“I tend to think of myself as a one-man wolf pack. But when my sister brought Doug home, I knew he was one of my own. And my wolf pack… it grew by one. So there… there were two of us in the wolf pack… And six months ago, when Doug introduced me to you guys, I thought, “Wait a second, could it be?” And now I know for sure, I just added two more guys to my wolf pack.”– Zach Galifianakis (Alan) from The Hangover (2009)
In the long history of my life, which isn’t that long at all, I have never had a ton of friends. Sure, I have close friends from my past who I am still in contact with from time to time. I communicate with colleagues and classmates who I met along the way and positively impacted me. But friends I hang out with and talk to frequently are a much smaller group, at least in terms of number. Over the last decade, I built a small group who I consider great friends. So, it should be of no surprise that when returning from my month-long stay in Shanghai, China, in July of 2018, I was invited by a couple of those close friends for a weekend trip to Philadelphia; I responded yes. This group of friends goes on a trip once a year, usually to visit a Major League Baseball stadium, test out the local breweries, and eat fantastic food. I was thrilled to be invited. I had not been on one of their weekend excursions, but I enjoyed playing softball and exploring breweries with these four guys, so I was eager and excited to join them. Filled with history, a couple of breweries, and a visit to Citizens Bank Park, this trip became an unforgettable memory.
Background of the Trip & Friends
When invited on this trip, I was halfway through my stay in Shanghai, which you can read here. Knowing that I would be traveling, not even a month later, was an exciting proposition. When I do travel, it is often with my wife Corinne or my brother Jeff. The prospect of a friend’s trip was strangely new to me. As I said, I have never had a large group of friends, so traveling out of state with friends was somewhat alien to me, sadly so. Sure, I joined a couple of friends on their trip to Walt Disney World in Florida in 2003, and while fun, it is a blip on my recollection radar. Besides that, and the more recent trip to Tampa, FL, for my brother-in-law’s bachelor party weekend in 2018, just before my trip to Shanghai, I can’t recall any memorable trips solely with friends.
It might be wise to explain why, why this group of friends, and why this trip. I first met this group when I began playing coed softball for Boston Ski and Sports Club in 2009. My wife and I joined her Uncle Fred’s team, and it was he who introduced us to his friends, who quickly became our friends. It was this group that made playing softball fun. We played terrifically or terribly, and it didn’t matter. It was about fun, not serious. After each game, we went out for food and drinks in Boston or surrounding burbs. It was a fun group and allowed us to open up, relax, and be happy, but it didn’t last long. We played only one season. My wife and I quickly moved to Hawaii for school, but the entire group, especially Sean, threw us a wonderful going away dinner, even though we had only known each other for two months. This meaningful action proved they were a group to stay in contact with while away.
When we moved back to Massachusetts, my wife and I were immediately welcomed back, and we even played softball again. A couple of entertaining and exciting events proved that this was a group I was excited to hang out with more often, and, yes, it involved breweries. We have great breweries in the Boston area, and on one occasion, Sean organized a brewery crawl. But we didn’t walk or crawl anywhere. No way! Sean booked a limousine “bus,” and with about thirty people, we sang, danced, and joked around as the driver drove us to several amazing breweries, including one of the best in Massachusetts, Night Shift Brewery in Everett, MA, which is slightly outside of Boston. It was an insanely fun night. Soon after this night, Sean, another friend Kevin, and I did this brewery tour again but visited different locations, although this time with no limousine bus, sadly.
Our brewery visits eventually morphed into our attending Power Fest at SoWa Power Station in South Boston on Harrison Ave. Power Fest was an annual beer festival, which I went to all three years, held by the Mass Brewers Guild in April from 2017 to 2019. Power Fest was fantastic, with over sixty local Massachusetts breweries present and accounted for with some of their best and most experimental craft beers. Our tickets were valid for three and half hours, included food trucks and vendors, and we had a brilliant time. It isn’t often you get to taste the best beer in Massachusetts under one roof, and with Sean and Kevin, who enjoy the experience as much as I. It’s essential to set the stage, as such, with a discussion of our beer enthusiasm since our trip to Philadelphia would showcase this excitement. Coupled with our mutual love of baseball and well, being friends, my trip to Philadelphia was the perfect introduction to the trips that they, as a group, have taken for years. I felt like I fit in, I felt welcomed, and I knew I was in the company of real friends. But, when I returned from my trip to Shanghai, I didn’t have long to prepare for my journey. Even so, the plan was simple; I would meet Sean, Kevin, Fred, and Russ in NYC. It was there, in the city that never sleeps, our trip began.
New York City, New York
After being home a couple of weeks, my wife and I departed for New York. We planned to go to my in-laws’ house in upstate New York and spend a couple of July days drinking coffee in the morning, swimming in the afternoon, and having delicious BBQ on the grill at night beside a fire pit. After a month away, seeing my wife’s parents and spending a few relaxing days was an attractive proposition. Another positive of this plan was the ease of packing. One can easily describe me as an over-packer. I have gotten better over the years, but I am known to, how do they say it, overdo it. After a month in China, where I learned the value of packing cubes and being conservative with available space, my trip to NYC/Philadelphia was more leisurely. A couple of nice shirts, jeans, baseball jersey, and well, that was it.
After a couple of days, with my bag packed and wearing my Don Mattingly #23 t-shirt proudly, my wife dropped me off at the commuter rail station. I began my hour-long journey from Poughkeepsie, NY, to Grand Central Station. My friends would come into the city by train from Connecticut, and I would meet them there. The train ride into NYC, which I have done numerous times, was adequate. When I arrived at Grand Central, I waited for no more than 20 minutes before my friends arrived. Even though I had not been waiting long, and my journey was simple, they had had a challenging journey, so once we met up, it was quick pleasantries, and we departed for lunch.
Sean selected an Irish pub to visit for lunch, and it just so happened to be close to Grand Central Station. We made it to Milligan’s Pub within minutes of our meet-up, and our last friend, Russ, arrived not even 30 minutes later. With some food consumed and a couple of beers tasted, we laughed and caught up. It had been a while since we were all together, and we were excited about the weekend together. Now, I was the newbie on the trip, as the others were seasoned professionals. I tried not to overstep, even though my personality often wants to take the lead. If asked, I helped, but Sean was the softball team captain and our group leader. Therefore, once lunch was over, we called an Uber, one big enough to hold us all, and we headed to our Airbnb.
Sean is the organizer of these trips, and since they have gone each year, I trust his planning skills. Therefore, he booked all the lodging, procured our baseball tickets, and made reliable recommendations for eateries. At the same time, I offered suggestions for breweries and transportation around NYC and Philadelphia. When we made it to the Airbnb, we were on Frederick Douglass Blvd. in the South Harlem neighborhood, a couple of blocks away from Columbia University. The condo we stayed in was on the fifth floor of a walk-up and was lived in by a group of Columbia University students. They were away, probably at their childhood homes, for the summer, so renting out the condo as an Airbnb was a brilliant idea. It was plenty big enough for our entire group. It had three-bedrooms, with multiple beds in one bedroom and a pull-out “mattress type thing” used in the living room. Guess where I slept? Hey, I was the newbie and the youngest, so it was only fair.
After a quick minute at the Airbnb, everyone got ready to leave. We had tickets to see a New York Yankees home game. Sean, Kevin, and Russ had not visited the new Yankee Stadium, even though Fred and I had. Going to different baseball stadiums is an essential part of their trips. Since NYC was on the way to Philadelphia, this one-day stop was perfect. On arriving at Yankee Stadium, we made our way through the ticket gate and towards our seats. Sean, who purchased the tickets, got them off of StubHub, but the seller never stated the seats were obstructed or not seats at all. Instead, they were last row standing room only. While surprising at first, it didn’t matter. We had a bar counter for our food and drinks! Hell, we were in the Bronx watching Yankee baseball; life was terrific. While at the stadium, I did get the opportunity to meet up with my sister-in-law Kaitlyn who lived in NYC, worked in broadcasting, and arranged for a meet and greet with two famous New York Yankee voices!
After the game, we headed over to Billy’s, a famous staple for post-Yankee game drinks and burgers. It’s an immense space, with loud music, but enough room for us to hang out before heading back to the Airbnb, which we did just after midnight. We took the metro and were dropped off in Central Harlem, only a few blocks away from our Airbnb. After a nice walk, we made it back and crashed. I will be honest, I didn’t sleep that much, mostly since the train traveled adjacent to the condo and was extremely loud. It was also July in NYC, and I didn’t have any air conditioning, so you can do the math. Overall, it was a fun day, spent with great friends, eating good food, and watching our favorite baseball team. I got as much rest as possible and prepared for my first trip to Philadelphia.
Welcome to Philadelphia
After picking up a Starbucks coffee, we packed up the Airbnb, jumped on the metro, and headed to Penn Station to wait for our train to Philadelphia. Our wait was short, and our train ride, although packed, was comfortable. We made it to Philadelphia with relative ease and called an Uber to bring us to the hotel. Sean had booked our accommodations, and his selection for Philadelphia was pinpoint perfect. We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn Philadelphia Center City, which is next door to Reading Terminal Market, a historic indoor farmer’s market offering tons of good food and more. The competition cannot beat this hotel for those looking to visit Philadelphia and wish to lodge near all the action and historical sites. Located adjacent to Chinatown, the hotel is within walking distance to Independence National Park, the Liberty Bell, Benjamin Franklin’s Grave, the cobblestoned street at Efreth’s Alley, the Edgar Allen Poe National Historic Site, and the Betsey Ross house. While purely my opinion, Center City is where you want to be, and I could not have been happier with Sean’s selection.
Shortly after arriving at the hotel, the rain started to fall, which should be of no surprise to those who have read my travel posts. While the weather was briefly an issue on our first day in Philadelphia, I promise, this was a one-day type of situation! After checking in, we were all hungry and, well, thirsty. Sean had asked me to help select breweries to visit on this trip and was curious about where we would start. I came up with a pretty solid brewery list for this area of Philadelphia. We didn’t want to go someplace far away, since we would waste our time with transport. We had a schedule to keep because Sean scheduled a BYOB History Bus Tour called Founding Footsteps. For now, we needed a brewery to visit, and I had the list.
A Night of Drinking in Philadelphia
With my list ready and an Uber called, we journeyed to our first brewery, Roy Pitz Barrell House. This brewpub was an excellent choice to start our night. A spacious brewery in a hip, industrial, and chic building with tons of long tables, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the street, and beautiful artsy murals on the wall, Ritz Barrel House set a high bar for Philadelphia beer. Not only that, but the food was amazingly delicious. With a tag line of “liquid art,” Roy Pitz had traditional American cuisine, with great starters like pretzels, which paired well with their selection of beers. We stayed, drinking and eating, for a couple of hours, but with our tour time quickly approaching, we needed to move on and make our way to the Betsy Ross house, where our tour began. One critical reminder, the tour was “bring your own beer” (BYOB). Therefore, before departing Roy Pitz, we purchased several four-packs of beer, one four-pack each, to bring on the historical bus tour.
On arriving for the tour, we noticed that it was a packed bus, which, to be honest, made it wicked fun. Nothing brings people together more than beer and American history. Yes, I, a professionally employed Historian, wrote that sentence! Is Drunk History getting picked up by Netflix? If so, email me; I have a few stories to tell! After taking our seats and the purchased Roy Pitz beer divided equally among our group, we were ready to ride, drink and learn. It was wonderful, and I suggest it to anyone who wants to observe the city, might be short on time, but wants to see the prominent locations, and enjoys drinking a beer, or two, or three, along the way. We saw a ton of sights, about half of which I remember! Just kidding, but seriously, drinks will distract you, as well as the tour guide, who does a great job playing music at specific points and using a vast amount of historical and POP! Culture knowledge to keep everyone informed and entertained.
I won’t go over each stop, but we stopped by Benjamin Franklin’s Grave, drove around the downtown area, and of course, went to see the Rocky statue. Of course, we had the opportunity to sprint up the steps with the Rocky theme blasting from the bus speakers. Once we reached the top of the “Rocky steps” in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, we threw our hands up in the air and hummed the movie’s theme! A tour perfect for everyone, except kids, but filled with history, film, music, and television commentary, and all presented by a guide well versed in Philadelphia history and those landmarks you might want to double back to see from a closer vantage point.
After the tour, we departed from the Betsy Ross House and headed to a second brewery. Love City Brewing is only one block away from Roy Pitz and a couple of blocks away from our third brewery, which I will discuss, called Yards Brewing Company. Again, as I said, I selected these breweries based on reviews, popularity, and location. I will say they were all amazing, including Love City Brewing, probably my favorite. It is off the main road and has a gorgeous architectural design. Housed in an old industrial building and outfitted with large double front doors. Once inside, the bar is located directly in the center, with seating on both sides. The beer was outstanding, and while the establishment did not have a kitchen, they did have a food truck parked in their attached garage. The beer and food truck, which served Smokin Tacos’ incredible tacos, made for one of the trip’s best moments. We chatted, we drank, we ate, and we enjoyed our time. Soon though, it was time to move to the next brewery.
Yards Brewing Company is an excellent craft beer establishment in Philadelphia and probably one of its most famous. Vast, with an industrial design, Yards has plenty of televisions, an accessible area, and a comprehensive beer and food selection. We didn’t stay long since we had enjoyed Love City and shad two other places to visit, but to be honest, after my beer at Yards, I was checked out. For the rest of this story, I am purely going along for the ride and drinking water. We next went to Bourbon & Branch, which is probably one of the more “hip” styles of places I have been to, and, as you have read before, I have spent time in Nashville and Brooklyn. The site is known for its whisky and live music. The whisky flowed for my friends, but so did the inviting conversations in this unique place with a “bar made from an altar.” We ultimately descended on our last place for the night and an establishment that just so happen to be an adjunct to our hotel. Bar-Ly, located in Chinatown, is the quintessential sports bar with wall-to-wall televisions, sixty beers on tap, and unfortunately, a jukebox. Sean decided to make the music box his friend and requested and paid for at least a dozen John Denver songs. While I did not complain, many of the other patrons did. Suffice to say, I soon called it a night and left them to cause trouble without me.
Breakfast w/ a Friend, American History, and Baseball
After an excellent night’s sleep, I descended on the hotel gym to do a quick three-mile run on the treadmill. I don’t usually use the hotel gym, but I had started running again after a month-long absence during my stay in China. Now home, but in Philadelphia, I wanted to keep my progress going, and I got an excellent start to my day. Soon I met up with a friend from Hawaii who lived in the area, feeling this was an opportunity that might not come again. While the rest of my friends were waking up, I met Lorin at OCF Coffee House, located in the Fairmount area of Philadelphia, located directly across the street from the historic Eastern State Penitentiary and its gothic-style architecture. Like Alcatraz, this now-defunct prison offers tours and a peek at Al Capone’s prison cell. One of the most expensive and famous prisons in American history, it is today a haunting site. It is a place to see if you are visiting Philadelphia. Lorin did her graduate research thesis on historic prisons, so over breakfast, she filled me in on all the main details. Once we finished, I prepared to see for myself what the draw was, and as someone who has been to Alcatraz with my dad, which I will detail in a future post, Eastern State Penitentiary is well worth your time. But enough about historic American prisons, let’s chat about breakfast.
I met Lorin at OCF around 8 am and seeing her was like being back in Hawaii in our American studies class. It was terrific and made better with a great conversation about our lives and how much we missed Hawaii. I ordered a coffee, of course, and tried an egg and cheese bagel sandwich, which was pretty fantastic! The eatery was lovely, with plenty of tables and an entire wall of windows looking over at the historic prison. It is a classic coffee shop and cafe with an overall inviting atmosphere. Lorin and I chatted for an hour and then said our goodbyes, took a selfie to commemorate this moment, and I went to see the historic prison. After some time, I called an Uber and headed back to the hotel. My driver, an Eagles football fan, luckily hated the Dallas Cowboys more than my team, the NY Giants. So, we got along fine.
As we had some downtime before we began our afternoon plans, Fred and I walked around the area surrounding Independence Hall. We went to see the Liberty Bell and, to be honest, just took our time, with coffees in hands, strolling around the stunning area. The rest of the guys soon met up with us, and we continued our historical tour without the bus and beers this time. We still had time to spend before our big event of the day, a Philadelphia Phillies baseball game at Citizens Bank Park, in Packer Park in South Philadelphia, and adjacent to Lincoln Financial Field, the Philadelphia Eagles football team stadium. We had one thing to check off our list, a Philly Cheesesteak, but we wanted to do that closer to game time. At this point, I suggested taking in a museum because, of course, the historian recommends a museum. Everyone seemed interested, so we headed to a brand new museum dedicated to the American Revolution.
The Museum of the American Revolution, according to the website, “explores the dramatic, surprising story of the American Revolution through its unmatched collection of Revolutionary-era weapons, personal items, documents, and works of art. Immersive galleries, powerful theater experiences, and interactive digital elements bring to life the diverse array of people that created a new nation against incredible odds.” Opened in 2017, less than a year before our arrival, this was a unique experience, but not unlike a few museums I have visited recently. Lincoln’s Presidential Museum in Springfield, IL, which I wrote about here, Lincoln Presidential Half Marathon, and the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, LA, which I mentioned here, The Big Easy, have fantastic state-of-the-art exhibits and present their subject history in progressive ways. The Museum of the American Revolution is similar in its use of high-quality films, technology, and beautiful historical source material presentations. I left pleased that I had taken the opportunity to visit, even if I was well-versed with the historical perspective. I did feel they presented a fully angled history. While concerning the incredible nature of the American Revolution and independence movement, they did not do so in an “exceptionalistic” way, which I applaud.
After our time at the beautifully designed museum, we headed for a Philly cheesesteak! Lorin offered a suggestion, so I brought this up to my group of friends, and they readily agreed. After being inundated with the history of the American Revolution, we walked around that area, taking in the neighborhood’s row home architecture, but called an Uber to bring us the rest of the way. Soon, we made it to Jim’s South St. in Queens Village. While many might go to Pats and Gino’s eatery, Lorin suggested Jim’s South St. and, yes, it was fantastic. Each of us ordered a cheesesteak sub. We sat upstairs, and it didn’t take us long to eat, but there was a significant line outside and inside when we arrived. The place can be intimidating to tourists, but I am from the Northeast, eaten in NY often, and lived for a while in Boston. I get how these places work, and once we got our food, we were delighted.
After eating, we called another Uber and went to the Phillies game. When we arrived, it was still early, but the gates were open, and we smoothly went in after scanning our tickets. We bought the game tickets only a few hours before, and we purchased them for only thirty dollars a ticket. The Yankee game tickets were triple that price, and let me say, the Phillies seats were far better, and yes, I liked the Phillies stadium way more too. While I am a Yankees fan, I am not too fond of the new stadium. I have been to several MLB stadiums. Whether AT&T Park in San Francisco, or Petco Park San Diego, I have been to impressive stadiums, and most are far superior to the new Yankee stadium in terms of the overall fan experience. Sad to say, but it is for me, and Phillies stadium too, offered a more enjoyable viewing experience.
While the game itself was forgettable, the five of us had a wonderful time watching baseball, which on a summer night in July, I mean not much better than that. I sat, under the stadium lights, drinking a local craft beer while eating a pretzel and then a hot dog, a staple for me at every baseball game I attend. Sure, there may be better food, but a game day baseball stadium hot dog is both nostalgic for those I spent with my dad and a source of comfort. Overall, sitting in our seats, watching the game, was powerfully enough for this night in Philadelphia to be remembered with incredible satisfaction. We didn’t need to go crazy or do something outrageous, we lived in the moment, and that was enough.
The next morning the group met at the Reading Terminal Market, which I mentioned earlier. There I got a bagel and cream cheese, nothing special, but enjoyed a fantastic coffee with maple syrup as my sweetener. That was freaking fantastic. After some time, we headed back to the hotel, packed our bags, met in the lobby, departed for the train station, and boarded our train destined for NYC. While my friends stayed on that train to Connecticut, where they drove the rest of the way to Massachusetts, I boarded the commuter rail and headed back to upstate NY for a few more days with my in-laws.
It isn’t often you have this type of trip with friends. One where at the end of the journey, you are eagerly awaiting the next one. Too often, some arguments quickly derail what could and should be a wonderful time. I am lucky. There were no issues over money, where to go, or what to do. We all took it one step at a time, and satisfied with what Philadelphia had to offer, and enjoyed what we could with the time we had. My friend Sean is a great guy who planned a fantastic trip. He put everything into it and did more research than necessary, but we appreciated it. He does it because he enjoys it and because he wants these trips to continue.
I do not doubt that Sean is already planning the next trip and waiting for the green light, and by green light, I mean vaccines and new travel guidelines. Once that time comes, and it will, soon, very soon, I will join them for a friend’s trip to a new city to eat incredible food, watch some glorious baseball, and drink some outstanding craft beer from local breweries. I know that I will not take these trips for granted or the time and energy that Sean puts into the planning and implementation. Just waiting for the green light, and once it is here, time to use this new lease on life.