Look Out, Philly. Lisa DePaulo Is Back

After 23 years and many adventures, Philadelphia was calling my name. Screaming, actually. Because all things considered, there’s no place I’d rather be.

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Lisa DePaulo on the balcony of her Philadelphia apartment. Photograph by Colin Lenton

My first night back in town, I went to the Starbucks next door — why is there always a Starbucks next door? — and a guy was out front, smelling his armpits.

Oh Philly, I’ve missed you so.

Has it really been 23 years? Well, 23 and a half. But people in Philly still treat me like I never left, like I’m still “Lisa from Philly Mag,” which is one of the reasons I’m back. New Yorkers don’t do this. Nobody does this. Once you’re gone, you’re gone, see ya. And pretty much forgotten. Philadelphians don’t forget you. This is a city that really does love you back. Even when you don’t deserve it.

I was pretty much an asshole when I left for New York on January 8, 1998. (I still have my framed train ticket.) I was moving to the center of the universe! I was blowing this popsicle stand! I was going to work for John Kennedy Jr.!

Compare this to the first time I became a Philadelphian, 20 years earlier. I was 17 years old, a freshman at Penn. You could definitely say it was love at first sight/first cheesesteak/first Jewish boyfriend. I was coming from Scranton; everything seemed exotic and magical. And it was. The Quad! Locust Walk! Smokey Joe’s — where I not only did some damage; I waitressed for several years, serving pitchers of Bud to drunk frat boys when I wasn’t “dating” them. Some nights, we’d venture down to South Street, which was a little slice of heaven. Copabanana, Lickety Split, and always a Jim’s Steak before the trek back to campus. I loved my new hometown.

I also knew — way before Penn — that I wanted to be a writer. (Gah! WHAT was I thinking? I could have gone to Wharton!) But I wasn’t one of those Ivy Leaguers who dreamed of writing for Vogue or Esquire. I dreamed of writing for Philly Mag — which was the stuff of legend in 1970s and ’80s Philadelphia.

I was delirious when I got an unpaid internship at the magazine in 1981. Though I had to type recipes for Terri Pred and fetch makeup at Nan Duskin for Carol Saline, I loved every minute of it.

Eventually, I was hired by Philly Mag and did two tours of duty. Wrote here for more than 10 years. Profiled mobsters, socialites, politicians, murderers, AIDS patients. Won some awards. Ended up on the cover of the Daily News one morning because I had the temerity to let Ed Rendell speak unfiltered. Good times.

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In my Philly Mag office in 1993.

But my favorite stories were stories that could only happen in Philadelphia. Like the piece about the top divorce lawyer in town, Sandra Newman, who was married to the top plastic surgeon in town, Julius Newman, and was building a new house because she wanted a new closet (“Mrs. Nose Builds Her Dream Closet”). Or a story about three women on the same block on the Main Line whose husbands all left them at the same time and they became friends (“When a Husband Walks Out”). Or the time mob lawyer Bobby Simone finally got convicted and agreed to hang out with me between his conviction and his sentencing (“Bobby Simone’s Last 1,000 Martinis.”) Where else but Philly could you get this?

I never even tried to get a job in New York. I guess I hoped New York would come to me eventually. And it did. Or he did.

When John Kennedy Jr. left a message on my voicemail at Philly Mag saying he wanted me to be “part of the George family,” I thought it was a prank. George, JFK Jr.’s new political magazine, was the talk of the publishing world. Everyone wanted in — and he wanted me.

The great irony was, John was the most down-to-earth person on earth, so I had to check my arrogance at the door of George magazine. Still, I’d make snarky comments about Philadelphia all the time. Like a lot of Philadelphians, I’d internalized the inferiority complex.

When I first started at George, I didn’t move to New York. John liked that I lived in Philadelphia! Loved that I was born and raised in Scranton: “I don’t want everyone on staff to have been raised on the Upper East Side and gone to Yale.” (Penn was fine.)

Then, one night, he took the staff to some fancy black-tie thing. I took the train to New York in a floor-length black dress with an evening bag. At the end of the affair, he took everyone out to dinner at one of his joints, Odeon in Tribeca. Around 11 p.m., I got up to leave. “Where are you going?” he asked. “I have to catch the last train back,” I told him. He insisted on putting me in a hotel. And I should do the walk of shame in this dress tomorrow morning? “I’ll get you a hotel that’s near a Gap.”

I couldn’t let him do that. I headed for the train. As I left, he said, “Maybe it’s time you move here.” He added that he didn’t want to “lose his Philly girl,” but he had faith that I wouldn’t lose my perspective. I hope I never did.

John F. Kennedy Jr. was the most down-to-earth person on earth, so I had to check my arrogance at the door of George magazine. Still, I’d make snarky comments about Philadelphia all the time. Like a lot of Philadelphians, I’d internalized the inferiority complex.

On the train home, I went straight to the cafe car and got a bunch of cocktail napkins. I made two piles. One was “Reasons to move to New York.” The other was “Reasons to stay in Philadelphia.” When the train pulled into 30th Street Station, the New York pile was impressively high. The Philly pile had just one napkin. It said: Washer-dryer in apartment.

Did I list all the wondrous joys of Philadelphia that I would come to appreciate much later? I did not.

Later that morning, I called my friend Mary Genovese, the best realtor in town (still is, though now she’s Mary Genovese Colvin), and told her to list the apartment at the Dorchester that she’d recently sold me. “You just moved there!” she said. And it was a big deal. It took me forever, as a writer making writer’s wages, to save for a down payment on an apartment on Rittenhouse Square. “But I can’t stay here just for a washer-dryer.” “No, you can’t.” She listed it and sold it for the asking price at the first open house.

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With my dog Joey in Central Park in 2011.

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At my old haunt, Elaine’s, with my Talk editor, Bob Wallace (left), and PR whiz Bobby Zarem in the early 2000s. Photograph by Ben Gabbe/Patrick McMullan/Getty Images

I was a New Yorker! I was also at the top of my game. It was a helluva ride. I got to work for Tina Brown (LOVED her); I went on Larry King a lot; I wrote about all sorts of celebrities and politicians and media types. I even wrote for Vogue, which was a trip. When Anna Wintour summoned me, she stared me up and down, as is her wont, then said, “Weren’t you living in some” — a flutter of the hand — “place in Pennsylvania?” Philadelphia, I replied. I was getting defensive about it.

Every time I’d come back home to see friends, I couldn’t help but begrudgingly acknowledge that things were getting pretty damn great in Philly. I used to break the late, great restaurateur Neil Stein’s balls because it seemed like as soon as I left, youse guys got sidewalk dining.

Fast-forward to 2016. John is dead 17 years. The magazine business is on life support — in part due to the crash, or whatever it was, of 2008, and partly due to the damn internets — particularly all the big “glossies” I’ve been writing for since John’s death. And I get cancer. It’s the perfect storm of failure. I am a failure.

When I was first diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer on July 13, 2016, I cashed out my hefty (for a writer) retirement fund, saw the best cancer doctors in the world at Sloan Kettering, and occasionally relied on my BWM (Brother With Money) for additional help. I didn’t think I’d need it for long. I breezed through surgery, chemo and radiation. Then, with my hair just starting to grow back, I led a pizza crawl through Old Forge, PA. Of course I did. It made the Scranton Times-Tribune and Channel 16. Miss Buck and the Mayor of Old Forge came. And a caravan of friends drove up from Philly. See, I was fine. But then, gradually, I lost my ability to walk. Turns out I had severe and constant neuropathy from the chemo. Also, my organs were all fucked up. My doctors at Sloan Kettering would remind me that they saved my life. “But I have no quality of life,” I told them. I was miserable, and I couldn’t do the kinds of stories I was known for, which usually required chasing someone around with a notebook and tape recorder. I was pathetic, with my old-lady walker. And, worse, I couldn’t do things with my son, Joey the Havanese. “I just want to walk my dog,” I’d tell the doctors, in tears. “How fucking hard is that?” Very, it turns out.

By the winter of 2019, as I got progressively worse and was in and out of hospitals and getting blood transfusions (oh joy), my family came up with a plan. I would move to Lafayette, Louisiana, a city I’d never been to before but where my older brother and his second wife lived. The BWM would buy a house (he invested in things like that) that I could live in until I got back on my feet, literally and figuratively. The older brother, the BWC (Brother With Coupons — I’m not being mean; I once saw him have a meltdown in Costco because he forgot to use his free pizza voucher), and his wife, with whom I was extremely close, would “take care of me.”

I’d been saying for years that I’d return to Philly someday, in my dotage. So many of my friends were here. And it did keep getting better. This seemed like as good a time as any.

But my SIL reminded me that for the price of a condo in Philly, the BWM “could buy a whole house in Louisiana.” Hell, he could buy two whole houses! Double-wides! I despise that kind of logic. But I was desperate and convinced myself this was a great idea. I was touched, truly touched, that my family cared so much about me.

And so it was that I relocated, from New York City to a state that was 48th in education and 45th in health care, on the cusp of the pandemic. What could possibly go wrong?

The night before Joey and I left civilization, there was a crazy snowstorm in New York City. “Just think,” said the SIL, “you’ll never have to live through a Northeast blizzard again!” Instead, I got to live through multiple hurricanes, constant tornado warnings (they come screeching through your phone like Amber alerts), and rainstorms so hideous that my street was 10 feet deep and “impassable” with flood water. Northeast blizzards? I dreamed of them.

I dreamed a lot about Philadelphia. There was no sunlight in my Louisiana cave. There were all sorts of nasty critters, and I kept getting weaker. The closest “establishment” was a Chevron station. I took my Rollator walker there one day and got pulled over by Dirk, a Lafayette sheriff, for walking along a highway, which is apparently illegal. When I gave him my sob story, he decided not to give me a ticket. And he was cute.

But I was trapped in this godforsaken place. I’m a youse girl, not a y’all gal.

Many, many people asked, “Don’t you want to move back to New York?” Well, sure, if I wasn’t still broke. The short answer, though, is no. I loved every minute I lived in New York, loved being a New Yorker, but … but … I did New York when I was successful and magazines were on fire. Those days are gone. And here’s the thing. I was a rising star when I got to New York. New York loves rising stars. Pathetic underdogs, not so much. Philadelphia, however, accepts, embraces, and lavishes love on underdogs. Why do you think Rocky was made here?

There were many other things I dreamed about. Starting with the food. I happen to think Philadelphia is the best food city in America (and yes, my work took me to them all). Louisiana? Keep in mind, I was not in New Orleans. Not even close. The rural gumbo-étouffée-muffuletta thing was cute for about a week. If I never see another po’boy again, it will be too soon.

I was a rising star when I got to New York. New York loves rising stars. Pathetic underdogs, not so much. Philadelphia, however, accepts, embraces, and lavishes love on underdogs.

And there was Joey. He was always a city kid. And he was miserable in Louisiana. I’d post Facebook pictures of him cowering in the “yard,” which was about three feet from wall to brick wall (I didn’t even face brick walls in New York!) and, I’m convinced, haunted. Everything down there is haunted. And yes, I know he was picking up signs from his mother, but truly, he was miserable. He missed having company. He missed his doormen. And he was 12. He’ll turn 13 this month. There was no time to dick around.

That’s another thing. I was habitually bitch-slapped for “cussing.” Yes, they called it “cussing.” The sewer company (there was a sewer company!) was mad at me because I “cussed at Miss Candy.” I had home health aides who fired me — fired me! — because I cussed in their presence. I was in a fucking wheelchair at one point — of course I cussed! In any event, I longed to be somewhere where cussing is not only accepted, but expected. And where no one uses the word “cuss.” That would be Philadelphia.

I guess you could say Louisiana wasn’t my cup of tea. I was sick of it, and soon, my family was sick of me. And the safety net I thought was guaranteed in exchange for moving to the Southern backwoods evaporated. I started selling possessions and my mother’s jewelry to pay sewer bills. I don’t want to get too deep in the weeds about the family shit, because that’s why God made book contracts. I will say I was convinced I was going to die there, one way or another. I had never been more lonely and inconsolable in my life. I know everyone felt isolated during COVID. Multiply that by 100. And throw in a po’boy.

But how would I ever escape?

On August 4, 2020, the anniversary of our mother’s death, I received another in a long line of communications from BWC — by this point, we were speaking only through emails. He had been increasingly critical of my attitude and suspicious of my spending (on utilities). I did what I usually did when I got these emails: I threw up, I posted his message on Facebook, and then I took a nap. When I woke up, my emails and texts were off the charts. What the fuck happened? Here’s what happened: A woman I’ve never met but who is from my hometown of Dunmore, PA, a saint by the name of Deb Ventimiglia, started a GoFundMe for me. Holy shit. She said she didn’t ask me first because she knew I’d say no, and she was correct. (Many had previously tried — my George colleagues, my Penn girlfriends — and I said absolutely not.)

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The GoFundMe (no longer needed) that got me out of Louisiana.

To this day, I haven’t been able to read the whole list of donors in one sitting. I keep bursting into tears. It was staggering. Students I taught in the graduate program at NYU’s school of journalism. An L.A. screenwriter I had a brief fling with. The basketball coach at my high school, Canio Cianci. (I never played basketball, by the way.) Interns from Philly Mag. The top brass at Philly Mag. (I’m talking about YOU, David Lipson and Rick Waechter.) And that was the other thing. So many of the generous people who helped me were Philadelphians, most of whom I hadn’t seen in 23 years. (I’m crying as I type this.) If that wasn’t a sign of where hewm was, I don’t know what could be.

With funding in hand, I plotted to escape once Biden was elected and at least some of the morons got vaccinated. I started playing Philadelphia songs: “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Streets of Philadelphia.” I taught Joey to dance to the theme from Rocky. (Havanese can dance.) But mostly, I played the theme from Welcome Back, Kotter. It’s not a Philly song, but it spoke to me:

Welcome back, your dreams were your ticket out,

Welcome back, to that same old place that you laughed about.

Yes, that was it exactly.

Then, on January 25th, 13 days after my 60th birthday — which I never thought I’d see, and which my family did not acknowledge — I broke my hip. Taking the trash out! In Louisiana, if you lived in a house, you had to drag this awful big monstrosity to the curb every week. I hired a dude to do it for $10 a shot, but he was gone huntin’. I figured, how hard could it be? — being dependent was the hardest part — and took my Rollator out. Then fell on my ass and could not get up. A neighbor came and rescued me. Then called an ambulance. Now I was in a rehabilitation hospital for 28 days and in a wheelchair for four months.

One day, my favorite physical therapist at the hospital, Miranda, asked me what I used to do. Another flood of tears. Then I started telling her about the stories I wrote and the people I wrote about. She was fascinated, had so many questions. I answered them like I was talking about someone else. Because I was.

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Interviewing fellow Scranton kid Joe Biden.

The day of my escape, May 20, 2021 — some had called it “Operation Rescue Lisa and Joey” — I wore my “Bitch Please, I’m from Philly” t-shirt. This was a big hit on the plane. Not so much on the Lafayette-to-Atlanta leg, but definitely on the Atlanta-to-Philly jag. Until a flight attendant crouched down next to me and whispered, “Do you have another shirt?” Not handy, but why? “Because your shirt says ‘bitch.’” Get out! It does? I told her I didn’t have another shirt but would be happy to take this one off. “Never mind,” she said.

I got my Philly-girl mojo back!

I had spent the previous night pulling an all-nighter with one of my few friends in the area, Miss Penny. She was the first person I met when I moved — and the one who was there till the bitter end. We had some differences — she watched Fox News, thought Biden had dementia, and was mortified to learn that Joey’s middle name is Obama — but as Neil Stein used to say, I love her to death. She is my angel.

She had staged a garage sale for me the weekend before, instructing me only to stay inside and not interact with the customers! She wanted me to have as much cash as possible to start over — and boy, was I starting over.

That last night, she finished packing the stuff I was taking and held my hand while we went through a pile of photographs, cards and letters, some from former editors. The waterworks again. Was this really my life?

In the months leading up to my move — I needed the okay from my hip surgeon to travel and wanted to be vaccinated first — I looked at Philly apartments online. Like everyone else who was looking for apartments during COVID. My friend Rosina Rucci said, “Check out South Broad.” South Broad? Back in my day (OMG, am I really using that expression?), South Broad Street wasn’t exactly a destination. But wow, just wow. It was a whole new part of Philly! Full of new restaurants and chic apartment buildings. There was one building in particular that I fell in love with: Lincoln Square, at Broad and Washington. So named because Lincoln’s funeral cortege stopped there. Well, okay then.

The building was designed for hipsters, but it was also great for a disabled old lady. No steps, a dog run in the “common area,” and right at street level, a Sprouts. (How did I ever live without Sprouts?) There was also a Target, a Starbucks and a PetSmart. Losing my independence had been excruciating. It felt so liberating to be able to go to the grocery store myself. But that wasn’t all. I’d walk into my Starbucks and hear a chorus of “Hi, Lisa” from brown, Black and white people, hes, shes and theys. (“Didn’t Louisiana have Starbucks?” asked my friend Maer. Yes, but they were run by Klansmen.) At Sprouts, the deli guy invariably says, “You’re walking much better, Lisa.” The seafood guy says, “There she is,” like I’m Miss America or something. The chicken guy calls me LeeLee. The cashier asks, “How’s Joey?” This, too, is a Philly thing. Philadelphians remember your name — and your dog’s name.

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Joey and I at our new apartment complex. Photograph by Colin Lenton

I picked the most affordable apartment available at Lincoln Square — a starter apartment, if you will — and I’m mad for it. It has sunlight, a balcony, and a kick-ass view of the city. It’s the smallest apartment I’ve ever lived in, except for my dorm room at Penn, but it’s perfect. It even has a washer-dryer.

There’s a trash chute on my floor. It’s in another zip code, but still, there’s no dragging garbage to the curb. And if I need help with something, all I have to do is call Josette, the fiercely competent concierge, and she’ll send up Black Mike or White Mike. (The maintenance guys call themselves that.)

Still, it took a village. I hadn’t worked in five years, so of course I needed a co-signer on my lease. And again, Pennsylvania came through. A childhood friend, Frank Falzett, offered before I had a chance to ask. The generosity and warm wishes from so many were staggering.

When I arrived in Philly, Rosina picked me up at the airport. I was crying so  much that my mask was soaked. I wanted to kiss the ground but couldn’t do that from a walker, so Joey marked it instead. The plan was to go straight to John’s Roast Pork for a cheesesteak. But they were already closed. So Rosina took me to Pastificio for a hoagie. Is it okay to admit that I’ve had a cheesesteak or a hoagie every single day since I got here? Every. Single. Day. I’m up to 116 pounds from a very weak 96 in Louisiana.

And something else was happening. The day I left the South, I left the wheelchair behind. There was no way I was taking that hideous contraption with me to start my new life. It was like a Lifetime movie: I just rose from it and left it there. “You can do it!” Miss Penny cheered me on as she held Joey and helped me maneuver my walker into her car for the trip to the airport. (I cried a lot that day, too.) Within a few months, I had graduated to a cane. This wasn’t coincidence. I was getting better just breathing the Philly air — or maybe there was something in the wooder.

Is it okay to admit that I’ve had a cheesesteak or a hoagie every single day since I got here? Every. Single. Day. I’m up to 116 pounds from a very weak 96 in Louisiana.

I have real doctors now — that great internist group at Jefferson. This is nothing short of a miracle. My Louisiana internist couldn’t get me a mammogram — a mammogram! I had breast cancer, hello! — because she couldn’t get my records from Sloan Kettering. Why? “Ma’am, we can’t find Dr. Sloan Kettering.”

Most important, Joey has real dog walkers now. We had some doozies in Louisiana. I found this group called Pups on Passyunk, and they are excellent. On the weekends, a lovely woman in my building, Caitlyn, takes him. My goals now are to get him to the rooftop dog run by myself. Find a part-time job to earn an income while I write my book. And, oh yeah, write the damn book.

Baby steps.

There are so many things I love about being back. Though a lot of my old haunts are gone — downstairs at Le Bec-Fin, the 15th Street Bookbinders, Marabella’s, DiLullo Central on Locust, Metropolis, Varalli’s — so many of them remain, and the new ones are fabulous. (Can someone get me into Vernick?)

The One Who Got Away is in Philadelphia. (You know who you are.) Philly was the town where Michael Smerconish took me to a karaoke club in Chinatown and sang “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Where Eagles owner Leonard Tose took me for Bloody Marys at the Vesper Club. (The key was shaved ice.) Where Stu Bykofsky took me to a gun range to brush up on my shooting skills. (I’m good — really good.) Where I once made out with a very sexy defense attorney in a Rolls-Royce in front of Striped Bass.

What I miss most are the characters from the ’80s and ’90s — real Philly characters who were as much fun to write about as to know. Neil, of course. Leonard Tose. Bobby Simone. Julius Newman. Thank God Sandy Newman is still here. She was one of the first people I had lunch with when I arrived. Before I left town, she became Justice Newman, and her opponent tried to use my story — and her 8,000-square-foot closet — against her. She wasn’t having it. She liked the piece. Why? “Because you made clear that I earned my own money.” (And Chuck Peruto is running for DA — how could I not come back?)

Now, there are new characters for me to get to know. I can’t wait to dine with Ernest Owens and spend quality girlfriend time with Christine Flowers. These aren’t people usually mentioned in the same sentence, but that’s another thing I love about Philly. No cookie cutters here. Never were.

Present company included.

Published as “Philly Girl, Interrupted” in the October 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.