He may as well begin with the conclusion: never make a slighting remark about Philadelphia unless you are willing to pay the price.
I've paid. But before I tell you about the punishment, I'd better recount the crime. It was a throwaway line. I was writing about something altogether unrelated to things Pennsylvanian and, in a fit of whimsy, found myself ending a sentence with "unless you happen to be from someplace dreadful, like Philadelphia. . . ." (Actually, the ellipsis replaces the names of two other places which I won't mention again; I'm occasionally whimsical, rarely stupid.)
Anyway, that was the crime. The judge was Jill Porter, a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News who happened to read the offending column. The jury were her readers, and the sentence was that I should spend a day in her town.
Let me tell you about it. It begins at the airport, where Porter meets you with a posse from Century IV, the outfit leading the celebration of Philadelphia's fourth century of, well, life. They whisk you, in a Mercedes borrowed from New Jersey (I didn't inquire why; I only looked at the license plates) to the Southside, where you are taken on a forced march through the blocks-long Italian Market. Actually, the market is a pretty fascinating place, if you are into unpackaged vegetables, lamb and veal carcasses, fish with strange-sounding names and cheeses the bulk and smell of which you've never before witnessed.
No sweat, you think. But just when you are starting to have a pleasant time, they make you eat something called a cannoli, a sort of sweet taco shell filled with sweetened ricotta cheese, which, though I didn't let on, tastes a good deal better than it sounds. Tip: if you shut up and eat your cannoli like a good boy, they won't force you to eat another local kickshaw called a "cheese steak," a concoction whose basic elements are a well-aged shoe tongue and Cheese Whiz. So far as I could tell, only serious offenders are required to submit to soft pretzels slathered with mustard, a modern-day substitute for the thumbscrew.
Not everything is so modern in Philadelphia, as they never cease telling you as they run you through a gantlet that includes Society Hill ("Georgetown without the congestion of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue," they say); Penn's Landing and the Old City (some of whose buildings, you are told, date back to 1685, or some such) and New Market ("Looks like Ghirardelli Square, doesn't it?"). Actually, it does a little, but I refuse to break.
Which is probably why they force me to go to City Hall for an interview with lame-duck Mayor Bill Green, who refuses to tell me whether he will support Frank Rizzo, who has just announced for another shot at his old post. Green knows about my offense, he says, and has decided that I don't deserve an exclusive.
Later, they relent a bit (even Rizzo had his good days) and take you to the Bourse, several floors of lovely shops and restaurants in a refurbished old building that looks like what you might get if you let the Hyatt Regency people have their way with Union Station. Then they take you to a 33rd-floor, picture-windowed restaurant called Tripp's for a lunch worthy of downtown Washington. "Isn't Philadelphia lovely?" they say, as they point to Camden, N.J., across the river.
If you remark that there are no black people in the Philadelphia they've shown you, they will blindfold you and drive you a thousand miles through Fairmount Park (not exactly Rock Creek, but nice) to a ghetto street where reigns Sister Falaka Fattah, whose House of Umoja is credited with helping to end the city's fabled gang wars.
There's more: several dozen universities (No, Penn State, the one with the good football team, is somewhere else), the Liberty Bell (they still haven't fixed it), the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Port of History Museum at Penn's Landing, where they make you watch a propaganda film extolling the virtues of Philadelphia's neighborhoods, Independence Hall, with its rock-hard benches. . . .
But you get the idea: don't take any cheap shots at proud (and I may as well admit it) surprisingly charming Philadelphia. Take it from one who's been there.