Monday, February 17, 2014

City of Brotherly (and Sisterly) Love, Pt. 2

Regular readers (both of you) will remember that I was in Philadelphia last month visiting my friend Martha, the famous children's book author. This, as Paul Harvey used to say, is the rest of the story.

There was some sort of all night kerfuffle going on at the hotel, since I was awakened three times during the night by loud carrying-on down the hall. None of the buttons on the phone said anything as simple as Front Desk, so at 2:30 a.m. I struggled to understand the meaning of buttons that said stuff like Feelings, Details, and Emergency Waxing. Had there only been a button for “Bitchy Guest” I would have known just what to do.

Lack of sleep not withstanding, I was still up bright and early on Sunday. It's the Bryant way. Martha made a delightful breakfast and gave me the tour of her chic-in-the-making urban sized home. Three rather compact rooms are stacked atop each other, connected by a stair that requires a high degree of sobriety to negotiate. It’s good that Martha is a little slip of a thing since if she were a middle-American lard-o, her house would be a tight fit. We had juice and scones instead of the traditional Philadelphia breakfast of pork roll, WaWa coffee and complaints about the stinkin’ Iggles, Phillies, and Flyers.

After our tasty morning repast, Martha and I set out to explore the city. She’s big on walking, so we did our waistlines a favor and walked. The first stop—after a linger outside a Catholic Church that had something to do with singer Mario Lanza—was a brief tour of the nearby Italian Market. It’s similar to Pittsburgh’s Strip District except with the decorator touch of barrels of burning trash in the middle of the street. And unlike in the Strip District, you won’t see store after store selling Pittsburgh Stillers fan gear, the City of Champions' local fashion staple.

Oh and you won’t see a mural of Frank Rizzo in Pittsburgh. Or anywhere else, fortunately. Mayor Rizzo, once known as Richard Nixon’s favorite mayor, is famous (infamous is more like it) for this  remark during his 1975 re-election campaign: Just wait after November you'll have a front row seat because I'm going to make Attila the Hun look like a faggot.  Nice.

On our way through the market we stopped and talked to an earnest and humorless guy who was sampling a Rwandan variety of Stumptown Coffee. We had a very short chat about the origin of the term “Stumptown”. Of course, I told the earnest and humorless guy that the name made me think of my grandfather who had a wooden leg. (Martha was too polite to roll her eyes and sigh.) There was no glimmer of recognition; apparently there were no wooden legs in his family tree.  I was interested in purchasing some coffee but the earnest and humorless guy didn’t pick up on my subtle signals, such as “How much is a pound of that coffee?"

The E & H G’s  co-sampler was preparing several kinds of flavored bacon. Jalapeno bacon...who knew? I didn’t ask, but I’m sure that kale flavored bacon was the next thing to go into his frying pan. It was that kind of place.

When we were finished at the Italian Market we set out for my Uncle Meade’s former home on Lombard Street. He died in 1969 and I hadn’t been there since. I’d long since forgotten the house number, but my brother still remembered it—1033. Without it, I’d have walked along looking at a bunch of houses that look alike wondering which one was his. To a kid living in suburbia, the fact that anyone lived in an ancient townhouse, in a city, in a racially diverse neighborhood was extraordinary. I’m not sure if the neighborhood really was “transitional” (the urban planning euphemism for “not that hot”) in 1969 but that’s how it seemed to me. Today, confirms that it’s a pretty nice neighborhood.

After walking some more and crossing Rittenhouse Square, we passed a decommissioned church, an enormous 19th century Gothic pile of Connecticut brownstone. The rectory was now a clothing store, and seemed worth checking out at least to see what the interior space was like. In one of those small world moments, one of the salespeople there was a woman from Martha’s running group.

I wouldn’t say I’m a fashionista, but I have a least a modest appreciation of menswear. After all, that’s what I wear. The inventory was upscale and “trad”—the 2014 version of preppy. In other words, the store featured Bill’s Khakis, Harris Tweed jackets, and so on, interspersed among manly and WASPy props, like oars, and sailboat models and so on. There were lots of great things but they were beyond my usual Walmart-ish price points.

I don’t remember too much about the women’s clothes except that they had metallic leather hot pants. That’s right, hot pants. Metalic Leather Hot Pants. On sale, of course. Other than on Hot Pants Night at Port Royal Speedway, I can’t imagine where you’d wear them, which is probably why they were on sale.

I asked Martha’s friend the sales assistant where you were supposed to wear Metallic Leather Hot Pants. She told me that they were “holiday wear”.

Which holiday is that ? I asked.

She didn’t have an answer.

When I’d had my fill of browsing, and when Martha and her friend were finished chatting each other up, we went around the corner to the Mütter Museum, at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

What is the Mütter Museum? The museum’s web site says it best:  “America's finest museum of medical history, the Mütter displays its beautifully preserved collections of anatomical specimens, models, and medical instruments in a 19th century "cabinet museum" setting. The goal of the Museum is to help the public understand the mysteries and beauty of the human body while appreciating the history of diagnosis and treatment of disease.”

Thank God for stock photos. No photography was permitted in the museum.
In other words, it’s a museum of jars and jars of really gross medical stuff but displayed in pretty sweet looking mahogany and glass display cases, illuminated by elegantly designed lighting.

Yep, real human skulls. Lots and lots of them. 
Have you been looking for a plaster cast of Chang and Eng, the famous 19th Century “Siamese” twins? The Mütter is the place to go. Do you care to see a wax model of an arm covered in smallpox pustules? Right this way, please. Are you interested in an enormous collection of objects that people have swallowed by accident? The Mütter has one—drawers and drawers of the stuff, the Chevalier Jackson Collection. Jackson, for those of you not in the know about the history of medical procedures most folks don’t talk about at the dinner table, was a laryngologist and is known as the "father of endoscopy”.

Currently the Mütter has an exhibition about medical care in the Civil War. Yes, there actually was medical care in the Civil War. If you’re like me, you thought medical care entailed perhaps a bandage on a soon to be infected wound followed an amputation and a cameo appearance by Clara Barton. The more grievously wounded would have Walt Whitman sit at their hospital deathbed while he wrote their mothers about how hot the soon to be dearly departed was, all things—especially that huge infected wound—considered.

Interestingly enough, according to the exhibit at the Mütter, most of the limbs that were amputated were done with anesthetic, either chloroform or ether, depending on the hospital. So the old biting the bullet business while they hacked off your leg didn’t happen that often in the Civil War. What the operations didn’t have was any sort of care for of sterile technique. Germ theory wasn’t understood and so lots and lots of soldiers died of various infections caused by dirty medical instruments.

There is one “interactive” portion of the Civil War medicine exhibition, and no, it doesn’t involve sawing off Resuci-Ann’s leg with a bloody saw. This exhibit is about typical treatment and prognosis after a bullet wound. You enter your height and weight and skin tone on a touch screen, and then step into a booth, the size of an old fashioned photo booth. Once in the booth, you face a full length mirror, except now you have one cartoon arm, reasonable facsimile of your own--hence the height, weight, and skin tone. A message appears on the screen telling you that you were shot in battle as a wound appears in your cartoon arm. The cartoon arm keeps changing as the text explains how you move from wound to infection to gangrene, amputation and crazy looking prosthetic arm. It's quite something.

There’s also a small exhibit on the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln and Garfield, complete with a jar containing a piece of Garfied’s epidermis.  For all you readers who are not Presidential assassination buffs, Lincoln was a gonner from the get-go, but Garfield would have been ok had medical professionals known then what they know now. His medical care was inept at best, and he lingered for almost three months, the unlucky star of a long running community theatre version of a pre-Sarah Palin death panel.

One of the highlights—for someone who never heard a fart joke he didn’t like—of the museum is the Megacolon. Yes it was a colon with issues, which can best be described as stuff went in at the top and didn’t come out at the bottom. (The good news was that its owner saved a lot of money on TP.)  Under these unfortunate circumstances this colon expanded like a skinny balloon being inflated by a circus clown intent on turning it into a obese and pregnant dachshund. It got considerably larger than any a balloon—hence Mega—and at some point its owner died, from well, you know. And then it was somehow preserved by a taxidermist (“We Specialize in Human Colons!”) and put on display. It’s a big thing the size of my leg and looks as if it’s made from brown, dried out leather. It's pretty, well, gnarly.

This isn’t my first run in with a Megacolon. Years ago I saw the specimen at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. I couldn’t begin to say which one was more Mega. There is probably some international sanctioning body that measures Megacolons, but I don’t know anything about it.

As interesting slash gross as it is, the highlight of seeing the Mütter’s Megacolon was having to wait until two twenty-something pierced hipsters were done canoodling and smooching in front of the display case before I could get near enough to see it. Apparently there’s nothing like a room full of medical oddities to get the blood racing.

Every museum has shoppe, and the Mütter was no exception. The Megacolon plushie, is a Mütter Museum store exclusive. The shop also sells conjoined twins cookie cutters, the perfect gift for any home baker with a somewhat twisted sense of humor. We didn't do much shopping. We wanted to check out some other sights in Center City.

Who knew that Girl Scout cookies originated in Philadelphia? Not me.

The Clinic of Dr. Gross, Thomas Eakins, 1875
After the Mütter, there was time for the jiffy tour of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, a great Victorian pile designed by Philly’s own Frank Furness.  It’s been lovingly restored and has some great items in the collection.

The bathroom, however, is in all its pre restoration glory. I hope they keep it that way.

After the PAFA we just had time to stroll over to the theater to see the show that was the impetus for the trip. It was a one man show written and performed by Mike Boryla.

He’s a former Stanford QB who went on to serve as the QB of the Eagles and then of Tampa Bay. Now he works in a Christian home for unwed mothers in Colorado. I’m not sure that I even thought there were Christian homes for unwed mothers in real life.

The performance was sponsored, in part, by the local chapter of the Stanford Alumni Association, and Martha, like Mike Boryla is a Stanford-ian.

I didn’t get the theatre gene, so don’t be surprised that I snoozed a bit. Actually, I can say without equivocation that my nap was the best part of the show. While I haven’t had the time to buy the Cliff Notes to read up on what I missed during my snooze, it seemed to me that the message of the show was that he was conflicted about football. His athletic abilities opened lots of doors to him, but ultimately was he trading short term glory for a lifetime of brain injuries, arthritis, and quite possibly terminal jock itch? The question remained unanswered.

The story was told without big production numbers, special effects, or even acting. I can’t say that I’m a connoisseur of costumes, but I did point out to Martha that his shoes did not match his belt. In other words, it was not exactly a great afternoon at the theater. And it was during the NFL playoffs too.

After the play, there were going to be two “talk backs” where we could discuss the play and the Philadelphia theater scene in general. Just the idea of one talk back was enough to make an elective root canal seem like an attractive option. In the unlikely event that Martha might suggest staying for the talk backs, I reminded her that they never had a talk back after Oklahoma!

Martha and I did, agree, however, that the play could have been condensed into a perfectly nice 15 minute talk for a Rotary Club meeting.

After the show, we did some walking, and even some shopping, running into a nice proprietor of a cool furniture store who was probably the only other gay man in Philadelphia who didn’t like The Theatre.

Eventually, we found a neighborhood bar and had a cocktail, some great food, and the good company of some perfect strangers also there to enjoy the playoffs on the big screen.

I’m not the least bit conflicted about football. I love the sport, but I haven't had a concussion, or arthritis, or even non-terminal jock itch. I’ve got something far better: the peace of mind that comes when you're finally semi-OK with a lifetime of being the boy picked last in gym.