Saturday, September 10, 2016

An East Coast Jaunt to the Heart of America -- Travelogue: Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia

In Fiddler on the Roof, the main character and family patriarch, Tevye, asks his longstanding but oft-bickering wife Golde if she loves him.

Rather than instantly replying, "Yes," she is taken aback at the question, retorting, "Do I what?"

But she subsequently reasons that having, for 25 years, washed his clothes, cooked his meals, cleaned his house, milked his cow, shared his bed, given him children, fought with him, starved with him, etc., etc., her considerable love has been abundantly demonstrated, if not frequently or vociferously vocalized.

Which may seem like a rather strange way to begin a recap of a 5-day trip over Labor Day Weekend that took me to Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia.

But in the week prior, there had been considerable discussion about patriotism--and what constitutes it--surrounding the decision by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to protest police brutality (via which the deaths of many African-Americans have gone unpunished) by not standing up for the National Anthem.

I do not condemn Kaepernick, and largely support him. Not only is it fully within his rights to protest, there have been far too many egregious police killings--which doesn't mean the majority of cops aren't highly honorable and commendable--and that his stance and actions are controversial, even possibly detrimental to his career, make his courage and convictions more admirable.

Protest often needs to be unpopular to have any real effect.

And although it seems Thomas Jefferson never actually said it despite often being credited, I do believe in the sentiment that "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism."

But considered in the more conventional connotation, I have never considered myself particularly patriotic, at least not in terms of overt trappings.

While I have always proudly and gladly stood for the National Anthem, and greatly admire & appreciate all men & women who have served in the Armed Forces, I have never owned an American flag and usually cringe whenever I hear chants of "USA! USA!"

I'm not too concerned about being seen as patriotic, and believe being a humanitarian is more important. But in traveling to the capital of the United States, the city where the Star Spangled Banner was written and the country's birthplace, particularly amid the Kaepernick controversy, I couldn't help but think about patriotism and to what extent, and in what form, I embrace it.

And I think my trip reiterated, probably primarily just in my own mind, how much I love many aspects of the country in which I have always lived, without feeling any need to keep quiet about many problems and injustices.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines patriotism as love for or devotion to one's country.

Which to me, taking a cue from Golde, means something far beyond--and perhaps in lieu of--adorning one's car with mini-Stars & Stripes.

In Washington, DC, I went to another absolutely phenomenal concert by my favorite rock singer--and in my mind, an American hero, for his legacy of work, his dedication to promoting the common good in his music and, nearing age 67, performing non-stop for almost 4 hours with a similarly veteran band--Bruce Springsteen.

This was my 49th time seeing The Boss, my 5th this year and my second in the same week, after a Chicago show that went beyond awesome.

Outdoors, at Nationals Park in DC, he was even better.

I also made a point of scheduling tours of the White House and U.S. Capitol Building; the former was terrific; latter a little lacking because the Rotunda wasn't open (it should be now, with construction scheduled to finish after Labor Day).

I walked much of the National Mall and took hundreds of photos of the great buildings, memorials and monuments, as well as within the Great Hall of the Library of Congress, perhaps the most beautiful interior space in the U.S.

(I've been to Washington previously, so missed getting to the Vietnam War memorial and some others this time, as 2 days isn't nearly enough to do everything. Some may enjoy this Travel Guide I once wrote about DC.)

After getting to Washington on Thursday afternoon, the first thing I did was trek via subway to the Phillips Collection, a wonderful collection of modern art begun by Duncan & Marjorie Acker Phillips long before many knew, cared about or liked Impressionism, Picasso, Renoir, Degas, Matisse, etc.

That the Phillips, as well as the Cone Sisters (who would donate their vast collection to the Baltimore Museum of Art, which was my main reason for stop in that city), Henry Walters (who with an art collection started by his father formed Baltimore's fine Walters Art Museum) and Dr. Albert Barnes (an early champion of modern art who created Philadelphia's Barnes Foundation), devoted good chunks of their good fortune to championing art and beautifying America through it, also stands as something well-worth celebrating about the United States.

It also delighted me that I went to several other art museums--the Smithsonian American Art Museum, National Portrait Gallery, National Gallery of Art, Hirshhorn Sculpture Gallery, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Portrait Gallery in the Second Bank of the U.S., Rodin Museum (only saw the outdoor sculptures here)--all, including the ones mentioned above, without having to pay a dime.

That at a time of much national and municipal financial distress, the country and some major cities see the importance of providing locals and visitors with enlightening cultural opportunities free of charge (at least some of the time, in certain cases) is something to feel proud about.

On Friday night in Washington, before catching a train to Baltimore--I loved riding the rails between cities and seeing the stately train stations--I indulged one of my favorite American art forms: musical theater.

Unbeknownst to me in booking the trip, Friday was the first Washington performance of a musical headed to Broadway called Come From Away, which had played San Diego and Seattle last year. (A promotion for the first preview had all tickets given away by lottery through the TodayTix app; I was lucky to win one that very day.)

The show is about the town of Gander, Newfoundland and its warm acceptance of people from all over the world whose planes were forced to land there on Sept. 11, 2001.

With music, lyrics and book by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, Come From Away admirably handles
challenging subject matter in a way that is respectful, not often maudlin and ultimately inspiring. On my Seth Saith rating scale, I would give it @@@@@ (out of 5). It was really phenomenal, and with the 15th anniversary of 9/11 just days a way, a way to remember the tragedy without feeling too morose.

Somewhat astonishingly, the quality of Come From Away itself at times almost made me forget that I was watching it within a historic venue where another tragic event occurred: Ford's Theatre, where on April 14, 1865 President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.

I guess it's cool that the Ford's remains a working theater--that also gives tours and has a museum in the basement I was able to visit pre-show--but the Presidential Box remains intact above the stage and there was something a bit eerie about watching a musical happen just a few feet from where a president was killed, just moments after I had seen Booth's gun as part of the museum.

But I was able to learn a bit more about Abraham Lincoln, and in Baltimore and Philadelphia, visited small museums dedicated to two other great Americans: Babe Ruth and Benjamin Franklin.

Beyond the Walters and BMA museums in Baltimore, I spent some time near Inner Harbor, watching a seemingly popular street performer dubbed the Unicycle Lady, seeing a pair of historic battleships--the main one being the U.S.S. Constellation--and eating crab cakes at a large, longstanding establishment called Phillips Seafood.

The food there was good though I can't say I get all the fuss about (somewhat pricey) crab cakes. Just as memorable, not necessarily in terms of the food but in reflecting the spirit of the America I love, was a small, non-descript restaurant I wandered into across from the Walters Art Museum.

It's called Cozy Corner and it seemed to have a single proprietor/employee, an Asian woman who was quite pleasant. The menu was somewhat culturally mixed, but seeking breakfast I simply got some scrambled eggs, bacon and toast.

Nothing particularly special, but the kind of sleepy little place with a hardworking owner (one presumes the woman working on a holiday weekend is the owner) that I really relish.

Of course, when it comes to America, one of the things I most relish is baseball, and Saturday night I went to see the Orioles beat the Yankees at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

The second of the wave of new ballparks in the early '90s--after Chicago's Comiskey Park, now dubbed Guaranteed Rate Field--Camden Yards remains wonderfully retro and a cool place to watch a game.

Sandwiched between single nights at posh hotels in Washington (the Hyatt Regency near Capitol Hill) and Philadelphia (Doubletree City Center)--albeit at reasonable holiday weekend rates--I was happy to avail myself of a pair of inexpensive nights at Motel 6 in the heart of Baltimore.

Motel 6 has served me quite well over the years on myriad road trips, and though the North Avenue location wasn't much to look at, the room was comfortable and my needs were sufficiently satisfied for a bargain rate.

The Barnes Foundation was cornerstone in my desire to again visit Philadelphia. I had seen the
amazing Impressionism repository when it was located in suburban Merion, but it relocated to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in a big new building, but with all the paintings hanging exactly as Dr. Barnes had specified long ago.

With dozens of works by Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, Modigliani and many more practically hanging on-top of each other in intimate rooms--not typical museum galleries--it offers one of the more unique art-viewing experiences you'll ever encounter.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art was also tremendous, though my ability to climb the "Rocky Steps" (and see the Rocky Sculpture) was precluded by the Made in America Festival--a bit oddly featuring the British band Coldplay and which I didn't choose to attend.

Though I had done so probably three times previously, it was still a thrill to see the Liberty Bell and to tour Independence Hall, including the room in which the Declaration of Independence was signed, and two others that served as the houses of Congress before the Capitol was built in Washington.

I also visited Benjamin Franklin Court, where only an outline of his house stands, and saw his grave before going to the National Constitution Center.

And after having had dinner at the nice--but nothing amazing--restaurant called Barbuzzo the night before, I savored a terrific Philly Cheesesteak from Sonny's as my last meal in town. Having to wait in line for 20 minutes actually made the experience even cooler.

I realize this all was a bit of a haphazard recap of my trip out east, but hopefully it conveyed most of
what I did, saw and ate, while trying to convey that "love of one's country" can be defined in many different ways.

I've been fortunate to travel to many parts of the world--much of Europe, Egypt, Israel, St. Petersburg, Russia, Australia, South America, etc.--but this year have stayed domestic.

While I hope to travel abroad again, what I've done, seen, experienced and enjoyed in Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, St. Louis, Milwaukee, my beloved hometown of Chicago, and now Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia, has been extraordinary enriching.

Music, art, history, musicals, monuments, memorials, baseball, food, planes, trains, automobiles (taxis & Uber), people--including witnessing some truly touching moments, such as cops cheering on runners in a 5K race, who profusely thanked them in return; a white cop giving some money to help out a woman in a hijab--all told made me proud of where I live, warts and all.

If that ain't love, what is?

Washington, DC



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