Up Is Where It’s At: Philadelphia’s Elevated Parks

Central Philadelphia, as seen from Cira Green.

As loyal readers of this publication know, I have a propensity to mention that not only am I getting old, I strongly dislike getting old. I mean, what’s to like? I’m at the point where even if I were to live another 25 years, an unlikely occurrence that would take me deep into my 90s, the end sure as shit is still a whole lot closer than the beginning. Depressing, man, depressing.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I get a kick out of wandering around in search of that which is new to me. I tend to believe that a steady diet of fresh experiences possibly has the ability to hold back Father F*cking Time. In any event, encountering the new sure helps to keep your brain cells firing, to bring at least the semblance of a smile to your face, and to make most days decently bright. And so, off I went recently to a couple of places that I’d never visited before and was more than curious to investigate.

The Rail Park

I live not far from Philadelphia and head into that interesting city, which contains an almost endless supply of things to do, three or more times each month. On August 8, I decided that I’d go there to check out The Rail Park, which began as an idea in the early 2000s and became a reality when its first, and to-date only, section opened in 2018. Three more sections are on the drawing board. (If plans for the creation of those sections interest you, then feel free to click here to learn about them.)

Luckily I did a bit of googling before leaving the house, otherwise I’d not have known that another elevated park, Cira Green, occupies space in Philadelphia. As far as I know, The Rail Park and Cira Green are Philly’s only places with greenery that are up in the open air.

Close to central Philadelphia’s Chinatown section, The Rail Park was created by a partnership of forward-thinking area residents and governmental and private entities, and is built on what were abandoned, elevated Reading Railroad tracks. Those tracks once brought freight and passengers into and out of The City Of Brotherly Love. They were last used for those purposes in 1984.

And Cira Green? Well, unlike The Rail Park it’s not under city government’s oversight. It’s an entirely private enterprise, but everyone is welcome there. Its home is the roof of a parking garage that sits between two modern towers. (The two towers, the parking garage and Cira Green collectively are known as Cira Centre South.) Cira Green opened three years before The Rail Park did and rubs shoulders with The University Of Pennsylvania and with Drexel University in the enormous part of town known as West Philadelphia.

Cira Green

I took in Cira Green first. I rode the parking garage elevator to the 11th floor and then walked up a staircase that leads to the roof. Voila! Cira Green spread out before my eyes, one and a quarter acres of walkways, terraced lawns, shrub and flower beds, and a sprinkling of trees. There’s a burger and beer joint on the grounds too, and a big tent where organized events are held. Lawn chairs and chaise lounges were scattered around.

Central Philadelphia, as seen from Cira Green.

Cira Green is a solid piece of work, and dozens of people were there enjoying the sunny day. But it ain’t knock-your-socks-off beautiful. If it were on ground level it would be considered fairly pedestrian. But it’s not on ground level. One hundred and fifty or more feet above the streets, it provides a motherlode of fab views. Damn right I didn’t plop my ass into a chair or chaise lounge. What I did was walk all over the place, checking out those views.

West Philadelphia, as seen from Cira Green.
Cira Green. Reflections too.

Skyscraper-loaded central Philadelphia, across the murky Schuylkill River, gave me a buzz, as did West Philadelphia’s kaleidoscopic patterns, dominated by tans, browns and greys. But what I also couldn’t keep my eyes off of were the reflections in the facades of the two giant buildings flanking Cira Green. A person, such as I, could get lost in those reflections.

One public transit ride later, not to mention blocks and blocks of walking, I found the stairs that lead to The Rail Park. The park is in a gritty neighborhood that goes by various names, including Callowhill. Much of Callowhill went up in the 1800s. The area has an industrial look, which figures, because many factories once produced goods there. A few still do. Others have been converted to residential use. Parking lots are part of the landscape too, as is a dense array, too dizzying for me to digest, of other structures. The Rail Park was needed. It’s the only park in Callowhill, the only green refuge.

That’s The Rail Park up there.
The Rail Park

I liked The Rail Park. A mere 20 or thereabouts feet above street level, it doesn’t command the types of views that Cira Green does. But that was alright with me. As I walked back and forth along the park’s quarter of a mile length of planks and gravel paths, I looked here and I looked there, admiring the otherworldliness of the electric company substation very near the park and enjoying the neighborhood’s overall no-nonsense ambience.

The Rail Park
The Rail Park

The park’s plantings are pretty. The oversized swings struck me as a delightful touch. Basically, The Rail Park, at least during the moments I spent within it, was very welcoming. I felt comfortable and at home. If I lived in its vicinity I’d head over there now and then, book in hand, and find a comfortable perch on which to read.

One guy was doing exactly that. One young lady walked her dog. Two couples huddled, exchanging sweet nothings or something of that order. And a few folks of various ages, including an old guy, one of my peers, relaxed on the swings. Yeah, I definitely liked The Rail Park. I hope that Callowhill’s and Chinatown’s residents have come to embrace it, or will.

In closing, I tip my metaphorical hat to Philadelphia, a city that always has inspired me. Without Philadelphia, this website would be hurting for content. For real.

(As I almost always say, please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. Gracias.)

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When Martin Scorsese Asked For My Help, I Obliged!: A Cinematic Story Of Sorts

Martin Scorsese (Photo by Jeff Vespa; copyright WireImage.com)

“Neil! It’s Marty. Do you got a minute? I really need your help,” Martin Scorsese, the titanic film director, said to me a few days ago. He was calling from his production studios in Manhattan, where he’s putting the finishing touches on The Irishman, a crime drama with an all-star cast that includes Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking: How can a schlub like me be friends with a luminary like Scorsese? Maybe I’ll go into the details in a future article. For now, let me merely say that Marty and I first met, a few years ago, in a dream (click here to access that dream). Our relationship evolved and deepened organically from there into a real-life friendship.

Leonardo DiCaprio (photo credit: NASA/Goddard/Rebecca Roth)

“Listen, Neil,” Marty went on, “here’s why I’m calling. You know Leo, right? Leonardo DiCaprio? He’s been in a bunch of my films.”

“Sure, everybody knows who he is. But I never met him, if that’s what you mean.”

Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci (attributed to Francesco Melzi)

“Leo’s a great guy,” Marty went on. “Talented as hell. Smart as hell too, a genius in fact. That’s why, I suppose, I came up with this fabulous idea: DiCaprio should portray Leonardo da Vinci in a movie. One genius playing another genius. One Leonardo playing another Leonardo. Could anything be cooler than that? I love it, man! It can’t miss . . . except that I’m having trouble figuring out what angle the movie ought to take, what it should be about. A straight drama? Forget it. I’ve done enough of those. A comedy? Definitely could work. Picture this: Da Vinci would be a bumbler in the film, stumbling from one misadventure to another. The running gag would be da Vinci getting his humongous beard caught in a door wherever he goes. ‘Get me out of this hairy situation, I beg you! The f*cking door is stuck!’ would be his catchphrase.”

“Marty, that’s good. You can’t go wrong with a comedy. But you know what’s even better? A superhero movie, Marty, a superhero movie. Da Vinci was gifted as hell. He was a painter, an inventor, a scientist, a mathematician, a you-name-it. Shit, there was nothing that old boy couldn’t do. He was the Renaissance man of all Renaissance men.”

Marty cut me off. “I’m listening, Neil. And I like where I think you’re going with this. Tell me more.”

“Well, only the greatest Renaissance man of them all has what it takes to save the hub of the Renaissance — Florence, Italy — from two potentially catastrophic invasions. The first assault is by aliens, the second by zombies.”

“When the aliens, looking for all the world like seven-foot tall ants, descend upon Florence from a distant galaxy, in 1505, the city’s residents are thrown into a panic,” I continued. “But Leonardo da Vinci, a Florentine, stays cool, immediately putting his scientific know-how into use. Within an hour he invents a chemical spray that anything resembling an ant will be powerless against. Then he disguises himself with a Mona Lisa mask, whose enigmatic smile stops the invaders in their tracks. They’ve never seen such a smile before, and are nearly hypnotized by it. Spray bottles in hand, da Vinci now advances on the creatures, systematically killing them one by one.”

David, by Michelangelo (photo credit: Jorg Bittner Unna)

“‘All we wanted to do was steal Michelangelo’s statue of David from your city and bring it back to our planet,’ the alien leader says to da Vinci with its final breaths. ‘David’s hung like a horse, after all. Most impressive! The statue would have sat majestically in our supreme ruler’s palace. He’d have gazed at it admiringly and enviously, sometimes bemoaning the less-than-daunting size of his own genitalia.'”

“You’re on a roll, Neil,” Marty said. “What’s next?”

“Well, only one week after da Vinci dispatches the aliens, Florence is confronted with an untold number of zombies. Those f*ckers seemingly came from out of nowhere. But they don’t stand a chance, not with our Renaissance man on the scene. He dons his signature mask, whose smile has the same effect on the zombies as it did on the aliens. That’s when da Vinci whips out the hammer and chisel that he’s borrowed from Michelangelo — the very same tools that Michelangelo used to carve the David statue — and bashes the living crap out of the baddies. Problem solved! Case closed!”

“Yes, this is the best!” Marty exclaimed. “Mega-sance Man, short for Mega Renaissance Man, is what we’ll call da Vinci’s alter ego. And that’ll be the name of the film too. Neil, I can tell that this will be the most popular movie I’ve ever made, an absolute blockbuster. I’m going to hang up now. I’ve got to call DiCaprio and tell him about your genius ideas. For years he’s been itching to play a guy who saves the world. Thank you, Neil, thank you. You’ll receive a screenwriter credit, of course, and hefty payments for your contributions.”

“Marty, in your hands Mega-sance Man will be stunning. Leonardo da Vinci, if he were alive, would be flattered and proud.”

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story on social media. Mucho gracias.)

The Flowers In My Neighborhood Weren’t Wilting, But I Was: A Walking Story

It’s been hotter than hell — well, maybe not quite that hot, but hot enough — in the Philadelphia region, where I live, during much of July. And it’s been similarly hot in countless other portions of Planet Earth. You don’t need me to tell you that global warming has had a strong grip on our orb’s metaphorical balls for many years now, and that the situation is only getting worse.

Anyway, the heat was especially nasty in my area on the 21st and 22nd of July, days during which the highs came this close to hitting the fabled 100°F (38°C) mark, ultimately falling a degree or two short. The humidity was impressive too. Nice weather, no? Like countless millions around the globe, though, I had little to complain about. That’s because I stayed inside my air-conditioned home most of the time. Sure, air conditioning is made possible largely by the burning of massive amounts of fossil fuels, thus contributing significantly to the global warming crisis. But what’s a guy to do? Turn off the A/C and melt like a Popsicle? Shit, my balls, which aren’t metaphorical, wouldn’t appreciate becoming liquified.

That unfortunate possibility notwithstanding, at 11:45 AM on the 22nd I decided to throw caution to the wind by launching myself into the elements. I’d had enough of being an indoors wuss. The time had arrived to become an outdoors wuss! I smeared sunscreen lotion all over my wrinkled, age-spotted face and then drank about 20 ounces of water to up my hydration level. Those important tasks accomplished, at noon I stepped outside with one main idea in mind: I was going to walk on many blocks of my suburban neighborhood in search of pretty flowers. The many flowering trees and azalea bushes in my hood all had dropped their blossoms well over a month ago, but whatever other flowers were around (and I knew that there wouldn’t be a whole lot) would have little chance to escape my eagle eye. Off I went. The walk turned out to be a pretty good one, two miles in length and one hour in duration.

My wife and I moved to our abode 14 years ago. And somewhere in the middle of those years I came to realize that there ain’t an amazing quantity of summertime flowers on the two hundred or more properties surrounding us. There’s no explanation for this. It’s just one of those things. I mean, all of the residents keep their lawns and shrubbery trimmed nicely, so it’s not that they don’t care about appearances. But the zing factor from flowers could be far, far better. The color that dominates is green. Green lawns. Green tree leaves. Green bushes. These two photos show my neighborhood’s typical summertime looks:

Yet, of course, there are exceptions. And I dug them. Here and there were excellent flower beds. And here and there were A-OK flowering bushes, including Rose Of Sharon shrubs. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Rose Of Sharon, there having been several of them on the front and back lawns of the house I grew up in decades ago. And they grow brilliantly in my current backyard. Theirs are the only flowers to make an appearance on my property this time of year. I’m glad that a previous owner of my house planted those bushes because I, one of the world’s most inept and lazy gardeners, wouldn’t have taken that step.

Rose Of Sharon shrub in my backyard. This is the only photo taken on my property.

If there’s one flower for which I have an even softer spot than Rose Of Sharon blossoms, it’s the sunflower. Is that because Vincent van Gogh’s sunflower paintings elevated it to iconic status? Maybe. Or is it because of the neat, trim house, in Manhattan’s quaint West Village enclave, that I walked past sometime in the 1970s? Lofty sunflowers grew in front of that small structure, contrasting magnificently with its white exterior. It’s possible that flowers never had made an impression on me like those did. And maybe none have since then. After all, here I am, all these years later, remembering them most fondly. And writing about them.

Yes, I encountered sunflowers on my neighborhood trek the other day. I was two blocks from my house, heading home and sweating like crazy. Despite all the water I drank before leaving home, my lips were unpleasantly dry. I was wilting. Lo and behold, at a corner property I saw them, a long row of sunflowers grinning at me. I stopped to say hello. I took their picture. And I’m going to go back and look at them again after I finish writing this essay. The world needs a lot of things. Peace, compassion and tolerance, for instance. And vastly more sunflowers would be very good too.

Sunflowers

In closing, it should be noted that the blazing Sun and extreme temperature kept things uneventful and quiet in the hood during my walk. The streets were almost empty of people. I saw but one human other than myself. Few cars passed me. And for the first time ever on my strolls in my town, not only did I not encounter any dogs, I didn’t hear barking from inside or outside their houses either. Not until I was about to enter my home at 1:00 PM, that is, when the distinctive yaps of a next-door neighbor’s pet escaped through closed doors and windows. Inside my house I stepped. I checked my balls. They seemed not much the worse for wear. Hallelujah!

(Please don’t be bashful about adding your comments or about sharing this story. As always, I thank you.)

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An Evening On The Deck In The Burbs

Photo taken on July 9, 2019 at 8:26 PM, five minutes before the Sun set.

On Tuesday evening of last week a simple notion swam into my mind. When it made its presence felt I immediately became comfortable with it. And minutes later I answered its call. To wit, I gathered together a bottle of beer, a glass mug, a bottle opener, a box of Cheez-It crackers and a portable radio. Then I opened one of the two doors that lead to the deck attached to the rear of my house and stepped onto that planked structure with the just-mentioned items in hand. Atop the outdoor table I placed them. And upon one of the chairs surrounding the table I deposited my bony, lazy ass. I like the deck a lot, but for reasons associated with a mild-to-medium case of stupidity I don’t relax on it as often as I should. Tuesday evening of last week was only the second or third time I took advantage of the deck since outdoor-sitting weather arrived in April.

The trees on my lot and on surrounding properties have grown madly since my wife Sandy and I took ownership of our suburban-Philadelphia home in 2005. Back then you could see the Sun dip below the horizon from the deck, because our wooden friends were of manageable size. But that was then and now is now. On the night in question I stepped outside at 8:20 PM, eleven minutes before the big ball of fire was scheduled to bid adieu to the Philadelphia region. Not only did trees block out the horizon and the Sun from my perch, they did the same to much of the sky. Ergo, there wasn’t a whole lot of sunset to be seen.

But I didn’t let those realities bother me, as I was in a relaxed mood, a mood that inched closer to the “highly contented” end of the spectrum during the hour and 40 minutes I spent on the deck. And why not? That’s what drinking beer, munching on Cheez-Its and listening to music on the radio will do to you. As will nonchalantly paying a decent amount of attention to what’s going on around you as the sky gradually makes its way from plenty bright to awfully dark. The bottom line is that, after a while, I found myself lost in the evening’s slow flow, a gentle state of affairs the likes of which happen to me only every now and then.

8:48 PM
8:56 PM

Fifteen minutes or so after sunset I admired the pale pink and purple hues in the western part of the sky not obscured by leafy branches or by houses, including mine. And I took note of birds chirping and of insects’ buzzes and clicks. The insects continued to harmonize once dusk began to take hold, but the birds stopped their chatter at that point and hit the sack. And it was impossible not to steal glances at the Moon, which was a few rungs above eye level in the southern sky. It glowed proudly in the clear heavens both before and after darkness arrived, and noticeably moved westward during my stay outside.

Motorcycle roars, somewhere in the distance, filled the air on several occasions while I sat. Central air conditioner systems hummed in unison. I heard the tooting of a train passing through my little town, and the sirens of two or more police vehicles. You know, the man-made sounds seemed as natural as those of the birds and insects, even the jarring ones that usually bug the hell out of me. Yeah man, I was in a mellow groove.

9:28 PM

Music kept me company mighty finely, as I’d known it would. I heard 20 songs or thereabouts on the radio, and they all fit snugly into the evening. One of them especially pleased me, partly because it came over the airwaves (via WRDV, a station in a town close to mine) when darkness was comfortably settling in. That’s the time of day when dreaminess becomes part of the picture.

I’d never heard of Theola Kilgore (born 1925, died 2005) before. I don’t know why, because she had a strong career in the soul and gospel music worlds. Nor had I heard her recording or any other recording of This Is My Prayer, which came out in 1963 and is such a good love song. The late Ed Townsend, a singer and songwriter who fully penned “For Your Love” and co-wrote “Let’s Get It On” with Marvin Gaye, composed Prayer. I sighed happily when Theola began to sing. I knew that I was in good hands. Her pleading, honest vocals can shake you to your knees.

At about the time that Theola Kilgore was entering my heart, a quarter past nine o’clock, I couldn’t help but notice that fireflies were starting to kick their show into high gear. Tiny lights flashed to my left, to my right, in front of me, everywhere. The performance was wonderful, and was the main focus of my attention until I headed back into the house at ten after ten.

Is it possible to photograph fireflies? With high-end cameras in the hands of knowledgeable photographers I have no doubt that it is. But with an iPhone in the hands of an amateur? Well, I tried, snapping shot after shot, hoping that one or two little light bursts would appear at the moment that my finger pressed the camera button. I’m not going to bet my life on it, but I believe that one of my attempts might have paid off. It’s hard to say, of course, whether those pinpricks are from fireflies or are artificial lighting, peeking through dense foliage, from a house behind mine. But I’ve got my money on the former. Here’s the photo. The dots are firefly lights, right? Right?

Fireflies? (Photo taken at 9:47 PM)

(Please don’t be bashful about adding your comments or about sharing this essay. Mucho gracias.)

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An Old Guy’s Photography Story

Hallelujah! The creation of this story has allowed me to take it easier on myself, to give myself a bit of a breather from the more involved pieces that I normally launch into cyberspace. Two thumbs up for that! I’m an old guy, you see. My gas tank empties a lot quicker than it used to. My mind wanders into spaces that it barely can squeeze out of. And let’s not overlook the discomfort that two of my private parts (the globular ones) are currently causing me. Because of all of the above, yesterday I came this close to throwing in the writing towel for a while. Meaning, I was set to let lots of time go by, a month or more, before attempting to produce a fresh entry for this website.

Ambler, Pennsylvania. February 15, 2019
Philadelphia,, Pennsylvania. March 16, 2019

But no! In the end I couldn’t let that happen. For one thing, the CEO of the blogosphere, Tammy Whammy, wouldn’t stand for it. I’ve been on a short leash with Ms. Whammy for the last year and a half. Hell, she has made it perfectly clear to me that she is displeased about the decreasing frequency with which I’ve been posting articles during that period. And I’m not thrilled about it either. But I’m an old guy. My gas tank empties a lot quicker than it used to. Ah crap, I already said that, didn’t I? Let’s move on.

Philadelphia. April 11, 2019
Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. April 13, 2019

When I press the Publish button for this story, nearly two weeks will have passed since my previous opus appeared. Fairly lengthy gaps like that now are not uncommon for me (in my peppier days I graced the ethers weekly with new material). Will the wait have been worth it? Maybe so, if you like to look at photographs. For that’s what this piece basically is: a collection of photos that I took during the first half of the current year. None of them have appeared previously. More important, I like them.

Philadelphia (near the Philadelphia Museum Of Art). May 1, 2019
Edinburgh, Scotland. May 23, 2019

Yeah, scrolling through my photos was about all I had to do to birth this article. Didn’t have to engage in much thinking or research. I’m down with that! But, I have to admit, during the writing sessions I did spend a few hours contemplating my navel, which, for reasons that my doctors are at a loss to understand, has drifted three inches southward since early 2018. “Don’t worry about it, though, Neil,” they’ve all said to me. “You’re old. It’s just one of those things.”

Edinburgh. May 28, 2019
Edinburgh. May 28, 2019

All right then, what we have here are ten photographs. I’ve placed them chronologically. Five were taken in daylight and five after the Sun set. I’m partial to those nighttime shots, especially the final four of them. The mysteries and moodiness that they contain are irresistible to me. Location-wise, four photos are from Philadelphia, two from the Philadelphia suburbs, and four from Edinburgh, Scotland. Those locales are where my ass has spent most of its time so far in 2019.

Edinburgh. May 29, 2019
Philadelphia’s Awbury Arboretum. June 23, 2019

Speaking of Scotland, my wife and I were there in May, as some of you know. Miraculously, I was able to churn out three stories about our Scottish sojourn. They came out in June. That was a lot of writing. A lot of taxation on my senior citizen brain. I’ve heard about old dudes who, from out of the blue, become all Rambo-like, able to face life’s challenges powerfully and expertly. Maybe something like that is what happened to me, scribe-wise, with the Scotland pieces. But now I’m back to my regular old-guy self. And as it turns out, even though I didn’t have to work too hard to compose this essay, my battery is practically drained. I need a snooze. Nothing I can do about it. Repeat after me: “C’est la f*cking vie!”

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this piece. I thank you.)

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A Trip To Scotland, Part Three: Nature Time!

Ah yes, the big moment has arrived, by which I mean that the third and final episode of my wife Sandy’s and my recent doings in Scotland is now alive in cyberspace. And maybe it’s not only alive, but kicking too. If so, protect your private parts, boys and girls! You can’t be too careful these days.

Part One of the Scottish trilogy mentioned the beauty of Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens, and that of the enormous tract of lands and waters known as the Scottish Highlands. I am now going to devote some hundreds of words to those green areas, both of which impressed us mightily.

Let’s begin with the Gardens, which are, I suppose, one-zillionth the size of the Highlands and certainly not as spectacular. Nevertheless, they sure as hell are more than lovely. We spent only an hour in the Gardens, yet I consider them to be a highlight of the trip.

Princes Street Gardens
Princes Street Gardens

Princes Street Gardens sit smack dab in the middle of central Edinburgh, dividing Edinburgh’s Old Town section from its New Town. The Gardens are in two swaths, the western one being larger than the eastern and more impressive because of the views that it commands. Combined, the east and the west segments total about half a mile in length. Which is not a whole lot. I mean, you could walk from one end to the other of Princes Street Gardens in no time if you wanted to. It would be a mistake to hurry, however, to not stop and smell the roses, because the Gardens are alluring and welcoming. They are a testament to inspired horticultural design and maintenance.

Princes Street Gardens
Ross Theatre in Princes Street Gardens. Edinburgh Castle looms above.

But the Gardens are not merely an urban oasis. They have healing powers too. I can attest to that because, often a fine example of disgruntlement and unease, I felt a sense of calm within my veins while I explored the Gardens. All of the flora there struck me as just right in terms of looks and placement . . . the flowers, the lawns, the trees and shrubbery. I was at home. As if that wasn’t enough, my jaw dropped when, while walking in the middle of the west segment, I looked southward and saw, looming nearby and powerfully, the Edinburgh Castle complex atop a rugged hill. What a view! Singular and unforgettable. You don’t get stunned like that in an urban park every day, you dig? I’m positive that I never had before.

The bus, in Edinburgh, that soon would take us to the Scottish Highlands

A few days after our submersion into nature at Princes Street Gardens, Sandy and I boarded the Wild & Sexy yellow tour bus, in Edinburgh, that was destined to take us on a long but whirlwind journey into a portion of the Scottish Highlands. Wild & Sexy, which is anything but, took off at 8:00 AM, arriving back in Edinburgh 12 hours later. In all, it and its 40 or so passengers traveled about 350 miles that day.

Ideally we’d have rented a car and spent at least four days in the Highlands. They deserve that much attention, so vast an area do they encompass, so worthy of intensive exploration are their landscapes, waterways and villages. But alas, neither of us dared to take the potential risks of driving on what for us is the wrong side of the road. A bus tour, then, squashed into one day, was our best option.

Am I glad we went? Definitely. But did I enjoy being on a bus for half a day? Not so much. And did I get a kick out of the flood of snide remarks tossed out by the asshole, seated behind me, to his travel mate? Nah. The f*cking guy was very annoying.

Crianlarich, in Highlands. Photo taken through bus window.
Bridge Of Orchy, in Highlands. Photo taken from bus window.

Now, the Highlands, a storied territory that abounds with tales and memories of Scottish clans and of long-ago rebellions against English rule, aren’t exactly around the corner from Edinburgh. So, it was two hours before we reached their lower boundaries. Mountains began to appear, mountains that became more and more amazing to my eyes the closer we got to them. Their bold shapes and vivid colorations, exaggerated by the bright Sun, were something else. To say nothing of the meadows, pastures and forests that intermingle with the mountains. And of the sheep, horses and cows that sat or wandered in some of the pastures. Though we encountered the Highlands mostly through bus windows, they didn’t disappoint.

Glen Coe, in Highlands. Photo taken from solid ground.
Spean Bridge, in Highlands. Photo taken from solid ground.

“If you think that this scenery is something, wait until we get to Glen Coe. It’s 10 times better there,” our bus driver, Charlie, said over the vehicle’s public address system as we passed through the Bridge Of Orchy area. I don’t know about 10 times better, but the mountains and lands in Glen Coe are special. I’d have liked to stride into the grasses leading up to the mountains and then do some climbing. But there was no time for that since the bus, on a tight schedule, parked for only 20 minutes at Glen Coe. Guided tours have their place, but ones such as ours are limiting and frustrating. The few stops that they make tend to be brief, which results in a pretty superficial experience. Of course, before signing up for the tour I knew that such would be the case. “Yo, genius, not everything in life is perfect. DUH!” I just reminded myself again for good measure.

Loch Ness

Two hours later the bus parked in Fort Augustus, a touristy Highlands town near the southern end of famed Loch Ness. There the bus stayed put for more than a bit, for the one and only time. Sandy and I had purchased tickets for a 50-minute boat ride on the loch (a loch is a lake, by the way), so aboard the boat we hopped. Somewhere in the vicinity of 150 other individuals hopped aboard with us. Somehow, despite the crowd sharing space with me, I managed to position myself on the open-air deck at the rear of the vessel. From the deck I admired the pines and other trees that adorn the sides of Loch Ness, and the hills upon which the trees grow. I watched, with fascination, the strong wake of the boat. And I couldn’t get enough of the wind that caressed my wrinkled visage, smoothing out a few of the deepest creases. Thank you, Highlands, for the magical facial. I haven’t looked this good in years!

After the boat docked, back to the bus we went. A bunch of hours later we were once again in Edinburgh, our nature-saturated day drawing to a close. And now, I’m obliged to say, my Scottish trilogy also is about to reach its conclusion. Everything, as we know, must end.

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A Trip To Scotland, Part Two: Food And Beverage Time!

Soon after publishing A Trip To Scotland, Part One, I pretty well decided that Part Two of my wife Sandy’s and my recent adventures would be all about Edinburgh’s wonderfully beautiful Princes Street Gardens and the very astonishing Scottish Highlands. You know, nature stuff.

But things can change rapidly when least you expect them too. “Yo, Neil!” I said to myself when I sat down to begin composing this opus. “Many things got you stoked during your sojourn in Scotland. And, obviously, you can’t write about them all. I mean, this ain’t a memoir you’re creating here. But a few food and beverage items impressed the hell out of you and Sandy, and they’re practically begging you to devote a bit of wordage to them. Would it kill you to do that? Nope, it wouldn’t. Well, hopefully that last statement is true.”

Who am I to argue with myself? Princes Street Gardens and Scottish Highlands are now being rudely shoved aside by yours truly. Food and beverage have won out. But worry not, nature fans. The Gardens and the Highlands will be featured prominently, and possibly exclusively, in Part Three.

Sandy and I ate and drank awfully well while in Scotland. Plenty of salmon, plenty of beef, plenty of cheese. Not to mention plenty of beer and wine. Our meals often were hearty, and always were satisfying. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Haggis (Photograph credit: foodfolio/Alamy)

Yet I regret one thing, culinarily-speaking: I should have given haggis a try, even if only one or two forkfuls. Haggis is maybe the quintessential Scottish dish, after all. In one or more of its various permutations, it was on the menu of nearly every eating establishment we settled into.

But I didn’t. Haggis, a fairly complicated preparation of minced, cooked ingredients, contains oats, which I like. It also usually contains lamb or calf lungs, hearts and livers, none of which I’m eager to ingest. One or two forkfuls of haggis, however, wouldn’t have killed me. Well, hopefully that last statement is true.

Here, then, are a few of the various dining experiences that made a deep impression on me. All took place in Edinburgh.

Let’s start with coffee, a beverage that I down every single morning without fail. Sans coffee, I’m no good. Never did I expect to, but I had the second-best coffee of my life at the Southern Cross Café, where Sandy and I ate breakfast five times during our eight day vacation (the best coffee I’ve ever had was in Rome). SCC offers several styles of coffee. What we drank were large cupfuls of their Americano, which is made with espresso. Rich, fragrant, slightly sweet, it was delicious.

Scones at Mimi’s Little Bakehouse

When it comes to scones, the one I ate at Mimi’s Little Bakehouse one afternoon wasn’t the second best I ever encountered. It was the best. Sandy had a scone there too, and she thought it the greatest. The scones I’d previously had in my life were squat, dry and crunchy. Teeth, watch out! And I liked them. Mimi’s scones, however, were tall and unlikely to chip the choppers. Nicely airy, yet proudly firm, our scones came to our table warmed. They were delicate in taste, and comforting as a warm blanket. We spread butter and raspberry preserves on them. My brother, after I sent him a picture of the scones, asked for my opinion about them. Perfection is what I told him.

Bowl at top contains stovies. Bottom plate contains steak and ale pie.

At Deacon Brodie’s Tavern for dinner, Sandy and I ordered traditional Scottish food. Stovies for her, steak and ale pie for me. Stovies is a stew that always contains potatoes. Pieces of beef often are in the mix, as was the case with Sandy’s order. My entrée, loaded with potatoes and beef and an ale-infused gravy, was encased in a nifty crust. Ah yes, we enjoyed our choices very much. Home-style cooking is hard to beat.

Still, the steak and ale pie wasn’t the top dinner that I had. That honor goes to the two dishes I consumed at the Whiski Bar & Restaurant. Sandy sampled them that night and was so impressed, she ordered them when we returned to Whiski several nights later.

A lousy photo of 1) a bowl with a few remaining drops of Cullen skink and 2) part of a smoked salmon platter

I’m talking about Cullen skink, and a smoked salmon platter. I was in an adventurous mood during the first visit to Whiski, because I sure as shit had never heard of Cullen skink before. Skink, I later learned, means soup. And Cullen is a Scottish village where this creamy chowder, made with smoked haddock, potatoes and onions, originated. Man, it was something else. And I mean that in a good way. Salty and alive with flavor, it went down the ol’ gullet smoothly and happily. As tasty a soup as I’ve ever eaten.

And the smoked salmon presentation? Superb. Scotland is known for its salmon, of course. Whiski took a large piece of fine, crusty bread and topped it with baby greens, capers and thick slices of smoked salmon, dressing the bread lightly with crème fraiche and a salty sauce. After eating the soup I figured that the next course would inevitably be a bit of a letdown. It wasn’t. In fact, I might have swooned over the salmon creation more than I did the Cullen skink.

Okay, that’s enough oohing and aahing. Still, before I bid you adieu I have to tell you that my mouth has been watering for the last 10 minutes as I relived the Whiski Bar experience. That makes me realize, though I really didn’t need any reminding, what an excellent trip Sandy and I had. Food and drink aren’t always standout occurrences on vacations. When they are, it’s a bonus. I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to Scotland. But if we plan another visit to that land, I’ll look forward to being very well fed.

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A Trip To Scotland, Part One: An Overview

Thousands of moons ago, in the spring of 1977 to be exact, I backpacked around England, Scotland, France and Italy for six weeks. I had little money at the time, lots of hair on my 29-year-old head, and enjoyed the hell out of the trip.

In ensuing years I returned to England, France and Italy. And entertained the idea of visiting lovely Scotland once again too. You know what? It finally happened, because my wife Sandy and I spent eight days there in late May. This time I had a decent amount of money to my name, but distressingly less hair on my head. And, as before, I enjoyed the hell out of the trip.

Scottish Highlands
Scottish Highlands

Sandy and I were based in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital. We took day trips to other parts of the land (the county of Fife, which is north of Edinburgh; and the Scottish Highlands, a majestic territory of mountains, forests, meadows, lochs and charming villages), but otherwise spent our moments in that hilly, fine city. Which was our game plan. When traveling nowadays, you see, we prefer to linger in whatever locales we’re visiting, rather than race from one town or city to another. You can’t see and do everything anyway, so why put pressure on yourself trying to?

Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens

Edinburgh doesn’t have the knock-your-socks-off looks and attractions of, say, Paris and Amsterdam. But it’s got plenty going for it. For one thing, it’s very walkable. Most of what anyone might want to see is no more than two miles apart. Its buildings, solid and stoic and constructed from stone far more than from steel, create a comforting sense of permanence and often one of mystery. It boasts Princes Street Gardens, an enormous park that is one of the most magnificent I’ve ever seen. And not only does the city ooze history and culture, it is filled with pubs, bistros and restaurants where hungry and thirsty souls may find nourishment and refreshment. A low-level beer geek, I was anxious to check out the brew scene in town. Success! Each night I quaffed an ale from a brewery that I’d never heard of before.

Old Town
Old Town
Warriston’s Close, in Old Town

The sections of Edinburgh that visitors spend the most time in are Old Town and New Town. Old Town was the first part of the city to be inhabited, and though few ancient structures remain, much of what stands in Old Town is old enough, dating from around 1600 to the late 1800s. Old Town, built on a ridge, is heavily cobblestoned. It is peppered with winding streets and with alleys (known as closes) that often are steep and that connect one street with another. Ergo, Old Town is highly atmospheric. I preferred it to New Town, which actually is pretty old, but flatter, more open and far less funky than Old Town. And I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Old Town was mobbed with tourists and locals while I was in Edinburgh. New Town was busy with people too, but less so.

Street performer in Old Town
Old Town

Sandy and I went on two walking tours of Old Town, accompanied by our Parisian friends Martine and Alan. That handsome couple was with us for the first two and a half days of our Scottish experience. The four of us also wandered here and there on our own for hours, both in the Old and the New. It was good to hang with folks with whom we’re very comfortable and on the same wavelengths. Life’s better that way.

Left to right: Sandy, Martine, Alan, Neil
New Town

I could write loads and loads of words here about all that the four of us saw and did, and loads more about the experiences that Sandy and I had after Alan and Martine returned to Gay Paree. But that would be too much information for this humble essay. After all, A Trip To Scotland, Part Two will follow fairly soon to fill in some gaps. And who knows? Maybe Part Three also will emerge.

Exterior view of Edinburgh Castle

For now, then, I’ll toss out a few comments about Edinburgh Castle, which sits high on a hill at the western end of Old Town and looms over the city. Its history is long and complicated, too much so for the mostly-in-one-ear-and-out-the-other likes of me to understand and retain, though the leaders of both walking tours went into great detail. But let me say this: The castle complex is a maze-like assortment of buildings. There’s a palace, prisons, barracks, a chapel and many other structures, only a few of which have present-day usage.

I dug the palace, which holds the Scottish Crown Jewels (a crown, a scepter and a sword) and also the Stone Of Destiny, a slab of sandstone that was the coronation seat of Scottish queens and kings during long-ago centuries. The Stone Of Destiny was last used by a Scottish monarch in 1292. (Damn right I’d like to include photos of the Jewels and of the Stone, but taking their pictures is forbidden.) Within the palace I also saw the tiny room in which Mary Queen Of Scots gave birth in 1566 to a son, James, who in 1603 unified the Scottish and English crowns. See, somehow I retained a few iotas of historical information!

St. Margaret’s Chapel
A window in St. Margaret’s Chapel

And I especially admired the castle complex’s St. Margaret’s Chapel. Built in the 1100s, it is the oldest-surviving building in Edinburgh. The chapel is small and plain-looking. That was its main appeal for me, as those two adjectives describe yours truly very accurately. And I thought that its stained glass windows were beautiful.

The proper way for me to close out Part One is to note the most intriguing event that happened during the vacation. Namely, I met in person the one and only Andrew Ferguson, who lives not far from Edinburgh. Andrew is a multi-talented guy, being a lawyer, a writer, a musician, a wine lover and who knows what else. One of the places upon which he places his written words is his WordPress blog (click here to reach it).

Somewhere in the misty past, Andrew and I discovered each other’s WordPress sites and quickly developed an online friendship. When Sandy and I made our plans to visit Scotland, I contacted Andrew. He and I then arranged a meeting date. It’s amazing that WordPress brought the two of us together, in the flesh.

Left to right: Alison, Neil, Sandy, Andrew

I’m here to tell you that Andrew and his wife Alison are swell. They drove Sandy and me around Fife, where we stopped at a couple of fishing villages. And, before returning us to our hotel, they gave us a mini-tour of some of Edinburgh. In all, they took out a day from their lives to show Sandy and me a good time. They couldn’t have done more. Wait, that’s an overstatement. Shit, they should have picked up the tab for Sandy’s and my hotel stay!

Anstruther, a fishing village in Fife

I have a couple of other online Scottish buddies via WordPress. Alyson and Anabel, I’d have liked to have met you. But the trip was too short to allow for any additional socializing. I hope you understand. (Click here and here to read, respectively, Alyson’s and Anabel’s blogs.)

Readers, thanks for joining me on this journey. Goodbye till next time.

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My Mom (A Belated Mother’s Day Story)

My mother and yours truly in the late 1940s

Not many days go by when I don’t think of my mother, Elaine Scheinin. This has been true since her passing in 1994. She lives on in my mind because she was an exceptionally fine person. Honest, warm and unpretentious. And blessed with an openness that few could resist. Pretty much everyone that knew her was crazy about her.

If I remember my output correctly, I’ve written about her only once before. That was in an article about the late, famed jazz pianist Thelonious Monk (click here if you’d like to read it). My mom, a jazz fan, became part of that article because she once spoke with Monk on the phone in 1976. Drawing up her courage, she took the initiative to obtain and dial his number (Monk, a Manhattanite, somewhat surprisingly did not have an unlisted phone number). She hoped to ask him if he knew that WKCR, a New York City radio station, was in the midst of airing a multi-day tribute to him and his music.

Monk answered the phone. Yes, he was very aware of the tribute. And he thanked my mother for calling him. I was sitting with her when she reached out to the great musician, and the incident left me awe-struck. Hers was a spontaneous and innocent act of good-heartedness and caring. She would have been disappointed if Monk somehow missed out on the love being shown to him on the radio.

Now, here’s the thing. I think of my mother often not only because of her enviable natural state of being, but also because of what happened to her in her middle age and how she responded to that tragedy. In 1969, when she was 49, her retinas hemorrhaged badly, a consequence of diabetes. She lost her sight, living the remaining 25 years of her life in total darkness. The pain I felt was intense. And it hasn’t lessened. Her blindness was, and in memory remains, heartbreaking to me.

For nearly all of those 25 years she didn’t complain, didn’t bemoan her fate. She suffered, but she almost always kept it to herself. At a party once, though, I overheard one of her sisters-in-law say this to her: “It’s a shame about your vision.” To which my mother responded, “You have no idea.” Those few words pretty much said it all.

Basically, my mom soldiered on, remaining the person she always had been, bright and optimistic, fully continuing her household work and community involvement. In the early 1990s, though, diabetes struck again, ravaging her body and ultimately her mind. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” has been asked by countless folks. The answer is that good people are not immune to the slings and arrows, and lightening bolts, of life. If only they were.

Ideally, I’d have liked to have published this remembrance on Mother’s Day. But I didn’t complete it in time. Better late than never, as the saying goes. Many of us are fortunate to have been raised by loving, good people. I surely was. My father was ace too. And so, I wish a Happy Mother’s Day, belatedly, to the fine ladies who give their heart and soul, selflessly, to their children. And I accompany that wish with a major tip of the hat.

Azaleas! Rocky!

As I’ve known for many decades, I can be a very dumb shit, and I proved that in the story I published on April 18. That opus is a recount of the walk I took in Jenkintown, a suburban town near Philadelphia, during which I gorged myself on springtime’s greenery and flowering trees and bushes. The middle of the piece contains the following sentences: But where the hell were the azaleas? I saw only three. Maybe somewhere in Jenkintown were a bunch of “Azalea Bushes Are Not Welcome In This Community” legal notices.

Yo, Neil, listen up! The three azaleas in flower that you saw were not the only azaleas in Jenkintown. There are undoubtedly plenty of azaleas in Jenkintown, but most of them had not blossomed yet. That’s because azaleas come in many varieties and do not necessarily bloom at the same time! The ones you saw, with purple flowers, were the only ones that had so far.

Yeah, I know that. But it had slipped my mind during my April stroll. Nobody ever has or ever will mistake me for a botany whiz kid.

Anyway, a couple of days after launching the story into cyberspace, I awoke from my azalean slumber, realizing the error of my ways. And since then I’ve had azaleas on my mind. Hey, why not? Azaleas, when in flower, are beautiful. And within the last two weeks I noticed that scads of them in the Philadelphia burbs, where I live, had opened their wings. The time had arrived for me to investigate the azalea situation in a pretty big way, something that, as far as I could remember, I never had done.

It was only a natural, therefore, that visiting Philadelphia’s Azalea Garden would strike me as the appropriate thing to do. I mean, come on, it’s called the Azalea Garden! And so, on the 1st of May, a cool and cloudy day, I boarded a train that transported me to the City Of Brotherly Love. But a few minutes before I climbed aboard, I snapped a photo in my neighborhood. The picture is of enormous and awe-inspiring azalea bushes that adorn the front lawn of my friend Joyce’s house. Regale your eyes:

Joyce’s azaleas.

I hadn’t been to the Azalea Garden in 15 or 20 years. I had no idea what condition it would be in or how many azaleas it nowadays contains, but I guessed that all would be well. And it was. The AG is a sweet, four-acre park near the Philadelphia Museum Of Art, a few blocks outside the hustle and bustle of downtown Philly. Azaleas were plentiful and in bloom. White, pink, red, yellow and orange azalea blossoms looked smashing amidst the park’s greenery. Especially the white ones, of which there were thousands. I’m sure I’ve never seen so many white azalea petals in my life. They alone were worth the trip.

I took my time in the park, covering all of its grounds. I said hello to the azaleas. I sat on a bench for a while and ate the sandwich I’d brought from home. And I took lots of photos.

And then nature called. Not one to ignore natural processes, up a hill I strode to the art museum, of which, luckily, I’m a member. That’s because members get in for free. Otherwise, for the pleasure of using the facilities I’d have had to pay the $18 museum admission fee required of seniors. I’m here to tell you that everything came out very artistically! Monet and Picasso would have been proud of me.

There’s not much more to this story. Well, I suppose I could drag it out for another 1,000 words, actually, but I’m not going to. Old f*ckers like me get tired easily, you know. But I will add one more non-azalea anecdote. You see, on the way back to the area where I would catch a bus to take me to the train station, I passed the Rocky statue. It’s a two-ton, bronze replica of Rocky Balboa, the cinematic boxer, and originally was featured in the Rocky III movie, which came out in 1982.

Amazingly, the statue has found success in real life. Sylvester Stallone, who portrayed Rocky, donated it to the city when filming for Rocky III was completed. It used to stand outside a Philadelphia sports stadium, but since 2006 has occupied a niche near the famous art museum steps that Rocky ran up in the movies.

There were lots of people around the statue the other day. Lots. Almost as many as I saw in the museum while heading to and from the can. I’d never known that the Rocky statue is an immense tourist attraction, one of the biggest in the city. Ditto for the Rocky steps. Hell, just about everybody loves a hard-working, decent guy, and that’s what Rocky personifies.

Nature lovers and boxing fans, that’s a wrap. Any day filled with blooming azaleas and with Rocky is a good day. I went home satisfied and content.

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