Where everybody knows your name (even if they can’t pronounce it).
It’s too bad that Donald Trump has never lived in Philly. It doesn’t matter if you want to or not, if you actually reside within the bounds of my city you have to rub shoulders with your neighbor and, in this rightly named “city of neighborhoods,” chances are your neighbor probably looks a lot different than you. Call me naive, but I think a few weeks in living in any Philadelphia neighborhood would change his mind about a lot of things. In any case, it sure changed me, and I can be pretty stubborn about a lot of things too.
You see, I’ve lived both the secure, rooted life of being surrounded by familiar things and familiar faces and the upside-down, helter-skelter, too-late-to-change-my-mind upheaval that comes from picking up and moving to create a better, different life in a foreign land. Okay, so it was only moving from south of the Mason Dixon to the true Up North (as we capitalized it in our southern minds), but Philadelphia sure seemed like a foreign land to me when I first landed on the shores of the Schuylkill River and couldn’t find a two-way street or a useable public bathroom that didn’t require a key and a security deposit.
One of the strongest memories I have from my first week here is the day I decided to search for a grocery store sans GPS or any navigational knowledge of the aging West Philadelphia neighborhood in which I found myself. My husband and I had arrived here sight unseen in a cross-country move that was both exhilarating and terrifying, leaving family and job security behind to pursue artistic dreams. With thoughts of our quickly dwindling savings constantly hovering in the back of my mind, I eschewed another fast-food night and set out in search of ingredients for dinner.
Picture me, a small town southern girl white-knuckling the steering wheel, passing rows of alarmingly decrepit row homes that loomed over the cramped streets, cars and pedestrians darting and plunging below, trolley wires and smog tangling the view overhead, the noisy voices of people, stereos and sirens at constant high volume all around me. I ran red light after red light, completely unaccustomed to craning my neck to the side in search of the small traffic lights placed out of the way of the trolley lines, but no one seemed to care unless I slowed down to avoid the cavernous potholes that emerged with frightening regularity — then cars zoomed around me in the bike lanes or into oncoming traffic and an ascending chorus of car and bus horns blared angrily. Finally locating a shabby-looking big box grocery store, I kicked away empty bottles and pizza boxes to pull a wobbly cart out of the corral and made my way inside.
Accustomed as I was to the constant construction and newness of the up and coming cities of the deep south, I wandered in a daze through what were to my eyes incredibly narrow and grimy aisles, dodging store displays meant for wider paths and aggressive shoppers hurrying to get a spot in the clogged checkout lines. “Where have we moved?” I thought, trying to adjust to the strangeness of my surroundings and find something familiar in inadequate light of the flickering florescence. This move was supposed to take us somewhere with more opportunity and promise than our old home afforded — we had taken a great leap of faith, but our focus had been on the jump, not on the landing. The perceived hostility of impersonal unfamiliarity cast a pall over my initial excitement over starting a new life, one that I had always dreamed about with shiny visions of better opportunity.
But even while these thoughts tumbled through my mind, I was greeted pleasantly by various fellow shoppers — for every person who elbowed past, there was another giving a kindly wave of the hand to take the right of way. I suddenly realized that while I was pretty much the only white person in this store, the familiar sense of being a trespasser, of being the “other” that I felt when in an unfamiliar neighborhood down south was noticeably absent. Here, everyone seemed much less concerned with who was sharing the line for the express checkout with them — a strange blend of anonymity and familiarity seemed desired and preserved by the crowds of people that I jostled through.
As the weeks went by, I started to realize that this melting pot mentality of the city was evident in every type of neighborhood. While people were much more aggressive and open about their feelings than southern politeness would ever allow, most seemed well used to living with each other, which had it’s own refreshing grace — everyone had managed to overcome the strangeness of a new home and had made a place for themselves here in a city that seemed much more accustomed to newcomers than the traditional neighborhoods in the small Florida towns of my formative years, or even the tiny southwestern villages where I spend my childhood as the only partly white kid in generations-old Spanish communities. In those places I had always been a bit of an outsider in one way or another, but here everyone was either new or seemed more connected to their history as an immigrant. Women in headscarves helped me find screws at the hardware store or explained my new insurance, Indian college professors were some of my regulars at the upscale restaurant where I waited tables, Haitian men gossiped loudly over the noise of the TV at the Laotian laundromat. People were used to seeing newcomers: strangers stopped to help me figure out which bus to take or gave me their opinions on the most desirable items at the local takeout spot. Similarly, people seemed much more used to seeing differing ideas put forth — other customs and lifestyles weren’t scoffed at so much or were even taken as a welcome seasoning in the pot. The small town way people turn and stare in hostile curiosity when you walk into a neighborhood joint was noticeably absent. I’ve since seen that it exists in various places in Philly, but it’s not an overall norm the way I felt it in other locations I’ve lived, mostly because those places were enclosed in some way, places where it was easier to choose whom we saw and whom we kept at arm’s-length.
When I first began to pay attention to the run up to the Presidential race last year, the rhetoric of exclusivity and the smug in-with-the-in-crowd mentality of a certain candidate seemed jarringly out of step with the world in which I now live; but there was also a ring of familiarity to it. It was one I’d naively thought I’d left behind, only to recognize that it lives on alive and well in any place that becomes a bubble or an “other-free” zone — even in the middle of an enormous, cosmopolitan city like New York, where this former reality TV celebrity calls home. But to hear these old “me-against-you” ideas taken up by so many people around the country, even by people I love or otherwise respect, I wonder what dark force erased the memories of these children of immigrants whose grandparents or great-grandparents first introduced to their family the idea of pursuing an american dream. All those stories that so many Americans are fond of recounting, of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, of their families’ hard drive toward betterment contain an unavoidable experience of otherness, of arriving somewhere new and having to carve out a place, even in the face of those hostile to otherness.
Philadelphia prides itself as a city of neighborhoods — a place that welcomes, enfolds, but also takes great pride in distinct, different origins, cultures, flavors. I think perhaps this is why the recent revival of insular, closed ways of thinking has harder climb to make a foothold here than in some other places in the state or the country. Now, I’m not saying that simply being a resident of a small town or a small neighborhood necessarily makes you closed off to the newcomer, but it can make it easier to narrow down your idea of who your neighbor is — rather than the stranger in need, like the Good Samaritan parable describes, to many people their neighbor has become someone who looks familiar, someone who seems like they bat for the same team. But if anyone truly considers themselves a believer in the eternity of the soul, we ignore the imperative nature of this truth to our peril.
As the writer and theologian C.S Lewis said, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors… Next to the blessed sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
Last year, my husband and I decided to make the move to Germantown and foolishly decided that we could move everything ourselves late in the day without hiring or asking for help. While running up and down the stairs with heavy furniture, I dropped a barbell on my foot and broke my toe. Barely able to walk, I could hardly carry light boxes, much less all the books and furniture still left. This left my husband alone in the intense heat of a city evening in the summer, trying to figure out how to haul everything in alone or who we could call at this late stage in the game while time ran out on our moving van rental. As he sat on the bumper for a moment, overcome by the heat and the impossibility of his task, a crew of hispanic house painters who had been loading up their van in the dusk, came up and asked if we needed help.
“I don’t have any way to pay you,” said my husband to their foreman, the only one who spoke English.
The kind stranger waved this away impatiently, saying, “Her foot is hurt and you can’t do this alone.”
In ten minutes, the rest of our things were swept out of the van and into our new apartment. Smilingly brushing off our thanks and my grateful tears, these men disappeared into the night like angels, obedient to the common decency of good people that now appears to be less and less common.
My husband and I have now been in Philadelphia for almost 6 years, and this place feels a lot like home. Although we had many struggles, his growing career as an artist and mine as a musician and teacher were fostered or even made possible by this city, so we feel attached to the place the way you can’t help but feel when you find shelter in the rain — because it was was here that people opened their doors and said, “This is a place you are welcome — come get dry.”
So listening to the damaging talk of isolation and separation that swirls in the atmosphere these days, I feel blessed to have so recently had a taste of the challenges that my ancestors experienced; even with many more advantages than those they were given, I had a little glimpse of what it feels like to be a foreigner, of being a stranger settling in an unfamiliar place, of having to create a new life from scratch without any connections or folks back home to send me money.
Recognizing that bubbles of security begin to form too easily around us whenever we have settled in one place for a time, I want to stay alert for the ways security can makes me less secure, for the ways I might decide I want to keep this all for myself and no longer hold the door open to those still out in the rain.