The first time I saw a prostitute, I was in Philadelphia. Now, I can’t be completely certain she was a prostitute because I didn’t ask her, and it was also a Sunday afternoon, most definitely NOT the proper time for a lady of the night to be walking around, so she might have just been a stripper. She wore a lacy white dress that covered up only enough of her body so she wouldn’t be arrested for indecent exposure, had painted fingernails longer Edward Scissorhands’, and she was drunker than an on-air CMT personality. Prostitute was a SAFE assumption.
I’d been living in Philadelphia for about a month at this point. I was twenty years old and because I had not visited Vegas or Amsterdam and knew only of Red Light districts from the humanizing words of the great Wyclef Jean I had not seen a prostitute in my life. So this was it. I saw my first prostitute, a development that led me to skip to the next song on my IPod shuffle and go back to looking at the concrete outside my subway window. Certain shocking images become ordinary after you’ve experienced Philadelphia.
I was back on Thursday for the first time, able to stop there on my return from a trip to New Jersey for work. It had been five years, which is just weird. And man had I missed it.
My parents and I drove up to Philadelphia all the way from Kansas City. All my life I wanted to live in a big city. Johnson County, Kansas, as monotonously, beige-ly beautiful as it may be, had inspired me to reach for a place where the faces and the fences weren’t always white. Here was my chance.
A newspaper I had never heard of and only discovered because of a listing in a fraying old book straight outta Hogwarts that was hidden in KU’s library had hired me as the summer sports intern. It was called the Bucks County Courier Times. Bucks County, assuming you’ve never heard of it, is Johnson County east. The paper’s office was located in Bucks County’s best-known city, Levittown. This city was built by a private company after World War II. It set the blueprint for suburbia, a plan that called for making every house look exactly the same as the crappy house next to it. Wikipedia tells me Mr. Levitt could knock out one of these houses in SIXTEEN minutes. I can barely finish eating a turkey sandwich in that time. To say the least, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural expertise had not been consulted.
No way in the Sam Hill was I going to live in Levittown. I was going to live in the city and commute.
We neared Philadelphia late on a Saturday afternoon, and I could see the skyscrapers. They rose above the trees, towering concrete polygons of confirmation. This was a city, man, and I was living here. I was living in a cosmopolitan metropolis, where the tattoo parlors and music venues of South Street mixed perfectly with the businesses on Broad Street and the buildings where America became America in the historic district.
This assumption would have been true, except I wasn’t living there. Not exactly anyways. I was living in West Philadelphia. Yes, cue the Fresh Prince theme song.
West Philadelphia is part Will Smith’s famous neighborhood, part gentrification at its finest. I lived at 39th and Ludlow in a brown brick house covered with windows on all sides. I surmised that the structure was built two centuries earlier, probably as a place for Benjamin Franklin to pound gin, invent bifocals and seduce women who wore large blouses.
The house was built at a crossroads. A few blocks to the north, lay the University of Pennsylvania. This is the gentrified, or as they say “Penntrified area, of West Philadelphia. Gothic buildings stood atop an expansive, grassy urban oasis. The inhabitants, the future yuppy business leaders of America, walked to summer school classes.
They wore kind of a lot of Ralph Lauren and too often assured me that Harvard was not actually the toughest, best Ivy League school. You can probably guess which school they thought was. Hint, they didn’t say Dartmouth, Yale, Brown, Cornell or Princeton.
A few blocks south and west, lay “the neighborhood.” The Penn people I knew always just called it that. Part of it began next door to my apartment, at a jumble of town homes set off by a wiry fence. Somebody, I was told, had been killed there about a year earlier. Odd storefronts populated 40th street behind it. In particular, I remember one store that sold tropical fishes and was never open.
Given the age – probably 100 years – and upkeep – probably none – of our apartment, troubling I woke up one morning and a large black bug was crawling on the floor next to my sandal. I’d never seen one before but quickly realized that HOLY SHIT it was a cockroach, a freaking cockroach that was probably laying eggs in my sandal so one day its offspring could sprout and somehow insert themselves into my foot, spreading through my marrow into the rest of my body and turning me into a hideous super villain called Roach Man whose evil heart could never be salvaged. Not cool.
I started seeing roaches all the time and usually in the mornings. This disturbed me deeply. If they were appearing in the mornings that must have meant they were active at night, when my sleeping body was most vulnerable to their filth. My friend joked that roaches were like spiders. Indisputable science, of course, says we eat like eight spiders in the course of our lifetime as we sleep. She concluded that I would be eating roaches. I slept with the lights on that night, somehow convincing myself the glow of halogen was a suitable repellent for a roach.
My first roach, my first prostitute, this neighborhood exposed me to so many of the non-beige aspects of life. Sometimes in the mornings, a handful of tiny green vials would litter the sidewalk on the side of our building that faced the townhomes. Drug lesson 101. Crack-cocaine is transported in tiny vials that are often of a green tint. Two and two together: Some of the men who lingered outside my window at night were smoking crack.
One Friday night, I returned home from work and decided to go for a run. A man I hadn’t seen before waited outside. He asked me if I ran for the Penn track team. He told me a story about how he was planning to visit his son up in Trenton, about forty-five minutes north of the city.
“I just need the bus fare,” he said.
He pulled a rumpled bus schedule out of his pocket as though this would tilt my thoughts from cynicism to charity. Maybe it worked. I gave him a five-dollar bill. He snatched the money from my hand without saying thank you and walked away.
I hated Philadelphia for a while. People weren’t as nice as they are in the Midwest, where we take bullets for strangers. They were blunt and pronounced . The cockroaches were bad and the mice were worse in my apartment. I started to hate even the silly things, like how Philadelphia people smothered mustard on hot pretzels. For the love of G, I just wanted some nacho cheese.
I grew particularly frustrated one day. It was a Friday and I had the day off from work. Gray clouds blanketed the sky. It drizzled off and on, and temperatures were low for late June.
I took the SEPTA from my apartment to downtown and just started walking. I had no destination in mind. I don’t think I had a map or anything. It was like the scene from Forrest Gump where he just takes off running, except I didn’t have enough hormones to grow a beard yet.
I stopped in a few stores, like a Foot Action, a Border’s. I carried a book in my Royals backpack, stopping to read in a park. I kept walking. After a couple of hours the city changed around me. The buildings weren’t quite as tall
My legs felt like they were going to fall off, but I had to keep walking. Italian flags were unfurled outside windows. Large barrels of ice entombed fresh fish. Churches appeared on what seemed like every block. Music played that sounded Central American but had to have been Italian because I realized I had inadvertently stumbled onto the Italian Market area of town, on the south side of the city.
A little farther down the road, I saw Geno’s, and Pat’s. I’d gone a month in Philadelphia without buying a cheesesteak. I went to Pat’s and ordered one wit cheese whiz and witout onions. Delicious. I sat on a bench, reading my book and watching some younger people play basketball at the nearby park.
I arrived home exhausted. One of my roommates was watching “The Flight of the Concords,” which had just debuted on HBO. I started watching with him and his friend. Those of us who dwelled in that decaying apartment were more diverse than the cast of Degrassi.
I had set up the summer sublet from a Penn student named Michael, who was a member of Opus Dei*, and was sleeping in the room that had previously been Ibi Jabber’s. Jabber played basketball for Penn and was currently trying out for some NBA teams. Some of his oversized sneakers were still splayed on the floor of my closet.
*I can only assume he was an Albino monk who stabbed himself with a cilice in his spare time because everything Dan Brown writes is GOSPEL.
My roommates were Brandon, Cameron, Jack and Sean-Tamba. Brandon was a fellow intern at the paper. Cameron played basketball for Penn and spent half the summer in New York interning for Goldman Sachs. Jack was an incoming freshman basketball player. Sean-Tamba was the president of the UPenn college republicans. He was black, from a Catholic school in Cleveland. He loved country music. He was dating a Mormon girl at the time. At nights, sometimes he would fall asleep listening to Fergie, though he swore to me that wasn’t the case and I was hearing things.
Our group didn’t become close friends, but we ordered food, watched TV and movies together, you know, the stuff busy people do when they have a little bit of spare time to hang out. I got to know Sean-Tamba, or S.T., the best. I won’t mention his last name because I seriously know that one day he will be the rising star of the Republican party, and the opposition would be able comb this blog for dirt. It would learn that he listened to Fergie, a crippling blow for any political campaign.
I went to sleep that night and didn’t even care about who might be smoking crack outside the window or what type of roach was planning to wake me up in my sleep. Philadelphia was growing on me. I was losing some of my stupid white, suburban notions that had been planted inside my head like a lawn-of-the-month winning display of Bermuda grass.
My final night in the city, S.T. and I went to a nearby diner and ordered brownie sundaes. I wish I could say what we talked about. That would make this essay a little better, but I don’t quite remember. I assume we talked about the future, my life back in Kansas, starting our fall semesters at school.
The strangest thought entered my head. I was excited to go home, to start my junior year of college, but I didn’t feel like leaving.
Thursday, I rode with a friend through South Philly. We were going to Pat’s to get a cheesesteak. It was nighttime, and not a trace of humidity hung in the late summer air. We had the windows down.
Cars were parked parallel in the middle of the street, a Philadelphia custom. An elderly black woman was hunched over on the sidewalk, staring at her cell phone, helplessly looking like she couldn’t figure out how to text or call. The same seedy liquor store seemed to appear block after block after block.
My friend was trying to describe how she felt about all this, how she felt about Philadelphia, as we turned on to Passyunk toward the Italian market area. Philadelphia is not like New York, the world’s capital for everything. It’s not like Chicago, modern, clean and hip. Philadelphia has those all those things but it is different. It’s gritty. I used that word to describe the city, and she considered the choice perfect.
Enjoyment doesn’t come easy at first; it’s earned. I miss the gritty.