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She called me urbane.
She called me urbane. No one had ever called me that before; in fact, I am not even sure I heard that word up until that point. I was the ride foreman, a supervisory amusement park position with an inflated sense of importance, at Hersheypark. And it had an inflated of importance because it wasn’t like that without the right supervision, the mindless attendants and operators would put everyone in danger. On a warm summer night like tonight, the log flume ride had broken down – rather, it started thunderstorming, so we shut it down – and a young mother and her husband took shelter under the gazebo that housed all of the boats. At the time, I had sideburns that were probably two inches too long, and shorts on that were probably two inches too short, and she looked at me with a puzzled face and said that I didn’t belong in that amusement park. I tacitly agreed, nodding, since I was ready to be done with my shift that day. But she was being more general, implying that I was indeed much more fit for an urban environment. She called me urbane.
That was validating, since I never really felt like I fit there anyway. This was after the Iraq War started and I was a major (and vocal) critic of it. I was a vegan in the bologna capital of the world, a place where chicken isn’t meat. I lost my freshman fifteen that summer (and more, in fact). Double shifts and two salads a day without dressing will do that. What made her more intriguing and the compliment so impactful that I would recall it nearly a decade later, is that I was an aspiring journalist and consequently an avid reader the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor. She freelanced for those publications.
I was at my parents’ house for the summer—the last summer I would do that—and struggling to find my home. It was that remark that made my life in Philadelphia made more sense. And it was that town that I would call home just a few months later. And even today, it still is more home than any other place, having lived here for my entire adult life. I still see that beautiful skyline, beautiful not because it objectively stands apart from Chicago’s or New York’s – but beautiful because I was mine. I am beautiful, too. Every time I see that beautiful skyline, even after a short daytrip outside of the city, I always remark to the passenger sharing the car with me, that I am so thankful we’re home. That bend on the Schuylkill Expressway that reveals it breaks my heart every time. Driving over the Ben Franklin or Walt Whitman has the same effect. Driving east on Lancaster Ave. is a highlight, too. I love this town. And seeing that skyline welcome me? It’s more than the opening of a sitcom.
My mother shed tears as she gazed on the pyramids as our flight landed in Nile Delta and we landed in the dusty city of Cairo the next summer. I had no clue that my pyramids would be Liberties One and Two, the Comcast Center, and the AMTRAK Building. Huge narcissistic phalluses, that would make Philadelphians feel even more inferior, since they weren’t nearly as tall or as glorious as America’s others. Almost nothing in Philadelphia compares well to other towns, not the least of which are our sports teams. But being the best isn’t what makes this town home for me. Those towers are, pure and simply, capitalistic idolatry, and yet they are the symbol something safe for me. It doesn’t really matter what they mean and why they are there, because they mean something more real to me: belonging, acceptance, understanding, wholeness, faith. It’s true I’ll pray for them to fall down in the next phrase (but not too loudly considering my complexion). But at least in this phrase, they are a relief. It’s always a relief to be return home. They are there always to welcome me back, too. I never question it, I never doubt it. Ironic that it is only buildings that I don’t seem to project my father issues onto.
Finding home, longing for it, might be something of a mission for all of us as we journey in this world that isn’t really meant for us, or so it seems. Whether we think our true home will come in another age, or we are just a blip in an earth so vast with a history so long, that virtually every one of its species is now extinct. As we journey like displaced individuals in some earthly place, our concept of home still means something, it can still bring tears. Nevermind the corrupt city politics, the massive segregation, the poverty rate, the murders, the pollution, the broken schools, the joblessness – it is still home.
Even though the sociology of cities makes sense, for example, all of the United States could live in a state as small as Vermont if we lived as close to each other as Brooklyners do, that is not what makes this city what it is for me. Even though the wide variety of culture that is present is rejuvenating and nourishing, to satisfy even the most scholarly, it is not a fulfilled mind that causes me to long for this town. It is not the diversity or environmentalism that is why this city is so easily called my home. It is nearly all about a feeling. I love this city. Must I qualify it? I just love it, no deconstruction necessary. No dissection required.
And so when nostalgia strikes, and I’m in exurban Pennsylvania with its SUVs and its Ruby Tuesdays – with its strip malls and Quiznos – with its conservative politics and dairy farms for sale – I know not to reject my past, nor wish it something else. Life is like a chess game, and we’re not talking about pawns and kings this time; one lives and one dies with the moves one’s made and doesn’t have the luxury to change them. We just keep playing. At times, it is tempting to want to turn back the clock, make better decisions, but to live in another time, to wish we were someone else, is damned to be just an unsatisfying. Because in those seasons, it is not my circumstance that I find unsatisfying, but myself.
Must I either damn myself in the past or present? That what I came from was horrid, or what I am currently in needs to be sabotaged? On the contrary, life isn’t black or white, and we are neither one thing nor another, and as many joys as we hold now, they were just as numerous in the past, and will be just as plentiful in the future.
And so therein lies the answer to the suburban question; why they deserve a defense. We don’t defend them because of their problems or their successes. We don’t, and can’t, defend their sociology, the horrors of sprawl. We don’t defend them because they make sense in a rational sense – but what does? We defend them because someone calls them home. That person is just as human; yearns for and desires the same things we do. Belonging, acceptance, understanding, wholeness, faith. The same things that make this town so warm to some and so wonderful. But for the same reasons, why someone would need to leave, not just to flee to the suburbs, but arrive somewhere where they can experience just the same thing that I am. If anyone gets to experience what Philadelphia allows me to, a place that makes me shed tears and love life, who would ever rob them of such a great pleasure? In a homeless place, in a land filled with refugees, finding an apartment, a street, a town, a country that offers one a welcome mat is a beautiful thing. There are little greater joys and greater loves.
It is love that binds us, love that connects us, love that makes us able to relate to one another. For a moment, it makes more sense to forfeit my beliefs for the sake of love, for the sake of understanding. To drink a macro-import, when I really want a micro-local. To drive a truck, when I really want to ride my bike. To enjoy a walk in a new housing development, when I really find more satisfaction in walking down a 200-year-old alley. Therein lies the greatest rationality of all – more rational than any sociological, economic, or political condemnation. It makes more sense to relate, than it does to be alone. To be generous, than it does to resent. To empathize, than it does to judge. To love, than it does to do anything else. And it isn’t a place that deserves that relationship, that generosity, that empathy, but only what will last forever, your soul and mine.