from WORTHY OF THIS GREAT CITY
“I mean, everybody thinks God is on their side.” Ruth put her coffee cup down on its heavy restaurant saucer, watching herself. Then she sent me this very pointed kind of look with those big, vulnerable blue eyes.
I’m a journalist, I should explain, and I knew this woman just well enough to be immediately suspicious. But she was very intense, now that I noticed, and waiting for me like it mattered. That was interesting. Here I’d always considered Ruth one of those breezy, satiric women proficient at deflecting inquiry, and now she wanted something.
“I’m sick of it,” she said, now addressing the tabletop. “I’m going to go break things.”
Wow. Except I didn’t like her and I didn’t feel like playing. I get enough of that in my job. And frankly, there were things I never wanted to hear from her. We’d met by accident at one of those ubiquitous Center City cafes that’s all calculated simplicity: quinoa salads, homemade soups, cranberry muffins, all that kind of crap. It was lunch hour and the place was loud with competing conversations in those well-educated downtown voices, the entire scene as fundamentally deceptive as casual business attire. You could practically feel the pervasive atmosphere of cynicism on your skin, the vinegar emanating from all those dissatisfied young professionals amazed to have acquired such long but mysteriously undistinguished pasts
So Ruth Askew, running into me in those exceptionally ordinary surroundings, flat imprisoned me in unwanted intimacy in order to entrust me with a revelation of startling profundity and enormous human significance, effectively summoning me into history, granting me an unprecedented experience that would surely transform my life, or anyway something along those lines. Because she’d been all too impatiently awaiting a sign from Heaven, and was right that minute toying with the idea that God had delivered me to her for use as disciple and authoritative witness. They’re always looking for witnesses.
Not that I knew any of that then. And in all modesty, this type of situation isn’t exactly unusual for me. I have this reputation for being brutally honest, so insecure types are constantly trying to impress me. I’m their living touchstone, a merciless judge that people frantic for confirmation can’t resist. They need me; they can’t keep away. Just as I’m reciprocally unable to resist exploiting my fatal magnetism, generally to express contempt but sometimes not.
That particular afternoon I’d been in a fairly perverse mood to start with, plus any opportunity to deny that insatiable, manipulative ego was delicious, and maybe there was something a little too disquieting about her attitude. Whatever, my response was immediate and satisfying: I sat back on a vaguely admiring but indifferent little smile and stared blankly into the middle distance, allowing the moment to dissipate into that stale ambience of premium coffee and hated lives, which is why this little scene is going nowhere.
To continue: before that summer I never considered Ruth worthy of much attention, although highly original and shrewd and determined, which isn’t the same thing as consequential or talented but only a decent simulacrum. She’s a tall, fair, raw-boned woman of thirty-odd, Irish in her bones and not pretty but rather gaunt, with an aggressive but loose and uncoordinated physical presence, an unspecified oddness that gives you second thoughts. (You’ll note I’m not about to be discreet in the name of neutrality because that’s just digging the lie deeper and I’m through with all that.) At first I figured her purpose that afternoon, to the extent I thought it through at all, either a preamble to an unwanted revelation about her marriage, or else rationalization for sharing some nasty piece of secondhand political gossip. Maybe I did wonder about her, um, stability that early on, but even so, why would I care? What could I do?
She’d been prattling on, getting a little desperate. “No one should simply expect to see good ol’ Saint Peter welcoming them with this huge loving smile and throwing open the pearly gates because it’s finally you! And then presumably all your dead relatives suddenly appreciate you and grovel. No one for one second questions their basic goodness or imagines they might have everything backwards.” That with increased emphasis, in fact almost pleading because clearly I wasn’t seeing how intriguing and insightful she was and offering the expected encouragement.
I mean, who pays attention to that kind of shit anyway, mere justification for something profitable and concrete? Ideas, and abstract ideas at that, never imply anything important anymore. Why pay attention to them? It’s not like there was some portent of crucial real-world consequences in her moralistic maundering, some numinous harbinger of disaster arising like fog from her self-serving conclusions. Great thinkers don’t sweat out their seminal philosophies in wishful suburban isolation; genuine epiphanies are not inspired by inadequacy and neediness.
A noise of traffic outside our corner window, and an angled view of grungy sidewalk along a narrow side street of trendy storefronts illuminated by thick afternoon sun: a strangely intimate scene, at once self-important and impossibly spent in that way cities have. One random bar of light cut across our table, reminding us of the outside heat, adding to the general confusion.
That disjointed lunch in that pretentious location perfectly encapsulates my relationship with Ruth, which was and remains a lunchtime acquaintance at best. It naturally follows that much of the critical action recounted here occurred during exactly this sort of innocuous activity, right in front of the whole world but invisibly. We overlook how commonplace places do produce extraordinary drama, sometimes even for someone you know in real life. Also much of what supposedly happened never really happened at all, despite what you’ve heard rumored or even concluded to your own satisfaction. That’s my main point. Another important point is that nothing would be any different now if I had listened and flattered her before kindly deflating her daydream that afternoon. She simply wouldn’t have listened. Ultimately my dismissed opportunity meant nothing because all the vital processes were already well underway, the outcome inevitable one way or the other. I think you’ll have to agree with me there.
Ruth was a moderately successful morning radio personality and the wife of a very popular politician, therefore an experienced professional practiced at public behavior. And she certainly didn’t actually seem unbalanced or anything, not then or ever. She was more like a little girl clutching a magical secret or a million-dollar lottery ticket: all suppressed glee and opportunistic scheming.
That swift glance up for my reaction! That almost imperceptible flush! Ignorantly incarnating such magnificent, such perfect irony! Those months before she walked onto a literal stage, outdoors on a cloudy country night, alone against the virtuous horde. And despite all this humble spirituality I suspect that during this period Ruth wasn’t so much obeying God as striking out on her own, testing Him the way toddlers test parental limits.
“That kind of moral complacency makes me sick to my stomach. To my soul.” Expounding all this unsolicited nonsense to a mere professional acquaintance, what’s more a reporter. And listen, whatever anyone says about themselves, you can safely assume the exact opposite is true.
“Maybe that’s just a little bit broad,” I said. “Maybe not everyone on the planet thinks that way. I know I don’t.”
“Absolutely everyone on earth, because no one can tolerate being in the wrong. And that matters more than anything.”
But even Ruth could tell I meant it. Apparently I wasn’t the predestined confidante after all, nor this her appointed hour. I remember she laughed, but probably she was secretly relieved, probably she did know better in some remote, rational corner of her mind. What she actually wanted was to hoard her alleged wisdom, to gloat over it deep in a cave in a mountain in the wilderness. But as I say, forces were already building.
She was giving me this annoyed laughing exasperation but eying me surreptitiously, maybe suspecting the real irritation beneath the companionable patter, and undoubtedly furious with me for acting like a self-involved asshole. Although I am a self-involved asshole so what did she expect? Then she faced me full on with a kind of pugnacious but coy defiance , the automatic, intellectualized flirting of her kind. “You see it’s just moral evolution. Like Noah being described as the only good man because he’s the only survivor, not the other way round.” She had her chin on her fist, a reflective pose. “Anyway, I’m finding it fascinating, I’m thinking more and more about false righteousness. I’ve been absolutely obsessed with this stuff.”
That pale face somehow too exposed: prominent arched nose, narrow lips, brutally vulnerable gaze. A peasant’s face with thick dirty-blond hair flying every which way as though excited for its own reasons.
What can you do with people like that? I mean, where would you even start? They’ve gotten hold of something that feels true to them, which means power, so they’re done listening.
And they get really intense.
“Well, it’s interesting, I’ll give you that.” I said. “I’d enjoy talking about your ideas someday when we can make more time.” I threw her another falsely admiring little smile and fled.
My name is Constantine Manos. As a writer I specialize in politics, which obviously includes issues of character, but until recently I never thought too much about how the personal dictates the political. The culture insists on assigning political ideas a misplaced dignity, as if these theories are just out there floating around, pure abstract concepts, when the fact is everyone’s politics are about self-image and justification. What you feel decrees what you let yourself think; ideas themelves are powerless.
Physically I’m a small, trim man with too much wiry hair, a gigantic salt-and-pepper halo, a veritable Einstein corona. I’m third generation Greek-American on both sides, I was born in Chicago on Bicentennial day, and I’ve lived in or around Phil-a-delf-ya my entire adult life, yet I’m often mistaken for a tourist and not infrequently for a foreigner. This has been happening since college; I guess I’m just doomed to present as a stranger. These days I exaggerate the quirk, imitating the stereotypical visitor from abroad because it’s effective both as an investigative technique and as a way to handle rage, including my own. I drop into a suitably quizzical posture and peer up into people so that they think me rudely inquisitive, or overly skeptical, or humble to the point of being legitimately liable to mockery if also endearing and comically brilliant. At public functions someone invariably imitates me this way, as a presumptuous sparrow hopping along a city sidewalk. I appreciate the recognition and so far I manage to tolerate the condescension, but it hurts.
Some part of this ineffable foreignness is simple physiognomy: I naturally appear saturnine, and people mutter that I glare, clearly an un-American activity. They really mean that I don’t take the proper steps to negate the negativity, don’t smirk optimistically at every occasion. They always confuse honesty with aggression.
But I think the vital difference between myself and the typical Philadelphian is my exoneration from the unique local guilt. This is a very real thing, but not what you think, not that compensating blue-collar bravado of the stoops you get in all big American cities. This is different: a great chasm, a disconnect that comes from having too much glorious past right in your face and knowing you’ve let everything go to hell in some unforgivable manner nobody ever really explains, except that somehow this city has become a discredited nonentity deteriorating in a wasteland between two largely obsolete rivers.
Unlike Boston, where they still cling to their pretensions. The problem here is that what’s supposed to matter to us, all those values we’ve been instructed to wholeheartedly endorse like reason and rule of law, just don’t claim our passion right this minute. But they lurk, these ideological ancestors, behind our busy little lives. They wag their finger and urge us to remember while there’s still time, and their elderly stink leaches out to saturate the gray air of our learned town with something oily and gritty and censorious. That’s our characteristic smell.
That’s the closest I can come to describing it. Only remember I’m protected from all this latent self-disgust to a pretty decent extent; being the servant of plain truth I automatically reject unrealistic expectations. They just promote hypocrisy.
Philadelphia’s facade is a muted gray-brown as opposed to bright brick red or skyscraper silver; we have those facets too, but primarily bear the dull coloration of a sidewalk pigeon. Our modest elevations and well-spaced parks speak of historic forethought and somewhat ameliorate the dullness, and although it’s true we’re an unusually dirty city in various ways, beneath the grime there remains something stubbornly optimistic, twinkling along beside our gray rivers, winking out of gray -flecked fieldstone. Blush with roseate sandstone, flashing a complexion of creamy, veined marble.
Now in speaking of the city I mean the polis, the living community and political body combined and inseparable. It’s still a kindly thing, too, despite the current roaming viciousness. Popular outrage is tempered here, and sometimes we can still hear each other well enough to disagree without condemning.
That’s only my Philadelphia, of course, not anyone else’s, and naturally it’s symbolic and revelatory, a straightforward self-portrait, and you can make of it what you want. It’s real and it’s highly relevant. And don’t go denigrating me because you’re the self-important habitué of some asshole dive in Port Richmond who gets to say what real Philadelphia is, because you’re just exposing your own ignorance. Also don’t remind me about that other violent, desperate city with those other neighborhoods; I’ve written about it, which arguably I never had the right to do. But this is a different kind of report, concerning my own world and carrying a more ordinary kind of importance.
There are some other things I want to explain up front. To begin with, this book is a reinterpretation of fairly recent local events. I wrote it because I find the official version inadequate. Not inaccurate, mind you, so much as critically incomplete. I don’t have any new facts so this isn’t really a new theory but more a correction of emphasis, an attempt to turn the tide. It reads pretty much like a straightforward recounting, but that’s deceptive: this is my own creation, an arrangement with numerous additions in the way of personal histories and pertinent observations and naturally my own biased deductions to help you put things in perspective. You can’t tell the truth without resorting to some degree of trickery.
Despite having an overall strategy I wanted to write in the immediate, unfiltered voice I use to myself. So obviously I wasn’t terribly concerned about Hemingway’s weather or too much exposition or anything that panders rather than serves, because first this is a report, an examination of a series of compelling flashbacks, and there’s a lot that has to be explained before things speed up and there’s no time. And second, where’s that jazz edge that stays ahead of you and leads you to the truth? I’d hoped to present something clumsy and troublesome with lame language that actually speaks, not just another of the honored walking dead, another obedient child maybe elegant enough to make your brain ache, or maybe disguised with some trendy media shit or street jargon but with no real voice because indisputably deceased.
Lame is good – I sing of lame, glorious lame! I claim liberty from smooth editing and strategic marketing. No, give me free, fluid text! It’s a revolution, isn’t it? Let’s unearth the bare bones of it, discover and vanquish the assumptions. Except I kept getting dragged back into the infinitely demanding past and I’ve shown myself for a coward, I’ve failed at rebellion. I’m ashamed at how traditional this has turned out because I’m suffocating. We all are. Suff-o-ca-tion. Also I’ve been obsessed with how this little defense of the disappointing truth will be received by the city and naturally by Ruth in particular. How I have to get everything right.
Again, why I’m doing this: I intend to finally refute the crazy conspiracy shit being spread by our needy, brain-dead citizenry, all that cowardly electronic flocking, that irresponsible hubris. Probably not you, then, because who reads the opposition’s argument, right? But touted by some clearly responsible citizens, people directly involved who chose to tolerate the mumblings, thereby permitting so much outrageous opportunism to take root. It’s becoming canon; pretty soon schoolchildren will be repeating it to my face.
Another reason I wanted to keep this immediate was so I could be careless and let in insights I didn’t have myself. I wanted to be absolutely fair. I’ve said it and said it: ultimately we’re all completely, inescapably blind; we don’t just overlook a few points or perspectives, we always miss everything.
Of course all these theories and suspicions exist because there’s plentiful room for speculation; there was so much going on concurrently, all stupid if not illegal and often both, with so many indications pointing in different directions that finally people thought it more intelligent to doubt the obvious. When sheer noise carries validity the only possible response is to shout even louder to more people, to force reason on the barbarians to the extent that’s ever possible. I’m reasonably terrified that the world’s running away from me, with even the basic categories of fact versus fiction organized by popular whim. Which actual apocalypse is not only widely acknowledged but actually approved by people who should know better but have gotten themselves confused. And yes, I know how clichéd that is but it happens to matter to me.
Some additional points:
The fact that I’m describing known events does not make this an interactive project. Don’t email me your brilliant personal theories, political or otherwise, even if you know someone involved. I’m not interested in promoting your shirttail aspirations.
As this is not a new investigation it’s also not a whodunit, so obviously don’t expect any bombshell revelations – or lascivious details for that matter, all you literary voyeurs out there. Any information I have I acquired while responsibly pursuing my profession.
Now, when I describe this work as a “reinterpretation,” I mean that it’s the only correct interpretation, the truth, and I use the word “truth” in neither an objective nor relative sense, but simply to signify what we all understand when we say something isn’t a lie. Such an understanding, presented with simplicity and elegance, if I may be so presumptuous, is able to stand on its own without benefit of theory. What sickens me, if I haven’t yet made this clear, is today’s evolving entitlement to democratically determined truth. You know, the reaffirming, fun kind.
As to the specific events under discussion, unlike some other commentators I have an informed opinion: you’ll see that I had a decent amount of access. But even so I remain utterly ignorant about so much that undoubtedly matters. To take the most glaring example, I had no entrée into the heart of the Askew marriage: the smell of shit in the bathroom, the despair of boredom, or the ongoing ecstasy, for that matter. All those urgent conjugal memories remain folded up in some bottom dresser drawer. As to some others described here, of course I speculate; probably I’ve created illegitimate characters who don’t exist in reality, except they exist now, don’t they? You see, even today I have more questions than most people, because most people have bought into one of the current municipal myths, but at least I have the central facts straight, and I’ll give you this much: I do adamantly contend that there was an “it,” meaning a single series of causes and effects, with no convenient coincidences.
Finally as to me, you can forget any obvious tabloid suspicions about me being gay or obsessed or vengeful. Please realize that I can almost certainly outthink you, even regarding myself. And another thing, I consider truth a gift that everyone should graciously accept. Everything I share here I give lovingly and with respect. Honest.
Of necessity I skim some hoary old issues in philosophy but I refuse to openly engage; it’s relevant but you’re basically on your own. I’ve lost patience with all the learned pundits and their belligerent, self-defeating worldview, the one where we’ve reached the limits of conceptual thought, cleverly enlightened ourselves out of our own minds and into an endless whimpering compromise with no further possibility of real movement, nor even a rumor of joyful anarchy to vitalize the depressed present. Except that’s what always does happen, everything wallowing in despair until some disobedient idea lands in an undiscovered corner, random quantum jitters to put an end to the apparent end of philosophy, one compelling thought to disturb the complacent pseudo-religions and redirect all that gleeful academic venom. You know it’s got to happen eventually. Or anyway I know it.
Ruth thought she’d found the answer. Still does, for all she’s gone coy now, concealing the grandiosity. She’s essentially uneducated, of course, but she managed to bestow a thoroughly enjoyable fillip to the towering zeitgeist, to those dedicated professional thinkers and their clever reasoning against life. Visualizing herself on some cloud-wrapped mountaintop, some unique edge high above all us pedestrian sheep.
And the beauty, the confounding slipperiness of it! That by the very logic of the argument she didn’t even have to be right! So what if her thesis was wrong, therefore it remained perfectly valid! The most ingenious defense possible, this indissoluble theory extracted from ill-defined notions of virtue and truth. Precise definitions weren’t worth bothering about for the Ruth who operated, so she often claimed, on instinct and grace, delivering breathless revelations to the adoring masses.
“You have to break through the wall no one even knows is there.” Very happy and excited, with a metaphoric encouraging hand on my shoulder. And I suppose when people are in this state, eager to explain the universe to you, the kindest thing you can wish for them is a spectacular failure.
A very sharp recollection even now: a dozen rows of folding chairs crowding a city sidewalk, an ambience combining funereal solemnity with official celebration, with a familiar face painted huge on a city wall, transmuted into an artifact.
If you’re from the Philadelphia area you undoubtedly know the basics and are reasonably familiar with our local politicos and our mafia relicts and the more recent City Hall scandals. Looking at it prosaically, which is to say assuming money carries final authority, the plot revolves around the endlessly contested question of development along the Delaware waterfront at Penn’s Landing. Maybe that’s something to do with history and destiny: centuries ago our first settlers huddled in caves above that same riverbank, warming themselves on the seemingly infinite potential.
Ruth, who started it all with one lunatic outburst and kept right on spouting more illogical crap, ultimately talked too freely about everything except herself. That’s a strange reversal for an age mesmerized by the personal yet terrified of profundity. As it happened I had the advantage of an affectionate acquaintance with Councilman-At-Large Thom Askew, and when I offered to do a profile of his wife, purportedly innocent but actually a subtle exposé, he was cautious but amenable, while of course she was nothing short of ecstatic. During those months she was an occasional theme through my life, and I sacrificed a few days recording her practiced spiel. This character who envisioned herself a figure of great genius and extraordinary courage, who walked like Joan of Arc. Blithely inserting inappropriate dictums into casual conversations, haphazard shards of wisdom gleaned from the great books and reassembled into a grotesque whole without benefit of logic. Scorning reason as a pedestrian, archaic methodology.
Therefore joyfully embracing her own lack of erudition: “What people consider a good education leaches any originality right out of you. It’s literally teaching you what not to think, narrowing your possibilities. It bullies.”
I figured this for academic envy. “You’ve read Foucault?”
Then there was the confusion over politics, the partisan rush to interpret what happened as evidencing some extremist political position when this was only incidentally the case; in fact the whole political thing was largely unimportant and none of it’s going the way you think anyway. The real issues were much more fundamental, and on some emotional level people did sense that. They were just surprised because Ruth was obviously an enlightened woman, meaning not a conservative.
Understand the Philadelphia Folk Festival as a forthright exercise in Liberal musical theatre as much as a celebration of peoples and their endurance and joys. Taking place, as might be expected, in an aesthetically pure venue, typically under a blazing sun on drying August fields embraced by unremarkable trees, and always featuring lots of suburbanites absolutely behaving themselves.
When there came Ruth Askew, taking that venerable stage to address a staunchly progressive audience. Standing rigid there, thin and broad-shouldered, a pale, unfathomable giantess on twin Jumbotron screens.
That night was odd from the start. Behind the bright box of the stage those generic trees formed a black stockade against the encroaching universe, and these very brown clouds streamed past a cheddar yellow moon. A unforgivable coincidence, but it was literally like the sky was shitting.
I suspect Ruth walked out onto that stage in a rage of frustrated arrogance. For one endless minute she simply stood behind the microphone and stared out at us, the thousand dark humps under blankets, the bouncing neon glow sticks, the luminous haze at the line of food concessions, the smokers tapping off ash by the Porta Potties, and the awkward, restless shadows moving up and down the roped-off aisles or carefully stepping over the confusion of tarps and blankets.
Then she spat at us.
Photo credits: Philadelphia Folk Festival by Brian Schwenk (CC by 4.) / City Hall, Philadelphia from Suburban Station by Andy Atzert (CC by 4.0) / Christopher Columbus Monument by Perry Quan (CC by 4.0)
Copyright 2018 JAM Publishing. All rights reserved.