Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

Related Topics

No topics are associated with this blog

Nicholson: Lunch with an Old Man


The Union League of Philadelphia is much bigger than it looks to be on the outside. Diffidence is a characteristic of our city, which has been called a city of secret societies. The club appears to passers-by to be a funny little brownstone house facing out on the main street in town, but in fact, the main building is a full block long. Down the interior of that long building runs peacock alley, a sumptuous wide carpeted corridor. Deep leather chairs line the sides of the alley; members can sit and read a paper while watching the passing parade, occasionally hailing a crony, or taking a nap. Some cartoonist for the New Yorker must have seen the bay window at the Metropolitan Club in New Yorker, and that bay window symbolizes downtown clubs to most non-members. The Union League has portly old gentlemen in leather chairs, all right, but the passing scene they watch is all interior. There are many sights to see while strolling the length of the private street. Six dining rooms, for a beginning, kept private from the corridor by huge plate glass partitions which allow diners to talk privately yet remain able to see and be seen. If you are friends with a number of other members, the arrangements are perfect. If you don't know anyone else, it is just an elegant place to be lonesome.

Two rather plump old gentlemen with canes came strolling along while I was having lunch with Joe, just inside the glass partition. A medical eye could see that both old fellows were walking with poor balance, and general lack of coordinated movements from the waist down, even though their automatic muscle coordinated movements from the waist down, even though their automatic muscle coordination above the waist was normal. Undoubtedly due to the destruction of the nerves to the legs from degeneration of the spine, though I, and likely associated with embarrassing disorders of the sphincters. The matter was an interest of mine since I had been proposing surgical approaches to this increasingly common curse of old age. To my surprise, one of the old gents came through the door and up to our table.

"Is this Joe Nicholson? And how are my old friends, if you are still my friend? I'm Woody Woodring." Joe sprang to his feet and shook hands. "Why, Woody, how nice of you to stop and speak. I'm just fine, thanks, and I'm not that old, either.",

"Well," said Woody, "I'm ninety-seven, so you must be ninety-six. Stop trying to pull the wool over everybody's eyes, Joe. Be good, and stay away from that ticker tape. It's dangerous for your health."

As toddled off, Joe explained to me that the man had once been the executive vice president of the Land Title Bank. Yo had to be fairly mature to know what that meant because the Land Title merged with the Corn Exchange Bank some forty years ago, and after that was merged into the Provident Bank, which had itself been acquired by some bank in Pittsburgh a year or two ago.

Joe then settled down to his fourth corn muffin, one of the traditional features of the League. I occasionally eat one for tradition's sake, but Joe was absolutely a cornmeal muffin junkie. Before we were interrupted he had been telling me of an oak tree on his property at home which had been struck by lightning. It was the largest tree in New Jersey, or at least appeared to be larger than the Salem Oak which the Sunday supplements say is the oldest tree in the state. The Nicholson tree had been found to have 350 rings, and therefore has been on the property almost as long as the family had lived there. The Salem oak itself was also on what had once been Nicholson family property, but now, of course, belongs to the Quaker Meeting in the town of Salem. The Nicholson family had arrived in 1670, but Joe's father had married a Thompson. Since the Thompsons had arrived in America five years earlier, Mother would often refer to the FAther's family as "immigrants". Quaker doesn't laugh much, but they chuckle a lot.

It was obviously symbolic of his whole life that his couple of acres in suburban Haddonfield were legally provable virgin timberland, completely surrounded by urban sprawl for miles in every direction, totally unrecognized for what they were. I understand it was a nuisance that the high school kids would gather in these woods, especially at night, and drink beer and smoke whatever kids are smoking. If you knew what you were looking at in that little forest, you could see that Joe had planted dozens of strange varieties of firs, ferns, bulbs, vines, and bushes. Most of them had been begged from John Bartram's garden, or what he called DuPont's arboretum, at Longwood. But many of them he had imported from abroad when he was a traveling youth, long before the Customs Service started banning the importation of living plants. He had quite a grove of Passion flowers, a flowering tropical vine. Joe had discovered the vine rooted so deeply it could survive Northern winters, emerging from the bare ground around "Decoration" Day. A walk around his premises might typically produce a commentary that a certain unusual plant had been transplanted from the ruins of ancient Troy, but only if the visitor had the perceptiveness to notice the plant looked odd. As can be guessed, the interior of the house looks like a junk shop until each priceless antiquity is explained. The house is new since Quaker believe "worship of buildings" is idolatry, and anyway his wife Bettina is nearly blind needing special arrangements not available in colonial houses.

One of Joe's ancestors had been Lord Mayor of London, and an earlier one had signed the Magna Charta. I knew these things because his brother, an orthopedic surgeon, has been less reticent. His brother was also notorious for the high fees he charged and grimly expected to be paid promptly. The other side of the orthopedist showed up in his charity work; when I was intern I could see free care took up at least half of his time.

Until rather recently, Quakers were discouraged from marrying out of a meeting, and by that was meant the local congregation. That edict could lead to a lot of family inbreeding in a farm community, but there is little evidence of genetic disorders among them as are quite commonly found among the Old Order Amish. I suppose it is possible the genetic burden has been bred out of them in some way; in any event, birthright Quakers tend to look much alike and are quite handsome. They can, on occasion, summon up quite a formidable network of influential family members.

Quaker influence is also spread through the private schools they run, most of which were founded before there was a public school system. Like all private schools, they have to produce superior education to survive, and they have to appeal to prosperous families. Farm families who want superior education tended to send their children away to boarding school, but now that this motivation has largely disappeared, they must provide a superior educational product or dissolve. It was with some surprise therefore that I learned that Joe and his children had gone to Camden public school, about which in retrospect he is disdainful. The kids got into Vassar and Harvard, but it's hard to know why, and they had a terrible struggle as a freshman. As a boy, Joe tried to get into the premier Quaker boarding school at Westtown but was rejected. Mother was Hicksite and Father was Orthodox, and Westtown only took you if you were Orthodox. Mixed marriages, you see, breed spiritual confusion in children.

When Joe had finished the last corn muffin the waitress was willing to bring him, I had to get back to the office and he wanted to get to the library at the Federal Reserve Bank. We walked down the red carpet alley and paused to look at the ticker tape. The stock market had fallen 508 points two weeks earlier, so you didn't have to be T. Boone Pickens to have a concern. Well, only down two points, so off to the office and library.

Originally published: Monday, October 01, 2018; most-recently modified: Wednesday, May 29, 2019