It’s so goddamn beautiful.
It’s so goddamn broken.
Both of these things are true of Philadelphia at the same time.
A few months after I moved to Philadelphia, I was dating a geologist who liked to “urban explore,” which meant breaking into abandoned buildings around the city. He’d grown up in the woods across the water from Canada, and I think all this trespassing was his way of balancing out the weight of his degree from the University of Pennsylvania. It was a grey day, and we were driving south on PA 611 as it turned into Broad Street, coming back from an overnight camping trip, when he grabbed my arm and told me to pull over. I pressed my nose into the glass of my window, and stared up at the Divine Lorraine Hotel.
“Look at her,” he said, as we got out of my truck. I found this old habit of anthropomorphizing large objects into being women sort of annoying (that he would later send me angry text messages for months after we broke up, trying to convince me to believe that indeed he was a “progressive feminist,” is another story) but I was stirred and curious about the enormous stone building that looked from one side like a Parisian opera house, from another, brick and kind of shitty. I followed him around the corner as he walked east down Fairmount Avenue a few paces, hopped a fence, crossed a small empty yard with high, green grass, walked up to a short brick wall that was covered in robin’s egg blue spray paint, and without hesitation, climbed up a rickety wooden ladder that was leaning against the wall, and disappeared into the dark interior through an open first story window.
Once inside, it was hard to know where to put my feet. Everything that could possibly be stripped had been stripped. The wood from the floors, the tile, the wallpaper. It felt intimate, it felt vulnerable, to see a building’s insides like this. You could see where the stairs had once been because there were beams for a skeleton, but all the marble was gone. As we walked, carefully, through the laundry building into the main building, I tried to read every word scrawled on the dirty and peeling walls. You can probably live without it, but why?, and get your head into the clouds. Above a narrow passageway I wriggled up through, just Helen.
Without either of us saying anything, we both kept going up. We wanted to see the roof. It seemed obvious that was the thing to do. Passing through a room with salmon pink wallpaper that was peeling in on itself from opposite corners, I saw a small bureau, one of the only pieces of furniture I’d seen so far. I opened the top drawer. Inside was a Bible, and twelve pink cloth napkins. Dusty, but there. Still there, I thought, holding them in my hands. How many people had slept and shot up and photographed and pillaged and walked here, and still. It was so hidden. It was so open.
Finally, we saw light coming around a small door and the Geologist opened it and we scrambled our way on to the roof. We stood on the roof as the light died in the sky. Cars rushed in both directions on Broad Street, cop cars with their lights on, but no sirens.
The roof beneath my feet felt hard and sure. People had flooded even this surface with their colorful paint. It wasn’t that it had been a grand old building once, and then it had been left to rot and get covered with graffiti. It was that once it had been a grand old building full of beautiful, solid things and it had become a grand old building full of ideas and color and hollowness. It was beautiful, not despite its dirtiness and graffiti and brokenness, or preciously, delicately, because of them. Sometimes a thing is just beautiful because it is. Because it looks good. Because it feels good on your eyeballs and in your body.
Philadelphia is like that, all the time.
“Come here,” said the Geologist. He held out his hand.
I thought about the Irene McKinney poem, “At 24,” that was written on the chalkboard in my room. I was 24. I was a freak myself, but only in private, wrote McKinney. Dear Husband, Dear Our Father, Dear Tax Collector,/you don’t know me. I don’t know what I am,/but whatever it is, you can’t have me.
I thought about how you only get so many chances to move in the direction of the life you want.
My heart expanded and filled up with Philadelphia.
I moved to Philadelphia at a moment when the thing that mattered most was having a place that could belong to me. I moved from a small West Virginia town where I’d done AmeriCorps, and for which I’d fallen hard. And it had fallen for me, perhaps the scariest and most unexpected thing of all. For a while it had been all river swimming and blackberry cobbler and Kentucky derby parties and bluegrass music that chewed a hole straight into my heart. But then a feeling of not quite rightness had started to grow. It couldn’t belong to me. Those mountains. To some people, they meant everything, and though they meant a whole lot to me, they didn’t mean everything.
The man I was dating said, “I don’t think you really know what you want. You’re just leaving to leave.” His mother gave me a Smith Corona and told me, only half jokingly, that it couldn’t leave the state of West Virginia. If they hadn’t told me so hard to stay, I might not have fought so hard to leave. It became me against the world. It became me proving everyone wrong. I packed up the typewriter in its hard orange case and put it in the back of my pickup. I drove around America all that fall into winter, living out of the back of my pickup before I could face the idea of returning to the cities of the Northeast. Where could I live, I thought, that I wouldn’t hate? I couldn’t think of anywhere.
Humiliated to follow the lead of my college friends who had mostly moved, in a caravan, the seven miles from our main line Quaker college to Philadelphia, but unwilling to live with my parents in New York City, the ultimate in places that can never belong to anyone, I packed up my truck in the snow and drove it to West Philadelphia.
Transitional. This was the word people used to describe West Philadelphia.
I moved into a big Victorian group house on a tree-lined street with cracked and broken sidewalks and porches in a row you could see all the way down. My housemates were four smart and kind girls, friends of friends, all thin, all runners, all vegetarian, almost all working for organizations with the word “community” in them. They took me to potlucks, and roller derby games. They spoke Spanish and cooked kale and fixed their bikes in the living room, the tick tick ticking of the wheels going round.
In the first months I lived there, it was winter and our big house was impossible to heat. I lay there, on an air mattress, freezing and listening to the sound of someone crying, a sound that seemed to live in the walls. Sound traveled in that house like you wouldn’t believe. Every footstep. Every clanking of spoon against coffee cup. It was impossible to tell where the crying was coming from.
I was working a coffee shop job at Center City that required me to be there by 6:00 am. I wanted a job separate from the core of me. I would have tried anything. Each morning that winter, I got up in the dark, and tried to get dressed soundlessly. I pulled the door shut and went out into the snow and walked the two blocks from our house to the trolley stop at Baltimore Avenue, the main corridor of gentrification. The coffee shop that sold fair trade coffee across the street from the Sunoco with bulletproof glass, an Anarchist bookstore across from Insurance Auto Tag Services, and the co-op grocery store next to an abandoned lot. Each morning, a Korean war vet with nothing behind his eyes waited for the trolley with me. He had a slow, jerky gait and carried a square African straw bag. There were drunk UPenn students wandering around at all hours of the night. It wasn’t called University City for nothing. Everyone seemed to be getting their PhD in something. And yet. There was the man outside Elena’s Soul Lounge who sat on top of the newspaper dispenser and cried, asking for change through his tears. On board, the same woman and her boyfriend, his arm around her neck tight like vice grip. The 5:29 trolley always packed to the gills. Where were these people going, I wondered? Going to work or coming home? The people that run our world while we sleep. Now, I was one of them.
For the first time in my life I had all my books in one place. I put them up on bookshelves and took them down when I thought of something. I had a room with a door I could close and not be bothered. I started mapping out my novel on the wall with index cards and pushpins. I read Joan Didion. It’s the difference between writing and not writing. When I thought of things, I actually wrote them down. Coming home at 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon, I’d go into my room and close the door. I’d turn the space heater on and look out onto the cracked sidewalks.
Sometimes, in Philadelphia, the simplest things don’t work. Maybe it’s the ex-New Yorker in me, but it still boggles the mind. The city never plowed my street that winter, even during record snowfall, for example. Not once. The trolleys for example, when it rained or snowed there was always a problem in the wiring. We’re getting there is the motto of SEPTA, the transit authority. It’s so fitting. It’s so Philly. All that money and promise, and no guarantee it’s gonna get you where you need to go.
Sometimes we waited, in an animal herd in the dark of the morning at the 40th street transit center, for the trolley that never came. Often, even if it did come there wouldn’t possibly be enough room for everyone. We swarmed, we scrambled, but so many were left behind. Sometimes, I made it and sometimes I didn’t, and it made me think. Nothing I’d written or done or achieved in my life up until that point made any difference in the moment of trying to clamber on board. I’d been told, by my parents, by my supportive teachers in high school and college, that I was special, that I could do anything. There’s a reason why this column is called “the last city I loved” not “the last small town I loved” or “the last suburb I loved.” Though I’d been fighting against cities all my young adult life, chasing green campuses and forests and farmhouses, it turned out, a city was exactly what I needed at that moment. Only cities can shoot you down in this way, without any regard. I was not special, I realized, standing in the dark at the 40th street transit center.
When things did work in Philly, they worked in the most predictable ways. Coming home in the afternoon, I liked to play a game in my head where I guessed who would get off at what stop. It wasn’t a very fun game because it was the easiest one in the world.
Once, on the 34 trolley, I sat on the aisle next to a middle-aged black woman in a business suit and sneakers who occupied the window seat. She hoisted the straps of her handbag up to her shoulders and adjusted her skirt. “You getting off?” I said, ready to rise and let her by, as the trolley approached 37th street, the heart of the University of Pennsylvania. “Pshh,” she said. “I’m going to the very last stop. I’ve never been on 37th street in my life.” It’s not a very fun game because it’s one hundred percent about the color of your skin.
I looked the part. I was white and a girl and wore frayed jeans and flannel and carried tote bags. Walking on the streets at night, the policemen on bikes who wore uniforms saying UPenn or the specially contracted University City District, would wish me goodnight, from under street lamps. In their blue or yellow jackets, they’d ask me how I was doing and tell me to get home safe now. If they were there for anyone’s protection it was mine. And yet. There was so much fear in my neighborhood, but it wasn’t mine. I didn’t feel scared and I didn’t need to be protected from the neighborhood. I wanted to live in it. I wanted to feel it. I read Derek Walcott. [I] wanted the privilege/to be yet another of the races they fear and hate/instead of one of the haters and the afraid.
I was not a student anymore. I marveled at Penn’s frat row, again and again, the size of the houses, the music, the cars. The endless buildings that sprawled all over the neighborhood, all glass and chrome. I had no magic access card that could unlock buildings and gyms and special late night buses and all those classes. I was locked out, and that feeling unlocked something in me. Something like wonder. Something like hard work.
In the bright fluorescent lights of Suburban station, I served hundreds of people coffee and expensive pastries each morning. Men with Bluetooth headsets and watches, blackberries, and iPads, women with Prada bags and diamond engagement rings, and people rushing, rushing, everywhere. I served people who had gone to my fancy New York City prep school and my fancier main line college. On my breaks I sat in the glassed-in courtyard and watched a homeless woman arrange and re-arrange her shoes. I learned what busking was by going on a few dates with a man who did so in the train station, playing “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” on a clear plastic banjo.
I read things about Philadelphia. I read W.E.B. Dubois. I read Michelle Alexander. I read Buzz Bissinger. I read the paper. More people have been murdered in Philadelphia with guns since 9/11 than died in the crumbling towers.
A writer friend of mine said to me once, “Philadelphia could go from normal to revolution in twenty-four hours. In twenty-four hours, we could be in complete chaos.” And yet. It was so hidden. It was so open.
On my days off, I’d take walks. I’d walk to the 46th street El stop. I walked down Farragut, past Sansom, past an old building turned tenement with the words “The Brighton” etched into its crumbling facade. In front of it, kids played under the cherry blossoms that were just starting to bloom on the low trees. On the block below the elevated El train, grass grew high, high up to the tops of basement vents that had rusted flower knobs. There was a children’s daycare with streamers of all colors. Boarded up houses with posters of Obama’s face. The man who sold Rihanna CDs and Nigerian movies under a tent by the train entrance at Market street, rain or shine. It’s not that I didn’t understand what was hard and true about these streets. 46th and Market is a notorious drug corner. But it was a place that didn’t feel like it’d been spoken about and experienced to death. It felt new. It could be mine. It invited me in.
In the spring, my housemates sat outside in the backyard with jam jars full of coffee, rubbing away chain kisses from their muscled calves. They taught me to bike. I bought a heavy red Schwinn at a bikeshop that was next to a community acupuncture clinic. I clambered awkwardly on top of it, and pulled on a white Styrofoam helmet from middle school that my mom had mailed to me. Biking up the hills on Spruce street, I huffed and puffed, the pedals barely moving, while women with shaved heads and messenger bags that fastened with seatbelts smoked me.
I rode my bike all summer. To dance parties on boats that rocked in the Delaware, clubs in Northern Liberties, to ultimate frisbee games in Fairmount Park, to drag shows in Center City, to mud bike battles in Kensington, to photo exhibits in Fishtown. I sweated and sweated, pushing my bike through African Independence festivals and a procession of Catholics carrying saints on their backs. I went to queer anti-racist dance parties and house parties in third floor apartments where people played ukeleles and banjos and upright basses. I ate shredded hash browns and patty melts at all night diners, and, desperately full and tired and miles from home, told my friends to leave me behind, to save themselves! They giggled and pushed me home in the light rain, while I was too stuffed and drunk and tired to pedal. There were hills I thought I could not climb. I ached for West Virginia. I could still feel it there beneath my skin, tingling. But there was another feeling too–of getting closer.
My friends in New York got raises and stock options and moved every two months from sublet to sublet. My friends in West Virginia shared goats and had bonfires and stopped asking me to come home.
I worked, but not as much as I wrote, and I still made rent. I ate well. I had a backyard and I strung up lights and projected movies. I made a documentary film. There were community co-ops to give people cheap access to just about everything. Power tools. Photoshop. Local beef.
I quit my coffee shop job and worked at an independent bookstore and an alt weekly paper. I drank homebrewed beer. I got head lice. I moved to a two bedroom apartment with a bigger room with a better door I could close with more space for my books. I read Philip Roth. I read Jennifer Egan. I’m changing, I’m changing, I’ve changed. The ice cream trucks came out, and there was one that everyone said sold drugs. I bought drugs from the ice cream truck. There was a neighborhood drunk named Omar who’d run on stage during shows. There was saying hello at the corner store where I could get an egg sandwich and a cup of coffee for three dollars. There was watching Law and Order in the Vietnamese health food deli while I waited for the owner to make my tofu hoagie. No one I knew owned a TV. I got better at biking. I didn’t get so winded anymore.
I was becoming myself. I was becoming a person who wrote things and loved people and felt attached to a place. I was becoming a writer, which is the thing that is making me leave, of course. I’m leaving. In the fall, I’ll start a graduate program in writing, and it is the right thing, and I’m so lucky to get to do it. It’s what I wanted.
When I was eight years old I won a contest in Cricket magazine, the topic of which was supposed to be about your biggest wish. This is what I wrote:
One day I closed my eyes and wished with all my might that I was a real writer. As I opened my eyes again, I found myself in a strange place. I looked out the window and saw lots of children going to school and I wondered why I was not one of them. But as I wondered, my hands were still writing. The sound of voices could be heard outside my small attic room.
I find it both hilarious and sort of poignant, that even as a little kid, I had this overblown and romantic sense of what it meant to be a writer, but also the very true sense that for me, writing is not a profession or a passion. For me, it is a geographical space, a location. Writing is home.
I ended the piece with, “I will always want to be a writer.” I am struck again here, that I didn’t end the piece with, “I will always be a writer,” or even with the wish “I will be a writer someday,” but with a sense of perpetual want. Of want for want’s sake.
In Philadelphia, I remembered the want. I read Pam Houston. There is the neverending problem of desire. I read Cheryl Strayed. The useless days will add up to something.
Sometimes, in Philadelphia there was so little. There was not nearly enough. I was 24 and working shitty jobs and blowing free. I had something to say and no way to say it.
But the want began to add up to something. If you want something bad enough. I stopped worrying so much about whether I was fat or privileged or where I was from or where I would call home. I began to feel people in a new way. A woman on the trolley pulled a bottle of perfume from an IKEA bag that had a butterfly for a topper and put a dab on my wrist with fingers soft like a kid’s.
Sometimes, in Philadelphia there was only the want and a room with a door I could close, and I closed my door and I lived there.
Feature image via Creative Commons.