In August, when you move to Philadelphia, you pack your father’s little sedan to the brim, just as if you were going back to college, and you drive all night through the foggy Appalachian foothills, trading off every one hundred miles, listening to staticky rock and roll to stay awake. In the early morning, the highway opens up on the bowed banks of the Schuylkill River and the high, canopied hilltops of Fairmount Park. Beyond, you see to the bricked bungalows of Boathouse Row, the marbled esplanade of the old waterworks, the pediment of the art museum, and the grandeur of the Philadelphia skyline: City Hall and Comcast Tower and One and Two Liberty Place. Seeing a city’s skyline for the first time, and being twenty-three, it is impossible to avoid the surging feeling that in this place quite anything is possible. This will be true, though not in the way you expect it to be.
You stop off near 15th and Pine Street, in Center City, near the rather exquisite Rittenhouse Square, and immediately you feel immensely silly for living there when you remember that you’re unemployed and your last apartment, in Boston, was a glorified tenement that you shared with eight other people. Still, you remember that chronic unemployment and cramped brownstone apartments are what typify your generation as young adults living in a city, at least according to the copious amounts of television that you watch. After you unpack and your dad takes you to Target for a dish rack and a chef’s knife and a trashcan and a frying pan, after he takes you to the grocery store to get you something to eat, and after he leaves for Cleveland, you sit on the floor of your big-kid apartment surrounded by your outdated boxes of dorm supplies, and fight the crippling feeling that you should have driven away, too, that this was all a mistake. It’s something you chalk up to nerves and the heat.
You live in Rittenhouse because your girlfriend’s mother insists that you and her daughter live somewhere “safe,” since she is always telling you how the city just isn’t what it used to be. At first, she insists on you living in a place that has a doorman. Your compromise is to settle for this overpriced little walk-up on Pine Street. Of course, love is what brings you to Philadelphia in the first place, or at the very least it is the ghost-like idea of love. Those first days, as you explore Philadelphia’s perfect grid on your beloved Schwinn Voyageur and meet the few connections that have come your way, you start most conversations the same way: “Oh, well I moved here to be with my girlfriend,” a phrase you adore for its chivalry and wear like a suit of armor, despite its weight.
After about a week of bachelorhood, screwing together IKEA furniture and taping your posters on the walls, she moves in, too. What is there to say about her? It is difficult, as later you will hold the dichotomy of so much good and so much trouble in your mind with a certain simultaneity: she possesses a capacity for insightful observation so broad and deep that you’ll never really understand how much or how intensely she sees the world. She is a slight girl who you will take great affection in referring to as your “little lady.” Her eyes are large, hazel stones that move slowly to take in the seeming entirety of the universe. She possesses a tenderness you find comforting and a silly streak you find thrilling and a depth of love that you believe to be mountainous and vast. You remember how you tell people that you’re dating, “the prettiest-girl-in-the-whole-wide-world,” in part because of the cooing sound they made in response was a reassuring pat on the back for being such a romantic, though in the end such romanticism will be peeled away from you like a layer of your skin.
The heat of that Indian summer is a veneer to your elegant domesticity. You spend days riding your bike about the city, networking and going on interviews. She starts her work in research at a dusty private library. In the evening, you make simple dinners together and go on nighttime walks about the city’s grid of blocks to point out all the places you’ll try, someday, when there will a little extra money for such things. You hold those three months as a good and tenuous thing, which you imagine you will enjoy much more in hindsight, well after you’ve “made it,” that you will be able to look back at that early time in Philadelphia and say, “Well, we weren’t quite sure what would happen but we worked hard and had each other and it all came together.” Parts of this will be true, but not how you wanted it to be. One night, you come home to a dark apartment and hear your girlfriend sobbing in the bedroom—I’m not good enough, I’m not good enough—she says over and over. In that moment, you have no idea what to say and later you will look back and realize that even then, in those beautiful months, things were falling apart.
Everyday you wake up and put on a different face to meet the working multitudes of professionals, fellow alumni from your high school and college and friends of friends and friends of your parents. As you talk to these people, you become a budding lawyer or fundraiser or event planner or higher education administrator—you are passionate about working with kids, the homeless, the disenfranchised populations, beating cancer, training immigrants, and counseling college students. The only thing you discover in this time is how easy it is to be just about anyone at age twenty-three. The idealistic notion of having a job hunt in Philadelphia converge on your destiny is the first airy layer stripped away from you. The illusion of finding your life’s work under florescent lights, cubicle walls, and endless applications evaporates into air. In truth, the only work that you love and find meaningful is reading books and writing down what it is you think about them, but this is still buried several layers deep and you won’t come to it for a good long while.
On a cold, wet day, right before Halloween, now three-months into your search and becoming rather desperate for a job, you are late and frazzled on your way to a meeting with an influential developer, where you hope to gush about your soul’s passion for Urban Planning. On your bike, while crossing the street, you never see the car coming—suddenly you’re in the air, all the breath compressed out of your lungs as you land with a heavy thud. As you lie on the ground, rain pelting your face, you call the developer right away and tell him you won’t be able to make it, that you’ve been in an accident. Pain and adrenaline stop you from seeing how silly this is, and as the crowd forms the questions ensue:
“Are you OK?”
“Are you a student?”
“What hurts? How’s your head?” (You’ll learn later that it was bleeding quite a lot, even if you could only feel the dreadful throbbing in your arm.)
“Do you live around here?”
“Where were you going?”
“What’s your name?”
You close your eyes and feel the rain on your face and a kind barista from a nearby coffee shop covers you in her apron. In the distance an ambulance sounds. For the first time, you realize, those sirens are for you.
Most of what you come to understand about this accident will come later. First, it will be the facts: A twenty-three-year-old woman named Jazmin tried to stretch out a yellow light a bit too far. Your head collided with her windshield, lodging half your helmet in the glass—the helmet saved your life, otherwise leaving your brain and skull a pulverized mess and you, as a doctor friend will later tell you, “DOA” at the hospital. You’ll learn later that you’d need stitches for the laceration on your scalp, that you obliterated the tip of your right ulna and ripped off a portion of your triceps, and later, when you meet the surgeon who cobbled your arm back together, he’ll tell you how the bone in your elbow “looked like little tic-tacs.” You’ll learn that the girl who hit you was driving a twenty-year-old Ford Taurus. You’ll imagine that she was late for work, and with that you’ll feel slightly better.
Later, when you’re lying alone in the ER, after they sprayed your elbow with iodine and stitched your scalp and made sure your spine wasn’t broken, you will have the inarticulate moment of a feeling so powerful that it will be many months later until your mouth can wrap itself around the word for all that horror and pain, and when you first utter that word aloud it feels pathetic and trite: loneliness. You were alone. Death came knocking and three inches of Styrofoam was the only thing between you and a lonely finality. This moment, this cold breeze of death through your chest, strips from you a great many things, and never in your life will you feel so far from your friends and family. When your girlfriend arrives, you sense all the tremendous deficits between you, that in your weakest moment, in your awful heart, the woman you told yourself you loved for three years is not the one you want by your side, that she cannot, in fact, help you at all. This, however, is something that for a long time will lie hidden among the morphine and the pain, something you won’t come to understand until much too late.
In November, with your arm still in stiches, you and your girlfriend ride the bus to New York to take your mind off all that happened. You stay with an old college friend and, for those two days, you’ll feel like a real human being again. Before your woeful bus ride back to Philadelphia, the dread you feel about heading once more into the depths of unemployment and brokenness will be so palpable that your college pal, as busted as all twenty-three-year-olds are in New York, will buy you and your girlfriend brunch at The Popover Café on Amsterdam, on the Upper West Side. The love and generosity of this act will lodge deep in your heart in the most innocuous way. Savor it: the Popover Café will close by the end of the year, an omen in retrograde.
When you return to Philadelphia, and spend a depressing week dazed on Oxycontin and gripping and re-gripping your shattered arm, it is difficult to avoid the serendipity bubbling in your heart, but you must. When the University of Pennsylvania calls to offer you a job in student services, resist the urge to call it recompense or a leveling out of fate. When you build a new bike to replace the one crumpled by the Taurus, set aside any cosmic significance when you pull the frame of your creamy Lotus Odyssey out of the scrap heap of the local co-op—and while it is good to love and cherish something built with your own hands—riding a rolling metaphor of your personal resurrection is a weighty and fool-hardy way to get to work. The worst of this resurgence is the falsity of believing you’ve “made it,” looking at the six-inch purple scar on your elbow and trying to ascribe it in your mind as a crescent-looking sign of your toughness. Remember how confident and eager Duncan was to be entertained by Macbeth at Inverness for the evening.
Into the New Year, things start to come undone—your old college friend visits and you feel so alive by the change that for those two days there is an unsettling in your heart. You and your girlfriend start to fight with an earnest intensity that you won’t have seen in your previous three years together or even thought possible. You had made it through so much: long-distance and moving-in together and an apocalyptic fall, all curling towards this perfect winter of blissful togetherness, your bruised arms hung up in monument. Yet at the end of that road is only each other, waking up next to a woman that, you soon realize, you only used to call “the-prettiest-girl-in-the-whole-wide-world,” and you won’t remember the last time you called her that at all. Slowly, you stop saying anything of significance to each other. One Sunday, in February, while walking home, all this frustration bubbles up such that you snap at her and she, in quiet response, simply walks quickly away from you. As you stand on that street corner, you watch as she leaves you there, block-by-well-planned-block. She won’t look back.
On a wet, miserable day in early March, you break up with her, an admission of utter failure for your six living months together. Chaos unfolds. You head back to New York to take your mind off things, and you end up drinking yourself sick. You spend part of the next morning puking on Riverside Drive and feeling awful and embarrassed. In truth, the root of this sickness will be with you in one way or another for at least another six months. Back in Philadelphia, your now ex-girlfriend moves home to the suburbs, leaving you to live in your ex-girlfriend’s parents’ apartment—they had never put you on the lease. There will be a day that you come home from work, broken-up and unmoored, having had so much stripped away from you, and you will be unsure of who you are or how you got here. In the end, this will be a good thing.
Philadelphia, you come to learn, in addition to being the, “City of Brotherly Love,” is also known as “The City of Neighborhoods,” but what locals tell you this amounts to is Philadelphia being a “block-by-block” city, a piecemeal framework of nicely-tended row houses that transitions into bombed out wrecks without any warning, or how heading the wrong direction from a hip bar in Northern Liberties can put you in the drug-ridden, impoverished area of North Philadelphia if you’re not careful. You find that this comes to reflect your bare life, where a lovely moment of being out to dinner with a new friend might crumble into crippling self-doubt and loneliness: how did I end up here, in Philadelphia? Eventually, this patchwork nature inspires in you a sense of fantastic, careless adventure. One warm May evening, you are sitting outside, eating pizza and drinking beer with a woman and her husband who you know deeply as your friends. She says to you that, “this is our last hipster outpost.” Beyond, ahead of you, the urban decay of Overbrook takes over past 50th Street. You look out on the supposed destitution of West Philadelphia and imagine you are in ancient times, at the edge of some map that reads, “here there be dragons.” Jason had his dragon at Colchis, Theseus had his Minotaur on Crete, Odysseus had his cannibals in their city of Telepylos, and you will have found your own monsters in Philadelphia. In the growing evening, you understand that you are coming to know these fiends well, and that their fire is building in you something ultimately worthwhile. In the depths of spring, you doubt if you will ever be able to leave this place, Philadelphia. Its perfect grid and four-story buildings begin to feel like an endless labyrinth. One day, you will decide to put your hand along one wall and walk, sure that it will lead you out.
You find your way out through a thousand small ways: you start making your bed every morning and going for long runs along the Schuylkill River. In the evening, you read more and more and write down your thoughts in self-assigned English essays. After a time, small magazines and even a few newspapers will take an interest in these things, but that also will come much later. Still, you have a harder and harder time pretending to be a fundraiser or a lawyer, and, with so much stripped, away you feel yourself calcify around the tender and formerly-embarrassing truth—your passion is simply to read and think about those things that people write. These are the things that build your true self, a task only possible after losing all those layers that sheltered and carried you to Philadelphia.
Your life in Philadelphia will be shorter than you would ever have imagined: ten months. How could so much happen in such a period of time? You tell people this and they try to do the math themselves—August to June, a blink of an eye, really. You get a job in a different city and it will be a good, stable thing. On your last day in Philadelphia, you wake up early and run along the river—up the steps of the art museum, just like Rocky and the thousands of tourists before you, and you watch the sun rise over the city. It will be the Fourth of July, but, remember, avoid serendipity. You father drives back out, and again you pack his sedan up to the brim, except this time it won’t feel like going to college. It will rain the whole way to Boston.
Philadelphia compresses in your mind: all the awful moments fit into one tight, sticky ball that lodges in your throat from time to time. The good things will crop up in disorienting, unexpected moments, like a snowflake landing perfectly on your nose in a flurry: buying olive oil at the Italian Market, morning runs along the river, afternoons with a beer at a dive bar on Spruce Hill, a Phillies game when your father visited and a generous fan gifted you both tickets along the first base line. You take strange joy in telling people about this little gem, Philadelphia, along the eastern seaboard: the fifth most populous city in the country, the largest urban park in the world, the nation’s first library and university and the oldest residential street, the nation’s most murals and largest municipal building. People ask if you hate Philadelphia and you say no—you just ran into some bad luck there. You come to believe that fate is a sort of revisionism: you like the person you are becoming, and as the piled up sum of all those past experiences, including Philadelphia, Philadelphia has become vital to your being, to being that person. Everything that happened becomes so tightly woven in your mind that you won’t be able to tease apart the good from the bad, and you come to wonder if this is why people say, “things happen for a reason.” Here is how you come to understand it: If you like who you are, and your past has brought you here, then all those moments must have had a very real purpose—to come to this place and to be this person, a motley mash of popovers and a car crash, of bike grease and a rainy day in March.
One day in Boston, in late summer, you are riding your bike home on a golden day and a memory comes to you: a June evening in a bedroom-bar above an Ethiopian restaurant in the wilds of West Philadelphia, packed shoulder-to-shoulder with a new friend, listening to a bluegrass band setup in the bay window as they howled out the open windows and into the cool night beyond. You remember leaving Philadelphia a few days after that bluegrass evening, but in that moment, in that bar, you are struck by the sudden euphoric joy of Philadelphia, and of the pure glee of realizing that you might just make it after all.
Rumpus original art by Claire Stringer.