Hanging Out with Disappointed Tourists on Independence Mall

We love how gridlock brings people together.

The great thing about government shutdowns it that they bring people together. If you go to Independence Mall today—or any day for the foreseeable future—you’ll notice large groups of people standing around on the grass, talking to one another. How nice. These are people who came for the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, or the Independence Hall Visitor Center–all of which are closed. In fact, if you want to play a sadistic parlor game, go linger by the entrances of any one of these places, wait for unsuspecting tourists to pull fruitlessly at the doors, and then–preferably leaning against a wall, with a toothpick in your mouth–say, ‘Closed, pal.’

Herschel Johnson, a 54-year-old from San Diego who wears a handlebar mustache, is here with his family. He planned the vacation in May, and arrived yesterday. He knew the shutdown might come and watched with resignation as a key part of his Philly vacation went down the toilet. (Like many who were aware of the shutdown’s effect, he and his family came to the Mall anyway, perhaps out of irrational optimism. Or aimlessness and boredom.) “We’re going to walk around and see what we can,” he said. “There’s not a whole lot we can do.”

When I ask him whom he holds responsible, he starts ecumenical, casting a pox on both houses of Congress. Soon enough, though, he starts criticizing the House of Representatives for their fixation on messing with Obamacare—which, by the way, launches today in earnest. Johnson also represents the sucking sound Philadelphia’s economy is hearing right now: He had initially planned to stay in town one more day. Now he’s going to go to New York.

The other nice thing about a government shutdown? Getting to watch foreigners contemplate the profound weirdness of the U.S. government. Phoebe Shek is a 19-year-old from Beijing who speaks flawless English. She is here with a large group of people I find standing smack in the middle of the Mall. She tells me that after she explained to some group members what was going on, “They’re like, uh, China’s so not going to do that.” Correct. China is not going to do that.

But while it’s true that dictatorships don’t usually doom themselves for no reason—there are no minority parties around to act like children—the imperfections of America’s system also bring into relief the advantages of democracy and the free market. Shek admits that the shutdown is weird, but also makes the point that because the U.S. is so much less dependent on its government, the stakes are lower when the the political system self-destructs.

Ed Amador, an 81-year-old Warrington Township man who defected from Cuba in 1961, was here to show his brother, a current Cuban resident, “the birthplace of liberty.” It didn’t occur to him that the shutdown, which he’d followed a little bit in the news, would be affecting Independence Mall. He was disappointed but level-headed. “I believe that a politician is a necessary evil. Otherwise, you have what you have in Cuba.” Which brings us back full circle, since a lot of people believe a socialistic government program is what got us in this mess in the first place.

At least a couple area sites are open today. Yesterday, City Paper noted the irony of a Tea Party revolt that shutters one of the hallowed icons of its movement. By the same token, the privately-run National Constitution Center will reap the benefits of a gridlocked Congress the founders surely wouldn’t have endorsed. By the way, if you’re a tourist stuck on the Mall and looking for something to do—like watch a more functioning branch of the government in action—Philadelphia’s federal courthouse is right around the corner. “As far as I know, the U.S. justice system is still open,” said a court marshal inside. God bless America.