robertisenberg

Archive for the ‘Philadelphia’ Category

Chinatown

In Philadelphia on October 7, 2009 at 2:39 pm

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Chinatown looks best in the rain. Rivulets of black water slide along the gutters and swirl down storm-drains. The pavement reflects glum light like an oil-slick. And everywhere, multi-colored signs hang from brick facades, bright against the sterling silver sky. Sturdy Roman letters mingle with with splashes of Chinese characters.

“It’s so dirty,” Ky says.

“I know,” I say. “That’s what I love about it.”

Ky crinkles her nose. She abhors dust and dirt. She vacuums chronically. The putrid steams of Chinese markets make her gag. But as we stomp through puddles and hide beneath a $4 umbrella, my love for Chinatown is rekindled. In Philadelphia, this neighborhood is small — only a few blocks of shops and restaurants, plus a couple of banks — but the crowded streets and crush of buildings feel familiar. The basket full of shrimp, left open to the drizzle, triggers deja-vu. I am strangely at home in Chinatown, though I speak no Asian languages, and I am clearly a yangguizi.

We don’t have much time, and there’s not much to do. We ate a large IHOP breakfast, so the many Szechuan restaurants are out. We bought this umbrella from one of those bizarre souvenir shops, which sell a wide range of unrelated wares — little Buddha statues and wall-mounted scrolls, tea-sets and gold kittens that wave. These shops enthrall me; once, in Chicago’s Chinatown, I found a store that sold only DVD’s and washing machines. It’s common, in such places, to find baby turtles for sale. I imagine stepping into a shop, looking for toothpaste, and walking out with a silk vest, a butterfly knife, and two infant tortoises. In Chinatown, this is a perfectly reasonable shopping list.

I wish we had the whole day, but a wedding is scheduled for this afternoon, and we still have to check into our hotel. There’s not much point to visiting Chinatown, except that I’m writing a screenplay about inner-city Asian-Americans, and I had hoped to spend some time poking around the neighborhood. Really, though, Philly’s version of Chinatown isn’t big or busy enough to warrant much attention. I should go to New York, where the Asian districts are sprawling.

“I think I’m set,” I say to Ky and Peef, who have been patient with my picture-taking but don’t share my obsession. “Before we go, do you mind if we step into the vase shop?”

They look amused. It’s the kind of store only I would think to visit: a dusty warehouse packed with vases and statuettes. Jade containers share shelf-space with ornate flower-pots. Mandarin characters seep down gilt paintings. This store is Chinatown in miniature — a place that sells $1,400 vases, old in style but newly sculpted, though the carpet is scuffed and held together with strips of duct-tape. When I step around a wide pillar, I’m startled by an old man, sitting humbly in his chair; his chin bristles with a gray goatee, and he nods to me — a curt bow — and somehow I know he doesn’t speak a word of English.

When we leave, I decide that the old proprietor must make a cameo in the film.

Philadelphia Visions: 5

In Philadelphia on October 2, 2009 at 8:26 pm

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The day of the wedding, I slipped into a makeshift suit and waited outside for the guests’ shuttle. The hotel was typical suburban lodging — no personality, but comfortable. The county was only an aggregate of strip-malls and chain-restaurants, separated by bunches of trees and vacant lots. As a city, Philadelphia is a leviathan — the suburbs bleed for hundreds of square miles, until it’s impossible to tell where Philly ends and Pennsylvania begins. It’s no wonder that Philadelphians anchor themselves in Center City, the region’s Colonial heart, the birthplace of modern democracy. Out here, nothing feels important or even noticeable; but deep within, where streets are cobbled and halls are hallowed, Philadelphia’s noble heart still beats.

The wedding party mingled. Some smoked cigarettes, others adjusted ties and hems.

Someone pointed. “Oh, my God! Look at that!”

A rainbow arched through the grisly sky. As if on cue. Cameras clicked. Fingers jabbed the air. For a moment, all the stress of an Eastern Pennsylvania wedding melted. The urban edge was dulled. Guards were let down and smiles curled lips. We watched the rainbow until it faded, and nobody jeered or sniffed or cracked a gay joke. We quietly shared the moment, delighted and awed. And in that moment, confused by all this precious good will, I wondered where I was.

Philadelphia Visions: 4

In Philadelphia on October 2, 2009 at 8:05 pm

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Philadelphians have mastered cynicism as a kind of art. Their humor is always jaded and barbed. The local cuisine is greasy and colorless. Philadelphians love to flaunt words like “trashy” and “crackwhore” and “weird” — words that alienate people and destroy reputations in a single sentence. Shock-value is key.

When we visited Penn’s Landing — a major historical landmark and draw for tourists — I saw that every inch of the stone ballustrade was covered in graffiti. But what elegant graffiti! The wall was defaced with such varied script, such mysterious names and references. These weren’t just kids acting out; this vandalism was meant to be read, as proclamations and cryptic poetry. Nobody “was here” or offered a “good time.” These words were soaked in symbolism, transcribed in deft penmanship.

I could have read these glyphs all day, but Philadelphia waits for no aesthete. A light rain fell, and we had places to go. We left the graffiti to the ages.

Philadelphia Visions: 3

In Philadelphia on October 2, 2009 at 7:47 pm

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But I can’t bring myself to hate Philadelphia. It doesn’t work. Like a bullying spouse, the city always surprises me.

Ky and I drove from Newtown to the Delaware border, cruising through suburb after endless suburb. After passing a dozen Targets and twice as many Wawas (including the store’s corporate headquarters), we stopped at a red light. And there, across the street, idled an antique car. The vintage vehicle stood at the head of a long line of newer cars, and I marveled at the sight. Here was Philadelphia’s M.O. in a nutshell: I’m at the head of the line, I got here first, the rest of you will just have to fucking wait for me.

No apology. No self-consciousness. Just seeing this lone driver, out for a spin in his ancient junker, holding up traffic for a hundred yards, made me smile.

Philadelphia Visions: 2

In Philadelphia on October 2, 2009 at 7:38 pm

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Philadelphians are tough to please. They hate “stupid people.” They hate bad hair-cuts. Other cities can suck it. Fake cheese steaks? Forget about it. They don’t want compliments or kind words. They’d rather pass around a joint or buy a round of shots than say congratulations for a job well done. Nobody understands them, so fuck you for trying. Oh, and Rocky is the best movie ever made. Seriously, the best movie ever made. That’s where there’s a friggin’ statue by the Art Museum, ’cause it’s that good.

The general rule is this: Nobody is actually from Philadelphia, but everyone lives just outside of Philadelphia. The closer you live to Center City, the cooler you are. But if you live close to Center City but in the wrong part, you’re probably some gangstah, or drug-dealer, coke-head, gang-banger, welfare queen, yuppie asshole, homeless prick… Philadelphians never run out of words for people they hate, which seems to be pretty much everybody.

Easygoing and optimistic, I stay quiet around Philadelphians. Talking a lot risks the Philadelphian’s bitter rage. It’s like staring in the eyes of an angry gorilla. Just stare off and pretend you’re somewhere else.

Philadelphia Visions: 1

In Philadelphia on October 2, 2009 at 7:13 pm

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Philadelphia haunts me — when I hear the name, I grind my teeth. The picky people. The thuggish fashions. The sarcasm that pervades the air. And don’t even get them started on cheese steak. You’ll get a half-hour lecture.

And yet, I keep coming back. That rainy September weekend, it was for a wedding. As the car coasted along an elevated highway, I gazed at the grim expanse of factories and warehouses. Fire spat from smoke-stacks; endless parking lots choked with cars.

But there’s something reverent about the Center City skyline. It’s not pretty, like Chicago. Not colossal, like New York. Philadelphia is a kind of citadel, proudly punctuating the gray sky. Like Philadelphians, Center City isn’t dressy and doesn’t care what you think of it. Center City just is.

Yous got a problem with that?