“…the torments of a hot summer are now over, the cold torments of the winter have not begun, and people bask in the perishable possibility of a kind and gentle city.”
–Aleksandar Hemon, “Reasons Why I Do Not Wish to Leave Chicago: An Incomplete, Random List”
- The Liberty Bell: a common synecdoche for the birthplace of a fragile democratic experiment. That, or the first herald of an empire, depending on your preferred historical narrative. Nonetheless, I couldn’t tell you the relic’s location within the city, much less its precise historical significance. During my pandemic sojourn in the City of Brotherly Love, I never took the time to visit it in person. Indeed, the extent of my knowledge about the ancient instrument comes from my fuzzy recollections of everyone’s favorite Nicolas Cage vehicle National Treasure, plus a Mitski song. She sings, “And did you know the Liberty Bell is a replica/Silently housed in its original walls?”
- The bundle of boulders beneath a bridge into University City, where my roommate discarded the ruby red vape with which we had christened our new apartment. We opted to divert from our avowed eco-socialist ideology for the sake of our personal health. As we took our last puffs from the smokable battery, Ryan floated the possibility of returning one day, years later, to see whether it would still be there. Its permanence seems unlikely, but neither could we imagine who might remove it, or to where.
- The airy notes of a nearby organ wafting into my bedroom one morning, awaking me alongside the daylight that had somehow been lost with our yearly roll back of the clocks. At the time of my departure in mid-December, the alarm clock on my bedside table still read an hour fast. I wonder whether the current occupant of the Airbnb ever changed it or kept it as it was, anticipating the eventual re-compensation of our biannual temporal shifts.
- The Vietnamese convenience store down the block that posts a price of one dollar for three packs of ramen noodles. Spending the minimum amount required for the cashier to accept a debit card, I could feed myself for a week.
- A door to a ground floor apartment, open to the dawning December chill, through which I once spotted a young couple arguing while they unpacked cardboard boxes of Christmas decorations. I wanted to peer inside, hoping to remind myself after months of practical isolation that people still lived life outside of a Zoom screen, but I refused to linger.
- The back of our patio, when the sky has already swallowed the sun but before it has begun to spit back out into stars. I smoked roughly one-hundred cigarettes on that patio over the final few weeks of my stay, confident that my imminent return to my parents’ house would preclude any long-term addiction. On those evenings, I fancied myself a tortured artist, sipping a Coors Light and stewing in the majesty of my ideas. I even wrote some of them down.
- An empty bottle of bourbon—a 22nd birthday present—that stood on top of a toaster oven that we never once used. I brought the bottle home, a souvenir of an immoderate habit, but I can’t remember whether I ever took it inside with the rest of my luggage. If not, it’s lost forever, separated from its drinker when my father, citing the lingering smell of mold, sold my first car.
- The blue couch where I listened to audiobooks like Who Rules the World? and Why We’re Polarized and spilled the greases of various fried foods.
- The sidewalks that frame the city streets; the lopsided pavement that accommodated my daily walks like cement trampolines, buoying my body to rhythms of “Goodmorning” or “Come Back…Be Here;” the diagonal jut of Passyunk Avenue, slicing towards the river that buffers an encroaching New Jersey, a river whose name I never learned.
- The notebook that sat on my bedside table, replete with titles of potential writing projects. In homage to my high school habit of naming my essays after Led Zeppelin songs, each of my ideas riffed on the title of an existing work. Among them: “On Not Trust-ing Pete Buttigieg Anywhere Near Public Office,” “Dr. Strange-Lover: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Taylor Swift,” and “Reasons Why I Do Not Wish to Leave Philadelphia: An Incomplete, Random List.” None of these essays was ever completed, and I have all but decided to abandon each of them. They are now merely casualties of the hyperactive, non-committal brain of an aspiring writer with far too lofty aspirations and far too little discipline. Just as with the Liberty Bell and the bottle of bourbon, I could not tell you where to find that notebook.
- The east bank of the Schuylkill, along which I took to ambling after a forty-five-minute journey through the aforementioned cement pathways of Center City. It was on a bench not far from the boulders that I had my first of two socially distanced dates with a senior from Penn. There, we commiserated about Ivy League elitism, and she taught me how to pronounce the river’s name, “skoo-cull.” Weeks later, on a Sunday when the girl unexpectedly canceled a non-amorous reunion, a pedestrian began waving furiously at me. Starved for human contact, I waved back equally furiously as they passed to my left and approached their friend.
- The little market down the block, which I alternated with the Vietnamese convenience store in making my alimentary purchases. I quickly befriended the proprietor, a Dominican man named Vicente who helped me practice my Spanish. Ryan and I frequently bought cheesesteaks and fries and cans of Arizona sweet tea for consumption as we watched movies late into the night.
- The Philadelphia Museum of Art, a neo-classically styled building perhaps more famous for its depiction in a famous sports film that I’ve never seen. I never entered this Philadelphia staple, but I did climb those famous steps, looking out over the city before circumambulating the building. On the other side, I could see the metropolitan North sprawl beyond the bend in the Schuylkill. Night had fallen; I shoved my hands into my pockets and tried to decode the symbology of the stars’ reflections from the river, chiming a message of wonderment and persistence from the stilly water. David Bowie belted through my headphones about something waiting in the sky, and for the first time in months, I felt enormous weight, enormous love, enormous possibility.
- The Center City skyline, which, orderly in the distance, grows and grows as you approach it from the south until you become part of its maw. It’s like driving towards a mass of dark clouds for what feels like hours, wondering if you’ll ever reach it or if it has installed itself as a fixture of a permanent horizon. Then you hear a clap of thunder and are enveloped by sheaths of falling rain. I began to expect the skyscrapers’ rapid approach as a part of my walks, but the totality of my integration into the jungle of buildings still never failed to surprise me. My favorite view of the skyline, however, was the snapshot from our patio. Perched precariously between the vined-up wicker fence and spindly fingers of a molted tree, the cityscape blinked under the moonlight, its apparent life reaffirming my own in a season of so much death and silence.
- Billie Holiday and Noam Chomsky, my two heroes, were born, raised, and educated in Philadelphia. If the city had anything to do with shaping their geniuses, let’s hope some of that same magic rubbed off on me.