Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Rocky: an Ode to Philly
I've always held Philadelphia in high regard, thanks to my admiration for the Rocky movies. It was just far enough away from New Hampshire though that I wasn't able to visit until I was a college sophomore, on spring break in March 2003. We experienced the horrors of driving through Connecticut during a snowstorm, and I think it literally took an entire day to make it 400ish miles south. We made it though. It was a whirlwind weekend that included visits to the high points: Liberty Bell, some neighborhood explorations, and of course a triumphant run up those iconic steps.
Little did I know that a year later I'd meet my wife-to-be, and 1.5 years after that follow her to the mid-Atlantic. Life's funny, isn't it? She had been attending the U. of Delaware, and, conveniently, was two years behind me in school. In August 2005, I began my two years of graduate studies in West Chester, a character-filled borough about 20 miles west of the cheesesteak mecca. During this brief but memorable time of my life, Alyse and I made the short drive into the city several times, absorbing as much culture as we could on student budgets.
Philadelphia was one of the first major (>1,000,000) cities I ever visited. Peculiarly, it was the first American one, as I had been to Montréal in 1997, Paris in 2000, and Toronto in 2002 before ever setting foot in Philly or New York!
Despite its undeniable grittiness, I've always found there to be something agreeable about the City of Brotherly Love. Perhaps the perfect grid pattern of streets appeals to my OCD tendencies. Its skyline is one of my favorites. It's just far enough from where I grew up that it gets points for feeling like a different part of the country. The winters aren't nearly as harsh as those of my homeland. The history and local culture are palpable.
Then, of course, there's Rocky Balboa. The series remains one of my all time favorites, despite the original movie now approaching the half-century mark. In addition to the obvious, cliched, touristy run up those recognizable steps, Alyse and I explored the old Italian neighborhood (9th Street in South Philly) through which Rocky ran.
The authenticity oozed from the mom-and-pop produce stands and absurdly narrow roadways. I almost expected to smell a cigar and see Paulie emerge from an alley, arm around Rocky. We found a hole-in-the-wall restaurant called Villa di Roma that remains one of my favorite Italian spots anywhere. The meatballs were to die for.
To someone who grew up in Central New Hampshire, Philadelphia feels enormous, but doesn't overwhelm me. The symmetry of having four quadrants (Logan, Franklin, Washington, Rittenhouse) radiating out from City Hall is somehow a very pleasing layout, and perhaps helps orient my scattered mind.
Sadly, I've only been back twice since my 2005-07 stint living in the area. Both visits were all too brief. In October 2010, Alyse and I returned on a day trip from White Plains, NY. Alyse was 7 months' pregnant, so despite only a few years having passed since the college/grad school days, our lives were completely different.
We were blessed with incredible weather as we explored the Eastern State Penitentiary, Museum of Art, and the vast, verdant Fairmount Park. I didn't want the day to end.
Fast forward 6+ more years, and we were back with Julia in tow for a March 2017 visit. Alyse and Julia drove down from White Plains, and I took a one-way flight from New Hampshire to meet them. They picked me up at the airport, and the scramble was on to see as much as possible between lunchtime and rush hour. We'd be spending the night at Alyse's cousin's house in the 'burbs.
We aimed for a mix of old and new experiences, bringing Julia to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, as well as the fascinating U.S. Mint, to which none of us had ever been. Although it was only March 2, we had hoped for a hint of warmth (which begins in March in these parts). Unfortunately the weather felt more like New Hampshire - blue skies but gusty, bone-chilling winds.
Oddly enough, we had missed the previous week's mildness by only a few days, so spring's bright buds were already apparent. A strange juxtaposition, to be sure.
Speaking of juxtapositions, it's astounding to compare where I was in life during the first Philly visit and the last. From a naïve sophomore to a father of a 6-year old within 14 years, life goes by, transforms. Transforms you. Mine has been incredibly blessed, but many of those blessings were difficult if not impossible to recognize at the time. Wasn't always sunshine and rainbows. However, these experiences have molded who I am today, and I wouldn't trade them for anything.
Perhaps that's why the humble Italian Stallion has greatly inspired me over the years. Running up those steps, making it to the top, means so much more than meets the eye. The tiny, temporary triumph symbolizes our power to do what we didn't think we could. It's so important to relish the small victories along the way.
The next time I go, Julia will run up alongside; she'll probably beat me. That's OK though. All I wanna do is go the distance.