The rubber hit the road last week, some days before Christmas, when dearly beloved Anne, ma femme, displayed her urban road-skill game by turning into a tiny cemented parking apron off a highly trafficked road stretch in the kind of neighborhood people these days are calling "sketchy." Even in a car as comparatively small as ours, which can U-turn almost anywhere, I would not have chosen this improbable off-road sanctuary to pause for a "recalculation" since a reversal of course lay clearly ahead in our immediate future.
Recalculation over: Yup, gotta go back the way we came and turn either left or right at the numbered-road intersection of Nothing and Nowhere-but-traffic.
Several backs and forths get the car eventually pointed down the drive toward the a now crowded roadway, having missed our light.
Tongue firmly between my teeth, I swivel my noggin left and right to catch portents of doom while Anne inches out into the traffic and waves at drivers. Drivers in Philadelphia are more likely to be nice than elsewhere (such as New York and Boston), but even the lady who stops and waves us out eventually gives up since the lane next to her keeps moving past us.
After we finally emerge onto the road, heading the wrong way, a reversal of course is somehow managed and when make our way back to the Intersection of Indecision the "voice of the machine" firmly sends us one way, the wrong way, and immediately calls for a U-turn.
My tongue is well chewed.
Utterly dependent on The Voice in this new city, we slowly slink our way into a West Philadelphia residential neighborhood of numbered streets, and everything just gets friendlier and friendlier.
Having found The Street Where She Lives (our daughter) we now hunt for the four-digit number. I point out that the number in the hundreds column goes up by one after each intersection, so that when we intersect 48th Street, for example, the house numbers on the avenue now begin with 48(00), instead of 47.
Everyone's urban skills are on display today.
Anne begins the deeper game of looking for a parking space. And finds one -- exactly in front of Sonya's door. Eureka! Our luck is definitely changing.
Sonya's apartment is the lower half of a single house built as one of the semi-detached, mostly brick houses that run throughout this large up-trending neighborhood -- up and down all those numbered streets and tree-named avenues. The buildings strike me as structurally attractive and they're all appropriately (and some lavishly) landscaped with ornamental grasses and shrubs.
Everything's lovely and personalized and somehow cool. Holiday lights. Lots of independently, probably locally, owned shops, cafes and restaurants. We explore on foot for an hour as light fades, seeing parks, streetcar tracks where the brightly colored rail cars take you down to Central City, and an ad-hoc corner Christmas tree lot has popped up with offerings we vow to inspect the next day.
Our first business the following day, a Sunday, is to explore the historic district in ur-Philadelphia, home of the Founding Documents. Lots of history here, especially in those first American centuries and even more pointedly in the days of the creation of an independent American nation.
But, guess what?, business is closed. By order of the so-called President of the United States. His Phoniness has shut down the part of the government that owns and oversees places such as the hall where the Declaration of Independence was approved, declared, and announced to the world.
Two uniformed personnel, whom I can only think of as "federal cops," whatever their uniform was actually supposed to connote. They stood behind a long ad-hoc symbolic fence, consisting of a single chain length and lots of silly black posts, which they appeared to be guarding -- against what or whom I cannot imagine.
Would angry hordes be expected to rush the doors of the closed establishment and damage the sacred artifact within by banging on the portal?
Actually, the only horde around was me...
Between me and the fake-fence lay a strip of ye old cobbled roadway, created long after the fact to lend ambience. As I approached the fence, the two officers, one female, began waving me away as if to protect my safety from the terrors of urban traffic, of which there was absolutely none because no driver in his right mind takes a cobbled road when smoother roadways are available.
Somehow I'd forgotten to take my camera along so there is no visual record of this interesting moment when I am confronted by authority.
"It's closed," the female guard shouts. The male one repeats this interesting news.
"I know it's closed. I just want to look at it."
"Get out of the road!" she calls. "You're not safe."
"I'm extremely safe," I reply. "It's this stupid government of ours that's not safe."
Things go downhill from there.
I can't recall everything they said, or I said, but I do remember saying-shouting something on the order of...
"Maybe if we had a real President the building would be open to the public! I'm the public! Why can't I see my building?...
"We need a real President and a decent government!" I added.
The uniforms are kind of staring at me, I seem to remember, as if expecting me to throw a bomb or something, and at this point my loving spouse feels an urgent summons to rescue me from encounters with authority. It's a recurring theme in our relationship, from the time I ran away from an enraged fish monger pursuing me with a raised cleaver in Boston's fabled Haymarket.
These two federal cops were not raising their cleavers, and I'm not sure I needed rescuing, but Anne is shouting at me to withdraw from my position in a supposedly hazardous roadway while in close encounter with uniformed personnel and shouting uncomplimentary remarks about their ultimate employer, the Faker-in-Chief. And to shut up, which is probably her main point.
Naturally I accede to these words of wisdom, since I am a well brought up citizen of these United States and am a product of a middle-class upbringing, in which I was taught from childhood not to make a spectacle of myself.
My country's so-called leaders, however, let the record show, make unedifying spectacles of themselves whenever they open their mouths. Still, I suppose there is nothing much I can accomplish by insisting on my First Amendment rights to a couple of federal cops, who presumably are still getting paid.
Damn, I should have brought my camera.
The rest of the day in historic downtown Philadelphia is wholly pleasant, adult and gratifying. We ever learn some good history about the early days of the independence movement from a volunteer in historian in another building -- happily not owned by the federal government.
Called Carpenters' Hall, it's the site of the First Continental Congress. It took place in 1774, a time -- our volunteer told us -- when the delegates were looking for ways to temper their dispute with British authorities. They penned a long list of grievances, and hoped for what today we would call "a dialogue" on how to repair relations between the colonies and the 'mother country' and removed some of the causes of a rift that threatened to grow larger. Under the belief that the King was sympathetic to their position, and that the biggest problems stemmed from acts of Parliament, they sent the petition directly to him.
But the king simply ignored their petition, and did not reply.
Carpenters Hall, we learned, originally a meeting place for the Carpenters Guild, was also leased for other uses. Benjamin Franklin used space there to set up the first American post office, the first lending library, and first 'fire insurance' incorporation so that neighbors could help one another after a serious loss of property from fire and know that they would receive help in turn if it happened to them.
When the Second Continental Congress convened in 1775, again in Philadelphia, they met in the larger building now called Independence Hall. Relations between the colonies and Great Britain during this time, especially in Boston, where the port was closed and the city occupied by armed soldiers. By the time the delegates finally took a vote on independence, acts of war had already taken place: the battles of Lexington and Concord, and then the bloodbath of Bunker Hill. I would have been happy to discuss these points with the two cops in the front of that hall in a civil war, but they simply wanted to make the problem (Mr. Public me) go away.The Carpenters Hall guide also suggested a few historical attractions to us that would be open, including the Museum of the American Revolution (which we didn't make) and the historic Christ Episcopal Church (more about that below).
My advice is to the inquiring tourist. Always talk to the guides, volunteer or not. They know stuff. And don't bother with the uniformed, weaponized arms of the State. they don't know shit.
We three celebrants declared our own independence from our previous family custom that evening by acquiring a modestly sized Christmas tree at the little corner lot, carrying it on foot with a two-person carriage-technique back to Sonya's apartment, and inserting it into the stand. We trimmed it that evening with an interesting red and white motif consisting of stringed popcorn garlands and a box of copious and variously patterned red balls, plus and a few oddballs such as the orangey-tan "matzoh ball."
The next day we visited the nation's oldest surviving botanical garden, Bartram's Garden, located on the banks of the Delaware River, and offering a good view of the city skyline (photo above). A famous botanist named John Bartram founded it in 1728. A National Historic Landmark, the garden is looked after by the John Bartram Association today. Which means, of course, you can get married there.
The site includes some lovely old buildings, closed naturally for winter, some planting grounds where hardy herbs and vegetables were still growing -- the cabbage and cauliflower family plants were still green; and Sonya found a single flowering pansy-- and also a medicinal garden of healing plants, a boardwalk trail that takes you down to the riverside, and specimen trees including (according to a sign) the oldest ginkgo tree, an Asian import, in America.
It was fun to prowl around there and walk the trails in the dead of winter, and the place must be amazing in summer.
That brings us to Christmas Eve (just one more day until "The Twelve Days of Christmas" begins). Since we had glimpsed the interior of Christ Church downtown and found that it was not only a beautiful church but reminded me so much of the church I attended as a child and of the decades of Christmas Eve services we attended there with my mother, I decided we should go there for Christmas Eve service. I understood that the early timing (5 p.m.) meant this was a family service. Still, I thought, Episcopalian churches always have good music.
Well, there was some music, but more essentially, the business was built around a pageant. High points: The famous mismatched couple spend a night in a barn in the company of animals, the narrator tells us... long pause while the one-year-old set is rounded up and brought to the manger scene in their woolly sheep costumes. I don't know if I've ever seen so successful a sheep costume (or any sheep costume) before. They are memorable. One little girl, so costumed, wanders down the aisle with her lambkin ears flopping until some keeper (as in the New Testament parable) is dispatched finally to go after her. Stars are introduced; white shift, tinfoil on stick. Angels intrude, twitchy little girls with glittery headpieces and wands and other angel-gear. The shepherds, two slightly tubby seven-year-old boyos, miss their cue. Repeat cue. They miss it again... "Hey, guys..."
A friendly chaos of nursery school types lightly supervised by their gentle keepers ensues as some more parts of the famous story are read -- the choir sings softly behind -- and certain members of the congregation -- late comers, we're leaning over the front row of the balcony (having been delivered initially by our Lyft driver to the wrong Christ Church) -- and nearly falling over themselves in laughter -- a conceivably bad idea in balcony seating -- in pure amusement over the spectacle.
Different, but fun.
I don't know what the national reputation makers are saying these days, but personally speaking, Philadelphia may be our new 'fun city.'