Thursday, April 19, 2012

Travelin' Man

Mos Def and DJ Honda "Travellin' Man"

Travel, from the mental to the physical, is one of my favorite activities. I haven’t done nearly as much physical traveling as I’d like, but this year looks to be a little different. I already went to New Orleans, and I’m planning for Africa in May, so that’s more traveling than I’ve done in a long time. However, I haven’t been out of the country since I went to Spain with my family in my early teens (Canada doesn’t count because, you know…it's Canada) and I still haven’t been to a tropical island. Basically, I have a lot of the world to see.

I also have a lot of America to see. I went to Philly last month, where I met with the people who will be traveling with me to Tanzania. I had already been to Philly on two separate journeys, but each time it was only for one night, and it was no different this time. Whereas on my last visits I saw a baseball game and had a brief taste of the nightlife, this time I went on tours of two museums! An eight hour round-trip drive to see some old shit!

And it was completely worth it. We started off at Eastern State Penitentiary. When I first got the email about the trip, I thought we were going to see prisoners in a literacy program or something like that. When I finally googled it (always google it) I found that it had closed as a prison some time ago and was now open as a museum. It had nothing to do with the trip to Africa, it was just an interesting tour that we all were going to take.

I met with the group, we took the tour, and I learned some fascinating history. But mostly it was just really cool and creepy and interesting to be inside the prison where all this history actually occurred. And it made me think of how many places there are in this country, within very reasonable driving distance, that have so much history and meaning behind them. I like reading and watching movies to learn about the past, but the best way to learn history is by becoming immersed in it. Being inside a place physically puts you in a certain mentality that brings the past to life. For me anyway.

The entrance to Eastern State Penitentiary

The prison looks like an old gothic castle, and it’s located right in the middle of a highly populated city. On one side of the street, typical Philly brick lowrises, filled with coffee shops, homes, and book stores. On the other side, a giant castle wall 30 feet high.

The prison was basically the first prison in the world to focus on rehabilitation, instead of just punishment ("penitentiary" comes from "penitence"). They also introduced the idea of "solitary confinement," aka "the hole." But they used solitary confinement in a broader sense, too; when it opened, prisoners had their own cell and were forced to remain in complete silence, receiving punishments for even humming. Prison officials soon realized that this was not doing much for prisoners' rehab, in fact, it was making people insane. Changes were constantly made in an effort to keep with the times, and to appease lawmakers who did not believe in their progressive methods, and eventually the penitentiary just became a typical, overcrowded prison. In the middle of a major city. There were a few escape attempts (only one man ever escaped successfully) and some famous prisoners, including bank-robber Willie Sutton and Al Capone. Eventually, Philly residents decided it wasn't a good idea to have an overcrowded prison in the middle of their city (next to a school, nonetheless) and it was officially closed in 1971.

The typical jail cell.

Al Capone's jail cell. Like a bawse.

Five identical halls extend out from the center station; the warden could keep an eye on all five halls at the same time.

Looking down a hall from the center station.

Death Row. Inmates were held here, but transported elsewhere for the actual execution.

The hole.

Backstop for baseball, uprights for football, tower for guards.

The field and the wall. They added that fence at the top, not to stop balls from going out, but from coming in...stuffed with razors, drugs, and once, dynamite. They closed soon after that.

The outer wall. The station on top was actually unmanned...until the first escape attempt.

Window love.

Shower love. Lots of it. 

This alone would make me repent. 

And that's really all the information I'm gonna give you. If you want to know more, you visit. No seriously, you should visit. Especially during the Halloween season because they have what's been labeled America's Best Haunted House, "Terror Behind the Walls." You may want to bring diapers.

We left the penitentiary and went to a deli across the street called Mugshots. 100% of the businesses in the area reference the prison in their names, as well as their products. I got the Machine Gun Kelly sandwich. He was never at the prison, but you know, famous gangster!

After eating we went to the Mutter Museum (pronounced "Mooter"…"Mooseum") at The College of Physicians in Philadelphia. It contained two floors of medical specimens, ranging from animal skulls, to human skulls, to slides with bits of Albert Einstein’s brain, to gangrenous hands in a jar, to fetuses in a jar, to infected colons in a jar. Only a sick individual could enjoy looking at these things. Needless to say, I really enjoyed it.

They had an entire Civil War area, too, where they highlighted the assassination of Abe Lincoln (of course) and also that of James Garfield 15 years later. His was possibly more tragic because it could have easily been prevented with simple precautions. He was shot, but he was actually killed by infections stemming from the attempted removal of the bullet. I read about the entire story on Cracked before, but seeing a fragment of the President’s bone really brought it home. As I said, seeing history in person is so much more powerful than reading about it and watching it on tv.

And that was my trip to Philly: educational, interesting, fun, and creepy all at the same time. I'm eagerly anticipating my next trip, to the Motherland, and looking forward to traveling more after that as well. I'm not making a bucket list or anything corny like that, but there are definitely places I want to visit, and time is of the essence. Pretty soon, I'll settle down and I won't have the opportunity to travel as much as... wait. I'm sorry. I was thinking of a nightmare I had last week. I'll be fine! Watch out, world.

I Love You All...Class Dismissed.

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