I Tell People I’m From Philly, But I Live in South Jersey. That Counts, Right?

In which our writer, who was born in the city but now lives just over the bridge, ponders who is, and who is not, a Philadelphian.

Who is, and who is not, “from Philly”? | Illustration by Woody Harrington

I am an imposter. I have lied, frequently and with forethought, to people online and in person, in the United States and outside of it. The lie is trivial, easily disproven, basically pointless, but I tell it anyway. When someone asks where I’m from, I say, “Philly.” Which, in the strictest possible sense, is true: I was born at Roxborough Memorial Hospital and raised only a few blocks from there. My dad grew up across the street from the Manayunk Bridge and went to high school at Roman, like the dads of every other person I knew. My mom lived on Cotton Street and had 14 aunts and uncles; no matter where we drive in the city, she can point out the window at some passerby and say something like, “That’s one of your cousins. He just got out of jail.” I always carried a little pouch of SEPTA tokens in case I needed to hop on a bus or trolley or both. For nearly six years, I cooked cheesesteaks at Dalessandro’s. I’ve been friends with three completely unrelated guys who all go by “Joe Deege,” and every one of them is a roofer. I’ve slept on the concrete outside the Vet on bitter winter nights to get Eagles playoff tickets. I’ve played soccer on every patchy field and in every humble rec center within a five-mile radius of Cottman Avenue.

Listen: I’ve been on the B-roll for the opening montage of Action News. Twice.

However: I haven’t lived in the city for 17 years. Most of my adult life has been spent in the South Jersey suburbs. It’s only accurate to say I’m from Philly if it’s followed by something like, “But not anymore.”

When I meet new people, I lead with Philly and deliver the rest as a footnote. It feels true in the moment, though I know it’s not quite. Lately, I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m still clinging to that piece of me I left behind almost two decades ago.

I was raised in a time when the city was enduring an economic and cultural free-fall, before the Ed Rendell-era renaissance had really begun to reshape the city. So many people of my parents’ generation had fled for the relative prosperity of the suburbs, and we absorbed all their resentments. We grew up thinking of suburban kids as soft, coddled, rich. They were fancy, the worst possible thing I could imagine being, in contrast to the image of tough, gritty Philly. I wasn’t tough or gritty, either, but I believed I was, or could be.

A good friend in eighth grade lived in Andorra, and from his bedroom window, we could see the sign on Ridge Avenue marking the city limit. It was only a matter of a 10th of a mile, but that distance meant everything to us. The people on the other side could cross over the border to visit, but they would never understand what it really meant to live where we lived.

These boundaries are, of course, arbitrary; a kid could be born at the corner of Broad and Lombard in the middle of the Mummers Parade, delivered by the Phanatic himself, but still feel no allegiance to the city. Another kid born the same day in the farthest reaches of Bucks County can have pure Philly coursing through his veins. But especially when I was growing up, those arbitrary lines were crucial to defining who I was.

In 2004, I moved to Iowa City for graduate school, and in 2006, I got engaged and moved to a small house in Barrington, New Jersey, with my fiancée. I had never considered it possible for me to end up in any suburb, let alone in Jersey. When I was 12, my parents nearly moved us to Plymouth Meeting, and I spent nights dreading the inevitability of leaving the home I loved, losing the one thing I knew to be true about myself. One of my close friends had moved away to Horsham in fourth grade, and it felt like he’d been swallowed by a black hole. We only saw him once more, and in his short time away, he’d transformed into a totally different person: new clothes, new speech patterns, new hairstyle. To move to the suburbs, I thought then, was a form of death. (I was a dramatic kid, I admit.)

Family and friends were blindsided when I told them I was going to live in Jersey. (“For now,” I always added, more for myself than for them.) At least when I moved to Iowa City, it had been with a clear purpose: School was out there, and a clock was ticking down to my return. But how could someone move all the way back across half the country and end up on the wrong side of the river? It took years before my mom stopped referring to our house as “all the way in Jersey.” We lived only 20 miles apart, but on the wrong day, that could mean spending more than an hour on I-76. Living here meant always being sweaty and annoyed when I arrived at my destination.

Recently, I saw a condo developer’s website littered with the word “jawn,” as in, “Which jawn do you want to live in?” and “We’ve got just the jawn for you.” It felt viscerally wrong, like the company was trying to steal something from me. “Jawn” was a word my brother and I had said and understood instinctively; it belonged to me and everyone else who had grown up in the city, and it wasn’t meant for billboards. I tweeted, “One of the worst developments in Philly in my lifetime is the adoption of jawn by every soulless marketing firm that has ever passed through town.” The tweet got some traction, and I was filled with that sad swell of pride that comes with meaningless likes. At least, until a young woman from West Philly replied, “I liked this at first but then I saw you’re from South Jersey, so I’m taking it back.”

Before I could explain myself, she blocked me. I was a fraud. She’d spotted me right away and called it out, the way any good Philadelphian should. She had identified one of my great insecurities and pressed down on the bruise as hard as she could. I want the city to be mine still, but I’ve been gone so long.

One of my favorite literary events in the area is a reading series called Tire Fire that takes place at the bar Tattooed Mom on South Street. I go for the readers and the 50-cent pierogies, sure, but mainly I go because once a month, I get to meet up with a group of people I really like and otherwise never see: other writers, former classmates and former students, weirdos who just like books. I laugh and have drinks and catch up and always feel welcome, but I also understand myself to be an interloper. I drove there; I parked. I have to slip outside to add money to the meter. Everyone else is biking or taking the subway home. They shop, eat, jog and walk their dogs around this neighborhood. They’ll run into one another randomly on the street some days, grab an impromptu sandwich together. I am a guest in their city.

As I neared my 30th birthday, I sank into a bottomless depression that, in hindsight, was in dire need of professional treatment. We had moved to a different Jersey town. Money was tighter than ever, and I was trying hopelessly to escape my tenuous job in academia. I had lost all meaningful ties to my old neighborhood and the people I’d once known. This had been a natural and gradual change; we’d stopped hanging out for all the usual reasons people in their late 20s drift apart. I felt rootless and directionless. Every day was a crisis I didn’t have the tools to face. Blaming it all on geography was easier than the alternatives.

I asked my wife what it would take to get her to move to the city (a yard and off-street parking, nothing we could afford). I complained about the taxes and the dullness of our quiet dead-end street. I peppered my conversation with digs at Jersey for being dirty, ugly, corrupt, overcrowded (as if all these complaints couldn’t apply to Philly, too). One day, as we drove down the Garden State Parkway to Ocean City, I said something snide about how it’s a shame we don’t even live near any nice beaches. She sighed and said, “I like New Jersey. I think we have a good life here. I don’t understand why it’s so bad for you.”

Until she said it, I had no idea how much I’d been upsetting her. Because I couldn’t get over my attachment to being a Philly Guy, I had projected my unhappiness onto her and our home. What was I even upset about? We were an hour from the ocean. We were going to eat a dozen free samples of fudge and walk along the boardwalk and later sit on the beach and watch the sun set over the Atlantic. It was all right there in front of me, and I couldn’t even see it.

I realized my attitude toward Jersey had changed when I was speaking at an event in Vermont and the person introducing me mispronounced the title of my memoir, Bury Me In My Jersey: A Memoir of My Father, Football and Philly. He said, as people often do, Bury Me in New Jersey. The person snickered and said, “I don’t know why anyone would ever want to be buried there.” The audience laughed, though on a literal level, the joke doesn’t make sense; once you’re dead and buried, one place is as good as any other. It didn’t need to make sense, though, because the real punchline was the fact of New Jersey, the inherent silliness of a state that people associate with chemical plants, Tony Soprano, that MTV show and nothing else. Exactly the sort of joke I spent a decade making myself.

Without thinking, I took the mic and said, “Walt Whitman is buried in New Jersey, and it’s good enough for him,” which also doesn’t make a ton of sense, but in the moment, it seemed right. I’ve always felt a reflexive pride and defensiveness when outsiders make lazy jokes about Philly — snowballs at Santa, that kind of thing — but this was the first time I’d ever been moved to defend Jersey in the same way. Whatever problems this place has, I wanted to say, it’s for us to complain about, not for you.

I added then that New Jersey is actually quite beautiful, that it’s called the Garden State for a reason, that we shouldn’t let Snooki and Pauly D blind us to our beaches and forests and rich cultural history. Nobody in the audience could possibly have cared, but I was experiencing a breakthrough, and I let the momentum carry me away.

We’ve moved one last time, to Haddon Township. My wife walks to the PATCO station every day to take the train into work. I still drive to my job at Temple, but on good days, I’m there in 20 minutes. With the windows of our house open, I can hear the planes headed toward PHL, the trains screaming into the city, constant reminders of how close we are. Many of my neighbors followed a path similar to mine. They work in the city; their kids even go to school there. And yet, we’re not there. We’re here.

I’ve improved in a lot of ways since my depression a decade ago. My job is more stable, my health is better, my attitude overall is more positive. On the last vacation we took, I even told a bartender we were from South Jersey. Usually I add, “Near Philly,” but this time I said, “Near Cherry Hill.” He’d heard of it — the mall, at least — and asked how we liked living there. “It’s a great place to live,” I said, and I meant it.

Still, I overcompensate at times. I take immense pride in the parallel-parking skills I developed when learning to wedge my dad’s minivan into Vespa-sized spots on the hills of Manayunk. My wife says that when I talk to a group of Philly People, I slip back into the accent I tried so hard to hide in grad school. I can’t help it if I find something a little beautiful about the sound of a Philadelphian strangling the life out of words like Mondee, wind-uh, hunnert, aight, ionno.

Late in summer 2021, my wife and I take PATCO to 8th and Market and spend a beautiful Friday afternoon walking through Old City, then enjoying happy hour at the Independence Beer Garden. We linger a while longer than we’ve planned to, but I’m telling you, it’s a perfect day for lingering. We order takeout from Kanella, and on the walk over there, I hear someone shout my name. It’s Dave, a friend from the old neighborhood that I haven’t seen in years.

Dave hugs me, and then he hugs my wife. We fall immediately into our old rhythms, as if I’d just walked down the block and knocked on his door, the comfort like I’d never left. I’ve worried so often about being a sellout, but what, or whom, have I sold out? I’m just trying to live a decent life.

I’ve always thought of being in Philly as fundamental to my identity, but I’m only now realizing that the essential parts stay with you regardless of where you go. I could spend the next four decades living in a small village in Iceland, but I would still be from Philly. I would still be angry about the Phillies bullpen, still have deeply entrenched opinions about water ice, still remember that time the late Herb Denenberg aired an exposé on the city’s pretzel vendors. I would still know Dave and he would still know me, and that’s what it comes down to, mostly: knowing and being known. That counts.

Dave hugs us both again and then walks off in the opposite direction. He’s going home, and so are we.

Published as “Confessions of a Reluctant Jersey Boy” in the December 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.