We reached Philadelphia a little before sunset. I had not been to this city before, not really. I drove through it once without having an opportunity to stop, whereas in this case we were going to be hosted for one night by a friend, Greg, in a house belonging to some of his family. One night was only one night, but I do qualify it as a visit.
The house sat in a row of townhouses squarely within Society Hill, and purportedly Benjamin Franklin had designed it. I’m well aware that Franklin’s name and likeness are tossed up on almost anything in that city, and I don’t care for Franklin or any of the so-called Founding Fathers, but the house was enviably gorgeous in its multicentennial age. The chance to stay in the neighborhood meant little in terms of how posh it was, though I found myself intimidated at times by others’ privilege and my own luck; I still reveled at being surrounded by one of my favorite architectural styles. And the ego of Philadelphia felt familiar to someone living in Boston. Philadelphia’s hegemonic narrative seems to pride itself on birthing order in this country, through governing bodies and pieces of paper and military regiments, while Boston’s hegemonic narrative prides itself on birthing chaos, through riots and sabotage and other semi-proletarian upsets. All embellishments, all masks for the real motives and personalities of the Founding Fathers or Sons of Liberty, but I can’t criticize the mythology of the Liberty Bell without extending the same to the Old North Church.
I said I wouldn’t make this a travelogue, and it’s already veering that way. I will try to keep such a gaze trained only on people in power.
My first memories of Philadelphia are good brick buildings, parking sensibly but unexpectedly included in the middle of the street rather than simply using the sides. The streets themselves— at least downtown— are narrow, colonial relics. The house in Society Hill was warm, humid, creaky, with four stories and a basement and a lush back garden and a rooftop patio made out of raw wood. That evening everything looked pink and red and gold until the sun was asleep.
We went to dinner at a German-style beer hall on South Street. Although we’d given some thought to sampling some iconic cheesesteaks, other animal products called to us more. I shared a plate of smoked trout paste on crispbread, then a suitably enormous bratwurst, and I had a roasted mackerel dish all to myself, and finally split a dessert that I don’t remember very well because I sent it all down with a significant amount of Dunkelweizen. I couldn’t afford much food out of my own pocket afterward, but that was a fair trade for me also handling eventual hotel expenses. We walked off some of the fullness in our bellies by strolling down South Street for a little while, Greg leading the way; it was bright, crowded, and pleasantly unsanitized, in the sense that lingerie boutiques and sex shops abounded. My favorite browsing experience was at Condom Kingdom— deliberately garish, decorated as boldly as a Rainforest Cafe, overflowing with absurd erotic novelties, a far cry from the tasteful and muted atmosphere of my local Good Vibes.
Because of the heat, the beer, an unfamiliar bed, several wailing emergency response vehicles outside, and tension about completing the next leg of the trip, I slept very poorly and woke on Sunday morning with a splitting headache and the deep concern that I might not endure a ten hour drive to Greenville. But I had few realistic remedies, and I must thank our patient host. Though not a Philadelphia resident himself, Greg got us in the direction of a place suitable for a tiny breakfast and then, perhaps inadvertently, he helped my condition by taking us through the nearby park on a morning constitutional. The park was warm but not yet swampy, and it had wonderful dogs. We paused for a few minutes at a statue of George Washington, observing his likeness through three pairs of queer, leftist eyes. I discovered a dying cicada, its twitching body a brilliant, iridescent green.
My husband and I embarked on the next leg not long afterward.
D. Llywelyn Jones
To be continued in part 3.