Past South Street, we walked at a fast clip (regretting that we hadn’t cabbed it) through a gritty neighborhood, en route to our hot pretzels. When we arrived, the garage door was open, and the bready smell was so seductive, I expected to see it wafting out of the building. A guy named Chris, in a Phillies T-shirt and cap, offered us a quick tour. We got to see 19,000 machine-twisted dough pretzels in the freezer and the 13-minute path they take in the oven. Most are sold to street vendors and schools. Chris told us that you need a chemical to make the pretzels brown. “They don’t bake that color,” he said, “naturally.”
We took our bag of perfectly browned hot pretzels, hailed a cab and headed to our hotel. The cab driver was seduced by the pretzel smell, too. As we paid him, he shamelessly asked whether we had any leftovers. “Nope,” I said.
The next morning, we grabbed some morning brew and walked to Philadelphia’s tallest and newest tower, the Comcast Center. I wanted to see the lobby video wall, which is supposed to be the world’s largest LED screen. We stood there, transfixed, watching amazingly clear and artsy video snippets — from a space shuttle launch to a quirky bit that made it look as though people were climbing up the lobby wall. Then we spent a few moments feeling smug about being in an office building on a weekday and not having to work, while all the workers floated through security without a glance at the amazing screen.
Our next stop was the Free Library of Philadelphia, which offers a tour of its rare book collection every weekday at 11. The guide picked up a small brown clay piece that looked like a thick graham cracker: It was a 5,000-year-old cuneiform tablet. She said that the writing on it documented a trade of sheep for goats. Then she unfolded an ancient triptych that contained panels of an Egyptian papyrus leaf scroll. Leaning in to look at the plastic-covered pages of hieratic script, I found that they oddly resembled three flat screens. I felt a little embarrassed that in such a place I was thinking that this venerable piece looked like a Kindle.
We hopped onto the bus back to Old City, where we checked out the funky independent shops that line Third Street. There’s a vintage shop that sells by the pound (Sazz Vintage), a boutique with a custom line of men’s button-down shirts with vintage buttons (Franklin Square), and a cool clothing shop/gallery that has monthly exhibits on such eclectic things as surfboards and urban backyard chicken-raising (Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction).
Alas, the clock was ticking on our weekday pass. As we were packing up at the hotel, I looked out our 19th-floor window. Down below, the city bustled with workday activity. On the sidewalk, I saw a tiny awning covering an itty-bitty cart. And I laughed, thinking about our strange midnight adventure and wondering where the vendor bought his soft pretzels.
Kaplan is a freelance writer in Washington. Visit her Web site is www.melaniedgkaplan.com.