Good evening, friends and neighbors.
Emily and I stood in front of the sleek, modern apartment complex on St. James, our coats bundled up tight against the wind. It was carrying something beside freezing cold, though, and we wanted ALL of that. Greasy food, car exhaust, wet leaves, motion and attitude and frustration. The smells of home.
We were back in Philadelphia.
Photo from Wikipedia
I’d always had an interesting relationship with that city. Atlantic City was of course the closest to where I grew up, but Philadelphia was the closest CITY. A place of tall buildings, excitement, food, crime, and cultural weirdness that I looked forward to visiting whenever it came up. As I grew up, that didn’t change, and I came to recognize something else that truly made the city memorable- its attitude. The snarky, self-depreciating, foul-mouthed, yet fiercely proud sneer that can only come from the City of Brotherly Love- “No one likes us, we don’t care, and fuck you for trying.”
Well fuck you too, Philadelphia- I like you just fine. After living in Portland for nearly two years, I have learned to love my new home. The culture is there, the excitement, the food and weirdness in spades. Sometimes though, I need to be in a place a little darker. A little sharper, with hard elbows and blind corners, where you can look around a dingy corner and still hope to find diamonds in the grime.
That’s Philadelphia, and the diamonds are there- some of them right where I left them.
That’s not why Em and I were standing out in the street like a couple of knuckleheads though. Since my move my parents decided that- with all their children grown- the big white house by the sea that I’d grown up in was a bit too big for them. They moved to a tidy little apartment in Philadelphia while they looked for a bigger one, and simultaneously a little condo near where the old house had been.
No matter where you go, you’re still from your hometown.
We went inside and the doorman pointed us to the elevator and my parents number. Walking in and seeing my mom chatting with her sister on the phone, my dad watching something on his iPad, it immediately felt like home- just much smaller, and tidier.
My folks give us the nickel tour, proudly showing off their new balcony.
“It’s so quiet up here! The birds don’t fly this high.”
“There’s no people either- we have to lean over and look down to see anyone.”
“We’re facing West, so we always see the sunset over the rest of the city. It’s really beautiful.”
They tell me they are looking for a slightly bigger apartment in the same building. If it was me, I’d sell the extra junk and make do with the smaller apartment if it meant keeping the view.
Being my parents, it’s not long before they ask if we are hungry (though not yet accustomed to the classic Philadelphian expression, “Djeet?”) Shortly after that, they have assembled crackers, a cheeseboard, and my dad has poured us both a sturdy glass of his wine group’s latest creation. I offer to help clean things up and get ready for dinner, but my dad waves it away. “Sit down, relax! You’re guests!”
As I do as I’m told and have another sip of wine, I can’t help but think “Yeah, but I’m your son.”
Now you know who I got my sense of hospitality from.
A few days later, Emily and I are back in town- pavement clapping under our feet once more. Quicker now, the wind bombarding us with smells of steam, construction, fresh garbage, and stale urine. We’re more-or-less accustomed to that by now- our noses are guiding us toward something else. Above the muck and odor of the busy city, the scents we follow carry us toward a higher plane- a tangible nostalgia that drives us on toward a holy trinity of experiential delight, the descriptors souring on our tongues in the face of their imminent apparition.
No, Portland. It’s NOT just like a 7-11 or a Plaid Pantry. They couldn’t be a Wawa if they worked on it for a year of Sundays. Wawa
is a convenience store chain with food- really, SURPRISINGLY good food. Beyond just being a place to pick up milk and eggs in the middle of the night, Wawa hoagies and bowls are the sustenance of many lazy bachelors, broke students, and road-tripping families across the northeast. Their coffee? Let me sum it up for you- when I lived in Somers Point, and the whole city got shut down in a blizzard, this was the order of places that got power back first: 1. The hospital, 2. City hall and police, 3. Wawa, to provide all the emergency services with coffee.
Wawa, Portland. GET ON IT.
2. The Shady Dumpling Place
Yes. It’s like that.
Tucked underneath the Pennsylvania Convention Center, between a sketchy travel agency and a nail salon, Emily and her friends found one of those diamonds I mentioned earlier.
Previously named “Magic Dim Sum Garden,” Emily and her friends dubbed the restaurant “Shady Dumpling Place”- given its dubious location, sparse linoleum-floored and fluorescent-lighting decor, and the fact that they offer the most amazing Shanghai Pork Soup Dumplings we’ve ever tried.
My wife Emily demonstrating proper soup-dumpling technique
Since our move, the restaurant is now “Tom’s Dim Sum-” same sketchy locale, but lusher atmosphere, an expanded dining room, and expanded menu. They still have the our favorites, though- scallion pancakes, Worshu Duck, and those dumplings. Thank God they still do those dumplings.
Just look at that gorgeousness… but keep your hands up. God kills a kitten every time you do that.
3. Reading Terminal Market
I’ve written about this place before. What half-decent writer or foodie who’s been to Philadelphia HASN’T talked about it?
You can get everything there. There is at least one restaurant who’s menu changes daily based SOLELY on what’s fresh in the Market that morning. Emily and I have our favorite stalls and stores
to be sure- The Head Nut for dry goods. Iovine Bros. for produce. ANY of the Pennsylvania Dutch-run stalls for meats and sweets. For my money through, the best thing about Reading Terminal is just that it’s THERE- all of it, all at once, all for you to burn the day away. Tasting wines, drooling over chocolates, and pouring over cookbooks and tchotchkes and whatever else your heart needs to hide away from the cold a little while longer.
If you’re in the city one of these days, go find it. Go hungry, get lost, and know that you’re in for something wonderful whichever way you look.
Emily and I are back in Portland now. The bags are mostly unpacked, we are gearing up for the return to the real world. Our time back east was beautiful- not least because we got married.
It was beautiful because we got to reconnect with everyone we missed, and all the things that we pined in our saddest, homesick moments of the last year.
Now we are back- we’ve been to one of our local pub last night (The Horse Brass,) and just grabbed coffee, beer, and sandwiches at Stark Street Station.
We miss everyone back home, but at the same time, we can appreciate where we are now so much more- the nostalgia goggles and homesick blinders for the moment removed.
Philadelphia has Reading Terminal, but you can’t get a beer with a breakfast sandwich there.
New Jersey has Wawa, the beaches, and the Pine Barrens- but it’s a lot harder to find a mountain to go running on.
We’re still from where we’re from, and we love it.
We don’t live there now, and we enjoy it.
We’re a weird pair of Hobbits who’ve been “there and back again”- and now we’ve sailed off into the West.
We’ll be back though.