Philadelphia: Art, Cheesesteaks and Drug Markets
Long distance bus travel can take a lot out of a man.
The inconvenient engine vibrations stirring up crotch related bloodrushes as you roll through the ever-possessive night. The horrific opposite of joy that is being woken every three minutes by the maniacal laughter spewing from your Trump voting driver each time he makes surrealistic roadkill art out of street gangs of disillusioned raccoons. What about the psychotic looking subhuman with the face of a mugshot, slouching next to you as his loused-up Billy Ray hairdo taints your headrest? His trench coat drapes over your right knee and no matter how many times you flick it back in his direction, it just keeps coming back for more. And it's fucking hot and your right knee sweats bullets under the thickness of that ridiculous get-up that has just got to be concealing something. You offer him some potato chips to break the ice and he says no. Who the hell says no to a free potato chip? Psycho. At least maybe now he won't shoot you with what has to be an AK-47 hiding under the bulky material of that army surplus chick repellant he's wearing.
You turn to look at your wife sitting behind you. She has a window seat. Next to her, the least intrusive motherfucker on the planet ensures a humane gap remains between them and she's eating his potato chips. You're kidding, right?
Now your balls are blue because your Mrs. is wearing those badass leather pants you bought her and the engine vibrations... oh, the engine vibrations. You look at the potential murderer next to you and he catches you staring. You still have half a boner and for some reason you wink at him. He winks back and that freaks you out but then you smirk at the irony of the situation because you're on your way to the city of brotherly love; Philadelphia.
Silhouettes of cheesesteaks and drug markets pinball around your skull as your driver swings the bus into 30th Street Station and kills the engine. The vibrations stop. You deflate. Billy Ray asks if you have any chips left because he's starving and now you hope to God that he does have an AK-47 under his coat so you can grab it and turn it on him. Philly's gonna be interesting.
You've heard all the stereotypes about the hard-nosed attitudes of Philadelphians; angry, snarky people who occasionally drip-feed outsiders with illusions of friendliness that you're not really sure actually happened. Your taxi driver does nothing to debunk this stereotype. He seems friendly at first, without actually displaying any semblance of manners, but he has a friendly smile as he stares at your wife's arse and if that's all it takes to not get punched in the face for merely existing, then so be it.
What should be a regulation ten-minute trip down the I-95 takes twenty-five minutes as your driver, Winston, swears black and blue that the neighbourhood you're pointing him to doesn't actually exist. You try to convince him that you have personally seen photos of the elevated railway (El, for short) situated across the road from the house you'll be staying in but Winston will hear none of it. When you do eventually convince him of East Tioga's existence, he still charges for the extra miles. You argue, but it's way too hot and you're hangry, so instead, your wife open palms his windscreen really hard because she's awesome like that.
Your host tells you that there is a great Chinese takeout just around the corner. Your Mrs. tells you that she'll come with you because she senses that the neighbourhood is crazy dangerous. The clattering domestic going on next door suggests that she's probably right. But you need your alone time so you gently remind her that you're from Frankston so how bad could it really be?
You find out as soon as you enter the takeout and almost walk head first into the bulletproof Perspex separating you from the demure man behind the counter. Never saw that in Frankston. An agitated gentleman is pacing the length of the counter repeatedly. He's mumbling something to himself, it sounds like gonna smack yo' mammy over and over again but you don't speak crack so you can't be 100% certain.
A steady stream of crack addicts stagger in and out of the cramped takeout. You keep hearing the word nickel under various crack-head's breath so you look up to get the low down. Nickel bags! The crack-heads are buying nickel bags! The takeout guy is also a drug dealer! That is so convenient.
Just down the road stands an infamous open-air drug market that the locals call Zombieland. You decide that you must see this for yourself. The wife ditched you anyway to check out the Philadelphia Magical Gardens so you head towards Somerset and Kensington.
What little you did see of the Magic Gardens was astonishing. The gardens are an ever-evolving passion project created by artist Isaiah Zagar. Swirling, labyrinthine ramps and mosaic-mirrored steps seem to intertwine with one another in feasts of orgy and decadence. Swathes of jagged mirrors, pinks, silvers and blues, rusted bicycle wheels and more empty beer bottles than you'd find at a Cosmic Psychos gig also dominate the South Street block. As for the Slipknot-bandana-wearing Springer-Spaniel roaming the property, well that's just an unexpected treat.
You hit the police no-go drug market zone with a head full of steam. You're immediately offered a syringe for a dollar by a lovely pensioner who must really be passionate in preventing the spread of Hepatitis. Locals have warned you not to enter Zombieland but you remind them that you grew up in Frankston so how bad could it really be? You soon find out when you nearly trip over an overdosed hooker blocking the footpath. Might have seen that in Frankston once or twice.
The Somerset and Kensington intersection smells like alcohol swabs and hooker deodorant and the litter in the gutters are juicily funkified. The streets are flat and wide and creepily stalked by the raised blue girders of the Somerset El station. Scorching steam creates a slummy fog that vaguely reminds you of a movie. It's an industrial wasteland. Condemned factories. Men in trashed clothes. Clapped out cars. Mad Max!
Comparing drug scenes to popular culture is exhausting and you've got a hankering for a world famous Philly cheesesteak. There's only one intersection in Philly to hit up for a cheesesteak; Passyunk and 9th. You see that there are two choices; Pat's or Geno's. The iconic buildings sit diagonally opposite one another in a tense John Wayne style standoff and you can't decide which one to side with. You negotiate with yourself... Pat claims that he is the King of Steaks but Geno has a blue neon sign. You really like blue neon signs so you choose Geno's. You wait in line for forty-five minutes but in the end you couldn't care less because the cheesesteak is sensational. Cheese. Steak. Bread. And the bread's full of gluten and no one gives a flying fuck because you're in Philly so to hell with your gluten-free soy tofu lentil climate change.
You decide to head back to the Magic Gardens so you walk back up South Street. On your way to see leather pants you pass through a brilliant little meat market where everyone stares at you because you're wearing a T-shirt of a Ford pissing on a Chevy. But it's cool because you're in a meat market and surrounded by carcasses on hooks. You start to shadow-box a dead pig because you think you're hilarious and it reminds you of another movie. Time for a quick detour.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is a domineering splendour. Its perfect replicae of Ancient Greek architecture, its Neo-Classic prominence, its immense symbolism of wealth and pride in an otherwise poverty stricken city are all something worth beholding. But all of that crap is lost on you. You have the Rocky theme circling your cerebral cortex. You're pumped!
You sprint across Benjamin Franklin Parkway and you charge up those seventy-two famous Rocky steps. Once you reach the top you're gonna turn to face the city and raise your arms and grunt to the world! But you've just smoked a cigarette and on step forty-three you collapse in a wheezing heap on the Dolomite surface. Five minutes later you reach the top, turn to face the city, shrug your shoulders and shuffle back to 30th Street Station. But it's cool, because like Rocky, you too have conquered the punishing extremes of Philadelphia. You are Rocky!
Later, while browsing the shrunken Amazon heads at Professor Ouch's Bizarre Bazaar & Odditorium, the weird, freaky girl behind the counter asks you if you are a mountain climber because of the fifty cent carabiner dangling from your backpack. You casually swallow your last mouthful of Hoagy, tilt your head up slightly and coolly shoot back the answer freak girl has been hanging on...
Yes. Yes I am.
*If you enjoy the writing of Benjamin Munday, subscribe to The Low Road for a free download of his award winning short story, 'The Ashtray'.