Having grown up in Center City, I am guilty of jaded indifference to many of our local treasures. Independence Hall? Saw it with my Brownie troop. The view from Billy Penn’s hat? Once in eighth grade was enough. Betsy Ross House? Pul-ease!
So when my friend Terry announced she was coming from L.A. for her first visit to Philly, I had mixed feelings. I wanted her to have an “off the hook” experience. But I dreaded accompanying her through the obligatory historic sites.
I meticulously worked out a tour that focused on Philly’s uniqueness and avoided the clichés. First stop? The National Constitution Center. It’s my favorite interactive history museum. I love sitting on Ben Franklin’s bronze lap in Founding Fathers’ Hall, being sworn in as president on the Capitol steps (especially this election season), donning a Supreme Court justice’s robe, and seeing the multimedia Freedom Rising performance. I find the theatrical presentation so moving, I get verklempt and tear up every time.
“Sorry, the Freedom Rising show is cancelled due to technical repairs. It will reopen in June,” said the lady at the information desk.
For me, this was like being told that Pat’s had run out of cheese. However, as we made our way through the exhibits, another employee approached us.
“Would you like to attend a 20-minute theatrical performance of Living News?” she asked. Her enthusiastic manner reminded me of shills who lure pedestrians into peep shows in Times Square. We agreed out of curiosity.
Inside a small theater, three actors took turns expressing opposing viewpoints on current constitutional issues: the death penalty, gun control, free speech, etc. Performers challenged the audience’s beliefs and asked for a show of hands on our positions. My hand shot up on the Bernie side of every issue. Terry kept hers in her lap. She owns a gun. Her father was a cop.
Which is perhaps why Eastern State Penitentiary was at the top of Terry’s list. I had never been there, for the same reason I don’t watch horror movies. Experiencing fright, even in fantasy, is not my idea of a good time. I could’ve just dropped Terry off at the gate of the grim prison fortress. But I pushed past my resistance, plunked on the audio tour headset, and accompanied her inside.
Actor Steve Buscemi’s voice told the tragic story of the penitentiary, the first prison to misguidedly institute solitary confinement as a means of rehabilitation. I was horrified to learn that Ben Franklin — my favorite Revolutionary — was a member of the group who first came up with this cruel and inhumane punishment.
I was shocked to learn that this crumbling medieval structure was still housing inmates as recently as 1970. It should’ve been shut down decades earlier, around the time it hosted Al Capone. Ironically, the scariest part of the tour was a display in the prison yard. It showed how the rate of incarceration has soared since Nixon’s “war on drugs” started in 1971.
I needed a drink. I also needed to feel safe and warm. So I whisked my friend off to Victor Café, a 100-year-old South Philly landmark where the waiters belt out Puccini. My mom went there when she was pregnant with me, so you could say that my attachment is umbilical. Over the years, the food at Victor’s has been uneven. Now? I think it’s at a pinnacle. My fettuccine verdi, an ethereal mix of spinach, mushroom, and tomatoes in a light cream sauce, was truly inspired. Terry swooned over her tortellini with pesto and pine nuts. Sure, we could’ve gone to one of the trendy new eateries in East Passyunk, but it’s doubtful that their servers can carry a tune.
Which brings me to the most challenging part of entertaining an out-of-town guest. Philly is a foodie Paradise. Terry was here for a week and, unless we spent 24/7 running from one acclaimed restaurant to another, how could I possibly choose? I started with Reading Terminal Market, hoping to nudge her toward DiNic’s juicy, hand-carved, roast pork sandwich with broccoli rabe and provolone. (There’s nothing like this in L.A. The closest they come to an Amoroso roll is a hockey puck.)
In spite of my promotional fervor, Terry opted for cheesesteak at Carmen’s. It was to be her first. I instructed Terry to get it “wit.” She refused ketchup. How could I explain its geopolitical significance? We polished off our acid indigestion with pignoli cookies from Termini’s and headed to the Barnes. I have been there before, but this was the first time that I didn’t run through as if I was trying out for the Penn Relays. Instead, I took my time, listened to the complete audio tour and studied in depth the treasures of the collection.
I then led Terry on a walking tour of the narrow cobblestone streets where I grew up in Washington Square West. “Wow. There’s nothing like this in California,” she exclaimed, as I pointed out prim 17th century houses with their cellar doors, brickwork, and shuttered windows. At Dirty Franks, we tried to identify all the Franks in the mural, but got stumped on two: Frank Morgan and Frank “Tug” McGraw.
I tried to use Terry’s visit as an excuse to re-examine tourist attractions I had long ignored and to discover places that were outside my usual routine. That’s how I ended up wandering through a night circus of electric zebras, penguins and lotus blossoms the size of beach balls. No, I wasn’t having a 60’s flashback. But, believe me, Timonthy Leary would love the Chinese Lantern Festival that’s now in Franklin Square, through June 22.
Part of the charm was the crowd, a multi-ethnic mix of families, couples and teenagers — all walking around in selfie heaven with expressions of childish delight. (I confess to buying a magic wand with twinkling LED lights.)
For Terry’s last night, I took her to South, the Bynum brothers’ newest restaurant and jazz club on North Broad and Mt. Vernon. It was their Tuesday night jam session. We nibbled on tasty New Orleans-style shrimp and crab appetizers and sampled their unique herbed cocktails while musicians played straight-ahead jazz.
Here’s the thing. Jazz is cerebral, like advanced trigonometry. I prefer a melody I can easily follow, preferably with a vocalist. As if reading my mind, Alice Marie, a gifted violinist, jumped on stage and jolted me out of my complacency with an electrifying performance, followed by Philly songbird Wendy Simon. With her cat’s eye glasses and silky scatting, Simon reminds me of a young Ella Fitzgerald.
Terry’s visit wasn’t without its disappointments. The weather was never quite right for the hot air balloon at the zoo. She didn’t have time to see the tarantula exhibit at the Academy of Natural Sciences. And the eatery where I told her she would get the “best fried chicken in town,” turned out to be a dud.
But Terry’s enthusiasm for my hometown was contagious. By the end of her stay, it got me thinking. Ya know, I think it’s time to rediscover the view from William Penn’s hat.