A Coronavirus And Philadelphia Flower Show Story

These are tough times. I’ll mention but three of many calamitous situations: War, raging in Syria and Yemen, has displaced millions of people from their homes and homelands. Ocean levels are on the rise as a result of melting Arctic and Antarctic glaciers and ice shelves. And coronavirus, emerging like a demon from a dark, dark corner, is throwing mankind into a tailspin. The virus is the story, so far anyway, of 2020.

Most of us might be fortunate and not contract coronavirus. But how can we not pay attention to it and worry about it? We can’t. As I began to compose this essay on March 11, I relived the conversations I’d had with the ten relatives and friends that I’d spent time with in the six days before that date. Coronavirus was, and remains, heavy on their minds. And on mine too. How far will this renegade spread? Just how deadly might it become? Will an effective vaccine or other treatment be developed, and if so, when? Will coronavirus mutate into other strains that will raise the human condition’s havoc level to even higher heights?

Before March 11, the virus hadn’t infiltrated my region too much (I live near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA), or so it was thought. How quickly things have changed since then, though. As of this article’s publication date (March 16), there are many confirmed cases of coronavirus in Pennsylvania. And, as we all know, numerous national and local governments, worldwide, have increased restrictions on travel, and have ordered schools and certain businesses and other organizations to close until further notice (this is true for my region). Much of the same has occurred via voluntary restrictions and closures too.

As a result, over the last few days my wife Sandy and I have made big adjustments in regard to what we do and don’t do. So, it’s sobering to think that until recently pretty much everyone around here was living life fairly normally — the population was aware of the virus, but was only starting to act cautiously. Sandy and I certainly weren’t exercising a whole lot of caution when, on March 6, we boarded a train in our suburban town and rode it into the heart of central Philadelphia. A short walk away was the Pennsylvania Convention Center, a huge-as-hell structure that for nine days this month was home to the Philadelphia Flower Show. We bought tickets for the show at one of the Center’s box offices and entered the exhibition hall.

The Philadelphia Flower Show is an annual, world-famous event. It began modestly in 1829 as a project of the Philadelphia Horticultural Society and has become, by far, PHS’s most noted endeavor. Millions of people have taken it in over the years. Now, I’ve lived in or near Philadelphia since the mid-1970s and have been aware of the Flower Show all of that time. But I didn’t give a shit about it, and never went. Until a few years ago, that is. “What the hell, let’s go to the Flower Show,” I said to Sandy in 2016, and we did. We liked it. We returned in 2018, took 2019 off, and decided two weeks ago not to extend that non-attendance streak to two consecutive years.

One of the reasons that I didn’t give a shit about the Flower Show is that I wasn’t keen on looking at exhibit after exhibit of flowers. If I had investigated what the show really is about, though, I’d have discovered that it features all sorts of flora, not just flowers, and often replicates natural and man-made landscapes and waterscapes too. Hell, I’m down with all of that, so I should have given the Flower Show a shot way before I eventually did. I don’t live and learn all that often, but in this case it happened.

Almost needless to say, I found the 2020 version of the show to be absolutely a-ok. As did Sandy. Each year the Flower Show is centered around a theme, and this year’s was Riviera Holiday. Meaning, displays inspired by Mediterranean life in Spain, France, Monaco and Italy took up much of the hall (horticultural-competition areas and booths selling this, that and the other thing grabbed the rest of the floor space).

The themed section, filled with movie-set-like constructions, was where I spent most of my time. The gardens, some formal, some not, were lovely. As was a villa, and a modest cottage beside which a motor scooter was stationed, and the whimsical, color-drenched representations of Italian fishermen’s houses.

I dug the recreation of the Princess Grace Rose Garden. The original garden is in Monaco, the itsy-bitsy nation where, in 1956, the actress Grace Kelly became a princess by marrying Monaco’s Prince Rainier. A mannequin, clothed in a copy of Kelly’s wedding gown, stood in the garden. Grace, I’m sure, would have approved of the tribute.

Yes, the Flower Show had atmosphere. It brought me back to 1977, the only time I was on the Mediterranean coast. I spent six weeks in Europe in the spring of that year, travelling solo, before returning to a job in Philadelphia that I foolishly had quit two years before. One of those weeks was passed in southern France and in Monaco. A very good week it was. And the Flower Show gave me the urge to return, this time with Sandy. But the coronavirus situation will have to be under control before we step onto a plane. And who knows when that will be?

The crowds at the Flower Show on the day we attended were noticeably smaller than those we encountered in 2016 and 2018. One of our friends, a Flower Show aficionado, went twice this year. She told Sandy that attendance was less than usual on the days she visited too. Part of the shrinkage was due I’m sure to the hefty ticket price increases that PHS instituted in 2020. But the main factor, I’m also sure, was the threat of coronavirus posed by being in crowds.

That threat was understood on March 6 in my area, but nowhere near as well as it is understood today. That’s why the Philadelphia Flower Show was lucky, in a sense, that it was able to complete its run (last week, government mandates in Philadelphia and throughout Pennsylvania banned large events such as the Flower Show.) On the other hand, it’s more than possible that some amount of virus transmission took place at the show. And that truly sucks.

Coronavirus ain’t playing. It already has killed thousands. And its course is unpredictable. Hang on tight as best you can, girls and boys.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments. And if you’re in the mood for sharing this article, go for it! I thank you.)

(The photos, duh, are from the 2020 Philadelphia Flower Show. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open.)

I’ve Got A Few Recommendations. How About You?

During our vacation on Cape Cod in October, my wife and I poked around the cute town of Chatham one fine, sunny afternoon. While my much better half busied herself in the aisles of a store or two, I went into the Chatham Orpheum Theater to try and find out which films would grace its screens in the upcoming weeks. Thumbing through the theater’s brochures at the ticket counter, I overheard a conversation taking place between the guy behind that counter and a patron. They were discussing literature, and one of them mentioned Cacciato. Man, I’d heard of Cacciato, so I opened my trap and said so.

“Are you talking about Going After Cacciato, the novel by Tim O’Brien?” I asked them. The ticket seller gave me what I interpreted as one of those Huh, this asshole knows about Cacciato? looks, but I wasn’t offended. Anyway, it turns out that the two fellows mostly had been gushing over another of O’Brien’s works, The Things They Carried. They briefly told me about the book, which came out in 1990 and, like Going After Cacciato, was inspired by the time that O’Brien spent in 1969 and 1970 as a soldier in Vietnam. It sounded intriguing. “Do you want me to write down the name for you?” the ticket seller asked. Indeed I did, and so he did. Into my wallet the slip of paper went.

Not long after I got back from vacation I borrowed The Things They Carried from a local library. I finished it last week. And I have to say that the gents were right. A series of interconnected, semi-fictional stories about the Vietnam War (pre, during and post), the work impressed me. It doesn’t glorify war, doesn’t dwell on battles. What it mainly does is lay on the table the emotions and mindsets of people attempting to deal with potential, immediate and imaginary dangers. You’ll find the good, the bad and the ugly in this book. And also the mysterious and the truly touching. In the best of the stories, O’Brien’s words come at you like the blows of a patient, precise boxer. Clearly, I recommend The Things They Carried.

Recommendations. There are a few other new ones kicking around inside me. And there’s no way I can contain them, so desperate are they to meet and greet cyberspace. With no further ado then, here they are.

A biopic of sorts about the late Fred Rogers, host of the legendary kids’ show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, has just come out. A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is its name, and it stars Tom Hanks as Rogers. Now, I know that Fred was a strong force for decency and love. But his nasally voice, his sloooow talking pace, and his unnervingly calm manner never appealed to me. Nevertheless, my wife and I went to see the film a handful of moons ago. And I loved it. Having read no reviews in advance, I was happy to discover that it is not a typical biopic. Instead, it’s an imagined examination of the relationship between Fred and a cynical journalist named Lloyd Vogel, who is assigned, in 1998, to interview and profile Fred for Esquire magazine (the movie is drawn from the friendship that developed between real-life journalist Tom Junod and Fred).

A Beautiful Day rings very true. Hanks is Fred. And decency and love are largely what the movie is all about. Will Lloyd Vogel come to believe in the powers of Fred? I ain’t saying. Will Fred start talking faster and become the type of guy I’d want to discuss sports, music, food and girls with? Nah, but that’s more than okay. A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood flirts with sappiness here and there, sure, but it got to me anyway. That’s because it gently aims for the heart and doesn’t miss.

Hey, it’s almost dinner time in my household, so I’ve got to wrap this up. You know what else is good? Beers from Magic Hat and New Belgium breweries, that’s what. In November I bought variety packs of their robust, soul-satisfying ales. And I’m going to apply those same adjectives (robust; soul-satisfying) to the coffees that Allegro and Green Mountain coffee companies turn out. My wife and I are hooked on several of their roasts. I’m tempted to use the adjectives also to describe myself, but I’d be lying out my ass if I did. So, I won’t.

The ball is now in your court. What’s been ringing your chimes recently? Down below is a section where you can enter your comments.

Before I go, though, I have to mention and recommend a golden oldie — Bernadette —  that has been stuck in my head for a few weeks. I’ve heard it dozens of times in my life and always dug it. But when the tune came on the radio not long ago it walloped me like never before. Bernadette, by The Four Tops, was released in 1967. And it’s never gone away. Such a great song. The desperation in lead singer Levi Stubbs’ voice sends chills up and down my ol’ spine. I don’t like having earworms. But if I’ve got to have one, this is an excellent choice. Bernadette!