I’m From Philadelphia, PA.

by Sebastian Fortino

Satellite overhead image of Pennsylvania from Google Earth 2022

We moved to Philadelphia when I was about ten years old. The boyhood friends I had in the New Jersey suburb of my birth were therefore lost to me. Despite promises to write, and the few times we played checkers in my grandmother’s sun porch during visits to my old town, we lost touch and I became a city boy.

However, one rainy, grey day while I was living – or trying to live – in Zurich I opened a bottle of wine and looked up old names, one in particular. I wasn’t curious about where he lived, nor what he did for a living. None of that interested me. I wanted to know if he was gay!

Hadn’t that friend and I spent hours before the fireplace of my childhood home drawing princesses? Didn’t he insist his mother buy him red, or blue, or leopard print underwear at eight years old? Didn’t the sight of him in his multi-colored underwear make me realize I was different?

So, with the Alps obscured by a froth of Northern European clouds, I decided to look up that once little boy. I got the spelling wrong several times but then found the boy with the leopard print briefs. He was still in the same town, came into Philly quite often, had the obligatory, suburbanite shot of himself driving, and the same grin I remembered him having in childhood. And…yes, GAY! I imagined rekindling our friendship, despite the ocean, then a meeting when I returned to the States. Or, more romantically, that he would come to visit me in Zurich. He was from the suburbs, I rationalized, surely he hadn’t been to Europe. Then, I dreamed of a first kiss, relationship, and the dinner where I convinced him to live with me…wherever that was. Imagining this future together was a slow process, as it took me over an hour to try and outfit our first living room together.

I messaged him, and sent off a funny paragraph about looking to see if any of my childhood friends were gay. My emails are generally well-received, and I take pride in the fact they are thought of as witty. Yet, he didn’t respond. Undeterred, I found the message and sent it off again. Yet, once more he didn’t respond. I ended up leaving Switzerland a month or so later, as a Visa to work in Zurich was not granted. From the Flughafen I landed in New York, ultimately into a rather surprised friend’s Astoria apartment. I intended to look for jobs, but couldn’t even get a response to a resume, and soon returned 100 miles south of Manhattan. There I was depressed at being back in the States, and angry about the New York job market. I decided on some new friends, to invigorate my life a bit. Having been in Zurich for a few months would surely garner me attention, despite being penniless with few prospects.

Well, my tales of bumming around Switzerland did not win me new friends! In New York, and perhaps Europe, you can charm your way into friendship. Philadelphians are decidedly less susceptible. One night, after meeting old, familiar, mostly straight friends for dinner and too much wine at a BYOB I went home. I signed onto Friendster. Yes, he had finally, after another, unprompted, aggressive, message announcing my return to Philadelphia accepted my friendship request; no, he did not respond to any the witty messages.

I was deeply offended. I went on a series of dates, both real and imagined, and emailed anyone on networking sites, desperate to befriend the willing. Then, one night standing at a bar, flanking a dance floor I saw him. It was Francis, the boy from my suburban childhood! I smiled, crossed the room, extended my hand, and gave my name. He said “Oh.”

He did not extend his hand.
He did excuse himself.

He did not wish to reconnect. Perhaps because he and his group of friends were the suburban gay type; into cars, sports, that identified as “masculine.” The night progressed. I did not let myself dwell on the incident with he of the once-leopard-print-undies. I hate the suburbs, I reasoned, how could we be friends anyway? I left early, to wait for a cab, or bus, on a corner frequented by prostitutes and hustlers. The corner gives me good material, but not often a vehicle in reasonable time. Soon, I felt the need to pee. An older man walked past me, winked at me, he must have thought I was “working.” I saw Francis cross the street with his suburban friends. He shot a brief, curious glance in my general direction.

The need to pee became greater as the time I spent waiting for the bus grew longer. Finally, after about thirty minutes I gave up. I turned into the alley to break a law and pee. Just then I noticed the older man that had earlier winked at me. He was walking towards a conveniently vulnerable me, exposed, peeing as I was. I fumbled with my fly, then decided just to walk and zip would be more expedient. I was still zipping when I turned onto 12th Street, and like a perfectly executed dance move, there was Francis, with only one friend this time. He saw me pulling up my zipper, and behind me he noticed the older, smiling man coming out of the alley.

Now Francis shot me a glance. Then stared back at me while he opened the driver’s side door to his car, on the opposite corner of Locust Street. I knew what they whispered to each other, and there was no way to explain my way out of it with any semblance of dignity. After all, they were suburbanites. They didn’t know that perfectly respectable urban people wait for buses on corners. If that corner is frequented by hookers and hustlers, so what? That’s just part of the urban landscape.

It goes without saying we never had a kiss, relationship, or dinner where we decided to live together. It also goes without saying that at this exact moment the bus went past me. I had one last thought, as he was about to pull away, to run and tell my boyhood friend that I was not “doing anything” in the alley, but didn’t waste the effort. Instead, I hailed a cab, but not before I called an old, familiar friend. He was having drinks a few blocks away and I joined him for a nightcap. My life, I decided, had been invigorated enough that night.

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