Why I Can’t Go Back to Philadelphia: A Reflection on the Memoir

by Mara Jebsen


In August in Philadelphia, the sun leaks across red bricks and washes them down in foamy hot colors like a peach set on fire. Grown-ups sit barefoot on stoops and kids skip under rainbows of fire hydrant spray, which veil their bare arms in incandescent mist. This happened in 1985, perhaps it happens now. It keeps on happening in the diamond in my mind.

My mother and I encountered the city of Brotherly Love in 1983. It did not begin well. That year, her father, a splendid Norwegian gentleman who carried great mischief and light inside him; whose dark hair bristled around his bald pate like Caesar’s wreath, died on a tennis court. He was not yet sixty. This catastrophe blew the universe into grayness, into a sort of deep ash-color that billowed and swallowed even my mother’s golden head.

We’d been living in Benin, in West Africa. When we arrived in Philly I was six; she was thirty-one. We’d just spent two years being jolly and tropical and adventurous. There had been sand castles and palm trees and parties and villages, and chickens to chase. There had been hundreds of friends for both of us, and bright, homemade cotton dresses, paper hats, a parrot, puppet theaters, and my mother had gone dancing under the palm trees to zouk music in her strappy high-heel sandals.

But she was a serious person, basically, and had gotten a spot as a PHD candidate in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania. We took a one-bedroom in the ugliest little stucco building on the last ‘nice’ street between South Philly and Center city, so that I could go to the ‘good’ public school. For two years we were sour and sad and serious.

In 2006, in New York, the poet Philip Levine told me, with that wicked and often charming humor of his, that my poem was “very interesting,” but that he “didn’t want to hear the memoirs of anyone under 40.” He didn’t say it mean. I was 26 and saw his point. I was getting ahead of myself—I wasn’t old enough to look back. Still I have that urge, because of the colors and the gemstone-feeling.

In 1986 these ‘colors’ came. I suppose this is acculturation? It really was as if the first two years were a muddy black and white, a dour Kansas, but 1986 was Oz. My mother got a part-time job as a delivery person for a florist. We drove every street in Philadelphia in a silver van crammed with Birds of Paradise. From about this moment my memories begin to form like a series of complicated kaleidoscopes, the red and yellow and green diamonds spinning

I am not sure that this is entirely a trick of memory.

Because Philly in the mid-eighties really was a lot like an electric stepchild of the Wiz. There was a musical feeling in the air, like hip-hop had spilled down to us from the Bronx but we were going to do something different to it. What am I saying, “we”? —I was like 10. But there was a “we,” and it had to do with being Philadelphian. It was like we knew that Fresh Prince was coming and Boys II Men were coming. These meager heroes were enough for us to feel that the Philly personality was on the map. The eye-popping bright part of the map. We wore hypercolor sweatshirts and frosty-freeze mittens. At the A plus we gorged on nowandlaters and blue raspberry blo-pops. We traded comics and garbage patch kids cards. Everything was bright like gas-station candy.

In spring, Rittenhouse Park exploded with hot pink azaleas and soft-pink cherry blossoms. At New Years’ for the Mummer’s parade, all the Italians decked out in as many magenta and green feathers and sequins as they could affix to themselves. Thursdays I skipped home from dance class in pink legwarmers and had cherry-red Italian ices and watched the Huxtables do whatever they were doing in their sweaters, and then tried to process “In Living Color.” The Liberty-One building in Philly, which was allowed, blasphemously, to surpass the top of William Penn’s bronze hat, was built when I was 9. It has always been Emerald-cityish to me. Its blue spire twinkles centrally and never looks real.

Like Oz, Philadelphia in the 80’s was thickened, was darkened and intensified by its witches, its flying monkeys. One night we heard a scream outside our door, and it was my aunt, being mugged. Once, while my mother was in the shower, a man broke through the four locks downstairs and the two upstairs and stole both her 80’s style purses, including the red one we called “The Voluminous Pit.” At school, we were all briefed about not touching crack vials, which we sometimes saw in gutters. At 11 and 12, we were inundated with programs like DARE and information meant to terrify us about AIDS.

It really was a good school. But despite all the injunctions to stay safe and be nice, all the advice we got about multiculturalism and tolerance and getting along, increasingly we weren’t safe and we didn’t get along. The indeterminately white kids hung out uneasily together, every year more separate from the black kids and the couple of Asians and Latinos, who were mostly first generation and had to catch up quick to be cool.

And yet, interestingly, a “Philly girl” back then, regardless of race, was a definite something, a specific entity. She sprayed her bangs in a fan; she popped her gum. She had a jean jacket, maybe she smoked, she definitely painted her nails. She had doorknocker earrings and a mouth like a truck-driver. By the time I was 12, some of my racier friends were having parties in South Philly specifically to dress in not much and hang out with the older boys. There were parties held specifically for the losing of virginity, after which you were allowed to mark the date, on trapper keeper, in red puffy paint. I missed this, was spared it, when my mother took me back to West Africa, to Togo, when I was13.

Salman Rushdie in “Imaginary Homelands” writes “it may be argued that that the past is a country from which we have all emigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity. Which seems to me self-evidently true; but I suggest that the writer who is out-of-country and even out-of-language may experience this loss in an intensified form.”

The first year I spent in Togo, I was salty, profane and scornful. There wasn’t even a mall. People were still listening to old Michael Jackson records. So closed my eyes and looked at my memories like I was watching television. I’d dredge them up one by one, not knowing that I was making them thicken, giving them a shape and polishing them like gems, making it harder and harder for me to go back.

Of course I can't use the word “exile” in any way so accurately as Rushdie does when he writes about India, but I can say that I understand him deeply when he says:

“ . . . If we do look back, we must also do so in the knowledge—which gives rise to profound uncertainties—that our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind…. It may be that when the Indian writer who writes from outside of India tries to reflect that world, he is obliged to deal in broken mirrors, some of whose fragments have been irretrievably lost.”

I love my fragments with a love that surpasses any love for Philadelphia. Some people might find this sad or wrong but I do not. Gertrude Stein says, “what is adventure and what romance. Adventure is making the distance approach nearer but romance is having what is where it is which is not where you are stay where it is.” So long as Philadelphia stays where it is and I stay where I am, I’ll have romance. And I need romance more than adventure in this case. Stein says this is common amongst people who make things “inside themselves.”

Rushdie tells us that “fragmentation makes trivial things seem like symbols, and the mundane acquires numinous qualities. There is an obvious parallel here with archaeology. The broken pots of antiquity, from which the past can sometimes, but always provisionally, be reconstructed, are exciting to discover, even if they are pieces of the most quotidian objects.”

Broken mirrors, broken pots, gemstones. Glimmering rocks brought back from Oz—its all the same, all very fake, but these little pieces of memory seem potentially valuable for their “numinous qualities.”

Spike Lee's “Crooklyn” and Woody Allen's Brooklyn, in which it was always raining and the radio was always on, seem to me examples of imagined cities already made numinous by film and by time's fragmentation. And I think Rushdie is right when he says that being “out-of-country” and “out-of- language” can intensify the gleam and sharpness of those shards. Not to mention the political implications of each nostalgist's different vision.

It’ll be six years before I’m old enough to write my Philadelphia, a little replica city made of bright, diamond pieces; a harlequin city. In its glittering streets, everyone I used to know is alive and young. In the meantime, the real place lives and breathes, like a magical beast just a train-ride away. But that is not my Philadelphia.