Boobirds of Happiness
A first draft of this story was sent to my two sons. One didn't respond, too busy with his movie. The other, a writer and trusted editor, e-mailed back: “Thanks for the article, Dad. I liked it. I made some edits, as you can see. Personally, it helped clear up a few things. I always thought you fucked up my life because you were raised in an orphanage. Now I know it's because the orphanage was in Philadelphia.”
At the start of this new century, Philly was taint, taint being street lingo for the perineum—t'aint vagina, t'aint rectum, it's TAINT. T'aint New York, t'aint Washington, it's Filthydelphia. Taint. Growing up on the fleshy reeky patch between erogenous zones can twist a young mind like a pretzel.
Not that pretzels are all that bad. Everyone needs an identity, no matter how salty or unhealthy. But identities are fragile things. And all this talk about New Philly, Great Philly, National Treasure Philly, well, it tends to mess with the mind. It may be too much mustard for some of us.
We liked it when outsiders feared us. When they stayed away because we were not exactly a polite people. It wasn't a high priority, cuz. Honesty trumps niceness. You trot an unconvincing, unkempt neophyte Father Christmas before a frigid crowd in the City of B. Love during halftime, and you get an instant assessment. Pelt the sonuvabitch with snowballs! If it's blind acceptance you seek, send your pixilated St. Nicholas to St. Louis, where they'll cheer any schmuck in a red uniform. Outsiders may consider the Philly Faithful heartless, but the infidels lack a sense of dark humor.
Philly's image was always a comfort to anyone raised on Tastykakes and shame. It was a place of AIDS, corrupt cops, blue-blood barristers, Hall, dead shrinks, unsalvageable ghettos, Oates, cold cases, mouthy athletes, strange accents, Pete Dexter tragedies, Joe Queenan comedies, and Cheez Whiz–dripping fans so rabid that an on-site criminal court was gaveled into action at every home game, even when the friggin' Iggles were winning.
My kind of town. Where reputation was reality. Belligerent, chauvinistic, parochial. If a person selling you a cup of coffee throws in “Have a nice day,” you tell her to go back to Harrisburg. Philadelphians don't want good days shoved down their throats. We are more philosophical. We know some days you eat the cabagol, and some days the cabagol eats you. Life just be's like that, yo.
When I met my wife, she was studying psychology at Hahnemann. Therapists from other cities have a special challenge when treating Philadelphians. They don't understand that we have our own patois and history, our own neuroses and tics, our own way of being. How could a foreigner know if a patient was clinically depressed or just fifth-generation Fishtown? How could they know whether to prescribe Prozac or prohibit a Phillies subscription package? If Freud wanted his patients to blossom into normal miserable humans, perhaps therapists in Philly should be content with turning out grumpy semi-paranoid pricks who still see Frank Rizzo in their dreams but can actually make it to sessions on time and refrain from booing any and all advice.
FOR AS LONG AS anyone can recall, Philadelphians were generally unhappy, and mildly happy about being generally unhappy. Then something happened. Something big: 9/11. It changed everything. As callous, morbid and downright creepy as it might sound, the city benefited enormously from the national tragedy. Explosions to the north and the south and the west left Philadelphia unscathed, glowing. All dangerousness was drained. The unintended consequence of being an insignificant city (or a lucky place) was the transformation of Philadelphia into a sanctuary. The taint was suddenly the place to be, cuz. T'aint this target, t'aint that target, it's just the taint, the quaint taint, fortuitously floating under terrorist radar, conveniently located between two bull's-eyes.
Philadelphia was finally seen by Americans for what it had been all along: close enough to anywhere, and far enough from everywhere.
Visiting Philadelphia became an oddly patriotic act. Tourism rose from 6.3 million people in 2000 to 8.3 million in 2004. More people saw the Liberty Bell last year than Yosemite National Park. Ground zero remained too raw, too anxiety-provoking, for many; a crater that needed filling, a chasm in the American psyche. In the months and years after 9/11, every time a politician uttered the words “democracy” or “liberty”—most often referring to Iraq, which had its own peculiar visitation spike—he was subliminally advertising Philadelphia, the cradle of that liberty. Every time the President stuttered the word “Constitution” in connection with the Patriot Act or tortured prisoners or domestic wiretaps, it was a plug for Philadelphia, the birthplace of that revered document.
Traipsing through Old City was part of the national therapy. Regardless of cuisine, Philly restaurants were serving up comfort food. Cheesesteaks tasted like Norman Rockwell paintings. Betsy Ross was the girl across the aisle in elementary school. Citizens went from Constitution Hall straight to Home Depot.
Philadelphia's authenticity was enthralling. It became the throwback city, like a primo Mitchell & Ness jersey; something nostalgic, something uplifting, something from a better time, when everything had meaning, when loyalty was extant, when the bottom line didn't start with a dollar sign.
America was down so low that Philly looked like up.
Within two years after 9/11, Negadelphia had become Chilladelphia, a.k.a. Illadelph, a.k.a. Funkydelphia. Dig it. Philly got down. A bistro here. A mural there. A garden down the corner, a school around the block. It was revivify or die. So they painted parking lots and put up a paradise, oooo-la-la-la-la. All the little acts seemed to add up to something important. When the country needed Philadelphia, Philadelphia was ready. Philly was cool. Philly was wired, wi-fi, way-out. And that's when all the good news devolved into bad news for the old bloods, the dyed-in-the-woolers, the doubting Thomases and Cassandras. Indigenous Philadelphians were indignant. Too much mustard ruins the pretzel. Cracks in the city's identity appeared, as real and irreparable as in its bell. All these cockeyed optimists were trying to drain the misery out of our comfort zone.
When Philadelphia was declared the “next great city” by National Geographic Traveler , people started looking funny at each other on the street. They talking about us? And when an upcoming PBS series called Edens Lost & Found hails Philly as a wondrous oasis of clean water and the most artistic rejuvenation in the land, all hell will break loose. Pretty nails will be banged into the coffin. Edens producer Harry Wiland says, flat-out, “If I were 25 and a social activist or an entrepreneur or an architect, I would move to Philadelphia. It is the most hopeful place in America. It is small enough, concentrated enough and positive enough to get anything done. Northern Liberties is astounding.”
Blah, blah, blah. Words are cheap. The producer won't be moving from sunny Los Angeles to slushy Philadelphia anytime soon. And we will talk only to locals, for surely the outsiders have been tricked by some fancy housekeeping and colorful murals.
“We all woke up one morning, my friends and me, and we thought, Holy shit, we're cooler than New York.” This is Joey Sweeney speaking, gadfly and gadabout, alt-rock critic, co-founder of Philebrity.com, and former lead singer of the more or less disbanded Trouble With Sweeney. “For the longest time, we were hopers against hope. A very macabre pragmatism, an Irish temperament, extended all across the city. Our Achilles heel was our thin skin. Then everything changed, sometime between 2001 and 2003—economically, philosophically, sociologically. Musicians who never had a bank account were buying fucking houses. Fishtown thought it was Laurel Canyon in the '70s. Indie bands were gaining recognition. No Hooters or Teddy P. [Pendergrass], but that's good. We don't fly our Pink flag too high.
“Philadelphia is where's it's at. Did I just say that?”
You did. He did. That's the trouble with Sweeney, and all his Gen X, Y & Z'ers—they're rebelling against old-school Philly funk, disowning their proud heritage of kvetching, latching onto this way-wicked coolness while chugalugging all their nuevo home-brew intoxicants.
Bad news indeed for Rolling Rockers.
Dogs don't like to be favorites. Too much pressure. High expectations tend to tighten the collar, induce choking. Ask any bookie. The comfort of low self-esteem and a loud feckless bark are hard to jettison. Ask any bettor. While folks are riding the crest of positivism, they secretly suspect—hope?—it's all a fluke, that something will break the wave, return us to the lovely placid days of self-loathing. Hey, what's a National Geographic Traveler anyway? Don't they go round the world with Leicas looking for floppy brown breasts and baby snow leopards? Anyone ever quote that rag before this happened? What do they know about taking your kids to the Mummers on the coldest day of winter with the worst hangover of the year? They ever try to see a movie in Center City? No. 'Cause there ain't any. And what does PBS know about our fair city? Some statistics and Susanna Foo? They ever sit in traffic on the Schoolkill on their way downashore and read about Mare Shtreet everyday in the lousy Inkwire ? No. Do they have to drink Phillyffya wudder? Ha!
They simply see a city located in a state of grace. No New Orleans floods, no L.A. earthquakes, no Texas border fights, no Chicago wind or fire, no Mount St. Helens volcanos, no Vegas debauchery, no Detroit crime, no New England rains, no Florida hurricanes, no New York prices, no D.C. scandals—and no Bush in charge of anything. Philadelphia must seem like the coolest and safest city in America. Damn. Yo. How's a Philadelphian supposed to unscramble all these mixed messages and crossed signals? How's a homeboy to square the old downward dog with the new mad props?
Turn to Stephen Berg. Who's Stephen Berg? Only the founder of the American Poetry Review , which has been headquartered here for 33 years, and has subscribers in 55 countries. Berg himself is a master of the prose poem and author of X= , about which one critic wrote, “I can't recall any work (not even Notes from the Underground) given over more to such fierce concentration on and exploration of the self—the wounded, frightened, frantic self.”
Who better to unscramble the complexities of the human heart, to give expression to the subterranean streams of the city's psyche?
“Real estate!” exclaims Berg. “Philadelphians are high on being Philadelphians because of the real estate market. It's amazing! Fifteen years ago, it was so undervalued, so severely undervalued, and so severely underdeveloped, that it just took off. I think buying low helped change the image and self-image of the city. It's crass, but it's all about money. I hope you don't rent. I hope you bought. Where do you live?”
As the world-class poet starts quoting prices of places on Fitler Square and Society Hill, all giddy with numbers, you wonder if soaring property values are circumscribed to downtown. Chuck Whitacre Jr. evaluates properties from his Castor Avenue office. “Craziest time ever, no question. I'm talking Somerton, Fox Chase, Rhawnhurst, Bucks, it doesn't matter where. Craziness. Even houses in so-called depressed areas have shown a substantial profit over the last two years, even if you did nothing to the structure, no improvements whatsoever. I think it's stabilized now. Where could prices go? New York?”
New York. Two little woids. New York. Showstoppers.
Being a Philadelphian is not a self–conscious act, or even something one is aware of; it is as natural as breathing, or hating New York. It is neither a burden nor a source of pride until it is questioned or threatened, and then it is both. New Yorkers are much more aware of their New Yorkness and much more prone to frequent and foolish self-promotion, proving that New Yorkers are clinically insecure, for they have no reason to be insecure at all. Philly has good reason: New York.
Constant comparisons are inexorable, execrable; having the King Kong of cities a mere hundred miles to the north is like having a big brother in the upper bunk who composes short stories like Salinger, show tunes like Sondheim, and canvases like Jean-Michel Basquiat, and then puts out a few fires on the weekend and rushes home to cook Sunday dinner like Mario Batali. Fuhggedaboudit.
Used to be that the most ambitious locals had to shuffle off to Gotham to test their mettle. When my kid brother showed a flair for acting, the director of the Abbey Theater on Rising Sun Avenue told our poor mom that he should study in New York, that Philly had nothing to offer a budding thespian. Taint Broadway, taint Hollywood. So 15-year-old brother Lee took the train every Saturday to the Circle in the Square in Greenwich Village. That was then, this is Hipadelphia. Technology and culture have made that trip unnecessary, perhaps gauche, surely uncool. You can stay home and light up your world, albeit with a limited wattage. Philadelphia fame is Roots fame: dug by peers and aficionados, not Oprah mass minions. You won't sell magazines or your soul. But you sleep at night. Or by day.
When the New York Times ran an article last summer that called Philadelphia the “sixth borough,” the dovecote was fluttered and the feathers flew from Feasterville to Bryn Mawr. Flattering as the gist of the article was—that more and more people prefer living in Philly and commuting to work in Manhattan—it was undermined by the headline “Philadelphia Story: The Next Borough” and demolished by a single sentence: “Philadelphians occasionally refer to their city—somewhat deprecatingly—as the sixth borough of New York, and with almost 8,000 commuters making the 75-minute train ride between the cities each weekday, the label seems not far off the mark.”
Philly Mag's own Jessica Pressler wrote the article, and should have known better. Philadelphians who would refer to Philadelphia as the sixth borough in the company of fellow Philadelphians would very shortly thereafter be ex-Philadelphians, as they would be ex-sentient beings, as they would be instantly elided from the planet.
QUESTIONS ARISE: Is extravagant self–confidence all good? Can't change be a dangerous thing? You don't slip into new identity as smoothly as a Victoria's Secret satin robe. Internal tidal waves can cause their own brand of destruction. After feeling like a taint your whole life, winning popularity contests might throw you into a dither, provoke anxiety attacks, create chaos enough that you want to sabotage your own success: drugs, depression, old-fashioned failure. Cooladelphia has to guard against tripping over itself, by accident on purpose. While pitfalls abound, the easiest path to public embarrassment would be to vie for the Olympics. (Like this one was such a doozy.)
How many Philadelphians would applaud all that money spent to gussy up the old town for foreigners and traffic snarls and endless inconvenience? In addition to the traditional five interlocking circles, the International Olympic Committee would have to plaster the town with signs indicating No Battery Throwing, No Booing Winners, No Cheering Injuries, No Drinking After the Seventh Event of the Decathlon. How easy it is to visualize Action News live helicopter coverage of a South Philly gang storming the Olympic Village in the Navy Yard to hook up with the Italian women's volleyball team? Didja see the spikes on da big blonde! Philly could catapult itself from ex-national joke to global laughingstock.
Or, Allah forbid, a genuine tragedy could happen, something unspeakable. Then Philadelphia would forever be branded as a place of horror. Taint Athens, taint Beijing, just Taint.
Leave well enough alone. Please. There is no going back, so dig the renaissance. Enjoy the esprit de corps. But don't push it. Don't crow. Don't let elected leaders lead you astray. Danger lurks. We know that. Philadelphians are zetetic by training, cynical by nature, and know the opposite of a last-minute reprieve is a last-second disaster; you can bet that a lot of families were having the best days of their lives when that tsunami hit. The Phillies had a six-and-a-half-game lead with 12 to play. Inside every silver lining is a dark Philadelphia cloud.
This old alley cat from Logan hooked up with a cool cool kitty from New York City a long time ago. At dinner in our home there last week, near the end of a bottle of beaujolais nouveau, I started to tell my wife how I felt about her. Then I clammed up. She asked what was the matter. I said that I had something tender to tell her but was afraid that the fates were eavesdropping (they don't need warrants), and that would reverse the sweetness of the thing even as it left my mouth. She put down her wineglass, looked me in the eye, and said quietly, “We're not in Philadelphia anymore, dear. Try it.”
She looked beautiful. I looked away. I went into the kitchen and returned with Tastykake Krimpets. We ate them in silence. Jelly Krimpets and beaujolais nouveau. Intransigently intoxicating. Intoxicatingly intransigent. In my own private new old city.
Bruce Buschel is a freelance writer who lives in New York City. He has written for magazines, has created an Off-Broadway musical with Laura Nyro, and is working on a book for Simon & Schuster called Walking Broad Street, or What Ever Happened to 14th Street? , based on his August article for Philadelphia . E-mail: [email protected].