By Vickie Fernandez
Mid squat, in the basement bathroom at the Pub on East Passyunk, I overhear a statuesque hipster girl in a granny frock and oversized black rimmed glasses (that albeit aren't prescription) say, "I'm so glad we moved here, this nabe is like, so much more choice than Brooklyn ever was."
I giggle and wipe as I look up at the homage to Patrick Swayze above the toilet that's been marred with drunken bathroom poetry and band stickers. Climbing the dungeon-esque steps back to my beer I think about my own migration from Brooklyn to Philly. Love and all of its possibilities were the only things capable of loosening the grip New York City had on my heart.
The day we moved into our place, there was a foot of snow on the ground. This was before the orange and blue sign was erected reading Welcome to East Passyunk Avenue to signify the divide between it and the rest of South Philadelphia. The U-haul swerved as we tuned off McKean onto our street, whose name I could barely pronounce. Like many byways in Philadelphia, Pass-eeee-yunk or Pash-yunk (depending on how South Philly you are) is a
curio left over from the Lenni Lenape Tribe meaning in the valley. Though lacking in hills the stretch of road felt like an anachronism nestled in between a city on the verge of gentrification and a neighborhood steeped in old school notions.
Semi-unpacked my boyfriend and I, pulled on our boots and walked down East Passyunk. He knew the neighborhood, having grown up here. It was the crooked causeway where boys from South Philly came to rent suits and buy Italian leather shoes to wear to prom. The hushed series of blocks I now called home seemed barren; nothing but shops selling statues of the Blessed Mother, lingerie and one too many airbrushing establishments baring closed signs in their windows.
We trudged through slush and ice all the way to the orange blinking panoply of rivaling cheese steak houses. We didn't care about the bitter cold or everything the Avenue lacked - we were in love and had our own place in a safe neighborhood where the rent was cheap.
So much has changed since that snowy day in February six years ago. From my bedroom window, I hear the snippets of drunken conversations as the clacking of heels clamor against the Native American chevron patterns on the sidewalk. I look out at the humble Philadelphia skyline as the sun sets, in a corona of pinks and blushing blues over the city. There's a traffic jam down the Avenue that was once silent; sandwiched between narrow adjoining streets where generations of Italian American families saved parking spots with plastic lawn chairs and stragglers once wandered onto from the court ordered methadone clinic on Broad Street to panhandle and bum cigarettes. This place where we chose to live evolved into a new stratosphere of hipness while the love I hoped would grow devolved into a series of sad talks and divorce papers.
I watched my neighborhood flourish around me as I grew into myself and out of love. The hipsters are now my friends they cut my hair at Fringe Salon and sell me coffee at Black and Brew. I pay way too much for produce at the Acme and when I'm sad I walk down to Adobe on my own and sing karaoke with the regulars. On Sunday's, I get a kick out of the dichotomies that brush up against one another as I walk to the gym. Mother's in pajama pants push kids with Rita Water Ice stained faces around in strollers passed the sharp dressed brunch crowd at Los Caballitos. Men yell at the big screen, cigarettes dangling from their lips at local sports teams from the el fresco seating area at Stogie Joe's while guys wearing Misfits t-shirts tinker with bikes outside of Philadelphia Scooters.
On nights when I need to get out but don't have the wherewithal to cab it to Center City, I grab a six pack of assorted ales at The Bottle Shop and sit outside the Green Olives Café and smoke hookah with the staff. They teach me words in Arabic while teenagers sit on the benches of the now vacant Colombo's sipping beer from paper bags shirking their curfews.
It's last call and I walk home from another night of sipping brews at the P.O.P.E. Antique lampposts light my way and darkness has done little to assuage this summer's oppressive heat wave. The night air is redolent with that South Philly smell of hoagie and second hand smoke as I walk by the Singing Fountain that's now silent and drag on my last cigarette. I feel safe but know that beyond the parameters of this quaint thoroughfare lies danger for a girl in skinny jeans and heels at this hour. Closer to home, I watch bearded boys with tattooed knuckles cling to their tiny girlfriends sporting asymmetrical haircuts and hear snippets of musings from the mixture of rockabilly girls and popped collar wearing Jerseyites spilling out of Adobe and Lucky 13.
A spider vein of lightning illuminates the sky followed by a giant-stomp roll of thunder. It starts to rain as I fish in my bag for my keys. A knot works its way up from my heart and into my throat as I unlock the door to my place. No one will be waiting up for me, but somehow the sting of alone is assuaged by a sense of freedom. I wonder where I'll go now that I can live anywhere. I shed a few tears as I listen to the rain pelt the air conditioner.
Part of me wants to move out West and leave these streets to the ghosts of the Lenape Indians that lurk in the doorways and cracks of this jagged junction. The rest of me knows that there's something here, something more to learn. Six years ago, I moved here for love, and now that particular love is gone, but this place, this small corner of the world has helped me get through that loss. People say that if you live in New York you're never alone that the city has a heart that beats even while you sleep. I now believe the same is true of Philly. East Passyunk Avenue is no longer just a place where I live it has become my home. As I crawl into bed, I can't help but agree with that hipster girl, this nabe is pretty choice and I think maybe I'll just have to stay.
Vickie Fernandez is an award-winning writer and alumni of Ariel Gore's Literary Kitchen. Her stories have appeared in many online publications including Penduline Press, The Rumpus, Antique Children, Spurt Literary Journal and The Rusty Nail. She was the recipient of the 2011 Judith Stark award and a finalist in Hunger Mountain's 2010 competition for creative non-fiction. She is currently working on a memoir. For more information visit: www.vickiefernandez.com