Monday, August 04, 2003

It's Only Divine Right

That nobody likes Philadelphia is one of the reasons I've always enjoyed coming back to it. I'm forever coming back to it, on buses and on planes, late in the evenings; and in summertime it is always storming when I arrive. Secretly, it's very exciting. The streets are empty at night, warm and close, the oldest buildings are wet, and it is not unpleasant to walk alone, should you feel confident in the soundness of your route, or in the gamble one takes purposing to find a bus at some point along the way. You will find people at this hour, of course, many of them city workers, or those involved in the production and distribution of baked goods; but in all you are left spying your way without passing a single soul for many blocks.

When you are as travelworn as I was last night, however, you do not walk, least of all when you have arrived at the international airport after many delays and too few meals. Should you arrive at PHL after midnight, there will be no train to take you to Center City; not only will there be no train, there will be no attendant at the terminal information desks, there will be no attendant at the transportation information desks; there is only the unflagging insistence of airport signs and markers that you continue to baggage claim and ground transportation. At the Philadelphia International Airport, "ground transportation" is an extensive queue of taxis, limousine and van shuttle services, with a $20 base rate to escort your soon-to-be-shystered buttocks into Center City. It shames me to think that I joined this line of hapless sheep before resolving to find the SEPTA bus terminal for the airport--which is about as easy as finding a deadly weapon in Iraq, I might add. After some anxiety relating to changing large bills for the bus fare and being uncertain as to the frequency of the runs, I was able to catch the route 108 to 69th street and transfer all the way back into the city via the subway shuttles--net gain to me $22.40 including tip. Today I was able to buy milk.

Part of the excitement when flying into Philadelphia relates to my traveling companions. When you fly to Denver, it's a perfect fit: everyone is white, they wear canvas hats and sandals, the older women have long straight grey hair and deep wrinkles, they are fit and attractive. I understand the people traveling to Denver just by observing them. I know what the tans are for, and the sunglasses, and the white T-shirts, and the strappy backpacks and mesh accessories and the bottled water and the books and the hats--oh, the hats! Young moms and their ponytails; I'm forever falling in love with young moms and their ponytails.

But you'll never make heads or tails of people traveling to Philadelphia. They're either black or they're like me, unremarkable. There's no overarching selling point to define the culture of the city, so there's no particular commonality, no giant stereotype beating you on the cranium. I understand the blacks based on their families and their histories; but what the fuck are the white people thinking? There's no natural beauty here--no bristling seaport, no adjacent mountain ranges or nearby wine-tasting valleys; the humidity is high and the air is not clean, and neither are the streets. They must, like, live here or something. The warm hand of commercialism has not descended on Philadelphia so singularly as Denver, San Francisco or Seattle; as a result, none of us know what the hell we are supposed to be about. Put simply, we don't know how to dress.

Denver has been figured out commercially, if ever the point of commercialism was to determine what people like and sell it back to them at exorbitant rates. The supermarket--nay, almost every major franchise in the city--has polished wood grain floors, an espresso bar, and some sort of "library" and lounge area. (The supermarket also doubles as an art gallery and a night club where live bands perform.) Everything is purposely, self-consciously, unspontaneously designed to sell not just bread, but community.

My growing suspicion is that it's very easy to live in a place of great physical beauty, but hard to suffer the people--unless the place also happens to be poor; unfortunately we can't all live in Cuba. I say this because I live in a sweltering hole and would never be able to afford to live somewhere nice. Inasmuch as this is my station, please allow me to elaborate: A beautiful place is where everyone wants to live--and that's why it takes an hour to drive into San Francisco at practically any time of the day. The more people want a beautiful home secluded in the wilderness, the more their neighbors will surround them, pushing further back to get further away; meanwhile their supermarkets sell back the community that they don't want to pay for in taxes. Oh the humanity!

As for Philadelphia, well. There is something refreshing about poverty when the alternative is being badgered by dreadlocked trust-fundafarians in the all white Boulder, CO--easily the acoustic guitar capital of the world--for money and cigarettes. One thing I will say about Philadelphia though: it's a nice place to live, but I would never want to vacation here. That's just depressing.