Saturday, 5 July 2014


What's the best film ever set in Philadelphia?

The city itself is the title of one contender. I haven't sat through it myself but if Tom Hanks can win an Oscar in the lead role then Philadelphia must have some merit. I could make a strong case for Silver Linings Playbook which, were it not for the fact that its main protagonists played by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are stark staring bonkers, might otherwise be an ordinary rom-com. It is much more than that. It's a modern classic which I heartily recommend you watch if you haven't already.

But even that isn't the best. As we all know the best film ever to be set in the city of Philadelphia is Rocky. Not the fun but hysterically bloated sequels but the 1977 Best Picture winning original. Do you remember the scene where Rocky is on a training run around the city and all the children chase after him? It ends with him climbing the steps to City Hall (except it's not, more on which later) at which point there is much jumping up and down and air-punching. Right there is where I'm going today. We're going to Philadelphia.

We're risking life and limb again by taking yet another form of New York public transport. Following our travails with the subway we're going to dabble in the use of the regular rail system. Penn Station sits between 31st and 34th Street between 7th and 8th Avenue and, though the trains which leave from it are not subway trains, it is based solely underground. It sits underground because above the ground on that particular patch of land you will find Madison Square Garden. Madison Square Garden is not in Madison Square. It has been moved around New York several times but it seems that the owners just liked the name and wanted to keep it. Maybe they recognised its value as a brand but as noble as that would be it strikes me as very old fashioned to hang on to a name for that reason. Stadia don't have names like Petco Park, Met Life Stadium, The Etihad and The Emirates because they're recognisable and iconic. And that's not a cynical suggestion.

As is the way of things we have to carry on down to 31st Street to find the accessible entrance, and do so after initially getting into the wrong lift at 33rd Street. However, and brace yourself because I am about so say something positive about access in New York, the Amtrak rail company is several worlds better than those I have experienced in the UK. It takes a while to wade through the queue to buy the very expensive tickets ($98 or around £60 return per person) but once we have done that we find that there is a designated area for passengers who require assistance boarding the train. We are met by someone who leads us through several corridors via multiple lifts but within a few minutes we are right next to our train. I could board this by myself because the platform, unlike most in the UK, is at a sensible height in relation to the train. However, I decide it is more polite to wait for our assistant to get the 'bridge' for me. The bridge is basically a very small ramp which helps smooth out the path on to the train. Some wheelchair users might be glad of it but a lot would be able to do without. Either way it is a far cry from home, where you get left on the train and end up in Waterloo and they send you a £1 voucher by way of apology. You also get free Wifi on board an Amtrak train which allows me to annoy everyone by announcing my whereabouts and my destination on Facebook.

The journey to Market Street Station in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania takes around 90 minutes. We arrive around 11.00am and are directed by an unusually polite customer service person towards the city centre. It's a long walk before we reach civilisation. Having skipped breakfast to make sure that we got to the station on time the first priority is to find somewhere to eat. For what seems like miles but in reality is probably about 20 blocks there is very little except 7-11s and pizza places. A man stops me in the street and tells me to never give up. I'm not sure if he is talking about my quest for food but I ask him for some advice on the matter anyway. He says something about great beef steaks or something somewhere or other but even as he is explaining where we might get them I know it isn't my thing. We're looking for a cafe or a pub.

Eventually we find one. In Panero Bread they call your name out when your order is ready. Over a microphone for everyone to hear. And they sell cookies and cakes for 99 cents. The only other thing it is possible to purchase for 99 cents on this trip is a generous slice of pizza. You take the bargains where you can find them. We head back out on to the street and almost by accident come across the main visitors centre. The first thing I notice is a small statue of Rocky, not like the one from the film which we will get to later, but more like how he is on that training run. With that gray jogging suit on that he says brings him luck and which Mickey says brings flies. Then I notice a man dressed in full Founding Fathers get up walking around the centre. He's trying to drum up business for a walking tour of the city. This is something we do in a lot of cities we visit and since we haven't really got a clue where we are going, only an idea that we want to see the Rocky statue, the steps and the Liberty Bell, we decide to join him.

His name is Clark De Leon. That alone makes him a suitable tour guide. We almost get a freebie as he starts telling us the first of a thousand tales of Benjamin Franklin. Unfortunately we're too honest for our own good and so Emma points out that we haven't actually paid yet. It's $19 each, about £11.50. From the moment that Clark discovers that we haven't paid to the moment we receive our tickets he doesn't say another word. Almost as if he is coin operated. No money, no information. Once we are on our way he takes us outside the building and points out the building where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. Philadelphia is often desribed as the birthplace of America. It was the original capital city before Washington was built and housed all of the important political buildings. Independence Hall is where the Declaration of Independence and the United States Consitution were debated, while just across the square you will find the former residence of George Washington, the first President Of The United States. Congress Hall was the seat of the United States Congress until 1800.

On top of City Hall which is the house of government in the city there is a statue of William Penn. Penn founded the state of Pennsylvania when King Charles II awarded him a huge plot of land west of what is now New Jersey. The statue made City Hall the tallest building in Philadelphia and, according to Clark, it was agreed that no building in the city should ever be taller. This agreement was forgotten about in 1985 with the start of the construction of One Liberty Place, a skyscraper containing offices and a shopping centre. It is said that Penn, who lest we forget had been dead for 267 years by this point, was neverthless so miffed at having his statue usurped that he placed a curse on the city so that none of its sports teams would ever win a national championship. Or a world championship as the more hysterical and insular Americans like to call it. For 23 years after 1985 Philadelphia's sports teams failed miserably to carry off a title until finally, the Phillies won the 2008 baseball World Series. It is said that the curse had been lifted when a group of men working on the 975ft Comcast Center in Philadelphia placed a small figurine of Penn on one of the beams.

All of which seems a likely story. As do several of the tales of Benjamin Franklin with which Clark regales us throughout the tour. One of the original Founding Fathers, Franklin was apparently an inventor and a scientist aswell as a politician and the founder of Philadelphia's fire service and university among many, many other things. Ironically the fire station is currently closed because it burned down a few months before our visit. That wouldn't have happened in Benjamin Franklin's day, you imagine if you listen to Clark for long enough. He just loves the bloke. I doubt today's politicians will enjoy that level of popularity over 200 years after their deaths. If they are not remembered for their infamy then they should be forgotten about altogether. Unless they invent something, maybe.

Now normally there is no place for the church in this column but I should point out that we did enter Christ Church during our walk. This is the place where Penn was baptised and which still, to this day, brainwashes otherwise intelligent adults with the foolhardy notion of creationism. There's a man there who seems to know Clark and he stops for a chat with us. He might be a religious man like a priest or a vicar or something I don't know. I'm too militantly atheist to care. He might just look after the place. Good on him for that if he does because, as much as I dislike religion, rather like the monarchy churches have historical value. Also, amid the God bothering there is one interesting artefact, one of the original bells which rang to signify independence from those pesky Brits. When he learns that we are from England the man is keen to let us know that he is a big Liverpool fan. Clark looks mystified by our brief conversation and even more so when the man turns to him and says that Liverpool has 'the best motto in sports';

"You'll Never Walk Alone" he says proudly.

I'm not sure it is a motto exactly but he's right about its unique significance. Also, I'm charmed by the fact that he can make a reference to walking without feeling the slightest bit guilty or embarrassed about it. And then he loses all credibility as a Liverpool fan by declaring that he loves Sir Alex Ferguson.

"You have to respect what he's done." I admit reluctantly, and he nods as if he agrees that 'respect' might be more appropriate than 'love'.

When we get back to the visitors centre we pass a large queue. Hordes of people are waiting to get a look at the Liberty Bell. After a quick drink in the centre café we join the queue. A woman is loudly and wrongly telling anyone who will listen that Ryan Giggs could have played football for England but chose Wales instead. It's nice to think that we might have been able to avoid all those years of Stewart Downing and Darren Anderton but it's just not true. The Liberty Bell used to hang from Independence Hall and it is widely and perhaps wrongly believed that it too was one of the bells which rang following independence. Perhaps the woman in the queue with the Ryan Giggs story started the rumours about the Liberty Bell too. What we do know is that it was taken down when it was cracked (exactly when and how it was damaged is unclear) and was subsequently adopted as a symbol of freedom by abolitionists in the fight to end slavery. Funny how things turn out. When we reach the front of the queue we are led through a small exhibition detailing the bell's history before reaching the bell itself. It is a small wonder that it has not fallen to pieces completely such is the size of the crack running through it. Yet somehow it survives and attracts millions of visitors worldwide. Most of them in that queue today.

For some reason we believed that the steps made famous in the Rocky films where outside City Hall. They are not, but had we not made this mistake we may not have got a close look at the place. With time running out until our train back to New York we decide to take a bus out to where the real steps are located, the Museum of Art. The museum is also home to the Rocky statue. You might remember its unveiling being rudely interrupted by Mr T, or if not you may recall Rocky throwing his motorcycle helmet at it in anger at some point further along, well after the whole thing had got a little too Thunderlips crazy for my tastes. But I still want to have my photograph taken with it. The bus ride is nervy, not just because of our track record with American public transport, but because I don't know how far it is to the museum and whether we will have enough time to get back for the train at 6.50pm. If we miss that train we will be looking for a hotel.

Fortunately we don't, and I get that photograph with the Rocky statue. Most people of a similar mind are adopting various boxing poses but I don't go in for all that. It's enough to just be in the photo with an iconic cinematic prop. And I look silly enough in photographs without giving it 'Rocky On Wheels'. It's a little less shiny than I remember it from the films. It's old now, I suppose. Across the park is the museum and those famous steps. The statue is on top of the steps in the film, but they have dispensed with that idea here. Presumably they don't want hordes of people standing outside the entrance to the museum posing for photographs with Rocky before buggering off home without learning a single thing about art. Disappointingly, not one person runs up the steps punching the air and pretending to have a stitch. While wearing a fly-infested gray tracksuit.

We still have an hour to get back to the train station so we skip the bus ride and get there by ourselves. We're not completely sure of the way but again the block system helps and we're back in good time. Again the Amtrak staff are absurdly helpful, heaping more shame on Northern Rail as the minutes go by. Knackered but enlightened we stop for a late meal at Pigalle next door to the hotel having ticked off another on the list of American states to visit.

"She turns and says are you alright, oh I must be fine cos my heart's still beating"

If anyone can work out the significance of that they get a free pint......

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