The click of Bob’s toenails echoed on the marble floor of the grand lobby when Joe and I led him up to the registration desk at the downtown Philadelphia hotel, and as people passed, they smiled at Bob and I can’t say I blame them. He was prancing on the end of his blue leash like he owned the place. The elegant woman working behind the counter looked down at him and she beamed a Dentyne smile when she asked his name.
We held off having lunch until we rolled into town, waiting for a legendary cheesesteak to quiet are growling stomachs. We barely put our bags down in the room when I lifted Bob onto the bed, kissed his wet bumpy nose, and headed out the door with Joe. We managed to find the one cab driver in the city that didn’t know the right location for Pat’s, reputedly the most famous of the best, and we drove in tight narrow circles until he finally found the outdoor stand that spawned a national sandwich.
There was a long line giving us the time to read the large sign directing the protocol of the proper way to order – wit or witout onions. Volume business demands stringent rules, and we studied the list in earnest. When we arrived at the window, I ordered without a slip-up and heaved some relief. Fifteen minutes in line to order and three minutes to finish our meal, we walked down the tiny street, through an outdoor market that featured bunny rabbits and ducklings hanging upside down, slaughtered and ready for someone’s dinner. It was unusually chilly and Joe remarked on my goose bump covered arms.
Joe slowed down and said, “Wait, wait,” in a stage whisper as we neared a short elderly woman covered in enough sequins to make Liberace jealous. Time stopped as her red, white, and blue rhinestone go-go boots hypnotized us and her short Eisenhower jacket patterned in a glitter American flag completed the outfit.
“Oh, I want to take her picture,” Joe said when we were ten feet past her.
“Go ahead. You don’t think she’s wearing that to not be noticed, do you?”
“Aw,” he muttered and we kept walking. We ended up exploring South Street; a touristy spot that could have easily been avoided had we known it was nothing more than rasta shops, tattoo parlors, and headbanger gear. The walk back to the hotel was a network of tiny streets barely able to fit a single car through and lined with hospital after hospital. I started complaining about my aching feet and the depressing scenery, and Joe rolled his eyes and offered to carry me. Sweet but no go.
We rested in the cool of our room, watching ridiculous television on a cable system that didn’t bother having CNN let alone TCM. Bob gave me that side-glance of his, letting me know it was time for his promised walk through the new city. A block away was Rittenhouse Square, a lively collection of people on a warm summer afternoon, and we sat on the edge of one of its many fountains and watched a pop-and-lock dancer go through his moves in a drug all his own. He looked nothing more than a modern Grateful Dead dancer, silly and begging for attention. Joe loved him and we debated which was his drug of choice and whether anyone was enjoying his performance besides himself and Joe. Even Bob was a little embarrassed at the spectacle.
When the cheesesteaks wore off, we found a diner with an ironic flair, the kind that serves mac and cheese with proscuitto, and it felt good to sit in a strange restaurant in a different city across from Joe. When we came back, we found Bob on the floor, sprawled on top of the shorts I had been wearing all day, soaking up the safety of my scent in his unfamiliar surroundings.
Wanting to see what the local homosexuals did, we went to a nearby bar and I had a beer while Joe ordered a rum and coke. On the second round, the bartender ripped off five dollars from me while giving me my change but I didn’t discover it right away. We were too busy trying to determine the gender of a barfly and remarking on the casino-type wall-to-wall carpet. When I reached in my pocket and discovered the theft, I became angry and Joe became worried I would start a fight. Having already addressed my anger in therapy the day before, I calmly walked up to the bartender, had him lean toward me, and said “I know you ripped off five bucks from me. That’s pretty fucking pathetic. I hope you enjoy it.” His mouth gaped and I walked away. When I returned to Joe, I craned my neck around to see the bartender’s reaction and was disappointed to see him going about his business as if nothing had just happened. A tearful confession from him was not in the offing.
We left and went to a darker, louder nearby leather bar. Joe decided to change his drink to a margarita. With a twenty between my two fingers, I asked the shirtless, stocky man behind the bar for a Bud and a margarita. He smirked so hard you could almost hear it. After playfully fashioning an umbrella out of a scrap piece of paper, he handed me the two drinks, winked, and gave me back correct change. I threw down a few bills as a tip and we walked deeper into the bar. We played the Terminator 3 pinball machine before we found another bar downstairs that was even more crowded. I kept ordering drinks for us. When we were officially drunk, we wove our way back to the hotel. We passed out a little while later to the strains of The Rules Of Attraction on HBO2.
Breakfast was at Pete’s, an apparent Philly staple, and soon we were back in the car to go to the Golden Nugget, a flea market somewhere in New Jersey. We arrived too late for any unusual treasures, as vendors were packing up for the day, and we drove to some friends of Joe’s. Experts at film, both good and awful, conversation flowed easily with them and Bob wandered around their large yard. Their dog made a frontal assault with teeth bared at Bob but Dan, one of the dog’s owners, pulled his leash up just in time to get his legs bit, drawing blood. Bob was shaken but unharmed.
Dan and John gave us directions to Asbury Park; someplace I’ve always wanted to visit but never had the chance until now, because of Joe. We lifted Bob out of the back of the Explorer and started to take in the ruin that was as far as my eyes could see. Half of the once grand Palace, its Tunnel Of Love home to years of romance, was already victim to the wrecking ball with glimpses of its playful interior squinting from the light, and its neighbor was a closed porn theater. We walked down to the beach; a dark tan expanse littered with glass and broken shells, and made our way to the waves breaking close to the shore. Bob’s feet got wet and he high-tailed it back to the dry sand with a quick hop and a surprised look. It’d been a long time since he was on the beach, a place he loved when Billy and I would take him down and let his chase sandpipers until he was panting and his tongue was almost hitting the ground.
We moseyed back onto the boardwalk and found the Stone Pony, the only working business for miles in either direction. It was crowded and the cover charge was $25.00. I asked if I could just go in to buy a t-shirt and was escorted by a thick bodyguard. I asked him who was playing that night and he told me Nils Lofgren, Bruce’s guitarist. Security was tight and my mind danced with the idea of Bruce showing up to play a few songs with his band mate. Joe asked if I wanted to stay but waiting for four hours on the off chance the Boss would be there was less attractive in my hung over state than jumping back in the car and getting something to eat.
Mastori’s is ground zero for the New Jersey accent, which is as big as their pasties. We sat at a table in the dark bar area and listened to the people at the table next to us tawk on and on about the best directions to get somewhere and a good land deal in the offing. The menu had five-point font and Joe wondered aloud how the elderly crowd could possibly read it. I had to follow along with my finger to not lose my place in the thousands of items offered, and I landed on a triple meat sandwich.
We slumped back in the car, exhausted from all the territory we had covered in the last 24 hours, and we headed home. Joe white-knuckled over the large bridge into Delaware while I taunted him about its inherent dangers, and soon we were back in the familiarity of Maryland. It was late when we pulled up to Joe’s house, Bob was snoring in the back on his bed, and I kissed Joe and thanked him for a wonderful weekend.
What I was really thanking him for was his compassion and understanding. He has an amazing reservoir of both.