I am standing in a long line with every single tourist in Philadelphia. It’s hot. Humid. I am sweating through my drawers.
There must be hundreds of us here, loitering in the heat, waiting outside Jim’s South Street to buy a Philly cheesesteak. Every time our line starts to move forward, it turns out to be a false alarm and we actually end up shuffling backward, a little closer to West Virginia.
I hate lines. I detest them. But part of the human condition is to wait in lines. Lines are what we do. You visit post offices, airports, DMVs, funeral homes, you’re going to stand in lines. After you die you will wait in line to enter the pearly gates. Please have a valid photo ID and two forms of identification ready.
Nevertheless, I am a dutiful tourist, and all tourists visit Jim’s.
“You gotta eat a cheesesteak at Jim’s!” is what the Philadelphians tell you. And I’m sure they’re right. But they forget to explain that the line of tourists outside Jim’s is longer than the line to the women’s restroom at a Mary Kay convention.
Even so. Here I am.
I’ve had a great time in Philly over these last days. Not only have I learned some history and seen pretty things, but I have received substantial parking tickets and almost totaled my rental car thrice.
The highpoint of my expedition was definitely the historic walking tour, led by a guy named Casey.
Casey made my whole Philly visit worth it. If you ever take a historic tour here, get Casey to be your guide. He’s a high-school teacher by day, historian by night. He’s the kind of down-to-earth guy who doesn’t just expertly tell the story of Philadelphia, but he also does the voices.
Casey had me laughing, reflecting, nodding thoughtfully, and constantly thinking to myself: “I hope the police don’t put a boot on my car.”
Our tour group visited all the important sights. We saw America’s oldest fire department. We saw the meeting hall where our founding fathers agreed to commit treason against King George III. We saw the Liberty Bell; it was everything it was cracked up to be.
We saw where the first Quakers invented oatmeal. We saw where Benjamin Franklin drank beer in Elfreth’s Alley. And we paid tribute at the grave of Betsy Ross, whose dying wish was to be buried beside the gift shop.
But, if I’m being honest, the best thing about our walking tour was our group itself.
You should have seen us. Each U.S. region was represented within our ranks. When we walked down Arch Street we looked like a miniature Kodak snapshot of America.
We had a few gals from Milwaukee. “How are ya now?”
People from Louisiana. “How y’all?”
Missouri. “Hi, you guys.”
Folks from North Carolina. “How is ever’one on this fann day?”
A family from Hawaii. “Aloha, everybody.”
People from New Jersey. “How you doin’?”
Those of us from Florida. “Haaaaaaaayyyyyyyy.”
And Minnesota. (Crickets.)
We were a few dozen ordinary Americans exploring the cradle of our nation’s liberty. Different, but similar. Unique, but alike. It made me forget all the discord you see on cable news, and the constant footage of violence and unrest. There was none of that in our group.
No, we were fun people. We laughed. We exchanged contact information. We posed for photos together. We were Black, white, Asian, Latino, Northerner, Southerner, Midwesterner, Westerner, old, young, middle-aged, and kindergartners.
And not to be dramatic here, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt more patriotic than I did when a Philadelphia County municipal street sweeping truck tried to mow us all down. Together. As a nation.
My favorite part of the tour, however, was when we all stopped walking and let our eyes land on that famous corner room in Independence Hall. A room where 56 founding delegates once signed an important piece of paper.
I felt something move inside me when I noticed the famous windows, the shades still drawn.
I made friends with an older Black woman from New Jersey who wore a cap that read: “Woman Army Veteran.” She sidled up next to me. We both looked at the iconic building and uttered a hushed “Wow.”
And when our tour guide gave his closing speech on what it means to be an American, chills waltzed up my spine. Not only because I love my country, but because I love the people in it.
I don’t know if I will ever be able to thank Casey enough for guiding us through the confusing streets of the City that Loves you Back. But I’d like to say thanks for helping me appreciate the unalienable beauty of my homeland; for reintroducing me to my forefathers; for making me think; and most of all, I’d like to thank him for leading me to the public bathrooms in my moment of need.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I believe the line at Jim’s is moving.
Whoops. Never mind. False alarm.