Sunday, March 11, 2018

Youse, With the Axes and Melancholy

Our second day in Philly started on a disturbing note. By choice.

After yesterday's glorious sunny day and 78 degrees, we woke up to 52 degrees and falling with occasional showers. It wasn't about to stop us from doing anything, but it did require more clothing and an umbrella in hand.

Besides, a gloomy day was the ideal setting for a trek to the Mutter Museum, a place whose mission was to be "disturbingly informative" and how better to describe a place where you can see skulls and skeletons of diseased and abnormal people behind glass (no leaning, please)?

Of all the strangeness - shrunken heads, co-joined twins, pieces of Einstein's brain - assembled by Dr. Mutter for educational purposes, I can say without equivocation that my favorite was the mega colon, a distended colon that contained 40 pounds of poop when the subject died of it.

Needless to say, he wasn't terribly regular.

Truth be told, I was also fascinated to see how much of a man's face was covered by pustule lesions and half eaten away by syphilis, but that was one of countless objects that Lady G didn't even try to look at for fear of getting sick.

What she did do was pull out one of the many drawers of swallowed objects - keys, buttons, hair pins - to show me things comparable to the object she'd swallowed as a 2 year old. And we were both taken with the skull exhibit because under each one was a simple dossier telling you the skull owner's name and/or occupation, age and how he died. "Charles, 36, petty thief, shot by gendarmes" or "Marie, 25, well-known prostitute, suicide." One man was injured but recovered and "lived to 81 without melancholy."

Personally, I'm shooting for 101 without melancholy.

Once she convinced me to leave the carbuncle-covered body parts behind, we set out in a light rain for the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, although G's phone directions somehow took us in circles despite the museum being barely 8/10 of a mile away.

After an hour of walking and not finding (although G did get to hear the bell at Liberty Hall announce noon with its authoritative and no-nonsense ring), I flagged down a construction worker in a yellow hard hat, seeking local directions. And color, as it turned out.

He only had to think about it for a second - "That's the place with the giant paintbrush outside, right?" - before directing us around Independence Hall, past LOVE Park and left at the Subway and repeating the directions at least 3 or 4 times to make sure we got it. In the pouring rain and with a smile.

And like the restaurant manager we'd talked to yesterday, he repeatedly referred to us as "youse" before sending us on our way.

It's been 11 years since I'd been to the Academy and it's still every bit as wonderful, what with its salon style arrangement of paintings (new were the iPads with which to identify the art since there was zero signage) and focus on artists who trained at the Academy.

Besides getting to see Eakins' career-defining "The Gross Clinic," we caught "Women's Work," an exhibit of paintings showing the things that women do, both domestic chores and childcare. Many, but not all, of the artists were women, meaning we saw art by artists we'd never heard of in some cases, along with old familiar names like Hopper and Cassat.

Wandering through a gallery, an older women with an Academy name badge and a cane came up to us to share some information about a painting. "You looked like you were enjoying yourselves so much, I thought you'd like some more information," she said, then looked at me. "Are you an artist?"

Of course not, but G is, so it seemed strange that she'd pegged me for the artsy one. As a long-time docent, she stayed to talk about the art for as long as we had time. We paid rapt attention, enjoying her distinctively Philly upper crust accent.

Once we made it downstairs, she followed and offered up some detailed info about the buildings' architecture, including that the massive two-level staircase once floated, at least until they put in the subway underneath and it cracked in places. These days, it's supported from below.

Not pretty, but time and construction wait for no staircase.

Happily for us, Porto was far easier to locate and its enormous, castle-like wooden door ushered us into the former furniture store-now-pizza-and-pasta joint. By arriving at the tail end of lunch (and may I just say how civilized it is for a restaurant to serve lunch from 11 to 4?), we were just getting started as the other tables were clearing out.

The building's interior was elaborate with carved arches with reliefs, but they'd dressed it down with colorful graffiti on one wall and two massive pizza ovens in the back. And, yes, because it had formerly been a furniture store, the floor slanted up, the better to show off suites of furniture. Most appealing about the decor were all the various sizes and colors of doors mounted on the walls of the restaurant like art.

Lady G went for the Zola Jesus pizza with black pepper gorgonzola crema, fennel and housemade Italian sausage, but an even bigger hit for her was my Winter Betty - goat cheese bechamel, garlic, thyme and brussels sprouts - which is named after a favorite customer, who donates $1 to a local scholarship fund for every one of her namesake pies sold.

I was feeling pretty smug about eating good to do good for the second time in two days when our server informed us that the Betty pie changes every season and I was scarfing the winter version. That's practically an invitation to return and try the summer heirloom tomato Betty, right?

We were throwing down pizza when I saw smoke start rising from the pizza ovens and mid-bite the fire alarm began screaming incessantly and the hostess propped open the front door, ushering in the cool, damp air we'd come in to escape.

Within moments, in troop four firefighters in full gear with axes, looking like they mean business. Back they go to the ovens, then back out front, then back in, each time sweeping right by our table and adding a bit of excitement to our last lunch in Philly. You haven't had pie in Philly till you've had it with firemen.

By the time our chocolate budino arrived, they were focused on resetting the fire alarm, demonstrating something to the restaurant employees at a panel near the bar. The creamy budino got an extra kick from chilis, which you couldn't taste right away, but made themselves known with insistent heat on the finish.

We made it out of Porto by the time lunch hours ended (okay, roughly 3:57, but still), yes, the final customers but also the most deserving of a lingering lunch given our non-local status.

Our Philly adventure ended on South Street because an artist like G needed to see the many mosaics and murals that cover alleys, house facades and brick walls between the shops, eateries and community gardens.

Seeing South Street after nearly a dozen years gives me faith in the funky, because while there were undoubtedly more chain stores, there were still plenty of places that look as comfortably decrepit as they did on my first visits during the Bush years.

It's good to know some things don't change. Far too many things have in the years since and that's got me feeling pretty low.

Here's hoping Winter Karen will be replaced by a Spring or Summer Karen with a sunnier outlook. Youse guys know what I'm talking about.

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