Date of Trip: February 2010
Living in Miami Beach, FL, I rarely see snow. In fact, I almost never see it. I saw a LOT of it growing up in Buffalo and Montreal, and, believe it or not, I miss it! It seems that every time I go up north in the winter – and I do, many times – there’s either no trace of snow, or else bits of it turning into slush against curbs and stoops. The last time I’d seen snow actually fall from the sky – believe it or not – was on May 10, 1996 (!) attending my youngest daughter’s graduation at Syracuse (NY) University. All the other parents were complaining. I was happy!
But I digress. I’ve been writing a lot of fiction lately, and a novel still in the planning stage takes place partly in Philadelphia in the 1790s through the 1810s. I’d never been to that city, even though I’m a history buff, though I’ve lived in NYC and visited there probably over 100 times. Shame on me.
Spirit Airlines, my almost-free airline of choice, doesn’t go to Philly, but it does go to DC and NYC. I waited for the next ultra-cheap r/t to either place, and DC came up for northbound Feb. 4 and southbound Feb. 9. As always, I planned the trip carefully, with an eye to saving as much as possible. I anticipated having to spend countless hours in the Philadelphia Free Library, poring over old books and microfilms of ancient newspapers.
I left Ft. Lauderdale (FLL) at 7:10 AM Thursday morning, arriving at DCA and taking the usual long walk to the Metro. I was booked on a bus leaving DC at 6, and had time for one good museum visit. I chose the American History/Smithsonian museum, exited, and crossed a lightly snow-and-slush-covered field and path.
The Smithsonian has been aptly called “America’s Attic” and nopart of it is more attic-like than this place! Some years back, I entered it with my wife, stopped short and exclaimed “Oh My God!” “What is it?” she asked, worriedly. I pointed to a big glass case up ahead. “That’s Archie Bunker’s chair!” I said.
This visit was no less rewarding. Being a longtime coin collector, I took in a sampling of their fabulous collection, including the fabulously rare (and illegally minted) 1913 liberty head nickel, and the unique first-year-of-issue 1849 $20 gold piece. The most memorable single exhibit I saw consisted of a table and two chairs – the same table and the same two chairs at and in which Grant and Lee signed the surrender at Appomattox in 1865 and effectively ended the Civil War. There was a terrific railroad exhibit. And there was one piece of junk – a plain four-drawer office plain metal file cabinet, with one corner at the top, where it had once been locked, pried and torn open. It was the original cabinet broken into during the Watergate burglary!
I took a “Chinatown bus” (New Century Travel) from a small terminal in (where else?) DC’s Chinatown. These fullsize modern and comfortable buses travel from one northeastern city’s Chinatown to another at extremely low fares – in this case, $15. The driver, a young Chinese-American, babbled away in Chinese on his cell phone during the last hour or so of the trip. On arrival, I walked across the street and checked into my $169 room at the downtown Hilton, which I’d gotten for $50 through PriceLine. (Thank you, Captain Kirk!) Awaiting me was a bowl of luscious cookies at the front desk, and a small gym and heated indoor pool on an upper floor. My room was on the 10th floor, right next to the hotel restaurant. I had a lot of cheese and snacks in my carryon, so I relaxed and turned in.
The next morning, I took a Market Street eastbound bus and walked down a steep hill to the library, an old, sedate and mildly gloomy place with the slowest elevator I’ve ever ridden on. After setting up the laptop and some back and forth with librarians, I discovered that there really wasn’t that much for me to do there. The library’s entire enormous collection of newspapers (dating back to 1709 – and there were dozens of papers published there in the 1790s) had been scanned. I was invited to take out a library card, which I did, and then to go home with it and read and copy any page of any issue I liked from my home office!
This was a very good thing, because in mid-afternoon, it was announced that due to an approaching storm, the library was about to close and would remain closed all weekend. I walked the 15 or so blocks back to the Hilton in the chilly, early dark. Almost at the hotel, I felt what I first thought were very light raindrops on my head, and pulled up the hood of my coat. I ate in my room, and enjoyed the small gym and the pool – by then, a light snow flurry had set in.
The next morning, I looked out the window in astonishment. The city was literally buried in snow, and it was coming down nonstop. It seemed as though half the flakes were falling straight down, and the other half dancing back and forth before settling. It finally stopped at about 3. Alternating between the gym, pool and gawking at my window, I ran across the street, coatless, for lunch – two bowls of hot spicy soup – at a small Chinese place. I was in touch with an old friend from grade school who lived in Philly – an MD in nuclear medicine – and he offered to pick me up and take me out to dinner. The streets were, not bare concrete but compressed snow, framed by plowed-up drifts and snow-piled signs and newspaper boxes.
I walked past a young attractive couple who had apparently just met, chatting on a couch facing the lobby fireplace and my former classmate drove me over the snowpacked streets to the Parc, a French restaurant opened about a year earlier – to my surprise, this very large space was packed with diners, and I had one of the best filet steaks ever. Returning over two hours later, that same couple was closely cuddling. Again, the gym, pool and blessed sleep.
Sunday – time for some sightseeing. The Philadelphia Museum of Art beckoned. I walked to it, stopping at a food truck for a very good Philly cheese steak sandwich, and along Benjamin Franklin Boulevard, lined with flags of every country in the world. Short-cutting across a snow-buried field, I stepped over a low chain, fell on my face into two feet of snow, and it was like falling into a cold feather bed. A monumental statue graced the bottom of nearly 200 outdoor steps leading to the entrance – the Rocky statue was off to one side. A narrow pathway had been cleared along the right edge of the steps – the rest was buried under packed snow, and kids were tobogganing down it. Once through the long entry line, I viewed, among other things, a large exhibit of medieval and renaissance armor, proving how much shorter men had been then, and an impressive collection of firearms, going back over 300 years.
That night, I ate in the 10th floor restaurant adjoining my room. Panoramic windows provided a sweeping view of the white snow-buried city. Public transit had been shut down, and 90% of the hotel staff hadn’t shown up. The Super Bowl was on the TV. I ordered from a printout of their special snowstorm menu!
The city came back to full life on Monday. The library reopened, and I checked out two books, later mailed back. Once again, spicy soup at the Chinese place. I learned why W.C. Fields had scornfully said “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia” when I discovered that it was almost impossible to find liquor or even wine or beer for sale. The city has six state liquor stores, and almost no groceries sell beer or wine. I walked past the drifts, wanting to see the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. I couldn’t find the Bell. Independence Hall, flanked by two similar buildings of that area, was submerged amidst tall buildings and fronted by a large snow-filled field. I had seen it once before – clearly, from the air, flying into Philly before changing to a flight to Atlantic City years earlier. After taking photos, I walked almost to the edge of the Delaware River, along Elfrick Alley, one of the city’s oldest “streets” (pedestrians only), more like a sidewalk lined with old two story townhouse type buildings. Back through the length of Chinatown and past the drifts, I had dinner at the Chinese place, slept fitfully, and taxied to the 30th Street Station, breakfasting at their in-house McDonalds and catching the 4-something AM Amtrak back to DC, through endless drifts and walls of snow.
It was a smooth, pleasant ride, but at the end, it took 20 minutes for the doors to be pried open. I made it back to the airport via the partly-shut-down Metro. After a delay of well over an hour, we were boarded, then unboarded, then eventually reboarded. There were cheers when it was announced that Spirit would give every passenger on that flight a $100 credit for the inconvenience – which they did. Within hours, I was back in south Florida, where the only snow ever seen was a few quick-melting small flakes that memorably fell on January 20, 1977.
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