I lived in Philadelphia for a couple years recently and I still don’t know what to make of the experience. An important piece of information to back up how “what just happened?” I still am about having lived there is the fact that neither Geof nor myself ever visited Philly before we moved there. I used to take the Greyhound and Amtrak around the country a lot, and on one of those trips, I guess it must have been on the bus, I woke up at sunrise just as we were passing through a rural part of Pennsylvania, and it was breathtakingly beautiful, so for a few years after that I used to often say I was going to move to PA. I don’t think I really meant it, I just like to say things just to say them sometimes, to keep the conversation lively or whatever, but in any event, I think me telling people I was going to live in PA someday was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Anyway, I don’t even know where to start, trying to distill my Philly experience, but I think I’ll just go with the main, possibly bad, habit I picked up from living there, and that is the ability (or in any event, the interest) in distinguishing the cultural roots of white people. As a white person, I’m not sure how important I think my own cultural identity is (I love playing up my Jewish side, but that’s mostly because I love Woody Allen, Sarah Silverman, Yiddish, etc. so much); this is probably a result of my white guilt. Anyway, before I lived in Philly, a white person’s last name was just a proper noun, I’d never sit around and think “Paul Rudd…. Hmmm, Rudd? Rudd? Where’s that from?” and now it’s like a pet interest of mine to know the origin of people’s last names, not to act out on the information or anything (duh), just to know. Last week, I correctly identified an Eastern European Ellis Island bastardization of the last name of a new acquaintance, and on a regular basis, when I meet a new white person, I mentally try to identify whether their last name is German-originated, or Ellis Island Italian, or what. I picked this white cultural roots need-to-know in the east coast and can’t unlearn it. See in the east coast in general I think, and definitely in Philly, the neighborhoods are split: Irish-,Polish-, or Italian-American, primarily (in Philly), and it’s been that way for a long time, so it’s a big part of that city’s history. It’d be ridiculous to write an article about Fishtown (a town next to where I lived) without mentioning its primarily Irish-American population, for example, because that is a huge part of that town’s identity. Yes there’s a primarily Puerto-Rican barber shop there, and an Italian restaurant perhaps, but it’s still the place where Irish immigrants settled when they were moving to the U.S., and that’s that. Meanwhile, in L.A., I think a lot of the residents, or at least the white residents, aren’t Los Angeles natives. My dad said the idea of “splitting for the coast” was always around when he’s a hippie, and it’s still sort of like that, so it’s not like “Oh, how long has your family lived in Azusa (one of many towns w/in L.A. County)?” It’s more like, “Oh, you’re from Indiana.”
My married name is a common Polish one, and hardly anyone in L.A.’s ever heard of it (unless you live in my Eastern-European-heavy neighborhood in Hollywood), but in Philly, my last name immediately identified me as belonging in the Polish category, & often, people either did me immediate favors or rudenesses, depending on their love or hate of the Poles.
One doctor in Philly asked me where my ancestors were from, and I said that I think my paternal grandparents roots’ are both Estonian, or Eastern European in some sense, my mom’s mom English, my mom’s dad Sicilian … and this doctor said “Wow, you’re a mutt!” That blew my mind. I’m used to Los Angeles mixtures --- Pilipino&African-American babies, Hispanic&Jewish couples, etc. White is sort of still just white to me, though after having white backgrounds always brought to attention in Philly, I did notice what are either cultural tendencies or just stereotypes of these various types of white people, and it’s interesting from a sociological standpoint, though it’s likely cluttered my brain with more reasons not to trust humanity in general, as if I needed any more reasons, with this suspicious brain of mine. Ha! Xo princess robin