Philadelphia is defined by the suffocating weight of its history, and not just important stuff like Ben Franklin’s toilet. A compulsive attachment to disposable artifacts of the relatively recent past is a prerequisite of any claim to being a real Philadelphian. Despite being a rank impostor with just eight elapsed years of residency, I acquired attachments to several such relics of the city’s barely recorded quasi-history, to wit:
SEPTA tokens: As evidenced by the vast stores of time and money the transit agency blew getting rid of these things, a ride on the Market-Frankford line never deserved to be purchased with anything resembling modern technology. America’s last major subway token perfectly represented what it was traded for: something rusty, crude and firmly rooted in another century. SEPTA’s subways befit the lowly coin, the form of currency endemic to Laundromats, vending machines and the filthy crevices of the nation’s couches.
Mrs. K’s Koffee Shop: In 2017, a greasy old Philadelphia diner called Little Pete’s closed after a crush of local and national coverage that included at least one celebrity testimonial and countless overwrought paeans to scrapple and Formica. A few months later, a greasy old Philadelphia diner called Mrs. K’s closed with hardly a ripple. This, in addition to all the perfectly serviceable scrambled eggs and tuna melts I personally ate at one of its two horseshoe counters, is why Mrs. K’s was a far more authentic symbol of the city’s rapidly vanishing something-or-other.
The No Mail Today Guy: One of the people who helped keep the rent down in my former neighborhood was known to my family only as the No Mail Today Guy. This was because he ran a business advertised in its window as “The Most Unusual Store in Phila.” and on its usually closed doors as accepting, in strangely angry, hand-scrawled capital letters, “NO MAIL TODAY.” Once, finding it open (including, presumably, to postal deliveries), my wife and I stepped into a dimly lit space cluttered with vaguely grotesque carvings, where we were trailed by a man informing us that art is a “very good investment.” As it turns out, this man was a prolific ivory smuggler with a federal prison sentence in his near future, and the store was what one newspaper described as “essentially a tomb for African elephants.” The No Mail Today Guy earned his fate, but the neighborhood will never be the same without his cryptic warning to the city’s letter carriers.
America’s most corrupt footrace: It’s difficult to capture the sheer exuberance of the city’s corruption in one grift, but the scandal that tarnished the Philadelphia Marathon comes close. What could be more wholesome, in normal circumstances, than a classic feat of endurance uniting elite athletes and ambitious amateurs alike? And yet Philadelphia found a way to taint this inspiring affair, funneling the proceeds to a mayoral slush fund that not one but two patronage hires looted for personal expenses. The upshot is that the fees a bunch of underweight, over-carb-loaded runners forked over for the privilege of running the distance to Delaware helped some political appointee pay Uber to shuttle her all over town.
The Gallery: To paraphrase a beloved “Saturday Night Live” character, this place had everything: Books-A-Million, relentless earth tones, a haunted escalator. All American cities suffer from some degree of urban decay, but few enshrine such a worst-of-both-worlds example of suburban blight at their cores. The publicly subsidized attempt to update and re-brand this mall as a hip “district” robbed the city and the country of a perfectly preserved specimen of everything that was wrong with the 1980s – retail’s answer to the Mütter Museum. Take the Fashion District; leave the Cinnabon.
Josh Gohlke is a writer and editor living in Oakland, Calif. @JoshGohlke
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