Why We Love Philly: Being a Philadelphian
“Philadelphians are all about passion,” my friend Kirsten says. I have always thought of Kirsten as a sort of quintessential Philadelphian, and not just because she grew up in the Northeast and has the corresponding command of local geography and pronunciations that comes with that. She possesses a certain Philly je ne sais quoi, that distinctive mix of street smarts and sarcasm that’s softened by openness, a quick laugh, and a lack of pretension. She also has a true Philadelphian’s gift for talking about the city the way you’d talk about that one brother who just can’t get his act together, with exasperated, irritated fondness.
“We have opinions and are interested in what’s going on around us,” she says. “Some people here might punch you in the face if you look at them sideways, but in general, people are warm. Of course, warm can end up as hotheaded, which happens.”
One thing any Southerner can understand is warmth, which might be why I ended up taking to Philly much faster than I could have imagined. Robert and Francis and George were warm and also exceptionally neighborly, and I think this is true of a lot of Philadelphians, because Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods. And how quickly I grew to love all the neighborhoods! I couldn’t get over how they’d change into wholly different worlds on a block-to-block basis, stately Colonial rowhomes full of old money on one side of the street and a tattoo parlor teeming with punk hipsters on the other. “Look at this,” I’d tell my visitors—and I had 17 visitors that first year—“you can see the exact block where Old City becomes Society Hill becomes Queen Village.” My friends took to calling my signature walking tours of Philadelphia “the death march,” but that’s just another part of being a Philadelphian: You do a lot of walking.
That the history of Philadelphia is the history of America really speeds up the whole citizen-city bonding process. Being naturally inclined toward both patriotism and schmaltz, I found many of my new surroundings more than just moving. They were mine. I could lay claim to Independence Hall simply as an American in a way I never could have with, say, the Arch or the Alamo. Two months in, I was already feeling sorry for people whose cities didn’t have the historic gravitas of Philadelphia. I mean, sure, the Brooklyn Bridge is iconic, but one time I stood in the Philosophical Society just four inches from Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten draft of the Declaration of Independence, with scribbled edits in the margins. The Declaration of Independence. Hear that, New York? Yeah.
Can we talk about the trash-talking? My brother-in-law Seth, who has lived in the suburbs of Philly for his entire life, characterizes his fellow Philadelphians as “proud, and totally unapologetic of their pride,” which might explain why every sports fan in this town seems so quick—and so good—with a jab. It’s because they mean it, and they mean it with their whole being. That stupid snowball thing everyone throws back in Philly’s face? It’s not just old; it misses the point entirely. The point, everybody, is the pride. And the passion. The hometown team is more than just the hometown team here; caring about them is as much a part of Philly life as complaining about the traffic on the Schuylkill.
Take my friend Michael, another quintessential Philly type who grew up in the Northeast, who has a weekly date with all his brothers and nephews at his mom’s house to watch the Eagles. “Not everyone goes every week,” he allows, “but the comfort is in knowing you can, that it will be there, that you will walk in and Mom will have terrible junk food and will order hoagies and will sit in her rocker and bitch about the coach. She did it when Mike McCormack was the coach in 1973, and she’s still bitching today.”
I did not have Eagles Sundays, nor did I grow up with the radio broadcast of Phils games as a soundtrack to my childhood. But I did have October 2008. I hadn’t agonized for years, as so many Philadelphians had, over this team’s repeated (and repeated and repeated) disappointments, but that month, longevity didn’t matter. That year, the Phils felt like everyone’s team, transplants and natives and even visitors shoulder-to-shoulder, falling in love with Chase and Jimmy and Ryan and Carlos, and shrugging off worries over a month of bar bills and hangovers and sleep deprivation and work the next day. Out past midnight on Broad Street, I felt the passion, too, bear-hugging strangers like it was V-E Day, all because we had a city and a winning team in common.
Two weeks after that World Series win, I would meet the man who would become my husband, and this whole Philly infatuation would go beyond just feelings. It’s fair to say that right up until I had a reason to stay here, I didn’t think I would stay here. Not because I didn’t feel the love, but because I wasn’t looking for commitment. I had moved from Nashville to Bloomington, Indiana, from there to Chicago, from there to Indianapolis, from there to Philly. Nothing was permanent except for this: Nashville would be my home, and everywhere else just a place I lived for a while. But that changed at the Black Sheep bar at 17th and Latimer, over beers with a man who grew up here, who owned a business here, who had his entire family here—three brothers, two sisters, two parents, three nieces and four nephews. When I fell for him, that cliché you always see cross-stitched on throw pillows—Home Is Where the Heart Is—took on entirely new meaning.
We made it legal in October 2011, in Nashville, which is just beautiful in the fall. We had fried chicken, and my oldest childhood friend, Leisha, read from the Book of Ruth: For whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.
There, in my own beautiful city, it hit me again that I wasn’t just marrying a Philadelphian; I was marrying Philadelphia. And all that went with it. From this day forward.