(Published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on 5/24/06 – when I lived in the suburbs of Philadelphia.)
Being a relative newcomer to the Philadelphia environs – I’ve only lived here about three years – I feel that I am uniquely qualified to report on my observations of some of the more singular peculiarities of life here. I’ve also lived for long stretches of time in Colorado, southern California, and the Chicago area, and all of those places have their own idiosyncrasies. But Philadelphians and their suburban counterparts exhibit behaviors that seem to be theirs, and theirs alone.
Kissing as a means of greeting – The strangest social custom I’ve had to get used to here is that people kiss when they meet instead of shaking hands. In southern California, where you would think people would be kissing all over the place, a jaunty little wave or casual head nod is used when greeting someone. And in the Midwest, a firm handshake with a direct gaze into the eyes is the standard salutation. But here, once you have been introduced to someone, they become your kissin’ cousin. I have tried my best to adjust, but I am still startled every time someone lunges at me and plants one on my cheek (even air kisses seem to be rare). Hasn’t anyone around here ever heard of the Surgeon General’s report on how not to spread germs?
Which brings me to the next oddity: City of Brotherly Love. With all the kissing going on, you would think that Philadelphians would live up to their city slogan. But I have not found the average person here to practice brotherly or even sisterly love, especially when driving a car anywhere on Lancaster Avenue. Note to Philly drivers – you are supposed to stop for pedestrians in a marked walkway, not speed up and try to beat them across.
Too many weirdly spelled towns and roads – Bala Cynwyd? Gwynedd? Schuylkill? Miquon? Tredyffrin? Uwchland? And my favorites – Clwyd Road and Punxsutawney.
Cheese steaks – Every city does have its preoccupation with certain foods, but the obsession with cheese steaks here is a little over-the-top. I haven’t had one yet, and don’t plan to. I love beef and I love cheese, but mushed together on a white bread bun – yuck.
Fascination with Rocky – The original movie was great. The song was awesome. The scene of Rocky running on the art museum steps was inspiring. It was also thirty years ago. Time to get over it.
Windy roads and illegible street signs – I am normally very adept at finding my way around with an old-fashioned street map. But after moving here I suddenly became geographically-challenged. When I mentioned to a native of Bryn Mawr that even after three years here I can still lose my way going from Haverford to Gladwyne to Villanova, she just chuckled and shook her head. The thing to remember is that there is no logical grid. Roads wind diagonally one way and then curve around until suddenly you are facing another direction. And they also change names without warning. How many Gulph Roads are there anyway? And where do they all end up? There also seems to be no need for street signs on many corners, and the ones there are often dark green letters painted on a darker green background, making it particularly fun trying to find a street at night. (Another quirk – no street lights in the suburbs.)
Everyone on the Main Line seems to be related – I call it six degrees of Biddle. Put twenty people in a room whose families have lived here for a few generations, and you will find that they are either all second cousins, or their parents were married to each other a few spouses back, or at the very least they all went to the Agnes Irwin prom together in 1970.
Mostly peaceful co-existence with New Jersey – New Jersey is the state that everyone loves to pick on, Philadelphians included. However, New Jersey has the one thing that people here absolutely love: the Jersey shore. As a matter of fact, I think that Philadelphians actually believe the Jersey shore belongs to them, and that the landmass between the Walt Whitman Bridge and Exit 7-S on the Garden State Parkway exists only as a way for them to get to the shore. Once at the shore, Philly residents are largely indistinguishable from their New Jersey counterparts. They’re eating salt-water taffy, fudge, water ice, and sticky buns just like everyone else. You don’t see many cheese steaks though.
True diversity – Most suburbs of major cities aren’t as diverse as Philadelphia’s. I actually saw this scene on the corner near the Ardmore Farmer’s Market, and wished I had my camera. There were three teenage girls waiting to cross the street. One girl was in traditional gray and white Amish garb, with a modest cap and apron. The second young lady had on a loose-fitting robe and a Middle Eastern scarf covering her hair. And the third young woman, surgically attached to her cell phone, was wearing a midriff top and low-rider sweat pants with Juicy printed across her bottom.
Only in Philly.