People can only be who they are. I’ve learned that the hard way many times over the years. You may have to hold your tongue, settle for less, accept setbacks and devise a Plan B or two over the course of a lifetime, but you must always remain true to your essential character, else risk losing yourself in a wash of indecision and regret. Even if you decide that your essential character must undergo radical change, there’s something down inside that you latch onto to be the lynchpin of the transformation.
In Cleveland, I discovered that I am a writer. It is the city where I learned how to write, honed my craft, and discovered that $10 words don’t automatically make a good story. It is the city that shaped my values. Philadelphia, by extension, is a place where I’ve found the time, space and inspiration to apply the lessons learned in Cleveland. I’ve felt freer to write no, compelled to write. It’s a place that has given me many things to say and the drive and insight with which to say them. Crucially, it is also a place where the values I brought from Cleveland are perfectly compatible, and that compatibility has greatly aided my transition. I haven’t been to all of the American cities that are supposedly “cooler” than Philly, but I dare say that Philadelphia is exactly the place I am supposed to be at this moment, if for no other reason than because it’s Philadelphia, warts and all. I don’t think I could say the same about anywhere else.
So fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, I gotta be in Philly and write, and cities, like people, can only be what they are. There is only one New York City, there is only one Boston, there is only one San Francisco. There is also only one Philadelphia, and only one Cleveland. Philadelphia may wonder how Cleveland’s rush hours could be so traffic-free, but the price of an apartment in Center City would purchase a very large house on a very large lot in Cleveland. Cleveland may wonder how Philadelphians could stand such daily traffic grinds, but there are no neighborhoods in Cleveland where you can walk to everything you’d need for everyday life. Neither is inherently “better” than the other. The challenge of American cities these days is to discover what makes them special, the essential quality that can’t be replicated anywhere else, and revel in it, be in it, act like you like it here. Economic revitalization is going to be necessary as history ebbs and flows, but it should never come at the expense of what gives a city its personality. Just like people, the really “cool” cities have found that it’s better when they don’t work so hard at it.
It’s going on 1am, and I have to get ready for work in the morning. But I’m out of smokes, so I think I’ll take a walk to the neighborhood convenience store.
My building’s night desk attendant and her buddies are outside shooting the breeze. There’s no wind, and the sky is somewhat cloudy, but it’s still calm and refreshing. The buses are still running, even with no one aboard. A city garbage truck is picking up some of the weekend’s trash. There are a few folks out and about: one man with a rainbow-colored shawl around his neck; a woman carrying a purse and two shopping bags; two fellas who decide to hail a passing cab. Outside one of the neighborhood nightclubs, there’s a handful of twentysomethings hanging out. A homeless man sitting on a milk crate asks me for a smoke; I tell him I’ll oblige if he’s still there when I come back that way.
In the convenience store, a woman is pushing her child in a stroller towards the milk section. A scruffy-looking man clutches a bag of Lay’s chips in his arm.
The homeless man has gotten a cigarette by the time I pass back, but I fulfill my promise, and he thanks me. Two sistas are coming out of a drugstore right behind me. A work crew is cleaning out debris from an empty store I wonder what it will be, there’s a new diner opening up across the street from it. A young white woman emerges from her building to walk her dog. There’s a crew dealing with a hole in the street, one of its members killing time on his cell phone. A block from my house, another homeless man asks for a smoke, and is also polite, probably genuinely thankful as well, when I give him one. A Ford Explorer times the traffic signal perfectly, and zooms past the waiting cars in the other lane when the light turns green.
It’s entirely possible that the killers of John Whitehead and Faheem Thomas-Childs, and of so many, too many others, are also getting some fresh air tonight in Philadelphia.
All this used to be a bit of a novelty for me, as there just aren’t many parts of Cleveland where such pedestrian traffic on a Sunday night is even fathomable. Cleveland’s culture, lifestyle and geography just aren’t the same. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But the novelty of being able to walk around at one in the morning and not feel isolated or scared has worn off, replaced by a sense of normalcy, a sense of place, a sense of familiarity and comfort.
Philadelphia, for all its foibles and quirks, feels like home for me, right now.