Philadelphia: If You Build It, They Might Come

Some things I learned about myself and the world in Philadelphia.

1. I need a bottle of water on me at all times. Because I get thirsty, because I often need to take Advil or some other panacea immediately, because when I open my mouth to speak, sometimes I’m all froggy and sound like Joan Rivers.

2. It is easy to mistake hunger for nerves. Meaning I have to eat, especially when I’m nervous, because hunger makes the nerves worse and if I only have caffeine in me, I’m going to feel so anxious and possibly have a tiny coronary.

3. One thing Terry Gross and I don’t have in common is she makes speaking on the radio seem very easy. I thought having listened to every single episode of Fresh Air, This American Life, Studio 360, The Next Big Thing, not to mention countless Selected Shorts, Car Talks and even Tavis Smiley Shows would make public radio easy. I’d just sit down and put on my dulcet, soothing NPR voice and read from my book and I’d be recognized for the natural I always expected to be. I learned that loving NPR doesn’t mean you get your own show on NPR, that they do several takes, that radio shows have directors who tell you how to be funny, and they’re right. God, I love public radio even more now that I know a little bit about what goes on behind the scenes.

4. In Philadelphia, there’s an ordinance that says you can’t erect a building taller than William Penn’s head on top of the city hall. This ordinance is sometimes violated. Also, all the streets are numbered going in one direction and named after trees going in the other direction. Ah, sylvania!

5. New Yorkers need to take more advantage of Philadelphia. I theoretically knew about Philly’s role in the lives Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, but I didn’t know there was a museum an hour away that was housing Teddy Roosevelt’s leg braces. This is a city that’s really proud of its heritage.

So on the night of the biggest blizzard we’ve had this year, I went to Philadelphia on the Acela Express, where I like to sit in the Quiet Car, because it’s the one place on earth outside of the library where a stern ssssh from a stranger is acceptable. Not that I’m the one shushing, I just like being on the side of the righteous who is observing the rules of the Quiet Car to a tee. I also like being a “business traveler” because this means I have business to tend to, which makes me feel important.

philadelphia train station

Philadelphia Train Station, Night.

It was very, very cold in Philadelphia. Like deep-freeze cold and I waited for 45 minutes in a taxi line. This is odd to me, because I come from Taxiland. It was Valentine’s Day, which may have accounted for the limited coaches, but my very wonderful media escort, Art, later told me there’s a taxi shortage in the City of Brotherly Love. So, more cold, but I’m getting used to it. I adored arriving at my hotel and telling the women at the desk it was my first time in Philadelphia, at which point one of them straightened her suit and said very officially, “Well! Welcome to the Birthplace of Independence!” to the shock and delight of her colleagues.

Yesterday was bananas. I was on a live morning show on the Comcast cable network, then I had tea with the brilliant and innovative Jeri Johnson of Philly’s Intercultural Family Services who’s putting together an extremely cool program for at-risk girls in their Adolescent Violence Reduction Program. Then I had my NPR experience, which was very fun and exciting (I was in a studio with headphones with producers on the other side of the glass, which felt very Alan Partridge.)

alan partridge


I did a taped interview at the local CBS station, which included footage of me walking down the hall holding my book. This, I love. I think it’s called “B-Roll,” if I remember anything from my time at Oxygen. You know those shots on Primetime where the anchor does a voiceover “Louise Jones lost her job because of a clerical error. Now she’s fighting back.” And you see Louise walking sort of weirdly down the street in the wind. I did that in the hallway of CBS, loving every minute of it, because it’s hilarious to walk nowhere for footage’s sake. I went from there to Drexel University, where I gave a reading and did a Q&A with a group of very cool women who were all so sweet and smart and asked questions about what to do when friendships fade and how to defriend people you don’t want in your life anymore, which is a sad but common situation we all encounter and that I address in my book. Halfway through the reading, the funny CBS camerawoman arrived so we had an intermission so she could get footage of me signing books, which was strange but heck why not it was fun like walking down the hall was fun and I'm very good at signing books and also fake-signing books, or like to think I am.


The charming girls at Drexel.

On from there to the University of Pennsylvania bookstore, which is one gorgeous college bookstore. It was, by now, about 1 degree but I was very cheered that a hardy group came out to chat. When I asked the audience what they know now that they wish they’d known earlier, one woman said she wished she’d known that what her parents want for her and what she wants weren’t necessarily the same thing, and she needed to make her own decisions about her life. Amen, girl. We also talked about Tyra Banks and Paris Hilton and other starlets-as-role models. I think our unending access to gossip, the confusion of celebrity gossip with actual news, makes it confusing to determine who our role models should be. I also defended all of our rights not to feel guilty about reading In Touch magazine. It is entertaining. But just because she lost a person in weight and I like to look at pictures of it doesn’t mean Kirstie Alley is a role model. Nor is Justin Timberlake, just because I find him (secretly) beyond sexy and talented (stop it! come on! JT! he’s like Michael Jackson, without the scandal or surgery!) – he’s not a role model. Nor is Tyra Banks, even though I am fascinated by her and think she does some fascinating things, even good things, with her celebrity. I’m still thinking of who, besides Oprah of course Oprah, would make a good role model for young women.

By the time I got back to my hotel to collapse and watch Grey’s Anatomy (why on earth would they try to tease us into thinking Meredith is going to die?? I mean, the show is basically called The Meredith Show -- even though we can all agree it should be called The Izzy Show because she’s still the most fascinating character they’ve got in rotation. Killing off Meredith, or pretending it could happen, would be like trying to convince the audience that Raymond could die on Everybody Loves Raymond. Which, incidentally, they don’t. I mean I don’t.) I was exhausted, exhausted. I felt a little un-myself. This morning, wandering around the Philadelphia train station, admiring the slogan of Buck’s County Coffee – “Life should be this simple” -- I kept thinking of the title of the Bill Bryson book I’m a Stranger Here Myself, which may or may not be the one in which he has an essay about going on a book tour. I just love that title and it seems sort of apt right now. I feel like a stranger in my own life. It’s all very exciting, but it’s also a lot of anticipation and fear and being “on,” which is challenging and strange all at once.