I took the red-eye flight to New Jersey on Thursday night and met my sister, Jessica, in Philadelphia at Jim's Steaks on South & 4th at noon. I had seen her for all of 3 hours back in December and, well, I can't remember when I last saw her before that. I ordered my "Whiz with" and a cream soda and was quickly upstairs, sharing a table with a couple enjoying equally messy sandwiches. My sister's expressed shock at me not hesitating to ask to join the other couple at their table -- there was nowhere else to sit -- was just one of many pieces of evidence I've noticed over the years that proves we live in very different worlds these days. Seattle is to Philadelphia as day is to night.
With stomachs full, we made the walk through Philly's beautiful "Old City" neighborhood to see the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. The over-reaching security measures in place at these sites really dampened my enthusiasm for the history on display so we beat feet through the heart of downtown to Love Park. I wanted to finally see the place I spent countless hours kickflipping through in the many guidebooks I've written for the games in the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater franchise. It looked just as it does in the games. I had my sister take a photo of me in front of the LOVE statue that I hope to Photoshop into one of the screenshots I have stored on a disc sometime in the future.
We sat and talked in the park for a while then continued our march to Scoop DeVille, an ice-cream parlor I had seen featured on a "10 Best" show on the Travel Channel recently. Their list of ice cream flavors is pretty basic, but the list of extras that get run through a machine and mixed into them is anything but. I had butterscotch vanilla ice cream mixed with dark chocolate espresso beans and hot fudge. Absolutely fantastic.
After a stop at my sister's office in a very scenic part of the city not far from the Franklin Institute, the two of us pulled up a couple of chairs al fresco and enjoyed a couple pints. Actually, I enjoyed a pint while she begrudgingly sipped a watermelon martini with far too much vodka. Beer for the win, as always.
Our afternoon in Philadelphia was coming to an end, but the big treat for me still lied ahead. My sister arranged to have my mother drive down after work so they could spend the weekend together. My mother had no idea I was coming to visit and got to my sister's apartment early and let herself in. The look on her face when I walked in a few minutes later was priceless. She was really happy -- and shocked -- to see me and even moreso to learn that this wasn't going to be another 3-hour pit-stop visit that has become de rigueur due to our attempts to always cram too much into too short of a visit (Kristin and I have finally learned our lessons and now do our east coast trips separately so we can focus on one family at a time... and not have to spend hundreds boarding the dogs).
We had reservations for a nice Italian restaurant in Collingswood, NJ just a few minutes from where my sister lives with her soon-to-be fiance. My mother excitedly volunteered to iron my shirt and pants -- something she hasn't had a chance to do since I was a teenager. Who was I to deny her the pleasure? But I paid her back by letting her know that Jessica and I had gotten the three of us tickets to see Cirque du Soleil's show "Kooza" for the next day. My mother, as expected, had no idea what Circus doo Soolay was and was at first apprehensive -- she doesn't like clowns and isn't a big fan of large animals either. It took some trying (and a few wine spritzers) but we were able to convince her that it was, in my sister's parlance, a "fancy-pants" show and didn't have any animals. Clowns, maybe.
I awoke Saturday in the cocoon of a nearly-deflated air mattress with a stiff back and a slight headache, but this discomfort was washed away the second I had seen my sister and mother sitting on the couch in the other room. I hadn't awaken in the same house with this many pieces of my family (two) in 16 years and it was great to sit on the couch, drink coffee, and watch the end of Caddyshack together. My sister had left a stack of boxes of Tastykakes on my bed and while I was tempted to rip into the carton of east coast delicacies, I opted for the pork roll sandwich she made instead.
Conversation soon shifted to the heat. It was going to be 95 degrees and while we optimistically hoped the Cirque du Soleil tent was air conditioned, we didn't know for sure. We had tickets for the 4 o'clock showing and it wasn't long before we had to brave the heat and make the drive back into the city. Fortunately the show wasn't only excellent, but the tent was air-conditioned. The contortionists, unicyclists, and juggler were very impressive, but the two acts that really put us on the edge of our seats were the guy balancing (one-armed handstand) on a stack of chairs thirty feet in the air and the two guys in the suspended hamster wheels. One of them missed the landing on one of his weightlessness jumps and got flung out of the wheel as it came low to the ground. He shook the cobwebs out and got back in the wheel and went right back at it. We Americans love somebody who gets back up after falling and as you might expect, the applause he received was thunderous. Sure, he's not supposed to fall, but seeing him fall and then get up and conquer the stunt on the next try was even better than him landing it clean on the first try. The same goes for one of the tightwire walkers who also fell while trying to do a flip over another performer.
See a Kooza video clip right here.
I was hitching a ride back to Central Jersey with my mom Saturday night to go and visit my friends, but first I had to see my possible future brother-in-law's 1951 Buick Eight. He's doing the restoration himself and has much of the car in pieces and down to the bare metal, but he's got it running and it sounds like a champ. It's got a straight eight cylinder configuration, something I hadn't ever seen before, and is understandably tough to get parts for, but he's chipping away at it and hopes to be showing off his first hot rod before long. Even more interesting than the car in the garage was the ring in his pocket. Yes, he showed me the ring he hopes to give my sister once the time is right (through an absurd mix-up with the jeweler, she's unfortunately already aware he has it). He's a great guy and I didn't hesitate to give him my blessing when he asked. Of course, being the big brother, I had to also play Mr. Tough Guy and warn him of the consequences of ever hitting her or cheating on her but I'm pretty sure he was just laughing on the inside just as I was when my father-in-law gave me the same speech. Nonetheless, we wouldn't be doing our jobs if we didn't say these things and I think all guys understand that.
My mom dropped me off Saturday night at my friend Ed's house and not long after I was standing in a bar in New Brunswick surrounded by friends, just like I never left. Bad music drove us to a dive bar closer to home where we proceeded to drink cheap beer and play shuffleboard and darts well into the morning. A mandatory diner stop at 3am completed the night. Who says you can't go home again?
Sunday, as luck would have it, was the baptism for my friend Dan's two-month old baby girl, Kyra. I now know what you get when you combine 100 degree heat, crazy Catholic pamphlets about the threats of same-sex marriage, pornography, and Islam, an African priest with a barely coherent accent, and a sermon about drug users being killed by rebels in Columbia. What you get is hilarity and barely-disguised madness. The ceremony was so absurd that everyone was unabashedly cracking jokes and letting loose with barely-stifled laughter. We even got a "Dunk the Babies" chant going at one point to try and speed the whole thing up. I know this must sound absolutely sacrilegious to those who weren't there, but seriously, it was like attending a Saturday Night Live skit masquerading as a baptism.
The post-dunk party was a good time though. I got to see Dan's new house and the 10 of us "youngsters" all promptly emptied a cooler of Yuengling and retreated to the air-conditioned basement to watch baseball (those damn Yankee fans tell me it was Joba-Time) and make further jokes about the undecipherable priest. Half-pound slabs of cake were consumed, hands were shaken, cheeks were kissed, and six hours later I was back at Ed's apartment looking at the map of the cross-country motorcycle trip he's taking later this month. Despite him having to be out in front of his school the next morning to picket at 7am, he volunteered to go see the 10pm showing of Iron Man. Neither of us had seen it and I was glad to finally get the chance. I'm always reluctant to see comic book movies on account of having zero interest in superheroes, but the movie was fantastic. Seriously. It also serves as an example of how good Transformers could have been when it came time for the actual transforming. Iron Man deserved the praise it got and I'm already looking forward to the sequel. Seeing it served as a very nice conclusion to a rather perfect three-day weekend back in NJ with family and friends.