Friday, May 29, 2009

Mother Knows Best

When my firm called to tell me they were sending me to Philadelphia, I cried. I was on vacation with my mother at the Jersey Shore. She came out East after her double mastectomy to attend her brother’s wedding. It was a windy day, she clutched a straw hat over her freshly bald head and I huddled under the beach umbrella, cupping the receiver of my cell phone with my right hand. When I hung up, I did something I hadn’t done since I was a child. I placed my head in my mother’s lap and cried.

My sobs emoted frustration that I was leaving New York and anger that someone else got to make that decision for me. It wasn’t just that Manhattan moved at the pace of lightning, was a copious smorgasbord of options, limitlessly exciting and offered a never-ending supply of eclectic and interesting people. It was that after ten years roaming the world for a place to grow up, I thought I had finally found it and had already begun to plant the seeds of my future. And now I was being asked to uproot this foundation for a city I had never even wanted to visit.

“I hear it’s nice there,” My mother said, running her hands through my hair as if she were recalling what it felt like to have it.

“I don’t care if it’s nice. It’s not New York.”

“You could quit.” She suggested. And I considered it. In fact, for the next week I looked at job postings, updated my resume, and went on interviews.

When the move seemed inevitable, I recruited my glamorous New York model friend Janice to accompany me down on the Amtrak for a 4th of July scouting mission. We stepped off the train with our Lonely Planet guide, took in the Philly humidity, walked over the Schuylkill, down Market Street, past a sleazy strip club, past The Salvation Army and past the industrial high-rises. We turned right on 17th and stepped over a variety of homeless people laid out along our path like dead bodies on a battle field. The streets looked barren, entire blocks without people bustling by on their way to somewhere important. Stores were closed for the weekend. When we arrived in a vacant Rittenhouse Square, I was aghast at its small size. One quarter the size of Bryant park, 1/8th the size of Union Square where I lived in Manhattan. Janice tried to be positive.

“ Look at all the cute little shops,” she said.

“What? H&M? Zara? Anthro? Yipee. I pass two of each when I bring my laundry to the dry cleaners on 5th avenue,” I told her.

We went to Continental on Chestnut and all I could think about was how much fun we could be having in New York instead of swinging in these campy chairs at a TGIF knock-off. We tried to walk to Old City but eventually believed the locals claim that it was “too far to walk”. We went to get a room at the Raddison along Chestnut and there was an intoxicated shoeless woman arguing with the front desk staff through a bullet proof glass divider. As the confrontation escalated I let out the breath I had been holding in since the train station and asked Janice if we could just get the last train back to New York.

“Think we could make it back in time for Pomme Frites at Pastis?” she said.

I called my company the next day to tell them I couldn’t do it. They convinced me it would only be for three months. I convinced myself that it would pass quickly. I had been assigned an amazing client and would be promoted to running an entire campaign. This would be good for my career, and I could do anything for three months. Right?

It was a sweltering hot day in Philly when I unpacked my bags into a monthly rental house on Meredith Street in Fairmount. Coming from my tinsy NYC apartment, the idea of an entire house to myself was just decadent. I was amazed that for half the price of my NYC apartment, I was living in a furnished three story row house with original wood floors and beamed ceilings. Outside was a narrow cobblestone street carrying along the occasional dog walker. After I moved in all my bags and unpacked, I sat outside on a real Philly stoop like they did in all the movies I liked to watch when I was a kid growing up in Seattle. They don’t have stoops in Seattle.

I wandered down to Fairmount and found a place that sold hoagies like they ate on the Cosby Show. I devoured it, savoring the doughy bread. I wandered down a little further to an ice cream shop where I watched the girl in front of my order a water ice. I gleefully ate my first water ice while I walked back to the house. I can do anything for three months, right?

I began as a tourist. I started with the double-decker hop-on/hop-off bus. I went to the Philly Zoo, I ran up the Rocky steps, I attended First Friday’s, and bowled in Northern Liberties. I joined, took service commitments at the local AA meetings, and had stuffed French Toast at Sabrina’s. I moved into a furnished room on 10th and Clinton. I participated in the Pat or Geno’s cheese steak debate, I went three months drinking only Fantes coffee. I bought t-shirts for my girlfriends on South Street, I took the ferry to Camden to see John Mayer, I attended a Teamster picnic at Penn’s landing. I went to the Philly Flower Show and attended The Franklin Institute Awards.I moved into a garden townhouse in Old City. I made friends with every shopkeeper on 3rd street. I did the Wednesday night dinner at Fork with Ellen. I began dating the bartender at Positano. I took a writing class at The University of the Arts and threw barbecues in my back yard. I ate at Franklin Fountain every night.

Around 10:00 PM, I would roll into the Franklin Fountain and chat it up with my favorite soda jerk. A few friends would meet me at the end of the counter and we would pull back the hidden seats, and dip pretzels in our ice cream while we laughed and traded stories.

Three months came and went and I stayed in Philadelphia. The job went, and I stayed in Philadelphia. Philadelphia had something New York would never be able to give me. Time. Time to get to know the people in my life. Time to enjoy and appreciate every moment. Time to develop the sort of relationships that are helping me to grow up.

I think of my mother, holding my head in her lap and scratching my back softly, saying, “Oh honey, it will be okay. It will work out. Everything happens for a reason.”

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