Snow was falling on Rochester as we made our preparations to leave. We sat in my car in the parking lot of a gas station off of I-90, on the precipice of a great adventure. It was the beginning of our spring break, and after four years of college, any expectation of a warm vacation had been eroded away. The four of us, Jamie, Stu, Rory and myself, would not be sunbathing on this trip; ours was a more serious endeavor.
Several months ago, we had all come to the conclusion that a change of venue was in order. Rochester was a tapped city. We knew the sites and sounds. We had winked at all the pretty girls. We wanted something new and exciting. There were no pesky job offers holding us back, (Jamie and Stu are illustrators, Rory is an animator, and I am, for all intents and purposes, a writer) and no girlfriends to settle down with.
It was the perfect setup for uprooting and making a new home in a new city. College was over and real life was just beginning. I had seen too many people go off into the world, chasing a job or love, only to find themselves alone in a big town with no one to talk to. So we made a decision: We would move together, find jobs, do freelance work, and make a name for ourselves.
But where was the question. America was stretched out in front of us, with urban freckles all over its bare chest. We would need to set out on a fact-finding mission to examine the shortlist of cities where we might possibly want to pitch our tent. After a few meetings and a couple of beers, we had drawn up an itinerary for the week: Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Richmond, and then back to Rochester. Six days, 1,500 miles.
In each city, we would get a feel for the local character, chat up some residents, scope out the nightlife, and take stock of the intangibles. They would be snapshots of the towns, first impressions.
And so, as I dug my key into the ignition, beneath the excitement of the gang, a silent tension lay buried beneath. We had embarked on a new journey. A roadtrip to the future.
- Population: 600,000
- Median Income: $51,688
- Cost of Living Index: 136 (High, U.S. Average is 100)
- Crime Index: 484 (U.S. Average is 321)
- Baseball Team: Red Sox
- Beer of Choice: Samuel Adams Boston Lager
Our first stop was Beantown. The ride into the city was surprisingly quick for a Friday night. We were all a little exhausted by the six hour drive, but seeing the skyline on the horizon lit a fire in our souls. Like Rochester, winter still hung in the air.
We took up lodging at my friend Pat’s apartment, a few blocks away from Fenway Park. After a round of introductions, we headed out to scope out the nightlife. Wrapped in our winter clothes, we marched from bar to bar, drinking in the atmosphere of New England. At sports bars, men in rugby shirts chatted up women wearing black North Face jackets. In hotel lobby bars, free form jazz junkies got red nosed and blew on saxophones. Jamie and Stu scribbled violently in their sketchbooks while Rory and I jotted down notes, everyone trying to capture this mad activity.
Eventually we found ourselves sitting in a booth at a tap house across the street from Fenway. The service was slow and the music was quiet, barely penetrating the din. It was a perfect place to talk. Jamie spoke up with a question that would be repeated throughout the trip: “Pat, sell us Boston.”
Pat chuckled for a second before responding. “Boston is the Athens of America,” he said with a dramatic flair. His description could have rivaled that of the city’s tourism board. Boston was a historic city, an expensive city, and a city with a vibrant character. He loved the town, despite being a native New Yorker.
The next day he gave us a walking tour. The grey skies and the crisp breeze reminded me of Rochester. Stu and Jamie deposited their business cards in coffee shops and I looked through the newspaper stands at the local publications.
By the end of the day, all of us had come to the same conclusion. Beantown was a nice place to visit, but it wasn’t what we were looking for. It wasn’t something that any of us could verbalize, just something we could feel.
- Population: 1,450,000
- Median Income: $36,976
- Cost of Living Index: 101 (Average, U.S. Average is 100)
- Crime Index: 665 (U.S. Average is 321)
- Baseball Team: Phillies
- Beer of Choice: Yuengling
The ride down I-95 took us straight through to the City of Brotherly Love. Our host for the night was Kristin, a friend of Jamie’s from high school. She lived in a small garden level studio in central Philly. It was a Sunday night, but Kristin was kind enough to bring us around to her favorite haunts.
It was a quiet night. The air was cold, but still. We were alone for the most part on the streets, with a few other Sunday night bar patrons wandering around. Central Philadelphia was home to one of America’s lost traditions: The corner bar. These little out of the way establishments were where Blue Collar America went after a hard day’s work.
The first of these holes in the wall consisted of little more than a short bar and a few tables made out of the floor of a bowling alley. The regulars paid little attention to us as we walked into their world. On a tip from Kristin, we all ordered a “Philadelphia Special.” The bar man handed us each a can of beer and a shot of whiskey.
After putting those away, we headed toward a wine bar a few blocks over. There we met one of Kristin’s friends, a bartender and drummer in a punk band. As it turned out, he was in a band called Piss Jeans, a Washington, D.C. group that Rory was a fan of. After talking to him about his tattoos (each of which didn’t mean anything), we asked him what we had asked Pat. “Sir, sell us Philadelphia.”
“Have you ever been to Chicago?” he replied. I had. “Well, it’s a lot like Chicago except four times smaller.” Whatever that meant.
We went back out into the night and strode over another few blocks to a joint called The Side Car. It was a long, thin establishment with low light and PBR on tap. Stu and I talked earnestly as Kristin looked on, both in confusion and amusement, at the transients that had appeared on her doorstep. Jamie and Rory chatted up the bartender, who, as it turned out, was also a drummer in a band. They posed the same question to him, and miraculously the answer came: “Have you ever been to Chicago?”
We woke up early the next morning on the hardwood floor of Kristin’s apartment. It was early and she had class to get to. We thanked her for her hospitality and decided it was time to see daytime Philly. When we got out to my car, it was alone on a street that had been full of parked cars the night before. A $76 souvenir from the city was stuck underneath my windshield wiper.
Philadelphia during the day was almost as quiet as it was at night. We walked around a bit, again examining the news stands and coffee shops, soaking in the sights. For a city that boasted 1.4 million residents, I couldn’t help feel an emptiness in its streets.
Following a quick visit to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, the four of us, unshowered and unshaved, climbed back in the car and set off again.
- Population: 640,000
- Median Income: $40,363
- Cost of Living Index: 95.5 (Average, U.S. Average is 100)
- Crime Index: 725 (U.S. Average is 321)
- Baseball Team: Orioles
- Beer of Choice: National Bohemian
Our third stop on the trip took us to a large farmhouse in rural Maryland. Stu’s aunt and uncle were kind enough to put us up for the night. They were empty nesters and seemed more than happy to have some youthful vagabonds eating in their kitchen.
Admittedly, they weren’t terribly familiar with the social scene in Baltimore, so they gave a call to their son, who pointed us in the direction of Fells Point, a district on the edge of the harbor.
When we arrived, we were greeted with a neighborhood that was right out of a 19th century sailing town. Cobblestone streets and aging row houses were lit warmly by street lamps and bar signs. The travelling had begun to take its toll on the group. We grabbed some coffee at a coffee shop on the water and asked the barista where to go for a beer.
She told us to go to a bar called Friends. Sadly, it had gone out of business two days earlier. Instead, we walked across the street and into a place called Todd Conner’s. There, we met a friendly bartender who had given up her life as a successful accountant to go into the restaurant business. I asked her the question and she told us. “This is a drinking town.” Baltimore was, according to her, a blue-collar city with friendly people that enjoyed a good pint at the pub. The weather was warm, crime kept to itself in the bad parts of town, and Washington, D.C. was only an hour away.
We went to a few other pubs that night, all little neighborhood bars with odd names like The Cat’s Eye and Bertha’s Dining Room. It felt like a kind of open air community that would spill out into the streets on a warm summer’s night.
The next morning, after a good night’s rest at Stu’s aunt and uncle’s, we headed back to Baltimore to walk around and grab lunch. After taking a closer look at the row houses we had seen the night before, I realized I had missed a detail. Just about every other house had a deck perched on top of it — the perfect place to sit out at night and watch the stars.
- Population: 200,000
- Median Income: $36,157
- Cost of Living Index: 90.7 (Low, U.S. Average is 100)
- Baseball Team: Richmond Braves (minor league)
- Beer of Choice: Mint Julep?
The last leg of the journey was a trip down to Richmond to meet up with Rory’s cousin, Chip, a graphic designer who lived in the area. Instead of doing a pub crawl, Chip drove us around the city giving us a professional tour. It was an impromptu set up, as we had called him up two hours before, just looking for some advice.
Richmond was a bit of a cultural shock for us, as it was the first truly southern city we’d been to. Civil War monuments to southern generals dotted the former Confederate capital. Antebellum row houses formed great walls along the sides of the city streets, punctuated by gothic revival mansions.
The four of us felt a little silly with our noses pressed up against the windows of Chip’s car, as we stared into the glowing Richmond night. It was a college town built around Virginia Commonwealth University, with cheap housing and a good nightlife, according to our guide. Chip also assured me that nobody would hold the fact that I was a Northerner against me.
Back to Rochester
When we finally got back to Rochester, it was time for a debriefing. After some discussion, we took Boston and Philadelphia off the table. Baltimore and Richmond both had what we were looking for, a change of scenery. The final decision has yet to be made, but whatever we do choose will be the next step in this adventure of life.
Statistics courtesy of http://city-data.com.