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.


  1. charming! educational! Thanks for a great and uber fun read RB. As I sit in my Philly hotel this morning preparing for a day of meetings at the Academy of Natural Sciences - I'm wishing that you were here for a full Philly immersion....

  2. Very fun way to waste another chunk of my morning Rick! And that coffee table in the hotel picture has got to be one of the most hideously ugly pieces of furniture ever created. Seriously. But anyway, bring on the Mutter!

  3. I can honestly say, I had a guy named Zebulon in my high school class. But we just called him Zeb.

  4. Well it sounds like you have all the uh, provisions you could possibly need in Philly!