Thursday, July 26, 2007

Thank you, Philadelphia, good night

With apologies to my friend The Boy, who invented the Internet trip diary, here’s a travelogue of last weekend’s venture into the City of Brotherly Love.

Day One

Friday morning, early: The alarm goes off and I gather myself into the shower, and then it’s off to the airport. Hit the drive-thru at Caribou Coffee for a pick-me-up. They are not selling the McCartney album. Then a short jaunt up I-29 to Kansas City International. It’s a remarkably easy airport to navigate for two reasons: (1) the entire thing is laid out in one big circle encompassing three smaller circular terminals, which translates into lots of curb space, with gates right inside the door; and (2) there aren’t many flights. When it came to airlines, we always hitched our wagon to losers. The last one to make KCI a hub was Braniff. Their motto – “On the wings of bankruptcy” – failed to generate consumer confidence.

I board a Southwest flight for Chicago with continuing service to PHL. I’m in group A, which allows me to nab a prime aisle seat. We take off on time and I pull out The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and begin reading. While enjoying Chabon’s prose, I fear that my moment of zen will be destroyed when the handsome silver-haired woman in the middle seat begins to engage me. She’s headed to her daughter’s bachelorette party in the Windy City. Two minutes into the conversation, it comes out that I’ve written a book about college basketball and that she’s the former New Jersey girls high school basketball career scoring leader. That begins sixty minutes of intensive hoops discussion. She thinks Kevin Durant isn’t strong enough for the NBA; I think he’ll be just fine. It’s powerful, artful discourse. The trip is already a success.

We make our descent into Midway and touch down. Hard. The flight attendant comes on and says the teeth-rattling landing “wasn’t the pilot’s fault, it was the asphalt.” Not even 10:00 a.m. and the day’s first ass joke has been made, and not by me. My wife loses two dollars.

Friday, mid-morning: All but four of us get off the plane, and then a flood gets on, including the large speechless lug who takes the middle seat. I stick my nose in the book and plow ahead. Jews. Alaska. Murder. How come I can’t come up with this stuff?

Around 1:00 p.m.: We touch down in Philly and Kurt, who I’ve known since fifth grade, meets me at the curb. WXPN is on the radio, “I Melt With You” is on WXPN, and we’re on the road to Center City. We arrive at my home away from home, a narrow row house that redefines “urban” for the Midwestern rube. I make some lame crack about how long it takes to mow the grass, and Kurt says “Philadelphia is my front yard.” “Dude,” I say, “there’s a drunk passed out on your lawn.”

Friday, mid-afternoon: Kurt and I hit the bricks to run a couple of errands, and then it’s on to the Nodding Head brew pub, where we are to meet our virtual posse. We sit at the bar where we’re greeted by a genial, talkative bartender with a shaky understanding of heartland geography (despite repeated assurances, he cannot accept that someone from Kansas City might live in Missouri) and a deeply held belief that the ultimate expression of American cuisine is franks and beans. He says that the nice couple from Baltimore that we’re looking for left a bit earlier. But we wait for Trip and his entourage, the first Teenage Kicks summit just moments away.

They’re running behind, so we order our first beers of the weekend. My esteemed colleague, who spent more than half his life in Coles County, Illinois, starts in on the hayseed routine. Throughout the next three days, I’m subjected to inquiries about indoor plumbing, bestiality and backwoods dentistry. Highbrow stuff. As the stars of this reality show have proved, the great cities of the northeast are populated by only the most sophisticated people.

Cell phone rings fifteen minutes later, and it’s Trip, who says he’s parking the car. Moments later, the man and his younger brother Scott, international recording star, walk up the steps and into the bar. A moment that should be very weird is not. I warmly embrace my internet friend (henceforth known as my Russian bride), and the Brothers McClatchy immediately begin treating me like a surrogate for baby sibling Kevin, who is hundreds of miles away. The entire weekend is a variation on the “pull my finger” trick. These are my people.

Gifts are exchanged, stories are told, beers are consumed and dinner is served (I go with the muffuletta, not exactly Philly’s most famous export, but satisfying nonetheless). Trip seems convinced that our legend will grow if we just hang out at the bar all night and skip the rock and roll show in Camden. We have no legend, I explain, nobody cares. He looks at me like my hair is on fire. About that time, Pat Feeney, proprietor of Main Street Music in Manayunk, and known hereafter simply as “Feeney” arrives, nearly sixty minutes after the appointed hour. “Feeney time,” I’m told.

Friday, early evening: After finishing off a discount pitcher of a Scottish ale (an inadvertent pour, apparently), we take the subway to the ferry, which is teeming with girls old enough to attract attention and young enough to ensure incarceration. John Mayer is in town and he’s dreamy. He’s also playing right next to our festival.

We cross from the Keystone State to the Garden State, and walk up the steps and through the gate as Cracker is finishing its set. That leads to a yawning silence during our first twenty minutes at the fest. This allows me to meet, in rapid succession, Mary and Kevin (the nice couple from Baltimore), Mezz, Alan, Schiff, the Rhode Island Papineaus, Ann, Mr. Ann, Bruce, Jim, Barb, Kat, Nanner, Robin and Sax. Disarmingly nice people. The guitar player from Fountains of Wayne sashays past. He sets an impossibly high bar for men’s footwear.

He and his band play a predictably fine set, professionally-written songs rendered faithfully. About forty minutes in, I turn to Trip and say that they’ll play “Stacey’s Mom” within the next two songs. “But I don’t dig that one much,” he says. “Not a likely consideration,” I reply. Sure enough, “Stacey’s Mom” is next, followed by “Radiation Vibe,” and then something else, and then it’s over.

Kurt and I head over to the other stage and catch Earl Greyhound, a band I know nothing about. It turns out that they’re a sexually and racially integrated power trio that brings the rock, and the bass player appears to be the female Phil Lynott. Don’t know how it translates to disc, but onstage they’re the real thing.

Back to the main stage for the Fratellis, one of my favorite young bands. The drummer is a maniac, and the singer is unintelligible through his thick Scottish brogue during the between-song patter. All the songs (and more) from the band’s one and only album are here. Scott points out the similarity between “Henrietta” and Bowie’s “TVC15,” and I’ll never hear the song the same again.

Friday, late: After the Fratellis polish off the show with “Chelsea Daggers,” it’s back to the ferry and the gorgeous backdrop of Philly at night. Our group, now swelled to near double-figures, wanders the streets in search of a bar, and we’re finally whisked into Eulogy (uplifting name, folks), a hipster’s paradise full of pricey and obscure beers (my favorite kind). The main floor is full and we’re ushered upstairs, a narrow room with a bar and several small tables of diners. Our arrival makes for quite a crowd around the bar, but they seem content to serve us. (Note to the waiter with the sharp elbows and the schmucky attitude: I know our presence made it harder for you, but with a simple “pardon me,” I would have been your best friend all night, gladly directing traffic. Instead, the petulant posturing and pouty eye-rolls made me content to stand like a stump). After a round or two, Kurt looks at his watch, reminds me that he has an eleven-mile training run scheduled for 6:30 a.m., and we grab a cab back to the house, to catch some sleep before getting up and doing it all again.

Day Two

Saturday morning: Kurt and Claire go out for their run bright and early, so I hang with little Hugh, genius in progress, who fills me in on all the things his daddy sometimes doesn’t do right (putting soiled diapers in the pail, returning the toaster to its rightful place). We have some cereal and read some books while we wait for his parents to return, which they do in all their sweaty glory. Showers for all, and then we shuffle around the house a bit until Claire is called into the office. Kurt, Hugh and I hit the streets for a cup of coffee and a tour of Philly’s gorgeous urban parks. We make a sharp left when we stumble upon a glassy-eyed man with a forty-ounce bottle who is trying to pick a fight with a passing dog.

Early afternoon: Soon it’s off to Monk’s. From what I can tell, Philadelphia is America’s capital for Belgian beers, and Monk’s is Philly’s capital. We have a liquid lunch interrupted by mussels and burgers (I have the Antwerp). Actually, I have just two brews, one of which – the Grand Cru – I cannot fully wrap my mind around. But hot damn, do I feel sophisticated. As a bonus, Claire escapes the office and joins us, the sweet that balances Kurt’s bitter.

Mid-afternoon: After a quick trip to the house, it’s out to Manayunk to Main Street Music. We walk in, pay appropriate respects to Feeney, Trip introduces me to his wife, Cathy, and all my worst fears about the weekend materialize. Clearly, my Russian bride has some sort of sinister powers that could be unleashed on the Midwestern test subject at any moment. There’s no way that guy gets a woman like that. No. Freaking. Way. The term “better half” was invented for this couple. I’m also introduced to Dave, who is working behind the counter and seems busier than the current volume of clientele would mandate. (Trip later tells me that Dave thinks I’m angry about a post he left on this blog long ago. “Why would he think that?” I ask. “Because I told him,” Trip replies).

I peruse the bins and compliment Feeney on his fine selection of, uh, “imports,” and I snag new releases by Sarah Borges and Jason Isbell, plus a Style Council compilation. I go to the register and Feeney gives me the “I’m with jackass” discount (the store’s best), and he also slides me a burn of a yet-to-be-released disc by a significant artist. When I question the business sense of giving away highly anticipated albums, Feeney’s eyes say “at least you won’t download it.” (note to RIAA: unwad your panties; I’ll be purchasing said disc when it becomes available).

Out the door and across the street to Rita’s, where I have my first “water ice,” and it’s better than it has any right to be, this dramatic improvement on the snow cone. I go with the mango flavor, which I’m told is among the best, and it does not disappoint.

Saturday, early evening: A baby sitter arrives to match wits with the young genius, and Kurt, Claire and I embark on a walking tour of the city. It really is remarkable in ways that locals probably fail to contemplate all that often. There’s architecture that dates back a couple hundred years or more, and, oh, by the way, it’s the cradle of western democracy. Eventually, we make our way into a new upscale Mexican restaurant, where Claire samples a flight of tequila, and Kurt and I go for Dos Equis on tap (he has the amber, I favor the lager). The guacamole prepared at the table is sensational. My entrée, the mushroom-stuffed cactus leaves (yes, plants filled with fungus), is not unpleasant, but it makes for a better story than a meal.

Saturday, late: Kurt and Claire’s friend George invites us to a wine bar called, appropriately enough, Vintage, and Trip agrees to join us. Not much of an oenophile, Trip sticks to Yuengling, while I sample a big, fruity rose (it’s not just for losers anymore!) and a completely satisfying pinot noir. Earlier in the evening, and unbeknownst to me until days later, Trip placed a phone call to my wife to unearth embarrassing facts to casually work into conversation. He discovers that I used to wear red Converse high top shoes, and that I’m afflicted with a chaste longing for Food Network personality Giada DeLaurentis. That’s it. People, don’t hire this man as a private detective. For his part, Trip volunteers that he doesn’t eat cheese in any form (no cheesecake, no pizza, no nothing). Can conversation get any better? It’s like A Moveable Feast.

Day Three

Sunday, late morning: I pack my bags, load them in the car, and we head out for a late breakfast at a place called Jones (I have some very fine pancakes), where we’re met by Trip, Cathy and ten-year-old Sean, America’s foremost professional football fan, who is rocking his sharp new Missouri Tigers cap. Within seconds of meeting, he begins to pepper me with questions about whether certain active players will one day make the Hall of Fame. “Tom Brady?” Absolutely, I say. “Reggie Bush?” Too early to tell. “Peyton Manning?” Even if he gets hit by a bus tomorrow. “But I don’t like him,” Sean says. That’s not among the criteria, champ. “But he’s not that good-looking” one of the ladies offers. Again, not among the criteria.

I’m seated next to Cathy, sporting her brand-new Teenage Kicks t-shirt. Trip tells me about the time, long ago, when she kissed David Johansen full on the mouth at a Buster Poindexter show, and the time, years later, when she planted one on Paul Westerberg at one of the Replacements’ last gigs. Cathy blushes appropriately but proudly, and Trip says “wasn’t there a third time?” It is a tribute to the frequency with which Cathy kisses rock stars that she can’t quite remember when that would have been.

We finish breakfast and head out into the third straight glorious Philly day. It’s just a short walk to the Liberty Bell, and the line isn’t long, so we head inside. It’s a humbling thing, to see this symbol in the shadow of where our great documents were signed and where George Washington once lived. Better yet, there are competing water ice carts just outside, and we make a stop for the weekend’s final sampling of Philadelphia culture. Magnificent.

With flight time approaching, we head back to the parking lot and say our goodbyes to the McClatchy family, with thanks for a great weekend. Trip and I are grateful that we no longer have to tell people that we know each other through the, (hem, haw, jeez), internet. There are warm embraces all around. As Trip, Cathy and Sean wander off to the next parking lot, the first Teenage Kicks summit is complete.

Hugh climbs into his seat in the back, and demands that the old man sit next to him, leaving Claire to drive while I ride shotgun. As we try to pull into traffic, we’re let in by the kind people in the Subaru – Trip and family, it turns out – one last gracious act in a weekend full of them. We take a left, drive up the block, and stop at a red light. I’m looking left and talking to Claire when there’s a knock on my window. I turn. It’s Cathy. I open my door and she leans in and plants a kiss on me. “The third rock star,” she says.

Sunday, mid-afternoon: We arrive at the airport, and it’s hugs and thanks for my hosts, as good a pair of friends as you could ask for. After that, it’s smooth-sailing the rest of the way, with easy check-ins and on-time flights. There’s a chicken burrito and a citrus green tea in Nashville, and nary a talkative fellow traveler to be found, leaving me ample opportunity to reconnect with the Yiddish policemen. At one point, our protagonist gets busted peeking down his ex-wife’s blouse. Days later, I inform my wife that if we ever divorce, I’ll do the same thing, and so I apologize in advance.

Sunday night: With the sun fading in the west, we land feather-soft in Kansas City. I gather my things and pass through the jetway and into the terminal, where I make eye contact with a three-year-old and six-year-old who run to me with smiling faces and outstretched arms. Philly was great, but it’s never been better to be home.


lahuitrefrite said...

Swell travelogue, Michael. It's like I was there, um, which at least for some parts, I was. Must have just missed you at Monk's on Saturday. We had charcuterie and Rodenbach around 3:00.

Glad you made it home safe. Was a treat to hear music and raise a glass with you.

Michael Atchison said...

Thanks. I bet we missed you at Monk's by a half-hour or less. And by the way, I haven't forgotten about the focaccia recipe.

lahuitrefrite said...

Neither have I.

Satch said...

It was great to share some pints, music and teenage lust with you. C'mon back any time - beers are always cold - the music is usually hot ... and the "I'm with Jackass" can actually work out pretty well in this town.

See ya' further on up the road!

-tom said...

Bummed I missed you guys on Friday night. My friend Ken said he ran into you guys on the ferry ride over but I never did manage to find you in that crowd. Sounds like you had a great weekend.

Anonymous said...

"Thank you, Michael, and hope to see you again real soon".... It was an absolute pleasure to have met you. What a great recap of a
whirlwind of a weekend! You really had me though with your line about Claire, "the sweet that balances Kurt's bitter" That's absolutely priceless - a high compliment to a really lovely lady.
Much love, Cathy

S-Dawg said...

I thought Michael was one of the nicest people I've ever met and him and my dad seemed to get along very good. And he seems like a very passionate rock and roll fan.

Hope to see you soon.


p.s. Thanks for the hat!