I Don’t Know Who Anybody Is Anymore. And I Don’t Care

In Sandy Hingston’s final (?) column, she bids farewell as only she can.

sandy hingston retirement farewell

In which Sandy Hingston bids us farewell. / Illustration by Nathaniel Hackett

I think it was this year’s Emmys that finally broke me. I didn’t watch them, of course, because they were opposite that dreadful Eagles wild-card playoff game against the Buccaneers, and what self-­loathing Philly fan could tear her eyes from that? I read about the awards show the next day, though — how could anyone on social media avoid it? And as I looked at the photos and noted the names of the winners, it struck me abruptly: I have no idea who any of you people are.

It wasn’t the sort of realization that makes you sad, or even nostalgic. What it evoked was more like a sense of wonder, akin to what Howard Carter must have felt upon stumbling onto King Tut’s grave. Succession, The Bear, Beef, The White Lotus — what were they? Who in the world were these glitter-coated stars picking their way onstage to accept shiny gold statuettes? Were they all always on TV opposite Sixers or Phillies or Eagles games?

It’s a sobering moment when you realize that popular culture has bypassed you — that, essentially, you have become as clueless as those parents in the Progressive insurance commercials who no longer understand anything about the world. I couldn’t name you a single Real Housewife, though Wikipedia tells me there have been 159 of them (so far). Nor could I reel off a Bachelor or Bachelorette, golden or otherwise. I have recurring moments when I see a face on the TV screen and realize I’m supposed to know that person is somebody — hello, Jennifer Coolidge! — but couldn’t tell you who or why if you held a gun to my head.

I regret to say I have the same reaction, frequently, to the stories my younger colleagues here at Philly Mag propose to write. How about a piece on the best places to learn breathwork? (It’s just … in and out, in and out or else you die, isn’t it?) Multi-generational family trips? (Oh, God in heaven forbid.) Philly’s professional ax-throwing team? (Um … ) The new cool drink, the Kalimotxo, which is half red wine on the rocks and half Coca-Cola? (WTF, world?) Even the local celebrity profiles they suggest leave me scratching my head. I won’t name any names at the risk of embarrassing the nouveau stars of the Philly scene (or myself, thanks), but what it takes nowadays to get on the public radar seems to owe less to, say, public service or medical miracles or scientific breakthroughs than to hope-tweeting celebrities and trolling for views on TikTok. Whoever these people are, they don’t influence me.

Some of my current cultural fog has to do, I’m convinced, with the COVID pandemic. Now that I’m no longer commuting into the city from what Cecily Tynan refers to as the “far northern and western suburbs,” the distance has become more than geographic. I think for all of us, the isolation of working from home and the fear of contagion generated a profound sense of fear and mistrust. Groceries and meals were set on porches for retrieval; hand sanitizer sales went through the roof; masks hid our smiles and sympathies; even more of our time was expended staring at screens. Our attention all turned inward — was that a hint of sore throat? A budding cough? We huddled over test tubes, stood in queues delineated by markings on walls and floors. We practiced division. We got so good at it, in fact, that we’ve never been further apart.

Then again, I’ve lived through plenty of disasters in my lifetime. I weathered the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War and its protests, the fool’s-gold gleam of the Trumpian ’80s, the stock-market collapse of the 2000s. It takes a lot anymore to unsettle me. But I have been shaken by the ominous layoffs plaguing journalism — the craft I’ve more or less devoted my life to. The mightiest of the mighty — the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, all the Condé Nast titles, even Time magazine, that bulwark of my youth — have seen staffing cuts. Sports Illustrated imploded. Last year alone, 20,000 U.S. media jobs were lost. Young people today prefer to be fed their “news” online; it’s so much easier that way.

I do believe that hyperlocal news still has a future, and a city magazine like Philadelphia fits that mold. But even so, how long will this institution I’ve thought of as home for the past 39 years — and read avidly for more than half a century — continue to exist? I’m way too old at this point to pivot to video. And hey, the AI era is upon us. The woman who recently earned Japan’s highest literary prize announced she’d used ChatGPT to help write her winning novel. Who needs human beings? Unlike us, AI has read everything and knows — and remembers — everything.

Which raises the question: When was the last time I did know who everybody was? When I could name the anchors on every local news station, tell you the members of the U.S. president’s cabinet, enumerate every soul on the Phillies’ pitching staff? I can’t decide anymore if the internets have made information so easy to access that I always figure I can google any queries I might have, or if there’s just so much stuff jammed inside my brain that the neurons can’t find room to fire. I know my young colleagues and friends believe the folks they read about in People magazine — or, rather, read about on their phones — will be around and important forever. But I remember thinking that about the Cowsills. Sooner or later, nobody’s going to know Kim Kardashian’s name.

What I’ve loved most about my job was getting paid to find the answers to questions that plagued me, and those questions rarely have to do with who’s having Nick Cannon’s latest baby. What will happen to cemeteries now that we’re all getting cremated? What’s the connection — if any — between race and genetics? What makes a work of art “beautiful” to us? Why do so many millennials loathe mayonnaise? World-famous scientists and academics and doctors and VIPs would return my phone calls or sit in their living rooms and talk with me — would do their best to answer my incessant pesky questions. They wanted me to understand, and they expended time and energy to help me do so. In what other line of work do you get to hang out in the men’s locker room at Villanova with Billie Jean King and discuss what coming out was like for her?

And then came the more private pleasure of choosing words and crafting sentences that would convey what I’d learned in what (I hoped!) was an intriguing and convincing way — of getting Vinnie from South Philly and Carol in Coatesville and Nora from the Great Northeast to care as much as I did about what happens when you don’t teach kids to write in cursive anymore, or how Herr’s gets potato chips to taste like a roast pork sandwich, or why peregrine falcons are suddenly nesting under Montgomery County’s Betzwood Bridge.

I thought I’d keep going for as long as anyone was willing to listen. For as long as Vinnie or Carol or Nora sent an occasional email (I’ve been at this so long that I remember when they used to send real letters) saying they liked reading about the falcons or Billie Jean King. Time takes its toll, though. Walking has gotten harder for me. So has driving. So (as I believe I’ve mentioned) has focusing on work when my carefree retired husband is whipping up gourmet meals in our kitchen, a.k.a. my home office. He goes to school-board meetings now and gives speeches. He drives a bus for the homeless. He spends a lot of time with our grandkids. He’s thinking of running for our borough council. He doesn’t seem at all bored, which has always been my biggest fear about leaving this job. He’d like me to chill out a little, work less hard, relax more.

So I’m going to try it. I’m going to retire.

That means this is my farewell column for Philly Mag, after all these years. My very first article, my colleague Brad Pearson recently reminded me, back in 1985, was about vintage jewelry. (I talked to timepiece virtuoso Danny Govberg for that story.) Not long after that, I started writing about raising my kids. Once they’d outgrown that, I switched to a more general topic: All the Ways in Which the World Annoys Me. And oh, Philadelphia, there have been so very, very many ways in which you’ve done so through all these years. It’s been a fun ride.

I fell in love with Philly Mag as a kid. I was 10 or 12 when I first discovered it; my parents subscribed to it to decorate the coffee table, along with the usual 1960s magazine assortment. (So many print titles now vanished into the ether: Redbook, ESPN, McCall’s, George, Field and Stream, Martha Stewart Living, even Life itself … ) I marveled, way back then, at the Philly Mag writers’ bold ferocity and the witty reviews of movies and eateries. And I adored those mysterious classified ads all the way in the back — the gentlemanly men seeking SWFs, and the women longing for tall guys with steady jobs and no mother hang-ups. What a glorious introduction to the peculiarities of the human condition! What springboards for imagining how I might find true love someday!

In my time with Philly Mag, its offices shifted from an undistinguished suite on Walnut Street to a sky-top floor overlooking Market Street to the historic Curtis Building on Washington Square to … well, to everybody’s home offices (or kitchen tables). Meantime, my family and I moved from Center City to South Philly to this far-distant suburb. Sometimes at night, I peek at photos of my old homes on Redfin and Zillow, remembering those past lives, the neighbors, the streets I knew so intimately while I walked them with my kids still in strollers, the shops we frequented, our water-ice stand. I contemplate how later occupants of “my” houses have altered the lighting, the paint colors, the layout, the furniture — what has changed, and what remains constant.

It’s the same with Philly Mag.

Some of this job has stayed the same — the questioning, the seeking-out of answers. Some of it hasn’t. Some of what a writer must do now to be distinguished from the pack seems to me to be a relentless tide of steamroller self-promotion, via selfies and tweets and Facebook shares and clever use of memes. (That last clause alone contains four things that didn’t exist when my kids were born.) I look on, aghast, at fellow journalists’ exhausting social media flogging, and I marvel: When did this work turn into whoever screams the loudest gets the most likes? But as we oldsters have sneeringly said about everything from the printing press to the combustion engine to digitalized currency, there’s no stopping progress, right?

I’ve been lucky enough to have a great run while magazines were having a great run. I got to work alongside giants in the industry — Herb Lipson, founder of this publication and the city-magazine genre; investigative pioneer Mike Mallowe; Tom McGrath, who taught me so much about the song on the page; Christy Lejeune, who edited my columns for years; and many, many more. But don’t even get me started on the technological challenges, for a generally tech-challenged person butting up against her 68th birthday, of digital magazine production in the work-from-home era. Just today, two different younger, savvier colleagues had to extricate me from computer quicksand I had somehow gotten myself into. (In re the coming presidential election, I assume both President Biden and the Orange Pretender have entire staffs wholeheartedly dedicated to that.)

I’m not saying I’ll never write for Philly Mag again. That would be excruciating for me to contemplate. Writing is a matter of habit for me. It’s how I work through how I think about the world. I keep getting news flashes about King Charles’s prostate, and I want to write about how I shouldn’t be, dammit! In what twisted universe does a flagging, failed institution’s increasingly creaky last bastion merit wall-to-wall coverage of its inner glands?

But that’s what journalism sometimes seems to have become.

Journalism, to me, was always about what’s real and true and what isn’t, the gap between perception and reality, what matters to us humans and what doesn’t — and shouldn’t. What’s helped me better understand how we’re alike and the ways in which we differ. What we are, and what we hope we could be — less interested, I would pray, in King Charles’s prostate, someday.

I may not be sure exactly what I’ll be doing in my retirement, but I do know this: I won’t spend it figuring out who the hell Gypsy Rose Blanchard is. I’ll spend it figuring out who Sandy Hingston is, outside the pages of this magazine. And figuring out who my granddaughters are while watching who they become, not filtering my time with them through a lens of how it might play out in the pages of a magazine.

One of my best friends in this journey through life has been Merriam-Webster, as in the dictionary. It informs me there are several meanings of the word “retire.” There’s “retire” as in going to sleep. There’s “retire” as in leaving a job. And there’s “retire” as in to “withdraw,” to “move or back away from something difficult, dangerous or disagreeable.” I’m buying into the first two, but not ever, I hope, that last. If I’m confronted with the difficult or dangerous or disagreeable, even in retirement, you’ll hear from me.

Thanks, friends, for the memories.

Published as “I Don’t Know Who Anybody Is Anymore” in the May 2024 issue of Philadelphia magazine.