philadelphia freedom

Posted: September 14, 2021 in Traskland, Travel
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Early Saturday afternoon I was suddenly consumed with a burst of restlessness, an urgent need to get out of the house and do something that did not involve staying in the house. It was a gorgeous day – high clouds, crystal blue skies, mild temperatures with low humidity. There were plenty of local options to burn off the jumpiness. We could shoot down the road into Princeton and wander among the ivy, day trippers, and shops. A short drive in any direction would take us to hiking trails and parks. We could stroll around our familiar streets and blithely comment on minor changes to our neighbor’s outdoor décor. We could do any of these things, things we’ve done 1,000 times before. But on this particular Saturday I wanted more than the usual distractions. I quickly concocted an impromptu plan.

I slipped downstairs. With the subtlety of a diplomat I asked Caryn if there was anything she hoped to get done before the end of the day. She mentioned a few things, but they all had a self-imposed deadline of Sunday night. Seeing an opening, I shot my plan at her. (Figuratively.) “Let’s go spend the night in Philly!” Within minutes we were headed south to the city where Ben Franklin fathered an illegitimate son, where Angelo Bruno was rubbed out Mafia-style in front of his home, and where Rudy Giuliani held a sad and pathetic post-election press conference in a parking lot opposite a sex shop. Masked and vaccinated, we couldn’t do worse.

When I was young, I considered Philadelphia the punch line to a bad joke. I really knew nothing about the city other than its reputation for rude sport fans, cheese steaks, and urban grittiness. My opinions were based on arrogant, pre-conceived notions wrapped in willful ignorance. I was an anti-Phillaxer without good reason. That changed when I grew up, gave it a few seconds of thought, and realized what I didn’t know far outweighed what I did. One furtive glance at social media reminds us that not everyone understands this obvious truth.

Our hotel was near Philadelphia City Hall. City Hall is in Penn Square, which was the geometric center of William Penn’s original city plan. For a little more than a decade in the late 19th and early 20th century, it was tallest habitable building in the world. You may know it from cameos in Philadelphia, Trading Places, and National Treasure. It stands as stately as ever, although all the public entrances were gated off. I had hoped to see Diane Kruger’s Dr. Abigail Chase dashing through its majestic archways with the original Declaration of Independence in hand, but alas.

We melted away the afternoon in Center City. Center City is quaint, historic, vibrant, diverse, and altogether charming. It is also quite deceptive. Eating artisan ice cream while meandering down cobblestone streets makes it easy to forget the city has extremely sharp edges. Maybe all the statues of dead white guys, many with uncomfortable histories, should have provided a clue that not everything was as it appeared. Yet on the surface it was rather pretty, like cotton candy.

We ate dinner at a neighborhood Turkish restaurant a bit off the tourist path. The harried staff seemed caught off guard that a beautiful Saturday night would be busy. Maybe they recently resumed indoor seating and their skills were rusty. Maybe running around in a semi-state of confusion was their normal jam. I don’t know. I do know watching them scamper about was amusing in the way something is amusing when you are not the one living it. It was fascinating seeing how valiantly they tried to seat new customers, take orders, serve food, and buss tables, all with an apologetic half-smile, half-grimace on their faces. I’m sure my level of amusement would have been tempered by bad food. But the meal was delicious, so amused I remained. I do hope they were able to unwind before Sunday’s surprising lunch rush.

As the sun set the crowds grew. Temple, Penn, and Drexel are close to Center City and their entire student bodies packed the streets. Nothing lets you know you are old like being among young people, especially young people who look like they shouldn’t be out at night without adult supervision. Why were these children drinking boozy drinks at sidewalk tables? The guys were all tight shirted and the girls all mid-drifted. These unnatural creatures must wake at dusk and roll out of bed with the energy of someone who is not me. I wanted to check IDs and bark, “Do your parents know where you are?” Thankfully, Caryn had the good sense to remind me we were on a public street, not in the Gulag. And not any public street. One just blocks from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. I was thisclose to getting an earful of “Okay boomer, ever heard of freedom?” Still, did their parents know where they were?? The question stuck with me as we headed west of Broad Street to the decidedly less crowded scene around Rittenhouse Square. We slipped into the cozy Library Bar for a nightcap and were back at our hotel by 11:00.

While we waited for our car the next morning a young couple sat near us. They could have been among the swarm we saw the night before. After a while all these young folk blend together in a collage of good looks, good times, and good lord what year were you born. The guy was reliving his evening with a friend on the phone. “Yeah, bro. We each had a Manhattan, then split another one before doing a couple of shots. Yeah, I know! But get this, bro. After that we went to the hotel bar and had two more drinks each. Bro, it was awesome. Yeah, I know! But I gotta tell you, bro. By 2:00 I was faded.”

How about that? I didn’t know “faded” had another meaning. But it’s okay. I came to terms with my ignorance years ago. Thanks, Philadelphia, for again pointing that out.

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