Philadelphia, PA 2014

FRIDAY JULY 18, 2014

“There’s no way this drive is 8 hours”. I say that every time I drive from Albany to DC, which is not often, but often enough for me to remember that it took 8 hours the last time, but not often enough that I won’t question it. We are heading to DC as the first leg of our week vacation/tour of the northeast. After some research, we decide to avoid the Friday Jersey shore traffic by heading through Harrisburg, PA. After getting caught in a mini-traffic jam between the New York line and Scranton, we find ourselves calling it a night around 9:30pm. That is exactly 7 hours in the car. Our evening is uneventful, since we are both tired and want to get on the road early enough to make it to DC by 9:45.


The GPS tells us the ride in will be around 2 hours, so we plan accordingly. Up and out around 7:15, Saturday morning traffic through Baltimore and on into DC is heavy but moving rapidly. So far all is good as we made it to Katherine's around 9:30. We drop our gear and I head off to find a place for the car to live for a couple of days. One of the reasons we wanted to arrive on schedule is that Katherine and El have planned to attend a knitting group and I want to keep that schedule. I reach out to some Peace Corps friends to give me something to do while I am waiting for the knitting group to finish.

When I had my Peace Corps staging we all met in DC and flew together from DC to Ukraine. Well, the weekend before that meeting, El had joined me for a mini-vacation in DC. That was in March of 2011. We hit the highlights and enjoyed our time together just before I shipped off. For that reason, our list of things to see and do is a lot smaller this trip than it was then. Not that we saw everything there is to do here, but it is nice to be able to be loose with our time to spend it with Katherine, since I haven’t seen her since a month before we left Ukraine last year.

El is meeting Katherine for the first time and as expected, they are getting along great. With so much in common, I expected they would. A couple of months ago, one of my favorite '90s bands, Veruca Salt, announced a full lineup reunion. With this week's dates hitting DC, Philadelphia, and Boston, we decided to take a vacation and try to add what we could. I knew I wanted to see Katherine in DC, so we didn’t plan as much here. Whereas Philadelphia is going to get the full on tourist treatment from us. Not only will they be different vacations from the ones we take overseas, but also very different from each other.

As El and Katherine head to the knitting group meetup at the National Portrait Gallery, I decide to take a walk down to the National Mall to go to the WWII Memorial. The last time El and I were in DC we went to the memorial. We found that they have a registry of soldiers who served in the war and there are computer terminals that you can use to search the database to find the soldier you are looking for. I searched for the only WWII soldier I knew, my grandfather. Seeing that he had not been added to the registry, I followed the steps it took to get him added. I wrote down the information the database needed to get a soldier added and then, I called him and got the answers to the questions. He gave me everything I needed and was thankful for my efforts to recognize his role in the war. That was the last time I spoke to my grandfather before he died earlier this year. Just as I had done the first time I searched the registry, I wanted to search it again and see if my contribution had been added. And sure enough it was! Rest in peace, Grandpa Bill, and thank you for your service to our country.

screen shot of the WWII registry

After the memorial I head to meet Patrick and Andrea, two of my Peace Corps friends who are living and working in the DC area. They meet me at an Irish pub called Fadó, which is close to the gallery where the knitting group is meeting. I have plenty of time to get there, so I decide to walk instead of taking the metro. I get to the pub around 12:30 and they are already there. We do the quick catch up with what is going on in each of our lives today and then move on to the mutual friends we have. It is obvious that these two are way more connected than I am to people from my past. We order some food and drinks waiting for El and Katherine to return from the knitting group. They get to Fadó around 2:00 and eat some snacks before we move on. Andrea has some other friends she needs to meet with and leaves from Fadó while Patrick stays with us as we walk to Katherine's apartment. It is quite a hike, but the walk is still comfortable. Half way back we make a pit stop at a place called Ted's Bulletin. Kind of a cross between a bar and a diner. This place is known for baking their own Poptarts (I’m not sure why Kellogg's doesn't have anything to say about that). I choose a brown sugar and cinnamon Poptart (over the peanut butter and bacon or blueberry cheesecake options) and get a toasted coconut milkshake made with coconut rum. Both were pretty great (though we agree that the coconut was less “toasted” and more just flaked).

Patrick and I getting ready to enjoy our poptarts and milkshakes at Ted's Bulletin

We continue back to the apartment, stopping by our car to confirm we are in a parking space that is valid until Tuesday. We spend an hour or two at the apartment trying to get a plan together for the evening. Do we want to eat in or go out? Will Andrea meet us later? What will we do tonight and tomorrow? One of the things on my DC to do list is the “Exorcist stairs” in Georgetown. As the name implies, this was the setting for the final scene in the film. We take the circulator bus from Dupont Circle to Georgetown. It is a $1 per ride bus that just keeps making a continuous loop around the route. There are multiple circulator routes and this is the one that gets us to Georgetown. We get off and walk though Georgetown passing a couple of businesses that prompt a clothing shop called Scotch and Soda and Georgetown Cupcakes where the line looks more like a concert queue than what you would expect at a cupcake shop. They may be good, but the four of us agree we don't need to find out that bad. We make our way to the steps, which although recognizable, are a little less spooky juxtaposed near the Exxon station garbage dumpster in the daylight. No matter, we made it here and take our pictures and have some more laughs.

El was able to capture some of the creepiness with this shot

Katherine, Patrick, me and El on the "Exorcist stairs"

We want to stop for dessert, but we are still unwilling to commit to the line at Georgetown Cupcakes and opt for Pie Sisters where, instead of cupcakes, they sell individual pies. Katherine's does all of the choosing and ordering. After these stops, it is back to the circulator. While waiting we decide to call ahead for some Indian take out. The order is ready when we arrive and we head back to the apartment to eat. The problem is that it is now close to 9:30 and eating Indian this close to bedtime can be risky. We eat and clean up, periodically discussing that Patrick has not heard much from Andrea and since he is staying with her and does not know her address to get himself back to her place, he seems a little stranded. After a short time, El and Katherine are ready for bed. I could go either way with my evening plans, go out, stay in, it's all good. I am willing to head out to a neighborhood bar with Patrick until he can make a connection with Andrea to either find out how to get to her place or arrange to meet her. Eventually he speaks with her around 11:30 and she swings by in her car to pick him up from the bar. This ends our evening and we say goodbye until the next time we see each other. I head back to the apartment and go to bed.

SUNDAY JULY 21, 2014

In true El fashion, she sets her alarm for 7:00am on Sunday. When she was doing her planning for the trip, she found something called the DC Roadrunners Club that runs on Sunday mornings through parts of DC starting close to where Katherine lives. She is up and out before Katherine or I wake up and is back around 10:00. Katherine and I spend some time chatting over coffee and catching up on topics that El may not find as interesting. We three decide that we want to go to the Museum of Crime and Punishment. I go online to find out about the hours and entrance fee. I see that today at 12:30, the museum offers something called a "body decomposition workshop". We figure if we hustle and it is not sold out when we arrive that we would do the workshop and then see the rest of the museum before heading to our dinner reservation later at Oyamel. Katherine has generously given us metro cards with a few dollars credit on them so that we can get around the city by metro if we choose. In order to save time getting to there, we take the metro to Galley Plaza stop and walk just one block to the museum. The admission is $22 each, plus $8 each for the body decomposition workshop, plus I chose to add an audio guide for $5. As we leave the cashier's area, the first exhibit we see is a Volkswagon Beetle. Not one of the newer ones, but clearly a 1970's model. As I listen to the audio guide I learn that the car belonged to Ted Bundy for some time. The museum is set up very well covering every facet of crime and punishment from medieval punishments like drawing and quartering and thumbscrews, to modern techniques such as lethal injection consoles and gas chambers. I was fascinated by Bonnie and Clyde's bullet riddled car and John Wayne Gacy's clown costumes.

The Bonnie and Clyde-mobile

I am not ordinarily bothered by clowns, but even these costumes are a bit unsettling

"Garrote Post"

There were 30 exhibits that included things like the mob, the penal system, modern crime fighting tools and honoring those who advanced the science of crime fighting and those who perished in the line of it. During the self-guided tour, an announcement is made for those who have tickets to the body decomposition workshop to head to the lab. The workshop was treated like a class and we got a short lecture and watched some videos on bugs and how the life cycle of bugs aids forensic scientists in determining the time of death of a body. Each table was given a set of vials each with specimens of flies in various stages of development. We then had to match the samples "collected" from the body to the known stages of the flies.

On the set of America's Most Wanted getting a lecture about flies

jars of flies

Then we had a worksheet to help us determine the time of death based on what we found at the scene. Afterwards, we continue with the museum exhibits and even though I could have stayed for hours longer, I think El and Katherine were content with the amount of time we had spent in there. We agreed that the workshop add on was not really worth the extra money for the presentation but that we liked the museum as a whole. As we leave we have a few minutes to make it down the block to the place where we have dinner reservations, Oyamel. This is a Mexican restaurant that was one of the last places El and I ate at when we visited DC before my staging. We both really liked it and asked Katherine if she would like to join us. Of course she was on board and we made 3:00 reservations to give us plenty of visiting time during the evening and also time to digest before bed. We ordered the fresh, tableside-made guacamole and then each ordered a few small plates- some to eat and the rest to share. I got some mini tacos and a tamale for myself and shared in the ceviche and queso. I also ordered a Coca Cola, which turned out to be "Mexican Coca Cola" that is made with real cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup. The taste was a wonderful throwback to my youth. Everyone had minor complaints, but agreed that overall the meal was really fantastic. A great jog down memory lane. After dinner we head back to Katherine’s with a pit stop at the supermarket for some staples and some mixers for the gin we were about to drink. We spend the rest of the evening chatting, catching up on various technologies, and basically just hang out quietly until bedtime. She will work tomorrow, so this promised to be an earlier night than last night.

MONDAY JULY 21, 2014

The first night of our little tour. Having checked all of our DC stuff off our list, we aren't hurrying to get out. We will go this morning to see the "space window" which Katherine tells us is pretty far away, but between the two of them, El now has solid directions to get there from here. Afterwards we may have several hours to kill and might add something like Ford’s Theatre (likely) or the Newseum (less likely based on entrance cost). We have already found The Black Cat, which is where the concert is tonight and we can walk there from Katherine's. I am hoping for an early evening, but something tells me I won't get it. It is after 10:00 by the time we get on our way. We eat at the apartment to keep from having to eat out, since we don't know the dinner plan and that may include not eating in again for the 4th day in a row. We will leave early tomorrow as we have to vacate the parking spot by 9:30am for street sweeping.

We leave the apartment destined to find a N6 bus stop. It is to be located at the corner of 18th and Massachusetts. That part we find OK, but there is a lot of construction and there does not seem to be a bus stop or even a sign for a bus stop anywhere in sight. Even the people we ask on the street have no idea where the bus stops. We keep walking to Dupont Circle where a young man at least can point us to a bus stop. We go there just to find other riders who we can ask for conformation of direction. It works. We find ourselves at the stop for several N buses and they all go to where we want to go (National Cathedral in Friendship Heights). Now we just have to wait for the next bus.

We are able to catch the N2 which drops us off just outside of the National Cathedral at the corner of Garfield and Massachusetts Ave. We get some shots of the exterior and read a display on the grounds about how a 2011 earthquake damaged a few of the spires, requiring repairs. We head into the cathedral. It costs $10 each to enter and we make a bee line for the "space window". This is a stained glass window that is dedicated to the Apollo 11 mission and the glass itself houses a piece of moon rock. The cathedral is large and has many brilliant stained glass windows. I am done with what I want to see after a few minutes, but El is able to continue on to take more stained glass photos.

One of the glass windows in the National Cathedral

The stained glass "Space Window" at the National Cathedral

The National Cathedral from the outside

As I sit in the church pews journaling and contemplating, I reflect on a podium that we just passed on our way in. There was a sign asking visitors to add the name of veterans, past or present, to an honor registry. I didn’t read any further into why one would do that, but it made me think of Grandpa Bill. I wrote about my experience going to the WWII Memorial on Saturday, and how I recognized his wartime contributions. As I sit and remember him, I start to think about my other grandfather, Grandpa Charlie, who died in 1978 when I was seven. It wasn't until years after his death that I learned more about work he had done during his lifetime. Grandpa Charlie was a minister and made a tremendous effort in the fight for civil rights in the 1960's. I didn't know Grandpa Charlie as well as I knew my Grandpa Bill, but as much as I would like to continue to recognize one's fight during war, I feel I should also recognize the other's fight for peace as both efforts were equally important to the history of our nation. As I get older and having gone through my Peace Corps experience, I have more of an appreciation for the sacrifices made by our military men and women, but I cannot fail to remember that the fight for peace and equality continues to be a fight that is yet to be won.

On the way out one of the tour guides suggests we head up to the 7th floor observation deck to walk around and get a little more information on the restoration project repairing the earthquake damage. We get some more photos and then make our way out. On the way out we stop at the entrance to get a photo of us at the front. Getting hungry, we grab a bench and research food options in the area. El finds a top pizza pick two blocks away. We make the four minute walk to find that they open at 11:00am every day...except Monday when they open at 5:00pm. Well, it looks like it would have been good. Quickly back to the drawing board, we spot an equally rated Café Deluxe across the street. Further research tells us this is Condoleezza Rice's favorite restaurant. We decide to go see what kind of taste she has. Most of the recommended dishes here seem more like dinner fare than lunch, so I go with the "classic" Caesar salad. When I tell the waiter to hold any extra anchovies, he quickly says that they don't have anchovies. Ironic, I point out, that I don't think it's a "classic" Caesar then. The taste, however, is very good. My cheeseburger deluxe was ordered "medium", but judging from the looks of it, I am pretty sure what the waiter heard was "bloody as hell" since the cursory grilling on the outside was just barely enough to give the illusion of a burger thoroughly cooked. Probably the rarest burger I have ever eaten. Besides that minor speed bump, the lunch was very tasty although living in this town, I would suggest Condi get out a little more. During lunch we narrow our next stop down to heading back to Gallery Place or heading back to Georgetown to try Georgetown Cupcakes.

Georgetown Cupcakes- you can see the line going up the sidewalk on the other side of the car

We passed this place on Saturday night and saw a line that was probably 50 people long snaking up the block from their doors. At the time we all scoffed at the idea of stopping..."I don’t care how good they are, I don’t need to stand in that long a line for anything" was the prevailing sentiment. I, however, did wonder what the cupcakes at a place with a line that long, taste like. Today, El and I decided to find out. We took the bus from the Cathedral down to Georgetown and walked up to Georgetown Cupcakes. The line took us about 15 minutes to get to where you can order them. There were about 15 varieties of cupcakes which retail for a little over $3 each. We got a half dozen and head to a nearby Irish pub to plan the rest of our afternoon. A couple beers gives me time to catch up on my journal. We are able to find a bar called RiRa that has a few tap beers and a nice staff. We finish a game a Scrabble we started in the motel room on Friday and check emails. We update Katherine with our plans to arrive back at her apartment just before settling up. Once we get there we are just about ready for dessert. We break out the cupcakes and start our own evaluations. The general consensus is that they are pretty good. The cake is moist and some of the icings are better than others. The mint is very decent for my taste, but the coconut is a little sweet and flat tasting for my liking. We enjoy our last conversations with Katherine and head out to the show around 8:00. The club is only a couple blocks from her house, so we are there within minutes. Having opted for will call tickets we are able to bypass the line around the block who are all waiting with printed to tickets to be scanned. We jump to the will call line and are inside in a matter of a minute. We know the show is sold out and expect it will be full, but for now, we have our run of the place and choose seats in the back over standing up front. I will head closer after the first band is done. Seeing Veruca Salt for the first time since 1997 is very exciting for me. One of my favorite of the mid-90's bands, I am happy to be at the legendary Black Cat for this show. It is about 8:30 now, but I hope for an early show- I doubt I will get it.

The show is out around 11:30 and we are back at Katherine’s before midnight. An uneventful sleep after a most eventful evening.


We wake up before Katherine heads to work to say our final goodbyes. Knowing we need to be out of the parking spot by 9:30, we waste no time getting on the road. Except for a couple of spots of around construction sites and a detour just outside of Philly, that our GPS can’t seem to help us through, the ride is rather uneventful. Once in Philly our first stop is food, after the hotel check-in. We read about a sandwich place called Tommy Dinics. And his place has pork sandwiches that were voted at some point, the “best sandwich in America”. We walk to Reading Terminal Market to order a sandwich or two. The line at 1:30pm is probably 50 people long, but we jump on. They have a wrap-around counter and as we pass by a mother and daughter who are finishing their lunch, I lean in and ask if the seats are first come first serve.

waiting for the "best sandwich in America" at Tommy Dinic's.

They confirm the seats are indeed first come first serve and that they are leaving shortly. We let the line behind us snake past while we get some ordering instructions from the daughter. She recommends the brisket with provolone and broccoli rabe. The sandwich they are known for is their roast pork and provolone. El and I order one of each and split them. Both are outstanding- although sharp provolone is not my favorite, it went very well on this sandwich. I am not sure if it is the best sandwich I have ever eaten, but I am hard pressed to think of a better one I have had right now. After lunch we walk to the Mutter Museum of Medical Oddities. Though no photos are allowed inside, we are welcomed by glass slides of Einstein’s brain. While some exhibits are mildly fascinating, most are considerably tamer than what we have seen before. The museum is three sections: general skeletal anatomy, pathology, and a special exhibit of war wounds. We take about an hour to go through and there are a few points that are very interesting. The autopsy on Siamese twins Chang and Eng was performed in the Mutter Museum. The plaster cast of them and their conjoined preserved liver is a feature of the lower level. Also a specimen of a gigantic colon from a guy who died from his impacted colon is the centerpiece of the lower level (he was known as the “Balloon Man” in sideshows because his colon had swelled so much it made him look as if he was full of air). The exhibit includes photos of him. A lot of photos and wax renderings of diseases, abnormalities and medical curiosities are a majority of the museum. While some items are interesting, most are in the “been there, done that” category for me. The wax replica of a fetus developing this it's brain outside of it's skull, can’t hold a candle to the real specimen in a jar in Bangkok! I was interested by the story of Henry Eastlake- this guy had a disease that caused bone to grow inside his body where it wasn't supposed to. When he died he donated his body to science to help others with his affliction. His skeleton had grown bone to fuse his other bones together and also he would develop bone that would grow into his muscles causing him severe pain. At the time of his death he couldn’t move and was in agonizing pain. I was mildly interested by the collection of skulls from around the world whose method of demise is known, but not necessarily evident by looking at the skull. I would be interested to see the neck bones of someone who died of a broken neck, but without those bones and/or explanation card, that skull looks identical to a person who suicided by a throat slash. Also, the collection of over 4000 items that had been swallowed all laid out in a set of drawers was kind of neat- they didn’t get into why the person had injected the items. There were a couple of patrons who annoyed us during the experience. Kids that were a little too excited to see a death by broken neck and wanted to call friends from 20 feet away over to see the "cool broken neck”. If you read the card you learn the broken neck was the result of a suicide of a 19 year old distraught by unrequited love. A tragic end to such a short life deserved better than being branded the "cool broken neck”. Another family tried to make tasteless jokes at all of their stops. By the time we got to the section of preserved genitalia, I had had just about enough and just moved to view the exhibit backwards to avoid them. The place was not that big and they do cram quite a bit into the space they have. I did a semi-interactive exhibit that illustrated the realities of Civil War era battle injuries that resulted in the loss of a limb. You stand in a booth in front of a mirror that reflects your whole body except your right arm. That is a computer graphic projected onto the mirror showing in graphic detail the effects a bullet has on the human arm and its timeline of medical procedures from injury to prosthetic arm. Anyway, it was a $15 admission which, if you are into medical oddities, is worth it. If you are not interested or get grossed out, may I suggest hanging on the bench in the lobby? The sign out front states the museum is "disturbingly informative" and I couldn't agree more.

We will see Veruca Salt again tonight. The show is at 8:00 and it is not even 5:00 yet. We are still full from the lunch at Dinics. We find a recommended bar called Monk's Café which is regarded as a world class Belgian beer café.

It is on the way back to the hotel we stop in to get some beer, catch up the journal, and find potential post-concert stops. It is a little tricky when you have the names and in some cases an address, but finding them on a map and relating them to other places takes practice. We just haven’t been in town long enough. We are set with a walking tour Wednesday. We are starting to put together plans with friends while we are here and have already checked some off the list. I would say we are off to a good start.

We make it to the Theatre of Living Arts with plenty of time for tonight’s show. The place is a decent place for a band. The sound is good, but our position in the front row makes us overlook the relative sloppiness of the band’s performance tonight. It was still great and totally worth coming for. After the show we hit on bar in the neighborhood before head back to the room. It is called Tattooed Mom and is a pretty fun place with matching decor- a scummy bar with matching upholstered seats and couches. There are still several people here at midnight (on a Tuesday). We get some chips and salsa for snack while listening to a jukebox full of Breeders and L7. Crossing it off our list of bars to drink at, I think we will call it a night after I finish this beer.


Our first, and most likely only stop for the day is the Free Walking Tours By Foot. We signed up online for an 11:00am tour that starts at the Public Ledger building at 11:00. On the walk from the hotel, we stop for a light breakfast. Just a bagel and a coffee for me. I know that one of the stops on the tour is a 45 minute lunch break in the Italian Market. The tour is scheduled to last 4-4.5 hours and today is expected to be a hot one. It covers 3.5 miles. We have also been in contact with my friend Kim who we plan to meet for dinner and pubbing afterwards. We will have to play our post tour, pre-dinner time by ear. The first stop on the tour is the Curtis Building headquarters of a publishing company. In their lobby is a gigantic mural made of 100,000 pieces of Tiffany's stained glass called “The Dream Garden”.

we couldn't fit this who piece in one photo. it was very beautiful.

It is one of those things that unless someone told you about it, you would never have found it. Next up we find ourselves in Washington Park which holds a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier designated by George Washington for Revolutionary War soldiers [Arlington is War of 1812 onwards]. Down the street to the Philadelphia Hospital which is a working hospital and medical school. Our tour winds up walking through Society Hill, a section of the city where we learn about the certified historical landmark placards while standing in the oldest historically accurate neighborhood in the city. Jenn, the tour guide, also points out the placards on the second floor face of some of the houses. Many years ago, if a fire broke out, it was up to the homeowner to pay the fire department directly for their services. However, some people would purchase fire insurance which would allow the department to start working on the fire without hesitation- hence the second floor placards. I love learning about this kind of stuff, because it's something I don't even notice until someone points it out to me. Next, we learn about the “Percent For Art” program. In 1959 this program was created and required that one percent of any public construction had to be earmarked for arts. Today the program manifests itself mostly in the form of sculptures on the grounds of the building, however, some buildings do have paintings or murals put inside where only people who work there can see, but they do least one percent worth. St. Peter’s Church is our next stop. When you walk in the first striking thing is how instead of pews in the church, you see stalls with high walls- think low cubes in an office.

the church that George Washington used to attend when he was in Philadelphia

Of course everyone has the same question: why? Well, the answer is that they were built during a time when the church was not heated and since services could last for hours people would bring hot coals from home to put into a metal box to heat the stall and the high walls would keep the heat in the stall longer. One of the boxes was used by George Washington when he would attend services with local friends. Then we head down South Street, right past where we were last night. Jenn points out some mosaic artwork that is on many of the buildings and alleyways in this area of town. We wind up at 1:15 at the Italian Market for lunch. We opt for pizza at Lorenzo's which got positive reviews, although my review would be somewhat mixed, slightly on the less than glowing side. After eating our pizza in the less than air conditioned room at Lorenzos, we head across the street to Anthony's Italian Coffee House for an iced coffee. I think this may be the first iced coffee I have ever had in my life. I am going to guess that the proportions may take some time to tweak, but will admit that the coffee ice cubes seem to be a very clever addition to the cup. We sit in the air conditioning and drink our coffees catching up on journaling and discussing our post tour plans. After lunch we head through the “Gayborhood” and see part of the “Mural Mile”-which is evidently a walking tour in itself which I might like to do.

a mural of one of Philly's native sons

The way it was explained to us was that Philly used to have a bad graffiti problem until someone figured out how to get the artists that got caught to work as painters for community murals. The community would come up with some image they wanted to represent them and these artists started working to paint these giant murals on the side of buildings, not only as a way to cover up empty walls by installing artwork, but also giving the community ownership of the mural resulting in a reason to prevent further defacing. It seems to have worked as these giant murals are all over the city and really do a great job representing the history and people of each section of the city. I know they have guided walking tours of the murals and I think that could be very interesting to learn more about. Isaiah Zagar is the artist who makes the mosaic artwork out of broken glass and mirrors. He has a permanent installation on South Street called “The Magic Garden”.

inside the "Magic Garden"

It is open to the public and we will go there tomorrow. It is now well after 2:00pm and I have to admit that I am quickly losing interest in this tour that will go on to last another 2½ hours! While some of the information is interesting, it is a little too much walking in between stops to provide too little payoff. In fact, one stop is Love Park which is known as a spot for rallies and protests. When we get there, surprise, there is a protest going on, so we can’t even see much of the park. After the tour concludes in the Comcast Center- where we see the world second largest big screen TV, we head back to the room for a shower before dinner. We head down to the lobby for 6:00 to meet Kim who is picking us up to go to dinner in the area of the hotel. I had put the pick in her court, but she deferred to my original suggestion of Indian food. We had passed a place called Saffron that smelled wonderful, however the Yelp reviews didn’t do it much service. We find a place that gets much higher reviews a couple of streets over. We decide to try that instead. It is called IndaBlue. It is happy hour, so they have a reduced price menu for a few key items. I get an order of samosas, chicken wings to share and an entree of chicken tikka masala. From the reviews, we hear that the make dishes a little on the spicy side. Even though we make a point to ask for mild, some of the food does arrive with a considerable bite of heat. This aside we are all happy with the choice. Forgoing dessert we head to a bar called Irish Pub closer to the hotel for a pint. Not such-and-such Irish pub, just Irish Pub. The beer menu is decidedly not very Irish and I order an Allagash which is OK. Kim and Lori's schedule sees them calling it a night after one. After saying our goodbyes, El and I head to a bar called Graffiti which is located at the end of a long alleyway. The music is loud reggae and the patrons are loud too. The beer is expensive and they do not have wifi. If any of these things were different, we might stay longer, but it is close to 10:00 and I am ready to call it a night after our first beer.


We realize that our list of must-do things is a pretty small and try to plan our day when we wake up. With all of the options we also want to fit in eating a Philly Cheesesteak and eating at a ramen shop. Our first stop this morning is Independence Hall. We find the Visitors Center on the corner of 6th and Market. You need a ticket to take the tour, but the tickets are free. As soon as we get the tickets we have 15 minutes to make it across the street to Independence Hall. We arrive at 9:31 for our 9:45 tour. We are the first in line and the ranger thinks we are late to our 9:30 tour and rushes us in to the earlier tour. It starts off with a ranger telling us about the timeline of the birth of our nation. We head into the next building to the assembly hall and the first US Capitol building. Then we head to the next room which is Declaration Hall which is where the Declaration was signed and Washington was appointed the first president. The whole guided tour lasts 30 minutes.

the actual room where the Declaration of Independence was signed

You can guide yourself through Congress Hall and other meeting rooms of the continental congress. We take some photos and move on. Across the street is the Liberty Bell. There are no tickets needed for that. The line is long, but moves fast. It actually takes us longer in line to get our bag checked than we actually spend inside. I, like everyone else wants to get a photo of us with the bell. a) there are so many people with the same idea that it is difficult to seize the window of time to get it without anyone else in the shot.

it really is shockingly difficult to get a photo with the bell without other people

There just seem to be a lot of people who are oblivious to others or just don't care if they have to share their spot in the photo with someone else. It takes awhile, but we are able to get a shot with the bell, just El and I, it is just too bad that El has a better eye for setting a shot than the people we asked to take our photos. I am pretty sure we stood in line longer than it took for us to get through the rest of the exhibit.

Do you want cheap or convenient? Do you want famous or tasty? These, and other similar choices are questions we are forced to consider when we go on vacation. Today it is the latter. Because cheesesteak is about as ubiquitous in Philadelphia as pizza is in New York, it seems that are just about as many opinions on the subject as there are places that serve it. The brief of it is that a guy named Pat was the first to make fried sliced steak sandwiches (Pat’s). Then a few years later, a guy named Geno was the first to add cheese to the sandwiches (Geno’s). For half a century Pat's and Geno's have sat at the corner of 9th and Passyunk slinging cheesesteaks 24/7. So, while famous, many will cite Geno's requirement of ordering in English and Pat, the patriarch's, passing a few years back as reasons enough to look elsewhere for a classic Philly Cheesesteak. A very popular list topper for best cheesesteak is called Jim's Steaks on South St. at 4th St. They may not be original, but they are doing something right. At 10:00am we decide to eat and beat the daily lunch rush. "Two whiz wit" (then step to the right) is the order.

how to make "one whiz with"

Reminiscent of Seinfeld's Soup Nazi you are to know what you want before you step up to order and they don’t seem keen on answering questions. In fact I said "one whiz wit". Then El came behind me and I needed to change the order to "two whiz wit" and he exasperatedly asked "you said one whiz wit and two whiz wit, you want three??" Luckily it was early enough in the day that I was spared from the phrase "nowhizforyou" or whatever they might say. We eat upstairs and enjoy the food without a crowd. The sandwich is a 12” sub roll slathered in warm cheese whiz, filled with grilled chopped steak and topped with caramelized onions. The sandwich is tasty, but I dare to say I like Dinics pork sandwich better. Our next stop is “The Magic Garden” on South St. at 10th St.. It is the full scale labyrinth art installation of artist Isaiah Zagar and is open for self-guided tours. The cost is $7 and you can spend as long as you like inside- we stayed about an hour. I journal inside while El takes most of the pictures. On our way out we run into the artist himself and pass our unsolicited praise of the garden. We want to get to the Phlash bus which is a public bus that makes a continuous loop around the city with stops at many of the popular tourist attractions. We walk up to the corner of 12th and Market to get the bus. A single ride is $2.25 and an unlimited day pass is $5 that you can buy from the driver. We opt for the day pass and jump on headed to the Rodin Museum.

at the entrance to the Rodin Museum

On a scale of 1-10 how much do you like Rodin? Me? All I need to see is The Thinker and I will be all set. There are two parts to the museum. The inside, and the outdoor gardens. We get off the Phlash at stop #7 right in front of the museum. Expecting The Thinker to be inside we head towards the entrance. As we walk into the garden entrance, though, we are pleasantly surprised to be greeted by The Thinker himself! We take a photo and joke about being done so fast we may be able to catch the Phlash before it pulls away. Of course we stay a little longer and get some tripod shots of the two of us with the iconic sculpture (I know there are several copies of this statue, some cast during Rodin's lifetime, and many not. I can't recall at this moment which version this is). The bus runs every 15 minutes and we get our fill of the gardens and wait for the next Phlash to stop #8 which is the Eastern State Penitentiary. The prison has been recommended by a few people, so we put it on our list. El looks online and finds a promo code that reduces the entrance fee from $14 each to about $10, but you have to purchase online. She takes a few minutes to make the purchase and gets us in on the reduced rate. The entrance fee comes with an audio guide and there are guided tours, but today's is sold out. The audio guide is pretty good. It moves at a good pace and only lasts for about 14 stops. About ½ hour for the tour, but then you can do several additional stops on your own. There are also some tours that are of specific parts of the prison. We meet up with a guide to take us into the operating room in the medical wing.

the entrance to the medical wing or the prison

in the halls of the prison

The quick presentation only lasts about 5 minutes and at the end the guide invites us to learn about the death of an inmate and debate the definition of cruel and unusual punishment. We do a couple of stops on our own, most notably Al Capone's cell before he was transferred to Alcatraz. All told we were inside for about 2 hours. There were about 50 stops inside and you can do as many or as few as you’d like. For $10 each, I think we got our money's worth. The next and last stop on the Phlash bus for us is the Art Museum of Philadelphia to go to the Rocky steps. We get off the bus at stop #14 and quickly get our photo taken with the statue by an entrepreneurial homeless man who is coordinating photos for tourists with Rocky in an orderly fashion for tips.

now here is a guy that knows how to take a photo without other tourists!

I think that is what the Liberty Bell needs! We then walk, not run, just walk up the front steps to get our photo in the iconic pose. Then, we head inside to find a bathroom. We are done in a matter of minutes and through the back of the museum to wait for the next bus. While inside we do inquire how much it is to see the museum, not only is it $20, but the guard tells us they are closing in ½ hour. Whereas, if you buy a ticket on Friday, you get in free on Saturday. This all works out fine with me since I don’t want to go anyway and we leave in the morning. Afterwards we have one more historical stop at Elfreth's Alley before going to dinner at a place for ramen. Back onto the bus we head back to the city center for the Elfreth's Alley which is the oldest continuously occupied residential street in the country.

the oldest continuously used residential street in the country

I am getting hungry so it looks like the timing will work in our favor. The alley is not very long and it only takes a few minutes before we are finished walking through and ready to leave. The alley is kind of interesting, still paved in cobblestones and with houses dating back to the 1700's. Afterwards, we walk to Terakawa Ramen which is a Japanese restaurant in the Vietnamese section of Chinatown. It took us a while to get here, but it is easy to find. We order edamame and gyoza for appetizer and each get the "siganture ramen" bowl. We will compare to the ramen we had in Tokyo recently. The appetizers are certainly cheap and tasty. The bowls of ramen arrive. Steaming hot and piled high. The first thing I notice is that there is no seaweed. In Tokyo, each bowl came with a sheet of nori- that I put aside without eating. The next thing is that the pork slices here are about 1/2 inch thick and very tender, whereas in Tokyo they were more like dried out chips of thinly sliced pork.

ready to dig into my ramen bowl

The rest, virtually identical. From shredded mushrooms and ginger to the richly thick broth. At $9 for a bowl, this is absolutely wonderful stuff. Our next stop is a dive bar called Dirty Frank's. On the way we make a detour at the hotel room to drop some of our load off. Also, of note, near the hotel is Camac St. which is the last section of street in Philadelphia (and possibly America) that is paved with wood.

a street paved with wood

We take a few pictures on our way to Dirty Frank's where the decor is trashy, the smell is stale, and the beer is cold and cheap. It is on the corner of 13th and Pine. After our pint at Dirty Franks we head up to Fergie's. I could stay at Dirty Frank's all night except for the terrible selection on the jukebox. For our last night in town, we found a trivia game at Fergie's Pub. We will meet another Peace Corps friend, Pete, there. El and I get there pretty early on the suggestion that the little room tends to fill and finding a seat can be tough. We get there in fine time and easily get a table. It does fill up, but we are all set by the time Pete shows up. The game is a lot different of a format than what we are used to. It starts at 9 and ends around 11. At the end of it all, we tie for second place. Instead of splitting the prize for second, he forces a tiebreaker with 5 questions. We lose the tiebreaker and come in third in the game. Sadly, they only give prizes for first and second. We had a good night and head over to Moriarty's Pub for a nightcap with Pete. After our hour wrap up, Pete needs to call it a night and we follow suit. It was good to catch up with another Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. We are both tired and want to get on the road earlier than later in the morning.

FRIDAY JULY 25, 2014

As we leave Phialdelphia, I think we are in agreement that this is a really fun city. The center city, at least, is very walkable with a lot of interesting things to fill your time with. Lots of museums, bars, restaurants, shops, cafés, historical landmarks and fun things. I thought that our hotel was a bit pricey, but the location made up for it. We didn't get a chance to go to the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood, but we found ourselves in other neighborhoods multiple times. Pete has only lived here a short time and he loves it. I think in respects it reminds me of Dublin...and that's a good thing. We have a crappy ride from Philadelphia up to Mohegan Sun in CT. Between the heavy traffic and some personal disagreements, El and I make the three stops in relative silence. First stop, I have been looking for bottles of wine from the vineyard Underraga and a wine shop in Norwalk, CT has some. We brave the incredible traffic that seemed to add on more than an hour to our relatively short trip. Our second stop is one of the best pizza restaurants in the world called Frank Pepe's in New Haven. I have been meaning to get here for years and I figured a Friday afternoon would be a quiet time. I was right, and I was wrong. With the line out the door and the place packed I think to myself that they are very busy. I am corrected by some of the other regulars in that the line only ends near the door, usually it winds down the block! For the place being as busy as it is, the service is pretty quick and the food is very decent.

not sure if it is the best I have ever had, but it was pretty amazing pizza

We get a plain tomato pie with mozzarella to split. After lunch we head back into the traffic to get up to our motel for the night in Niantic. We finally make it and get checked in. We quickly change and get ready to head out to our third concert this week. This is an off night for us from the Veruca Salt tour, so I bought tickets to see Queen at Mohegan Sun. I hope the show will lift my spirits from the shitty day I am having.

My brief review of the concert:

Queen + Adam Lambert - Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, CT 7/25/14

I have been reluctant to listen to any of the new tour performances with Adam fronting Queen. The tour started a couple of weeks ago and I knew we were going to see the show at Mohegan Sun and I wanted to go in with an open mind. When telling others about us going, many were quick to offer opinions of their own. I have seen the Brian May Band three times- all in 1993. I remember being thrilled with his performance on each occasion and always wished he would tour again. Having missed the Queen fronted by Paul Rodgers shows a few years back and also being in the wrong place at the right time to miss the free performance they put on in Kiev when I was living in Ukraine, this was the closest I would ever get to seeing Queen and the first time to form my own opinion about Adam Lambert. Even before the lights went down I had already started forming opinions- not about the band, but about the audience. I could tell a couple of key things: there was a definite segment of the audience there to see Queen, while another, dare I say, majority of the audience was there to see Adam Lambert! I walk in excited to see Queen regardless of the singer,while plenty of people were there to see Adam regardless of the backing band. We had some “woo girls” in the seats behind us and there were making themselves annoying before the show even started. What is the point of “woo”ing in an empty arena? With the price of the tickets, I didn't see many kids, so the drunken Lambert fans represented them this evening. The lights went down around 8:15 and they opened in true Queen fashion with a bombastic version of Now I’m Here. Everyone was happy. Queen doing their thing, Adam doing his. All was good. Then song number two, Stone Cold Crazy. Again Queen fans happy with a deeper cut song and Adam still doing his thing, but he forgot the words! There are only three short verses to the song and he sings the second first and bumbles it. Apparently, too deep a cut for Adam. As the set went on, I am sure the Queen fans were as happy as I was with the song selection. A lot of hits and a couple of lesser known tunes. However, now I have to split the Queen fans into two camps- those who ONLY want to see the hits versus those who appreciate the deep tracks. It was pretty obvious that songs live Days Of Our Lives and In The Lap Of The Gods were many people’s cue to hit the bathroom, smoking area, tshirt stand...anything but have to endure a Brian May solo performance of Love Of My Life- they didn't know Freddie was going to make a video appearance at the end. I hadn't even noticed Adam had left the stage, but there were plenty that did. When he returned, he did a few costume changes and even though he was trying to pay tribute to Freddie, it did not work for me. Singing Killer Queen while lounging on a royal bed and fanning himself hit a little too close to home for me. Freddie could pull that off, Adam can’t.

Queen have always been a first rate band and I appreciate that they needed to come up with something if they were going to continue to perform. For my money, Brian and Roger should have gone out together like the Brian May Band did and Adam should have gone on his own American Idol tour- or whatever he would do, and never the twain should meet.

I have checked another band off my bucket list and I am glad for that, but I think next time they come through, and it saddens me to say this, I would be able to say “been there, done that”.


We have a quiet ride from Connecticut to Boston. On the way through Rhode Island, I make a point to stop in West Warwick, RI to visit the site of the Station nightclub fire that took the life of my friend Matt in February 2003. There is a chain link fence around the site where the bar used to stand, and there is a small monument at one end- on the inside perimeter. Unfortunately, the monument seems to have a lot of overgrowth, but I can understand that any money the foundation has, is probably better spent elsewhere. We stay for a few minutes and finish the trip up to Boston. I drop El in Norwood for the day and head on to Allston to find a way to pass the time until our last Veruca Salt show tonight. I find a southwestern restaurant with wi-fi called the Sunset Grill and Bar and spend my day there. El meets me later on and we head to the show. The place is called the Brighton Music Hall and the show sounded great and started on time. It was the last night of the tour for both us and them. They head home after the show and so do we. The three hour drive home is quiet and we arrive home around 2am. The rest of the weekend is used to decompress before work again on Monday.


This was a little bit of a different kind of vacation than we are used to and I was glad how it all came together and played out. Although we did plenty of both, our time in Washington was more about the visiting with friends than the seeing the sites and Philadelphia was more about discovering the sites and giving an American city the full tourist treatment. When all is said and done, we both had a great time doing all the things we did. Meeting new friends and catching up with old ones. Spending time seeing things both on and off the beaten track (even is sometimes the thing to see is the beaten track itself!) I come away with a renewed interest in seeing more parts of our country and continue to ask myself if we could have a good time anywhere we travel? I haven't been disappointed yet and will keep my eyes peeled for the next adventure- abroad...or somewhat closer to home.