Just before spring: Philadelphia is cool and quiet, straw-colored winter sun slanting down the narrow streets. A tang in the air from the fields of Jersey or the refineries of South Philly, depending on the wind. White rags of clouds in the sky.
And where should you go and what should you do in this slow, self-satisfied and secret city?
Wherever you go, you should walk. Cabs for New York, government limousines for Washington and a slow saunter for Center City, our downtown: a couple of square miles full of giant office buildings, townhouses in real and and very bad imitation Colonial style, restaurants, fancy shops and almost all the history of the American Revolution. Center City is sure to be full of walkers, and you'll have to look carefully to see what makes this city so different.
First, more black faces. Center City is as close to black North Philly as it is to lily-white Society Hill -- and there's a more or less easy integration to our streets you won't find in many cities our size.
Second, Philadelphia styles. Somehow, fashion changes in the rest of the world are ignored or changed utterly when they reach Philadelphia. Black teenagers wear their peaked Jeff caps set sideways on their heads. White kids prefer baseball or Cat Diesel hats, worn straight backwards, so the fits-all-sizes plastic strip looks like a beaded band across their foreheads. Women of all ages and races are now wearing a square-shouldered black plush coat with wide stripes of dark plush down the sleeves -- red, maroon, forest green or flag blue.
There'll be street musicians along Chestnut Street later in the spring, but now we're reduced to winter sound. Half a dozen saxophonists, spaced several blocks apart, huddle under the big entrances to Victorian buildings, growling solitary harmonies to their echoes in the stone.
The white street vendors are all Greeks and they all sell hot dogs and pretzels. Buy a fat soft pretzel, and if you want to be very Philadelphian, put lots of thin, runny mustard on it, so you can walk and eat and lick your fingers all at once. Black vendors wear dreadlocks and stocking caps that say "I'd Rather Be Skiing" and sell incense, body oils. "The Life of Malcolm X" and bean pies (which taste even better than pretzels).
Philadelhia streets are full of food and people and sculpture. Much of the sculpture is horrible enough in its way, of course. You want public art, you have to take public taste. But Claes Oldenburg's giant Corten clothespin stands like a post-modernist postscript across the street from City Hall, with its doleful memorial to a fat and grumpy-looking William McKinley. City Hall, a monstrous pile built at a monstrous cost by the thieves who ran Philadelphia in the 19th century, is in a style that has been called Victorian French Renaissance Revival -- every possible nook has at one time or another been the resting place of a huge marble nude supposed to represent Truth or Justice or Civic Virtue. Most of the statutes have been removed over the years and the few that remain have, from pollution and erosion, taken on new expressions, malign and content, so they seem to stand for Promises. Peculation. Malfeasance and The Board of Revision of Taxes.
But if you talk to a Philadelphian, don't start about politics. Start about sports. This is the greatest sports town in the country, our papers like to say. All Philadelphia teams get to the playoffs -- and then collapse. This adds a certain amount of bitterness to local loyalties. The best way to get a standing ovation from Philadelphia fans is to be a backup quarterback, put in for a few minutes while the starter catches his breath. Otherwise, Philadelphians boo.
"Philadelphians would boo a handicapped kid at an Easter Egg hunt," said Dick Allen, the great and much-booed ex-Phillie. "True," says my friend the fan, "but only if that handicapped kid wasn't giving 100 percent. And Philly fans would know exactly what percent the kid was giving."
As of now, the 76ers are the best team in basketball, the Flyers the best team in hockey (as long as you don't count the Russians) and, as my friend the fan says, that's just not good enough. "Wait'll the playoffs," she says. "And what about last year?"
After you talk about sports, you can talk about politics. In the past few years, almost every official elected from my South Philly neighborhood has gone to jail. My state senator was Buddy Cianfrani, convicted of putting workers on the payroll who never bothered to come to the office. But he's out of jail now and married to Laura Foreman, who made a name for herself down in Washington a short while ago, and Buddy's back in politics. He's concentrating on electing judges now.
My state representative was convicted of registering fictitious voters as residents in his small rowhouse -- more than 50 voters with such names as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Edgar Allen Poe. My congressman was Ozzie Meyers, convicted in the Abscam investigations and also convicted, in absentia, of disturbing the peace of the state of Virginia -- mooning, as I recall, in a gorilla mask.
My city councilman was not involved in Abscam at all -- he said that's because he's a Lebanese American and "you couldn't fool me with a fake Arab." That's probably a joke. It's probably a joke, too, that one city councilman went to council president George Schwartz (since convicted and sentenced to jail) right after Abscam broke, and complained, "George, how come you didn't cut me in on all that money?"
"But, so?" says my friend the voter, "Buddy's gone and we've got a state senator who makes all his workers come to work. You notice any difference? You think anybody could give his constituents better service than Buddy did?All we got for all this honesty in politics is one more worn chair in the state capitol. What difference does that make to you and me? They clean the streets, they pay the cops, it costs just as much as it always did, and what else does government do?"
Frank Rizzo is running for mayor again -- which guarantees Philadelphia a certain amount of ink. We shrug it off. Frank Rizzo is running for mayor -- with some black support -- and the polls show him trailing the black candidate Wilson Goode, by 20 percentage points. Of course, in Philadelphia anything can happen: In my mostly Italian neighborhood, a big spray-painted sign appeared on the blank wall of a corner rowhouse. "RIZZO FOR MAYOR," it said, "GOODE FOR NOTHING." The next day a man scrubbed it out expertly with paint remover, turning all the letters to pale gold blotches. I asked him if he was doing it because he was for Goode.
"I'm taking it off," he said quietly, "because this is my house. I'm for my house. And that's all I'm for. You can't write on the walls in South Philly."
Philadelphia is like that: A city full of houses and people who are for their houses -- and not much else. Civic pride takes a careless twist here.
In San Francisco, people tell you not to call it Frisco. Philadelphians don't mind if you call it Philly. Chicago likes to think of itself as The Second City.Philly just doesn't try that hard.