Monday, August 2, 2010

Special Ed Travel Series, Part V: The Top 10 Cities to Visit

It has taken me longer than I expected to get here, the fifth and final installment of my travel series. However, I'm glad I'm getting to it now, because the timing really is pretty apropos. Why, you ask? Well, loyal readers, Special Ed is, as the song goes, leaving on a jet plane and I don't know when I'll be back again. The jet plane, of course, is just a metaphor, but what's not metaphorical is the fact that I am getting the hell out of Philadelphia, and soon. If this travel series has taught me anything, it's that this country has so many amazing places to offer, and I've been lucky enough to see a lot of them. A lot of people are more than content to spend their life in one place, and that's OK if that's your thing. I'm just not one of those people, and the longer I stay in Philly the more I'm realizing that there's more out there for me to experience. So that's the way it's going to be...this time, in a month or so, I'll be somewhere else trying to figure my life out. I turned 24 last week, so it's long overdue. I already know where I'm going, and in time so will all of you. Really, the only thing that will change on here is I'll be completely kicking ass in another city. When I'm on my own, I'll really be able to work on marketing the shit out of this bastard and then we'll really been in business. Until then, I present you with the final offering of this epic list:


Editor's note: This is Part V of a five-part series. For more, see Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV.

10) Las Vegas

(The world famous Las Vegas Strip at night)

And that, I think, was the handle - that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of old and evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look west, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark - that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. -- Hunter S. Thompson

I guess it's a natural rite of passage for any man to include Vegas on his Top 10 list of American cities to visit. It's funny, because I don't even gamble. I have terrible luck when it comes to chance, and when you combine this element with the fact that I've never had much money, and gambling is not an activity designed to appease Special Ed. The only more arbitrary act, in my mind, is going to a strip club. If I want to be somewhere where gorgeous, fake women seem attainable and pretend to like me, I'll stay home and watch porno. After all, it's free and not completely counterproductive...but we're deviating from the point here. Honestly, you don't have to like gambling to have a hell of a time in Vegas. I was only there for a night last summer and I'd go back in a heartbeat. As the only Vegas virgin of the group, I was totally unsure of what to expect, but the mystique and notoriety of the city pretty much lived up to the hype. Knowing we had only one night to really experience Vegas, we knew we very specific activities to perform, a.k.a. drinking and gambling (I know what I said, but it was my first time in Sin City so I didn't have a, you get free booze if you do gamble, so I agreed to disagree). We arrived into town around 3 p.m. and checked into our $45-a-night hotel, the Tuscany Suites & Casino. Now, you'd think 45 bucks in downtown Vegas would buy us the shittiest, most prostitute-infested hotel in the entire city, but it was actually quite the opposite. The room came equipped with a king-size bed, a couch, a comfy chair, a mini-kitchen with a small table and a surprisingly sizable bathroom with a shower, bathtub and a toilet. The toilet was even in one of those separate rooms within the bathroom with its own door so the entire room didn't smell like raw fecal matter. When three out of shape dipshits are sharing a room, this can come in handy. Anyway, I poured Jack & Cokes down my throat with reckless abandon at the MGM Grand before shuttling over to the Paris Hotel for dinner. The Paris Hotel, along with buildings like the Venetian, are shining examples as to why Las Vegas is the most unique city in the world. Only Vegas, a city in the middle of the desert, would spent so much time and money on constructing to-scale buildings of other places! Despite the fact that this lifesize replica building of Paris, France was my worst nightmare (I despise the Frogs), it was also pretty cool how much like the real thing it looked like. Architects in Vegas apparently do not fuck around. And the buffet food was well worth the $25 price of admission, with an endless supply of meats, pasta, seafood, salad and desserts at our fingertips. Having achieved full bellies with the sun rapidly setting, it was time to really experience Vegas when it matters: at night. We ambled over to the Bellagio ("One of Terry Benedict's casinos!" I exclaimed...yes, I'm a closet nerd, without the closet) and were faced with a dilemma: how does a group on a budget acquire free beverages in Las Vegas without pissing it all away at poker and blackjack tables? Well, let me tell you. Matt decided to walk over to the sportsbook area of the casino, where you can sit in big comfy chairs and bet on horse races, baseball games and whatever other athletic contest happens to be going on at that moment. But here's the best part: all you have to do is sit down in this expansive area and a cocktail waitress soon appears to serve you whatever type of free alcohol you want. While Matt and King spent a few sheckles (they're Jews, mind you) betting blindly on random horses, I sat there for hours and didn't spend a dime save for a few singles on tips for the waitress, who kept on appearing with Red Bull Vodkas, Rum and Cokes, Long Island Iced Teas and Heinikens, among many other tasty beverages. By 10:30 I was supremely shithoused, which was exactly the state I had planned on being in on my first night ever in Vegas.

After all of the games ended and the sportsbook unfortunately shut down for the night, it was time to figure out what comes next. More boozing, yes, but where? After I lost $20 playing Casino War (yes, the same game I used to play at my Grandma's kitchen table when I was about 8 years old), it dawned on me...Margaritaville! Think about it: where else would we rather be than drinking tequila-based beverages in a place established by one of the biggest drunken buffoons (Jimmy Buffett) on the face of this planet? We were inside Margaritaville for about 32 seconds before we had acquired two 100 oz. margarita tubes, which is exactly what it sounds like: 100 ounces of margarita on the rocks in a huge, hollowed-out cylindrical tube with a spout at the end to pour the delicious beverage into our mouths. Both of these tubes were empty within an hour, because that's how we roll. With 200 ounces of fresh margaritas resting in our bellies, we got some drinks to go and parked it on Las Vegas Boulevard to people watch, which a group of drunken fools meant mocking the idiots and posers that were sauntering down the strip at that time of night. In 10-15 minutes, I had successfully alienated most of the seedy club promoters by asking them if theirs "was a club where people wee on each other?" I love the Vegas. We may have tuckered out early for Vegas standards (approximately 3 a.m.), but I got everything I wanted out of my one night in Sin City. By that I mean none of us lost a ton of money, we drank about 50 gallons of alcohol for basically the price of nothing, we didn't end up married or with an STD and most importantly, we didn't get dead. All in all a successful stop. Imagine how much fun I could have had if I was actually trying to find a good time and if I had more than a night to do so. Now that's a scary thought.

9) San Francisco

(The Golden Gate towers over the city by the bay)

I left my heart in San Francisco, high on a hill it calls to me
To be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars.
The morning fog may chill the air, I don`t care.
My love waits there in San Francisco, above the blue and windy sea,
When I come home to you, San Francisco, your golden sun will shine for me.
-- Frank Sinatra

After spending the better part of three days in the paradise known as Southern California, I didn't expect much from the northern part of the state. After all, Northern Cali is muggier and rainier, and aside from being the setting of Full House, what could San Fran offer me that LA could not? A lot, as it turned out. San Francisco was easily one of the biggest surprises on our trip last summer, and I'd go back in a second. We got into town around 3 in the afternoon with not much of a plan, so we did what tourists do: go to the most touristy spot in town. In SF's case, that would be Fisherman's Wharf, a waterfront attraction off the bay that is lined with restaurants, bars, museums, street performers and all kinds of shops while several big boats line the docks for everyone's viewing pleasure. You can also see Alcatraz Island from the wharf; despite the fact that it was the middle of the day, the former prison still looks all kinds of creepy sitting all by itself in the middle of the bay about a mile and a half offshore. We noticed very quickly that San Francisco was going to be a pleasant surprise in terms of beautiful women, so we walked around for awhile, admiring the view while deciding what to do next (it was about 4:30 pm and we had an 8pm dinner reservation across the bay in Sausalito). As is usually the case, we accidentally stumbled into what was one of the cooler stops along the way, a tiny hole-in-the-wall but classy wine tasting place called The Winery Collective. Initially stopping in just for short taste, we ended up staying close to two hours, shooting the shit with the two young guys that worked there, Ryan and Kelly. King and Matt each did two full tastings, while I paid for one tasting before subsequently buying two full glasses off the menu and guzzling them with ease. These guys were perfect wine tasting employees: completely laid-back and down to earth, talking with us about wine, music, travel and just life in general. We got to learn a good deal about California wine, and I ended up buying two of the bottles that were on the taste list. By the time we left, it was hard to calculate who was the most buzzed, but the excitement of the situation caused me to exclaim “I love being drunk in the daylight!” while walking down crowded Jefferson Street along the wharf.

By then, it was time to head across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito, a tiny town right on the bay that had come highly-recommended by several people. We went to a place called Spinnaker’s, an upscale restaurant on the edge of the bay with panoramic views of the San Francisco skyline from across the water, which was really a site to see. Arriving a bit early, our window table wasn’t quite ready so we parked it at the bar, which is always a good decision when it comes to this group. Originally alone at the bar, we were soon joined by a group of Texas men in town for a wedding that were extremely interested in Game 1 of the College World Series between Texas and LSU that was playing on the bar television. Before we knew it, these boisterous redneck hicks were learning about our trip and excitedly buying us more beers, so by the time our table was ready, we were all legitimately shithoused, which is always a good state of mind to be in while having dinner at a really nice restaurant. I passed out rather early that night, but San Francisco really left an impression on me that I was not expecting at all. If you ever get a chance to make it out to the Left Coast, give Northern Cali a try...sure, LA and San Diego have the beaches and bodacious babes, but San Fran's got a lot more to offer in terms of culture; plus, the scenery ain't half bad, either. Just make sure to be careful whilst crossing the bay, because your ass will get glocked if you end up in Oakland at the wrong time of night.

8) Philadelphia

(The Schuykill River flows directly into the heart of my hometown)

I was bruised and battered and I couldn't tell what I felt
I was unrecognizable to myself
I saw my reflection in a window I didn't know my own face
Oh brother are you gonna leave me wastin' away
On the streets of Philadelphia -- Bruce Springsteen

I know, I know...there's all kinds of problems with this one. For starters, Philadelphia is my hometown, so there must be a plethora of unjust bias pumping into this selection. Secondly, how can I endorse The City of Brotherly Love as the eighth best city in America to visit when all I can think/talk about is getting the hell out of here? Also, there's a ton of homicides and drug deals in Philly, so really you'd think it's the worst place to visit. But the way I see it, Philly is easily one of the worst cities in the country to live in; lucky for us all, this is a list of the Top 10 Cities to Visit list. It's funny too, because Philly's native population is hyper-localized, meaning most of the people that are born here and grow up here will probably never leave. They settle in their little neighborhoods within a bigger neighborhood (for me it was Holmesburg within Northeast Philly) with their corner dive bars, find the closest Wawa and set up shop for a lifetime. Those people are total suckers. But in terms of a one-time visit, Philadelphia can be the shit. If you like history, this is the town for you. Think about it, people: long before the President set up shop at the White House, Philly was the capital of this great nation from 1790-1800. The Declaration of Independence was signed here and the U.S. Constitution was ratified here, and this is just scratching the surface. In Philly, you can visit Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, Betsy Ross' House, the Constitution Center or take in a show at the Kimmel Center if you're feeling cultured. If the history side of things isn't your cup of tea, then from the months of April-October you can head down to catch a baseball game at Citizens Bank Park, one of the most beautiful venues in all of baseball. If you're into self-deprecating behavior and throwing your money away, there's always Lincoln Financial Field right across the street where the Eagles play from September-January. And then there's the food. Philadelphia might not get much right, but if there's two things we know it's 1) being total scumbag assholes and 2) awesome cuisines. We're famous for so many delicious treats, but the cheesesteak is obviously the staple. Whatever you do, avoid tourist traps like Pat's and Geno's...completely and utterly overrated. In this writer's opinion, the best three spots for a steak in the city are Steve's Prince of Steaks and Chink's (both in the Northeast) as well as Jim's Steaks on South Street. John's Roast Pork on Snyder Avenue is also world famous, having been honored by publications such as Esquire and The New York Times. We also wrote the book on hoagies (no, not subs or grinders or heroes, it is and always will be called a hoagie), soft pretzels and Tastykakes, so be sure to indulge in all of those as well upon your visit. If you're an elitist yuppie asshole that doesn't want to get Cheese Whiz all over your Banana Republic khakis, then there are also a ton of douchey upscale restaurants in town that will probably tickle your fancy (Olde City is a very good neighborhood for elitists and hipster idiots). Philly's also right on the Delaware River, and Penn's Landing is a very solid waterfront attraction (there are several concert venues right on the river, both in Philly and New Jersey). Bottom line: would I ever advise or encourage anyone to live in Philadelphia? Unless you want to look over your shoulder while walking down the street at night in fear of getting stabbed, shot, raped, robbed or murdered, then the answer is a resounding HELL NO! However, if you're looking for a place to visit where you'll never ever get bored, then Philly is definitely the place for you.

7) Nashville

(Nashville skyline at night)

I wish I was in Nashville, guitar on my back
Maybe someday I will ride in the back of a big Cadillac
-- Don Williams
Before last summer, I had never been to Tennessee and ever since I left I've been plotting some sort of return. We hit three cities in three nights in the Volunteer State: Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis (more on this in a few minutes) and each one was uniquely fun. I should have known Nashville would be an insane night when King said from now on his new nickname would be "The Morphine Kid" as soon as we passed into town. The first thing we decided to do after we checked into our hotel was go to the Nashville Zoo...because what screams heterosexuality more than three dudes in their early 20s going to look at animals for a few hours? The zoo, however, was pretty awesome. I think it was the first time any of us had been to one in a long time and we enjoyed it thoroughly. We saw everything from meerkats to zebras to a 25-foot anaconda, and I entertained the group with intelligent questions of "Is that a replica of the tiger's skull?" when one of the zookeepers showed us a chewed-up, metal tiger food bowl. We stayed there for about two hours and then headed over to an exact replica of the Parthenon, which is located in the middle of Centennial Park in downtown Nashville. We were there at about 6 p.m. so we didn't get to learn any specific tourist information about the structure, but I'll offer my opinion: what a gigantic waste of money. It was a majestic site for sure, but what's the point? That had to cost a shitload of money to build, so I guess the citizens of Nashville must be very generous with their tax dollars. We did take some cool pictures, but still, epic waste of dinero.

After the Parthenon was when the real fun began. Up until now, I have failed to mention that in Nashville that week was the CMA Music Fest, featuring all-day activities headlined by drinking, eating and country music, capped off by a huge concert at LP Field featuring the likes of Reba McEntire, Rascal Flats and Dierks Bentley (three big names if you're a country fan, and mostly everyone is down South, especially Nashville, which is considered the Hollywood of country music). We didn't get tickets to the show since we were all concerted out from a Phish show the night before, but in no way was this a bad decision. In fact, my eyes will be thanking me for not going to this concert for a long, long time. Let me try to describe this scene as aptly as I can: One of the major streets that runs through downtown Nashville is called Broadway, and Broadway is chock-full of bars, restaurants, record stores and other downtown city-type establishments. I imagine Broadway is usually a pretty happening place to hang out, but nothing could prepare us for what we walked into. You see, one of the biggest stereotypes of country music is that all of its fans are toothless redneck guys drinking Budweiser and fat busted white trash women with 3-6 inbred children. As someone that has seen Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Montgomery Gentry and Brad Paisley in concert, I obviously knew this was not the case, but if any of us had any remaining doubts, they were quickly washed away in the sea of sex that surrounded us. Every second or third person we saw was a beautiful woman in a sun dress wearing cowboy hats and/or boots with perfect bodies accentuating their many appealing features. For three straight men who had spent the last 4 days in a car together, this was our Elysium. Multiple times we were forced to stop in our tracks to either shake our heads in disbelief or look to the heavens and thank the gods above for putting us in our current position. At one point I was so overwhelmed that I stopped to bang my head against a newspaper dispenser on the street. Bravo, Nashville, bravo.

After indulging in this perpetual wet dream, we managed to concentrate long enough to find some Southern-style barbecue, which was a mouth-watering delight. Being from the northeast, we're pretty much used to traditional dinner food such as pizza, spaghetti and hamburgers. While this is all well and good, you truly haven't lived until you've had BBQ from the south. We stumbled into a place called Jack's BBQ, which was a wise decision, my friends. There was a line out the door that extended forward to a lunchroom style buffet setting where you tell the cooks behind the counter what you want and they pile it all onto a plate for you. The difference about this place was that they skewer and rip apart all of the meat right in front of you. Vegetarians, I don't know how you do it, because this is something I could not live without. You could choose between Tennessee pulled pork, Texas brisket, St. Louis style ribs, Texas sausage, smoked chicken or smoked turkey, or you could choose a combo meal of three of the above savory meats for the manageable price of $13, which also included two side dishes, bread a drink and five different types of Southern sauces to dip your food into. After we finished, I couldn't move for a good 10 minutes...if my next destination was the electric chair I would have been completely content. After our feast, we ambled around to a few of the many bars on Broadway before settling at Bailey's (mmmm...creamy) Bar & Grill which ended up being our hangout of the evening. What a total home run it was, too. One side of the place was a sports bar/restaurant and the other side was quieter with tables, TV's, billiards and ping-pong tables--which of course we indulged in. We sat in the latter, drank beer (Summer Ale, Red Fox, Fat Tire, Leinenkugel, Black & Tan, to name a few) and watched the Phillies terrorize the Mets in extra innings. In between that and watching Derek Fisher make the Orlando Magic his bitch, we befriended our second awesome server of the trip, Holly. While Craig in Louisville was the shit, Holly was highly attractive with breasts, so we enjoyed the pleasure of her company a bit more I think. She regaled us with stories from her college days at Auburn, including how her former roommate collects $5,000 a month from Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Courtney Taylor because he impregnated her while in college. God, I wish I was a college/professional athlete sometimes. Holly also said "y'all" a lot...Southern broads are without a doubt the sexiest.

So after all I just wrote about, why haven't you purchased your plane ticket to Nashville yet?

6) Memphis

 (King & Special Ed on Beale Street, June 2009)

Saw the ghost of Elvis on Union Avenue
Followed him up to the gates of Graceland
Then I watched him walk right through
Now security they did not see him
They just hovered 'round his tomb
But there's a pretty little thing
Waiting for the King
Down in the Jungle Room 

Then I'm walking in Memphis
Walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis
But do I really feel the way I feel?  -- Marc Cohn

Considering how wicked awesome Nashville was, I don't think we had great expectations of Memphis. After all, how could the previous night be topped...unless Memphis had naked models walking down the street, I didn't anticipate much of a good time. Luckily, I was wrong. The trip did start out rather ominously, however, mainly because of some shoddy, thrift-seeking planning. We got into the Memphis area around 3 p.m. and headed over the bridge into West Memphis, Arkansas, where we had foolishly booked our hotel at the cheap as nails Days Inn. One look at the place told us all we needed to know as to why this was the cheapest hotel reservation of the entire trip. Folks, it's hard for me to describe the ambiance of lovely West Memphis, so let its Wikipedia entry do the talking for me:

In a pattern typical of urban areas of the Southern United States, West Memphis tends to have crime levels considerably above the national average. For the year of 2006, the violent crime index was 1989.3 violent crimes committed per 100,000 residents. The national average was 553.5 crimes committed per 100,000 residents. The same applied to all forms of property crime in the city. For 2008, the total murder risk for the city was over two and a half times the United States average, the same applied when compared to the Arkansas state average. Other forms of crime were roughly the same with the exception of larceny which was slightly above the national average. 

Yeah...about that. We were over the bridge into Arkansas for about 17 seconds before we realized that perhaps getting a hotel in downtown Memphis would probably be a better idea than our current situation. I think the real selling point was when we were parked on the phone/computer trying to book a last-minute hotel reservation in Memphis when a suspicious looking fellow that resembled Lil' Jon with a giant gold grill in his mouth began walking in our direction. While feeling like we were guest stars on The Wire was certainly the thrill of a lifetime, we also thought it was time to make like a tree....and get outta there. We checked into the Comfort Inn in downtown Memphis, and before we got to dinner and heavy drinking, we decided to be tourists and head to the first place that you think about when Memphis is on the mind: Graceland, home of the King! No, not The King that we're traveling with...the real king, Elvis Presley! We got over to Graceland around 4 p.m. and each bought full-access passes for $33, which included tours of Elvis' mansion/estate, his automobiles, his airplanes and a whole lot more. The mansion was absolutely incredible. Elvis bought the place when he was 22 for an incredibly low price of $100,000 and completely turned the place into his own. The main house was stocked with comfortable couches and other furniture, pianos, mini-bars and a pool table. We weren't allowed to go upstairs, but the main floor and the basement were stocked with all kinds of amenities. This dude seriously did live like a King...the amount of cool accessories he owned was unfathomable and it really made the three of us wish that we were good enough at something that could make us this rich. Well, technically I guess that I am, which means the pressure cooker is bubbling even moreso to write a kickass, bitchin' book that sells a lot of copies.

Dinner reservations were at Rendezvous, which the Hoffbeast had told us in advance was the best barbecue in the country. They don't call him a beast for nothing, folks...that beautiful, formerly bearded son of a bitch couldn't have been more right. We were skeptical after experiencing the glory of Jack's BBQ in Nashville the night before, but any doubts we had were quickly washed away when the plate of ribs, baked beans and coleslaw was placed in front of our widened eyes. It took us each one bite of our food to decide that these were in fact the best ribs we had ever eaten in our lives. The meat melted off the bone into our mouths, and the taste was further accentuated by the delicious Cajun-style rub and tangy hot sauce. The place was even more enhanced by the old school style atmosphere Rendezvous had to offer, such as the old wooden table we sat at, the paper plates we ate our food off of and our B.B. King look-alike waiter, who told us he had been a server there for 43 years! Just an awesome, awesome place with even more incredible food...make sure to stop in if you're ever in Memphis; the only drawback is that the place is hard to find. It's situated in a back alley off of Second Street that we searched fruitlessly for, but luckily we were eventually aided by one of the fine homeless denizens that Memphis has to offer.

Now, it was really time to get down to business, a.k.a. drinking heavily. We were told that the place to go for partying was historic Beale Street, and these informants were not lying. You actually have to show your ID to get onto the street, as the debauchery level is so high that anyone under 21 is prohibited from that's the kind of street I'm talking about! As soon as we entered, we were bombarded by the neon lights of bars and restaurants lining both sides of the three or so blocks of the street, which were also filled with beer and alcohol stands right on the sidewalk. That's what's so great about this street, folks...once you're on it, you can actually walk outside with a drink in hand, very much like Duval Street in Key West or Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Since all three of us are big advocates of public intoxication, we heavily enjoyed this scenario. Already having educated ourselves on the wonders of Beale Street, we headed right down to a bar called Silky O'Sullivans, which we had heard serves gallon-sized alcoholic drinks. Not thinking this to be possible, we entered the bar, looked at the menu and ordered two buckets (Matt & I shared one, while of course King got his own). Upon doing this, we were enthralled to watch two bartenders fill two yellow gallon buckets with a mixture of beer, wine and other liquors such as rum and grenadine. It sounds like a disgusting combination, but take it from all of us...delicious! I thought that it tasted like an alcoholic raspberry creamsicle, and nobody seemed to argue this fact. Each bucket came equipped with seven long straws, which we used to suck down the heavenly treat. Predictably, King did not find the straws effective enough, so he eventually picked up the entire bucket and began to chug. He wastes no time, people. Oh, and I almost failed to mention the best part about Memphis: the women! While not as impressive as the Nashville trim, Memphis was no slouch. Seriously, I find it extremely hard to believe that any part of this country can have prettier women than the South, which bodes well for where I'm moving next month. Silky O'Sullvans contained Southern Belles as far as the eyes could see, and I think that I almost broke my neck several times while admiring the view. There was also a bachelorette party in the house, and King and I decided that the bride-to-be was so gorgeous that we would commit murder to have her. The victim? Her fiancee, of course. Memphis rules.

5) Los Angeles

(No matter where you go in Los Angeles, you're reminded that you're in Hollywood)

They call Los Angeles the "City Of Angels." I didn't find it to be that, exactly. But I'll allow there are some nice folks there. 'Course I can't say I've seen London, and I ain't never been to France. And I ain't never seen no queen in her damned undies, so the feller says. But I'll tell you what - after seeing Los Angeles, and this here story I'm about to unfold, well, I guess I seen somethin' every bit as stupefyin' as you'd see in any of them other places. And in English, too. So I can die with a smile on my face, without feelin' like the good Lord gypped me. -- The Stranger, The Big Lebowski

I'd love to think I could one day be a big-time writer living in LA, but I honestly don't know if I see it. Like Holden Caulfield in "The Catcher in the Rye," Special Ed despises phonies and the City of Angels is filled to the rafters with them. It's kind of funny, I love movies more than anyone I know but I generally despise celebrities and would feel extremely uncomfortable interacting with them on a daily basis. This is probably because I've never had any money and a large sum of it would make me feel unbearably awkward. So can you live in LA without being a lowlife douchebag obsessed with money, power and fame? Probably, especially because one of our very own contributors to this blog lives out there and he is anything but a d-bag. Still, I can see this town consuming an outsider and turning them into something they're not, and that scares the living crap out of me. If I ever became a version of myself that I hated then I'd consider my life a colossal failure. But again, this is a list that celebrates potential cities to visit, not live in, so LA belongs right in the thick of this list. Considering the famous people that pollute the town live the life we all fantasize about, the glitz and glamor of LA is certainly appealing to average Joe tourists like you and me. Like I said, I love film, so I can appreciate the cinema history this town has to offer. Walking down Hollywood Boulevard checking out the stars on the Walk of Fame was pretty surreal for me, as was posing for photos on the steps of the Kodak Theater (which hosts the Academy Awards, and I am a HUGE Oscars nerd). You can drive through Beverly Hills to check out all the palatial mansions, head down to Venice to check out all the freaks and roided-out bodybuilders at Muscle Beach, hang out next to the ocean on Santa Monica Pier, get blasted at one of the many famous clubs in Hollywood, spend time getting lost for hours driving around in the Hollywood Hills, grab a meal and go shopping in Pasadena, go on a tour of one of the major studios in Studio City, see a baseball game at historic Dodger Stadium (or a college football game at the Rose Bowl or LA Coliseum, depending on the season), so on and so forth. Honestly, the Hoffbeast could probably give you a better rundown of things to do in Los Angeles since his handsome ass lives there. Two life-changing things for me that I experienced during my time in LA were 1) In-N-Out Burger, which obviously goes without saying, and 2) Seeing "Point Break Live," a re-enactment of the cult classic Point Break starring Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze. Easily one of the coolest live shows I've ever seen. Long story short: 90 percent of the people are total self-entitled scummy pieces of shit, but it's still a fantastic place to visit.

4) Tampa

(Downtown Tampa skyline at dusk)

Tampa! Yeaaaaah! Goodbye fucking shit school! See you fucking morons later, because I’m going to Tampa to suck some titties! -- Stevie Janowski, Eastbound & Down

I've only been to Tampa once, but what a trip it was. Sensing our college days were coming to an end, myself and my four best friends from college piled in Booch's Toyota Corolla and drove from New York to Tampa for our senior year's Spring Break. The destination seemed pretty obvious for five obsessive sports fans, we planned to take in multiple Phillies Spring Training games in nearby Clearwater, as well as be in town for the first two rounds of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, which the St. Pete Times Forum was hosting. It was about an 18-hour drive down to Tampa, but we loved every minute of the camaraderie. Listening to music, sucking back cigarettes and playing travel games like "Fuck, Marry, Kill," the five of us knew damn well that this would be the last trip the five of us would be taking together for a long time, so we promised ourselves that we'd live it up. And live it up did we ever. Tampa is one of those cities where sightseeing isn't really necessary; New York, Philly or Los Angeles Tampa is not. Rather, in Tampa, the only sights you need to see are showing the frozen drinks your liver. In four days, three nights, pretty much all we did was pour alcohol down our throats with reckless abandon. You'd think that would get old, but Tampa does it the right way. A large portion of the bars are outside, so you can sit with your frozen beverage whilst enjoying the gorgeous weather. Many of the outside establishments are right on the beach, so you've got a panoramic view of the Atlantic while you enjoy your dinner. Speaking of the beach, Tampa's got some of the most beautiful, sandiest beaches in all of Florida- way better than that overrated, overpriced murder trap also known as Miami. The two parts of town I spent most of my time in were Clearwater Beach and Ybor City; the former is a community right on the ocean (Frenchy's is definitely the best spot to hit there...try the grouper sandwich accompanied by a rum-runner), while the latter is more of a party district for a younger crowd (Adobe Gila's was the upstairs outdoor patio with about 37 different kinds of frozen drinks on tap, and the buffalo chicken quesadillas are to die for. If you walk right downstairs, below the bar is a killer smoke shop where you can purchase quality cigars for cheap prices, as well as imported cigarettes that almost make you happy that you're butchering your lungs). And as the quote above alludes to, Tampa is constantly voted as the city with the best strip clubs in America, with clubs like Mons Venus and 2001 Odyssey serving as standout establishments. Before you say, "Special Ed, endorsing strip clubs is sleazy, sexist and disgusting," save your breath. For starters, I don't even like them that much. I've been to maybe five in my life, some a lot more high class than others; no matter the case though, they don't appeal to me. I find strip clubs to be a colossal waste of money--if tossing your dollars away to support Miss Plastic's crystal meth habit, then by all means...I'd just prefer to stay at home to watch Internet porn. It's cheaper and the girls don't have to pretend to like me in those. Still though, I'm probably in the minority here; in fact, the Tampa strip clubs were referred to me by a female friend, who called the $20-30 lap dances "well worth it." As Stevie Janowski says, Fuckin' Taaaaaaaaaampa!

3) Alaska

(Commonplace scenery in the Land of the Midnight Sun)

No, man. Alaska, Alaska. I'm gonna be all the way out there, all the way fucking out there. Just on my own. You know, no fucking watch, no map, no axe, no nothing. Just be out there in it. You know, big mountains, rivers, sky, game. Just be out there in it, you know? In the wild. You're just living, man. You're just there, in that moment, in that special place and time. -- Into the Wild

Back on June 23, in Part III of this series, I posted a list of Top 10 American Hidden gems. Alaska checked in at No. 1 on the list, mainly because visiting Alaska was the first time I was ever exposed to the sheer natural beauty this country has to offer. When you're out there, the hustle and bustle of the big city seems like a million miles away. In its place are mountains, glaciers, wildlife, forests, rivers and everything else you don't get to see when growing up in a large metropolis. I visited Alaska almost 10 years ago and the trip has stuck to me like glue ever since. I can't wait for the day I get to go back and share that incredible experience with someone else. In case you missed what I said about Alaska in Part III, here's a refresher:

Never has a travel destination completely blown me away the way that Alaska did when I visited in the summer of 2002. I'm sure you've noticed in this post how I've been preaching natural beauty and shoving scenic landscape down everyone's throats--well, you can thank Alaska for that. A large portion of my mom's side of the family planned a cruise to Alaska eight years ago; to be honest, I was surprised that I was even invited. I was even more hesitant to accept the invitation, especially when I was told I'd need to pack winter clothes for a cruise that was taking place in July. I was a pretty big square in high school, and considering I was 16 and had nothing else to do, I joined my family in Alaska. Best decision I've ever made. We docked from Vancouver and traveled north up that southeastern Alaskan panhandle that borders Canada to the west, a region known as The Inside Passage because of its geographic friendliness to cruise ships. The first two days were so-so as we were at sea the whole time--a lot of mountains and a lot of water, but nothing that really took my breath away. Right when I began to regret my decision to come on the trip (I was longing for my Playstation and Nintendo 64), I saw my first glacier. Our ship drove directly into an inlet that dead-ended into a monstrous glacial behemoth...I don't remember what it was called because I was absolutely freezing my nuts off and thus paid little attention to detail, but it was magnificent nonetheless. I could have set up shop on one of the hills overlooking that glacier and lived there for the rest of my life. From there, we visited historic towns such as Skagway (population 862--my favorite spot on the entire trip) and Haines before kayaking in Juneau (Note: that is NOT me in the picture) and biking through the notoriously-rainy city of Ketchikan (average annual rainfall: 152 inches) on a gorgeous sunny day. It's funny that Alaska is the 49th American state, because you feel as if you're in a different world when visiting. Alaska is also the largest state in the union, covering a mammoth 663,267 square miles, which is almost three times the size of Texas; however, less than 700,000 people call Alaska home. Obviously a lot of that is due to the freezing climate that plagues the region for most of the year, but I look at it a different way. The way I see it, most of Alaska is completely untouched by the American population, and this is a good thing. Whenever a large amount of people descends on a particular area, they ruin it with shopping centers, mini-malls and housing developments. In my book, untouched = naturally beautiful, which is exactly what Alaska is. You just don't get that type of scenic landscape anywhere else. From the majestic glaciers to the cool mountain streams to the miles of endless forest to the spectacular wildlife, Alaska really does have it all. If you've got a Bucket List, add this place on to it because I really do believe a visit to Alaska will really change your perspective on life and the way you look at the world. Hell, it definitely did for me.

2) Key West

(Sunset over Mallory Square)

Key West. A place that brings to mind images of beaches, drinking, rumrunners, writers and a lifestyle like no place else in the United States. It is an island of enchantment and mystery that attracts people from all over the world. If you ever visited our island, you probably have a good idea why Key West is so desirable: sunshine all year long, great bars, funky shops, easy people and a party happening somewhere 24 hours a day. Add that to the fact that we are surrounded by warm waters with a living coral reef and your own hometown might not seem so exciting right now. -- First two paragraphs, "Quit Your Job and Move to Key West" by Christopher Shultz and David L. Sloan

Like Alaska, Key West was listed on my list of Top 10 hidden gems. They may seem like polar opposites climate wise, there really are no two places like them on Earth. Essentially, Key West is paradise. Like the above passage indicates, there's not much to do there aside from lay on the beach, drink a shit-ton of alcohol and get away from real-world problems like work and school and all that other bullshit. Thousands of vacationers flock to the Keys all year to forget about everything else, and it's hard to blame them for choosing Key West as a destination. When I was there in August of 2008, I got the Keys Fever and did not want to leave once my vacation time was up. Whether you fly directly into Key West or choose the smarter option of flying into Fort Lauderdale or Miami to drive the breathtaking 3-hour sojourn through the Keys is not important; all that matters is you get there, to, as Kenny Chesney sings, "Soak up life for awhile in laid-back boss, no clock, no stress, no dress code." I'm no travel agent, but I can give you a pretty good idea of what to do when you're in town: wake up early in the AM, grab breakfast at one of the many unique joints in town (one place, I forget the name, is an outdoor restaurant where stray chickens roam around, pecking at your feet as you eat your eggs), and then head over to Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, which houses the only beach on the island. After catching some rays on the beach (be sure to bring or rent snorkeling gear, because there's a lot of underwater sightseeing out by the jetty not far from shore), you can hop on a rented scooter and traverse from one end of Key West to the other (don't worry, it won't take you too long). If you're not feeling a scooter ride, amble over to Whitehead Street to check out the top tourist spot in town: Ernest Hemingway's House. The home, which the writer used to live in for about a decade in the 1940s and 50s, has been converted into a Hemingway museum and only costs $10 per adult visit--about a third of the cost to see Graceland. Unfortunately my dad and I were too busy drinking and carousing to go to the Hemingway House when we were in town two summers ago, but I plan on checking it out next time I visit. If you're allergic to cats, you may want to skip Hemingway's, because offspring of the stray cats that lived on site when Hemingway was alive continue to roam the grounds to this day. If you're allergic to cats, no problemo, because Duval Street substitutes limitless alcohol in place of a feline population. In my mind, Duval Street is the best thoroughfare in the world; if you don't have a drink in your hand then you're doing something wrong (and are probably in the minority). Duval is simpler than Beale Street in Memphis, and lacks the rancid garbage and shit-water stench that permeates Bourbon Street in New Orleans. The coolest thing about Duval Street (aside from the hundreds of bars, restaurants and shops) is that it stretches from one end of the town to other. You aren't truly inside Key West until Route 1 gives way to the north entrance to Duval...then, drive about a mile south and you'll hit water: the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Gulf of Mexico to the west. In terms of specific bars, places like Sloppy Joe's, Hog's Breath, Fat Tuesday and the Green Parrot are the most popular, but my favorite is (and always will be) the Lazy Gecko (next door to Sloppy Joe's), located toward the north end of Duval Street. Anybody that knows me well knows that one of my truest loves is the game of baseball, and the Gecko is any true baseball fan's Elysium. Started a couple of years ago by a transplant from Boston, they'll put on any baseball game you request as long as you ask nicely--and that it doesn't interfere with a Red Sox broadcast (don't worry, there's plenty of TVs in the place). Every day and night we were in Key West, my father and I stopped into the Lazy Gecko to watch the Phillies, sample the 12 flavors of frozen daiquiris, and take in some of the best live cover music in all of Key West. Feel free to punish your liver with alcohol as long as you allow yourself an hour of intermission time to take in the sunset in Mallory Square. My dad mentioned that Mallory Square was one of the best spots in the world to watch the sun go down, and I found out a little while later that he wasn't kidding. The square turns into a waterfront attraction at dusk, attracting all kinds of street performers--my personal favorite was the guy that balanced himself on a trapeze while juggling right above the Gulf of Mexico. Grab a drink and an order of conch fritters before staking out a spot on the water for the sunset, which is absolutely breathtaking and indescribable. Bottom line, you'll never find so much to do in such a little place. Look at all I discussed already and I haven't even mentioned the scuba diving excursions in the Gulf (you can go snorkeling like I did if you don't feel like getting scuba certified), the amazingly enormous pizzas at the Upper Crust or the one bar in town that allows you to walk around in your birthday suit--if you can find it. Key West is probably the one place I've only been to once that I want to visit the most a second time around. I've already been exposed to the wonders of paradise on earth but I still feel like I've yet to scratch the surface of Key West's brilliance. Hemingway may have been a raging, sloppy alcoholic drunk, but he got one thing right by living in Key West. The rest of us are just suckers.

1) Chicago

 (Welcome to the Friendly Confines)

This is my kind of town.
Chicago is,
My kind of town,Chicago is,
My kind of people, too;
People who smile at you,
And each time I roam, Chicago is,
Callin' me home, Chicago is,
One town that won't let you down;
It's my kind of town.

And each time I leave, Chicago is,
Tuggin' my sleeve, Chicago is,
The Wrigley Building,Chicago is,
The Union Stockyards, Chicago is,
One town that won't let you down;
It's my kind of town.
-- Frank Sinatra  

Those closest to me probably knew this was coming from the minute I decided to undertake a five-part American travel series. In fact, most of you are probably wondering why it's taken me so long to get to this place. Hey, I save the best for last. I've made no secret that Chicago is my absolute favorite city in the world where it's pretty much reached the "hallowed, sacred ground" status with me. The summer of 2010 is the first summer in five years that I've failed to visit the Windy City, though the fact that I was there for two nights in December for a job interview helps make up for it. I saw Chicago twice in 2009, none in 2010 and once for absolute certain in 2011. I just couldn't stay away for longer than one year, and the fact that I missed this summer has been absolutely gnawing away at my insides. You see, I'm a second generation Chicago devotee--my father, who I am A LOT like, also spent time every summer in Chicago as a young man. He would round up a group of buddies every year and fly out for a few days of drinking, drinking and more drinking. About a dozen or so years ago, for the first time, my dad took me in place of his friends. It was kind of rite of passage for me--I knew it was his favorite place because he'd always tell stories about it when I was growing up (most of them were R-rated versions that were most welcomed in my still PG-rated ears). A full decade later, I can say that I am proud to have inherited the Edward Morrone Chicago tradition. However, unlike the family patriarch, I never had to worry about organizing complicated summer trips with a group of semi-focused friends. Luckily for this guy, four of my very close friends are from Chi-town, so odds are there's always a bed for Special Ed to rest his red head (THAT was AWESOME).

Chicago and I will always have a special, special bond--mostly because of the fact that it is absolutely impossible NOT to have a good time here and partly because of the always debaucherous, often illegal shit I get into while in attendance. There's a lot to do in Chicago, but for me it's simple. Chicago represents a place that will always be my home away from home (unless of course one day I just don't leave, in which case it will just be my home). It represents drunken trips to the Wrigley Field bleachers, the best place in the world to watch a baseball game. (Doesn't it sort of speak volumes at how awesome the city of Chicago is in that Wrigley is the happiest place on Earth despite the face that the Cubs haven't won a World Series since 1908?) What else? Oh...Chicago represents Murphy's Bleachers and the Taste of Chicago Festival every summer; it represents 2 a.m. cookouts accompanied by unwavering friendship and camaraderie. It represents deep dish pizza and Old Style beer and spending countless amounts of dollars at the ubiquitous Wrigleyville bars that line Clark and Addison. Most importantly, it's a place that represents my youth, my future and my love for travel. Without Chicago, lists like this would never exist.

Hell, without Chicago, lists like this shouldn't exist, because any city at the top wouldn't be nearly as sweet.


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