The line inside the P.C. Richard & Son superstore on Cottman Avenue stretches from the stove section to the sliding door when I arrive at 1 p.m. Thursday on a curiosity mission to Northeast Philadelphia.

That the man of the hour - Flyers legend Bernie Parent - might be late was a distinct possibility; that his signature and smile were worth the wait was a given.

Earlier that day, City Council approved a 10 percent property-tax hike. Later, Mayor Nutter would announce $20 million worth of additional budget slashing and burning. But at this moment, in this electronics emporium, reveling in hockey's glorious past and present softened all the punches life keeps landing.

"Why am I here?" Ed Andrews repeats as I gamely try to psychoanalyze superfans willing to stand around for hours to get a glimpse of a god. "Because it's an escape from reality."

And reality, these days, can be like a hard check into the boards.

Hugging the Man Doll

Eric Turner, 52, and Jeff Scampton, 28, showed up at 11 a.m., ensuring them pole position. The friends from Oxford Circle attended all 41 home games this season, even though Turner is unemployed and Scampton still lives with his folks.

Scampton shrugs, saying only, "I know someone."

Philadelphians are a notoriously reminiscing species, which is why Tony Citara - fourth in line - lugged a worn folding chair from the Spectrum all the way from Levittown to get Parent to bless it with a Sharpie. Citara figured the one-of-a-kind find would sell well at a charity auction benefiting historic Laurel Hill Cemetery.

"Look, I already got Dave Schultz," Citara says, beaming as he points to the Hammer's autograph. It's all so surreal, I forget to ask why a cemetery needs to throw itself a Gravediggers' Ball. Guess times are tough underground, too.

Ed Andrews won't be bidding. The 45-year-old cement mason, in line behind Citara, has been out of work since November. He's so stir crazy, he applied for a job at Parx Casino even though he's sickened by all the smoke.

Faith in the Flyers helps Andrews deal with the loss of his job and the deaths of both parents.

"Sports brings back good times," he explains. "It's 31/2 hours of being focused on a game instead of on being unemployed."

Or, in the case of today's adventure, two hours of hoping Parent will sign a rubber Flyers figurine - "my girlfriend calls it my 'Man Doll' " - that instantly conjures childhood memories of the 1974 Stanley Cup championship team.

"We were driving back into the city from my sister's college graduation the day they won," Andrews recalls. "I can still hear the horns. The traffic was terrible. People were spraying 'We won!' in shaving cream everywhere, but the cops didn't care."

The past matters

The crowd gasps when Parent finally arrives at 2:27 p.m.

"He looks like Ernest Hemingway!" marvels Herb Smith, an unabashedly nostalgic Bensalem retiree. The older he gets the more he realizes "you have to have history to enjoy the present."

Back in the '70s, bumper stickers declared, "Only the Lord saves more than Bernie Parent." The 2010 Flyers may be ahead in the NHL Eastern Conference finals, three games to one, but these days it's risky to take victory - or pensions - for granted.

"We just retired two weeks ago!" exclaims Beverly Barrish, a giddy 67-year-old in the 10th spot in line.

"My company went out of business last Monday," says her husband, Marvin, 70, with slightly less enthusiasm.

"Right now, we're comfortable," Beverly advises, "but we hate the uncertainty."

The mood lightens the moment the couple reaches Parent's table.

"Your team was our team because we're old!" she blurts out.

"No," the sports icon gently corrects in his own attempt to honor the present, "we're just old-er."