Travelogue: Philadelphia and NYC!

Went to Philadelphia last weekend to reconnect with some college friends I hadn’t seen in decades, and thence to NYC to see my elder daughter’s capstone performance for her masters degree!

I can’t really put into words the joy that seeing my college friends brought me, but it was a lot. As when I see my high school friends, there’s something incredibly powerful about seeing people who knew you when you were unformed and making lots of mistakes and still like you anyway.

It occasioned in me a sudden sympathy with people who say they are “blessed.” I’ve always considered this an arrogant thing to say, like God has singled you out for good stuff, which of course implies that folks who are having a hard time are actually cursed. (and also implies that there’s a God, but let’s not get into that.)

But, it occurred to me as I walked around with these dear friends that maybe there’s another, more charitable way to look at this saying. I was feeling like, “wow, I’m so incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to hang with these people, and this good fortune is unearned. It’s just something wonderful that happened to me that I don’t really deserve.” Maybe that’s what people mean when they say they’re blessed. Or maybe it’s not, and I was right the first time! Or maybe it’s both!

Fear not! I’m not about to run around telling people I’m blessed!

Anyway, walking around West Philadelphia was bittersweet, but not because I was feeling maudlin about my lost youth, but, rather, because there’s an energy in Philadelphia that I used to experience in Boston that has been almost completely driven out of Boston by the high price of housing. In other words, young people can afford to live in Philadelphia. Weird little niche businesses can open and thrive because you don’t need Target or Starbucks money to afford commercial rent.

And, of course, there’s a lot of diversity. Jamaica Plain, the neighborhood of Boston where I live, used to be one of the most diverse in the country, and high prices have been steadily whitening it, and it’s a far less interesting and cool place to live than it used to be.

(Do not @ me with your YIMBY bullshit. My neighborhood has seen a building boom, and rents and prices have steadily climbed because housing for rich people doesn’t trickle down.)

(No, really. I am familiar with all the arguments, and I consider YIMBY to be a faith-based movement based on a belief in the benevolent power of the free market and I will not argue with your libertarian ass about it.)

Highlights from West Philly: Got AMAZING vegan breakfast sandwiches at Grindcore House, a metal-themed coffee shop at 42nd and Chester. Atmosphere was somewhat less metal than I would have liked—new building, big, bright, and kind of sterile despite the band shirts upholstering the booths, which was a cool touch—but the coffee was excellent and did I mention that the vegan breakfast sandwiches were AMAZING?

That was the only all-vegan spot I visited, but there was good vegan food everywhere I went. Great vegan burger at Local 44 at 44th and Spruce! Great vegan empanadas at Jezabel’s on 45th street, though I would say that they need a better way to differentiate the different fillings, as even the staff couldn’t tell which ones were which and there were several mixups in the order. Fantastic falafel at Goldie’s at 34th and Walnut! You might think a falafel place in a cheesy little food court wouldn’t be good, but you’d be wrong!

Had a great time browsing at The Last Word bookshop on 40th street, a used bookstore where I picked up some old mystery and fantasy paperbacks at a bargain price!

And, of course, we walked around the Penn campus. Now, I’ve written before about my mixed feelings about my Ivy League education, but actually walking around made me remember what it was like to call that campus home, and how much I enjoyed the feeling of belonging I had there. (This was one of the things I loved about R.F. Kuang’s Babel—it captured perfectly the thrill of being associated with an august institution even while knowing that the institution itself is incredibly problematic.) I suppose this is why colleges have alumni weekends—so they can tap into that feeling of belonging to get you to empty your wallet. Joke’s on them—my wallet was empty before I even got there! And I’m not particularly thrilled with the university, as they called the cops on peaceful protestors and graduated two generations of Trumps and lent credibility to Angela Duckworth’s “Grit” bullshit. But I bought a shirt anyway! (Off the clearance rack, of course. Got a nice lightweight hoodie for 18 bucks!)

Aside, and I promise this is going to be the last time I lament how things were better in my day because some things were and some things weren’t, but one thing that was definitely better was the quality of the college sweatshirts. The Champion college sweatshirts of the 80’s and early 90’s were thicc as hell and incredibly durable, and yes, they were too expensive even then, but at least you were getting a garment that was warm and would last you several years. Champion doesn’t make sweatshirts anywhere near this good anymore, and, as far as I can tell, nobody else does either. I found one in a thrift store in 2000 and haven’t seen any since.

Off to New York, where I had a vegan Nashville Chick’n sandwich from Vegan on the Fly on 45th Street. It was, as the kids say, mid. Like, totally fine, but nothing you should ever go out of your way for. I did, however, get a fantastic vegan pizza from Fumo at 139th and Amsterdam, and some delicious appetizers (shishito peppers, olives, and white bean hummus) and a dill pickle martini at The Penrose at 83rd and 2nd.

Also had lunch with a friend from my nonprofit days (trauma bonded!), got to see my elder daughter perform in her show and had a delightful celebratory dinner (at the aforementioned Fumo) with her and my mother-in-law and brother-in-law, and once again felt ridiculously lucky at the people I have in my life.

Oh, but I nearly forgot! I arrived in New York at 9 AM and had nothing to do till noon. But because I have the Amtrak rewards credit card (totally worth it if you need to travel on the Northeast Corridor a lot because, for example, you live in Boston and your older daughter lives in NYC.), I had a pass to the Amtrak metropolitan lounge at Moynihan Train Hall, so I decided to stop in!

It was delightful. Clean, comfortable, and featuring free coffee and snacks (I got overnight oats with peanut butter and jelly! Not sure it was vegan!). It was very nice to have a quiet and chill place to hang out in the middle of Manhattan, but the best part was that I was able to store my luggage in a cubby there for free and walk around unencumbered all day! (The very nice Amtrak employee who told me I could do this assured me that nobody ever had an issue with this even though the cubbies don’t lock, and I was traveling with my son’s shitty old Adidas soccer backpack, which certainly doesn’t look like a bag that contains anything valuable, and also doesn’t contain anything valuable because it’s mine. I will say that he also assured me I could get back into the lounge at the end of the day with no problem, which was kind of true—the QR code on my phone was replaced with a big EXPIRED, but the nice folks at the front desk let me claim my bag anyway.)

Normally you can only access the lounge if you’re traveling first class or if you pay a ridiculous sum, so it’s not like I can do this regularly, but it was a great thing to do for a special treat. And yes, I want access to fancy, exclusive things and also be a man of the people and I recognize that these impulses are in conflict, but what are you gonna do? Rich people have nice stuff!

Anyway, I had a really wonderful few days and am feeling extremely bl——um, lucky today.