Adventures in Philadelphia – into the Great American Dumpster Fire?

June 10, 2022

Let me be honest…

I spend way too much time on Twitter.

Trust me: I know it’s not a good idea.

Social media will hijack your brain if you let it, and have you believing all kinds of things that aren’t true. Dangerous misinformation. Fake news, propaganda and outright lies.

Getting off the plane in Philadelphia, I’m fully expecting the US to have turned into a massive dumpster fire of a country in my long absence.

Why? Because Twitter told me so. As did the media. CNN and the NY Times have spent years freaking out over what an awful place the US is, and about how tense everyone is about race and politics. The right-wing media thinks we’ve already lost the cold war to China and we’d better just get used to it.

Everything is going to hell in a handbasket, and things have never been worse. (So say the various pundits and commentators.)

So I’m a bit surprised to walk through the airport and see that the good ol’ US of A is much like before: an environment of incredible abundance populated by a diverse group of (generally) cheerful people interacting politely.

The guy at passport control is a local. He’s polite and smiling happily as he checks my documents. The Homeland Security guy hopes I have a nice day, polite and smiling happily.

The taxi driver is an immigrant from somewhere. He’s wearing a dashiki and a brown robe, he’s got a long grey beard, and he’s – guess what – polite and smiling happily, even after my first two cards are declined.

A lot of people on Twitter seem to think we’re on the verge of Civil War 2.0. How come everyone here in Philadelphia is so chilled out?

At the hotel, the manager notices my Barcelona address. He says he’s from Argentina, a country which (he claims) is much like Spain. He’s polite and… well, I think you get the idea.

Were Twitter and the media all lying to me?

Streets of Philadelphia, na na na na, na na na na, na na na na, na na na na…

Downtown Philadelphia is a bit worse for wear.

Honestly, it looks like a city that’s had a few good centuries, but this might not be one of them.

There are some massive early-20th-century buildings that just scream Peak American Optimism. But generally, it looks like the money has moved to the suburbs.

Walking around between office buildings, museums, and monuments, it strikes me that something is very different from Barcelona: the sidewalk doesn’t have any dog shit for me to step over.

Soon, I realize why: no dogs.

Nobody’s walking dogs because nobody’s living in these neighborhoods. Nobody’s living in these neighborhoods because Americans are terrified of mixed-use space. These aren’t neighborhoods like the barrio back home, with people of all kinds working, living and shopping in close quarters.

This downtown is a theme park for office workers and tourists.

Weird and artificial. But still, it’s nice to see.

I get an overpriced beer at a place in Chinatown, and after a while one of the waiters sees me with my Moleskine and asks me if I’m a writer. He’s very friendly. Gives me some info about the city, calls me “buddy”, tells me not to walk down any dark alleys late at night.

I overtip because that’s what we do in the US, and walk off to see more of the sights. The diverse crowd, the wacky fashion, the huge pickup trucks.

When I hear people talking around me, some of them seem like caricatures, or actors playing a part. In fact, I can’t shake the feeling that many Europeans have described to me when they visit America: it’s a lot like stepping into a TV show.

Basically all I know about Philadelphia is that they have a sandwich called a Philly Cheesesteak. But it turns out that here, they just call them steaks. I find a place that offers steaks and beer, and sit down at the bar, where there are several TVs in a row, all showing the same baseball game.

Goddamn, the prices in this town. Thirteen bucks for a sandwich.

Around 7 PM, my jetlagged ass is back at the hotel in bed.

Hasta mañana, Philly.

The next day on the unbeaten path…

My plan for this trip is to see the places people don’t usually visit when they come to the US.

Any moron can book a flight to New York and then head back to Europe saying “Oh, I love the US! You know, Manhattan and Brooklyn. Queens not so much.”

I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m not impressed by New York as a social construct, so I’m gonna see some of the less typical destinations. I’m gonna walk the unbeaten path.

Leaving the hotel at 6:30, I’m out before anyone else. The downtown area seems nicer without the jetlag and the glare of the afternoon sun. Mostly, without the people to distract me. The historical area looks like a quaint re-imagining of 18th-century London, which, of course, it probably was.

There’s the park with the Liberty Bell, there’s Ben Franklin’s grave and some museums dedicated to the Constitution, etc.

All the typical American things you’d expect.

After a coffee at Starbucks (the only place open this early) I walk off through massive skyscrapers – some old and made of stone, some new and made of glass and steel.

By 8 AM I’ve walked several kilometers. It’s hot and humid, and I’m in West Philadelphia – the Land of Will Smith, as I’ve heard the locals call it. Some other cafés are open by this time, so I stop for a cold brew and stare out the window.

west philadelphia houses
West Philadelphia.

The number of people who randomly strike up a conversation is shocking. The barista wants to chat about the birds having a loud freak-out in the tree outside. A woman sees me paying with my bright-green Transferwise card, and asks me if it glows in the dark.

I fill a few pages of my Moleskine with random ovservations such as…

  • Lots of hand-pulled noodles and Vietnamese food in Chinatown.
  • Homelessness doesn’t seem to be any worse than in Barcelona, at least downtown.
  • When you’re walking towards someone on the sidewalk, they see you and start course-correcting from 10 meters away, so you don’t bump into each other.
  • Except for one guy (ironically) wearing a “Reagan – Bush ’84” t-shirt, I haven’t seen or heard anything about politics.
  • Giant billboard shaped like a condom says “Tired of STDs? Call now!”

I’d give your mom the number of the STD hotline, but unfortunately I forgot to write it down. I hope her nest of crabs isn’t itching too badly, though.

New Jersey, old hat

In the afternoon, I take the ferry across the Delaware river to Camden, New Jersey.

Most of what I know about New Jersey comes from The Sopranos. Orgies at the strip club and murders at the pork store. Camden, though, is totally dead on a Saturday afternoon.

There’s a massive city hall with an unnecessary tower on top – peak American optimism, again – a campus belonging to Rutgers University, and some sort of event for Evangelical Christians.

A guy is up on the stage, giving his whole rant. “You expect God to do big things, to give you BIG SIGNS. Well, you need to STOP EXPECTING BIG SIGNS. God can come to you anywhere, He can come to you at the Walmart, He can give you a sign while you’re standing in the checkout line. Because GOD IS GOOD AND GOD IS EVERYWHERE LADIES AND GENTLEMEN CAN I GET AN AMEN.”

The audience of about two dozen gives him a smattering of applause, and some people call out, “Amen, amen, hallelujah!”

Like I said, if these were characters on some TV show I wouldn’t be at all surprised. But apparently they’re actual people, just doing their thing. I stand around watching for a while, listening to the rhythm of the preacher’s speech, the pauses for applause and hallelujahs.

benjamin franklin bridge in philadelphia
The bridge from Philadelphia to Camden.

After an hour I’ve wandered around enough to decide that Camden New Jersey is about the most boring place on earth to spend a Saturday afternoon. Oh well.

The only thing that’s open is a sports bar, so I sit down for a beer. The customers and the staff are all obvious parodies of “The Enthusiastic American”. The waitress’ excitement at doing her job is rivalled only by the excitement of the customers at receiving their cocktails. Everyone is just really, really happy to be here, in Camden, New Jersey, at this bar, in 2022, on a Saturday in June.

Or so it would seem. Maybe it’s all fake. What do I know?

Maybe that’s exactly how people act when they’re sitting on a giant dumpster fire.

Back across the river in Philadelphia, there’s an Irish music festival, sponsored by Miller Lite. The Stars and Stripes are waving prominently on Penn’s Landing, while a band plays songs from the old country.

It certainly just seems like a nice Saturday afternoon in cheerful, diverse America.

Walking the Schuylkill River Trail outside Philadelphia

My last day in Philadelphia I decide to walk along the Schuylkill River Trail. The trail goes from Philadelphia to Valley Forge, and has some segments further up the river.

Valley Forge sounds vaguely like a scene in the Revolutionary War, but it’s 20 miles away. The metric system ingrained in my synapses by now, I think “20 miles = 20 km, no problem”. But upon doing the conversion I decide to just walk and see what happens.

I hit the river just past the art museum with the staircase made famous in Rocky.

After that, it’s just miles and miles (or kilometers and kilometers, if you prefer) of forest and river, rowing clubs training on the water, joggers and cyclists out for some Sunday morning cardio.

It’s a really beautiful scene. Eventually I arrive in East Falls, a little suburb with a gas station, a Dunkin Donuts and not much else. Google Maps suggests there’s an independent café that’s open, so I head over. It’s quaint: a mix of small town life and modernity, with gluten free donuts and oat milk, and a Black Owned Business sign on the door.

I ask a woman who’s sitting outside about the trains back to Philadelphia. She says I can walk along the river about as far as I want, and get a train back from any little town.

She continues talking, and within 5 minutes she says “It’s really a trash fire of a country these days”.

Trash fire, dumpster fire, poTAYto, poTAHto.

I ask her why, and she says “The prices!”

With that, I agree. I just spent $7.50 for coffee and a donut, after all. She goes on to talk about real estate, and how she’s moved here because she can’t afford to live in Fishtown. “I used to be ride or die, Fishtown forever!” she exclaims. “But now I’m happy in East Falls.”

I assume that Fishtown is just a local term for Philadelphia, but it turns out to be a neighborhood, “a magnet for hipsters and creative types”, according to the Google snippet.

After that, there’s Manayunk, a cute place with little two-story buildings all in a row, and a series of cafés, boutiques and brewpubs. The old yarn factory is now the Yarn Factory Lofts.

Downtown Manayunk, PA.

If we send all the industry abroad so we can turn the factories into lofts and sit around drinking craft beer and eating gluten free donuts, um… What happens when those industries abroad have “supply chain issues” and stop sending us stuff?

That’s a question we all should have pondered very carefully, a few decades ago.

Just a regular day in America…

Wandering up the Schuylkill again, I walk through long stretches of cute little cottages and pre-fabs, many flying the Stars’n’Stripes. The houses are small, but a lot of them have fishing boats or speedboats in the carport. Life on the river.

I don’t see many people out, but I imagine the people who live here all look like Kid Rock in the video for All Summer Long.

(He’s singing about Michigan, not Pennsylvania, but whatever. All these Eastern states are the same to me. Tiny, overpopulated, and shaped like triangles.)

I’ve looked at the map and found a plausible end-point for my walk: the town of Conshohocken, just 25 km from my hotel. There’s a restaurant there called the Great American Pub. How can I pass that up?

Just gotta get there. Only 10 more kilometers.

I’ve been going since 6:30 again, and it’s only now that any bars or restaurants are opening. I walk and walk, then stop at a brewery where all the cyclists are having pints before riding off somewhere.

And in just 3 more kilometers, I’m in Conshohocken, at the Great American Pub. The waitress (polite, friendly, enthusiastic, etc) greets me with “Hi, I’m Caroline, and I’ll be taking care of you today.”

After a Bud Light and Reuben sandwich lunch, I head back to catch the train. This is about when people start sending me messages, sounding concerned for my safety. Finally, I check the news. Oh, okay. Mass shooting a few blocks from my hotel. It was last night while I was asleep. I’d briefly wondered why there was a police helicopter hovering over downtown at 7AM but otherwise heard nothing.

Writing this a week later, it appears that the “mass shooting” was more of a crossfire incident resulting from a fist-fight that escalated. No assault rifles, just (mostly) people who were licensed to carry and ended up shooting some innocent people on South Street.

In other words, just another Saturday night in any big city in America.

How to put out a dumpster fire, and other pressing questions

So is the US a giant disaster that seriously needs help?

Or just a very large country with the types of problems one could expect from 330 million people trying to live together in stressful, uncertain times?

Despite what I’ve read on Twitter, I tend to think the latter.

Along the Schuylkill River.

It’s easy to find some country the size of South Carolina and say, “Wow, look at this peaceful little utopia of 5 million! Why can’t the US just be more like Denmark?”

Well, because the US just isn’t Denmark. For one thing, our population is about 65 times bigger. Imagine a small-town high school with 100 people, and then imagine a big city school with almost 7000. That’s your comparison. Do you think the problems at one will be equal in scale and frequency to the other?

Obviously not. They’re completely different.

(Also, incidentally, I have some friends from Denmark who would strongly disagree with the whole “utopia” thing. Take that as you will. Maybe everybody just complains about their own country.)

So I’m going to go on the record here: it’s not quite the dumpster fire I imagined. Every country has problems, and the US is no exception. But so far (and despite the mass-shooting / crossfire incident) I’m finding it friendly, cheerful and abundant.

On the other hand, I’ve got several cities left on my itinerary that might change my mind.

That’s all for today. Keep it real, y’all.

Optimistically yours,

Daniel AKA Mr Hot Dog.

P.S. This took me a while to write, and I’m currently two cities on, in New Orleans, where I got flash flooded all morning. Now it appears to be clearing up, so I’m going to head out for a Po Boy and some more beer. Any recommendations for other unbeaten path locations in the US? Let me know, right here in the comments. Thanks!

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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  1. Hello Daniel , besides a blogger ,bestselling author and contributor to Lonely planet as you say,you,re a great teacher of english ,excellent observer and writter .To me are always very interesting your classes, opinions and observations and remarks.Bye

  2. Hi Daniel, I genuinely enjoyed the article. Any plans to be in Boston over this trip? BTW, wife and I would be happy to get together and show you around if that should fit your day. Please let us know. Best regards. Len.

    1. Hey Len, I’m not sure about Boston. I’ve always wanted to go, but it might not be this trip. I’ll let you know, and thanks, of course, for your kind offer!

  3. Hi Daniel, pleasure is ours. Please do not hesitate to get in touch if you head in the direction of Boston. Best.

  4. Hi Daniel, Thank you for sharing your trip. I loved to read it. Before I lived in the U.S. I used to come here for vacations. Philadelphia was the first city I visited and New Jersey was the second one, so, while I was reading about your experience, my memories came back.
    I have learned new vocabulary from your post. I have to check the dictionary a couple of times, but It was great to read.
    Enjoy your trip!

  5. Good story – nice to read something positive. I enjoyed reading your comments and generally estadounidenses are indeed pleasant. There is a growing dark side (far right wing haters) that is promoting violence in this country. Hopefully you will not encounter any of this and have a great trip. After visiting Asturias and Galicia in the fall 2021, we found los españoles to be pleasant as well. And we had great meals with wine or beer at prices completely unavailable in the US. So I hope our good luck continues this fall when we return to Spain. Looking forward to reading more about your return to your homeland.

  6. I enjoyed reading your article very much; really interesting and well written. Will look forward to your next post.

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