Posted on July 27, 2006
This is – by far – the best travel article about Philadelphia that I have ever seen. Originally, published on salon.com back in May, 1997, I’ve copied and pasted it here in its entirety. I reproduce it out of fear that salon will pull it and It’ll be lost. People have to archive this stuff. If you’re a purist, or just want to generate traffic, read it on its original page here.
Philly is obsessed with the strange
BY MARY ELIZABETH WILLIAMS | a friend once asked me where the weirdest place I ever had sex was. I didn’t hesitate for a moment with my reply. “Philadelphia,” I answered. “Definitely Philadelphia.”
While she may have been expecting something more along the lines of “in the men’s room of the Royalton,” I stand by my response. Philadelphia is one of the weirdest places on earth, regardless of what you happen to be doing there. David Lynch has claimed that it was his years living there that inspired him to write “Eraserhead.” Specifically, Lynch has called the home of the hoagie “the sickest, most corrupt, decaying city filled with fear I ever set foot in in my life.” This critique may not jibe with the image of colonial charm and soft pretzels the town tries to maintain, but it probably does not surprise its citizens. And yet, despite this citywide abundance of oddness, Philadelphians remain true to Philadelphia. Maybe it’s because there’s something in the sickness of Philly that is eminently attractive. Quaint even.
Philadelphia occupies a special place in my own heart because I spent a portion of my youth there, studying film at Temple University. I fondly recall the ’80s as an era of high weirdness, even by Philly standards. It was the waning epoch of boss Frank Rizzo’s administration. It was the time of the botched siege on MOVE headquarters (which immediately inspired the dance-floor chant “The roof! The roof! The roof is on FIRE!”), and the memorable last press conference of state Treasurer Budd Dwyer, which ended with him blowing his brains out in front of the assembly. It was the heyday of Gary Heidnik — a spectacularly colorful local serial killer who drove around in a Rolls Royce and fed his chained-up victims to each other. All in all, it was quite a time.
But now there’s more to Philly than just death and small-town-style political corruption. I believe the tide began to turn in the late ’80s, when the city made the bold move of finally allowing skyscrapers to be built. Previously, tradition and a lingering sense of colonial decorum had dictated that no building could go higher than Billy Penn’s hat — a reference to the statue adorning City Hall’s dome (a statue that, when viewed from certain angles, appears unmistakably aroused). That all changed when the gleaming monolith Liberty Place was built. A mere decade later, the skyline of Philadelphia resembles, well, an actual skyline.
But it isn’t the old and new phallic symbols jutting out of downtown that make me love Philadelphia. And it certainly isn’t the Liberty Bell or Independence Hall. I love it for the same reason John Waters loves Baltimore — Philadelphia is not hiply cynical, it is not coolly self-aware. It is unconcerned with itself and unpretentious. It is, quite simply, the real deal.
Other cities pervert diner culture with grotesque faux-’50s nostalgia, with “Pulp Fiction”-style Marilyn Monroe iconography and $5 milkshakes. But Philly doesn’t have to embrace the past because Philly has never left it. At the Melrose Diner, napkins are emblazoned with the less-than-Shakespearean verse, “Everybody who knows goes to the Melrose,” and waitresses wear cutlery-shaped pins that don’t just tell their names but also reveal the years they started. As in, “Betty. 1967.” The Melrose is a place to sample the local specialty scrapple (rhymes with crapple), a chunky, mysterious kin of sausage. Personally, I prefer the Melrose’s apple pie with vanilla sauce, and the kind of damn fine cups of coffee that would wow even a David Lynch character.
For an even more intense flirtation with artery-clotting Philly delicacies, I can head down to South Philly for the evening and experience the cholesterol level-shattering sandwiches at Pat’s. This open-all-night titan of cheese steak is as significant a Philadelphia landmark as anything in town having to do with the year 1776 and the founding fathers. On summer nights, the sidewalks surrounding the eatery resemble the climax of “Close Encounters” — hoards gathered in glassy-eyed awe under the bright lights. It’s just that instead of grooving to an intergalactic melody, this throng is getting buzzed on the smell of grilled onions.
When I’m in the mood for a more substantial dinner, or just want a few post-steak drinks in a congenial atmosphere, I gather some friends and perch in the jewel of South Philly — the Triangle Tavern. The first time I ever went to the Triangle, I felt like a Jersey-born Alice who’d stumbled down into a beer-soaked Pennsylvania rabbit hole. I couldn’t stop repeating, “What is this place?” over and over and over.
The Triangle is a big, boisterous Italian restaurant and bar — a place with all the requisite trappings of wood paneling and mussels marinara. What sets it apart is the house band. The performers are an exceedingly average-looking, post-middle-age troupe, performing a repertoire of old standbys and what can only be described as classic rock. Imagine, if you will, your Uncle Tommy, T-shirt, jeans and beer gut a-go-go, belting out a powerhouse version of “Born in the USA.” Better yet, imagine him doing “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” Needless to say, it’s not a pretty picture. But it is, I assure you, a compelling one. There is something both perverse and charming about the floor show at the Triangle — something that big city neo-swank hot spots, with their martinis and their cigars and their relentless irony, could never hope to have. People go to the Triangle not to look good but to have a good time; and the guys in the band even have a perma-“having a ball” expression plastered to their faces. The patrons cheer wildly. And you come away with the feeling that if only Uncle Tommy did have a band, he’d be a much happier guy.
That’s what the Birthplace of Independence is all about — personal freedom, including the freedom to march to a different drummer. Philly is, after all, the home of the “Mummers,” who bring marching to a different drummer to a whole new level. New Year’s Day in Philly is traditionally rung in with one of the world’s most unusual parades, straight down the city’s main thoroughfare. Where else in America could grown-up men dress in sequins and makeup and do what they themselves refer to as “strutting”? At least, where else would hetero men do this? Perhaps only in Philly could regular Joes adorn themselves in enough plumes, spangles and rainbow-colored lamé to make the drag queen contingent at the Pride parade look like a flotilla of Mennonites.
Although nothing in the world can compare to the spectacle of the parade itself, I can get a vivid sense of the festivities, as well as an education into the tradition of mumming, at the Mummers Museum. While Rocky Balboa never triumphantly dashed up this landmark’s steps (there aren’t that many), it still deserves recognition as one of Philly’s most important attractions. The Philadelphia Museum of Art may have a distinctive façade and its share of Duchamps, but the Mummers has something else — the kind of fantastic displays the dadaists couldn’t have imagined on their best surrealism-soaked days.
Close in sound but not in spirit to the Mummers is Philly’s other great institution of distinction — the Mutter Museum. Dedicated exclusively to 19th century artifacts of physical deformity, the Mutter boasts misshapen skeletons, mutant fetuses in formaldehyde and plaster casts of freaks galore, all in somber, scholarly surroundings. It’s exactly the kind of place I can imagine “Eraserhead’s” alien baby feeling perfectly at home in.
There are, I know, people who come to the City of Brotherly Love for the historic monuments, for the Rodin Museum and the shops of South Street and the pretty cobblestone neighborhoods. I’ll never understand these people.
The Philadelphia that excites my imagination exists almost entirely off the beaten path — in the diners and the dark corners, in the human oddities preserved at the Mutter and out roaming in the streets, in the exhaustive silent film section of TLA Video, in bars with names like Doobie’s and Dirty Frank’s. Other cities — your New Yorks, your L.A.s — have significant populations of professional eccentrics. There, being weird is an occupation and an art. It’s liberating, but it’s also a competitive, full-time job. In Philly, being weird is just a way of life. For that, I love it. David Lynch may have found his best nightmares there. But for my oddball-embracing soul, it’s a dream come true. May 20, 1997