Monday, July 2, 2007

The Bell, the Button, and the Bar

It's early in the morning, and Nina Simone rolls over on the ol' Ipod. "It's a new dawn/It's a new day." Damn right, Nina. Damn right. I exit the plane and immediatley start my visual search for the others. They shouldn't be hard to spot, big packs, large cases of luggage in which a whole life now exists, dragging themselves here and there, looking for a simpathetic face, another soul who's given up everything to join up in service. We've all arrived in Philly for the Peace Corps staging, some sort of event which puts us up in some downtown hotel for a few days and provides the first plank for those few who decide they best jump ship now before we leave land. Seeing no one matching the facial expression of a 4 year old lost in the supermarket, I continue on to baggage claim, and it is here where I first encounter the species for which I had been looking. There are two of them, man and woman, unloading what seems to be an endless amount of luggage off the belt, and I can see them now pushing an airport cart up the side of a mountain somewhere in the Andes as they attempt to carry out some bastardized transfusion of their life back in the states to their life in Peru. I make the approach, asking if they're here for the same reason I am. Knowing the answer beforehand, I planned the rest of the conversation, including my out, knowing that introductions always tend to be a bit awkward. From the Carolinas, they said. Married. Interesting. Intelligent, the both of them. But, above all, what I came to value most in the twenty or so minutes we spent conversing on the way to the hotel was the fact that they were down to earth. A trait too often lost in college grads. A trait that I'm probably culpable of losing at some points in my life. In the end, I realized that they, nor anyone else packed too much luggage. It was a case of me packing too little. I knew I should have jammed in that baby grand piano, but hey, you'll never finish the book if you keep flipping the pages backwards.

When we, a group of 5 or 6 that have decided to take a shuttle together, arrive at the hotel, we go through the usual protocol when groups of people meet who have never met before. The "sizing up" begins. Being much like every one else, new and wet behind the ears, I play along. My name, my state, the country to which I'll be going, my level of the native language spoken there, the program for which I'll be working, my social security number, and for those special few, my measurements. But seriously, by the 15th minute, I'm thinking personal business cards would have been a better investment than the knife which I purchased to decapitate lions, tigers, and bears, of which none are native to Peru. When presented with a situation such as this, one must rely on the great uniter of mankind: food. Food pleases people, makes them happy, which helps my lame jokes go over a little bit better, and, per chance they aren't even funny (my jokes, that is), the food keeps the mouths full and feedback to a minimum. So, we head for cheesesteaks, a food whose name sounds as if it could stop a man's heart. Philadelphia, the birth of a government and a sandwhich, both of which are slowly killing all it's inhabitants. The cycle of brotherly love, if you will.

Training lasts through the day, and beyond scoping out the rest of my cohort, there isnt much to comment on except for the mutual exchange of hot air between staff and crew. The evening rolls around and everyone is itching to get out, to get a beer, to get loose, to get to know the real you and the real me and what the fuck we're really doing here. We head out, but trying to navigate a group more than 3 or 4 people to the same bar is futile, so I drop back, not wanting to waste the energy and not really caring where I end up, as long as they serve the sweet serum and there's a few people with whom I can have a good conversation. It's never been about the place. It's the people that matter, it's the interaction between you and them that makes the moment, that makes the memory. I could give a shit if I did the 100 things I supposedly needed to do before I die if I did them alone. The group breaks off and the believer in democracy in me goes with the majority, which subsequently leads me to a Tex-Mex joint and a subsequent questioning of majority rule. Whatever, they serve beer, and I'm not that hungry anyways. The group grabs a table in the back, and knowing there must be 15 of them, I opt for the bar, experiencing the "group check" one to many times in my life. I approach the bartender, telling her I want to try something uniquely Philadelphian, hoping she would throw herself over the bar and tell me that she's unique, and from Philly. I settle for an independent brew, which costs me five dollars and thirty minutes of disappointment. But the conversation is good, which makes up for it under any circumstances. I'm sitting between two recent college grads, how recent I couldn't say. Older than I, I assume, one being from Chicago and the other from Delaware. The chap from Delaware is a good source of info, being from around the area and all, and recounts to me the story of the two famous cheesesteak (I still find myself unsure as to if that is one word or two) joints in South Philly. I capitalize the word south not because of its cardinal importance, but rather, in the way it's been explained to me, South Philly, much like North Philly, is a place of its own distinction, and should be referenced as shuch. It is here that I first hear of Pat's and Ginno's and the legend and lore of them both. A living monument to Philly. The importance which I once placed on seeing the Liberty Bell now shifted. I would make it to South Philly before my time was up. Once realizing his authority in the situation, the lad from Delaware speaks ad infinitum about things of which I had never heard or was never interested in hearing, but I don't mind. After all, the guy has the balls to lay it all out there and doesn't give a shit what anyone thinks, and I find a bit of respect in that. Plus, he's a bit of a character, and I enjoy his show. The Chi-town cat chimes in here and there, interspersing the conversation with elements which I find myself more aquainted with, things such as drunkeness and the Bukowski-esque admiration of women, if such a thing could be labeled as admiration. Either way, I enjoy the present group, and I relax knowing that I'm in honest company and not facing some nitwit trying to recite his senior dissertation on Marx's labour theory of value, knowing that no one, including himself, gives a shit.

Outside of the gentlemen flanking me, there sits a table of 14 or 15 which I have yet to tap for further entertainment. Taking note of this, I venture outside my circle and strike up a conversation with the elder in the group. An old guy, 'bout my father's age, which can mean one of two things: he's either full of knowledge or full of shit. I luck out and get the former, although just as much value can be given to the latter, depending on where you find your value. His honesty commands my respect, and I have no qualms in giving it to him. He presents himself as is, and there's no facade which I have to attempt to psychologically dismantle. A straightshooter with a good heart. I knew instantly that we would become good friends. The beers, the conversation, and the night all dwindle down and my moment of vindication approaches as the waiter brings the check, of which I have remained apart from. Two hundred and some odd dollars, says the bill. I chuckle as everyone reaches for their wallets. A ten here and an twenty there, calls for change and for separate checks going unanswered, as I sit in complete bliss. Ten minutes later the bill is still forty bucks short and eyes begin to fall upon me looking for a scapegoat. I begin to mount my defense, but it appears my new friends have my back, verbally lashing anyone that demands money from me. These fellas are alright. We retire to the hotel for the night, anticipating a full day of positive programming tomorrow, and knowing without due rest our imaginations will be limited, thus obstructing our daydreaming potential.

I awake at 7 to the sound of my roomate doing the same, or at least attempting to. Maybe he'll get the fourth alarm, as the first three have come across as simply unimportant. Reminds me of a good friend back home who knew his weakness was getting out of bed. This guy used to purposely set 5 alarms and used to lament on how he didnt need more days in a month, more hours in a day, or even more minutes in an hour, but simply more seconds in a minute. This, of course, made no logical sense to me, but I accepted it because some things arent worth arguing about. But back to my current roomate. With the way he carries himself and the way he speaks, he reminds me of Bill Cosby, a comparision which I relate to him and subsequently receive a look of bewilderment. He's physically imposing, sitting at about 6 feet and two hundred pounds, which doesn't seem like Bill Cosby at all. Maybe I'm off. Maybe its been too long since I've seen Bill Cosby. This Cosby's a smart fellow and somewhat philosophical, being able to recite the I Ching and the Art of War as party favors for those willing to be informed, or should I say, enlightened. A pleasant roomate, conversationally skilled and socially intelligent. I'm beginning to wonder where all the jackasses have gone to, seeing as how I haven't run into one since my arrival. A man needs his run-ins with jackasses, for nothing more than to calibrate his internal compass and let him believe, if only in that interaction, that he's still on course.

With this in mind, I take to the streets in search of breakfast. Philly is growing on me by the hour, or maybe I'm growing on it. I do tend to get attached rather quickly. There's nothing like being on the streets of a big city during the morning rush hour with nothing to do but watch the rest of the world in all their grand turmoil and purpose. We work like slaves so we can pay to be treated like kings. Satisfied with my requisite philosophical observation, I can move forward and begin concentrating on more pressing matters, such as when the daily shit will take place, which, although not pressing at the moment, is always a concern when in a foreign environment. I book it up about five blocks or so, noting that (sh)it will only come to those that build a baseball diamond and wait on the 1920 NY Yankees to walk out of a cornfield to play a game. So, I choose a local diner on a random corner and begin building my field with a of eggs and some toast. Breakfast is absolute garbage, but there's always one chance at redemption when it comes to the first meal of the day: coffee. There's a certain aesthetic when it comes to a cup of joe, and I aways enjoy it when it's served in a regulation coffee cup that looks as if its twenty or so years old. The smaller the better, as refills are free and I don't feel like wearing out my kidneys before I'm thirty. Why the old cup? Makes me feel closer to the original purpose of coffee. There are no frills here, a simple ceramic formation with a handle. Save your art for your walls and your quotes for your books. Leave the coffee and I out of it, at least for now. We'll visit you later, when we're both on the go.

After the required second cup, which is consumed to give the coffee an equal opprotunity to prove itself, I head out, back to the streets. The day is still a virgin, yet to be fucked over by endless attempts to rape the living shit out of society. I make my way back to the Peace Corps, where they promote the consensual intercourse of nation-states in the hope to spread the paternal United States seed in to the fertile fields of the third world. Training commences and I begin looking towards lunch, looking back towards the streets, yearning to give the city a good traipsing. Four hours later the group is again clogged itself at the hotel exit, sounding like a confused group of geese. I've come to know a fellow trainee that's been shacking up in Philly now for about a year, and I follow his lead. With a little personal imput, him, I, and one other decide to book it south to Pat's and Ginno's to give the ol' cheesesteak a go. The first cabbie which we approach doesn't seem to know where Pat's is, or even that it exists. Maybe he's new, I think, and give him the benefit of the doubt, knowing damn well any cab driver within a 100-mile radius should know damn well where to find the most famous cheesesteak joint in the world. The next cab driver knows the place better than he knows his own apartment, and makes us aware of that fact and many others to follow. The driver turns out to be one of those people to whom you ask a simple question and the answer that follows is more of a discourse on the past 20 years:

"So, which do you like better, Pat's or Ginno's?"

"Well (note: any answer to an "a or b" question that begins with "Well," is going to cost you at least 10 minutes), I mean, Pat's is good, and, I mean, Ginno's is too, but to be real witcha, they's this otha joint, 'bout 10 minutes or so up nawth, called _____, and man, lemme tell ya, dat's a damn good steak right der, and man, I's goes up there when I's 'bout to get me a bite, ya know. Shit man, dis shit down here become so damn commericial and shit, it aint even 'bout Philly no more, feel me? I mean, dis shit aint hoppin' wid nuttin but tourists nowadays, feel me? And, man, shit, when I's wants to eat, I's wants to eat. I aint want to wait on no muthafucka takin 20 minutes ahead a' me, takin' pictures and shit, wastin' my goddamn time. Speakin' of tourists, man, they got this new thing, you see that shit back there, damn credit card machine in the cab, and man, dem credit cards charge me muthafuckin three o four percent, and them tourists just swipin' away, aint given me no kinds a cash. Shit, man, when I get that cash, I get that cash right den, i aint gots to wait no fuckin 3 or 4 days whiles they be takin out 4 percent out my damn cab fair. Shit aint right, man, so I's just be tellin' them its broke and it don't work, that machine back there, that way they dont be swipin. Hell, man, all these restaurants in Philly, and the credit cards chargin them less then they be chargin us to process. To process? What da fuck they gotta do? Process, my ass. I'll process them, shit, if I ever see 'em. But, na, man, it's cool, but you cats is young, so dont be gettin' into cab drivin. Dat's what I be tellin' all them youngstas, dont be doin' this when you's fifty, like me. But, shit, man, I's gots to live, feel me? So dis is what I be doin', you know, makin' ends meet, providin' for mines, tryin to keep 'em full, you know, wit dat "cheese wiz wit", feel me? Dats da shit right there man, cheese wiz wit. Ima drop you fellas at Pats, cause they be makin' that shit right."

This is one of the most enjoyable conversations I've had in some time, both because of the story and because I only have to exert minimal effort in keeping the conversation going. It's one of the few times when you don't feel bad for not contributing and your counterpart doesnt feel bad for just making you listen, because really, you'll only know each other for the next five minutes, and neither of you care about your impression with the other. We end up at Pat's, and I look over the joint to observe the manner in which I should conduct myself. On the wall there are instructions for ordering, and the guy at the register looks as if he doesn't tolerate much shit outside of the instructions. I get in line, a little piece of me wanting to screw up the order intentionally to see if he'll scream at me and tell me in some Eastern European voice, "No Cheesesteak For YOU! NEXT!!" But, I order the usual without complication, a "cheese wiz wit", as its called, but find myself confused as to what I do next, but luckily, this place is faster than most fast food joints, and within two minutes I'm at my table eating a cheesesteak and waiting for the fireworks in my mouth. It is here that I first have the opprotunity to become aquainted with this cat from Philly. He's an independent thinker, and I like that, and over lunch we get to know a little about each other. He would eventually become a good friend of mine, but that is jumping ahead. For now, we talk about the city, and how he ended up here. Went to school out in Arizona and now in Philly by way of NYC. He's one of the few people I've met that isn't being led around by the economic bridle which has seemed to have attached most to the assembly line of careers and professionalism. Turns out I saw that liberty Bell after all.

A post-cheesesteak jaunt would lead us over to the rival, Ginno's, and after observation, it became clear that Pat's was an Irish joint and Ginno's an Italian one. Both apparently had beef with the other, no pun intended. At Ginno's, I see my first ever anti-Mummia poster, which proves to be a bit of a wake up call as to the two-sidedness of every coin. Nothing like a refresher of your cultural sensitivities. A walk through the Italian market and at short cab ride back to the hotel and we're on the clock again, going through various presentations, videos, and speeches designed to orient us to the world of the Corps. The crowd is laid back, relatively smooth, a few overachievers and underachievers tossed in for good measure. I begin to wonder what side of this spectrum I sit on, and then give up on that to check out all the women in the room, which subsequently tells me what side of that spectrum I'm sitting on. Training draws to a close sometime late in the afternoon, and I head out to see if I can scout out free use of the internet to tie up some loose ends which I left dangling when I left Austin. An exercise in critical thinking: You've just exited a training course at a hotel in the middle of Philadelphia. You're looking for internet access, and you don't have a laptop. What do you do? I'd rather not ask anyone to borrow their laptop, because that's like asking to borrow someone's wallet or razor. There are certain things you don't ask to borrow, and by you, I obviously mean me. So, I head out to find the first public official I can. I come upon a bicycle cop and tell him my needs. He tells me he can't help with those so I ask him about the internet. Turns out the UPenn library is located a few blocks away, so I head to check it out. Marks the second time I've been on an Ivy league campus, and I have a desire to talk with some of the student body. I stop and ask a group of communists on a corner ("Communists on a Corner" should be a book title, if it's not already) where the library is and they point me to a large, fabricated button. A button. In the middle of campus. Not a button to push, but a button much like the buttons one would use to fasten their pants, but with a 10-foot diameter. I sit and think for a minute on its significance, attempting to come up with a story that would satisfy my curiosity. Hmm, button, a button at UPenn, in Philly, the Quaker state, quakers and buttons, buttons and quakers, oatmeal. No, nothing down that alley. This would be the only time in my life I ever valued, in the least, wasting my time reading the DaVinci Code. Now, if Dan Brown can do it, so should I be able. The button, I decide, makes the campus upscale. It's a button-down campus, and I wouldn't be suprised if there's a sculpture of a popped collar somewhere around the bend. Deciding not to waste more time on this, I enter the library. Upon seeing my Texas driver's license, the old, overweight women at the library security desk asking me to sing the state anthem. I tell them I don't know it, so they sing it for me. Nice to know it gets around. I walk through the turnstile with their voices fading into laughter, not at me or for me, but simply in an act of closure. With their seemingly superficial happiness drifting swiftly to the back of my mind, I head towards the computers, feeling as this may be the last chance to damn up those rivers which I left flowing back home.
Ten minutes of paying bills, writing short, choppy emails, and giving a cursory glance to the daily news gives me the sense of freedom for which I had been looking. Business has been handled and it was time to move on. It was time I flip the page on America.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Wow, nice writing! If you write the book 'Communists on a Corner' it'll probably be a bestseller.