Once upon a time in Philadelphia: On the road with the twins in search of highpoints, cheesesteaks and the perfect playground

Taco Supreme: Magnificent road food at the Santa Apolonia taco truck in New Haven, Connecticut

What is it about kids and gum? Asking a ten-year old boy to spit out his gum to enter a historic site is like arguing with a robot.

Him: Why do they want my gum?

Me: They don’t want it, it’s just a historic building.

Him: So, do they think the gum is a bomb?

Me, looking nervously at Park Rangers: No! They just don’t want the gum getting on anything… you know, historic.

Him: I’ll put it under my tongue, they won’t know it’s there.

Me: No, you have to spit it out.

Him: Why, will they force me to open my mouth and look under my tongue? I’d sue them.

Me: No! Jeez, it’s just a rule.

Him: That’s dumb.

The boy had a point of course, but he reluctantly gave up his gum. Then we discovered that Independence Hall needed separate tickets and an appointed tour reservation. So, the boy gave up his gum for nothing. I never heard the end of it.

Last week, Meena and I travelled to Philadelphia to visit our friends Alan and Jennifer for a five-day adventure with Aaron and Janelle. It was a deeply satisfying, exhausting, exciting, perplexing and often hilarious journey; a coming of age trip for all of us as we began to understand each of our roles in this odd little “family” we’ve somehow forged.

It was a test I suppose, of just how much we all mean to each other (a lot), how much we are able to put up with (a lot), what exactly our limitations are (gum spitting and the symphony) and where we can go from here (anywhere). Not unlike a real flesh and blood family, the only difference being that we four did not have 10 years to work up to such a journey.

So, instead of boring everyone to tears with a day by day account of our adventure, I thought I’d streamline things a bit by breaking the details down by theme.

Highpoints

New Jersey: You can see the 220-foot obelisk at the top of New Jersey about twenty miles from Highpoint State Park. Look kids, the top of New Jersey!

“Does Alan and Jennifer live there?” Aaron asked.

“Yes, they live in the tower on the summit,” I said.

“Yeah,” the twins cheered, then, “Hey, wait a minute!”

High Point State Park is a beautiful place with a long greenway that winds to the summit of the High Point. We discovered later that the nearly 15,000 acre park was designed by sons of Frederick Olmsted, which would explain how something that pretty can exist in New Jersey.

Highpoint State Park in New Jersey, where all roads lead to the 1,803-foot summit.

It wasn’t yet Memorial Day so we drove in for free, and made our way to the summit parking lot, eager for lunch and some views. The twins immediately took to the 25 cent tourist telescopes while we made some sandwiches and bundled up from a stiff unfettered wind blowing at the top.

The walk up to the actual tower was about 50 yards, and the three-state views from the 1803-foot summit are pretty surprising. We watched a storm in the east and sunny skies to the west at the same time. The tower was closed but we kicked around at the top for a while.

The twins used the telescopes to look at each other from about twenty feet away. *sigh*

I’d imagine that during the summer, when the nearby concession stand is open, this place would be a noisy zoo, but we had it to ourselves the entire half hour we were there.

After, Janelle and I snooped around some old bath house ruins, and before long we were on our way to Princeton!

Delaware: Ah Delaware, our First State! And cutest! With your adorable hyper population density; just hanging there in the Chesapeake like New Jersey’s drippy nose.

And you Mr. Eleuthere Irenee du Pont and your precious knowledge of how to make gunpowder, what would Wilmington be without one of the world’s largest chemical companies?

Our trip to the intersection that is Delaware’s highest point began with driving in circles on the outskirts of town, trying to figure out exactly which residential neighborhood contained this second lowest highpoint. By the time we were parked and ready to hoof the final few yards to 447-foot Ebright Azimuth we were getting a bit snippy with one another.

Heading north into Pennsylvania, the Delaware High Point is the blue sign and park bench space on the left.

But Delaware’s cuteness prevailed once we saw the darling attempts to create an actual destination out of what is essential a busy neighborhood road. A lovely little bench has been installed near the blue highpoint sign. They have even built a gentle little traffic calming road extension to slow drive by traffic and move them away from pesky highpointers. Suggestion: build a little hot dog stand near the sign and then we’ll be talking picnic!

Oddly, the gigantic, and completely out-of-place radio tower near the highpoint was closed. Sure, it must be private property, but that place could be a cash cow for whoever opens it up and allows highpointers access. Heck, put the hot dog stand up there!

Anyway, there’s well-appointed homes and pleasant shrubs. After several rounds of pictures we meandered over the Delaware/Pennsylvania state line (only about 30 yards from the highpoint) and the kids loved jumping back and forth between states. There’s a first for everything, I guess. Speaking of firsts, that was Meenakshi’s first foray into Delaware, checking that state off her list and putting her within four of tagging every state in the continental U.S.

Food

Bobby Flay’s Burger Palace: Honestly, I can’t imagine a road trip without both copious amounts and a variety of food. We love food. We love trying new types of food, at hole in the wall restaurants and tucked away ethnic corners. So, we were initially wary of the twins suggestion that we stop at Bobby Flay’s Burger Palace. The twins love Food Network like other kids love Nickelodeon. Weeks ago, they had deduced that the Philadelphia we were going to was indeed the Philadelphia that held Bobby’s Burger Palace and were nearly euphoric at the thought of visiting one of their Food Network favorites. Janelle brought a pad of paper for an autograph, just in case Bobby was in back mopping the floor.

Biiiiig burgers: All three appear to be wondering just how the heck they are going to eat such monster burgers at Bobby Flay’s.

We were more skeptical. After all, how could a popular Food Network celebrity chef create anything but a tourist trap? Wow, were we wrong. I will never eat another Blue Cheese and Bacon burger again. And the milk shakes, oh Lord the milk shakes!

It’s no exaggeration to say this was the highlight of our food tour. Aaron ordered a coleslaw and BBQ sauce burger, while Meena tried the grilled chicken and avocado. I forgot what Alan ordered so enraptured was I by my sandwich, which Janelle also ordered.

Perfectly cooked and juicy burgers made simply and a staff that focused on the kids. We were even given a free order of fries because one of the burgers came out a little late. Whatever Bobby Flay is doing, he’s doing it right. We are now fans!

Cheesesteaks: Let’s be honest here, cheesesteaks are terrible. Too many carbs, high in sodium, horrible fake cheese. And before all my Philly friends prepare epic defenses about the majesty of the cheesesteak sandwich I ask only that you look deep into your heart. (Or should I say heartburn?) You know I’m right.

Local favorite: Eagle Pizza fit the bill nicely when it came to our cheesesteak lunch.

That said, the twins caught a Food Network show on the “cheesesteak war” between Pat’s and Gino’s, the dubious rivals of two dreadful tourist traps in South Philly, each claiming to have the best cheesesteaks. Unless you like neon, gold chains and Cheese Wiz, just stay away. (Let’s not even get into Gino’s anti-immigration policies.) As our friend Jennifer put it, “that intersection is very photogenic, but not much else.”

So, despite having talked the twins down from a trip to South Philly in return for the promise of an afternoon at the playground, they were still bound and determined to eat cheesesteaks. The answer to this gastronomic dilemma was found just around the block from Alan’s house, in the endearing and locally pleasant form of Eagle Pizza.

The folks there were nice and they enjoyed the fact that it was the kids’ first cheesesteak. There were no lines, the prices were excellent, the steak was done well and the rolls were fresh. Honestly, it’s cheesesteaks. How bad can any of them be, when really, they are all bad?

And as it turned out, it was a wonderful lunch! We took our bags of sandwiches and greasy fries and Coke home, got out the paper plates and napkins and went crazy for a half hour until all our tummies were bursting from cheesesteak; onions on one, mushrooms on another and even a chicken and cheese. It was all very satisfying and giggly.

History, culture and play: Yes, there was the Liberty Bell. Sure, Aaron was sort of happy to stand in front of Independence Hall where Abraham Lincoln once stood. Of course, we stopped at Princeton and at the University of Pennsylvania. In Delaware, we were all wonderfully surprised by the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts. We even tried the symphony, or as Meena and I call it, the evening best not talked about.

And everyone thoroughly enjoyed meeting Rachel Simon, Dan’s writer friend from the old days, and of course, hanging out with Alan and Jennifer.

But that playground! Wow! In Merion (we don’t know if it’s Lower or Upper or Bryn Mawr or exactly where the playground is) there exists a playground that Rockefeller’s kids must have played in. It is the kind of playground that planners and engineers actually thought of, then built, as opposed to snapping together do-it-yourself Lowe’s kit.

Spider Aaron: At the mighty playground. Thanks for the pic Alan!

The four of us went to this playground with the kids, and fell in love again with the joy of simplicity. Until you are hanging upside down from a bright red swing set, you can’t shed the trappings of being an adult. We ran and played and threw a silly pink ball, and pushed the whirligig spinner thing so fast Alan and I went flying off.

Perhaps it’s the jubilant freedom of being new “parents” of a sort that drove those blissful few hours, as none of the other actual parents appeared to have more than a passing interest in what their kids were doing before returning to their smart phones. But we all ran, and fell down, and tossed a hopelessly inadequate frisbee and drank water right out of the tap in the public bathroom. And we did not care.

Alan taught us how to flick the heads off dandelions and Meena climbed right up into the crazy spider web jungle gym. And when the afternoon began to break into early evening and the kids went for one last ride down the slide, we four sat on the grass and looked up at the sky. I rested my head against the pink ball and listened to the twins laughing and looked over at my wife and my oldest friends and thought that this afternoon was just about perfect; that these few hours made everything worth it.

Here we were. With them. Happy.

Riding the Princeton Tigers!

For the complete set of our pictures on the road and in Philadelphia, the link is here:

Once Upon a Time in Philadelphia

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