I find myself in downtown Philadelphia, staring at the window of the Cathedral-Basilica of Sts. Peter & Paul. I am a long way from my hometown, a smallish suburb of Chicago, feeling at odds with Philadelphia’s large stature—the sixth most populous city in the entire United States—and my own touristy insignificance.
I took a picture of the Liberty Bell earlier, but it was a mere formality: the bell, in real life, was smaller, duller, and much less impressive than I realized. Congress Hall, too, was neat but tidily boring. I thought of the Nick Cage vehicle filmed in next-door Independence Hall and can’t help but think it’s all been trivialized to the point where it’s impossible to care.
History, for a block
I’m here for Sungard HE’s annual Summit, an international get-together for users of Sungard’s ERP system, Banner. Last year, I blogged from Anaheim, and there were about 8,000 attendees; this year, there’s perhaps 5,500, a significant decrease. One could argue that it’s due to restricted travel budgets from the current economic crisis; I, cynically, will point out that nobody gives a shit about the Liberty Bell compared to, say, Disneyland.
If you ask me, of course, Disneyland is a blight upon the pristine Californian landscape, but I hope we can all agree on the historical import of Philadelphia. It did, for instance, house the entire federal government for 10 years (1790-1800); it was the most populous city in the nation at that time, which didn’t help when Yellow Fever killed a third of its inhabitants1. Though one of several critical locations in the history of the country, however, Philadelphia takes a decidedly low-key approach to publicizing it.
When I went to Springfield in the fall of ’08, I couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a brown landmark sign; half the city’s restaurants or tourist attractions invoke Lincoln or the government. In other words, the city really milked the Springfield/Lincoln connection for all it was worth; Philadelphia, on the other hand, while it doesn’t fail to mention its historicity, cordons off the Liberty Bell and Congress/Independence Halls appropriately, but has them sitting in the middle of urban sprawl. One moment, I’m passing the 6th pawn shop in as many blocks on the Market St.; the next, I’m suddenly standing before a 200+ year old brick edifice that housed some of the greatest political thinkers in history. Disinterested guards (with pistols!) watch the exits. Within line-of-sight, a homeless man curls against an office building, wrapped in a flowery blanket, sleeping despite the chilly breeze and the 2-o’clock sunlight.
I did see the Liberty Bell in person, but somehow it failed to move me: the build-up included a long hallway full of tasteful displays which illustrated the Bell’s historical and political importance. Then it was there, at the end of the hall, cordoned off with a metal bar. It was smaller than I thought, its inscription blurry from the distance and the flash of cameras. Somehow, it was larger (literally and metaphorically) in my mind than it seemed to be in person.
OK, but brotherly love?
Perhaps I’m just conflicted. I came here for the Banner conference, and can’t help but feel melancholy when I think that, had he not died, my father might well be here. In an alternate history, I could have just come back from sharing a beer with him at the Irish pub, shooting the shit about degree audits or portal design. He and I would have had the sort of casual male relationships that fathers are eventually supposed to have with their sons, fraternal and yet deeply symbolic.
But my dad and I never had too many heart-to-hearts; he was never the maudlin type, and he preferred treating his sons like friends and colleagues rather than children (once we were old enough, of course). I know that he was—to my occasional embarrassment—a reader of this blog. But he only ever left one comment… last year, when I blogged about the 2008 Summit. So, I suppose, my attendance this year is a constant reminder of what should have been in a just world. Dad was the figurative strawberry field, and Disney bulldozed him to erect its latest ride. I’ll never know why he elected to comment upon that entry and none other. I could posit that he was feeling alienated in his new job, in need of communication with his son(s). I could argue that he circumstantially felt compelled to comment upon the strength of my writing (sure!) and perhaps some emotional resonance (slightly more plausible). His single solitary comment has remained immortalized to me as a reminder of something innately human and youthful about my dad… that he—against perhaps all my expectations—showed up in a medium totally foreign to him, in order to communicate with me. That he may have felt too embarrassed to talk this way with me in real life is no surprise—ask me sometime about my “birds & bees” talk—but it still remains a focal point in my memory of him.
Philadelphia, in many ways like my father, seems determined to conflict and confuse me. Its downtown area is a nice grid—except in the part where I’m staying and traveling, which devolves into curves and circles. Though I arrived yesterday (Saturday, March 21st), I have yet to do anything in Summit-related as of today (Sunday, March 22): the only sessions today were of the useless “Banner! Whoo!” variety, which I swore after last year I would no longer attend. Tomorrow starts the meat and potatoes of the conference, 2.5 days of solid sessions, though those sessions’ usefulness has yet to be determined.
I spent today sightseeing. I ate lunch at the Down Home Diner, a small greasy spoon in the Reading Terminal Market (a strange name for an indoor marketplace, selling just about everything). I had a bacon cheeseburger with bacon slices that were—I kid you not— a quarter of an inch thick. I was so positively ecstatic about pork as a result that I made an impulse purchase of an “I ♥ Bacon” t-shirt; a cheese-steak is pending, since I don’t think that TSA employees let you fly out unless you can prove you’ve eaten one.
Just like last year, I’ve gotten excessively introspective and maudlin. New places will do that to me, especially places that make me walk around with my eyes upward and my mouth slightly agape. Philadelphia, for all its (very obvious) faults, is an incomprehensible city, confusing as it is large. Its apparent insouciance toward its own history serves only to beleaguer the enthusiastic tourist, who is earnest until five beers in (then belligerent or solemn, depending on the tourist).
The conference, too, seems to some degree insouciant, as though it is merely going through the motions this year. From 8’000 attendees (Anaheim + Disneyland) to 5’500 (Philadelphia and mid-40°s), the scale of the conference has dropped proportionally. Such is the danger of a conference whose appeal is not predicated upon the appeal of the system so much as the whim of its functional users.
- Predictably, the members of Congress hightailed it out of the city at that point…[↩]