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Cheesesteaks And 76ers: Four Days In Philadelphia

A wrap-up of our weekend in Philadelphia for Anna’s conference.

Pickles on mine

“I want the juice running down my forearms!”

– A morbidly obese woman’s reply to the question, “How would you like your burger?”

Just a quick heads up for those who follow this blog, I just wanted to let you know that now that I have been volunteering at Housing Works, Gramercy it is difficult to write new posts as frequently as I once did. That doesn’t mean I won’t write them at all, it will probably just be once every week or so, because it is quite time-consuming putting one of these together (this one alone has taken three days).

Anyway, Anna had a conference in Philadelphia over the weekend, a place that I thought I knew a bit about. Besides general knowledge and basic facts, such as being the location of the Liberty Bell and the place where the Declaration of Independence was signed, as well as being the home of cheesesteaks and cream cheese, most of my knowledge of Philadelphia came from three sources:

  1. Rocky movies
  2. The Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song
  3. The Song Freedom of ’76 by my favourite band, Ween, who hail from New Hope, Pennsylvania, down the road from Philly .

If you haven’t heard Freedom of ’76 before, here it is:

So, from Rocky I know it’s cold there, from Fresh Prince of Bel Air I am aware that West Philadelphia is pretty sketchy, especially the playgrounds, and Ween taught me that South Street is where you go for hookers and Fairmount Park is pretty nice, particularly in the Summer. Just one problem; All of those references are 20+ years old. Is that still how it is? Let’s find out!

Out the front of a beef jerky stall in my horrendously ugly, early-90s Philadelphia 76ers jacket

Out the front of a beef jerky stall in my horrendously ugly, early-90s Philadelphia 76ers jacket

Thursday, October 15, 2015
The conference was due to start early on Friday morning, so we decided to head up a day early. Our train was a bit after 12:00pm and we would arrive at about 1:30, however, Anna was oblivious in between due to her ability to immediately fall asleep on anything that moves. When we arrived at 30th Street Station we were about a half hour walk from our hotel. It was a nice day so we decided to hoof it. As soon as we started walking it was immediately obvious that there were some glaring differences between Philadelphia and New York, the main one being how much cleaner and quieter it was in Philly. The percentage of crazy people there was a lot lower, too. That’s not to say there weren’t any, just nowhere near as many.
Eventually we reached our hotel on Walnut Street, centre of what the city refers to as the Gayborhood:

The area approximately bounded by Chestnut, Pine, Juniper and 11th Streets within Washington Square West is known as The Gayborhood. It is so-named because of its large concentration of gay and lesbian friendly small businesses, services, restaurants, and gay bars. It was also a red light district and center of Philadelphia’s gay bathhouse culture in the 1970s and 1980s. The area is the location for Philadelphia’s annual OutFest: National Coming Out Day celebration. On 18 April 2007, the city of Philadelphia officially recognized the area by adding 36 gay pride rainbow flag symbols to street signs bordering the Gayborhood area. 32 additional signs were added in June 2010. On 25 June 2015, rainbows, indicating LGBT pride, were painted onto crosswalks on the corner of 13th and Locust Streets.

Our first of many cheesesteaks

Our first of many cheesesteaks

After checking into our hotel, the next item on the agenda was lunch and that could only mean one place, the Reading Terminal Market. The Reading Terminal Market sells pretty much everything, but Anna had her heart set on a cheesesteak since the moment we arrived. We pulled up a stool at the first cheesesteak booth we found, operated by four morbidly obese locals, and got our meal (right). They were really good and we both liked them, but Anna was somewhat disappointed after I pointed out they contained cheez-wiz, not real cheese, but never mind, they wouldn’t be the last cheesesteaks we would have. Not by a long shot.
After eating, we looked around the market and both knew we would be back. There was locally made jerky (above), alligator sausages, gourmet doughnuts, this place was incredible. We grabbed some jerky and some root beer-flavoured liquorice and decided to hit the street.

I mentioned that Philadelphia was exceptionally clean, but it was also beautiful from an artistic and cultural standpoint, with a lot of street art, sculptures and murals, as well as well-preserved architecture. Here is a taste of what we encountered:

On our journey around the city we discovered a bar, Pennsylvania 6, that had a great happy hour deal that included US$1.00 oysters, so we settled in for a night of great food and drink. Anna had an early start the next morning and she wanted to do some reading before her conference, so I walked her home, then went down to a bottle shop to grab something for myself. On the way I passed a group of three really young homeless guys with a sign that said, “Let’s be honest, we just want money for beer.” The sign gave me a chuckle, but when I was in the bottle shop I started thinking; There are soup kitchens, so food is covered and nobody is going to rent an apartment to someone who is that high of a risk. If I was in their position I would probably blow the cash on beer, too, and I appreciated their honesty, so I grabbed myself a 12-pack to cover the next couple of days and a longneck (25.3 fl. oz.) for the homeless guys. They acted like I was the second coming of Christ! I have never seen anyone that grateful in my life, I ended up apologising to them for not having a bottle-opener!

Inside the Mitchell & Ness store.

Inside the Mitchell & Ness store.

Friday, October 16, 2015
Anna went to her conference at about 7:00am and was going to be there for the bulk of the day, so I was on my own, free to do whatever I pleased. On Thursday, I had discovered that we were staying around the corner from the Mitchell & Ness store (right), something that I didn’t even think of before we went to Philly, but a place I had always wanted to go. Mitchell & Ness is a company out of Philadelphia that specialises in limited edition reproductions of classic sporting merchandise. I have some fake Mitchell & Ness basketball jerseys that I have picked up from the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne over the years, but it would be cool to see the real deal.
I knew that I’d never be able to afford much and didn’t want to waste too much of Anna’s time on Thursday, so I just picked up a Julius Erving caricature t-shirt (same design as this) and a Boston Celtics 1986 Championship cap and vowed to come back the next day. And that I did. Exploring the store I found a ton of stuff that I wanted, but it was all out of my price range. One thing that I really wanted was a Bryant “Big Country” Reeves jersey from his 1996-97 season with the Vancouver Grizzlies, a player that used to give me a lot of amusement back in the day, but US$300 was a bit much for an in-joke that really only involves me:

After Mitchell & Ness, my next plan of action was to return to the Reading Terminal Market, but my arch nemesis, Google Maps, took me to several places all over the city that weren’t it, before finally sending me there an hour and a half later, a destination that was only about five minutes from my original starting point. I had seen several things on Thursday that I intended to try and the first stop was Pearl’s Oyster Bar for a pretty damn special lobster bisque and a buffalo shrimp club wrap, before I walked down to another stall to get that alligator sausage I wanted. I was asked if I wanted a “po’ boy” or just the sausage and it occurred to me that po’ boy was the fourth different regional nomenclature I had heard to refer to a sandwich while I was in town. I had stumbled upon

  • Po’ boys
  • Hoagies
  • Submarines
  • Cheesesteaks

Granted, cheesesteaks are a specific type of sandwich, but the rest are all the same damn thing! Anyway, I got the sausage by itself and ate it on my stroll down to South St. and that was one tasty sausage.

If you bothered to click that Ween video, you would’ve heard the line, “A ho’ on South St. hired for tricks.” Well, I definitely didn’t see any prostitutes on my walk down South St., but I saw a handful of transvestites and an absolute shite-load of hipsters! South St. is one of those gentrified neighbourhoods that I would have been terrified to go near 20 years ago, but now consists of juice bars, a Whole Foods branch and brunch places. I managed to find some great record stores and thrift shops, as well as a gallery and some murals where everything is made out of garbage.

Soon it was time to meet up with Anna and her colleagues for dinner and some drinks, so on Anna’s recommendation they went to Pennsylvania 6 again. We had a great night, but the conference was still going on Saturday morning…

Canadian Brass

Canadian Brass

Saturday, October 17, 2015
Saturday started like most other Saturdays for me; Sitting in my underwear watching Law & Order: SVU. When Anna returned from the conference, we grabbed some brunch from a Latin-American restaurant and then met with Anna’s colleague, Polina Astroz. Polina had a friend visiting from Columbia, whose boyfriend is the trombone player in the Emmy Award-winning jazz band Canadian Brass and had free tickets for the show that afternoon. They were being supported by an organ player and it was a great show, but I must admit, I threw up in my mouth a little each time they emptied all of the spit out of their instruments.

After Canadian Brass, Anna, Polina and myself went back to South St., but I wanted to put on some warmer clothes first and agreed to meet them there. Where did they decide to meet me? At another place that sold cheesesteaks, as Anna was trying to find the best in Philly. These ones weren’t bad, but I’m sure there were better ones around somewhere. We walked up and down South St. and Fourth St., but soon Polina had to catch her train back to New York. We were walking back up South St. when we saw a line of people waiting that went around the block. It was Jim’s Steaks, the original and, apparently, the best cheesesteaks. Anna was instantly convinced and wanted one, she just loves lining up, but I think it was seeing the A-Team van parked across the road that sold me. We had finally found the best cheesesteaks in Philadelphia and they aren’t shy about telling you that that is the case. They also couldn’t understand how we had decided to share one, but Philly has some of the fattest people I’ve ever encountered!

After the cheesesteak we found a cool little shisha bar, settled in with some locals and watched the wrestling while discussing the intricacies of playing Edward 40-hands.

Sunday, October 18, 2015
It was our last day in town, but we had plenty of time to spare, as our check out time was 11:00am, but our train wasn’t until about 7:00pm. We decided to have a look at the shops and outlets at the western end of Walnut St. as well as the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia (right). The Mütter Museum was brilliant, however, we couldn’t take any pictures inside, but here is a rundown:

America’s finest museum of medical history, the Mütter Museum displays its beautifully preserved collections of anatomical specimens, models, and medical instruments in a 19th-century “cabinet museum” setting. The museum helps the public understand the mysteries and beauty of the human body and to appreciate the history of diagnosis and treatment of disease.
Today, the Museum enjoys a steadily rising reputation with annual attendance exceeding 130,000 visitors. Enjoying international popularity, the Museum has been featured on countless TV programs and specials and is the subject of two best-selling books.
The Museum Education program is geared toward middle school and high school students of diverse socio-economic backgrounds, and partners with area schools to expose students to the wide variety of careers in health care and biosciences, as well as to introduce them to the history and culture of medicine.

Features of the collection:
• Soap Lady
• Dr. Joseph Hyrtl’s human skull collection
• Plaster cast and conjoined liver of “Siamese twins” Chang & Eng
• Specimen from John Wilkes Booth’s vertebra
• Jaw tumor of President Grover Cleveland
• Rotating exhibits of photographic art and illustrations
• Tallest skeleton on display in North America
• Einstein’s brain

Yep, you read that correctly, there are slides of Albert Einstein’s brain, as well as preserved birth defects, foetuses in jars, human skulls, human deformities and much more. If you’re not too squeamish, click this link, it’s a google image search of the museum. The Mütter Museum was a great way to spend the day, except when Anna kept comparing the exhibitions to me, and it was probably the only time I will ever hear a child yell at the top his voice, “Eewww, it’s a uterus!”

All in all it was a great weekend away and, although Ween and Will Smith’s references seem dated, Rocky was correct. It was freezing in Philly! And, no, we didn’t get to see the Rocky statue. For more pictures, check out the Philadelphia album on my Facebook page.

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