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The first essay I ever published was on Philadelphia’s First First Friday, a monthly arts event celebrating its 30th anniversary this week.
In many ways, it was a new beginning for the city and for myself. Early Fridays in the Old Town helped engender a sense of community and growth in the city’s arts and culture scene, which is now much more dispersed.
The winter of 1994 was freezing. I was an English major at Temple University and had recently ventured out of my parents’ house to share a trinity in South Philadelphia. I had a job at Temple’s Institute on Disabilities, but continued to commute to northeast Philadelphia to take weekend shifts at a popular convenience store named Joe’s Deli, where I had worked in high school. .
During this cold winter and this hectic period of my life, the experience of an evening browsing the galleries and meeting other creators was striking.
I decided I had to write about it, especially for The Inquirer’s Sunday magazine, which was a full color print product. The “Upfront” section of the magazine occasionally featured first-person essays, which I always looked forward to reading. I had made a study of my favorites, sketching diagrams and taking notes with a view to someday submitting my own.
I don’t remember any of those articles, but I do remember being struck by the voices in them. I could hear flint, funny, sad, weird, sweet – sometimes all in one try!
I remember writing my first Friday article and mailing it to The Inquirer with a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Very quickly, a few weeks later, I received an answer.
The acceptance letter was simple: “Thank you for submitting your essay, we would like to publish it.”
One sentence, that was it.
I almost couldn’t believe it. I told my mom and dad and a few people I worked with at Temple. They were all excited for me. “Congratulations, you’ve been blindly released over the transom,” said my friend Larry Pace. (I later found out that’s a phrase used when an unsolicited article is published.)
The day the play came out, I was working at Joe’s. Five stacked sheaves of the Sunday paper were in the grocery store, but I didn’t tell anyone.
It hit hardest when Joe himself stopped by the store that day. It was a Sunday, her day off, but I remember we talked, because when it came time to tell her about my article, my mind and body were spinning.
To paint the picture, Joe’s default setting was to scream. For example, if you did an Italian hoagie too slowly or too carefully, he would slap you on the back of the head and yell, “Come on Picasso!” What are you doing? You don’t paint the Sistine Chapel; you make a sandwich. Everyone loved Joe and he loved us, but he could explode for any reason or for no reason.
Part of me wanted to tell everyone that day, but I felt like I would be laughed at or laughed at. I deflated. It’s a familiar story. Now that I had gone to college, Did I think I was better than everyone? Of course I didn’t. I just felt like it was a good idea not to talk about it.
In two years, I will be leaving Philadelphia to start a creative writing program at Brooklyn College. It would take me years before I could process and fight such feelings.
Now I see that writing the play and going out for First Fridays were both the start of lines to another life.
This is a story picked up by others who were touring the old town. The events not only made the city more vibrant, but also brought people together. I made a new friend Ted Casterline, who went to Tyler School of Art. He was part of the Vox Populi collective gallery, where I would end up spending a lot of time. And we’ve been friends ever since.
I never liked the title that the newspaper gave to my essay: “I like to watch”. My own title for the piece was “Gallery Going”.
Reading it again now (which you can do here), I still don’t completely believe it, but I cherish it too. I’m grateful that part of my own new beginnings overlapped with a part of the city that is discovering itself, a part that continues to thrive.