Sunday, January 29, 2012

2012 Philadelphia Auto Show

I have been driving my dream car for six years now, and I hope to get another six out of it. Therefore, a trip to the Philadelphia Auto Show for me is pure fantasy. I always liked cars, though, and I'm equipped with enough curiosity about them that the Auto Show is entertaining for me. If they we to stop making MINI Coopers tomorrow and I needed a new car after that, I'd probably be looking at the Fiat 500 or one of those small, sporty Hondas or Toyotas.

Fred and some bearded gents check out the Fiat 500, my back-up vehicle.
If I were to suddenly become the parent of another dog, and that dog was a Saint Bernard, I'd probably move up to the MINI Clubman. (The MINI Countryman does not hold the same appeal to me.)
This is me trying on a MINI Clubman.

One of my earliest memories is from the parking lot of the Shop Rite in Rio Grande, NJ. I was grocery shopping with my mom, and as we walked back to our car, a Mustang drove by. A "Bonanza" fan then as now, I noticed the horse on the grill, and it became my favorite car. I must have been two or three. 
Hot stuff: the Ford Mustang
Mustangs are still my favorite muscle car, so it didn't take much for Christine, an impossibly-thin Ford auto show representative with the most awesome necklace I will have to now copy, to talk me into taking one for a test drive at my local dealer. As she explained, "Ford doesn't want to sell you the car; they want you to talk about your test-drive to your friends. That's good advertising for them." I will be rewarded with a $50 gift card, and probably a lot of email. I have loved Mustangs for 45 years but never driven one, so I figure I owe myself.

The indoor Toyota Hybrid test-drive track at the Philadelphia Auto Show
Fred, on the other hand, will be test-driving a Ford Escape Hybrid or a Focus at the "local dealer." He is looking to downsize from a minivan, but needs some capacity for hauling heavy tools and newspaper bundles and bikes. We looked at a bunch, and finally landed at Toyota where we each got to ride in actual hybrid models while the Toyota driver gave us the sales pitch. I was dispatched to the Highlander Hybrid with a list of Fred-questions to ask, and Fred rode in the Prius V Hybrid which he's had his eye on. Unfortunately for us, the sales pitch consisted mostly of a lesson in how hybrid motors work (remedial for Fred and anyone in his inner circle), but I did get to ask my questions and learn a few tidbits about the Highlander. The neat thing was that I rode around in a real car inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center!

The Auto Show is an entertaining afternoon if you like cars. If you don't follow them you have to go in with some sort of a scenario to guide you explorations like my what-ifs above. If your what-ifs include the wildly fantastical, make sure you hit Hall F beneath the main show where you will see mainly after-market products like finishes, glazes, lights, ginormous sub-woofers, and custom wheels. Harley-Davidson is down there, too, and Fred and I signed up to win the bike of our choice and probably more email!
Menacing Margie on a Harley

More tips in case you decide to go to the Philadelphia Auto Show:
  1. Take the train if you can. The Market East Station is adjacent and the Auto Show is easy to find from there. Parking is expensive. 
  2. The Convention Center is sweltering hot. Don't overdress. 
  3. Eat ahead of time (hot dogs are $5), or have your hand stamped for re-entry. We wandered over to 15th & Chestnut on the other side of City Hall for burgers and fries at Five Guys. There are TONS of places to try in Philadelphia for a quick bite, but the Gallery's Food Court and the Reading Terminal Market, also connected to the Market East Station and the Convention Center, will be quite crowded during a big event like this.
  4. Wear comfy shoes. Those concrete floors are brutal.
  5. Bring a camera. I was amazed at how many people besides me we taking thoughtful shots of the vehicles with serious cameras (rather than a just quick snap with an iPhone of their kid sitting inside). Automobile photography.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Penn's Landing: Exploring Philadelphia's Waterfront

The Moshulu, a floating restaurant at Penn's Landing in Philadelphia.
We dined aboard this Moshulu, a Penn's Landing icon for decades. It was exceptional, but more on that later. First, we took some time to explore Penn's Landing. There is a maritime museum here, but more interesting to us were the two restored ships docked here.
The USS Becuna (left, in black) and the USS Olympia (right, in red, white and tan)

Fred demonstrates the narrowness of the sub.
The USS Becuna glided under the South Pacific in World War II, searching for enemy ships to destroy. This isn't the first submarine I have visited, so it wasn't the first time I was faced with the idea of actually living in these tight quarters. There would be no room for T'ai Chi or yoga on this vessel, but perhaps a sailor could manage to fit some jumping jacks if s/he stood sideways in the hall. One is required to have a strategy when passing through the segments, or compartments, of the submarine because they are connected by these airtight, watertight, oval doorways. (These are not as tight as the circular doorways I navigated in a Soviet submarine in San Diego earlier this year.) My strategy is to stand sideways, stick one leg through the opening, duck and put the head through, stand up and pull the other leg through. Real submariners would grab the overhead handles and throw both legs through at once.

The passage between compartments in the USS Becuna.

The 160 sailors aboard the Becuna were charged with finding enemy vessels and destroying them with its steam-powered torpedoes. This is a pre-nuclear submarine, so consider the energy situation: four huge diesel motors (two of whom were named Huff and Puff) ran the generators that powered the electric motors that ran the submarine when it was on the surface. Those diesel motors also charged giant batteries that powered the vessel when it was submerged. (Thanks to Fred for this explanation!)
One of the Becuna's torpedo tubes.
Puff the magic diesel motor.

The USS Olympia's bell.
The USS Olympia was the latest in US Navy warships when it served in the Spanish-American War, most famously under the command of Commodore George Dewey at the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898. This was the battle that won the Philippines without any loss of American life. Visitors can explore almost the entire ship including the bridge where Commodore Dewey famously shouted "You may fire when you are ready, Gridley!" The Olympia seems luxurious after the tight quarters of the Becuna, especially since visitors see the officers' quarters first. Enlisted men slept in freely-swinging canvas hammocks. (This seems barbaric until one considers that the WWII sailors in the Becuna had to hot-bunk: when they went on duty, someone else was ready to sleep in their bunk.)

The USS Olympia: how would you like to sleep on one of those every night?

We didn't research the living quarters on the Moshulu. We went aboard that ship to enjoy a fine dinner. This beautifully-restored ship is actually the world's oldest four-masted ship still afloat. She was built in 1904 and carried cargo all over the world for the United States, Germany, and then private owners under a variety of names. She was named Moshulu by President Wilson's wife to honor the Native American Seneca tribe--Moshulu means fearless in their language. In 1975 the Moshulu became a restaurant here at Penn's Landing.

Yes, those are two people up there!
 I have been fascinated by this floating restaurant since my college days in the early 1980s, so this first meal there probably would have been a real treat no matter what. As it turned out, our food was delicious and the smoked vanilla bean ice cream I finished with has been on my mind since. The interior of the ship/restaurant was beautiful, and the nighttime river view from our window was dreamy. It looks like I'm sitting in front of a TV, but that is Camden!

Waiting patiently for my dinner on the Moshulu (with the Battleship New Jersey over my shoulder).

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Mystique of Washington Square in Philadelphia

Side by side, in their nameless graves, the lovers are sleeping.
Under the humble walls of the little Catholic churchyard,
In the heart of the city, they lie, unknown and unnoticed.

"the little Catholic churchyard"
These lines are from Longfellow's poem "Evangeline", which tells the story of two lovers separated when they were forced onto British ships bound for French Catholic settlements in what is now the United States. The British had just taken control of Nova Scotia in the mid-1700s, and these French Acadians were deported when they refused to pledge loyalty to England. Families were separated and Evangeline and her fiance from this Longfellow poem lost each other until he lay on his deathbed decades later. Most were sent to Louisiana where they became known as Cajuns, but many landed in other regions tolerant of Catholics: Maryland, New England, and Philadelphia. These were my ancestors on my father's side, and I was astonished to find out that this churchyard mentioned in the poem I've known for years is in Philadelphia beside Holy Trinity Catholic Church (1789), and that there are Cajuns buried there. "Unknown and unnoticed" indeed, especially to me!

Washington Square
This area surrounding Washington Square in Philadelphia has a colorful history that I'm willing to bet is "unknown and unnoticed" by the many folks who live near it. I've always noticed a peacefulness about this square, and perhaps I would go as far as to call it somberness, but I never knew why. William Penn included five squares or parks in his original plan for Philadelphia: Northeast (now Franklin Square), Southeast (now Washington Square), Centre Square (where City Hall now stands), Southwest (now Rittenhouse Square), and Northwest (now Logan Circle). Quakers like William Penn would not name places after people (this happened much later), and described these spaces by their relative locations. 

Dogs walking their owner
Washington Square definitely lacks the hubbub of the other squares, and one would never expect to find a Rittenhouse Square-esque art fair or event here. My guess is that anyone aware of Washington Square's history would discourage such activity on this ground which conceals the final resting places of hundreds of souls. You will find the more contemplative set here: old men playing chess, people reading, dogs walking their owners, and people of all walks of life passing through.

It's true: this square was used as a "potter's field" or graveyard for poor folks and strangers to the city for many years until the Revolutionary War when soldiers from both sides were buried here in mass graves. Victims of the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 were buried here, too. People who died from deplorable conditions in the Walnut Street Jail were buried here until the 1820s when the jail was replaced by the Eastern State Penitentiary. 

In 1954, the Washington Square Planning Committee set out to beautify the park and include a tribute to Washington and the Revolutionary War dead buried here. They imagined a Memorial Tomb to the "Unknown Soldiers of the Revolution" and brought in archeologists to dig up remains of an actual unknown Revolutionary War soldier to put in the memorial. So they dug and found skeletons wrapped in canvas, a clue that these would be the poor, or prisoners, or yellow fever victims. War dead were at least buried in coffins. At last a probable young American soldier's remains were found and placed in the memorial's tomb in front of the statue of George Washington. The eternal flame in front was added in 1976.

Memorial Tomb to the "Unknown Soldier of the Revolution" (1957)

Lippincott Building (1900)
Washington Square's history is not altogether gloomy. From the mid-1800s through the first quarter of the twentieth century, this place was a publishing hotspot. Lippincott, Lea & Febiger, Curtis (publishers of The Saturday Evening Post and Ladies' Home Journal), and the Farm Journal were here, and authors with the still-famous names of Edgar Allan Poe, Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, and Christopher Morley visited them and lectured nearby in the Musical Fund Hall on Locust Street. 

The Athenaeum of Philadelphia (1845)
The famous Athenaeum of Philadelphia, an exclusive subscription library now a National Historic Landmark, still exists in a brownstone building on the east side of the square. This institution allowed Philadelphia's wealthy residents access to the latest books and periodicals in a club setting. Tours are available of this treasure on weekdays, and it provides some fascinating online tours which can be found here. The Athenaeum bookstore specializes in Philadelphia, architecture, and Philadelphia architecture.

For more detailed information and a comprehensive walking tour of Washington Square, please consult this virtual tour provided by the Independence Hall Association in Philadelphia. For more information about the Memorial Tomb to the "Unknown Soldiers of the Revolution", consult this page provided by the same organization.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The FACES Project

Every year, early in January, I pick some kind of project to focus on in that year. In years past, I've focused on photography, French, Latin, non-fiction writing, Shakespeare, and Dickens. Some years I go all out buying or borrowing books and videos, taking classes, and journaling about my endeavors. Some years are just the opposite, and I lose interest right away.

Last year's good intentions for reading Dickens evaporated quickly once I was busy with other stuff. The good news for Charles Dickens is that 2012 is the 200th anniversary of his birth, and the Free Library of Philadelphia (a reasonable commute for me) is hosting bunches of Dickens-related events: This might jump start last year's project.

Dickens aside, what I really want to dive into this year is photography. I take a lot of photos of places, things, and animals, but I really don't do much with portraits. I am captivated by the photography of Steve McCurry who shoots gorgeous, exotic portraits for National Geographic and other high-profile publications. I went to New York to hear him speak a few years ago, and I was mesmerized by the projected images accompanying his talk. You have seen his work, too: I have decided this year I'll concentrate on portraits. Faces. There's plenty of information for me to get started in the photography books and magazines I already own. I went searching through the photographs I already have and put together a small collection of faces.

While doing this, it occurred to me that animals have to be included in my collection because their faces are so expressive. I included three very different portraits of Gladys the Sheltie that look completely different to me.

The next challenge for me is asking people to let me photograph them. I am very shy about asking people for things, so this will be difficult for me. (I do have a few volunteers lined up already.) These will be realistic photos (not be glamour shots!) with experiments in lighting and backgrounds. If any readers are interested in scoring some free head-shots or profile photos please comment here or shoot me an email. I have no lofty plans for this collection, but if I do decide to publish online or in print, I will make sure to have permission on file. Stay tuned for updates on this, and wish me luck with the asking!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Broad Street Euphoria: the 2012 Mummers String Bands

I shot 339 photos today at the 2012 Philadelphia Mummers Parade, with my long lens over strangers' shoulders, between bobbing heads, around poking elbows, and while perched atop a barricade. I endured the heinous stench of cigars and the stomach-turning aroma of beer. I was almost caught in the middle of a dispute over a twelve-inch-square piece of sidewalk and just missed a train home (meaning a 55-minute wait for the next one).

I stayed for about half of the String Bands which meant I got to see the second-place winners, Quaker City ("A Toys Night Out"), and the first-place captain from Fralinger, Thomas D'Amore. Woodland took the top band prize, but they performed last today with the theme "It's a Jungle Out There." I was long gone by then. The rest of the results are here if you are interested:,0,7882020.story

It was all worth it when I got home and loaded up the photos, though. As I expected, they were vibrant and dazzling. The euphoric faces of the musicians, dancers, and captains reminded me of that top-secret bucket list entry of mine. I would LOVE to march up Broad Street on New Year's Day with a really good string band. I have some credentials: I play the tenor saxophone, I participated in seven years of marching band (four of them competitive), I can handle choreographed dance moves, and I would ROCK a sequined costume with crazy hat.

Credentials aside, I understand the huge commitment required for these groups and I know I don't have the time. They practice their music and dancing all year, and those costumes! Those costumes take a lot of work in design and construction, and have to be durable to withstand any weather. This year's weather was the best ever--the strut up Broad Street would have been like a walk in the park (but with lots of preparation!).

When I lived in Center City, I would watch the parade on TV until the string bands stepped-off in South Philadelphia. That was my cue to bundle-up and head out to the corner of Broad and Locust and make my way slowly through the crowd up to the crowd barricade to get a clear shot with my 35mm camera. I would be in position by the time the String Bands arrived at that performance spot. (I enjoy the Comics and the Fancies, but the String Bands are my favorites.) I took some nice shots and after an hour or two I'd head home with my frozen toes and fingers. Then, like now, it was worth it for the entertainment, the joy, and the photos! Check out some more of this year's best and behold those joyful faces: