When I told my summer meteorology prof that I would spend the fall semester in Philadelphia, he shook his eyebrows. “Get ready for culture shock,” he said. “Those East Coast people, they’re so arrogant! Think they know everything. They’re not nice and friendly like people in the Midwest.”
I have yet to meet the people he’s talking about.
Are they hiding? Maybe there’s a honeymoon-type period, three weeks during which Philly will line up its kindest people to welcome me. Maybe once the honeymoon’s over, I’ll be trampled by professionals on their way to work and yelled at by cops and cashiers, get splashed by speeding cars, and stand alone and wet on the street corner.
But so far, this hasn’t happened.
My first hour in Pennsylvania, in which I rode the regional rail from Philadelphia International into Center City, was spent in the company of a dear native lady, in square plastic glasses, who’d just come from the Rockies. She sat next to me, told me where to stow my huge suitcases so they wouldn’t stick out in the aisle, and recommended her favorite restaurants for me to write down.
People on the street have proved themselves kind and willing to help rather than arrogant and rude. When I walked up the stairs at Market East station and craned my neck up at the sun-lit buildings for the first time, unable to believe I was actually here, two passers-by offered a happy, “Welcome to Philadelphia!” When I couldn’t find Broad Street (laughable now, as Broad Street is like the Wall Street or Broadway of Center City) a guy saw me standing still and frowning and asked, “Need help, ma’am?” Last week as I wandered around a building looking for the ATM, a woman took me by the arm and said, “Follow me. I’m going that way.”
Natives always want to know about yourself and what you’re doing here. Then, they ask if you love their city. They’re proud of it. The cashiers at Trader Joe’s on Market and 21st always ask if I’m a student, and how do I like Philly? And instead of acting like know-it-alls, they give advice and tips. (As they double bag my groceries for the 11 block walk home. Bless their souls.)
This morning, I walked to Old City and bought postcards in a tiny shop run by an Asian lady. She was very nosy. She stared at my orange t-shirt. “Where Hope College?”
“It’s in Holland, MI,” I said.
“You tall. How tall are you?”
“Six feet,” I replied, blushing, counting out coins.
“How tall your parents?”
I told her.
“How tall your boyfriend?”
Perceptive woman. I changed the conversation. “I just moved here. I live in Chinatown. It’s a great city.”
“You by Franklin Square?” When I nodded, she leaned over the counter. “You be careful. Homeless people there, they dirty. Street smarts, okay? Be alert! Maybe I see you again.”
It’s these little anecdotes, as funny as they may be, that make me feel like the Philadelphians accept me into their city. When I got here, rolling my suitcases everywhere and taking pictures of every building I saw me feel like a tourist. Now I live on the third floor of a Chinatown apartment, and I go to interviews and church and to the grocery store. I pick up packages at the post office and put garbage on the curb on Wednesdays after 8. It’s becoming my city, too, and the people who live here are ready and willing to share.
This Thursday I had an interview north of Chinatown, and afterwards the sky threatened rain. Not wanting to get stuck in a downpour, I popped in a little cafe called Yonny’s off 15th. I’d passed it by before, and with its awning and old glass multi-colored lamps inside, it looked charming.
It was empty inside, but adorable – antiques on the walls, lace on tables. And there was no menu. “Do you sell coffee?” I asked the boy behind the counter.
“Yes ma’am, let me just put on a fresh pot for you,” he said. He was probably new to high school. Fresh face, with eager brown eyes and a t-shirt under his apron. He was frying chopped steak on the grill. A man with white hair walked out. “Dad,” the kid said, “can you take care of her while I brew coffee?”
“Do you have baked goods here?” I asked Dad, who looked more like Grandpa to me, and who I decided was probably Yonny.
I expected him to point, but instead he beckoned with a finger for me to follow him around the counter. He took a white cardboard box from the fridge and opened the lid. Inside: chocolate cake, dark, layered, glossy. “I sell two of these a week, sometimes three,” he said, eyeing me to see my reaction.
I said, “You’d better slice me some of that!”
And while I waited at the counter with twenty dollar bill in hand to pay, Yonny put a slice on a pretty dinner plate with a blue design, and set it on a table. He folded a napkin, laid a fork on top of it. Set a steaming styrofoam cup of coffee and a silver carafe of creamer to the right of the plate. “Come sit down!” he said. “You don’t have to pay now. Pay before you go.” He pulled out my chair.
The cake was so good.
Before I left, he said, “Do you have a student discount card?” He grabbed a business card from a plastic holder and scribbled “Student Discount” on the back. Handing it to me, he said, “Stop by again soon, okay?”
It was raining, but I left happy.
Welcome to Philadelphia.