall we go in?” she asked.
“Yes of course, please, and thank you so much for letting me in through this way.”
She had begun understanding my feelings I think and smiled patiently.
We went into the imposing building and climbed up the staircase. On the floor above, she led me to the outdoor clinic. “This is fairly recent,” she said. “It didn’t exist during your father’s time.” To my inexperienced eyes, it appeared like a very large rectangular hall, lined up with endlessly many dental chairs. Many of these were occupied by persons displaying the interiors of their oral cavities while dental surgeons in robes, armed with a variety of instruments from which I would rather keep a safe distance, were examing them.
I began to walk in the direction in which she led me. But he was seething. “I have nothing to do with this clinic,” he complained. “What do I do there? Come back, let’s get out of this place,” he ended up. “I will take you to Dr. Hermann Prinz’s office.”
“Who’s that,” I asked quite confused.
“He was Professor of Materia Medica and Therapeutics. A great teacher and researcher. None of these people were taught by him. What do they know about the art of dentistry? Come let’s go.”
“Look,” said I, “they know a good deal more about the art as well as science of dentistry than you suppose. I am sure that your professor had shown the light that would lead the way, but the world has travelled forward. Things have progressed far beyond what your professor taught you.”
“That’s impossible,” he replied. “You want me to believe they know more than Dr. Prinz? You are quite a fool.”
How disgusting, I thought. I should have never participated in this resurrection exercise. Jesus Christ at least had humility. This chap is distinctly arrogant. So, I decided to verify with Ms. Schwartz. “Was there a Dr. Hermann Prinz here during my father’s days? I have heard that he was a great researcher and brought fame to your school.”
As I suspected, she didn’t know him from Adam. I resumed my conversation with him. “Look, what are you doing here in any case? You have nothing to do with anything here at all! I can at least ask for a dental check-up. You don’t have even that luxury. And don’t be so selfish and impolite, will you? Hermann Prinz indeed! This is a dental school, in case you have forgotten. Not a dental memorial,” I concluded.
“Well it’s still called a museum,” he insisted.
“Yes it is. But try and understand that Dr. Prinz is no more than a museum piece now.”
He couldn't reply, realizing at last, I suppose, the futility of all existence and followed me through the new clinic. Ms. Schwartz finally took us down to the ground floor on the other side of the clinic. It brought me back to the Shattner entrance, where she left after wishing me good bye.
I came out into 40th Street and started back towards the crossing with Spruce Street. When I reached the corner, I saw a pizza restaurant diagonally opposite to the school.
I stared at it and he asked me, “What’s that?”
“Why? Don’t you know? That’s a pizza parlour.”
“It was not here. There was something else ... I wonder what it was. What’s pizza by the way?”
I smiled back. “Junk food. It’s making poorer Americans gain unhealthy weight. Don’t you notice some of them resemble Sumo wrestlers?”
“Yes, I can see that,” he replied somewhat unmindfully. “Pizza, … hmm. Don’t know what that is. We had Coca Cola though. Why don’t you buy me a Coca Cola?”
This was getting ridiculous. I was reminded of the coffee incident. I was about to scowl back at him, but he stopped me before I began. “See, see … they still have the trolley tracks on the street …!” He seemed endlessly delighted. “Look up, you can see the overhead wires for the trolley service too.” He was right, I did note the tracks. But there were no cars rumbling along on them. Instead, there were a variety of snazzy automobiles whizzing past.
He sounded disgusted suddenly. “These stupid cars look so ugly. Flashy colors … horrible … unbearably ugly. Automobiles should be shiny black. Not shiny gray or whatever. The world looks so frivolous these days. Can’t believe that people have turned this shallow in their tastes …” He went on grumbling as I waited to cross the street.
And then, quite out of the blue, he said, “Yippeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Can you see this? A trolley car’s driving up. I know where this is headed. I used to go back home regularly in this car. Let’s board it. Now we cannot miss it anymore. It stops right in front of my residence. Come, quick, get in …” He was breathing heavily.
I looked around stupidly. There was no trolley car in sight at all. There was no such car for me to board. But he had already boarded one and his voice was slowly receding. “Run, run,” he kept calling out to me. “Can’t you run. Try, try and get in.”
As I stood petrified at the crossing of Spruce Street and 40th Street, his voice grew ever fainter and was finally lost in the horizon. I tried to figure out where he went. But the invisible being, moved ever distant as the invisible trolley car departed into the irretrievable past.
He was gone truly this time. Gone with the wind. Forever.