The flight in was abysmal. Normally, I don’t truly care one way or another for air travel- I usually have enough of SOMETHING to make being stuck in the same seat for hours on end manageable- reading material, writing work, podcasts, exhaustion, something to make the hours a little shorter.
For some reason, though, the red-eye out of Portland International drove me mad. I’d been tired enough to sleep, but not exhausted enough to sleep for very long. Nothing distracted me long enough that I could ignore my legs getting twitchy and anxious.
Granted, that had been my entire body and mind for the last week or so, and this plane trip was meant partially to help me relax and get ready for a new job to start the next week. What better way to relax than ten days of family and food- and what better place to do it?
Hello, you f***ed up little city. Good to see you again.
Philly is- has always been- a weird city, but not in the same way Portland is. Portland’s weirdness comes from the semi-constant influx of loonies, obsessives, and sincere nutbags from the rest of the country. It constantly tries to outdo itself, reinvent itself, grow and swell and metastasize like the head on a freshly-poured beer.
Philadelphia, on the other hand, is weird out of habit. It’s weird in a Lovecraftian sense. The city is so old, so sprawled, has seen so much s*** in its long life that it doesn’t need fresh influxes of topknots, bowties, and vegan org-ethnic pastries to be weird- though it’ll totally take them in.
It’s grown its OWN flavor of weirdness. Been doing so for a while, thank you very much, and f*** off if you don’t like it. When you can walk the streets and stand in buildings that saw America get born, then wander a few blocks out to get authentic Chinese cuisine, then get craft beer and cologne in the “Gayborhood-” you don’t need pot and naked bike rides.
Emily and I practically spring off the plane. She had managed it well enough by binge-watching saved episodes of Supernatural and trying to write some of her fanfic, but she was still eager to get out of the seats and stretch her legs.
My parents had worked out the first day to a T. Our flight landed at 7 AM- they’d picked a place for breakfast that was 30 minutes away, and made sure a table would be ready.
Off the plane, into a car, to a slightly-greener bit of Philadelphia where- I was told- I would feel better and at home in no time.
After a soul-sucking transcontinental flight, you need some soul food.
Smoked fish, bagels, a plate of pickles and pastries the size of your head. I nearly wept as we sat down and I passed the cases piled high with lox, kippered salmon, herring, corned beef, whitefish, and all the fine salads you can conjure from them.
It’s not that you can’t get good Jewish delicatessen in Portland, it’s the fact that it’s HARD. In the last few months, I’ve had at least 6 chefs ask me “Why don’t you start a Jewish bakery? We need one in Portland!”
Now there’s a niche to fill… unfortunately, one chef pointed out to me long ago why some niches exist- “If you find out a place is missing something, before you go filling it, it’s good to find out WHY.” Given the fact that Jews make up something like .7% of the population in Portland, I think I’ll wait a little bit before I go picking locations.
This is a solid chunk of community and identity that I’ve- for the most part- been simply doing without for the last two years. No lie- I kinda miss it.
As we sat and perused the seemingly endless menu, my little sister dropped in to join us. I hadn’t seen her in nearly two years, and she’s got a bit of time before she needs to run off to work.
Wilson, an older gentleman wearing the apron and white butcher coat uniform of the staff like he was born in it, rolls up with coffee and tea and asks for our order.
Blintzes with blueberry sauce. Kippered Salmon, served up with a fresh bagel and “shmeer”- tomato, red onion, cream cheese, olives, and capers, necessary if you wish to raise a humble cut of fish and a roll with a hole to the level of sacred victual. Health salad (imagine coleslaw without mayo or vinegar, but the cabbage is lightly pickled.) Lox platter, and a scoop of whitefish salad.
With the first bite of my assembled bagel, everything is right again- I’m among my people again.
Since leaving the Jersey Shore town where I grew up, my parents have moved into a pretty swanky apartment in Center City. As we enter, I’m struck by how… arranged everything feels. In their bid toward downsizing their lives, my parents had left behind much of the tchotchkes and attachments that used to clutter our old house. Instead, a few familiar objects are scattered in tasteful corners of the apartment. Where there used to be large paintings, statuettes, and what-not piled around comfortable-but-not-always-hospitable furniture, my parents have clung to a few sentimental pieces and made very clear what they wanted in their new home:
“We want to sit here and be cozy. If you come to visit, you should be cozy too.”
Passing through the living room, Emily and I are ushered in to what, according to my mother, is the guest room she always dreamed of having but never got around to making before.
The air-conditioner is on full-blast to deny the heat of the Philadelphia summer. The room feels like it belongs in a beach house- the kind that Bennies maintained in our hometown, loaded with light colors and pastels and seaside-themed accessories bordering on over-the-top.
My mother hasn’t gone quite that far- I only count a couple of starfish arranged as flowers, and the bedside lamps are shaped like seahorses in kelp. In the center of the bed, though, is a throw-pillow. It has text printed on it.
“Union Ave. School.”
“Get subs at Dino’s.”
“Go see Lucy the Elephant.”
All places from our hometown. It was one little corner of the apartment that was meant to remind my mom of the house and the place she raised our family in.
Emily and I dropped our stuff, kicked off our shoes, and collapsed into the cool embrace of the bed.
I was home.
In a few days, I would be home again.
We’re loading up my mom’s car to get a little beach time in, and maybe ditch the mugginess of the city for a little while before meeting with some of Emily’s family that lives in the area.
“Beach time” meaning we now need to make the trek that brought so many annoyances to our old, coastal life. We were now Philadelphia people going “down the shore.”
It meant I’d be seeing my hometown again for the first time since leaving for Oregon.
I’d had a decent enough childhood, but I don’t remember ever being especially “happy” in my hometown of Margate, NJ. Any memories I have of it that are remotely happy involve food, or my family- apart from that, I remember feeling lonely a lot of the time. I didn’t have that many friends, and I was bullied in school by most of the kids I lived near anyway. To me, Margate was always just “the place I was from”- a place where I generally knew where everything was, how things worked, and could walk around blind.
Much was just as I had left it- for good or ill. A few old businesses had closed up. Grand old houses I’d walked past as a kid were being torn down in favor of gigantic, subdivided boxy monstrosities. You really can’t go home again- most of the time.
“They look terrible,” my mom remarks. “Tacky and huge- it kills the entire character of the area.”
Lauren and I can’t help but ruefully reply, “They didn’t really do much to try and PRESERVE the character, Mom.” Everyone we knew from the area either went elsewhere, died, or- in most cas
es- became “someone from Margate. The exact person that they were fated to be.
They had figured out how to go home again- they never actually left.
Thankfully, the beach is still beautiful. The sun is still warm- and Dino’s still makes my favorite sub.
Under a pavilion on the Ventnor boardwalk with my mother, sister, and wife- I took a big bite of my memories, and washed it down with a Pennsylvania Dutch Birch Beer. There was sand on my feet, and sun on my skin.
All was well again.
“On your left!”
I’d offer up Reading Terminal Market as a prime location for trialing the change- but it would kinda kill the vibe.
But our favorite local farm co-op stand is gone- it’s space filled by dining room for one of the restaurants. Another big stand in the middle of the market is cleared- it’s emptiness awkwardly highlighted by the single man standing at one corner, trying to hustle he and his wife’s homemade ginger/baobab lemonades. A stand that specialized in cookbooks has been given over to beautiful Moroccan and North African woodwork
A quick tour of the interior later, and I make my move. Half a pound of Smucker’s amazing beef jerky, and an ounce of my favorite Russian Caravan tea later, I’m pretty set to go. We’d (foolishly) eaten lunch earlier and ultimately, being back in that mayhem of bodies and food was what I really missed.
Seriously though, get some of that jerky. I think they ship. If they don’t, they should.
Emily is dozing in the bedroom, and there’s a thin, constant rain coming down on the city. It’s doing little for the heat- it feels like a warm sprinkler rather than a cooling rain.
In a few hours, I’ll be packed with Emily onto another plane. Back west to Portland. Back to the life we’ve been building there. Back to the culture and realities we’ve come to expect.
In Portland, I’ve heard the stereotype that East Coasters are “unfriendly” or “aloof.” In Philadelphia, the stereotype says that Portlanders are “lax,” “goofy,” or “super friendly.” In my experience, both are right- and both are wrong.
In Portland, there’s an expectation that everything needs to be okay. People are more likely to stop and chat with you on the street. They’re more likely to ask you how your day is going and just be openly friendly. In Philadelphia, it would be off-putting and a little creepy. The average passerby is more likely to think “Why do you care? That’s none of your business.” The feeling in Philadelphia is “everything will be okay if everyone can just look after themselves.”
It’s harder to connect with people in Philadelphia, that’s for certain- but the connections you do make are firmer, and more authentic. In Portland, it can be hard to gauge how sincere that question about your day is. Philadelphia may not be as friendly, but at least they mean it.
Perhaps that’s why I love coming back to Philadelphia- not just familiar places and food, but that deep and expected sincerity. It’s something I could probably stand to take a lesson in, and maybe it’s like immersing yourself in a culture whose language you want to learn- you go somewhere where people can always be expected to say what they mean.
Insincerity and passive-aggressiveness have always been pet peeves of mine, mostly because they were the traits I saw most in people I grew up near- in that socially-mobile, class-conscious, keeping-up-with-the-Jones’ town of Margate.
Here I am though. Living in a town where passive-aggressiveness is called the “Portland Chill” and myself seeking relief for my own insincerities- in books, in travel, and trying to figure out how I can be honest with and about almost everything except myself.
Well, I’ll have plenty of time to think about it on the plane.