I was worried about moving to a big city like Philadelphia. It seemed so impersonal; center city and the art museum, the places I knew best before moving to Philadelphia, seemed disjunct, confusing, highly commercial, and I knew I’d miss the sense of familiarity of my New Jersey semi-home town.
It was isolating and disorienting for the first couple of months. While the ascending left-right pattern of street numbers made sense, I was confused about the names of the streets, and why people would tell me to walk north or south of Market, as if that had any bearing on where I was at the moment and where I needed to be going. There’s also a sense, in a big city, that you can get lost in the shuffle: one more or less red-headed girl traversing the streets doesn’t necessarily make a difference. And while, at times, I like to revel in my anonymity, it gets lonely, not knowing anyone, drifting through the city and feeling completely separate from each human being who passes by.
And then, things started to change, as things usually do. I was looking for a father’s day present in a neighborhood shop, and brought a friend along. My friend insisted that we grab our filled coffee mugs, and venture down to the shop, mugs in tow to search for a present. I walked into the shop, nervous to be bringing coffee into a store, but the owner, a very lovely gentleman, was tickled pink that we’d brought our coffee along, brewed himself some tea, and started talking to us.
That was the moment that Philadelphia became Philly, and the neighborhood became that much friendlier. The shop owner still smiles at me and chats every time I walk by, and will occasionally put an even bigger grin on my face by telling me I look cute today, or that he’s never seen a better smile. And I’ve expanded my neighborhood to include the corner beer and food store across the street, where the guys who work behind the counter recognize me as the girl who will come in every so often to buy essential food, but almost never the beer for which they’re known. The coffee shop two doors down has become a part of my routine, featuring itself as an extension of my living room, and the friendly baristas recommending things they know I’d like, based on the coffee-chocolate combos they’ve seen me order.
And so, in this impersonal city, I’ve found a friendly neighborhood, a community of people who recognize and acknowledge each other. This place has become an intimate small town where the inhabitants keep a nosy, cozy eye out for each other, and I watch with amazement and gratitude as my habitat extends to the living rooms and kitchens and store fronts of my neighborhood.