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“Kevin Patrick and the Sights and Sounds of Social Geography” by Alex Retcofsky

Alex Retkofsky

I was feeling hung-over when I arrived at Hadley Union Building in the wee hours of Friday morning. Or was I still drunk? I’m still not quite sure.

A motley crew of students had assembled on the sidewalk near a gigantic white van. It was 7 a.m. on a gloomy morning and the sun had yet to show itself upon the campus, leaving the air cool and crisp, possibly the only thing keeping the 11 sleepy-eyed college students conscious. It was hard to believe that we were embarking on a journey to the beach on such a day in October.

Then our fearless leader appeared. Dr. Kevin Patrick moved briskly. I presume the cup of coffee he toted was not his first of the day.

“Glad you could make it, Alex!” trumpeted Dr. Patrick with a smile, slapping my shoulder with surprising strength. “That makes everyone. Let’s load up!”

Patrick hopped into the driver’s seat as the rest of the group loaded into the van like troops being evacuated from a hot zone. I hung back, wondering to myself if we were really all going to fit into this one vehicle to drive across Pennsylvania.

We tore out of the parking lot as I wedged myself into the last available seat. Our destination: Atlantic City, New Jersey. The trip was an elective part of a social geography class I was taking at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Patrick tended to be long-winded in class, and we were barely out of the Indiana limits before he started force-feeding the group information about the origins of the highways we were traveling on. I had yet to achieve a mindset capable of listening to such topics; I was dying of thirst and beginning to regret some of the previous night’s events.

After purchasing a cup of coffee and two Vitamin Waters at our first rest stop, I was feeling alert and ready for the next leg of our journey. I was able to pay attention and started to realize just how knowledgeable and passionate our aggressively driving professor-tour guide really is about his subject.

Hailing from the Deptford, N.J., on the outskirts of Camden, Patrick stayed close to home for his undergraduate studies, attending Glassboro State University, now known as Rowan University, in Glassboro, N.J. After earning his bachelor’s degree in geography, Patrick left the Camden area to see more of the world and pursue his master’s degree at the University of Illinois. He then earned his Ph.D. in geography at the University of North Carolina.

Degrees aside, prior to the trip, I discovered that Patrick has eaten hot dogs in more states than most people ever visit. Following the link to “Man bites dog” from his IUP homepage leads to a lengthy anthology of pictures of himself gorging on regional cuisine across the country, from Pittsburgh-style sandwiches to authentic Philly Cheese steaks to buffalo meatloaf in Yellowstone Park. His personal favorite, however, will always be hot dogs.
 
“The great American hot dog is great not because it is good,” he notes on his website, “but because the environment that surrounds it is great.”

After cruising along the Pa. Turnpike for hours, involuntarily learning such facts as the number of tunnels on the turnpike and the origins of each section of road, our van stormed into the intersection of Ninth Street and Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia. It was time for lunch at the home of the Philly Cheesesteak: Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks.

With some members of our group bedecked in Pittsburgh Penguins gear and our boisterous teacher proudly sharing the history of the intersection and the rivalry between the steak shops with anyone who would listen, our tour group stood out like Shaquille O’Neal in a kindergarten class. I ducked into a nearby bar after nervously wolfing down a Pat’s Steak in an effort to avoid the disapproving stares from the locals.
 
“F****** tourists,” someone muttered while I was standing in line.

From my seat, I witnessed Patrick get into an argument with Geno himself for making the cardinal sin of eating a Pat’s steak at a Geno’s table.

“I just bought one from you, too!” Patrick protested, to which Geno fired back with several obscenities and gestures one could expect from a Philadelphian.

“Well, we ate our steaks, we got some pictures and we made some enemies. Our work here is done,” said Patrick with a laugh, herding us back to our van.

After several exciting minutes of barreling through the streets of South Philly, we came to a halt in front of Independence Hall. In a bit of a rush, Patrick parked our van illegally on some sort of sidewalk and we all piled out for a quick photo, reasonably certain that tourists wouldn’t be cursed here.

We were wrong. As we were trying to escape our illegal parking space, Patrick missed my verbal warning of pedestrians directly behind the van and nearly turned an elderly man into road kill, much to the displeasure of the man’s entourage, who made sure we knew by giving us the same gesture we had received from Geno.

“I think we are in the hands of a lunatic,” I said to my friend, Nate, sitting next to me. “Is it always like this?”

“Yes,” he responded. “But, just roll with it and have fun. You’ll be amazed.”

We rolled into Atlantic City around mid-afternoon. The wind whipped at our clan as Patrick led us to the boardwalk, where we caught our first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean. We snapped photos while Patrick delivered a “brief” history of Atlantic City and its glory days, explaining that the city itself was the basis for the game of Monopoly.

“Every property on the Monopoly board is the name of a street that existed in Atlantic City,” explained Patrick. I had never realized before how quasi-racist Monopoly was until we ventured into the “cheap” properties, Baltic and Mediterranean avenues, traditionally all-black neighborhoods. As 11 Caucasian college students, we felt very out-of-place having our picture taken in front of a marker for “Club Harlem” while a man hitting a crack pipe watched.

As our tour of Monopoly properties continued, each lending to a detailed description from Patrick, I began to wonder how any one man can remember such an infinite amount of information. This is a man who has written many articles on various aspects of social geography, including two books entirely devoted to roadside diners. His wealth of knowledge on the strangest of topics continued to astound me as he led us to the foot of a gigantic metal fabricated elephant named Lucy, of which he knew its entire history.

I began to realize something about Kevin Patrick: he loves doing this. He loves every moment of sharing the geographical world through first-person experiences. The stuff you can’t get from books. This is what geography is all about to him.

“He makes learning fun,” said Dan Mock, a junior geography major. “I never feel like I’m actually sitting in a class when he’s teaching.”

We pulled up to the Atlantic City Hilton Casino Resort as the sun was beginning to set. We were divided into groups of four and assigned to rooms. We retired only briefly before being set loose on the boardwalk. Naturally, Patrick was an expert on the best places to eat.

We were awoken the next morning by the sound of Patrick knocking at our door. The entire crew assembled in the lobby a short while later, looking haggard from the previous night’s debauchery and quietly dreading a return to our crowded van’s uncomfortable confines.

The van smelled that morning. It had the sort of odor one would expect from a van full of 12 people, most of whom likely hadn’t showered since yesterday. We took advantage of every chance we had to stop and get out.

We were headed south to Wildwood, N.J., a town that I had never heard of. That, of course, all changed during the drive. Along the way, Patrick led us into a tiny fishing community nestled along a rickety boardwalk under the highway. It was hard to believe people actually lived year-round in these tiny shacks on a swamp. We struck up a conversation with the “town’s” oldest resident: Mama McKinley. Patrick bantered with the old woman about the town’s history and she shared stories of the dreaded “storm of ‘62” which destroyed a house or the “great fire” which also destroyed a house. Patrick posed for a quick picture with our colorful new friend and we were back on the road.

I witnessed a monster truck rally, complete with car-crushing and rednecks on the beach in Wildwood. The boardwalk in Wildwood was like something out of the mind of a hyperactive child, with arcades, exotic animals, amusement parks and loads of food. Our stay was brief, for we needed to continue to trek south along the shore to Cape May.

Killing time in Cape May before catching our ferry, Patrick showed us around the quaint town, highlighting the New Jersey Lighthouse. On the beach beneath the light, Patrick convinced two others and myself to roll up our pant-legs and step into the ocean with him, a bold move in October.

We rode the ferry across the bay to Delaware. As I stood at the very front of the boat watching the evening sun reflect off the water, taking in the salty air with the wind in my hair, I reflected on the experience I had just lived through. Patrick had shown me so much in only two days. I had made friends on the trip, taken some amazing pictures, and laughed until my sides hurt. It had been something more than just a field trip.

We arrived back at IUP around 1 a.m. Exhausted and happy to be home, we quickly unloaded and began to head our separate ways.

As I said good-bye to Dr. Patrick, I tried to sum up what I thought of the past two days,

“Thanks a lot Pat, that was one hell of an experience.”

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