I have never been to Philadelphia before, I tell the airport shuttle driver.
The closest I ever came to visiting was when I was in New York and a friend and I accidentally boarded the wrong bus. We wanted the bus to Boston, but got on the bus to Philly. We were driven 15 blocks before we heard the bus driver announce our destination. I wanted to stay on, partly because I didn’t want to be those people who got on the wrong bus, but also because I had never been to Philadelphia and suddenly wanted to go. But we didn’t go. My friend and I walked to the front of the bus past a slew of unamused passengers in order to be dropped off in some industrial part of Manhattan by an unamused bus driver.
My airport shuttle driver is also unamused, not only with the story of my inability to manage public transit, but mainly with my inability to tell him anything about his city other than the Liberty Bell, Rocky, and cheesesteaks. (And declaring my love for cheesteaks isn’t garnering any respect from him either. Perhaps because, having never been to Philadelphia, I’ve never eaten an actual Philly cheesesteak, meaning thus far my love has solely been for non-Philly cheesesteaks, which I’m sure is some sort of blasphemy.)
“Is that what brings you out here?” the shuttle driver asks, referring to my short list of Philadelphia attractions.
“Well, not quite.” And I explain that I was invited by the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp and am here to write about the parts of the city that are a little more known to the locals than they are to the tourists.
“You’re a writer?” He inspects me through his rearview mirror.
“Sometimes,” I say.
There’s a pause.
“Oh,” he finally says. “You should write about me. I’ll tell you everything you need to know.”
Now he’s amused.
We take the expressway along the Schuylkill River, passing rusted signs and construction cones on the way to the hotel — the Inn at Penn — and he tells me childhood stories for his biography that I’m now writing. I listen — kind of — while looking over the tentative itinerary that GPTMC has sent to me. I’m usually more for venturing off, getting a little lost and seeing what I can find on my own, rather than having an agenda. But as I look over the list of places I’ll be seeing the next three days, it occurs to me some of them may not be so easy to stumble upon, or, as I would come to learn, even easy to realize.
If I were on my own, I would no doubt encounter a handful of the 3,600 murals created by the Mural Arts Program that are scattered throughout the city. Maybe I would come across the new Roots mural on South Street and Broad, where the band members slyly reveal themselves in a collage of teals, pinks, and purples from behind a chain-linked fence that divides the street from the small parking lot in which it stands.
And maybe in the absence of an itinerary, I would hear mention of a neighborhood called Fishtown and, simply based on its name, would check it out and find myself at Frankford Hall, drinking a pint of beer and eating bratwurst under the summer sun at one of the picnic tables in this German beer garden. Or maybe I would venture to the opposite end of the city, onto Fabric Row — South 4th Street — where I’d follow the tattoo parlors, record stores, and antique shops to the Bus Stop Boutique and try on a few pairs of the vibrantly colored shoes that jump out from the shop’s window.
After trying on shoes, I like to believe I would follow my California instincts to Los Taquitos de Puebla, one of the first Mexican restaurants to open in the Italian Market and considered one of the best, as the taqueria sells about 500 tacos on its busiest day. Maybe I’d walk into the small six-tabled restaurant that’s currently adorned with Lucha Libre masks and I’d choose one of the tacos al pastor dishes or be brave (or really drunk) and try the tacos de ojo — beef eye tacos.
Hopefully, while in the Italian Market, I would have the intuition to stop off at Fante’s Kitchen Shop, if not to buy a toy for my kitchen back home then at least to buy a bag of freshly ground coffee and peruse the photographs that hang on the wall above the orange and yellow and green and blue ceramic cookware. Photographs of chefs and cookbook authors who have come from all over the world to shop at Fante’s. Photographs that display a rich history of Fante’s Kitchen Shop that is kept alive by owner Mariella Esposito, who worked at the store as a young girl back when it was a gift shop.
And if I found myself at Fante’s, perhaps I could find my way to another local favorite like Milk & Honey Market in West Philadelphia. Maybe I’d have a scoop of ice cream or a BLT that’s been made from locally sourced ingredients, before buying a few bottles of the honey that’s produced from beehives housed on various rooftops throughout Philadelphia. The honey is bottled by zip code, and unlike the locals who tend to favor the honey from their own zip code, I would enjoy it all, and be sure not to leave Philadelphia without a few bottles in my luggage. (At the airport I would pay $26 for that honey in checked-baggage fees.)
Perhaps I would continue to wander in West Philadelphia, where I might find Hawthorne Hall, one of the sites of the Hidden City Festival, which features artist exhibits in decaying buildings around the city. I’d see Hawthorne Hall and suddenly gain the knowledge that Hidden City is the name of a festival and not a construction company that’s put its banner across the building’s iron fence.
Then, because I would have had the insight to buy a ticket for the festival in advance, I’d walk up the narrow dusty staircase of Hawthorne Hall, past the blue and brown peeling paint that’s curling off the walls and back on itself, dangling from the ceilings, and ready to flake off and disintegrate with the next gust of wind or slammed door. I’d enter a large room that has been made up by an art collective known as Rabid Hands in a way that plays on the buildings history of when fraternal organizations met there, complete with banners, candles, framed portraits on the walls, and a long dining table and slanted floor that makes for a tilted feast.
Maybe. Maybe I’d find myself in all those places if I were to venture on my own without any agenda or suggestions from a local. But probably not. I would come to understand over my short stay that, unlike cities like New York, Philadelphia isn’t going to assault you with its greatness around every corner. It’s subtler, and a little hidden. Maybe that’s what my shuttle driver meant when he said he could tell me everything I needed to know. That I need a local to teach me how to spend a weekend in Philadelphia. And while I usually like to have both the tourist and not-so-tourist experiences in order to feel fulfilled by a city, I don’t feel that way about Philadelphia.
Well, that’s almost true — I still want a real Philly cheesesteak.