The Filial Piety Tour would normally begin with a gathering of cousins amid the eccentric and anecdotally inbred mountain-folk of darkest Appalachia, or possibly in the luxuriant and genteel surroundings of greater Washington DC. But for 2012, one part of the clan is demanding that everyone else come to them for a change, this once. There are only so many times that people can greet family members’ ludicrous ideas with chortles of mirth; sooner or later, blood ties leave us with no option but to accede. So we’re meeting up in… Philadelphia.
As the minute-by-minute photographic account below shows, the trip begins with the most mundane vistas that the Mid-Atlantic region has to offer. Not pictured are the city’s outer residential neighbourhoods of dilapidated housing held together by the graffiti on the homes’ walls…
Drawing into the downtown area towards the local Hemlocks’ long-avoided seat, we pass boarded-up buildings and murals of an infamously corrupt former mayor with an Italian name. Then things suddenly perk up. We pass a one-stop accordion shop – surely a sign of a vibrant and cultured population – and then a street market, guaranteed to prompt a pang of homesickness in any Hongkonger. This is a district, next to the historic downtown, undergoing gentrification, complete with pretentious restaurants with menus in French only, and a store selling 400 cheeses. The Philly Hemlocks have been telling us the truth all along, year after year: their adopted city is not the repulsive dump of popular legend.
To rub the point home, the next day we visit the crumbling hell-hole that is Eastern State Penitentiary – only to learn that it has been closed (even Al Capone’s cell)…
And we head off to a shabby Italian area, where they paint the pavement green, white and red, to sample the city’s gastronomic pride: a baguette filled with sliced steak and no other than Cheez Whiz®. Waiting in line at this place, a couple of local residents look forlornly at a hand-written sign saying simply that the outlet will be closed the following day for Memorial Day. After agreeing with each other that the words indicate that the legendary Tony Luke’s – for this is where we are – will not be open for an entire 24-hour period, the pair look utterly lost. To help them in their moment of despair, I turn and offer them a piece of advice.
“Listen,” I say. “You people have been here four generations now. Why don’t you stop saying ‘youse’ when addressing a group? There’s no second-person-plural pronoun in English.” The grief that has inflicted them on learning that tomorrow they will starve is momentarily lifted. Well whad’ya’know, they more or less indicate: they promise to remember in future. In return, they give me valuable advice on consuming the delectable dish: cram the bread with hot pickled peppers to kill the taste of the Cheez Whiz®.
As the Philadelphian branch of the Hemlock clan are preoccupied with a large plastic canister of Heinz mustard, the rest of us plunge into a group of Japanese tourists for cover, sneak out of the cheese steak emporium into the shade of the Delaware Expressway overpass, clamber into our vehicles, and head south and south west at moderate but heartfelt speed.