Our Trip To Philadelphia, December 2001

by Michelle Erica Green

We got up and drove to the New Jersey State Aquarium in Camden, just over the Ben Franklin Bridge from Penn's Landing. It's not very large as aquariums go -- about the size of the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, where we went with the kids on our last trip to L.A., though we've been spoiled by our proximity to the National Aquarium in Baltimore -- but it does have a fantastic main tank with sharks, rays, tortoises and about 2000 smaller fish, one of which apparently bit a shark and left an impressive scar on its tail. There were also two touch tanks, including one where you could touch small sharks and rays, plus dozens of little exhibits on local and exotic fish, seahorses, jellyfish, crustaceans, moray eels, coral reefs, shipwrecks with rusticles and mammals and birds that live near water, including a duck with one foot that was apparently rescued by the aquarium.

Outside is a children's garden which didn't have much blooming at this time of year, but there were large metal sculptures of bugs and dinosaurs for kids to play on that the boys loved, and a greenhouse with butterflies that landed in my hair. Paul's highlight for the day was in the butterfly garden -- not the butterflies, but walking into Duce Staley of the Philadelphia Eagles, who was leading a group of foster kids on a tour. Paul was reading his name tag to see if it was really him and Duce said, "How you doing," which on the male standard of jock contact counts as significant sports celebrity dialogue. We didn't tell Duce we rooted against him when his team beat the Redskins two weeks ago. The guy running the carousel was SO thrilled to have met Duce Staley -- he kept saying, "I had a football player here today!"

Then we drove into Philadelphia, where we headed first to the art museum, where unfortunately the cafeteria was closed because a jazz band was playing in the atrium and they were serving outrageously expensive appetizers at little tables. We went through the European architecture and Asian galleries because the boys were interested in all the pieces of buildings that have been incorporated into the walls, floors and ceilings, plus the Japanese tea house, the Chinese temple and the 12th century monastery courtyard that were imported intact, but they were hungry and tired so we didn't make it to the modern wing. We went downtown, ate dinner in a Pizzeria Uno where Paul and I used to go while we were at Penn, and walked a bit on South Street to my favorite spiritual/occult/Asian art bookstore, Garland of Letters, where the incense still smells the way it did the first time I was in there 17 years ago and bought my first George Winston recording before the New Age movement made him hot. This time I got a deck of Minchiate cards (a variation on Tarot from Renaissance Italy). We got somewhat lost on the way to the hotel which is out of the city in Plymouth Meeting but since it's Spring Hill Suites, we had a room with a desk and couch for me to type while boys slept.

Saturday we got up bright and early to see the Liberty Bell, but post-9/11 security was extremely tight -- everyone had to take off their coats, empty their pockets, leave the contents of their purses outside the metal detectors, etc. -- so the wait outside in the cold was going to be more than an hour. We settled for looking at the Bell through the glass windows on the one side of the building that could be approached from the street, then went to the new visitor's center where we read about Philadelphia history.

We had lunch at Abner's, our favorite cheesesteak place on Penn's campus, and drove around the school a bit. Then we took the kids to the Franklin Institute, a science museum with wonderful exhibits including a giant model of a human heart you can walk through, a steam engine you can ride for a few feet, a billions-year-old meteorite that fell in Arizona you can touch, airplanes you can sit in, etc. The kids learned more than was necessary about AIDS and ran through the heart half a dozen times, something they apparently did last fall when I was at the Penn newspaper alumni conference and Paul took them around the city. We got home in good time -- all in all, a very successful family trip.