NECC – day 1
File this under “What the hell was I thinking.” My flight to Philadelphia leaves Greenville at 6:15 AM. As I packed, I wondered if I would have the plane all to myself. As I was looking up information on where I was staying, I was still having those same doubts about this trip. The Inn at Union League is a historic private club. Men are required to wear coat and tie in all restaurants and on the first and second floors. Great – guess I’ll have to repack. At least they will let lowlife like me slink through the backdoor into the side alley.
My Saturday preparations included laundry, and a viewing of National Treasure. I decided NOT to pack my GPS this time, just so I wouldn’t be tempted to go scavenging. I guess I should have watched Rocky to get into the spirit of the city, but the thought of watching Sly Stallone made my stomach churn. As it was, Mark Knopffler’s “Sailing to Philadelphia” kept playing through my mind.
Sunday morning came far too early. I was showered and out the door in 45 minutes, driving to GSP in pouring rain. I was starting to panic as I encountered long lines first at the Delta counter, then at security. So much for my being the only one here. I arrived at my gate just as they were paging me – too close for my comfort. I strolled onto the tarmac to find four jets prepped for take-off, and no indication which one was mine. Of course, I headed to the wrong one, until a brusque baggage handler sent me in the right direction.
The flight itself was not full. I had a brief moment of post-9/11 panic as a turban-wearing man took a seat behind me, but then I saw his wife and child. Strange how events heighten our predjudices. Here was a perfectly normal human being, and for a split second I had assigned him the role of terrorist simply because of cultural attire. Speaking of bias, in this case towards names, our stewardess’s name was Tawny. Funny. She doesn’t look like a stripper or porn star – just a very nice person whose parents stuck her with an unfortunate moniker.
A brief touchtown in Cincinatti added Ohio as my 37th state – 13 more to go. I’m sure walking from one gate to another hardly qualifies as being “in” a state. What I saw of the airport seemed nice. The second leg of the flight was uneventful, although I had trepidation about landing in Philadelphia again after my last experience here. As I deplaned, I saw throngs waiting to board, and an incredible line going into security. Knowing that I would join them on Thursday didn’t help.
A cab ride to my lodgings took me past all that is scary about big cities – an industrial area with a refinery, and rows of tenament housing, which I had seen from the air. When we got to the central city, I found the architecture stunning, especially the city hall area. We found the Inn at Union League, which was covered with scaffolding for repairs. Since I couldn’t check in until 3:00, I checked my bags with the concierge and left to explore the city.
I first wandered toward city square and into a bookstore. After consulting a map, I turned toward the Market Square. Turns out this was also the direction of the convention center, so I was also scouting the conference. The Gallery at Market Square is a large urban mall which is really showing its age. It did serve as a respite from the mugginess outside, though most shops hadn’t opened by that time. I found the registration booths for the conference at the Convention Center, and picked up my materials, then went to find lunch at the Independence Pub – a po’ boy.
More wandering in shops, while the time seemed to drag on. Of course, now I was lugging a conference bag – more poor planning on my part. I strolled past more shops, and eventually made my way to Independence Hall. The entrance was a zoo, and signs indicated that tours for the day had already sold out. More signs bespoke of security checks, and warnings against any weapons, including pocket knives. Any bags were subject to search. Welcome to the birthplace of freedom. I could have gone in to see the Liberty Bell (“Our nation’s most hollowed [sic] symbol of liberty”, as my hotel literature later revealed), but I didn’t want to fight the crowds. I did wander across the street to the welcome center, if for no other reason than to escape the heat.
I guess I just wasn’t in the mood for history, so I made my way back to the Gallery and bought a fruit smoothie from a vendor, then took a seat to watch the parade. The ethnic diversity of large cities always fascinates me – heck, the diversity of people in general could entertain me for hours. I noticed an unusual number shaking their heads and talking to themselves. These were the embodiment of the cliche about a city of millions, but no one to talk to but themselves. I found that my “teacher radar” was in full sweep, and even without their signature conference bags, I could pick out the conference attendees with trouble at all. I’m sure I stand out just as bad.
Smoothy done, I headed back out in search of a park, or at least some green space with trees. I haven’t seen very much of that here. On the south side of Independence Hall, there did seem to be several small parks. But nothing like I had imagined. One thing this did drive home. Neither maps nor movies can give the real sense of a place. I had been searching for the lush green spaces I had seen in National Treasure, but didn’t find anything that looked right. City maps show none of the tall buildings or parking spaces that radiate heat, and while the directions may be correct, it is a far cry from reality.
By this time, the hours seemed to be dragging, and me with them. Knees and feet hurting, I finally waited in the cool breeze of Washington Square Park on a park bench, almost falling asleep, until time to head back to the hotel. Once back, I checked in, retrieved my bags, and was reminded once again by the clerk about the hotel dress policy. Once ensconced inside my comfortable room with lovely view of the next door parking garage, I collapsed until dinner time.
Since I didn’t bring a dinner jacket, my only option was somewhere outside the hotel. Fortunately, there were tons of options just around the corner, many of them ethnic. I selected the Sahara Grill, and was seated at the absolutely best table – right in the front window so that I could watch the continuing parade. I ordered couscous with chicken, which was served with a bowl of something I took to be soup with potatoes, carrots, and a red sauce. I had eaten most of it, and most of the entre, when I asked the waitress about the soup. Since I recently took the Greenville News to task about it’s restaurant reviewers, I didn’t want to appear ignorant writing about this place. Fat chance. Turns out that instead of soup, it was a sauce to be spooned over the couscous. What was left of it certainly enhanced the flavors of the dry couscous. I asked about dessert, and since they only had baclava tonight, I finished the meal with a cup of turkish coffee.
After the meal I decided to wander around this area and look for dining options for tomorrow night. My stroll took my past several theaters, and past at least two establishments with some heavy-duty security guards at the entrances – enforcer-types. I stepped gingerly past lest gunfire erupt. I guess I’ve seen too many movies, and my country-come-to-city sensibilities were getting the best of me. I eventually made it to City Hall Square. Amazing architecture, surrounded, at least on this evening, by the homeless. Of all the large cities I’ve visited, so far Philadelphia seems to be the dirtiest, and has the least green space. The other places may have been just as bad, but this seems more overt. I made my way back to my room to collapse for the evening.
Note: The morning Philadelphia paper indicated that the Life 8 concert would take place this weekend with an expected attendance of over 1 million. I’m glad I will be out of town by then.