by Stacia Friedman
Having grown up in Center City, I am guilty of jaded indifference to many of our local treasures. Independence Hall? Saw it with my Brownie troop. The view from Billy Penn’s hat? Once in eighth grade was enough. Betsy Ross House? Pul-ease!
So when my friend Terry Hillis announced she was coming from LA for her first visit to Philly, I had mixed feelings. I wanted her to have an “off the hook” experience. But I dreaded accompanying her through the obligatory historic sites.
I meticulously worked out a tour focusing on Philly’s uniqueness and avoiding the clichés. First stop? The National Constitution Center. It’s my favorite inter-active history museum. I love sitting on Ben Franklin’s bronze lap in Founding Fathers’ Hall, being sworn in as President on the Capitol steps (especially in this election season), donning a Supreme Court Justice’s robe and seeing the multi-media Freedom Rising performance. I find the theatrical presentation so moving, I get “fahrklempt” and tear up every time.
As we made our way through the exhibits, another employee approached us. “Would you like to attend a 20-minute theatrical performance of Live News?” she asked. Her enthusiastic manner reminded me of shills who lure pedestrians into peep shows in Times Square. We agreed out of curiosity.
Inside a small theater, three actors took turns expressing opposing viewpoints on current Constitutional issues: the death penalty, gun control, free speech, etc. Performers challenged the audience’s beliefs and asked for a show of hands on our positions. My hand shot up on the Bernie Sanders side of every issue. Terry kept hers in her lap. She owns a gun. Her father was a cop.
Which is perhaps why Eastern State Penitentiary was at the top of Terry’s list. I had never been there for the same reason I don’t watch horror movies. Experiencing fright, even in fantasy, is not my idea of a good time. But I pushed past my resistance, plunked on the audio tour headset and accompanied her inside.
Actor Steve Buscemi’s voice told the tragic story of Eastern State Penitentiary, the first prison to misguidedly institute solitary confinement as a means of rehabilitation. I was horrified to learn that Ben Franklin, my favorite Revolutionary was a member of the group who first came up with this cruel and inhumane punishment.
I was shocked to learn that this crumbling medieval structure was still housing inmates up to 1970. It should’ve been shut down decades earlier, around the time it hosted Al Capone. Ironically, the scariest part of the tour was a display in the prison yard. It showed how the rate of incarceration has soared since Nixon’s War on Drugs started in 1971.
After that I needed a drink, so I took my friend to Victor Café, an 84-year-old South Philly landmark at 1303 Dickinson St. where the waiters belt out Puccini. My mom went there when she was pregnant with me, so you could say that my attachment is umbilical. Over the years, the food at Victor’s has been uneven, but my fettuccini Verdi, an ethereal mix of spinach, mushroom and tomatoes in a light cream sauce, was truly inspired. Sure, we could’ve gone to one of the trendy new eateries in East Passyunk, but it’s doubtful that their servers can carry a tune.
Which brings me to the most challenging part of entertaining an out-of-town guest. Philly is a foodie Paradise. Terry was here for a week and, unless we spent 24/7 running from one acclaimed restaurant to another, how could I possibly choose? I started with Reading Terminal Market, hoping to nudge her toward D’Nics juicy roast pork sandwich with broccoli rabe and provolone. (There’s nothing like this in LA. The closest they come to an Amoroso roll is a hockey puck.)
Then we headed to the Barnes Museum. I have been there before, but this was the first time I didn’t run through as if I were trying out for the Penn Relays. Instead, I took my time, listened to the complete audio tour and studied in depth the treasures of the collection.
I then led Terry on a walking tour of the narrow cobblestoned streets where I grew up in Washington Square West. “Wow. There’s nothing like this in California,” she exclaimed, as I pointed out prim 17th century houses with their cellar doors, brickwork and shuttered windows. At Dirty Franks, we tried to identify all the Franks in the mural but got stumped on two, Frank Morgan and Frank “Tug” McGraw.
For Terry’s last night, I took her to South, the restaurant/jazz club at Broad and Mt. Vernon for a Tuesday night jam session. Violinist Alice Marie jolted me out of my complacency with an electrifying performance, followed by Philly songbird Wendy Simon, a young Ella Fitzgerald.
Terry’s visit had its disappointments. The weather was never quite right for the hot air balloon at the Zoo. Terry didn’t have time to see the Tarantula Exhibit at the Museum of Natural History, and the eatery where I said she would get the “best fried chicken in town” was a dud.
But Terry’s enthusiasm for my hometown was contagious. By the end of her stay, it got me thinking. Ya know, I think it’s time to rediscover the view from William Penn’s hat.
Mt. Airy resident Stacia Friedman is a freelance writer, frequent contributor to the Local and author of the comic novel, “Tender is the Brisket.” She can be reached at www.StaciaFriedman.com.