Why We Love Philly: Being a Philadelphian

We love it. We hate it. We wouldn’t live anywhere else.

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.

“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.

Here are the things I wonder about: When we have children, will they have the accent? Will they think beach tags are normal? Will they even know what a hush puppy is? Will they care, to a bizarre degree, about local radio and TV personalities? Will they have gone to school or camp or both with half the city by the time they’re 17? Will they know every back road, like my husband does, between the airport and King of Prussia? Will they say Passyunk or Pashunk? And so forth.

Some of this train of thought feels a little more bitter than sweet sometimes, but I comfort myself by knowing that at least my children will, unlike me, have a birthright to this town, which is something that matters a lot here. It’s like a secret handshake between the natives: Where you grow up/attend elementary school/have your first boy-girl dance is shorthand for an entire upbringing.

Philly, Kirsten admits, is all about who knows whom, and how: “If you know someone went to such-and-such high school or grew up in Lower Merion, you can sort of ‘know’ them before you know them. I find myself doing that all the time, and I kind of hate it, but oh well.” It’s been that way forever. There’s the old Mark Twainism: “In Boston they ask, how much does he know? In New York, how much is he worth? In Philadelphia, who were his parents?”

On the flip side, it sure can be cozy sometimes, in a way that people from cities that don’t have secret handshakes probably can’t understand. Call it parochial (nearly everyone does), but I think it comes back to the way Philadelphia is built—as a series of neighborhoods, sometimes even in a series of literally connected twins and rowhomes, that create a tie that binds.

“When my best friend Ricky Benz moved to Cinnaminson when I was 10, it felt like he was moving to Kentucky,” Michael recalls. “I never saw him again—to my parents, he might as well as moved to Kentucky. If it wasn’t on your block, it wasn’t.”

So little Ricky was lost to history, but Michael’s family remains tethered to the house he grew up in, an exceedingly devoted crew, what with the Sunday Eagles games and too many gatherings throughout the year to even keep track of. “I’m just not sure that would have happened if we had lived somewhere else, somewhere more cosmopolitan, like California,” he mulls. “My friends who did grow up elsewhere step into my family orbit and are amazed at the tightness.”

Of course, people everywhere have family, and lots of those people have close ones, but I still think he’s onto something. First, I have never met so many people in one city who have so many cousins within spitting distance—and I am from the South. Second, we’re not just talking blood relatives: There’s a familial closeness here that seems to spill out of people’s front doors and onto their sidewalks and blocks and into the neighborhood. It’s what I think people conjure up when they talk about small-town America, but ramped up a few notches because of all the passion. Philly’s like “one big Italian family,” as one friend put it. That seems right. There’s certainly a lot of red sauce. Or gravy, I mean.

But as with any big Italian family, unless you’re born into it or have been there for a good long time, it can be a little hard to work your way inside. And as someone who has pride in her own roots but pays the same taxes, worries over the same problems and tries to contribute to the same solutions here, that ancient but lingering attitude that one must be from here to be of here is fairly galling. I once got into an argument with a longtime Philadelphian at a dinner party after casually suggesting that our city’s tolerance for nepotism and political dynasties seems to run rather high.

“That is the way it has always been,” she said. “It works for us.”

“Maybe things could work better with some fresh blood,” I replied.

“Maybe you should find somewhere else to live if you don’t like the way we
do things,” she retorted.

But the benefit of those moments, where you occasionally feel like you’re still on the cusp of full citizenship, is the ability to retain a sort of dual identity when it serves your purpose. You can easily say to your husband, for instance, that “You people are psychotic with your incessant honking,” while you can chirp to your guests that “Yes, we really do have an amazing local beer scene, don’t we?” You Philadelphians sure are obnoxious on I-76, but man, do we do a good Italian hoagie.

Speaking of hoagies: You can’t talk about becoming a Philadelphian without at least mentioning Ed Rendell. He’s from New York, but managed to become more than just a beloved mayor and well-reputed governor: He became the proud, sandwich-eating, loudmouthed, warm, funny, confident, passionate, sports-obsessed emblem of Philadelphia. Our sort of modern-day Ben Franklin. Who also wasn’t a Philly native.

Will the new folks now pouring into the city every month become true Philadelphians? Or will they, by sheer number, change what it means to be a Philadelphian? I’m not sure it matters. There are varying paths to becoming a Philadelphian; it’s been done millions of times over. If anything stops me, it’s not Philadelphia, with its wonderful old buildings and hewgies and amazing parks … or even its tiresome insistence on because it’s how we’ve always done it. If anything could stop me from becoming a Philadelphian, it would be me, and that sort of mythical, cinematic beauty your old home suddenly takes on the moment you leave it (Oh, the hills! The rivers! The sweet plucking of the Tennessee Waltz on the dulcimer!), which is a rarely discussed symptom of any transfer of citizenship.

But at those times when I feel those pangs, as adrift as I was that first week on Chestnut Street, I go back to what worked then: walking around the city. I’ll take the long way home from work, swinging past the glittering Comcast Tower and the gold dome of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, and then along the majestic Parkway that still takes my breath away. I’ll wind my way through archways of trees and down narrow veins of streets I am so proud to call my neighborhood, my neighbors’ houses glowing from within. And I end up happy again, inside the slender red-brick building where my husband and my heart are. I’m home.

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