“Lesson 4,” a voice blasted from the MP3 player of the man sitting across from me. It was the only noise on an otherwise quiet bus, the bumble of which had put my sister to sleep. We had begun our journey in Chinatown, and now, as I stared out the window, hypnotized by the blur of branches that line the road from New York to Philadelphia, it occurred to me: the dark humour in taking a bus to prison.
Eastern State Penitentiary, or ESP, was once the most famous and expensive prison in the world, before it was shut down in 1971. It lay abandoned for 10 years, home only to invading vegetation and stray cats. In 1994, The City of Philadelphia reopened its doors to the public.
We were a half hour away from walking through those doors. And then the bus broke down.
After sleeping off a deep-dish dinner from Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria, we met up with Kyle again and walked to Old Town. The clear skies were gone, replaced with clouds and a light drizzle.
Along the way, we popped inside Fourth Presbyterian Church. On the night of it’s dedication in 1871, the church was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire. It was moved to its current location in 1914, where it is now one of the oldest surviving structures on Michigan Avenue north of the river.
If you’re a fan of the TV show Shameless, then you know that scene in the last episode of season 4 where Carl wheels Frank, who has just left hospital with his new liver, down the pier at North Avenue Beach. Against the backdrop of a polar vortex Chicago, Carl stops and asks, “Is this good?” Frank nods and says “Give me the bottle.”
When I saw that, I wanted to go and stand on that pier and look out onto the most beautiful skyline I have ever seen.
Danielle had just been been to The Windy City in the summer, and wasn’t keen on heading back in December because “I hope you know, it’s even colder than New York.” I did know, and I didn’t care. I was going.
After the museum, I took a train downtown to meet Danielle at work. She had booked us tickets to see the Rockettes Christmas Spectacular and wanted to take me to see the window displays on 5th Avenue afterwards. Even after ogling the New York Times building, I was still early, so tucked into Dean & Deluca for tea and people watching. The crowds around Times Square are always a fun bunch to watch.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” the security guard yelled after me. It was my third day in New York and I was trying to make my way from bag check to the ticket counter at the American Museum of Natural History. But he had already checked my bag, which I tried to explain. “Then why are you all the way over there?” he yelled back. “Because I’m trying to get out the fucking way!”
The second day of my trip to New York stands out for two reasons. The first is that, because my sister had to work, I was on my own and that meant navigating the subway by myself for the first time ever. Without a GPS, I managed to get myself to the Financial District and then across to Brooklyn without too much hassle. I even got asked for directions – twice! – so I was pretty stoked about that.
The second was a bummer; when I got home, my sister went to browse through the photos on my camera and accidentally formatted the memory card instead. She downloaded some recovery software to try and salvage whatever data might be left, but I knew in my heart of hearts that the images were gone forever.
For the winter holidays, I went to visit my sister in New York. Danielle’s been living in The City for just over four years now, but despite it being our birthplace, I’d only seen it twice: once in 1998, and again in 2009. It was time for a reunion, I thought, and so after completing a week of Christmas lessons and oosoji (end-of-year cleaning), I packed my bags and began the long journey West.