Lucid Culture


Philadelphia for New Yorkers

An acquaintance from Philadelphia found out we were going there for the weekend. His response didn’t leave much room for misinterpretation: “Why?” As it turned out, we had the kind of fun in Philly that’s worth sharing. To the people of the city of brotherly love, here’s some back at you.

As you’ve probably guessed, this wasn’t a typical touristy weekend. Best way for a New Yorker to get there is the New Century bus which leaves pretty much every hour on the half hour, sometimes from out in front of the ticket office at 86 Allen between Delancey and Broome, other times on the southbound side of Allen just south of Grand (it’s a bit of a zoo – you have to ask the ticket clerk). A round-trip ticket is twenty bucks. It took us an hour to get out of Manhattan Friday night, but from there it was smooth sailing.

First stop on Saturday’s agenda was the Mutter Museum (19 S 22nd St., just past Ludlow). A young and enthusiastic crowd shuts up in a hurry when they see the row of human skulls along the back wall, and then meanders downstairs to check out the hundreds of wax models of every grotesque skin disease known to mankind. Interspersed among them are gruesomely fascinating body parts preserved in alcohol – limbs, digits, ears, hearts, livers, lungs and a kidney or two – all of them grisly reminders of how deadly disease was in the 19th century. Conjoined fetuses, skeletons of a dwarf alongside a seven foot six inch giant, an amputated gangrenous foot and a vast collection of items successfully dislodged from the throats of people who had swallowed them, intentionally or not, are just some of the attractions. There’s also a tumor secretly removed from President Grover Cleveland’s mouth, a wax model of 19th century conjoined twins Chang and Eng, a huge, practically fifteen-foot long, foot-wide “giant colon” which did not function well and which killed its owner at 29, and the Soap Lady.

A rare example of natural mummification (a process called apodicere, where fat decomposes to a soaplike compound which retains its shape), she lies on her back, mouth wide open in a silent scream since her jaw is broken. No one knows how that happened, or who she is: foul play may have been involved. Most likely she was buried sometime during the 1840s. Exhumed during a public works project in 1875, it took a ruse by a museum curator to get her out of the cemetery (he sent a horse and cart with a note from a fictitious “next of kin”). Forensics done over the years reveal that she was probably in her late 30s, small, rotund and may have suffered from kidney stones. As gruesome as she is to look at – her facial features are gone, although tufts of strawberry blonde hair are still visible beneath her head – she looks like she’s trying to talk to us, scream at us: find my murderer! Maybe. File this under Weird Americana if you want, but all of this stuff has genuine pedagogical value to students of medicine. The museum is open 10 AM to 5 PM daily except for major holidays; admission is $14, $10 for students and seniors.

After that we needed a drink. Doobie’s Bar (2201 Lombard at S 22nd.) was recommended and made a good, lazy, late afternoon hang. This friendly little hole-in-the-wall (barely recognizable from the outside except for the little chalkboard on the sidewalk) was pretty empty when we got there: it seems to draw a neighborhood crowd. Along with a diverse, smartly chosen rotating selection of craft beers, they have cheap well drinks and an extensive menu of burgers and vegetarian stuff.

Next on the agenda was to find a liquor store. On the way, we ran into WMD Hot Sauce (1212 South St. just past 12th St.), pureyors of small-batch organic hot sauce which they’ll even make to order if you’re that particular about your heat. Proprietor/entrepreneur Robert Locke is a gregarious guy and eventually pulled out his samples from the back room: one taste of his Cleo Carrot, made with bhut jolokia peppers in a spiced carrot base, and we were sold. It’s not “nuclear” as the label warns, but it’s a rare blast of flavor and flame. For fans of the truly insane stuff, there are Dave’s Insanity Sauce and the next level after that behind the counter, along with a poisonous-looking, roughly sixty-dollar bottle of .357 Magnum extract whose ten million scoville units of heat exceed that of the pepper spray used by police. If anybody remembers the hot sauce store on Sullivan St. north of Bleecker back in the early 90s, this place has a similarly diverse selection, and the sauce is fresher.

Last stop of the night was Bob and Barbara’s Lounge (1509 South St. at 15th), a gritty trip back in time to the day when jazz bars were working-class hangouts rather than tourist traps and major cities had dozens of them. The decor under the low lights consists exclusively of Pabst promotional posters and magazine ads from fifty years ago and earlier: it’s a hoot. PBR cans are $2; well drinks are $5 and are served in pint glasses only. The crowd is young and refreshingly narcissist-free. But the real attraction is the band, the Crowd-Pleasers, a trio of tenor sax, Hammond B3 organ and drums who look like they’ve been playing here since the 60s. They play juke-joint jazz: it’s toe-tapping music in straight-up 4/4, some ballads and some more uptempo stuff. The highlight of a mix of standards was an unselfconsciously joyous romp through Take the A Train. A bit later on, they ventured into the Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye catalogs. The sax player and drummer took turns on the mic. But the real star of this show, and he knows it, is the organist, who managed to be judiciously tasteful and insanely funky at the same time, catchy and low-key with the basslines. True to their name, they got the kids to scream for more. By the time we left, a little before midnight, the place was absolutely mobbed and there wasn’t a single sourpuss bedheaded trendoid in sight. Not being natives, we can’t vouch for the day-to-day quality of life here, but at least there are plenty of fun, cheap things to do on a random weekend.

Unless you’re a minor. A poster seemingly put up at random on a deserted storefront on South Street warned that those under 21 have to be off the street by midnight; kids under 12 have to be in by 9:30. The immediate question that springs to mind is whether this kind of fascism would be allowed to exist in a city that was mostly caucasian.

February 7, 2011 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment