I grew up in Laurel Springs, New Jersey but I always say “Philadelphia” when people ask where I’m from. It says so on my birth certificate and I’ll never budge on that. Plus, Laurel Springs is one of those suburban, cookie-cutter towns with a patchwork of four-lane highways bordered by strip malls, chain restaurants, and the intermittent, open pasture of a Little League field. I wasn’t always ashamed of it. I used to think it was the only place on Earth I’d ever live, back when my brother and I would hide from the summer sun under the shade of a massive oak in the front yard, and we’d roll our Matchbox cars up and down the winding super-network of roads provided by its gnarled root system.
But then came the road crews, and the engineering crews squinting behind their quirky tripods, and the tree service crews, and before you knew it everything was covered in asphalt and retail.
That’s when I stopped getting annoyed about spending every weekend at my Grandparents’ house in South Philly. I’d plop down in one of the metal folding chairs in Grandpop’s barbershop with a copy of National Geographic, and I’d suck on a cherry lollipop from the basket next to the saloon-style cash register, and I’d listen to old men talk about Frank Sinatra’s greatest hits even while old blue eyes crooned his love for New York over the transistor radio.
Every once in awhile a bell would jingle and another nameless rabble from the neighborhood, his face flush with stubble, would hang his porkpie hat on the wooden stand next to the door and watch it wobble a few times before he was sure it wouldn’t tip over. Then he’d sit down next to me with only the squeak of the chair and the swish-swish of Grandpop’s scissors racing through salt-n-pepper hair. And I’d read about duckbill platypuses and anteaters and Amazon pythons with the red and white candy stripe whirring down the pole outside the window, until the sting of the Barbicide felt like cold comfort on my nasal passages.
See? I told you. I’m from Philadelphia. And no amount of asphalt or retail could ever provide cover.