A quaint residential area in North Philadelphia.
I grew up in a little brick row home exactly 4.42 miles from the Philadelphia city limits.
I spent the first 24 years of my life in the Philly area, the last five or so within the city itself while going to college. I drove a cab on weekends, so I know every inch of that extravagantly crude, abrasive, and hideous town. To hear me speak—unless I’m upset, at which point my primordial Philadelphia accent emerges a bit—you’d think I’m from the Midwest. This is because at around age 12, I became conscious that everyone else in the world speaks differently from those in Philly (and Baltimore—it’s essentially the same rust-peeling accent), and I trained myself not to sound that way anymore. In movies they always make Philadelphians sound like New Yorkers, but it’s a completely different exotic tongue. It’s truly the World’s Worst Accent.
The key is the way they mangle the hard “o” sound. Here I am deliberately putting on a thick Philly accent. I’m saying, Jim Goad and I are going to drink some water, smoke some dope, and go down to the ocean and get into some fights. (And here’s what I sound like saying the same sentence in my deliberately retrained non-Philadelphian intonation.)
Despite of—no, because of—its nonpareil grotesqueness, I simultaneously love the town and am deeply repulsed by it. Since Gavin will be appearing in Center City tonight (they don’t call it “downtown” in Philly), I felt it was my duty to recommend a few activities and dining establishments that usually get ignored in tourist guides to Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and that one place where Ben Franklin flew the kite.
GO TO MOUNT MORIAH CEMETERY
I’ve been to all 50 states and about a dozen foreign countries, but the creepiest place I’ve ever been is a now-condemned cemetery in far, far Southwest Philly. Even back in the 80s there were broken tombstones and dogs running wild in this place, which is naturally why we’d do acid there in the middle of the night and sit on the top of mausoleums, hoping to hear the dead. I took these pictures in 2006—apparently after ejaculating on the cell-phone camera lens—and they convey the place’s Pompeiian morbidity well:
DRIVE THROUGH THE HOOD WITH YOUR DOORS LOCKED
At any given moment, I’d estimate that about 75% of Philadelphia’s land mass would fit most people’s definition of “ghetto.” Because he’s from Canada, Gavin will be appearing in a safe and clean environment on Walnut Street about a three-minute walk to City Hall, but he’ll also be only a ten-minute drive from some of the most horrifying slums I’ve ever seen, and I make it a point to see as many as I can. Whether the neighborhood is Point Breeze or Mantua or Strawberry Mansion or nearly everywhere in North Philly, there’s nowhere in New York City that remotely compares on the raw-terror scale. Philadelphia has the most hostile blacks of any city I’ve ever seen, but then again it also has the most hostile whites of any city I’ve ever seen. It also has the most hostile Jews and Puerto Ricans of any city I’ve ever seen. I’ve been unable to track it down, but about 20 years or so ago some sociological study rated it America’s most hostile city. There’s a reason it’s called “Killadelphia.” And if Philly isn’t scary enough for you, cross the bridge over into Camden, NJ, which is right across the Delaware River from Center City Philly. When I did a Road Trip of East Coast Slums in 2005 from Baltimore all the way up to Boston, Camden was the only place where they actually yell at your car and chase after you.
EAT THE WORLD’S BEST JUNK FOOD
Philly is famous for its cheese steaks and hoagies, but there are also other region-specific marvels such as soft pretzels, scrapple, Tastykakes, “Irish potato” candies (coconut balls covered in cinnamon), and Zitner’s Easter eggs. I recommended the following eating establishments to Gavin:
The hoagie shop at the corner of Frankford and Lehigh
No idea what its name is or if it’s still operating, but it’s right under the Market-Frankford elevated subway in a blown-out area known as Kensington. Last time I was there in 2006, you could get an Italian hoagie drowning in onions, oregano, oil, and vinegar for about $8, and the thing was roughly fifteen feet long.
The Melrose Diner
Thick with mobbed-up Guidos in deepest South Philly, anyone who doesn’t think this is one of the world’s best diners needs to be quietly shot in the head and dumped in the Schuylkill River at night. I even wrote about this place way back in college. The owner at the time was this apparent OCD case who went to extreme lengths to ensure quality and consistency. For example, for their hot apple dumplings in vanilla sauce, he’d actually have scientists venture out to western PA every autumn to pick a crop of apples that most closely matched his requirements for things such as sugar content, pH level, etc. When they found the right crop, he’d lease out a local factory and have them can the entire field of apples so that every hot apple dumpling in vanilla sauce at the Melrose Diner tasted exactly the same for the entire year.
It’s right across the street from Pat’s Steaks and open around the clock just like Pat’s. The difference is that Geno’s has the hottest hot sauce I’ve ever tasted and you can enjoy your outdoor dining experience at Geno’s while reading flyers pasted to their windows about how you have to speak English while ordering and how much you should hate Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Nestled in the crumbling elderly white ghetto of Fishtown just north of Center City, Sulimay’s is host to the World’s Greatest Talk Show, where three 900-year-old Fishtowners review the latest records by Slayer and Das Racist:
You can’t visit Philadelphia without feeling like a part of your soul has been stained, and that’s the reason I will always be fond of both Philadelphia and my Philly-stained soul.