Philadelphia. The years have gone by but I still remember that long weekend in Philly. It isn’t because of the Philly cheesesteaks, the art museums or the U-Penn Museums. Though those were all good. Let me start from the beginning and maybe you will understand why. I had rented a car, that turned out to be bright red. (Hold that fact.) I spent the entire first day wandering around the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, a destination I highly recommend. While stopping for a treat at the museum cafe late in the day, I noticed my legs were twitching with fatigue. But I still returned to see my favorite exhibit pieces once more before departing the museum. Just before dusk, I started off to find the local hostel. So this sets the scene: exhausted and driving in unknown territory around Philadelphia.
I had reservations at Chamounix Mansion. I thought I was following the directions but felt I must have driven out of the city, yet I had still had not come upon it. I doubled back, ever more determined. Many of the streets that looked promising had lost their street signs so the directions weren’t much help. Now it was dark. I started to notice the boarded up buildings. Then I started to notice the smashed window glass seemingly all around. By then, I was hoping the hostel wasn’t too close. The sidewalks were fairly empty of people. I stopped for a red light. A disheveled man in black came up to my driver’s door and was knocking on the window for me to open it. I shook my head, no! Then he leaned over my windshield and while staring at me with wide, bloodshot eyes, scraped his fingernails down the length of the glass. As I was the only car at that intersection, I stepped on the gas and ran the red light to get away from what seemed like a dangerous scene.
Seconds later, two cruisers appeared with their sirens blaring and pulled over my red car. No less than four police officers got out to inspect me and my car. We talked. They told me I had run a red light. I told them about the man leaning on my car and scraping his fingernails along my windshield. They explained it was an intersection used by drug dealers. I said, so why aren’t there more street lights? They said, “We were parked on the street so why didn’t you ask for our help?” I said, “If you were parked on the street and didn’t have your lights on then how would anyone know you were there?” (So irritating that they had watched the whole encounter and did nothing to help me.) After checking and double checking that I was in a rental car and visiting from out of state, the police officers became a bit more tolerable. I told them how I was trying to reach the hostel where I had a reservation. Ultimately, they drove to the hostel for me so I could follow them. It was about ten minutes away but in the middle of nowhere. So maybe I was lucky. (They do say red cars attract attention.)
The next morning, I decided to walk to a breakfast place and shake my anxiety about the neighborhood. I walked for just about a half hour on fairly empty pathways leading to a nondescript, working class neighborhood that had mostly mid-rise apartment buildings. Few, if any, people were outside and that solitary walk on the cement was a bit unnerving. Doing better with directions this morning, I located the restaurant; it was adjacent to the laundromat and seemingly part of the same structure that housed everything else on the block. The place was not memorable except that it served scrapple. But the other customers were friendly and we actually chatted a bit. I felt better for the on the ground familiarity. As generally is the case, the unknown from a distance is scarier than an up close and personal encounter.
With GPS, you might wonder how anyone could get lost so do give Chamonix Mansion a try. If the weather cooperates, you can rent a bicycle from the hostel. By bicycle, it is about an hour’s ride to the Barnes Foundation, a fantastic art museum where the art work is arranged by color rather than by style or time period. And back in your car, don’t forget to visit downtown Philadelphia, though it may seem a world away! I recommend the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum, the Mummers’ Museum, the Liberty Bell and Ben Franklin’s house.
“The streets are safe in Philadelphia, it’s only the people that make them unsafe.” — Frank Rizzo
“I once spent a year in Philadelphia, I think it was on a Sunday.”—W. C. Fields
Buy it. Read it. And let me know what you think.