Ghosts of Philadelphia

While my feelings toward Chicago began as very positive and slowly became more negative over the years, my feelings toward Philadelphia are much more difficult to categorize. Chicago now seems relatively bland and homogeneous to me, but Philly is a city of polar extremes. In the same way that Philly contains stunning beauty and horrific ugliness only a few blocks apart from each other, I look back on my time in Philly as some of the best and worst days of my adult life.

Philadelphia first came onto my radar screen in 2000, while I was still in Boston. I had been living in a summer sublet in Brookline while trying to trying to find permanent housing in anticipation of starting classes at the Boston Architectural Center that fall. I thought I had secured a place to live down in Jamaica Plain, but those arrangements fell apart at the last minute, leaving me with very little time to find something else. (It didn’t help that I was now competing against a billion returning college students for the same twelve apartment vacancies.) Boston sort of rubbed me the wrong way anyway, so I took this as an opportunity to leave the city altogether.

Before I left, though, I had found out about the architecture program at Drexel University, which was structured in a way similar to that of the BAC: Students work full-time during the day, while attending classes in the evenings. At that time I thought it was the perfect scenario for me; I could go to school and pay my bills. During a weekend visit to New York, I made a side trip down to Philly to scope out the city for the first time. Given that SEPTA’s R7 train goes through the worst of North Philly’s ghettos on its way to 30th Street Station, my first impressions of Philadelphia were somewhat less than stellar. Drexel’s architecture program and Philly’s affordable housing market were strong attractions, but I decided to shelve those ideas and give Chicago a second chance. I moved back to Chicago a week after Labor Day, having spent just three months in Boston.

The next two years back in Chicago turned out to be one dead end after another, though, and Philadelphia was looking better and better to me. I visited Philadelphia a couple more times and explored more of the city, I got accepted into the architecture program at Drexel, and finally moved there on Labor Day of 2002. At first I rented a bedroom across the river in South Jersey, and a few months later I got my own one-bedroom apartment in Philly’s verdant East Falls neighborhood. In the meantime, I had begun classes at Drexel, I was working full-time for a mid-sized architecture firm in Collingswood, and I had developed some close friendships within the Canterbury Club, the Episcopal campus ministry for UPenn and Drexel. I had also purchased a newish car, and I had begun corresponding with an attractive woman from out west (on whom I soon developed a major crush). Things were looking pretty good, and my only regret about moving to Philly was that I hadn’t moved there straight from Boston two years earlier.

In addition to the positive life changes, Philadelphia itself was turning out to be a fascinating city to explore. The downtown area is loaded with historical sites and colonial charm, while some of the outer neighborhoods and suburbs were lush with varied topography and mature trees. Fairmount Park should be the envy of every American city; imagine mile after mile of Chicago’s Lincoln Park waterfront combined with ravines, waterfalls, and hiking trails like you’d find in the Appalachians. Most of my social life revolved around the beautiful Penn campus, and we often branched out to a variety of interesting bars and restaurants in town. Within a few weeks of my arrival, I seemed to have discovered everything in Philly that I had found lacking in Chicago.

Things were going pretty well for the first six months or so, but the cracks began showing soon enough. The first major problem was my workload: Between my full-time job and my part-time classes, I felt like every ounce of my energy was being sucked right out of me. I was able to keep up with it for a while, but it eventually began taking its toll. Putting in a full day’s work at my job became harder and harder, as did putting in the required effort on my school assignments. I felt like I was falling further and further behind, and my long-simmering clinical depression began to rear its ugly head again. A nasty case of food poisoning in January was quickly followed by a month-long bout with the flu, which sent me reeling physically.

The fatal blow came on my birthday in March. My love interest out west had earlier announced that she would be visiting Philadelphia on her spring break. I have a bad habit of getting my hopes up way too high when it comes to relationships, and that bad habit kicked into overdrive when she announced her visit. She’d come visit in March, we’d finally meet face-to-face after months of instant messages and phone calls, we’d fall in love, and we’d live happily ever after. With everything else in my life finally working out well for a change, why should this be any different?

She arrived, we met, we had a good time, and… A day later she called me at work to slam the brakes on the whole thing, without explanation. All my high hopes came crashing down, and I was in shock. I knew all along that I had been setting myself up for a huge letdown if things didn’t work out, but I had fallen hard for her, and those are the times when any sense of logic or rational thought goes right out the window. To make matters worse, for the past few weeks I had been wearing my feelings toward her on my sleeve at work and around my friends, and the implosion of that relationship became a very public spectacle. My Canterbury Club friends took me out for my birthday dinner that evening, but I managed to single-handedly turn the party’s mood into that of a funeral. I don’t think my friends appreciated being dragged down into my dysfunctional relationship issues, I sensed a subtle cooling-off of a couple friendships afterwards.

The relationship meltdown by itself probably wouldn’t have been enough to send me into a downward spiral, but combined with everything else, it was the final straw that set a vicious feedback loop of anxiety and depression into motion, and I felt my life spinning out of control.

The first casualty was school. I abruptly withdrew from my classes in April when I found myself utterly lacking the energy to finish a major project before its due date. I was already up to my ears in tuition debt, and I had no hope of repaying it before the next quarter’s registration deadline. I also felt that my performance at work was seriously slipping, and that I needed to put every effort into keeping my job.

It was too late. I got fired in May, and with a bureaucratic snafu in collecting unemployment benefits, my financial house of cards began to rapidly collapse. The states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Illinois were each telling me that I needed to file my unemployment claim with one of the other two states. Then, it turned out that my former employer had never reported my income to the state of New Jersey, making me ineligible for benefits until I could get more paperwork filled out and verified. I finally began receiving benefits after several months of navigating a warren of red tape, but by that point I had gone the entire summer of 2003 with zero income. Job interviews were few and far between, and given that my car had been repossessed in July, my work options were very limited.

One afternoon in August I received an eviction notice from my landlord’s attorney, informing me that I had a week to vacate my apartment. By this point I felt like I was completely backed into a corner with no escape, and that every endeavor I had attempted in my life had been a failure and would always be a failure, be it work, school, relationships, financial security, or even simple friendships. I decided that I was going to get very drunk that evening, fill my bathtub with hot water, climb into it, and slit my wrists.

Before doing so, though, I went to Evening Prayer at St. Mary’s Church, which had been my one daily routine during this time. Mainly I just wanted to let God know that I’d soon be meeting him face-to-face so that I could tell him to fuck off in person.

During my walk to the train station and on the ride into 30th Street Station, I began to realize just how dangerous of a place I was in, and that I needed to get myself some outside help, fast. I probably should have gone straight to a hospital, but God knows what they would have done to me once I arrived and told them what was on my mind. (And given that I had no insurance, God knows how much it would have cost me.) I had the feeling it would only make my problems much worse. I began hoping that I’d bump into one of my Canterbury Club friends at the church. That didn’t happen, so afterwards I walked down the street to the house of a couple friends who lived nearby.

By some miracle they happened to be home, and had invited some other friends over for a barbecue out back. They had recently gotten married, and there was a large keg of Yuengling left over from the wedding reception that needed to be consumed in an appropriate manner. They invited me in, and I actually had a pretty good time. One of the other people at the party happened to be a landlord in Philly, and when I told him about the eviction notice, he explained how the process works in Philadelphia, that what my landlord was doing was illegal, and what steps I needed to take to keep my apartment.

The group of us spent the evening sitting on the deck out back, passing around a glass boot filled with beer. When a person finished off the boot, they’d have to tell a story to the group before refilling the boot and passing it on. I got very drunk that evening, but instead of opening up my veins in my bathtub, I crashed on their living room futon for the night. I still felt incredibly shitty about life, but at least I had gained some breathing room.

My friends probably have no idea how close I was to suicide that evening, but I’ll be forever grateful to them for answering their front door when I rang the bell. I honestly don’t know how this story would have turned out if they hadn’t.

Having hit rock bottom, things began to improve very slowly. My first unemployment check finally arrived, retroactive to when I had first lost my job. I was able to catch up on my rent, buy some groceries, and head up to New York to purchase an old Volvo beater in Queens for $300. More importantly, I finally began regular counseling and medication at a community mental health clinic in my neighborhood. It was a slow process and nothing changed overnight, but the clouds eventually began to lift to the point where I could start taking steps to rebuild my life over the next few months.

One of those steps involved becoming more aggressive in my job search, and I made the decision to move up the road to New York City. My closest friends in Philly were making plans to head off to seminary and wouldn’t be around much longer. The job market for architects in Philly was dismal, and I had begun to mentally associate Philadelphia with all the misery I was going through. The city itself has an inferiority complex so thick you can cut it with a knife, and Philadelphia’s notorious self-loathing hangs like a dark pall over the city. I began to feel like it was contagious.

While my time in Philly had served an important role in the grand scheme of my life, I felt like the city had become haunted by my ghosts, and I wanted nothing more to do with it. One night in February I loaded up a U-Haul truck and moved to Brooklyn, and I began working at an architecture firm in Manhattan a short time later. With that, my time in Philadelphia was over.

My life over the next few years had its ups and downs. Within a few months I had become burned-out with New York City, and eventually moved back to Chicago yet again, but not before spending three months exploring the mountains of western Oregon. Back in Chicago, I spent a couple years getting my life back on track to the point where I felt like I was ready to give New York City another shot. That tale is recounted elsewhere in this blog, and is still a work in progress. So far it’s been looking good, but nowadays I try to be much more cautious about getting my hopes up too high.

The funny thing about Philly, though, is that sometimes I wonder if I gave up too easily on that city. My major regret about Chicago is that I kept moving back there only to be reminded of why I left. I should have moved away much sooner, and stayed gone. But If I have any regrets about Philadelphia, it would be the nagging feeling that I might have moved away too soon. Maybe there was still some untapped potential down there that I never fully took advantage of.

Earlier this month I decided to rent a car and head down to Philly for a concert back at St. Mary’s Church on the Penn campus, the same church I went to when my thoughts were at their darkest. (My high school friend Kevin in Poughkeepsie was to join me, but a sprained ankle forced him out at the last minute.) I had made a couple of brief visits to Philly since I had moved away, but this was the first time I had a chance to get outside Center City. I wasn’t able to spend as much time in Philly as I wanted, but I after the concert I was able to grab a cheesteak at Jim’s and then take a short drive around town before hitting the Turnpike back to New York.

I wasn’t sure how I would feel about being back there. It brought back lots of old memories, not all of which were good ones. But overall, it was nice to be back, and I even found myself a little homesick. Not enough to make me want to move back there again, but enough to make me wonder how things might have worked out if I had decided to stick around a bit longer. The city no longer felt haunted, and I’m hoping that maybe I’ve finally made peace with the ghosts I left behind.

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