Gems of Philadelphia

Olde City. Fezziwig’s ice cream. An excellent pub an Race Street. A flawed bell.
I try to enter any travel experience with eyes wide open, so I didn’t know what to expect on my first visit to America’s one-time capitol. My thoughts were, to no small degree, tinged by Bruce Springsteen’s sad, iconic “Streets of Philadelphia” which accompanied the 1993 Jonathan Demme film. (I was a relatively-cloistered eighteen-year-old when the movie came out.) Since then, tales of angry sports fans, crime statistics, a mean-streets boxer’s saga, and Mark Bowden’s Finders Keepers were my windows on a city that seemed forgotten. (Maybe it was thought of as New York’s lesser cousin, which is inaccurate.)
Tree with cool roots, foliage and brickwork in Philadelphia park
The Philadelphia I found was a trove of gems. We stayed in the Wyndham Historic District (very nice staff, great rooms, no complaints) which sits among the brick and cobblestone of the original city. The presence of Benjamin Franklin is everywhere, from his oversized bust beside a fire station to his actual grave (steps from the hotel) to his namesake blue bridge across the Delaware River. The guided tour of Independence Hall was short and sweet. I’m no history buff, but it was pretty amazing to be standing in that room looking at that furniture where the magical birth of our country took place (at least, in codified and legal form). Of course, we also took in the Liberty Bell, which is as much about the Abolitionist Movement as anything. Seeing the actual symbol of something so representative and positive was a first for myself and the kids.
A dessert-first sandwich board outside Fezziwegs Ice Cream, Philadelphia
Our discoveries went on. We stumbled upon brand-new Fezziwig’s Sweet Shoppe and quickly decided they offer the best milkshakes in the known world. (Their sandwich board outside compels one to indulge a little.) Olde City Grille offers excellent pizza, Stromboli and Spanakopita. The Race Street Cafe is really a pub worthy of any British city, tasty food modernized to present day. Beyond, the Race Street Pier juts out beneath the behemoth light-blue of the Franklin Bridge. Elfreth’s Alley, a centuries-old residential street, begs to figure prominently in novels. Lunch at Reading Terminal Market is a crowded but worthwhile mess of options. Nearby are numerous parks and green spaces for a few minutes of peace and contemplation (and shade for hot summer days).
Across town, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a gorgeous building flanked by amazing statuary (including the famous Rocky figure, removed to street level).
Side branch of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Yes, there are still problems and more than a few ruined people. The Delaware River is dominated by industry and rusting ships. The city is, naturally, far from perfect.
Many faces I saw, however, were happy and vibrant despite the heat and weight of the past. Philadelphia seems to be rising steadily, her people buoyed and her diverse gifts celebrated.
Sometimes, if we choose to focus on the positive of an experience, that’s what we’ll get in return. And we’ll feel welcome there.



Read “Middle Passage”

Charles Johnson’s 1990 slaver-ship yarn is one of my favorite stories. Loved it! A beautifully-written story.

The circa-1830 tale follows antihero Rutherford Calhoun, an erudite, freed slave who stows away aboard an illegal slaving ship, the Republic, in order to escape marriage to a New England schoolteacher. Little does Calhoun know that the intended goal of the ship is to capture some of the Allmuseri tribe and their precious, mysterious artifacts.

Johnson’s rendering of the treachery and personal relationships among the passengers and crew put the reader right in the middle of the ocean, with a terrible storm and other horrors bearing down on them. I enjoyed the story so much I felt compelled to cite officer Cringle’s amazing, selfless act in my first novel, Watching the World Fall.

Middle Passage is a novel that’s gone back in my stack of books to read.

Read This BBC Magazine Article on Eleanor Roosevelt

An amazing (if brief) piece of journalism.

I’m ashamed that I know so little about our former First Lady, who seems to have been at the fore of all manners of progressive politics. She championed “world peace, better conditions in the workplace and women’s rights,” and refused to sit in a white-only audience section at a Birmingham, AL conference in 1938.

However next year’s election plays out (and I’m not necessarily a Hillary Clinton supporter) all Americans can learn from Roosevelt’s vision, beliefs and perseverance.

Read “Death and Oil”

Subtitled “A True Story of the Piper Alpha Disaster on the North Sea,” Brad Matsen’s 2011 book is a gut-wrenching account of the various tolls of putting profit before all other concerns.

The story: On July 6th, 1988, human error triggered a blast which started a catastrophic chain reaction aboard the world’s largest offshore oil rig. Within two hours, Piper Alpha was reduced to a mass of twisted metal. Of the rig’s 225 workers, only 60 escaped with their lives. Two of the 167 who perished were would-be rescuers killed aboard an aid vessel.

Matsen’s page-turner offers a brilliant look at the history, circumstances and costs – human, environmental, fiscal, corporate – of operating such a money-maker in an accident-prone industry. During Piper Alpha’s construction, workers had joked that it would be the first oil rig on the moon.

Some 22 years after the rig’s demise, an April 20, 2010 explosion doomed the Deepwater Horizon, killing 11 and setting off the worst man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history.


Read “The Black Count”

This, I guess, is the first of many recommendations (which will range all over the place, I promise).

I’ve finished reading Tom Reiss’ “The Black Count”. Loved it. Hard to put it down. It does read like a novel. It’s part adventure, part history lesson (and there are many lessons to be learned) and part biography of a man who was born in the tropics, lived the high life among French nobility, fought battles on glaciers and mountain bridges, sailed to Egypt and was then imprisoned by circumstance – all by the age of 40.

Reiss’ Pulitzer Prize-winner captures the violence, shifting politics and fickle social cravings of late-eighteenth century France on a scale that’s hard to believe. He excels at describing the complicated context in which a ‘mulatto’ boy from Jeremie (in what is now Haiti) would step off the boat with his aristocrat (if scoundrel) father and enter a then-colorblind, egalitarian French society. Long before fathering “Monte Cristo” and “Three Musketeers” novelist A. Dumas, this young “American” master of many artsĀ  would assume the name Alex Dumas upon enlisting in the early years of the French Revolution. And in no time, he’d become a legendary general whose adventures and military successes incurred the jealousy of cohort and fiery rival Napoleon.

Though it’s not for the dainty doilies (or a young audience), it’s simply an amazing story.