I didn’t take many pictures on our trip east. I’m not sure why. Maybe I just got pictured out this year – I’ve taken a lot of them over the last twelve months, as it has been an eventful time and that’s what pictures are for, to record and remember such times. I should have taken more this trip, because we had a lovely time visiting friends and family. Not as many of those as we’d have liked, either – never as many, really – but enough. Fortunately everything has a camera in it these days so I can swipe some photos from my family, but still. There were entire evenings that have no pictures. I should have taken more.
Our first stop on our Eastern Tour was in Pittsburgh, where we spent the night with our friends Mike, Krista, and Eli. It was a quiet night, really – a lovely dinner, surrounded and followed by the kind of free-ranging conversations that happen when good friends get together after too long apart. There are not enough of those nights in a lifetime, and it is always good to have one more.
The next morning we headed to Philadelphia. The old family home has been sold to new owners – nice people, by all accounts, who have been keeping my mom informed of what they’re doing to the place (my grandmother’s old room is now a bright and cheerful baby’s room, for example, which is a lovely thing) – so we checked into a new hotel that they just built up the hill from the old supermarket that used to be there when I was a kid but hasn’t been for years and yes, I know I’m getting old when I give people directions according to what used to be there, thank you for noticing, but so it goes. We met my brother and his family, had cheesesteaks in the lobby because we were in Philadelphia, and then headed over to my mom’s place for Christmas Eve.
Christmas Eve is always the big holiday in my family – has been all my life, and probably longer than that. Christmas Day is for relaxing and visiting. We had a rather scaled down version of the Seven Kinds of Fish traditional meal, since to be honest not many of us actually like seafood (you’re supposed to have an odd number, and my dad always used to say that one is also an odd number), and then there were gifts and desserts and games and life is good when you get down to it.
On Christmas Day Lori’s parents joined us for dinner where my mom lives, and then we mostly hung out for the rest of the day. We’re good at hanging out. If there were Olympic medals for hanging out, our house would be covered in gold and we’d have to be careful about stray electrical current. It’s how we roll, yo.
On our last day in Philadelphia we went to Center City for our annual pilgrimage to Reading Terminal Market. We took the commuter train into the city. It runs through West Philadelphia, where I was born, and in honor of that fact Lauren sent me this.
I may use it as my passport photo next time.
For those of you who haven’t been to the Reading Terminal Market, well, you should go. It’s a 19th-century street market inside of an old train station, and if you really love crowds and good food you will absolutely be in your element. Since this is in fact me, I had a good time. I’m not sure if everyone on this trip was so enamored of the crowds, but there you go.
I got a real Philadelphia soft pretzel (with mustard, as God and Nature intended pretzels to be consumed) and a couple of cannoli from Termini’s. You have to get your Italian fix when you’re back east because the midwest is criminally lacking in Italians. Tabitha and her friends at Small Liberal Arts College have started a tradition where they cook a communal meal every few weeks and she asked me for the recipe for Italian Wedding Soup for one of them. Good luck getting escarole in the heartland! Oh well. Spinach will do in a pinch.
After we left Reading Terminal we wandered around the city for a while, looking into various shops and finally landing in a little coffee shop near City Hall. I miss living in a big city, where you can just go out and do things like that. Cities are where human civilization peaks as far as I am concerned, and this one in particular is home. I suspect it always will be, even if it has been decades since I lived there.
We had ravioli that night. I made gravy (which is, in fact, called gravy and people who disagree with that can keep it to themselves thank you very much) and we hit our favorite handmade-pasta shop. We have learned, over the years, to enunciate “P & S Ravioli Company” very clearly, as otherwise people get a very interesting impression of what we’re about to have for dinner.
The next day we headed up to New York City, stopping along the way to visit Trish and Joel and their family. I’ve known Trish since college and it’s been way too long since we’ve visited like that. After I graduated we lived in a big old house off campus with Jack, Laura, and a few other people. Jack and Laura came up for the evening as well, and we partied like it was 1989! Which, given us, meant food and free-ranging conversation, and that’s a good thing. Several good things. Whatever.
It was on our journey to New York that we encountered Tragedy, or at least Serious Bummerhood. Kim convinced me to play the Hamilton lottery a few years ago, and now both of us have this app on our phone that lets us put in for a chance to win two tickets to see Hamilton for a total of $20, which is what? 1% of the usual cost? Something like that. You can only apply for a show a day or so in advance, and you have to respond quickly to the notification if you win, but we do know people who have won and we were heading to New York City, home of Broadway, so we figured why not keep entering even on our trip?
Kim won for the day after we arrived in New York, for a matinee show that would not have required us to change any of our plans in order to attend! Unfortunately we were traveling through New Jersey when the notifications arrived and she didn’t see them until after the deadline passed, and the Hamilton folks are not very forgiving of that kind of thing. So no Hamilton for us, alas.
We spent the next few days in New York City, spread out across Keith and Lori’s apartment and generally having fun in the Big Apple, which to the best of my knowledge is only called the Big Apple by people who don’t actually live there. But since I’m one of those people, I can do that. As a native Philadelphian I’m not really supposed to like New York – it’s a rivalry thing – but I can’t help it. It’s a great city, and I enjoy hanging out there.
It was a busy couple of days.
We met one of my UCF friends, Nathan, for brunch and further conversations at a local deli. He told us a great story about a movie he worked on that I probably can’t repeat here other than to note that it is one of the best stories I’ve heard in a really long time. Also, if you’re looking for a great deli that serves traditional New York food and isn’t mobbed by tourists, you can do no better than the 2nd Avenue Deli.
We finally went to the little spice shop that Kim has been jonesing to visit for several years now. It’s about the size of your living room, almost entirely given over to cardboard boxes full of spices, requires you to be buzzed in by the staff rather than allowing you to walk in on your own, and smells heavenly. We live in the land of Penzey’s so we do have access to good spices here in Wisconsin, but still. It was a fun place to stop.
We had a Game Night at my cousins Chris and Chris’ new apartment – chili and Cards Against Humanity for the win, especially when combined with mulled cider. This was where I discovered that New Yorkers are really focused on their neighborhoods and very clear about where neighborhoods start and end. In Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the two big cities where I’ve lived, there’s more slack in that sort of thing.
We found a lovely little book store and raided it thoroughly, though it turned out that they knew us better than they thought. One of the tables had a bunch of books wrapped up in brown paper with inscriptions that said “If you liked [this list of books], you’ll like this one!” Kim took a chance on one and it ended up being a book she already had read. They took it as a return. In the bookstore’s defense, they were right with the inscription. On the walk back home we stopped at a Goodwill so I could get a shirt nice enough to go out to eat in New York, so now I have a New York Eating Shirt that I can also wear to work because hey, button down. There were a number of other purchases made by others as well, because hey, inexpensive clothing.
We stopped for hot dogs at a Grey’s Papaya, which is mandatory for all tourists in New York but they're also inexpensive and tasty so we never resist it.
We had dinner at a nice Italian place (again, gotta stock up on Italian back east) with our friends Ellen, Rob, Jonah, and Quinn, where we caught up on all the happenings since the last time we’d met. We pretty much shut that place down, which is what you should do in these situations.
We visited the Fairway, one of our favorite supermarkets because it has pretty much everything you never knew you wanted.
Lauren and Sara went out exploring for an afternoon on their own. They took the subway down to Times Square (not on New Year’s Eve – that’s a zoo) and wandered around. On the way home they discovered that uptown subways look a lot like downtown subways and ended up in Queens, but they found their way back without any trouble. It still amazes me that my kids are old enough to do this sort of thing on their own.
We had a lovely dinner with our friends Joshua, Abby, and Zach, complete with more free-ranging conversation and a couple of rounds of a game called Love Letters. I almost had the hang of it by the time we left. It was a short visit as they were recovering from a Winter Crud, but it was good to see them even so. We took the subway back down to Keith and Lori’s place. The A train has a long uninterrupted bit and we had a busker get on at one end of it, plug his guitar into his portable amp, and serenade us until we got to the other end. Of course we threw some currency into his hat. He was good.
Keith taped the Eagles game so after we got back he and I retreated to the bedroom to watch the Defending Super Bowl Champions squeak into the playoffs with a resounding win over a hapless Washington Racial Slurs team coupled with the Minnesota Vikings losing their game. I have several students who are big Vikings fans, so I will have to mention this a time or two, I think. By the time you read this you’ll know if the Eagles have won their first playoff game (or, if you’re reading this after February, how it all turned out in the end), but I don’t know that yet. I’m not optimistic – I’m from Philadelphia, after all, and pessimism is my birthright – but I wasn’t optimistic last year either and that turned out pretty well as I recall. Go Birds!
And then it was New Year’s Eve in New York City.
We don’t do Times Square on New Year’s Eve because that way madness lies and there are too many other things going on in that city to worry about that. Lori had friends who were performing in something called The Liar Show in the basement of a place called the Cornelia Street Cafe so we met up with Chis and Chris there and went to that. We had a grand time there. They will be changing venues this year, but you should track them down and go if you find yourself in New York.
The basement of the Cornelia Street Cafe is about ten feet wide, eight feet high, and forty feet long, so it’s an interesting space to see a show. But since this was a storytelling event it worked out well. Basically there are four people who each tell a 10-15 minute long story, then there is a question-and-answer session and eventually you have to figure out which one is lying. I am proud to say I figured out the liar, though it did take me a while and for a long time I thought it was someone else. But there you go. All that classroom and grading experience comes in handy sometimes.
From there we walked over to Little Italy in a pelting rain, where we had more Italian food because it’s good food that’s why. It’s hard to get 10 people into a table on New Year’s Eve, even with a reservation, and we ended up waiting a while, but it was worth it. I’m continually amazed at how inexpensive food is in New York. We had dinner for ten in an actual Italian restaurant where the waiters all speak like my ancestors, with handmade pasta and wine, on New Year’s Eve, in Little Italy, for less than what we would have paid at an Olive Garden in Wisconsin. And it was really, really good.
Once we got back to Keith and Lori’s apartment we mostly hung out and welcomed in the New Year, because that's what one does after all.
It’s 2019, folks. May it treat you well. May it treat us all well.