Friday, July 19, 2013

I spent the first half of this week in Philadelphia. I really love it there: it's the living embodiment of American history. Nearly every relic from our country's rocky road to freedom is on view there, from the Constitution to the Liberty Bell to Betsy Ross' house. The quaint streets and alleys are still illuminated with gas lamps and paved with the cobblestones that rang with the hooves of Paul Revere's horse.

At the Liberty Bell, a Ben Franklin lookalike wanders around, eager to explain historical events to curious bystanders. Wandering the streets, a Minuteman plays his flute, perhaps enjoying a few minutes of freedom before his unit is called back to the battlefield. At the Betsy Ross House, a young girl in a gingham dress and milkmaid's cap sews small, precise stitches into a flag. And in the train station, a withered old man exposes himself to anybody who'll look.

Now, I'm not the average tourist, but one of these glances back into history profoundly affected me.

I'm taking a leak in the men's room when this insanely old man comes in. He is ancient: his few strands of remaining hair are pure white, his skin is blotchy and mottled, and his face is a mass of wrinkled, saggy flesh. He shuffles over to the urinal next to me, his shirt held up by a skinny wire hanger of shoulders. He slowly pulls down his zipper, extracts his equipment, and starts playing with it.

I ignore him for probably a minute or so. I think, well, since this dude's sex life is clearly in the rear view mirror, he's just trying to wake that shit up so he can take a leak. But he keeps wrestling it, manhandling it, like he's trying to get the last squeeze of toothpaste out of the tube. And pretty soon his bits are at half-mast and pointed straight at me.

Suddenly it hits me. He's exposing himself to me.

Naturally I'm, like, Ohmigod! This crazy city thinks of everything. I mean, all the major cities are trying to attract the LGBT tourist, but hiring someone to represent an all-but-forgotten era in our history just goes above and beyond.

As I watch him try to wring life into his limp bits, I sigh with contentment. I feel like I'm actually there, looking through a window into the past. I'm seeing the exact same thing that a Minuteman might have seen a hundred years ago, if this old dude had thought he was hot.

I realize all tourists are different. Maybe that track-suited mom identifies with the flag-sewing Betsy. Maybe that dad in khakis feels a kinship with the down-to-earth Ben. But this is the man who opens the door for me. Back in our forefather's time, I probably wouldn't have joined the infantry, or learned how to play the flute, or sewed flags by candlelight. I wouldn't have played whist or danced the quadrille with the local girls until I found myself a wife and started a family. I'd have listened to Fibber McGee and Molly on the wireless, took my ration book to the butcher for a rasher of bacon, and -- it seems impossible to believe, since my broad shoulders and firm pecs get roughly 800 messages a day on Grindr -- I'd probably have hung around bathrooms exposing myself to anybody who'd look my way.

Suddenly the reality of that hard-fought history hits me, and tears well up in my eyes. My grandparents had always told me about how difficult their lives were, with death everywhere and food in short supply and blah blah blah. But now their stories hit home. Could this gay man spend half an hour comparing and contrasting photos of hotties before committing to one? With one touch of a button could he limit his possible sexual partners to thuggish dudes with eight inches or more?

I mean, where is the quality control? What if you're in the bathroom on the day all the hot dudes were busy? I shudder to think what kind of trolls our brave forefathers had to blow.

Anyway, I applaud Philadelphia for providing the perfect vacation destination for every historical-minded tourist. I think that's why I'll always return. No matter who you are, it's a window into your past, and it should never be forgotten. Heck, I'll probably never forget it, and not just because I've still got the taste of pee in my mouth.

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