How a Northeast Native Turned 30 and Learned to Love … South Street?

After three noncommittal decades bouncing around the city, I’ve finally found a Philly neighborhood that feels like home.

Illustration by Tim Parker

Illustration by Tim Parker

In retrospect, I should have known I would turn 30 in Philadelphia.

As is customary with Northeast Philadelphia natives, I have never lived more than a half hour from the house I grew up in. I went to college here, then looked for jobs here, then puttered away my 20s right here.

All signs point to lifer.

And yet as I celebrate — or, more accurately, as I icily acknowledge as only a Northeast girl can — the dawn of my 30s, part of me is surprised to find myself doing so in Philly.

It’s not that I don’t like our fair city. In a departure from the usual Philadelphia grumping, I’ll drop the act and admit that I love this place. My friends are here, my family is here, my Dunkin’ Donuts is here.

It’s just that in 30 years, I have somehow managed to make zero commitment to the place I call home.

I have had four different addresses in the past two years, none of which received a single piece of mail. After friend-zoning a career in what I was calling “journalism,” I alerted LinkedIn that I was ready for a change, any change. Perhaps on the West Coast, or anywhere warmer than Philadelphia. While I did manage to rack up a divorce in my 20s, I did not acquire, say, furniture. Or even a particularly heavy vacuum cleaner.

In some circles, of course, this isn’t unusual. I have plenty of globetrotting, free-spirited friends who would never consider signing a year-long lease. In New York and Los Angeles, delayed adulthood seems to be not just tolerated but expected, a time to “find out who you are” or “create your brand” or something other than watch Netflix between anxiety attacks.

But those, unfortunately, are not my stories. I truly have no excuse to have a trunk full of unpacked moving boxes. I’m more homebody than adventurer, spending most of my weekends hunting french fries and looking at my dog. (A shrine to puttering mediocrity, my Instagram looks something like this: shih tzu, brunch, shih tzu, funny sign that could be a poop joke, shih tzu.)

If Philadelphia and I are a couple, we’re in that worrisome, potentially fatal stage where we’re ordering takeout and trying not to touch each other while reaching for the remote control.

IT STRIKES ME THAT this is the fabled “quarter-life crisis,” if such a thing even exists in Philadelphia.

Of course, if I’m being honest, it’s really more of a third-life crisis, at best. And if I’m being really, really honest — the kind of honest that can cost you a career, a marriage, the last quiet place in your head — I’m not sure how much of a life I can call it when, 30 years in, I will still cross state lines to see Dave Matthews Band.

There was a time when I would rather eat my desk than admit that last bit in Philadelphia magazine. But the alternatives — therapy, prescriptions, eating the desk — are worse. And if the better part of a decade in newspapers taught me anything, it’s that the media has an unusually high tolerance for whiny millennials with awful taste in music.

It’s nice to meet you, too.

PHILADELPHIA, GOD bless it, doesn’t have a lot of patience for directionless 30-year-olds who refuse to put on their Big Girl Pants. This is a blue-collar, bootstrap-happy place that holds you accountable, that will eventually ask questions when it sees you wearing pajamas past 10 a.m. or — perhaps worse — a romper past age 25.

In most corners of this city, you’re expected to have some answers — any answers — after three decades of stumbling around and, presumably, finding your way.

Fishtown might present itself as a blissed-out, come-one-come-all haven these days, but don’t be fooled by the artisanal ice-cream shops and cutesy bruncheries (which is a word there, by the way). Where there are people who’ve figured out how to market reservations-only bagels, there are people who want you to explain your personal business model.

After spending a good chunk of my 20s on Girard Avenue, I’m prepared for the inevitable Fishtown question: What is your plan? To which I can only say: Pink wine on the couch.

West Philly is a little more subtle. You can drift through, as I have over the years, without a plan and fit right in. You can lie in the sun all day at Clark Park, then spend all night at Gojjo. But at some point, West Philly will invite you to a potluck and politely ask what your passion is — and couch wine is not an acceptable answer.

As for the Northeast, they only want to know one thing from a 30-year-old woman: Where are your kids? Although I quite like kids — far more than any other variety of human — I already have enough friends who don’t read, always need a ride and never pick up a tab. Sorry, kiddos, but there’s no more room on this couch.

The one safe place has been my day job. (When not oversharing in magazines, I’m a copywriter for a local retailer — a surprisingly sweet little gig with much better scenery than a newsroom.) Say what you will about the fashion industry, but you can show up looking like Miley Cyrus on a bender and the only question people will ask is where you bought your glitter.

Why dress for the job you want when you can drink for it?

I AM AWARE, of course, that this can’t go on forever — that at some point I will have to either make a plan or make peace.

Peace seemed like the easier option at one point. It was right around the time my mother started getting into yoga and
meditation — which was, conveniently, right around the time that I started having existential, sobbing breakdowns during the lunch rush at Pizza Brain. Our conversations sounded something like this:

“The universe wants you to be happy, Monica.”

“Really, Mom? Because I can’t even taste my pizza through my snot right now.”

“Everything is as it should be, right in this moment. Everything will be clear.”

“My glasses are fogging up, but sure, whatever. Wait, hippie pizza guy keeps looking at me. Oh God, he’s coming over. Why are his arms out? I think he’s going to hug me. He is definitely going to hug me.”

“Your higher self is not concerned with any of this. Your higher self just is.”

“None of my selves like hugs. Okay, yup, we’re doing this. Mom, a little help over here?”

“We’re all just atoms, bouncing around, having a fleeting human experience.”

“Jesus Christ, Mom, are you high?”

For the record, she wasn’t. But if you cry at Pizza Brain you will get hugged by a stranger, it will be weird, and your time in Fishtown is coming to an end.

WHILE I CAN’T SAY that I’ve found peace or any real sense of direction in my 30th year, I have signed a lease — a full, one-year, sit-down-and-deal lease — and that feels like something close to progress in my relationship with Philadelphia. If not a firm commitment, then it’s at least a step toward stability in a city that has been kind enough to put up with me for this long.

My favorite thing about my new apartment is the haphazard, crumbling pink stucco facade, which should tell you something about my apartment. It’s in Queen Village, which is nice enough but noticeably lacking in inspired french fries. But none of this really matters, as it is four blocks from South Street.

As a lifelong Philadelphian, I’m a little embarrassed to admit it took me this long to really discover South Street. To be clear, I’ve been there plenty of times. When I was a kid, it was my first taste of the “real” city, a priceless day trip made possible by the R8 train, which I will never be able to thank enough for its selfless service and bravery in the face of Northeast teenagers.

In freshman year of college I found myself there again frequently, the designated tour guide in a dorm full of Penn students who — despite launching nonprofits and collecting passport stamps in high school — couldn’t figure out how to take the trolley.

At some point in the past 10 years, South Street seemed to undergo a little restaurant renaissance, and I made sure I ate every dressed-up mac-and-cheese on the menu. Oddly, even after a feast of cheesy carbs, it still didn’t feel like home — but it certainly is starting to now.

I suspect that South Street, like niche sex or George Carlin or seltzer water, is one of those things that you can’t truly appreciate until you’ve stopped being charmed by the usual things that make people happy.

If you can still get excited by the seasonal Starbucks menu, I’m jealous, but South Street probably isn’t the place for you. If your social calendar is busier than your dog’s, again, I’m jealous, but any street will suit you just fine, you well-adjusted human. Played tennis in the past five years? Tell me what that feels like before you move on to Old City.

I love South Street’s timeless grit, its rehearsed chaos, its resigned spectacle. I love the way it wakes up and the way it goes to bed, the way it smiles at its tourists and winks at its regulars. My dog enjoys its plentiful pizza crusts.

In our noisy, anxious, in-your-face city, I’ve found that South Street is the one nook where people aren’t ready to tell their story. They have stories, lots of them, but those tales need a little editing before they’re released into the wild. In my experience, these are the people who are least likely to ask questions you don’t have the answers to, and who are most likely to make a space for you as you are right now.

New plan: South Street.

Originally published as “Broad Street: This Is Where I Belong?” in the February 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.