I complain about Philly. I whine about crime, drugs, noise, traffic, and jab at the wayward manners of northerners. Philadelphians often offend my southern sensibilities, but this city is having an effect on me - mostly for the best. I’m growing ruthless at trapping mice, driving a bit more aggressively, and speaking directly to the point.
And when required to stand my ground, I’m learning to summon my inner Philly woman.
This month, we returned to Philadelphia after spending the summer in Reno, NV, with my brother and his family. South Reno is a place of spacious suburban houses with nicely manicured lawns. It’s the kind of place where you likely don’t know your neighbors unless you make an intentional effort. Reno is nicknamed “the biggest little city” because it’s big enough that there are things to do, and it’s small enough that streets are uncrowded and you get from point A to B quickly. We felt in heaven, driving around the highways with ease with no one cutting us off in traffic. If I had to describe Reno in one word, it would be bougie. My most disorienting moment happened when I walked into a Raley’s grocery store and a beautiful brunette woman handed me a plastic cup of chardonnay. (Ummm… what?) “It’s wine tasting day!” she said enthusiastically, “Are you a white or a red kind of girl?" (Umm…what?) …"We’ve got both and you can try all you want!” I chatted with this woman for half an hour, because really, who doesn’t want an excuse to sip pinot noir in the grocery store at 4pm?
My brother attends a Bible-preaching church with a strong kids program and an indoor playground. It exudes wealth. I was astounded at the communion options! I must have missed the sign on the table that read: The body of Christ: Have it your way: white, whole grain or gluten-free!
I was very grateful for gluten free communion bread, because I haven’t taken the “body” in years for fear of severe gastrointestinal repercussions (the blood will have to do).
Reno was bougie, and people were authentically nice. If I could describe Philadelphia in a word, in contrast, I’d say: grungy. But there’s something refreshing about the complete lack of pretension here. There’s an endearing quality to this city, which I’ve had a hard time putting into words in my writing.
So, in fairness to Philly, I’ll try.
A year after we moved here, we realized our yard was overrun with poison ivy. The tree that separates our yard from one of our neighbors had been dead for years, but was wrapped heavily with a verdant poison ivy vine, and this formed a sort of privacy barrier between our yards. After we sprayed the vine and cleared the brush, only the blackened, dead tree was left. My neighbor, Leo, came up to me and said, “Yo! You killed my tree!”
“No. Your tree is dead. Your tree has been dead. This is poison ivy.”
“I don’t care what it is,” he said angrily. “It was green and pretty, and now it’s ugly and we ain’t got no privacy. You gotta fix this.”
This went on for days. Every time Leo would see me, he would ask, “So when you gonna do somethin ‘bout that tree, eh?” He was borderline threatening.
Leo strikes me as a macho-man that acts like he’s got something to prove. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a man so annoyingly abrasive. With the help of a friend, Chris eventually took a chainsaw and chopped down the tree in order to get Leo to stop harassing us.
In such a dense neighborhood, it’s easy to know who likes who - and who doesn’t. My Puerto Rican neighbor, Rose, sits outside on her stoop everyday, watching everything. She can’t stand Leo.
But one day, Rose called me panicking because her granddaughter, Mary, was missing. She said Mary was sitting outside while she was cooking but when she came back, Mary was no longer in the alleyway between the houses. Rose was hysterical. We called the police and then I went to each of my neighbor’s houses asking if anyone had seen her. Nearly all the neighbors came to help. Leo used to work for the Philly police department, and I knew by enlisting him, we might get help more quickly. Leo and his wife dropped their plans for the entire afternoon to join the hunt. In true police fashion, Leo questioned Rose and then pulled me aside. “Her story just doesn’t make sense. Why isn’t the babysitter answering?” (And this was how we discovered that Rose has dementia. Mary was with her babysitter, like every Tuesday afternoon. But Rose thought it was Saturday).
Leo isn’t warm and friendly. But under a tough shell is a decent human being.
Another neighborhood situation happened when we got a cease-and-desist letter from our Pakistani neighbors next door. To make a very long-story short: They didn’t like that we run a community garden on our property, and they accused us of running an undocumented, illegal business. They also said that we were watering our plants too close to their fence, causing rust and damage. They’d hired a lawyer and they were ready to press charges. (Now, the most obvious question is, “Well, does it not also rain on your fence?”) But despite the ridiculousness of these allegations, Chris and I were very angry, and we struggled to respond in a Christ-like manner. I mentioned the situation to Ivy, Mike’s wife, who lives on the other side of our house. Word got around. One day, as I was out watering my plants, Ivy confronted Gulsom in the street. Rose (who misses nothing) came out to join. The two women were yelling profanities. Ivy threatened that if Gulsom doesn’t drop the charges, she’s going to personally call the city land surveyors, and then they will have to tear down the whole *bleeping* fence.
I was standing nearby shaking my head and silently begging them to say no more. But it was too late. Gulsom was in hot, angry tears. Gulsom and Bukrat have made very little attempt at assimilation, and they aren’t accustomed to this aggressive kind of behavior anymore than I am. Two years have passed since that public shaming and Gulsom won’t even look at me. (Thankfully, they dropped the issue).
Ivy and Mike are born-and-raised Philadelphians. They’re blue-collar, hard-working, cigarette-smoking Irish Catholics. And one thing I’ve learned about Philly from them is that loyalty is important. Deep in the Philly psyche is a value for integrity and an insatiable demand for justice.
And you do not mess with your neighbors.
And then there’s my very sassy fellow mom friend, PJ. Whether she’s advocating as an African-American woman of color or creating programs to reach gifted and special needs children, PJ teaches me that sometimes creating positive change means getting a little loud.
But the person who most personifies Philly to me is Pam.
We were in the public mental health system for two years on waitlists before getting an in-home ABA therapist. Pam comes to our home most weeknights to help my daughter with her homework and coach her on self-regulation and life skills. She’s a breath of fresh air in our home. She’s in her 50’s, very down-to-earth, with half-tattoo sleeves on both arms. She wears comfortable leggings and a hoodie that says, “it’s a Philly thing” with socks and slip-on rubber sandals. Pam comes to do her job, but the amount of time we spend with her makes her feel like family. We all love her.
From a teenage pregnancy and a difficult marriage to raising four kids on her own as a single, working mother, Pam hasn’t had an easy life, and it sometimes shows in the tiredness of her eyes and lines of her face. She’s lost a parent to mental illness and suicide and others to drug abuse. Currently, she’s the oldest of three generations that are living in her home, and she’s helping raise four of her grandchildren.
Pam recently decided to leave her career as a medical billing assistant in order to work with kids on the autism spectrum as a behavioral aide. Her oldest son is autistic, and several of her grandchildren also have special needs. She wanted a job that was more fulfilling and utilized her life skills with people on the spectrum. On the weekends, she takes classes at the community college to finish her degree in behavioral health.
Pam has seen our best moments as a family, and our worst. She’s quick to offer honest feedback and encouraging pep talks. When we went through a stressful situation with Jonah’s former therapist (who basically used fraud to end his services) I spoke with Pam and her supervisor about what to do. They were quick to inform me of my rights as a parent and encouraged me to report the situation. Confrontation does not come easily to me, so this was difficult. I had some very sharp words with that therapist. When I told Pam that I’d finally confronted the woman, she folded her tattooed arms around me and said “OH! I’m so proud of you!... You’re becoming a real Philly woman!”
Pam personifies everything good about Philly. She astounds me with her level of compassion, work ethic, and fierce loyalty. She’s a little fiery and rough around the edges, and she doesn't put on airs. She’s tough and resilient.
Whenever I reach a stressful situation, I think about the lessons I’ve learned from Pam and others. Lessons about integrity, grit, compassion, and the value of community. Whether it’s advocating for my child’s 504 plan, braving the boulevard, or standing my ground in a difficult situation, I now stand a little taller, breathe a little deeper, and remind myself:
I’m a Philly woman now.