Sunday, July 31, 2011

Philadelphia (Part 2)

(July 24, 2011)

I did it. I plead Guilty.

It required no thought. No remorse at all. At first.

A dash down Allen Street. A mad knock on the door of the bus as the engines revved up.  The doors slid open. I threw cash into a man’s hand. We took our seats. Only when it pulled away and we passed Mr. Toothies, did it hit me...


(photo compliments of google images)
I was no longer the Megabus Queen. Their seat was no longer my official throne. As of 10:30 am on Sunday, July 24th, I was the megabus traitor!

My brain (recognizing it was running on not-nearly-enough sleep) had said stay in NYC. My gut had said—go back to Philly!

Me on my friend Kacey's roof (where we almost slept the night before), deliberating. (photo by Kacey Stamats)
My friend, Kacey, seconded my gut and jumped on board, sealing the deal.

But I hadn’t booked a ticket in advance through Megabus, making the Chinatown bus the most economical/flexible route.

So there we were, surrounded by plastic "thank you" bags.

(photo by Kacey Stamats)
But our timing was impeccable, as we glanced out the window, we caught an entire other scene:

Our view from the Chinatown bus. Hundreds line up in front of City Hall in Lower Manhattan on Sunday, July 24th.  Photo also by Kacey Stamats-- she's a photographer, by the way.
I came into NYC, lugging my suitcase, backpack loaded, on what felt like the hottest day in NYC history (it was a day of record breaking heat). I left NYC on a truly historic day-- but not because of the temperature, though this is definitely hot.  As we glided past City Hall, hundreds lined the streets- ready to seal the knot for the first time legally.

After two hours on the chinatown bus...

(another hipstomatic shot/ half-portrait  by Kacey Stamats)
We arrived--

Chinatown in Philly.
The first thing we did was visit Reading Terminal Market (my other favorite grocery destination), Philly's famed farmer's market since 1893.

RTM prides itself on the fact that you can find almost anything there:
Ok Produce
Where I used to buy fish.
Chocolate mice and dentures. Chocolate by Muellers.
Occasionally you can even find live music. When we went, the Philadelphia String Quartet was blasting Journey.

Recognize this song?

The second thing we did?

After wandering around Center City:

William Penn stands on City Hall, the tallest statue atop a building in the entire world. (photo by Kacey) 
And through City Hall:

A building impossible not to admire for it's honesty on whose back this country is built on / over:

Bought a cheesesteak!
Kacey and I and a cheesesteak (on Broad Street).

Post-Cheesesteak satisfaction. Back in Rittenhouse Square. (photo by Kacey)
We then made our way to PlayPenn, (a new play development conference I interned at in 2005, their inaugural year).
Where we caught the last two readings of the conference, plays by two awesome emerging voices: local Philly playwright, Jacqueline Goldfinger and current UCSD MFA Playwright, Lauren Yee.

Afterwards, Kacey made her way back to NYC and I headed to West Philly, where I crashed at Jake’s (my curly haired Trader Joe’s friend).

And where I had one of the most awkward shower experiences in my life):
(Jake’s dad got this for him for his birthday. Not a statement on either of their political affiliations.)
You think showering with McCain would leave you cold. Not so.

It was another night in the heat-wave at a friend's with limited A/C. Around 2 am, I wandered onto the balcony, where I saw it...
                     the HAMMOCK.

Moon-shot from the hammock, where I slept.
And woke to:
Twilight in the morning from the hammock.
The sun  rising over West Philadelphia.
And onwards I went, schlepping my suitcase down the many broken sidewalks of Philly, on my way towards 30th street  station, to catch my MEGABUS for Boston.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Great Megabus Detour

This was my initial route:

I'm not about to edit this video. But I had to take a detour.

Instead of four days in Philly as I had planned, I rerouted myself here—

NYC (compliments of google images)
More specifically, here—

To a casting table for 10 hours of auditions (over the course of two days) for my one-act play “Spinal Alignment,” which is being produced in October at Manhattan Theater Source as part of Estrogenius, an annual celebration of female voices. 

I learned about this well after launching this blog and creating the above video. I’m not going to factor in the additional cost of travel (under $20 total) that this added to my trip. Consider it a cruise ship excursion.

I missed two days of Philly, but because I was in NYC, I got to catch an event I’d long been eyeing from Iowa—

A multi-disciplinary exhibition created by Overturn Theater Ensemble and Culture Fix (a bar, gallery, event space) on the Lower East Side.

I highly recommend Culturefix. They’re firm believers in innovative ideas. Their resident business (above them) is a picnic basket delivery service (
The idea:

Culturefix co-owner and chef, Ari Stern, created an original appetizer (the probably-way-too-small-image at the top of the above photo).
Composer Michael Vincent Waller created a song based on his experience eating Ari’s appetizer.
16 artists created original works of art based on their experience listening to Michael Vincent Waller’s song.
16 playwrights were each assigned one of the works of art created and wrote one-act plays inspired by it.
These plays were read at Culturefix July 17th through July 24th.

Because of my Megabus detour, I got to attend the readings on July 22nd. The night I attended, it turned out I knew both the playwrights.

Altogether, this is the megabus trip that keeps giving. If I hadn't booked this trip, I would have been sitting at home in Iowa instead of casting my show.  And I wouldn't have been in Manhattan on Sunday evening to help celebrate a wedding.

I might've also missed the record breaking 104 degree heat of NYC (and no A/C at my friend's).
Photo by my friend Kacey Stamats.
We almost took a hint from the cat (upper left frame) and slept on the roof.
In heat-waves, this is not uncommon in NYC.


Philadelphia (Part 1)

(Thursday, July 21)

I held my breath for wishes as we passed under mountains via the Pennsylvania Turnkpike tunnel highway.

This megabus drive (a triumphant $5) marked not just a change in landscape,   
Walls of trees.
but also a change in the nature of the journey—from unfamiliar cities to cities I’ve been to. Many times.

And suddenly I was back:

(photo from
The iconic / ironic City of Brotherly Love.  
The mid-point of my journey (distance-wise)-- And a place that marks not just the birth of our country's independence, but also my own.

When I first moved to Philly for college, I was afraid to walk alone at night (even in relatively safe neighborhoods).  As I walked away from the megabus stop, it occurred to me that I had just traversed half the country solo.

Over the past 11 days, I’d soaked in three cities worth of my hosts’ pride.

And as I passed the Cira Centre:

(Cira Centre. One of those cool buildings that on the right day perfectly reflects the sky.)
I remembered how thrilled I’d been when it joined the Philly skyline. It’s amazing how quickly the pride for a place can come back to you-- especially Philly pride.

But this trip to Philly wasn't about the historic sites- there wasn’t any time:

Not the liberty bell
Always free to visit.

Not Independence Hall
Walk-up tickets for a tour are free at the Independence Visitor’s Center in the morning--

 Not The Philadelphia Museum of Art and Fairmount park and Boat House row 
The first Sunday of each month, Philadelphia Museum of the Art is pay what you wish.

Not The Independent Seaport Museum ( – often overlooked. 
Pay what you wish 10-12 every Sunday.)-  (photo courtesy of the Independent Seaport Museum.

Not Christ Church Cemetery

Ben Franklin's grave.  Another great wishing spot. Wishes are pay what you wish: suggested amount- a penny.

Or my  favorite places:

Isaiah Zager’s Magic Garden

A house on South Street entirely covered in mosaics. A tour of the inside has long been on my bucket list.

 The clothespin:

Claes Oldenburg’s work at 15th and Market Street.
 Lorenzo’s pizza on South Street, where the answer is always “No.”
My college friends used to speculate that the secret ingredient in their sauce is grape jam.
Not even one of my favorite annual haunts...

Eastern State Penitentiary:

Where 12 Monkeys was filmed and where trees grow through old bunks. A popular ghost hunting destination.
I didn’t revisit any of these sites. (photos compliments of google images)

Instead, straight off the bus, I walked instinctively to:

Is it weird to feel nostalgic for your old grocery store?

In honor of my friend, Jake, who used to work there (who I hadn’t seen since I left), I got into a line with a guy at the register with curly hair just like his. And then he looked up. AND IT WAS HIM.
I forget that it’s only been three years since I left Philadelphia.

I left Trader Joes not only with a banana, but a place to stay Sunday night.

After catching a show, I headed to my Thursday night couchsurfer’s place (not far). A condo on Rittenhouse Square.
Rittenhouse Square.
 Where for a night, I had a room with a view:

(actually from my phone camera)
and a great conversation with my host, an Options Trader.  It's always enlightening to spend time with somebody whose only occupational similarity involves the word equity (Actors' Equity vs equity securities).

We probably would have talked into the next day. But we both had early mornings.

I caught this at sunrise before I had to head out on the hottest day of the year. Can you see the heat?


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Pittsburgh from the Perspective of Puppeteers

(Monday, July 18th- Wednesday, July 20th)

I left the flat lands of the Midwest and headed East towards the Alleghenies. After a quick three hour megabus ride, we entered:

(awaiting verification for photo-credit. Inititally posted on
Land of three rivers. City of bridges.

Right off the bus, I followed a concrete path that snakes beneath the Pittsburgh Convention Center...


A glimpse of three of Pittsburgh's 446 bridges.

This was my last view of Pittsburgh’s exterior for a while, because next thing I knew, my friend Murphi picked me up and (before a huge storm started) whisked me away to:

Murphi’s House of Wonders:
Murphi and her boyfriend  Zach are both puppeteer playwrights and flea-market aficionados with a taste for the off-kilter.

I'd classify her and Zach's home as somewhere between The Twilight Zone and Nightmare Before Christmas—but that doesn’t do it justice. It’s really closest to the explosively strange worlds of Murphi’s plays.

As a collector of oddities,  Murphi has A LOT of cool  (er…interesting)  possessed looking toys:

(DISCLAIMER: the following is not for the faint of heart)

A paranoid alcoholic teddy bear.
A taxidermy gator collection:
(Two taxidermied gators posed atop a sterilizer box .)

(Murphi’s birthday present to Zach. Outfit and mini-gator puppets hand-made by Murphi.)
(Mr. Toad does karaoke.)

And my favorite:

Creepy German wind up bunny:

(creepy factor enhanced by Zach’s sawing and Murphi’s toy piano playing)

But by far the greatest thing in Murphi and Zach's apartment: Murphi's chaise!

Murphi on the chaise.

This was good, because I spent a lot of time in Pittsburgh catching up with my work, while in a sort of chaise malaise.

Chaise malaise.
My first day in Pittsburgh was mostly spent in their living room, recovering from whirlwind exhaustion and also quite possibly the change in elevation. Or a minor case of arsenic poisoning from jokingly petting the taxidermy.

But I’m pretty certain it was the change in elevation.

Am I the only one who finds it funny that they live in a neighborhood called Squirrel Hill?

Because of the time spent on their chaise during my first day, instead of exploring Pittsburgh, I got to witness Murphi and Zach  fashion a projection unit out of a packing tube,  magnifying glasses and a light-bulb. Ala MacGyver.

The results:
Apologetically low quality image (from my phone-camera)  of Zach's projection for his magic light box project.
This was part of a prototype for a larger installation Zach is doing for the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

But I couldn't let my knowedge of Pittsburgh be limited to Annie Dillard, Michael Chabon and August Wilson.

 It was time to get out.

On this trip, I have been discovering that it's not so much the place as it is the people showing me the place that makes the experience. And this time, I had two puppeteers steering my way.

They guided me to the Mattress Factory, a  museum filled with installation works. It's located on the North Side, one of Pittsburgh’s oldest neighborhoods...

Where if you wander down the right alley, you might stumble upon a building with the following engraved:

(part of an outdoor installation)
 “Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign un-possessed places”  -- Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities)

On a megabus journey, running into a trippy quote like this can only send you one place:

Into a state of inescapable self-reflection.

The Mattress Factory turned out to be a great place to go to REFLECT.

 Or spend way too much time taking artsy photos in Yayoi Kusama's mirror installation.

Eventually, I discovered a secret doorway—leading to:

 Nothing like surreal polka-dotted naked mannequins to jar you back into reality.

 My other favorite exhibits at the Mattress Factory:

  1. Gary Pyle's work titled:

I'm pretty certain this piece was in honor of Pittsburgh’s gloomy weather during my stay:

2. James Turrell’s light gallery on the third floor. 

Where, in a total play on the viewer's perception, a red box floating  in space:

 upon closer inspection is revealed to be:

 Nothing more than red light projected in a corner.

Ready for my own perception play? Ready?

Am I standing or lying on the floor? (answer at the bottom of this post.)

3. My other favorite installaton at the Mattress Factory... the BoxSpring café.
Despite the fresh ingredients on the menu, it’s by far the most affordable museum café I’ve ever seen—

My lunch:
Mango, orange, mint soup
summer squash and brie quiche
asian coleslaw
price: $11. (ßIt’s okay to splurge once in a while.)

Further Pittsburgh dining highlights and a bonus perception play:

On the outside, this building looks like a church:

But on the inside, it's actually:

I’m told grainy photographs are hot right now. That makes my poor quality indoor shots automatically hip, right?
A brewery! And restaurant. 

Murphi and Zach took me to:

And on Wednesday, after some quiet writing time at 61c (a local coffee shop), Murphi and I had farewell waffles at Waffalonia. Yes to establishments devoted solely to waffles. (Yes, it’s real.)

And soooo good.

Cinnamon ice-cream and fudge topped sugar waffle.
This was followed by dinner with my friend Dan O’Neil, who went out of his way to drive me to my next destination.  (Fun fact: Peter, Murphi and Dan = 1/3rd of Carnegie Mellon’s Dramatic Writing program).

To allow space for the puppet explosion set to happen Wednesday evening, the night before Zach’s deadline—I had found a place through

I know what you may be thinking:

“Sleeping at home of strangers? What's this woman thinking?? I realize not everyone out there are rapists and ax murderers, but in this day and age -- come on, let's use common sense!!" (direct quotation from a comment posted on  kcci8  which recently publicized my journey).

Relax. It’s not craigslist.


HIGHLIGHT ON COUCHSURFING AND WHY I AM 99.9% CERTAIN I WILL NOT BE AX-MURDERED IN MY SLEEP (we should always be open to the .1% chance of being ax-murdered. Regardless of sleeping arrangements.)

*members' identities are generally verified 
*they usually have references from previous surfers and hosts and friends
*my judgment is pretty sound. So far.  I am obviously not going to stay with anybody I sense is unsafe.  Mostly, I am staying with young couples.
*320 countries actively participate, creating an international exchange of ideas and good-will
*it’s free

Here is why it’s a brilliant social experiment (in's own words:)
Our mission as an organization is to create inspiring experiences: cross-cultural encounters that are fun, engaging, and illuminating.”
“you have a lot more information about new people than you do in most circumstances.” (it's like reading a new friend's facebook profile before you’ve met them.)
“You have the chance to read all about other members' experiences with that person, whether positive or negative.”


After the young couple that were going to host me had a last minute emergency, Ali and Emily (sisters), with only one days notice saved the day.

(these are the ax-murderers I stayed with) 
 Ali is a biology senior at Pitt; Emily, a recent graduate about to move to Austin, TX  to work for AmeriCorps.

They were great.

On the way to Brillobox, a local bar, for trivia night-- they showed me around Bloomfield...

A place filled with idealistic punky bookstores, according to Ali,

and quirky wall art:

They confirmed what I suspected all along, Pittsburgh is a terrible biking town:

Despite our losing at trivia (an unfortunate set of categories in the second round), Ali, is a trove of knowledge. And she made sure that before I left, I had seen the wonders of her own home.


The Pittsburgh toilet!

A toilet and shower located in the basement, where pre-WWII steel-workers and miners could wash up immediately upon entering their home. Ali and Emily’s house (according to their landlord) dates to about 1910.

If I missed any further “Steel City” toilet lore, I’ll be back in Pittsburgh August 6th on my way back to Iowa City.

Next stop Philly!

(Answer to visual riddle: I am lying on the floor.)