NPR nerds at the Mann Center
Thursday, June 30 2022
location: rural Hurley Township, Ulster County, NY
These days I'm so focused on completing projects at the cabin that all other things are secondary. I don't put much effort into my day job and I don't want to go out and "do things" despite the fact that Gretchen is excited to take advantage of the pandemic being "over" (at least for now). So I when I learned that Gretchen had arranged for us to be spending part of the July 4th weekend in Phildelphia, something inside me grumbled with irritation. It certainly didn't help to learn that the main reason we'd be going there would be to attend a taping of the NPR news quiz Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me. For some reason Gretchen loves that show, though for me there's something wrong with it that I can't quite put my finger on. When I tell this to Gretchen, she correctly points out that when we're listening to it (always in the car) I laugh and seem to enjoy it. But it's nothing I would ever listen to on my own. Even though I'm a news junkie who appreciated mirthful takes on the news (particularly from Stephen Colbert), there's just something about Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me that I find off-putting. But there are some fights worth fighting and others I know I should abandon right away, and field trips to other cities to "do things" are in the latter category. Gretchen doesn't want me to turn into my father, who spent the tail end of his life as an unwashed hermit, and, for now, I don't want to end up that way either.
Gretchen had planned for us to drive down to Philadelphia today, spend two nights, and return to Hurley on Saturday, after which I was free to go to the cabin for the balance of the long weekend. I'd taken Friday off from work, but not today. This meant that during today's road trip, I would have to simulate being in work over Teams. (Gretchen doesn't like me pulling such deceptions; she'd rather I took the day off and put full attention on the trip. She routinely asks me why I don't want to take more vacation, especially when my workplace has an unlimited vacation policy.)
I began the day with a bit of a workplace headache. I'd removed a bunch of unnecessary .DLL files from a project, and it compiled just fine on my local computer. But when I pushed it to QA, my build pipeline kept failing for want to a library called DevExpress.XtraReports.Ui.XtraReport. Evidently this was related to some sort of licensing model required for the highly-proprietary DevExpress framework, about which I know nothing. All during the morning scrum I tried to roll back my changes in git, something that required a bit more git mojo than I keep it my brain. Gretchen had wanted us to leave immediately after scrum, but this last-minute headache delayed our departure by about a half hour.
It was a beautiful sunny day and we didn't encounter much traffic. We made all the way into greater Philadelphia on the electricity we'd loaded into our Bolt's battery back in Hurley. But before arriving at our destination, we stopped at an Electrify America charging station outside a mall called Philadelphia Mills. As often happens with Electrify America chargers, the first one I attempted to use was broken (well, it couldn't make a near-field connection to my phone), so I had to try another (which worked great). We then went into mall to escape the sweltering heat island of the mostly island-free parking lot.
Philadelphia Mills is not a high-end mall, and there was a quality to it that we immediately found depressing. Part of it was the jarring color palette of the middlebrow logos and brands all jumbled together. This pallette continued into the clothes displayed in the clothing stores (one of which was called "Sophistikids" and had a number of child-sized mannequins wearing far-too-spacious suits). Gretchen drew my attention to the display at the Cinnabon, a franchise she worked for as a teenager. "We would've never put such ugly rolls in the display rack," she said. Instead she and her colleagues would put such rolls aside for them to eat on the job or take home with them. She attributed the cluelessness about display æsthetics to the current problem in the labor market with finding and retaining quality workers, something we've seen at other franchise eating establishments.
As we walked the length of Philadelphia Mills, we hoped to stumble across a Dunkin Donut, the franchise where Gretchen says she can reliably get a good decaf oat milk latte. Gretchen had hoped to find a Dunkin (as they're now called) organically, but at some point she cheated and looked at the directory and saw there was none in the mall. But then she used her phone to see where the nearest one was and discovered one just outside the mall across that vast hot expanse of black asphalt. Upon entering that Dunkin, there was a weird burnt smell in the air that took awhile to acclimate to. Also, all the employees (all of whom were Indian) had bindis in the middle of their foreheads, even the men. (Was today some Indian holiday?) Despite the smell, we ordered our usual, this time including two $1.60 orders of hashbrowns, with the intention of consuming all this in the dining room. My cappuccino was so burnt-tasting, Gretchen took it back to have it done again. The staff tried to blame the flavor on, first, that it lacked additional flavoring and then that it contained oat milk. But, as Gretchen pointed out, we always get cappuccinos without special flavoring with oat milk and it doesn't taste like that. She had them make a latte the second time, and this time the flavor was acceptable. I started joking that Philadelphia Mills had been built on an Indian burial ground, "feather, not dot."
Something about the dreariness of Philadelphia Mills had Gretchen bemoaning the fate of the world, whether it be politically with the nakedly political actions of the Supreme Court or environmentally with the looming catastrophe of global warming (that's the one she usually frets about). She kept obsessing about these things, and finally I had to tell her that there's not a damn thing we can do about them and that I wanted to fucking enjoy my vacation (or whatever it was we were having) and could she please not dwell on such material? This seemed to work and that was the last of this sort of thing I had to deal with, at least for today.
In downtown Philadelphia, after fruitlessly trying to use a street parking app, Gretchen gave up near the corner of 13th Street and Locust Avenue and decided to park at an expensive corner parking lot. "Don't ask me how much that cost," she said after paying the machine for two days' worth of parking. We then went into our hotel, the Arco Sonder, which was apparently run entirely by robots. There was no check in; we had a key code to enter the building and our room. Unfortunately, our room was still being cleaned (by a real human, who turned out to be something of a stoner) when we arrived, but we were in a hurry to leave our stuff and go to dinner. Gretchen found an alcove where she had just enough privacy to change into a dress and away we went, to the place we'd be having dinner: a Puerto Rican vegan restaurant called Bar Bombón that Gretchen tells me we'd been to years before. There we met up with Gretchen's hometown friend Doug and his wife Felicia, who have lived in Philadelphia for many years and whose wedding we attended in Buffalo in 2010. We hadn't seen them in years and there was much catching up to do, including an explanation of why I was now missing a prominent tooth. In the intervening years, Doug and Felicia had moved out of the co-op we'd visited them at and lived for a time on an acre of land in the nearyby suburbs. But Felicia didn't like living out of the city, so they moved back in during the pandemic to a multi-story attached townhouse in marginal neighborhood just south of downtown Philadelphia. LIke us, they are completely child-free by choice but they have a cat named Hawthorne. They are most certainly not vegan, though they were happy to eat vegan tacos and drink margaritas with us. We started with individual margaritas for all of us except Gretchen (who is, from a dietary perspective, essentially Mormon) but then thought it more economical to transition to a $44 pitcher. The tacos were excellent, by the way. Gretchen was particularly delighted with her cauliflower "hot wing" tacos.
After dinner, Gretchen and I said goodbye to Doug and Felicia and took a Lyft to the venue hosting Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, a sprawling semi-outdoor performance venue called the Mann Center. On the way, a douchebag nearly precipitated an accident involving our car, something Gretchen told our driver had been something of a bonding experience.
While most of the country seems to be so completely over the coronavirus pandemic, they still take it seriously in Philadelphia. Many people are still wearing masks, and many of those who aren't have one hanging from their chin ready to deploy at a moment's notice. The Mann Center was checking for proof of vaccination at the gate, something that wasn't going to be much of an imposition for a public-radio-listening crowd. Just inside the gate, we were immediately impressed by the inflated prices for refreshments. A cheap domestic beer was $13, though a good beer was only a little more: $14.75. We didn't buy anything, though we did marvel at those who had; I pointed to a little girl carrying a huge order of fries and several chicken patties and noted that that one child had over $30 worth of food in her possession. No wonder parents' don't instill the importance of not smashing tablets!
We sat for awhile on the lawn while people gradually filed into the venue, which had seating for more than ten thousand people. I know Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me is a nationally-syndicated show, but I had no idea it could ever justify the use of so much space, especially considering that tapings of more mainstream shows such as The Daily Show in New York City or Jeopardy! in Los Angeles only provide seating for an audience of a couple hundred.
Gretchen had the time wrong, and the show tonight would begin at 7:30pm, not 7:00pm. So after clambering past people to our seat, we decided to clamber away and sit on a patch of steeply-sloped lawn nearby for a time. As we sat there, I noted that, unsurprisingly, the crowd converging for this even was very white. But then Gretchen started pointing out the occasional black person, and there were a few here and there.
The chiming of faux bells told us it was time to get to our seat, so we clambered back, avoiding passing as many people as possible by climbing over seats where possible.
Then the show began. I hadn't known this, but a lot more of Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me gets recorded than is actually broadcast, which meant that things proceeded at a decidedly leisurely rate. Not being a huge fan of Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, this wasn't too my liking; the live performance had more of what I don't like about the show diluting what I do. I also found some of the humor provided by the panel of three commedians to be a bit off-putting and even low-brow at times. I always had cheap shots at unspecified "politicians," for example.
Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me always features a celebrity guest, and today's was a gentleman named Darryl McCray, a graffiti taggist (due to the simplicity and monotony of his work, I hesitate to use the term "artist") who, we were told, single-handedly invented modern graffiti. He was something of one-trick pony, tagging as much of the world with his moniker "Cornbread" as possible. But he had a delightful origin story, which happened back in reform school when he persistently badgered the cafeteria staff to make cornbread instead of the white bread they were providing at the time. Such persistence continued into his graffiti phase of his life, when he took all manner of risks to tag interesting surfaces likely to get noticed. These included a collaborative elephant at the Philadelphia zoo and a jet plane on the tarmac of the airport that had just disgorged the Jackson Five. That phase of the show was genuinely delightful.
After two hours of taping, Peter Sagal and Bill Kurtis re-recorded a few lines they'd flubbed during the show so as to improved the quality of the version that would be broadcasted. One of the panel members also re-recorded an answer to a quiz question, changing it from "Britney Griner" to the more activist "Free Britney Griner," which was a response to a question about a WNBA star currently being held in Russia for dubious reasons. As broadcase, the show has the feel of something designed to be consumed by liberals, but the liberal pandering is more overt in the unedited live version.
After the show, we embedded ourselves in various streams of humanity vacating the Mann Center, switching to the ones that seemed to be moving fastest. Out in front, Gretchen befriended a couple of women in hopes of finding an easy way back downtown. They said they'd be taking a bus that was loading nearby, and that the fare would only be $2.50 each or possibly even free. It wasn't free, as it happened, but (unsusually) I had a $5 bill. We took our seat among all the other pubic-radio-loving riders, and the bus somehow avoiding the swelling mass of congestion as people did whatever they could to leave the Mann Center. Somewhere along the way, Gretchen opened up her to-go box of cauliflower hot wings tacos and started eating bits of it, and I have to say it didn't smell very good at that temperature.
Gretchen not loving the Fun ride at Philadelphia Mills.
A mural on the wall above where we parked the car at the intersection of Locust and 13th Street near the center of Philadelphia.
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