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Young Man On The Road #18: Recall

I hadn’t been motivated to write throughout the entire month of September.  The trip’s over, I’m back in Hawaii, and I have six more states to write about.  Let the freewriting begin!

PS: The title for this one actually has two meanings (and I don’t know if that was initially intended).  “Recall” not only reflects a major event in Florida’s contemporary history, but also marks the first blog entry about my roadtrip that wasn’t written while on the road.  These are the stories I’ll have to recall from recent memory.

August 5 – 10

Orlando, Cape Canaveral, Miami, Gainesville, and Tallahassee, FLORIDA

Florida is the site of some great memories, and some not-so-great memories.  I could go on and on about the best part–the Kennedy Space Center with its awe-inspiring shows, wonderfully-detailed exhibits, and the GREATEST TOWERING ACHIEVEMENT OF ALL MANKIND on display–but that’s my passion, not yours.

The Saturn V rocket is, to this day, the most powerful vehicle ever operated. I'm glad the shuttles are dead. We can get back to building things like this!

Instead, I’ll try to recount for you the balancing act of impressions this phallic state had placed upon me.

Good Florida: I stayed with some extended family I’d never met before.

Family is and will always be the most important thing to me, especially when they live in a place you happen to be roadtripping through.  My dad’s first cousin Auntie Tessie and her husband Uncle Gerry live lavishly in an Orlando condo and were gracious enough not only to share said condo with a couple vagabonds, but also to invite us to their Filipino mahjong club’s weekly dinner.  We didn’t play mahjong, but we sure as hell filled up on that homemade Filipino food.  Surprising it wasn’t the first time (remember Toronto?).

Me, Uncle Gerry, Auntie Tessie, their daughter Rachel, her boyfriend (Chris? John? I dunno), and Ian

Bad Florida: Unless you want to throw down hundreds for theme park tickets, their ain’t much to do in Orlando.

We completely immersed ourselves in the retirement mecca stereotype of Florida and just relaxed.  I just lounged around their condo all day, maybe writing a blog or two, but we didn’t and wouldn’t explore the Anaheim of the East.  We did leave once, though. . .

Good Florida: We saw Rise of the Planet of the Apes at Universal City Walk.  Best movie of the summer.  Go see it!

That has nothing to do with Florida.

Bad Florida: We had our first weird Couch Surfing experience.

After spending a day in the happiest place on earth (the Kennedy Space Center. . . what did you think I meant?), we hightailed it to Miami.  Ian found this lady named Ann on CouchSurfing.org who seemed pretty interesting: middle-aged hippie that played a guitar and was a masseuse.  She was definitely a hippie–at least her cluttered house seemed to prove so–but she must have “experimented” a bit too much in the day because she didn’t quite seem all there. . . and not in an interesting way.  She was just a horrible conversationalist.  She’d never ask us anything, but when we’d throw out questions, she’d stare at us for a beat and then answer in as few words as possible.  Talk about one of the most awkward breakfasts ever.  I resorted to discussing the price of milk in Hawaii!  She did not seem intrigued.

Good Florida: Our stay with Ann wasn’t all bad.

At least for me it wasn’t.  Ann and I shared a musical experience.  I brought in my ukulele and she, with her guitar, taught me how to play Jeff Buckley’s “Halelujah.”  We played together for maybe an hour, not saying much, just discussing the lyrics and chords.  I then showed her how to play Bruddah Iz’s rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and gave her a copy of the lyric/chord sheet I drew up while in DC.  While Ann may not have been able to communicate with words, we were able at least to connect through music.

Bad Florida: When it rains in Miami, all the glitz and glamour washes away, leaving a decrepit, sad city.

We had scheduled a full day in Miami: walking around the University of Miami campus, swimming in the ocean, checking out South Beach.  Considering our sleeping situation, we thought it best not to stay out and explore Miami’s infamous nightlife.  No worries, we had many other stereotypes to look forward to: Cuban music in the busy streets, exotic food places, and a beachful of bikini-clad models.

Except, that wasn’t the case.  Instead, this happened:

Someone dumped a bucket of "Suck it!" on the so-called "Sunshine State."

No random Cubanos in music-filled streets.  No barely-clad ladies on stretches of beach.  The rain washed all that away.  We still walked around the campus, we still swam in the ocean, we still explored South Beach, but we did so in an empty, gray city.  We saw Miami for what it was: a worn-down, second-rate beach town pretending to be a major city.  To be fair, we didn’t explore actual Downtown, so maybe there’s some good city there.  But this?  This is just sad.

Good Florida: The rain eventually let up and we found a few doses of decency.

By the time we had driven from The U to South Beach, that rain had turned into a drizzle and the drizzle into just overcast skies.  Although the beaches were void, the water was still there, so we dived right in.  The water was satisfyingly warm.  It lacked waves, but made up for that with a soft sand floor that stretched shallow a few hundred yards.

Because of the rain, humidity wasn’t as much of an issue as it was in the Mid-West and East Coast.  By that time on our roadtrip, if we weren’t sweating gallons through our t-shirts, the weather was good.

We stumbled upon a welcoming, plant-filled row of restaurants that looked like what I had envisioned.  Pedestrian roads, patio seating, colorful buildings.  The works.  Ian and I decided to return in a few hours for a Cuban sandwich place on the corner.

And the kicker?  Meeting Yoji from TLC’s Miami Ink.  I used to watch this documentary series about a South Beach tattoo shop every time I went home from college and abused my parents’ digital cable.  The talented artists became familiar characters, the clients’ stories became touching stories.  Yoji, at the time of the filming of the show, was an apprentice.  When I ran into him outside the easily-recognizable tattoo shop, he was one of the main artists.  I appreciated how kind and willing he was to pose with me.

Had I a few hundred dollars extra, I might have gotten another tattoo.

Bad Florida: We returned to the Cuban Sandwich shop and it was so not good eats.

We were hungry and the small, open-aired restaurant/bar was quite an inviting establishment.  The friendly waitstaff and manager welcomed us in with pleasant accents.  I started off with a decent mojito, nothing to brag about, but that didn’t matter; I was eagerly awaiting my first Miami Cuban sandwich.  And I got this:

That yellow stuff underneath was a confused pile of potato product, caught somewhere between shoestring French fries and Pik-Nik Chips

Talk about the driest chunks of meat ever stuffed within two tasteless slices of bread.  They got the basics of a sandwich–meat and bread–but seemed to leave out anything that would give it–what would you call it?–oh yeah, flavor.  I had to empty half a bottle of ketchup onto that thing to make it edible.

Good Florida: We made a stop in Gainesville for the afternoon and I got to feast on Chik-Fil-A for the second time in my life.

I’d heard about this chicken restaurant before–mainly because of the college football bowl game–but had never been near any to try it.  I knew they liked their chicken, but I was surprised to see that EVERY ITEM on the menu was chicken-based.  No hamburger options.  No fake fish.  My first experience with Chik-Fil-A was in Columbia, South Carolina, and I was immediately enamored.  When we came across another one in Gainesville, I couldn’t wait to feast again on juicy breast meat covered in perfectly seasoned and fried batter, resting thoughtfully between two fluffy buns.  I got the spicy chicken sandwich for the second time and my taste buds did a happy dance.  It wasn’t until I was near that last succulent bite that I was stricken with a thought: considering how family-oriented and religious this institution is, what is their official stance on the issue of gay marriage and homosexuality in general?  I know, I’m probably the only one who ponders political issues at a fast food restaurant.  Still, I was in a restaurant that is closed every Sunday, hosts family activities for the community, and trains all their young, white servers to walk around the restaurant and offer free refills.  I’d grown suspicious and forced Ian to run a quick Google search for “chik-fil-a gay.”

Bad Florida: Chik-Fil-A hates gays.

Okay, so this isn’t a “Florida” issue, but I discovered it in Gainesville, so there.  Ian’s Google search revealed that not only is Chik-Fil-A an opponent of gay marriage, but they openly support anti-gay groups “like Focus on the Family and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes” and have donated “more than $1.1 million to organizations that deliver anti-LGBT messages and promote egregious practices like reparative therapy that seek to “free” people of being gay. ” (Link)  One of the best fast food discoveries of my life was tainted by blatant hate.  So long, you delicious spicy chicken sandwich.  Hopefully, one day we’ll meet again, but only in a hate-free world.

Good Florida: Ian and I met up with our college buddy Francisco in Tallahassee.

After spending an afternoon in Gainesville exploring the University of Florida, we continued on to Tallahassee and the FSU campus.  It was there that we met up with an old acquaintance and UC Rally Committee alumnus Franco.  He wasn’t a super close friend, but we’d hang out at the many, many sporting events we attended in college.  Francisco is still a die-hard Golden Bear fan and it was funny and somewhat refreshing to hear him talk poorly about other schools in relation to Berkeley.  I am and will always be a loyal Cal alumnus, but I feel I’ve lost the gung-ho (read: blind) Cal Spirit that Francisco so clearly possesses.

Bad Florida: We had to pay for a third (and, thankfully, final) motel

Francisco felt really bad that he couldn’t offer a place for us to crash.  He really wanted to, but he was in between places the day we came, so he was actually couch surfing himself.  We didn’t mind too much.  After all, he made up for it. . .

Good Florida: Francisco gave us a tour of the Florida State University campus, including a stop at a new fast food chicken restaurant!

Not only did Francisco give us an insider’s tour of his new school, but he also introduced us to an alternate fast food chicken chain called Zaxby’s.  As far as I know, Zaxby’s is a secular institution (they are open on Sundays) and they don’t hate gays.  At least, not officially.  They are an apolitical institution with a tasty chicken menu.  Now, while the chicken itself wasn’t revolutionary in relation to Chik-Fil-A, their kicker was the bun: in place of a regular hamburger bun, several of their sandwich dishes had two Texas Toast slices!  That’s right, succulent chicken nestled between two buttery, toasty, thick slices of bread.  My fingers dripped with grease.

It was around this time I vowed to eat better once I returned to Hawaii.

After the delicious, hate-free chicken sandwich from Zaxby’s, we toured FSU’s hall of fame and discovered an awesome tidbit about their seemingly controversial mascot, the Seminoles:

FSU is one of the few schools that DOESN'T exploit their human mascot.

Florida State University is actually supported by the Seminole Tribe of Florida.  In return, FSU respects, teaches, and exhibits the culture and tradition of the Seminole people with help from the Seminole people.  An FSU alumna friend of mine told me all about their close ties.  You can learn about this special relationship here.

Bad Florida: The state is separated from Lousiana–and therefore New Orleans–by Alabama and Mississippi.

Not the two most welcoming states for a couple of young Filipinos from California.

Good Florida: The drive through Alabama and Mississippi was relatively short.

We made sure of it.

Up next: The New Orleans Post. . . as written by my Ate (older sister) Melanie!

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Young Man On The Road #16: East Coast Girls Are Hip, I Really Dig Those Styles They Wear

July 24-30

Philadelphia, PENNSYLVANIA; Atlantic City, NEW JERSEY; Washington, D.C.; Baltimore, MARYLAND

It’s not news that I’ve gotten behind on these blogs.  As I write this, I’m in the car on the way to Houston and it’s mid-August.  I apologize for falling so far behind, but I do have my reasons (read: excuses).  It takes me a long time to write these things.  My style is less “stream of consciousness” and more “write a paragraph, reread, revise, Internet break, continue, reread, revise, food break, etc.”  It’s hard to settle down after a day of exploring and rack my brain for a few hours.  Honestly, I’d rather watch TV shows and fool around on Facebook until I fall asleep.

But I do like having a written account of this trip and, even more so, sharing it with all of you.  Furthermore, your responses make it all worthwhile.  What good is it to have an adventure if I can’t share it with the people I love?

So, in an effort to get caught up to speed, I’m combining several destinations into a single post and driving the stories by photos.  If all goes well, I should be up-to-date before I leave Texas.

I present to you. . .

Photoblog Mash-up No. 1: The East Coast

Philadelphia (July 24-27)

According to the Wikipedia article I read on the drive in, the city is filled with many historical sites, more public art than anywhere else, and a handful of local eats.  I was kind of excited for Philly, and that first full day did not disappoint.

We went to Independence Hall and learned about Congress and the birth of our nation from an amazingly entertaining guide.

Nothing he said was new to me, but he made it so interesting, it may as well have been.

We saw the Liberty Bell.  Apologies to fellow How I Met Your Mother fans, but we did not lick it.

Friggin' thing don't even ring!

We stood in awe of the many murals and public statues around the city.  This was a result of an initiative to reach out to street artists and turn their talent into benefits for the city.

We ate lunch in Reading Terminal Market.

Though there were many tantalizing sights and smells, I held off on the non-local fare and tried scrapple for the first time.

And I actually liked it.

We walked to the Philadelphia Art Museum and ran up the Rocky Steps.

We rewarded our spurt of athletic activity with a local sugary treat: waterice.  It’s like shave ice, but not at all.

After a long day of holding off, we finally got cheesesteaks from Philly’s two most prominent steak places: Pat’s and Geno’s.  I bought one “wit whiz” (that means “with onions and Cheese Whiz”) from Pat’s, Ian got his from Geno’s and we swapped halves and compared at the house.

Both were actually severely disappointing.  The meat was flavorless, the toppings were unimpressive, and the bread was sub-par.  I chose Geno’s over Pat’s because even though there was less meat, the bread wasn’t as chewy.  It’s sad that the “winner” was the one I disliked less.

We got the cheesesteaks super-late at night, and that less-than-stellar experience almost foreshadowed our eventual overall disappointment with  the city.

We trudged through the hot Philly sun to the U.S. Mint.  Even though it wasn’t as humid as New York, the heat still took a toll.  So, when I entered the building and discovered a giant fan cooling off the security guards, I tried to make small talk with one of the guards about how nice it was to be inside.  No response.  Then it dawned on me:  Philadelphians haven’t been that friendly.  Except for our hosts and the Independence Hall tour guide, locals dismissed our attempts at friendly interaction.  (I want to emphasize that our hosts were tremendously kind and caring, but even their awesomeness was overshadowed by our other interactions.)  The waitress/bartender and her patron friends at the place we ate dinner the night before ignored our efforts to socialize, electing to instead give us a dirty look and continue with their conversation.  The cashier at Pat’s acted like I wasted his time by asking what movie he and his buddies were watching on the TV behind them.  And now this guard couldn’t even acknowledge my observation that hot weather is hot!?  Ian and I discussed this revelation while walking through the most unimpressive tour we’ve yet encountered.  Even the U.S. Mint’s bland displays seemed to spew disdain at us.  The City of Brotherly Love seemed to come up short on exactly that.

Before we left, we tried one more cheesesteak place: Jim’s.

Eureka!

It was exactly what we expected from a Philly cheesesteak: high-quality meat surrounded in well-cooked toppings and stuffed into a soft roll.  It was delicious, but even Jim’s delightful sandwich didn’t assuage the bad taste left in my mouth from Philadelphia’s unwelcoming natives.

Atlantic City (July 27)

We took a day trip to AC “on the way” to Washington, D.C. (there was some backtracking involved).  Not to gamble, mind you, just to see the “East Coast Vegas.”

It wasn’t Vegas at all.  It was more like an amalgamation of Reno (with the limited size and spectacle of its casinos), Santa Cruz (with its brightly colored, amusement park-strewn boardwalk), and any suburban middle class shopping plaza you can think of (located meer blocks from the beach and casinos).

I liked the boardwalk the best.  Partly because I’m not a gambler and therefore hold no interest in casinos, but mostly because I’m a fan of most things HBO.  Apparently, so are they.

Ironically, it wasn’t until after we left Philly did we come across good waterice.  I mean, really good.  Better than, *gasp!* Hawaiian shave ice!  Before you get angry at my blaspheming, take a trip to the East Coast and try some.  It’s like an ice-based gelato.

Though we didn’t gamble, we nonetheless lost a small fortune in AC.  We spent upwards of $18 on toll booths alone going there and back.  The house still won.

Washington, D.C. (July 27-30)

Ten years ago, Ian and I went on our 8th grade class field trip to Washington, D.C.  I thought I’d have gained a greater appreciation of the historical significance of the sites in the span of a decade.  Truth is, ten years ago, I did understand and appreciate said significance.  This time around, they were just buildings I’d seen before, but now without the added entertainment of tour guides and classmates.  This trip didn’t expand my appreciation of the city.

Case in point: Ford’s Theater.

Ten years ago, we went inside the theater and an animated guide told the tragic tale of Lincoln’s assassination.  On this trip, we just grabbed breakfast at Lincoln’s Waffle Shop across the street.

We did go to the Washington Monument this time around, though.

And we got to go up, too.  For free.  Good thing it didn’t cost anything, because it was the worst observation deck I’ve been to.

At least you get a view of the Lincoln Memorial.  But wait. . .

. . . where did the Reflecting Pool go?

In an effort to compound the stifling effects of the heat, the humidity, and the lack of shade, the District of Columbia tore up its most refreshing-looking landmark just in time for our arrival.

The trip wasn’t a total let-down.  We did go to the National Air and Space Museum, something we didn’t do ten years ago.  I’m an Apollo nut, so I was completely geeking out over the Apollo spacecrafts.  Come to think about it, that would have been the only thing I’d be more excited to see now than ten years ago.

I don’t know what we were expecting to gain from Washington, D.C.  Once you take away the aura of seeing famous buildings and monuments for the first time, all that’s left is an oversized financial district with few restaurants and many pretentious locals.  Ian and I spent most of the time complaining about the humidity, searching for water, and reminiscing about our 8th grade trip.  We were ready to just keep moving on to the next city.  On our way out, however, we stopped by the Jefferson Memorial.

I knew I liked Jefferson–mainly based on his portrayal in the HBO series John Adams–but I never realized how forward-thinking and practical the man was.  

The quotes that graced the walls of his memorial were at the same time inspiring (he had rational views of the important issues of his day) and frustrating (those views are still relevant to many of today’s issues).  Like Jim’s cheesesteak in Philly, the Jefferson Memorial was an uplifting end to an otherwise disappointing destination.

Baltimore and College Park (July 29)

Baltimore isn’t too far from D.C., so we used one of our D.C. days to explore the city that set the stage for David Simon’s The Corner and The Wire.

But first, the University of Maryland in College Park:

It was too humid to explore much of the campus, so after a keychain and a quick stroll, we took off for the Inner Harbor of Baltimore.

I was surprised by how nice and clean and tourist-centric this part of “Bloody-More” was.  I guess you didn’t see too much of it in The Wire, aside from quick meetings with The Greek in Season 2.  The architecture was a sight to behold, especially how it formed around the harbor.

I made sure to eat some crab cakes and hush pups in the beautifully air conditioned indoor shopping center before taking off for West Baltimore.

I was surprised once again, this time by how close the slums of city is to the friendly Inner Harbor.  More than Deadwood and Atlantic City, West Baltimore seemed the spitting image of its respective HBO series.

Rowhouses everywhere, many empty and boarded up.

The car windows were up, the doors were locked, and I was as inconspicuous as I could be taking pictures.  While I was playing tourist in TV land, I had to keep reminding myself that this was a real place filled with dangerous people.

I was not about to hop out and take pictures with these real slingers. . .

"Git yo' red tops!"

. . . nor these real rollers.

It's Bobby Brown!

Conclusion

After the wonder that was New York City, every city that followed simply paled in comparison.  And, I know it’s not fair to compare a city to the mecca of Western culture, but the disappointing factors we found with each of the following East Cost locales would have still had a negative impact on our experience, even if New York had followed.  Philly would still have been the City Without Brotherly Love; Washington, D.C. would still have lacked shade and flavor; and both Atlantic City and Baltimore would still have too few attractions to keep us overnight.

Ian and I were just burnt out on cities.  No urban locale was going to compare with New York, and we didn’t want to keep pretending like they could.

Surprisingly, the South came to our rescue.

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