It had been a while since I was in Philadelphia. I’ll start by saying that I’ve been many times before — but, never just for me. I was excited about this trip — it was a trip speckled with memories here and there, but focused on excitement about my future, which could potentially begin in yet another East Coast city.
With a trip scheduled three days after Hurricane Sandy’s foray across the tristate region, I thought I’d be ok. I had found cheap Amtrak tickets from Boston South Station to Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station leaving Thursday afternoon and returning late Saturday night. The weather looked nice, and my schedule was wide-open. But, as many travels with Tavel go, it wasn’t quite that simple.
As most of you know, there was still no electricity in downtown Manhattan and most tunnels were flooded. Penn Station was closed, all Northeast Corridor Amtrak trains were shut down, and buses were not able to pass through the darkened city. It was the day before my trip, so I knew I’d have to scramble up some plan Bs. I was absolutely determined to make it down to Philadelphia, and I was not about to let a little biggest-storm-to-hit-NYC-in-100-years stop me. I had come way too far to get to this opportunity, and I’d be damned if anything got in my way now! (In my experience, it is this attitude that will get you places…)
I called Amtrak on Wednesday morning with a glimmer of hope in my heart, and anticipation of complications in my gut. They told me all trains leaving Boston were not operating except for two — one of which was MINE. I asked them to double and triple check the information, and they were equally confused and excited for me when they confirmed that mine was one of two trains still scheduled to depart on time.
I felt pretty awesome, but decided to check back in the afternoon because something didn’t feel right. They confirmed that my train was still scheduled to depart on time from Boston to Philly… I still didn’t believe them. I called again, Wednesday night, at which point they told me the train was now going to be leaving Boston with a final destination of New Haven, CT. This made more sense, unfortunately. NJ Transit was not running, and trains couldn’t get past Connecticut, so my problem had not been solved: it was time to explore other options.
I looked up flights, which were either booked or in the $300-$450 dollar range (and apparently the closest I could get was Newark, not Philadelphia). That was way too much money, and still didn’t solve the problem of how to get to Philadelphia. I quickly checked out bus schedules — and all buses were labeled as “Canceled.” By now, it was around 4pm. Finally, I got an email (and a series of phone calls) from Amtrak telling me that my train had been officially cancelled. I had an appointment in Philadelphia at noon on Friday — that was my goal. I began to get tunnel vision (har har, no pun intended) for success… My heart started racing a little and I think I accidentally skipped dinner as I frantically began calling bus companies and looking up mass-transit news stories for the area. It became very clear that any train or bus service going through NYC (which is what I needed) was completely shut-off the day before I had to leave, and I wouldn’t know if anything was running until the next morning.
I bought back-up bus tickets for Thursday, which were being sold with the promise that if the buses didn’t run I would get a full refund. At this point, the earliest bus ticket I could find was a 2:30pm bus out of South Station, arriving in NYC at 6:15pm. There was a 7:15pm bus from 34th Street (NYC) to Philadelphia, but I worried that would be too risky, so I booked the 8:15pm bus from NYC to Philly in hopes that this would help me avoid any missing-of-the-bus stress. I HATE missing-a-transfer stress. Mind you, this bus was supposed to arrive at 34th Street and 7th Avenue, in the heart of the power outage zone… But BoltBus confirmed in the morning that all buses were running (and on time!), so I had no choice but to trust them and see what happens…
In these situations, you have to think positive travel thoughts. I can’t tell you how many times I have gotten on buses or airplanes knowing that my destination might be completely out of my control. I’ve learned that sometimes you’ve just got to trust the travel fairies that you are going to make it wherever you are trying to go — and trust your gut.
I actually got to South Station 45 min early and managed to get off of standby for the 2pm bus. With an extra 30 minutes of wiggle room, I felt some good travel-mojo. I began to relax a little. The bus ride was perfectly smooth, with surprisingly few delays. It only got weird when we slowly crossed a bridge into NYC, and I could see — for the first time — the darkened skyline from the bus window. As we drove past the cops, who were checking to make sure there were at least 3 people in every vehicle entering the city, the whole bus took on a hushed tone. Suddenly, we were in the city — but it was a ghost city. As the bus drove down Second Avenue, I couldn’t believe what I saw (or, what I couldn’t see). It was pitch black. The only lights were the occasional cop car, street sign or taxi cab. I looked up at black buildings, and down at quiet restaurants. Every now and then, we’d pass a series of lit up blocks. When we entered midtown, it was one of the weirdest NYC moments I have ever had: The city that never sleeps was being forced to take a nap. And like a cranky child, NYC does not do nap-time well.
Finally, the bus pulled into 34th Street at 6:35pm. I was determined to get on standby for the 7:15 bus, and sprinted off Bus #1 to get in a huge line of people on standby. I pushed to the front and asked if this was the bus to Philadelphia. It was. They were boarding, and obviously there was a little tension in the air, so the guy was pushy and said “Yeah yeah, just get on, hurry, come on…” And within 1 minute I was on another bus (total time on the ground in NYC: 5 minutes). So much for my plan to grab dinner!
When the bus began pulling away at 6:40pm, I was a little confused (the buses to Philly left hourly at 6:15, 7:15, 8:15…). Concerned that I had taken a wrong turn, I asked the girl next to me “Is this the 7:15 bus to Philly?!” She said “No…” (Me: GULP.) Her: “…It’s the 6:15.” Ahhh! A smile spread across my face when I realized, finally, that not only was I going to get to Philadelphia after all this chaos — but I was going to get there even earlier than I had planned! It was one of the most satisfying travel moments that I’ve had in a while. I was anticipating the opposite kind of moment, so it felt that much sweeter. As the bus journeyed through the darkness, I settled in, blasting happy music, and six hours after leaving Boston, I had arrived in Philly.
Ah, Philadelphia. I’ve always really liked Philly, despite bittersweet memories of many heartfelt hellos and goodbyes out of that 30th Street train station (the lasting imprint of a long distance relationship). The city has always given me a good vibe. It comes across as a mixture of New York and New Orleans, with a smaller dose of lights and energy than Manhattan (in a good way), coupled with the bruised and impoverished outskirts of the city that seem completely disconnected yet immediately accessible from the Philadelphia most people imagine (like New Orleans). I love that it is a foodie city, even if it doesn’t come off that way at first. Because it’s definitely a little more rough around the edges than Boston, I might actually feel more at home in Philly than in New England. I was excited to be there, and to really look at it with the eyes of someone who might call it home.
Everything I did during my quick trip, I would do again. On Saturday night, a small group of us kicked things off with unbelievably delicious cocktails at The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co., a speakeasy-style lounge in the Rittenhouse Square area that I would have never noticed if my friend A hadn’t picked it. With a seven-page cocktail menu ranging from what I’d call a category 1 storm (listed as “Easy Going” drinks, such as the Apocalypstick — Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey, Yellow Chartreuse, Maurin Quina, Cynar, fresh lemon juice, house blackberry) to a category 5 storm (listed as “I Asked for Water, She Brought Me Gasoline” drinks, which includes the Art School Timeline — Lairds Bonded Apple Brandy, Buffalo Trace Bourbon, New York Madeira Wine, Rothman Winter Apricot Liquer, cane syrup, hopped grapefruit and mole bitters served on a rock). I could have spent many, many hours exploring the cocktail menu (and many, many dollars), but we had dinner to attend to afterwards, so my ginger-infused play on a Dark and Stormy (recommended to me by the waiter when I couldn’t decide) would have to do. Oh, and it DID.
With a strong cocktail in our systems, we headed to First Friday — where we could stroll the streets of Philadelphia at night, going from art gallery to art gallery, and enjoying the quirky and sometimes odd street performers/artists along the sidewalks. After working up an appetite, we found ourselves devouring melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi with a couple bottles of our own wine (apparently PA has strange liquor laws and wine/beer-serving restaurants are hard to come by) at Giorgio’s. Giorgio himself was there, and from the moment a bowl of roasted garlic soaked in olive oil arrived at the table, I knew that if I do in fact end up in Philadelphia — Giorgio and I will meet again.
It would be a quick trip. After a majorly satisfying and exhausting Saturday (I had a 4.5 hour interview with no lunch… oy), I was able to enjoy a light brunch and visit the perfectly relevant-to-my-trip Mutter Museum (this had been on my Philly to-do list for YEARS). This museum is a must for anyone who likes anatomical oddities or random small but packed museums. It is a pre-Doctor of Physical Therapy student’s perfect museum, and since I am currently taking Anatomy and Physiology, my visit couldn’t have been more appropriately timed, nor more appreciated. The brisk walk back to my home base through Rittenhouse Square’s cheery farmer’s market to the slightly quieter South Philadelphia ‘hood made it very easy for me to see myself living there.
I got back to Boston at 1am last night. Luckily, my return train was fully functional, although 1.5 hours late (making it a 7.5 hour journey… oooof). I’m back now, after passing from a potential future home (Philadelphia), through my real home (NYC), to my current home, in Boston. I have a happy tummy and a happy, hopeful heart. I’ll have to be patient as I figure out where I might be able to live next year (it’s not totally up to me).
For now, I can confidently say that if it is Philadelphia, I’d be absolutely thrilled. Sometimes it’s all about where we’ve been. But right now — for me — life’s much more about where I’m going.
As always, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.