I just received a Christmas card from the first friend I made in Philadelphia. Her name is Barb. We lived in the same apartment complex. Both of us had babies, not much money at the moment, and privileged backgrounds. We were living now in-between worlds, in the "nice" part of Philadelphia, in quaint apartments with fireplaces, french doors and crown molding, attending events such as the Devon horse show and yet not able to afford to buy a cup of five-dollar tea while walking the grounds and admiring the show jumpers.
My issue was the economy and an ill-timed, if necessary, move; hers was a business-deal-gone-sour by her developer husband (who was then laid off). We were just hanging on, in limbo, killing time, happy to be with our kids and yet always worried, waiting for better times. Sort of reminds me of now, in some ways.
Barb helped me get used to the city and its environs, especially the swankiest part of the suburbs. She still belonged to three country clubs, and we'd go there for (free, or at least already-paid-for-as-part-of-the-fee) lunches. How do you do it? I asked. How do you pay the dues?
Barb explained that paying the dues was a priority in her life; to quit a club and try to sign up again later would cost, she said, $60,000. I didn't really understand the need to belong to three clubs (cricket, golf, swim), but dropping out of the scene was not an option for Barb. I did like hitting the clubs with her, although I felt, as a non-blonde on the Main Line, that I really did not fit in. I also wanted to work. I was not like her, in many ways. I am driven; I have aspirations for a serious career. I don't like to shop.
On the hottest day I can remember, Barb and I and our kids went to a bucolic club in the pastoral part of the Philly suburbs. This club had the most crystalline aquamarine swimming pools I think I've ever seen. It looked like heaven; all I wanted to do was jump in. All around us were women and kids, eating shrimp salad, sipping iced tea.
"Elizabeth, you do not want to go in the water," Barb said to me, smirking, as I juggled two babies, one on either hip. "There's sperm in there."
Apparently, this could have been true as it seemed that every woman around us was pregnant (and very tan and dripping with diamonds). "Hmm. Yeah. Definitely do not need that," I said quietly, sighing inwardly.
"Lots of Catholics here," said Barb, sagely, apparently not realizing I am one. "I'm a Presbyterian. Makes me feel awkward sometimes," she admitted.
A year later, I had a job, and a house. Barb, too, moved out of "The Gables," and bought a beautiful little Tudor in the same neighborhood. Her husband was pulling himself up. I think he's a big deal now, building again, the mini-Trump of the Main Line (or at least he spends a lot on advertising).
We sort of lost touch as I am not the best schmoozer and hence, do not make the ideal companion to drag along to club cocktail parties--especially ones where I don't know anyone else. But seeing Barb's Christmas card now, I recognize the signs of Philadelphia affluence--the $400 highlights, the pristine white clothes, the professional photography of the family unit on the dunes of the Shore.
Good for Barb. She hung on and rode out the famine. I moved off the Main Line and started working, when I could, like crazy. At first I wasn't sure if Philadelphia would be home, but now I know it is.
I currently live six miles from center city Philadelphia, four miles from West Philly. When I drive into the city, as I often do to meet my writers’ group, I take some back roads behind my daughter’s semi-urban elementary school, drive over the trolley tracks, and down past 69th Street station.
The houses quickly become attached in rows, increasingly decrepit. Bars become lounges become peep shows. If I were outside walking instead of driving, discarded chicken bones would crunch beneath my feet. (I speak from experience—one I’ve had in many neighborhoods of the city, actually. The bone thing bugs me, makes me feel like I’m in the Third World. I think the situation demands some signage—purely graphic. My daughter the artist has obliged.)
I have nothing against West Philadelphia—I know there are far worse places—but I wouldn’t be happy if my car broke down there late at night. The place feels neglected, abandoned. You seldom see people. You do see bars on windows. You see houses that are leaning over, the siding peeling, the porches about to collapse.
I actually really like one area of West Philly—University City, where Penn is, and Drexel. That part of the city is really only a few blocks from some dodgier areas.
One of my favorite restaurants, Marigold Kitchen, is in an in-between area, and I would consider living there. Maybe. Or maybe not.
As I drive down Chestnut Street, after thirty or so blocks, the landscape changes. It becomes more charming and collegiate, gentrified, less frightening. You start seeing the students and professors of Penn.
I had a few interviews at Penn several years ago. I flew out to the university from Iowa. I stayed in the Sheraton with a newborn.
I guess being in Iowa for a while had softened me. The constant sirens of the city made me nervous, made me think about bodily harm and crime. I didn’t like being eighteen floors up in that cramped city hotel. What if there were a fire? It didn’t seem that unlikely, judging from those screeching sirens.
I was told that if I worked at Penn it was “strongly urged” that my family live in West Philadelphia. It is a community-building thing that Penn espouses. I would be assisted with real estate purchases (which sounded like a good deal), but we still hesitated. What about schools? Besides the universities, the rest of the offerings were not so fabulous (serious understatement). Everyone in Philadelphia, it seems, goes for private schools.
In the end, I made the mistake of naming my price. There were audible gasps (but it wasn't that bad, believe me), and I did not get the job. That was a weight off my shoulders, actually; I worried about moving into the city, even though I had lived for quite a while in Brooklyn after college.
There were no chicken bones there, in New York. What crunched under my feet were empty crack vials, but otherwise the neighborhood was vibrant, with lots of people, and interesting stores. Back then, the crack thing didn’t particularly bother me, though now, of course (with kids) it would be far worse than the decaying remnants of KFC.
We ended up, unexpectedly, moving to Philadelphia anyway because my husband (who was desperate to return east, where we are from) finagled a job transfer there. We settled in a Main Line suburb, where we lived in an apartment (and where I met the aforementioned Barb) while thinking about a house. After moving—just when that lovely Iraq war was launched; ah, good times!—I was despondent to find that I couldn’t get a job at all. I couldn’t even get an interview for a job. That had never been a problem for me. I always seemed to get every job I went for. I was more than a little frustrated.
Being unemployed with hours to kill, I ended up taking my kids out to the zoo quite a bit. The city zoo, which is lovely, is smack in the middle of a terrible part of the city. Philadelphia, I found, is full of these disconcerting juxtapositions—tiny colonial-era roads packed with Escalades and Explorers, the charming next door to the creepy. Old and new. Rich and poor.
Still, despite being nervous sometimes, or just needing to readjust to urban life, my children and I explored the city. We took the trolleys. We visited the museums, which are amazing. I walked them for miles in a double baby jogger. I met many people, all of them—and this is what I love best about Philadelphia—even in the most questionable-looking neighborhoods, exceedingly nice.
After a few months of getting to know what life is like in Philadelphia, I started working part-time in a flower shop. I wanted to learn how to do flowers while I had some time. I made some beautiful rose and orchid arrangements, some 50-foot garlands of boxwood, mistletoe and eucalyptus. I also cleaned the bathroom until I told the store's assistant manager that I wasn’t for that, sorry. I didn’t mean to sound arrogant, but I can stay at home and clean the bathroom, and I probably should, sometimes. I was there for the flowers. (The bathroom wasn’t dirty, anyway.)
Then, out of nowhere, it seemed, I was offered a job teaching. In Delaware. I said no. It seemed too far away. Another state?
I got offered a different job teaching college courses in Philadelphia. I said yes. I got to know the East Falls, Manayunk and Mount Airy neighborhoods. Except for not being able to park your car (a tremendous problem in some areas of the city), they are great. Restaurants, funky stores, big, beautiful old houses, running trails—everything I like.
Then the flower-shop owner told me he was starting a school in North Philly. He asked me to guest teach. I agreed, but I wasn’t sure where North Philadelphia really was. Yeah, I found out. I should never complain about West Philly.
I worked with kids who were ESL learners, the children of recent immigrants. We talked about how to speak, read and write in English. They were highly motivated kids, but some were very meek. Some tried to be too tough. I wasn’t scared and I didn’t act scared, and they slowly warmed up.
We had some good sessions, but all in all, I didn’t want to drive into North Philly. I didn’t like the way my flower-shop boss kept snapping digital pictures of me while I was teaching. It made me really nervous. He also seldom paid me, and unfortunately, I can’t work for free.
I focused on my college students. I learned the back roads from Bryn Mawr to Gladwyne to 76 to East Falls. Then I learned how to take City Avenue from my new house.
Always in Philadelphia the urban bits and the peeling infrastructure is speckled with hidden pockets of dells and lawn and creeks. Turning a corner anywhere in this area is a surprise. An ancient stone row house sits two feet from a major highway. An old mill juts out into an intersection. A Victorian mansion looms in between hideous 1950s apartments. There is no zoning, it seems, or very little planning.
The whole area is like this—an abandoned bubble gum factory is stuck in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Until it closed down, people tell me that the smell was nauseating. You may like bubble gum (I do, except if people are smacking it or pulling it from their mouths), but you don’t want to smell bubble gum boiling in thousand-gallon tanks. It’s just a little cloying.
I now work with wealthy kids in the suburbs, mostly high school seniors, teaching them writing and literature. My students tend to write about their summers in their family’s beloved beach house, or their trips to the Caymans or Colorado. Sometimes they go on safari.
I mention this not to rip on them. I grew up this way, too, attending a private girls’ school for years, taking elaborate vacations. But it’s just a good example of the strangeness of Philadelphia, how six or eight or two miles might as well be a thousand, how privilege can exist so close to condemned buildings, how a lacrosse game or a Cricket Club luncheon can take place so near the site of random shootings. How people who are unemployed or underemployed or who are simply the "working poor" can live anywhere here, and these people can be right next to you, and we need to be conscious of each other, not live in oblivion.
I read recently that a girl in an inner-city writing program wrote about her hometown (she was from North Philly, I think) as “Killadelphia.” That struck me. It may certainly be true about some areas, and yet, this place, even in its scary areas, is also full of love. It’s a place I now love. Philadelphia is still a mystery to be explored, and to be better understood.