Thursday, January 30, 2014

City of Brotherly (and Sisterly) Love, Pt. 1

My close friend and former fellow Starbucks habituate Martha moved to Philadelphia from Happy Valley in the late summer. Perhaps because I thought I understood where W.C. Fields was coming from when he said, “I once spent a year in Philadelphia, I think it was on a Sunday” popping by to see her wasn't something I rushed to do. So when I took the plunge and visited in January, I was long overdue for a visit.

I’ve driven through Philadelphia lots of times. I’d drive—usually at a crawl—through town on the Schuylkill Expressway on the way to the Jersey shore. I did it often enough that I practically felt like a local. When I wasn’t being astonished by Philadelphia drivers, I had time to note the charm of the illuminated boathouses along the Schuylkill River, the majesty of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the power in Pat Burrell’s arms (and other places) when his photo was featured in a Phillies billboard. But actually stopping in the city and spending time there…well…the thought never occurred to me. 

I left my truck at home and took the Megabus—it was way cheaper than driving and I wasn’t going to need wheels in Philadelphia anyway. The Megabus stop is in the symbolic center of State College, the Walmart parking lot. Since there’s no bus station or even bus shelter, the nearby McDonald’s serves as the de facto waiting room. Very charming. How do I know this? I was early and stopped in for coffee. I might have been the only person in there who wasn’t toting a roller bag. The two decker bus itself was a little cramped, but clean. The seats were smaller than in steerage on an average airliner and there were no overhead racks, tray tables, or seat cushions that become floatation devices. I was the oldest person in a crowd that looked like a model U.N.

Forty minutes after leaving State College we stopped in Mifflintown at the Tom’s Truck Stop for a twenty minute break. A rest stop? Really? Did they need to put water in the Hooterville Cannonball?  Since the bus was quite toasty, I took advantage of the rest stop and shed my long underwear in the truck stop’s john, not the easiest thing to do in a skanky bathroom stall.

Once in Philadelphia, the bus dropped us off at 30th Street Station. Actually it stopped near the station, next to a lot enclosed by chain link fence. It wasn’t exactly a triumphal entry into the City of Brotherly Love. But the price was right. While I waited for Martha I had a few moments to walk down the block and enjoy the grand but somewhat underutilized station.  

I stayed at the Hotel Monaco, one of the flashier Kimpton properties. A design historian of the future will identify the designer of the hotel as The School of Roger Thomas, the guy who did The Wynn. It was all mirrors, animal prints, and bright colors. It was so flashy that Martha and I walked right through the lobby and to the back of the hotel before turning around and being directed to the front desk. I introduced Martha to the desk clerk as the famous children’s book author and the clerk gave me one of those looks that said, Of course she is.  

After dumping my steamer trunks at the hotel it was time to do all things historic since we only had a few hours on Saturday afternoon. William Strickland’s Second Bank of the United States was right across the street from the hotel and it was on tops my list of things to see. The building, a part of Independence National Historic Park, is now a portrait gallery of eighteenth and nineteenth century Americans, with lots of works by Charles Willson Peale.

This is not a stock photo. There weren't many people there.
We were in the main hall of the gallery when we encountered a ranger sitting on a bench. She looked as if he’d had a very long day and her feet were killing her. Martha asked the ranger for the elevator speech on the place. The ranger started on a listless recitation of the gallery’s story. 

While she was in mid spiel, a tsunami of high school kids came into the gallery. The ranger unexpectedly sprang into action, moving as quickly as the tongue of an Amazonian frog nailing a fly that buzzed just a little too close. In a flash, she went into full superhero/prison matron mode telling the kids, in teacher voice, to get rid of the chewing gum and drinks and whatever else they had in their possession that could wreak havoc on the portraits.

Zebulon Pike. How many people named Zebulon were in your high school class?
Impressed that she actually was an energetic steward of our nation’s heritage, I moved to other parts of the gallery while she told the kids about Alexander Hamilton, Ben Franklin, et al. I got the impression that the place isn’t visited all that often, but the collection is interesting and it surely beat waiting in line to see the Liberty Bell.

The design of the church is based on London churches of Sir Christopher Wren.
When we'd had our fill of eighteenth and nineteenth century portraits, we walked over to Christ Church, now an Episcopal Church, but at one time the embodiment of the Church of England in colonial Philadelphia. History practically oozes from every brick, not to mention from the baptismal font at which William Penn had been baptized in England. There was a docent yammering to another school group, a soccer team. I listened for a bit while Martha took in the memorial plaques on the walls of the church. The docent told his charges that if Portuguese soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo lived in eighteenth century Philadelphia he would have gone to church there. I realize that it’s hard to get kids interested in history but that seemed like a particular lame attempt to me.

After our speedy and self-guided tour of Christ Church we walked over to the National Constitution Center. Even though it was going to be open for another hour, it was deserted. Perhaps I really am in the eggheaded minority that thinks our Constitution is more interesting than the three Supreme Court cases people may remember from high school history class. Imagine that!

The Center does an excellent job of telling the story of the United States and the Constitution in terms of ordinary folks rather than the usual Great Men. Instead of orientation movie, they have an actual actor do sort of a live narration, well, a declamation, that goes along with a slide show. It was odd, but moving—the actor brought a lot of “value added” to the place, as a management consultant might say.

One exhibit represented the Constitutional Convention with semi-creepy life sized bronze statues of the delegates. Bronzes seem to be all the rage at historic sites--Monticello, Mount Vernon, and Gettysburg all have them. I’m not sure about the Lizzie Borden Homestead or the Donner Party Historic site has them, but it wouldn’t shock me.

After all this cultural tourism we were more than a bit ready to tie on the feedbag. Fortunately Martha had the good sense to make a reservation at Sampan, an uber-trendy semi-fancy pan Asian fusion small plates place. Apparently I am the only person for whom the name Sampan is practically an anagram for the Vietnam War. (The kind of anagram with lots of different letters, I mean.) Instead of a mouth-watering reverie about Chairman Mao’s Free Range Heirloom Juvenile BBQ’d Bok Choy with Kimchi and Rutabaga Foam, I conjured up memories of Walter Cronkite reporting on the Vietnam War with the men of 82nd Airborne in the Mekong Delta. I was absolutely sure that there would be little napalm burners on the table instead of candles.

The restaurant was just OK. Completely unremarkable interior décor, tables practically atop each other, and really loud. Martha and I were nearly the oldest folks there. We perused the menu and listened to the explanation from the cheerful server on how the whole thing worked. Even though Martha and I both went to competitive colleges and typically have the hang of listening to servers recite the daily specials, we had to ask for a second explanation of the menu. It seemed unnecessarily complicated.

Foodies seem to get all hot and bothered about the edamame dumplings
In the end, it was like going to a normal Chinese restaurant and getting a bunch of things and then sharing them. The food was fine, but nothing to knock your Smartwool socks off.  After our meal, the server tried to interest us in “soft serve” in what they called the flavors of our childhood: Twizzlers and Coca Puffs. Martha and I agreed that they were not the flavors of our childhood. I was particularly suspicious of something called “soft serve” instead of ice cream; it seemed like an insidious way to get rid of kale or maybe even tofu that was near its expiration date. We passed on dessert, including whatever concoction was made with “house made Nutella”; something that’s probably worse, if that’s even possible, than the stuff produced by the Nutella-industrial complex.

After dinner we headed back to my hotel and and ran right into a sign for--according to Philadelphia magazine anyway, Philadelphia's Best Sex Toy Shop. I said, Oh Martha, we've got to stop.  We were at the Velvet Lilly, a place meant to make a difference to your special place,  “One Vibration at a Time”. No, I did not make that up.

This was an upscale sex shoppe, where the idea of a house-made vegan-friendly massage oil and Twizzler flavored lube would not be out of place. In case you were wondering, I have been in other upscale sex shoppes including San Francisco’s famous Good Vibrations where I went with a cousin who was on a mission to buy her sitter a vibrator. I’ve listened to lots of parents complain about sitter problems and to the best of my knowledge no one ever complained that their sitter needed an upscale vibrator. Must be a California thing.

The Velvet Lily had every sort of high design low carbon footprint orgasm inducing hardware imaginable. Once you could find the on/off switch (the hardware’s, not yours), things vibrated, and hummed, and blinked, and wiggled. OMG, when did they invent all this?  If you are, however, looking for a male porn-ebrity, uh, prostheses, a la Jeff Stryker, this was not the place to go. There was nothing so low rent, or low tech as a piece of “flesh” colored rubber about yay big, no, let’s say yay big plus a some, served up in a box with an autographed and heavily Photoshopped picture of a porn star proclaiming the prosthetic's penile provenance.  

Martha and I had a few minutes to browse the wares as the clerks made some sales to other customers. After we had looked around, one of the earnest sex-positive hipster chick sales clerks asked us if we needed any assistance. Her bookish and presumably equally earnest and sex-positive coworker never looked up from her laptop screen during our entire visit. My guess is that she was illicitly downloading back issues of Milady’s Boudoir.

Mold and mildew aren't the only things that can grow in a shower.
I said we were just browsing. She said that was cool and we should be sure to check out their smorgasbord of lube, extending her hand a la Monty Hall’s door opening beauty, the lovely Carol Merrill, to an étagère of lubricants in tester bottles. Yes, they actually put lube in tester bottles like perfume.

She encouraged us to see how lube-y the lube was, rubbing a small dollop between our fingers. I looked at one bottle. It said it was especially for oral sex.

Since when do you need lube for oral sex? I asked, stepping out onto the slippery slope of talking about sex professionally.

It takes away the sperm taste, she said.


The sperm taste?, I asked.

I had to put a lid on the urge to tell her that she meant semen, not sperm. Don't sex-positive twentysomething hipster chicks know anything? I suppose I should be thankful she didn't use the technical term "splooge".

It takes away the sperm taste...

Blame it on the MSG from dinner...I'm too shocked to blurt out the first thing that came to my mind:

Whatever happened to chewing gum? Or Lifesavers? Or shots of Jack Daniels?

Right then and there I remembered my suite in Watson dorm in the summer of 1977. My suitemates included our well dressed and courtly R.A.; a super macho ginger frat-y med student; and a guy with the world’s thickest Boston accent who was taking a graduate seminar on Jordan. When we had free time in the evening we played cards. (It sounds like the 1950s, no?). During one evening when we were hydrating with beer, the med student told us the best story ever—about something that allegedly happened in his class that day. The prof was taking about body fluids—about semen, specifically, and said it was made from enzymes, proteins, and so on. Then a woman in his class raised her hand and said Then why does it taste so salty? Everyone laughed, and the horribly embarrassed questioner ran from the classroom.

Clearly, that woman needed oral sex lube.  

As if the lube’s lubricating qualities weren’t enough reason to buy it, the saleswoman pointed out that it worked as hair product. She said it gave you beach hair, which she explained was sun streaked though probably not smelling of coconut scented tanning lotion and low tide.  

In the course of mid-lubing small talk, the clerk told us that her mother was a beautician and her father a chemist, and she’d studied sculpture at Penn, so working at a sex store was perfect for her. It seemed to me that she should have been wearing a lab coat over a Frederick's of Hollywood bustier and stockings instead of the nondescript twenty-something woman-doing-retail raiment.

In case my description of the Velvet Lily isn’t enough of an inducement to shop there, according to a press release the store “puts on regular sex classes that all are welcome to attend", such as, “The Art of Self Pleasure", the "Getting Her Off Workshop", and the presumably having nothing to do with unloading your 9mm Glock into that cheating S.O.B., the "Blow Him Away Workshop".

My guess is that these are non-credit courses.  

After a nightcap at the hotel, it was time for bed. I had no idea what the next day might bring. It would be hard to top Philadelphia's Best Sex Toy Shop, but I thought the city just might be up to it.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

A Peck of Princesses

Sorry for the hiatus in posts. I was a bit distracted by work and my super amazing social life in the month of December. The good news is that I got some great books for Christmas.

This, however, was not one of them. Am I the only one who thinks that Harlequin Books would sell more books if it emphasized "Large Manhood" rather than "Large Print"?

I’d just barely come up for air after First Night State College when I braved single digit temps to go the Farm Show Arena in Harrisburg for the Pennsylvania Preferred VIP Reception or something like that. I drove to the event in my sister’s GMC Terrain since my friends Double R and JD were with me. We would have been a bit snug in my Ford Ranger and not nearly as comfortable as we were in the GMC. As my hip and urban friends would say, that is if I had any hip and urban friends, that Terrain is a pretty sweet ride.

Actually I don't got hummus.
Pennsylvania Preferred  --actually, it's PA Preferred, part of the great dumbing down of America-- is the marketing program  of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture that promotes food that's grown or processed here in Pennsylvania. I've never been invited (that will be $35 please) to be a PA Preferred VIP before; I’m more of a Jersey Fresh (as in stuff that's grown in New Jersey, not portly Gov. Chris Christie on the first date) roadside stand kind of guy. Pennsylvania is my home state, but it’s hard to beat Jersey corn and tomatoes and the rest of south Jersey's fantastic produce, not to mention the top drawer medical waste that washes up on the beach. But I was eager to see what the Keystone State had to offer, hence piling in the car to head to the state capital. 

Although the weather during the trip was like a warm-up act for this week’s Polar Vortex, in the car we had the choice of Ice Station Zebra or Bessemer furnace. Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly fluent in the heater controls. In the digital age, high-end car climate controls are not always intuitive for late model boomers like me. I didn’t really feel like downloading the seminar on how to work everything, let alone stopping at a GM dealer to see if Mr. Goodwrench matched the promise of his Grindr profile. So I fiddled with the heater as we drove. Sometimes I was hot. Sometimes I was cold, and other times I was hot and cold at the same time.

Except for the heater controls, the trip down was uneventful. Somehow I resisted temptation when we went by Clarks Ferry, sparing Double R and JD the story of stopping at the dirty book store there years ago to buy a SCREW magazine (RIP Al Goldstein) en route to New York City to see if live sex shows in Times Square really contained live sex. (I don't know about the rest of the theaters, but at The New Bryant Sextacular the answer was not just yes, but hell yes.) When we got to Harrisburg we parked at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture across the street from the arena and took a shuttle bus the rest of the way to the Farm Show Complex.

We weren’t even in the shuttle bus when some nebbish from the Port of Philadelphia glommed on to JD and was expounding on the many fine qualities of the Port of Philadelphia (Rated #1 by both Philadelphia and Camden mobs, biggest port for frozen Alpaca (“The Other South American White-ish Meat”) in the tri-state area, etc. etc.  I’d describe him as a barnacle, but barnacles don’t usually have comb-overs. His social skills were more than somewhat lacking—I could see him throwing snowballs at Santa at an Eagles game—and I wondered to myself how guys like that ever get laid? I think we lost him when he had to find a men’s room mirror to do a serious amount of highway work on his hair, though, frankly, even Stevie Wonder could see that he had a comb-over.

The farm show complex is cavernous and so once the shuttle bus dropped us off at main entrance (sponsored by Underwood Deviled Ham) we walked and walked and walked some more before we found the registration tables for our function. We gave the earnest young folks at the registration desks our names, but there were no wrist bands, tickets, or other proof of purchase to show for our efforts. Then again, who would walk through the bowels of the Farm Show Complex (sponsored by the North American Beef Jerky Institute and Metamucil) to crash the PA Preferred VIP Reception?

After passing the Future Farmers of America coat check, I skipped the Campfire Girls shoeshine stand in order to dash right into the reception.

It's Dad's Hat, not Dad's Hot, which is way too ick in a post-Sandusky Pennsylvania.
The reception was in what looked like a convention hall—a super-sized space but without booth babes and/or porno actresses extolling new cars, consumer electronics, or home improvement products. The room was circled by food stations where uniformed catering types were dishing out what my father used to call heavy hors d’oeurves. There was a pork station, a veal station, etc. etc., right down to a dessert station, and even a beer/wine/booze station.

There were plenty of people there, though it was hardly a crush of PA Preferred VIPs. I’d heard that most anything was suitable in the party dress department and saw everything from men in suits to jeans. The best outfits belonged to two presumably certified heterosexuals in extremely fetching camouflage blazers from the Duck Dynasty Collection by After 6. And no, it wasn't the cool urban hipster skinny jeans sort of camouflage, this was the kind that comes with a matching recliner, covered in Herculon.

Since the room wasn’t as crowded as it could have been, it meant finding my friends more easily. I was renewing old acquaintances and chatting some new people up a storm and when someone said, “Look at that woman over there in the gown, it’s Mrs. Pennsylvania!

I looked and after some squinting said, “That’s not Mrs. Pennsylvania, it’s Ms. Pennsylvania. She’s au courant. And it sure looks as if she’s making time with Mr. Pennsylvania.

Sitting on the chairs at the edge of the room was a woman in what can best be described as a getup, decked out in a tiara and sash. She was smooching and making googly eyes at a man of a certain age plus twenty years. He was wearing a tuxedo. 

In a flash my friend Patti joined Double R and me in going over to meet Ms. P.

Ms. Pennsylvania was nice, but I couldn’t help but think of her as a woman who’s had too much to drink and isn’t quite as attractive as she thinks she is. If I were going to be snarky, which I hardly ever am, I’d say she reminded me of the sort of person you meet at a semi-low end airport bar during an interminable flight delay. I don’t remember her name but I recall that she said she was a psychiatric nurse and said that this was her first pageant. Yikes. She looked as if she learned about makeup from Tammy Faye Bakker and maybe got some fashion tips from her too, since that sort of jacket thing, was, well, you just don’t see that every day. Trust me, that jacket had a label that said Merkin Donor or I’m not The Wandering Wahoo. Ms. Pennsylvania introduced her gentleman friend slash beau not as Mr. Pennsylvania but Mr. America. Then she gave him a look that said that he was going to get lucky tonight, or perhaps unlucky, depending on how you look at it.
Ms. Pennsylvania volunteered that she had an album out—“What genre?” I asked, thinking that she might have done a cabaret act. “Inspirational” she replied, something I should have seen coming.
No sooner had I snapped some photos of Ms. P than there was an announcement over the public address system that all the queens should come have their photos taken with the governor. No, I’m not making that up. Seriously. The public address announcer really said that. Of course, much chuckling ensued.

So there was Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, looking as usual, as if he was about two minutes from wading into a fight at an Irish sports bar, surrounded by a bevy of young lovelies who represented many different aspects of Pennsylvania agriculture. Even Ms. Pennsylvania got in on the action. The people at the reception acted as if this sort of thing happened every day. It was one of the craziest things I’d seen in a long while.

I don't remember who the people were behind the Junior Grange Prince and Princess. They were some other edition of Grange Royalty, I think. 
So even though I’m a wallflower at parties, I decided right then and there to meet all the young royals who represented Pennsylvania agriculture. If the photos are a tad fuzzy, it's probably because I had Pennsylvania free-range artisanal Schuylkill County sourced gravy on the camera lens, an issue compounded by laughing when I took the photos.

The Lamb and Wool Queen wears a sash made from sheepskin. So slimming, too! 
She's the Maple Sweetheart since some troglodytes in Somerset County own the term Maple Queen.
Even though she was representing a black cow, the Angus Queen was wearing white shoes. Before Memorial Day.
Grapes rate a Princess and a Queen. They're besties with the Apple Queen.
The Pennsylvania Rabbit King is from Pittsburgh; the Rabbit Queen is from Montgomery County. I asked if they had an arranged marriage. They chuckled nervously.
Yes, this really does say National Rabbit King. A nice guy with a promising career ahead of him in window treatments.
Dairy Princesses are the Windsors of agribusiness royals.
Perhaps I should have asked the Eastern Alpaca Princess if she wanted her head in the photo.
Had I been a journalist I’d have had a notepad to write their names and stories down, but I’m not a journalist, and I don’t even play one on TV. I didn’t need a notepad to remember that the kids were unfailingly polite and especially good humored even though they’d nodoubt heard my probably slightly patronizing questions about a million times. (That goes for the few nearby parental units—it would be hard to run into nicer people at a party.) The kids had to work hard to get where they were, since each queen/princess/infanta/etc was a font of knowledge about his or her industry and its place in Pennsylvania’s economy and culture.

The Honey Queen was about to enter a competition to become the national Honey Queen.
A couple even had just a touch of a jaundiced eye about what they were doing and seemed to recognize the craziness of being the Junior Rutabaga Princess. Twenty-five years from now, they’re going to come out to their kids that they used to be the Pennsylvania Guinea Fowl Duchess and their kids are going to laugh for days, if not the rest of their lives. And some of them, as in the Honey Queen, who attends West Chester University and knew the joke about going in High and coming out Gay, were actually quite amusing. She'll be a success at whatever hive she calls home.

The Honey Queen had the best bling.
The crazy part to me—and yes, I know more about my close personal friend Queen Elizabeth II than most people—is who thinks it’s a good idea to borrow the trappings of the beauty queen circuit in order to promote agriculture? The gowns, some of which were even attractive, came from thrift stores (yes, I asked), and no one in their right mind thinks that the tiaras are made from actual diamonds. So as costumes go, they really aren’t believable in the slightest. Isn’t there a better way?

After running into my Congressman (no, he was not in a thrifted gown and rhinestone tiara) in the Pennsylvania Trout Taco line and not having the presence of mind to ask him if he could get me a date with the so far non-gay Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Illinois) and eating my fill of Pennsylvania pork and other snacks, it was time to venture out into the single digits for the trip back to Happy Valley. Mr. Port of Philadelphia had apparently got lucky with Miss E-Z Pass, for he and his comb-over were nowhere to be seen. Perhaps I could figure out how to work the temperature controls in the car for the ride home. If I’d only run into Miss GMC Terrain in her tiara and gown, I’m sure she could have told me.