Independence stall

Posted: October 03, 2013

I'VE ALWAYS thought it would be fun to be a Philly tour guide. I know the city's ins and outs. I have offbeat personal anecdotes to share ("When I was a college freshman, I once took a midnight nap behind Independence Hall after a party!"). And I already talk with strangers for a living, right?

But there was nothing fun about my impromptu attempt to be a tour guide yesterday in Philly's locked-down historic area. I just felt depressed for the tourists who'd planned vacations around their visit, only to find so many of its iconic buildings dark, thanks to the federal government's standstill.

I met Sherry and Jack Pickering of Illinois outside the closed doors of the Independence Visitor Center. They were there with fellow Midwesterners Phillip and Sally Reed, all of them disappointed that a political hissy fit had scuttled their plans to explore the birthplace of independence.

"We really wanted to see the Liberty Bell," sighed Sherry, who planned this trip six months ago, before some D.C. bozos decided it was better to hold the country hostage than act like grown-ups. "Can we see the bell from the street?"

"Yes!" I told them, filled with purpose. "You certainly can!"

I marched the foursome over to Chestnut Street, where the bell is visible through the pavilion's wall-sized window. Sherry aimed her camera through the spokes of its surrounding fence and snapped off a few photos.

It broke my heart to tell her that her photos wouldn't do justice to the bell, that it must be experienced inside the pavilion - after you've examined the exhibits explaining the bell's noble history and then, turning a final corner, come upon the icon itself: weathered, humble, inspiring.

"This is so unfair," I said, entertaining crazy thoughts of breaking into the place so Sherry and the others could feel the power of the bell, which I've experienced - what - a million times? "On behalf of my city, I apologize."

As I pointed them to the National Constitution Center, which is unaffected by the shutdown, I realized how I take for granted my easy access to America's history.

So I felt desperate to help Christine Schultz of Nome, Alaska, who was here for a medical conference. A history buff, she'd booked an extra day in town so she could feel goose bumps as she toured the mall.

"This is the one and only time in my 48 years that I've ever been in Philly," Christine said dejectedly, looking hungrily across the mall at buildings she'll probably never get a chance to visit again. She'd wanted so badly to call her father - a retired U.S. Army colonel - and describe for him what she'd seen and felt inside Independence Hall. Her dad, who is terminally ill, shares her love of history.

"At least I can still walk around outside," she said wistfully, adding, "I wish the Betsy Ross House was open."

"But I'm pretty sure it is!" I said, whipping out my cellphone to call over to the Arch Street locale where Ross is rumored to have lived and sewn our fledgling nation's first stars 'n' stripes. Indeed, the site is open for business as usual, despite the assertions of two park guards that it wasn't.

(C'mon, fellas, get it together. Tourists' once-in-a-lifetime memories are at stake here!)

My spirits lifted a bit when I came upon a jovial gang of Australians (and one New Zealander) on an East Coast tour. They were grateful they'd gotten to Washington before the shutdown, although I wished they'd slapped some sense into the politicians they glimpsed during their tour of the Capitol.

"I'm disappointed in the shutdown, of course," said Susan Lamont, of Sydney, since her group had only a half-day to spend in the Big Scrapple. "But we have a national-health scheme in Australia, so I very much support President Obama's position."

I told the gang what I'd been telling every tourist I met: That I wished their visit had worked out better ("And I wish I could make you all a nice dinner!" I added to the Down Under group, because they were such fun).

"Oh, well," Lamont answered cheerily. "This just means we have to return one day, right?"

Right, I guess. Except that her trip was expensive and took much time to plan and save for.

The way it had for tourist Stone Sun, of China, in the States for only a week. And Eileen Olmstead and Lawrence Vasquez, of Los Angeles, who were furious with the "jerk politicians" who'd rather freeze one another out than work together, no matter how it harmed the country.

"It's a disgrace," said Olmstead, who'd booked a day in the city to show Vasquez the sites she had so enjoyed on a prior visit to Philly. "The whole thing is. And feel free to quote me on that."

Done, Eileen.


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie

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