We do finally get a table, and we peruse the menu. I get mozzarella cheese sticks and a buffalo chicken sandwich. The former actually turns out to be better, as I am more apt to believe that they contained real cheese, whereas the "Swiss cheese" in the sandwich was pretty obviously processed. The discrepancy is even more pronounced due to the fact that the waiter brings out the appetizer and the entree at the same time. I have not eaten at Denny's very many times in my life, and I think I am all the better for it.
It is impossible to describe a conversation at a table with Ivy and April because Ivy will randomly describe her drinking history and April will randomly start singing a Donna Lewis song.
Afterward, we go in search of a Starbucks because Ivy's IV is running low. The soundtrack is mash-ups ranging from Beyoncé vs. A-ha to Marilyn Manson vs. Marilyn Monroe. Discussing America's Next Top Model, we pull into a nearby Marriott that boasts a Starbucks. That closed at six. What good is a Starbucks that closes at six?
And, now, dear readers, and now we embark on an indescribable journey into a phantom region known only as...The No Starbucks Zone. That's right. For forty-five minutes, we drive around and see nary a Starbucks. There is another one in a hotel down the street, but it would be closed. We end up in places Ivy doesn't even recognize. We end up in Hawthorne and turn around before we get shot. We end up in Inglewood and once again turn around before we get shot. We see the amazing TACO DOLLAR truck and revel in its superiority over all other taco trucks ever. Ivy notes that we have somehow broken the laws of physics by driving this long in Los Angeles without having seen one Starbucks. Finally, finally, we end up in the right direction on Sepulveda, and lo and behold, a Starbucks! And my mocha frappuccino isn't even that good, after all the nonsense.
Time has warped for me, as, following a group hug, I stroll through security and walk to my gate a mere second before they call my boarding group.
And it is off to Philadelphia. My adventures have just begun.
On floor XIX of the Park Hyatt Hilton at the Bellevue, I walk into the lobby. "Hello, Mr. Patel," chirps a cute woman behind a desk. I'm not sure I heard her right, because it sounds like she just addressed me by name. Maybe she said "Welcome to the hotel"? Because...she couldn't know who I was, right? That would be impossible. Unless I am the only Indian man expected at seven in the morning on Sunday.
A time at which they do not actually have a room for me yet. I wait for them to maybe find me a place I can at least take a shower and rest after my flight while they rush a room to be cleaned for me. I tell the cute woman about my flight, noting that, despite the crappy weather, the landing was the smoothest I've ever experienced; I literally did not feel the touchdown at all. No bump, no nothing. On the way down, however, the plane was shaking back and forth through the turbulence. "I thought I was going to die," I said in my ramblings.
She chuckled. "I like you, Mr. Patel," she said.
I found it slightly heartening that I could elicit a statement like that without even trying.
After taking a shower in a meeting room and finally getting a room, I rush to catch a bus to Fairmount Avenue and walk to the London Grill, where I meet kammgirl, who I make get up to give me a hug. It's a big weekend for her, as I'm the second "prime-time fandom" person she's met in two days. I get Szechuan duck spring rolls and a chicken pot pie, which is the special. I can't resist the specials. They're so...special.
We talk about Doctor Who fandom and Veronica Mars fandom and soap opera fandom and the history of Philadelphia.
At the Franklin Institute, I walk through a giant heart and watch someone play with liquid nitrogen. For me, who has already learned most of the science in school, the fun part about a science museum is watching the younger generation learn about science. Seeing their amazement at how the world works, giving them the building blocks they need to go further and make new discoveries.
I, on the other hand, learn that no matter what I do, I will never be as cool as Ben Franklin.
The Liberty Bell is...pretty much just a bell.
I will also never be as cool as Martin Luther King, Jr.
As I walk to South Street, I have a small epiphany about why I enjoy walking and am afraid of buses and taxis. When I walk, I am in control of where I go. I choose my own direction. I can walk in any direction I wish. I can go up a one-way street. With a bus, I am bound by its very fixed route and schedule. With a taxi, at least the vehicle travels directly from point A to point B, but being at the mercy of a cab driver comes with its own pitfalls.
When I walk, I am my own vehicle.
To get the authentic Philly cheesesteak experience, I go to Ishkabibble's and order the Ishka chicken cheesesteak and fries, supposedly the best fries in town. I also get a lemonade. The Ishka chicken cheesesteak has mushrooms and sweet peppers and is covered in pizza sauce. It's very hot and packed. Unfortunately, I'm not really that impressed with the chicken, but it's still okay. The fries are exceedingly good for some reason, and I suspect it's the grease.
It has been a long, tiring, rainy day. It's time to go home and watch Drive and Entourage.
Monday morning, I go down to the Red and Clover Rooms for the DIA training course in drug safety surveillance and epidemiology. There is an assortment of food for breakfast. I sit at the table with my co-worker Francie, as familiarity breeds comfort, not contempt, when you're away from home. Also at the table is a strikingly attractive woman, let's call her Nadia, who will (spoiler alert) rise in prominence over the course of this tale.
I sit next to Francie in the back for the course, and we write notes to each other on the hotel pad. One speaker manages to stretch a 45-minute slot into two hours.
At lunch, I sit at a table that includes Nadia and another important character, let's call her Sydney, who, judging from her last name, is married to an Indian man, despite being a white Caucasian she-devil herself. Travel horror stories are exchanged, but I don't get a chance to tell my own.
After the course is done, Nadia and I share an elevator up to the business center to check e-mail and the such. She says that she's thinking of trying to find a group to go to dinner, since she's alone (some, like Francie, come with spouses and thus have automatic company). I had planned on foraging on my own, as I wasn't sure who would want to go to dinner with people they'd just met, but that was the point of these things, after all, to meet people. I'm glad, then, that someone else suggested the idea first.
It's during that e-mail check, incidentally, that we both learn about the Virginia Tech shootings.
There is a wine and cheese reception in the conservatory. I get a small plate with crackers and cheese and look for familiar faces. I see Sydney and Nadia standing around a table with a couple other women. There is some talk of dinner plans, and we ask a waiter to suggest places. He makes many suggestions, but the Italian bistro across the street seems to be the best bet, as many have mentioned it, and it's right across the street.
I invite a table of other women I've talked to during the day, but while they express initial interest, they ultimately decline.
I ask that we leave for dinner soon since I want to get back before eight o'clock.
"What do you have at eight o'clock?" asks Sydney.
"Television," I say.
Sydney, a Chinese woman I don't know, and I are in the lobby waiting for Nadia. After a while, I go up to the sixteenth floor on a whim and manage to find her coming out of her room. I have the magic touch that way.
The four of us head across the street to the Italian bistro...which, I note to my amusement, is actually called Italian Bistro. We are seated far more quickly than we would be at Denny's. The hostess gives us a booth. I go in one side, and Nadia sits next to me, which is appropriate because it leaves Sydney and the other woman, whose name also happens to be Sydney, to sit together. As I met the former first, I call them Sydney 1 and Sydney 2.
We look at the menu, and the spicy chicken rigatoni looks good. When Sydney 1 asks the waiter for chicken recommendations, he also recommends that. Sydney 1 seems to like that as well.
"You can't get that because I'm getting that," I say.
Nadia takes affront to this, saying, "Wait, what? She can't get it just because you're having it?"
Never having been taken this seriously on this, I flounder, "Yeah, you don't...do that? Got to have variety at the table?"
Nadia chides me some more, but I can't tell whether she thinks I was seriously going to keep Sydney 1 from ordering what she wanted. I tell her it's okay to order the same thing.
During dinner, we talk. It's a small four-letter word that doesn't adequately describe what happens here. The four of us were perfect strangers until today, and yet here we are discussing culture clashes and marriage and career freely and comfortably. Somehow, my marriage situation comes up, and Sydney 1 tells us how her husband's parents reacted to his marrying her. Sydney 2 tells us of a girl she knew who was married off to a doctor and then told by her parents to divorce him after a year because his career wasn't taking off yet.
Nadia says she doesn't see why you don't just marry who you want, and even before I can respond that you can't understand it unless you're part of the culture, Sydney 1 jumps in with a "You don't know!"
But Nadia rebuts with a "No, I do know. My mother's Pakistani." Nadia is actually Pakistani/Azerbaijani/German/Ukrainian. She went through similar ordeals when she married her husband, and while it wasn't easy, her parents did eventually get over it to some extent (not so with Sydney 1's husband's parents, who have not even seen their second grandchild). Sydney 1 still thought she couldn't really understand it because she must have a more liberal family, clearly.
This whole time, I am mostly quiet and listening, and Sydney 1 and Nadia are afraid they're offending me, but I let them know they're not. I'm pretty hard to offend, really.
Nadia also relates the pretty amazing story of how she got her last name, which was not a family name. During World War II, a fellow Ukrainian saved her grandfather's life, and in those days, people in the Ukraine had no idea of the life they could lead if they made it to America. When her grandfather made it to America, he changed his name to honor the man who'd given his life for his.
Sydney 1 feels bad that she has no business card to give us, which allows me to begin The Exchange. She writes her e-mail addresses on the back of Sydney 2's card. We have successfully networked.
The waiter goads us into checking out the dessert tray, even though we're all pretty full. Sydney 1 and I decide to split a dark chocolate mousse cake, and Sydney 2 and Nadia split a...fruit pie thing. The best part of all this is that when we ask for separate checks, each of us gets one-fourth of each dessert on our bill. It is awesome.
Back at the hotel, it's almost 8. Sydney 1 is trying to find her luggage claim tags, as she checked them in with a bellhop because she wasn't staying at our hotel. Sydney 2 and Nadia are standing with her while I press a button on the elevator. I have to pee.
"Are you going to go and catch your show?" asks Nadia.
"Yeah," I say.
She smiles and jokes, "I'm going to stay here and be polite."
"Well," I reply, "I'm a bastard."
The next morning, Francie informs me that someone has taken my seat next to her, which is okay since I then sit next to Nadia. Toward the end of the day, she writes a note to me on my pad asking whether "the group" has dinner plans or we were doing our separate things. I have plans to meet bluegreensmoke for dinner. Sydney 1 wants to accompany a Swiss woman shopping. Sydney 2 and Nadia have expressed interest in going to the King Tut exhibit at the Franklin Institute.
We play Tic Tac Toe, and I make her laugh by analyzing the shape of our cat's game and awarding her the win based on the proto-triskelion formed by her Os.
After the course is over, the Group convenes to discuss the evening plans. I tell them that if they do anything after dinner, let me know. Sydney 1 and Nadia exchange numbers in case they can meet up for dinner after the exhibit. I, however, go upstairs to call the Franklin Institute to make sure the exhibit isn't sold out, as it was on Sunday. It appears to be less busy on Tuesday, though, so I tell them to go with confidence. Sydney 1 and Nadia both get my number, and then the Group splits up.
I do a half hour on the elliptical and then go up to the business center to wait for a call from bluegreensmoke. And wait. And wait. And get hungry. And wait.
Finally, the phone rings around 7:30 (she had anticipated arriving around 6:30). But it's not bluegreensmoke; it's Sydney 1. She hasn't had dinner yet. I tell her my situation. I can't imagine bluegreensmoke wouldn't have called, but I hold out hope that she'll arrive, that she's stuck in traffic with no signal or something.
I go down to the lobby to see if maybe she is just there, waiting inside or outside. I wait a few more minutes, and I'm very hungry, so I call Sydney 1 and tell her to come to the hotel, and we would find dinner.
During breakfast or lunch, Sydney 1 was talking about a craving for Thai food, so I ask the people behind the desk if there are any good Thai restaurants around. One of them gives me the name of the best Thai restaurant in town, but it isn't within walking distance. He gives me a binder with some nearby Thai restaurants. One of them has an address I figure I can get to.
Sydney arrives, and we begin walking. She starts offering suggestions, and I say, "I know where we're going."
"Good," she say, "I like a man who can make a decision." Which is funny because I typically suck at making decisions.
I don't tell her where we're going. We go up Walnut to 12th, but I'm not sure which way to turn on 12th. "I said I know where we're going," I say. "Not how to get there." I choose left. We pass Pad Thai House, which could be a viable alternative. As we're heading into a bad part of town, Sydney stops me. She goes into a pizza place and asks where Locust St. is because, as a man, I shouldn't ask for directions, right? I tell her I have no problem with it, but she goes in anyway. Locust St. is the other direction.
When we hit 12th and Locust, there is no sign of Sukhothai, no matter how many directions we look. I finally have to tell her where I intended to take her, and she says it would have been a nice surprise. When I tell her that a desk clerk told me about the best Thai place in town, she suggests we just go there, but we have to go back to the hotel because I don't remember the name or where it is.
Just as we turn the corner to the hotel, my phone rings. It is still not bluegreensmoke; it's Nadia. She and Sydney 2 have not eaten dinner either, so I tell them to come to the hotel. Then I go inside and get the name of the Thai place, Lemon Grass, and the location, 34th and Lancaster.
When their cab arrives, Sydney 1 tells them to get back inside, as we're going to need the cab. Unfortunately, Sydney 2 needs to check her messages to see if her brother is free to meet up with her, but we tell her where we're going so she can meet us if she can. We still have four in the cab, however; at the King Tut exhibit, Nadia and Sydney 2 appear to have met up with another colleague, an Armenian we'll call Sark.
(It would be prudent here to note that bluegreensmoke is not a terrible person, merely a frazzled, busy person who thought we were meeting next Tuesday. Her absence, however, allowed this lovely dovetailing of dinner plans, so let's blame it on fate.)
At 34th and Lancaster, we find a 7-11. It would be risky to get out and look, but we see a couple other options that may work if we fail. Nadia goes inside one establishment and asks if they know where Lemon Grass is. As it turns out, it's a few blocks down. At 37th and Lancaster.
We enter Lemon Grass about a half hour before closing and are given a small table in the corner. Seating order as given by a Cartesian grid with Quadrant I in the corner of the table that matches the corner of the restaurant: Sark, Nadia, me, Sydney 1.
Nadia looks through the menu. She's clearly a foodie and a Thai connoisseur, which is lucky for Sark, who is not that familiar with Thai food. She recommends the Drunken Noodles, which also sound appealing to me. I also get the chicken coconut soup, as does Sark. Sydney gets the lemon grass soup, and Nadia gets a seafood soup. Everything is good.
The entrees are even better, though. I don't think I've had better Thai food. I've never had such moist, tasty, thick rice noodles. And it is nice and spicy, too.
Nadia gets a seafood dish with red sauce, and she is absolutely over the moon about it. She loves it so much that she wishes she could take a picture. Luckily, I have my digital camera with me, so I take a picture of her with her dinner. Since we're by a mirror, she gets a little halo. I also take a close-up of the plate itself. A waitress takes a picture of our dinner group for us. Sark gives me his card so I can send it to him. I continue to successfully network; the cards I've collected are from people of diverse backgrounds and positions.
Even after the seafood and vegetables are gone, Nadia continues to eat the sauce, it's so good.
As it's past closing, we're not offered dessert, so we head out into the cold. It's a little colder now. I lead us in the direction of busier streets, where we're more likely to catch a cab.
Nadia is especially cold. Her teeth are chattering, she is that cold. I don't think it's that bad. I take off my jacket and drape it over her shoulders.
"Aw," she says, "that's very gallant of you."
"It's what I do," I say.
"See, you'll make someone a good husband."
"I hope so," I say.
"But you're going to freeze!" she says.
"Nah," I reply, "I've got long sleeves." It's true; as I took off my jacket, I noticed that I was still wearing a long-sleeved shirt, so that was fine. Nadia only had short sleeves under her own jacket.
It stops her shivering and chattering, so I'm glad it helps. Sark and Sydney are far behind us. Nadia takes this time to again apologize if she offended me at dinner last night. She thinks it's admirable that I'm trying to respect my family's wishes, but it's also important to consider my own happiness, as relationships are between two people, and marriage is hard work. It's nothing I haven't heard from you guys before, but it may be the very first time I've actually heard it spoken out loud by someone.
She reminds me about the marriage tips she'd shared the night before. Chocolate solves everything. So does a foot massage. I tell her she'll have to e-mail me the full list.
After we cross Market Street, she says she's feeling better, so I can have my jacket back. "As long as you're okay," I say, because I would not mind having my jacket back either. She is, so I do.
I find us a cab and tell the driver our destination.
Back at the hotel, we stop by the desk clerk so that Nadia can tell him how much she loved the food at Lemon Grass, which he had recommended, and I can tell him the correct address. On the way there, Nadia thanks me for lending her my jacket, saying it was nice of me.
"No problem," I say. She doesn't understand that it made me very happy to be able to do that.
The next morning is the end of the training course. Sydney 1's train leaves early, so she can't join in lunch plans, but she tells us all to keep in touch.
Sydney 2 has recommended we go to Reading Market for lunch. This is supposedly the best food in Philly, so Sydney 1 is doubly sad she can't come.
Nadia and I check out (Ms. "I like you, Mr. Patel" is back again!); Francie is also checking out. I did not see much of her during the three days because she had her husband and I had the Group.
In the lobby, we wait for Sydney 2. I remember something. I ask the concierge about the lighted As on the street. Sydney 1 asked both our cabbies last night, and neither had a clue. The concierge, though, knows they're for the Avenue of the Arts. I call Sydney 1 and tell her.
Sydney 2 is not still down. I decide to see if I have the magic touch again, but she does not appear on the residential floors. She is, however, on floor XIX, trying to check out.
Downstairs, Sydney 2 gets directions to Reading Market, and I lead us there.
Inside is a foodie's paradise. Food of all kinds, all ethnicities, all flavors. It's like the Emeryville Public Market, but good. Every single place looks really good. Nadia becomes enamored with a crepe place because she can't find many crepe places where she's from, whereas there are quite a few in the Bay Area. I get a turkey torta and chicken tortilla soup from the 12th Street Cantina. Sydney 2 noticed a middle Eastern place that sold fresh-squeezed juices, so we all grab juice from there. I get strawberry-kiwi-mango.
We find a place to sit and eat. The food is all good, of course.
Nadia says we need to have a DIA reunion. If only we could get our companies to pay for it, she says, by telling them we formed some sort of Drug Safety Strategic Task Force or something.
After lunch, I suggest we split a soft pretzel, since Philly is also supposedly known for such things. It is a damn good pretzel, in fact.
Someone had told Sydney 2 about Bassett's Ice Cream, which is our final stop. The man says they have the best vanilla in the world, so I get vanilla fudge and pistachio. Sydney 2 and Nadia are very full, but I let them try the best vanilla in the world, which is damn good.
Back at the hotel, it's time for Sydney 2 to wander about and catch her train home, so hugs are exchanged. I ask for a cab to the airport. Nadia's flight is at 3:30, and mine is at 4:30, so we're riding together. She thanks me during the ride because she doesn't like riding in cabs by herself. It's lucky for her, too, since I'm able to cover the fare in cash when the cabbie claims the credit card reader "doesn't work."
As she checks into her flight, I go check into mine, which turns out to be delayed. As I'm about to head into security, Nadia calls me and tells me her gate number. It's a little bit of a trek from mine, but I've got even more time than I expected. I keep her company while news of the Virginia Tech shootings continues on CNN.
When her flight boards, she thanks me for sitting with her and gives me a hug.
As I wait for my own flight, I get a call from Sydney 1, who wants to gloat about the fact that she's already home. I counter by gloating about how good the food at Reading Market was. She tells me keep her updated on my marriage debacle.
It's fascinating how the four of us just sort of...found each other and bonded for no apparent reason. There were some reasons, some commonalities between and among us, but I still don't know how it happened.
Sometimes, I like people.