Tuesday, December 4, 2012

This Week: Philadelphia

The world’s smallest bathroom
We were fortunate enough to be invited to help out with the PA Beer Festival at the Philadelphia Convention Center in November. The two-session event was a lot of hard work and we stood on our feet for almost 14 hours. However, it was an incredibly successful event and lot of fun too. The event feature 96 breweries and over 250 kinds of beer. Nice!
After a well-deserved Sunday morning sleep in (we slept in for Philly, it was only 8 a.m. in Denver) we were grateful to have a day in Philly all to ourselves. We had two items on our agenda:  The Liberty Bell and the perfect Philly cheese steak.
The first part was easy. After checking out of the hotel we hailed a cab to the bell. Our feet were exhausted after the beer fest and even though we were told the bell was only six blocks away, we opted for a ride. The cab dropped us off at Independence National Historic Park and the first thing we noticed was the line already stretched out the front door of the Liberty Bell Center. Fortunately entrance to see the Liberty Bell is free, as it should be since it belongs to all of us. My husband and I hauled our carry-on bags to the back of the line. The reason for the long line is the security check-in at the entrance. It was almost like boarding an airplane, but I can understand. The Liberty Bell is a symbol of freedom and a symbol of the United States. They don’t want any funny business. However, it was more than slightly embarrassing to have the security agent open up my carry-on and go through my underwear and pull out my make-up bag to examine the contents.  And since we had such large bags, it took longer to check us in then those with just a camera or purse. We made it a point to smile and say thank you to the agents. I even asked the door agent how her day was going. She said she couldn’t complain, after all it was a nice day outside, almost 55 degrees.
After getting our carry-ons back we began walking down the large window-filled hall. There were posters and placards and even video screens all explaining the history and significance of the Liberty Bell. My husband looked at me.
“Do you really want to read all this?”
“Not really, I just wanna see the bell.”
“Let’s go then.” So we walked past all the people who were ahead of us in line and straight to the back of the building where a crowd gathered around the country’s most prized possession. As we approached a family moved away and we were granted a full-on view of the Liberty Bell.
The bell was back lit by a large window making it a nightmare to take photos. I took some anyway, playing with the settings on my camera and hoping for the best. The bell isn’t that big in size, maybe four feet by four feet, but it weights almost 2000 pounds and is made of 79% copper, 25% tin and small amounts of lead, zinc, arsenic, gold and silver. The bell hangs from its original yoke made of American elm. It’s quite beautiful. A magnificence surrounds the bell because it is a tangible symbol of America, something we can see and touch. Well, actually, they won’t let you touch it, but you could if you don’t mind being arrested. The bell has a well-documented history. It was made in London in 1751, but cracked after arriving in Pennsylvania. American craftsmen John Pass and John Stow cast a new bell using the metal from the English bell in 1753.
“By 1846 a thin crack began to affect the sound of the bell. The bell was repaired in 1846 and rang for a George Washington birthday celebration, but the bell cracked again and has not been rung since. No one knows why the bell cracked either time.” (Liberty Bell Center website)
Independence National Historic Park is also home to Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed, Old City Hall and Congress Hall, all together made for a beautiful outdoor setting decorated with pumpkins and hay bales for the season and several horse-drawn carriages to give people tours. Children played in the park grass and the trees still had a few leaves on them.
While I took pics of the buildings, my husband called a colleague who happens to live in Philly because he had a very important question. Where could we find the best cheese steak sandwiches near the Liberty Bell? After a lengthy discussion my husband was given a destination:  Steaks on South.
Hailing cab #2 we told the driver we wanted to go to Steaks on South. The driver said no problem and proceeded on 6th Street through what appeared to be a very historic and very old residential neighborhood crowded with small, colonial brick houses. After only a few blocks the cabbie pulled over on a corner and said, “Is this OK?” My husband said yeah, sure. But when we got out, we were next to a dry cleaner.
“Is this it?” he asked.
“Well, it’s about two blocks that way,” he said pointing east. “Do you want me to drive you?”
“No, no, we can walk two blocks.” With that we paid the fair and got out. We walked the two blocks and arrived at Jim’s Steaks with a line outside the front door.
“Is that it?” I asked.

“No, it’s Steaks on South.”
“Maybe he meant Jim’s Steaks on South?”
“No, it’s Steaks on South.” Not sure where to go, Christian fired up his smartphone to get a map. The phone took 10 minutes to warm up, but he found it.
“Oh, man, we need to go a few more blocks that way.” We continued walking east. Despite the confusion, the walk was quite pleasant. South Street was a bit of an anomaly with old storefronts painted and decorated in contemporary palates. Bright shades of green, pink and blue along with vibrant murals made each building stand out. And the shops were a hodgepodge of florists, cafes, smoke houses, cheesy bric-a-brac, art galleries and bars. The residents strolling the streets were just as decorated, such as the mod lesbian couple with piercings, tattoos and old-school high top sneakers. One pushed a baby stroller with baby girl all decked in princess pink toile inside. Then there were the guys hanging out on the street. One guy compared a Ford Focus parked out front with his sister’s new Toyota Prius. “That car is the shit!” Really? Car talk has come a long way since I debated Camaros vs. Corvettes in high school.
We finally arrived at Steaks on South, or SOS, and the place was empty. Not the line out the door like we saw at Jim’s. What could that mean, we pondered. Could Jim’s be the best place because it had a line or was SOS a hidden gem no one new about? We stuck to our friend’s recommendation and ordered up at the counter. Christian ordered the Cheesesteak hoagie. A Cheesesteak sandwich is literally just steak and cheese, unless you order it as a hoagie, where they add tomato, lettuce and onion. His cheese of choice, Cheese Whiz. I chose a Cheesesteak hoagie with Swiss.
The sandwiches were everything we had hoped they would be. While we savored our bites, a few people walked in and ordered lunch; an older couple, a group of women and then a group of about 12 college students, prominently displaying Greek letters on their shirts. SOS was no longer empty. It was almost 1 p.m. by the time we left and we asked one of the cooks if there was good place to watch NFL football nearby. He suggested O’Neal’s and said it was just around the corner.
O’Neal’s Irish Sports Bar was a tall skinny building with both a front door and a patio door wide open so we could easily see inside where a long wooden bar stretched way into the back. We walked inside and there were still several seats at the bar even through the first set of NFL games were about to start. Christian asked the bartender, a guy about as wide as he was tall, if we could get the Broncos game on one TV. He said no problem and even told us which TV we were getting. We had two beers in front us just as the game kicked off.
During a commercial I happened to glimpse a tattooed skinny man place a burger and fries plate on the back of the bar, and then walk away. The giant bartender came over and ate some fries off of a plate. A minute later the skinny guy returned and noticed some fries were missing.
“Did you eat my fries?” he asked with a British accent. Then he looked at us. “Did he (pointed at bartender) eat my fries?” Not sure of the work dynamic in place here, I said, “Maybe.” From the other end of the bar came a reply.
“So what if I did? I’m your boss, watcha gonna do about it?” the bartender said, more than asked.
“That’s my lunch man!” and then the two of them broke out in hysterical laughter. “When you get your lunch, you own me some fries.”
A guy came into the bar wearing a Broncos hat and asked if the seat next to me was taken. We sensed we had a comrade in football , but before we could introduce ourselves the bartender came over and told him he would have some extra fans helping him out and pointed at us. The guy turned out to be a Boulder native who lived nearby. He wound up in Philly because his wife was getting her Master’s Degree there. O’Neal’s was his regular Sunday football haunt because the bartender, who was also the owner, would accommodate just about anyone who came in with their favorite game.  He said there was one time when he arrived late and there was only one TV left in the bar. It was behind him above the front door. He had to sit the whole game with his back to the bar. Broncos’ fans do whatever it takes.
He told us there is a Pittsburg contingent that gets to watch their games on the second floor. He also said there was one obnoxious guy who was huge San Diego fan and just as he said that, the guy, wearing a dingy SD t-shirt and hat walked in the front door and said, “Hello everybody!” By second quarter, our new friend’s wife arrived, but the bar was full so he gave up his seat to her and the two of us were able to chat during the game.
One of the things we talked about was the mellow 70’s music played over the loud speakers. Apparently the bartender loves that kind of music. Music like You’re in my Heart by Rod Stewart, Philadelphia Freedom by Elton John, Summer Breeze by Seals and Crofts, Green-eyed Lady by Sugarloaf. (Tell me if you remember that one?) The bartender would sing along and he had a very nice voice. A cook from the kitchen came out and begged the bartender to change the music station. He was granted his wish and soon Enter Sandman by Metallica came on followed by Shook Me All Night Long by ACDC. I also heard Mas Tequila by Sammy Hagar. By then the bartender had had enough and switched the music back.
Here’s a conversation I overheard between the bartender and a patron.
“So anything new going up in the building on the corner?”

“Nah, guy wants 10,000 dollars a month” said the bartender.

“Does the Greek still own that Place?”

“Yeah,” the bartender replied. The bartender knew pretty much everyone in the place and greeted them all and asked how their families were. When Christian ordered an IPA that turned out to be the last drops of the keg, the bartender let him have the foamy beer for free, even though it was still a full glass. With the unseasonably warm weather and bright sunshine flowing in through the open doors and windows, I decided I could easily live near this bar. Maybe even in the bar.
After two beers it wasn’t long before nature called and I made my way to the far end of the bar where the restrooms were. There were two, but they weren’t designated men and women. People could use whichever one was open. It didn’t take much to realize these were some unique bathrooms. I’m only 5’4”. The blue tiled bathroom ceiling was dropped so low I could touch it with my elbow bent. I had to stand to the side of the toilet to shut the door. A teeny, tiny little sink was tucked into the corner. I had to sit with my knees to the side and under the sink because the door almost touched the end of the toilet. I haven’t seen a port-a-potty that small. I mentioned the tiny restrooms to our new friend’s wife and she laughed.
“Yeah, you get used to it after a while. I don’t even notice it anymore.” She explained that a lot of the area’s buildings were originally old houses dating back to colonial days. Rooms were smaller then. I’ll say. I was so astounded by the bathroom’s size I had to go back and take some photos because no out west would believe me.
After another Bronco’s victory, we paid our tab, said goodbye to our new friends and then walked into the sunshine to grab a cab to the airport.

Summer Breeze by Seals & Crofts