Monday, January 31, 2011

Philadelphia #2 - Eastern State Penitentiary

Philadelphia is not just a crush of people and gastronomic treats at Reading Terminal Market. It also has an inviting penitentiary right near downtown. Really.

From 1829 up until 1971, if you turned to a life of crime, you might have found yourself at Eastern State Penitentiary.

After 1971, it was abandoned for twenty years. Full of crumbling cells, peeling lead paint, and in the winter, drifting snow, it reopened to the public as a historical ruin in 1994. Decrepit and creepy, it has an eerie beauty.

Cellblock hallway.  Note the high ceiling and
natural light.
Snow in a cell.

Originally designed for absolute solitary confinement so that, the theory went, inmates would be inspired to reach toward God and find true penitence, ESP only briefly functioned as it was first envisioned.  Early prisoners spent their sentences in complete isolation in their individual cells. Private exercise yards were attached to each cell with walls high enough between them to prohibit contact. Anonymity was enforced as prisoners wore hoods covering their faces when guards escorted them through the complex. 

The prison had running water before the White House, as the solitary confinement approach required a toilet in every cell.  Suffering the woes of early plumbing models, however, the heating pipes were laid next to the plumbing, so the stink of sewage pervaded the complex year round. 

In short order, overcrowding left solitary an impractical approach. Given the heavy tie now acknowledged between solitary confinement and psychological problems, the switch to operation as a congregate prison, official as of 1913, but with strict solitary eroding well before, was good news.

The original hub-and-spoke design by John Haviland, with cellblocks fanning off a central hub, was an innovation in prison design, allowing surveillance from the center. By the time of its closing, 15 cellbocks jammed every available space, and surveillance had a great many blind spots.

At Eastern State's opening in 1829, the city was a long two miles away. Soon enough, the prison was swallowed up by urban expansion, with the city right up against its doorway, precluding the possibility of prison expansion. ESP wasn't always seen as a good neighbor --particularly when prisoners escaped, building ladders to put up against the wall or digging tunnels underneath it.

Al Capone's stay at the prison, however, lent a celebrity glamour to the place during the year he was there.  He and his bodyguard, arrested for carrying concealed weapons, had cells not off one of the long cellblocks, but in the safe zone by the guard station in the hub center.  Capone's cell was significantly more comfortable, as he brought his own furniture and rugs, and he had phone privileges, allowing him to keep tabs on business.

 His experience was not typical.

Walking down the long hallways or standing in a cell, little imagination is required to feel the residual human despair peeling off the walls along with the paint. During its abandonment, an entire urban forest grew up through the site, loosening the stones, shattering the skylights, breaking the plaster into dust. Before Eastern State opened as a maintained ruin, the trees were cut down and dragged away, but evidence of its harsh conditions as a prison and continuing decay remain haunting.

Roots and vines hanging in a cell.

Philadelphia #1 - Reading Market

Playing with the camera
Sometimes, when you say, "I've got itchy feet," someone else says, me too! and in short order, you find yourself unexpectedly awake at 7 am on a Saturday morning zipping up the highway to collect said friend and head north.

That was me on Saturday morning. Camera at the ready, and alarming other motorists by playing with mirrors and angles at stoplights, I arrived at my friend's house to find her by the door, packed and ready to go.
Art and travel: both are creative ventures where you push yourself to see new things in new ways, to expand experience and vision.

With brief comment to her kids and husband ("I'm stealing your mother/wife.") we were on 95 North, destination: Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love.
Given that so much of my travel has been solo, having real, live conversation made the brief drive go quickly (although it did cut into my off-key radio singing). 
Sparkly chandelier, Warwick Hotel

Philly welcomed us with traffic.  Because of some creative navigating on my part (gps only works if you follow its advice), we took the long way to the hotel.  But oh, what a lovely hotel.

The Radisson Plaza-Warwick Hotel.  Check out the chandelier:
Can you imagine how many strange ugly mobiles and suncatchers I could make if I disassembled that?  Happily, I don't think they'll let me near it. 
Best way to see a city is to start walking. If you're smarter than I am, you'll bring your hat on a winter day. 

In front of the courthouse


Our first stop was lunch at Reading Terminal Market, an indoor market at 12th and Arch St.  The farmer's market has been running since 1893 and is a Philadelphia institution. 

According to their Web site, "One hundred thousand Philadelphians and tourists pass through the Reading Terminal Market every week." Once amid the hubbub, that was easy to believe. 

We got the best sandwiches of our lives at a Pennsylvania Dutch place called The Grill @ Smuckers. Mild Italian sausage with peppers and pot roast with horseradish gave us strength enough to get to the pretzel stand for fresh-baked butter-soaked delights. Yum.

Note that if you want to get lunch at any of the Pennsylvania Dutch places, you best do it on Saturday, as their shops aren't open on Sunday. 

Sunday, January 23, 2011


Another suncatcher, extra-sparkly. The lack of light in the wintertime has left me even more obsessed with shiny things. Eventually, I'll run out of chandelier parts and winter will end. 

In the meantime, I have rather cool shadows on the blinds.    

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Chris Pureka with Vandaveer and Nicole Reynolds

Another great show at the Iota, with a big crowd, great opening bands, and polished musicians all around. Chris Pureka has a loyal following for good reason. 

A clip from Chris Pureka's encore, "Wagon Wheel," below.  Apologies on jumpiness.  For whatever reason, I thought it would be a good idea to turn the angle of my camera, so to undo that, I had to edit the clip. (I have basic video editing software on my computer - who knew?).  Video doesn't really do justice to the show. 

Great quotes from the evening include:
Nicole Reynolds, when referencing going through a box of old grade school items at her mother's house, including a paper that asked if she could have any parents in the world, who would she select: "I chose Dolly Parton and Mel Gibson."

Mark Charles Heidinger of Vandaveer, "It's the name of the album, you'd think we'd get it right," during some pretty hilarious song confusion.

Chris Pureka, "What have I gotten myself into?" when starting to tell a story, and then changing her mind, and then soldiering on when the audience coaxed her to continue. 

Check them all out:

Chris Pureka


Nicole Reynolds

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Cats in Antlers

I spent an hour or two today writing still another piece about grief. With the shootings in Arizona; the death of Ashley Turton from a freak car fire in her Capitol Hill garage; the arrival of my brother's birthday tomorrow, the second since his death; and, a friend's continuing quest to get a marker placed on her mother's grave, I didn't and don't lack material. The longer you live, the more you brush up against death and other losses.

I waxed philosophical about the merits of grief, of how it lends perspective, pulls us out of ruminating on social faux pas (ours) and traffic misdeeds (others) and brings out our instinct to comfort those in pain, friends and strangers alike. I talked about how grief builds community and pushes change, encourages compassion, particularly once the fury and blame-seeking fades.

All this remains true, and I'm happy to have written and, artfully or not, pulled some thoughts together, however simplistic. As always, writing is a useful process for me, and I am grateful for it.

But that's not what I want to talk about here.

What I mean to say is: I am worn out with grief.

I am sick and tired of it, tired of the tragic beauty that I try to give it to make it more manageable. I fully acknowledge how it is a necessary process, but, again: I am worn out.

2010 was a difficult year for many of my friends and family, for a variety of reasons that aren't any less painful despite their lack of originality: death, under- and un-employment, strained finances, love affairs gone wrong, health struggles, losses personal, financial, emotional, physical. Life can be hard; 2010 contained too many examples for too many people I care about.

I and others rang in 2011 with relief, wanting the clean slate, however arbitrary a date on the calendar might be.

And here we are, back at death, grief, a world bursting out of control on the national scale and sad, private moments in less publicized worlds.

And so we grieve some more. A friend of mine mentioned today that she couldn't remember the last time she really laughed.

And that reminded me how much we need to remember that we also can and do dwell elsewhere.

I'm not suggesting burying my head in the sand and going, oh dear, I can't handle the pain in the world and so will just ignore it, sanitize reality into some happy little la-la land. Horrible things have happened and will continue to do so, and January has certainly provided ample proof of that already. We do what we can to lessen risks and impacts, but the act of living is necessarily dangerous.

But is it also joyful. And goofy. And silly. And gleeful.

There are big, big reasons for the world to be wondrous and amazing, to strike awe in the minds of us mortals, faith, love, fellowship, etc. But the big concepts are hard to catch, and today, I need the concrete.

And so, a counterbalance. Below, I list goofy moments in my life, silly laughter moments, most of which (helpless laughter being what it is) won't make any sense. So forgive me for temporarily abandoning you audience, but this list is for me. In these moments, you had to be there, and I'm glad I was:
  • Snickering under a cot in a dorm room in 10th grade at the end of a carbon paper tickle fight
  • Swimming in a pool with my sister at Fenwick Island trading stories about old boyfriends (which I won't reveal in a public forum)
  • Discovering that if I said the word “chicken” in a business meeting in a certain way, my coworker would dissolve in laughter
  • Shushing a drunken friend in the wee hours of the morning when all he could say was “Hoot! Hoot!”
  • Attempting to get Leo the cat to wear the antlers at Christmas
  • Singing along, a half beat behind, to a friend's irreverent new lyrics of Auld Lang Syne on New Year's Eve
  • Riding in a wheelbarrow borrowed from a marina
  • Cruising down a highway in Kansas swerving to avoid a road hazard and managing to hit it instead
  • Testing the aerodynamics of Barbies and homemade parachutes by throwing them out the bedroom window
  • Using a towel to create a nun's habit upon exiting the the shower in Key West
  • Reading MadLibs created with terms from 50s pulp porn novels
  • Wearing flowers in my hair (I'm such a hippie)
  • Twirling and puddle-jumping in the pouring rain in Minneapolis
  • Teaching my friend to skip, a crucial skill he somehow didn't acquire until he was over 30.
  • Skipping down the street with other friends singing “We're off to See the Wizard”
  • Misunderstanding a friend on a road trip and so being puzzled by why she kept asking about the “cheese door.”
  • Writing “Ode to New York” on the back of a beer label after playing pinball
  • Dancing in many living rooms, hips swinging, arms flailing
  • Wearing balloons to celebrate a birthday
  • Attempting headstands in the living room with a friend's kids
  • Opening the door wearing my mother's bell-bottomed floral print halter-top pantsuit.
  • Spending the day speaking in an Irish accent
  • Climbing to the top of a Midwest sand dune in the wintertime and rolling down in the freezing sand.
  • Sliding in socks on hardwood floors
What I want to do is add to this list. Yes, the death and despair of the world will continue on, but so will the silly. Today, I needed to remember the ridiculous. I encourage you to make your own list, to remember your own silly soul.  A cartwheel or a somersault might not hurt either.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Art Letter by Ellen Marie Hinchcliffe

Great video made by my friend Ellen in Minneapolis...Note that first 50 seconds are black before it starts.

For more on Ellen and her work as a poet, filmmaker, and performer, check out:

Sunday, January 9, 2011


I thought it was only legal to sell your Hoohah in Las Vegas. 

Perhaps the Purple Haze in the Hookah Cafe limited their proofreading skill.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Fast, Fresh, Cheap

Fast, Fresh, Cheap = Smoking Bulldog. Sure, that makes sense, at least it does in the airport in Charlotte, North Carolina. Oddly, this isn't the first time I've taken a picture of a smoking dog. There's a cafe in Paris called Au Chien Qui Fume. 

I missed a couple of great signs here today in Florida, in the interest of actually getting where I was supposed to be.  I hope to catch them tomorrow though, assuming I can get lost in the same general vicinity. Quirky tends to flourish in sunshine under palm trees.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year's photos, Takoma Park

As many people know, I'm fond of the town in which I live, Takoma Park, MD.  Here are some photographic reasons as to why (please forgive gray lighting - twas overcast today):
This truck, often parked in my neighborhood, makes me
want to Eat More Kale.  I don't even like kale. 


The Lawn Art House


Because what says Christmas more
than a kangaroo with a child in its
pouch wearing a Santa hat?
Polar bear with faces.  Does that
mean he ate the people?

Floating baby heads

A few houses down, a pink rhino grazes.

The porch mannequins down the street are
festooned with lights for the season. Their
garb changes for every holiday.

Someone took a cart most,
but not all of the way home. 

Why do I fit in Takoma Park?  Why, because I spent a portion of New Year's eve afternoon making these:
Psycho Smile Suncatcher

Fetch! Camel Dog Suncatcher

So far, I'm only happy with the fact that the copper circle on the second one is more seamlessly connected.  Less hideous versions are being considered as I experiment with my materials further. 

Finally, a gratuitous experiment in posting video.  The happy babbling of Sligo Creek: