In December 2007, nine days before Christmas, I stepped off a plane still glistening with Midwestern frost onto Philadelphia soil for the second time in my life. The first time had been a month earlier, and the visit had only lasted 24 hours, just long enough to interview for the position that would, I told myself, bring a much-needed series of new starts: new job, new apartment, new city, new region, new life chapter, etc. I was 28 and single and ready to leave Indiana, where I’d been living for three years, even if it meant moving to a city people universally described as “gritty,” as if the extent of the collective understanding of Philly came from a Rocky montage. Which it basically did.
None of this mattered to me. I was so ready for change that when I landed the Philly job, I barely blinked when my new bosses demanded that I start the week before Christmas. Virtually every other employee would be off on vacation until after the New Year, but I’d spend two days with my family in my Tennessee hometown and then be back in Philly bright and early on the 26th. The movers promised to bring my stuff that day, and my sister Jenny volunteered to fly back with me, help me settle in.
And so the third time I landed in Philadelphia, it was on Christmas night, and it was for good.
Jenny and I hailed a cab that silent night for my new place at 21st and Chestnut, which was your typical Philly walk-up, red-brick and slender. I was in a one-bedroom on the top floor that had good light, good closets, and linoleum floors designed to look like parquet. We settled on our double air mattress and put Love Actually on the laptop, and all was well until a little after midnight, when the mattress sprang a leak and began a slow deflation toward the faux parquet. In retrospect, this seems like a metaphor for the days to come.
A lot happened that first week in Philadelphia, but first, let’s talk about what didn’t: The movers did not show up on the 26th. Or the 27th. Or the 28th. Jenny waited in vain in an empty apartment, reading; I sat in my empty office, fretting. I had too much time to think: Where was my stuff? Would I like this job? This city? What had I done? At the end of our respectively pointless days, we’d go for walks around a twinkling Center City, Jenny soothing my nerves by marveling at the endless takeout options I had near me, and how I could walk—walk!—to the bookstore and cheese shop and to work. This helped. But back in the apartment, with Jenny lulled to sleep by the slow hiss of air against rubber, I resumed and expanded my worrying.
It sounds very dramatic, I know, but those days weren’t all angst: When I wasn’t somewhere panicking, I was experiencing rites of Philly passage. I spent my entire week’s grocery budget on good cheese at Di Bruno’s. I cursed a SEPTA bus that almost took my toes. I ate my first Italian hoagie.
My little apartment was right next door to Primo Hoagies, which is how I met my first neighbor, Robert, a go-getter from South Philly who’d worked for years in construction before taking a delivery job at Primo. Every morning, early, he’d set up a fold-out chair in front of the shop and settle in until business picked up. It’s no exaggeration to say that he knew—and greeted—every single person who passed. The day after Jenny and I met him, we’d already leapt beyond a first-name basis into nicknames: “Hey Chris, hey Jen, yew goin’ for anuder wak?”
There would, in later days, be other neighborhood friends, people I came to think of as my Law & Order characters—you know, those busy, colorful neighbors who, should I ever go missing, would be able to talk to the cops about my usual patterns. If you haven’t noticed, Philadelphia is a city just brimming with Law & Order characters. There’d be Francis, the salon owner on the first floor of my building who’d pause mid-cut to come out and crack jokes about the parade of men I brought upstairs. (There were no men.) And George, the charming itinerant who hung out on my curb and complimented my fashion choices.
But in those first days, Philadelphia was, for me, just an empty office, hoagies, Robert and Jenny. And then Jenny had to leave—coincidentally, just hours after the movers finally came. That night, alone with my boxes, I put Love Actually back on to keep myself from questioning the life choices that had, just like that, turned me into a Philadelphian.
Let’s don’t kid ourselves: I wasn’t a Philadelphian. Not then. Not really. To be a real Philadelphian, you have to not feel even a little silly saying the word “Wawa.” Also, you have to know what a Shorti is, and like it. You have to care about the Eagles, and be acquainted with at least one Mummer and say “state store” when you mean “liquor store” and never, ever go to the public beach without a beach tag that you had to pay for. Being a Philadelphian means that you know better than to wear stilettos in Old City (f’ing cobblestones) and can spell S-C-H-U-Y-L-K-I-L-L in your sleep, and that you won’t do Pat’s or Geno’s if you can get Jim’s or Cosmi’s or Lee’s instead. It means you probably have at least one good story to tell involving Ed Rendell or John Bolaris or Krimpets or the Broad Street line, and possibly one good story involving all four.
I have lived here five years now. And while not all of these things apply to me, enough do that I consider myself a Philadelphian. Or at least far enough along in the process of becoming a Philadelphian that I can be honest: When natives deem Philly a “complex city,” it irritates me. It seems like just another way for this insidery city to keep an outsider out: You obviously can’t understand us. “Look,” I want to say, “there are thousands and thousands of people moving to Philly—70,000 in 2010 alone—and we all get you just fine.”
But if I’m being totally honest, I also have to admit that to be a Philadelphian—to be shaped by and tied to this place, with all its bright spots and its baggage—pretty much comes down to love. And love is complex.